Update July 1st 2015: Due to the current banking crisis in Greece prior to this coming Sunday, July 5ths referendum, please use care in travel to Greece. Take enough extra cash in Euros or another major currency that you will not have to use ATMs, which may be empty or have extremely long lines, and try to book your travel using internationally based companies rather than smaller Greek companies who may not have strong plans in place. As of this writing, I still believe that a deal will be made and that Greece will not leave the Eurozone over this most recent default, but how accurate that prediction is will not be known until later in July.
Due to the Greek financial crisis and its related protests and strikes, plus uncertainty about the effect of the new governing party, many travelers are wondering if it is safe to go to Greece or if they should postpone their trips. While this is a very personal decision, here's some help on assessing the pros and cons of going to Greece right now.
Note: The information on protests and tear gas date to some unusually troubled days in 2012; 2013 was much quieter for Greece (though not for its neighbor across the Aegean, Turkey.) 2014 was "business as usual" in Greece and other than big crowds as travelers flood back to Greece, travelers should encounter very few problems, if any. 2015 has ongoing uncertainty about the financial situation and a new party (SYRIZA) in power, but I believe it will be a relatively calm year for travelers in Greece.
Does my Travel Insurance Allow me to Cancel my Trip to Greece?
This depends on your policy but most travel insurers will allow a cancellation if there is civil unrest in the place you are traveling to or through, in Greece or elsewhere. Contact them directly for details. If you are planning on going in the next month or so, getting travel insurance may be an excellent idea. However, if a protest or strike is predicted before you get on your plane, your travel insurance company may refuse to cover your expenses. It just takes a call to find out if they are excluding any planned incidents. Independence Day (March 25th) and November 17th often see protests.
A Look at the Risks
Violence/Injury: While TV images can be scary in times of unrest, Greece has a long "tradition" of vigorous civil protest. Usually, no one gets hurt and the violence is directed at property, not people.
Air Quality: The police commonly use tear gas in an effort to control protesters. Tear gas, by its very nature, tends to spread and remains in the atmosphere. About.com's Chemistry Guide has put together information on how to limit your exposure if you are in an area that has tear gas in it. One key suggestion: don't wear your contact lenses if you think you might be exposed to tear gas.
Setting cars or barricades on fire is also common during times of civil unrest. If you are elderly or suffer from asthma or other breathing difficulties in normal conditions, you should consider this factor carefully.
Boredom/Disappointment: If the streets are filled with protesters, you can forget going sightseeing and shopping. Staying in your hotel room, however pleasant that room may be, is not what you are going to Greece to do.
Stressful Inconvenience: Aside from not being able to get around easily, there may be other travel issues such as flights being cancelled or over-booked, taxis being hard to find or get at your location, schedule or route changes, and so on.
Areas to Avoid in Greece:
If there is rioting for any reason, these are the areas to avoid.
Downtown metropolitan areas
These areas are often the site of protests. In Athens, avoiding the area around Syntagma Square, Panepistimou, and the so-called Embassy Row is crucial. Unfortunately, this also includes some of Athens' finest signature hotels.
Since police by law cannot pursue protesters onto campus grounds, the areas around the campuses may be flash points for protests and conflicts with police. This is changing as the "asylum" provisions are under review.
Best Spots for a Peaceful Trip
The Greek islands
Santorini, Crete, Rhodes, Lesbos, and Corfu are all good options. On the larger islands such as Crete and Corfu, there may be some disturbances in the major towns in times of stress, but nothing like what would be experienced in Athens or Thessaloniki. For maximum security, if it concerns you, I would recommend choosing hotels outside of the city center in Heraklion, Chania, Thessaloniki, Rhodes City and Corfu Town - though the last two are rarely involved in civil disturbances.
The Greek Countryside
Places with older populations and spots that are a bit out of the way are likely to be and remain quiet. Nafplion on the Peloponnese peninsula is a very pleasant town without a large unruly student population and provides a good base for day trips to Corinth, Epidauros, and even across the Rio-Antirio Bridge to Delphi
A Greek Islands Cruise
A Greek cruise is a great option, as the ships have the ability to skip a port stop if there are any problems developing. You get the full benefit of sea and sun, and you have mobility in your favor.
Hints for a Safer, Easier Trip
These are things I always do, but in times of potential problems, they are even more important.
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- Have a cell phone that works in Greece. Buy a pay-as-you-go phone there if necessary. An innkeeper trying to alert you to a situation may not want to make a pricy international call.
- Enter your hotel numbers and other important numbers - like sightseeing locations and restaurants - so you can call and ask if they are open, if they are accessible, if there is an alternate route, etc.
- Travel light. Dragging lots of luggage makes everything worse. Take half of what you think you'll need. You won't regret it.
- Want a real challenge? Pack light enough to avoid checking luggage. Buy a bag in Greece for souvenirs and check both on the way home.
- Scale it down. Take the smaller camera, tear out the chapter of the guidebook that you need, etc.
- Buy a good map before you go. And keep it with you. If you do find your route blocked, you'll have options and if you call someone for assistance, you can understand their directions better. The Athens map provided by the GNTO office at the airport is excellent, and it's free. A paper map is still the best way to orient yourself without endlessly zooming in or out on a small screen, using up what may be precious battery power - use your cell phone or other device alongside it for detail.
- On medication? Have enough with you for twice the length of your trip. Pack one amount in your luggage and one in your carryon. Keep at least a day or two's supply on you in a small pill container.
- Have a color Xerox of your passport with you, and another copy in your luggage, along with extra copies of your itinerary. Email digital copies to an email account you can check on the internet.
- Learn a few words of Greek and enough of the Greek alphabet to decipher street signs. It can warm your welcome and at the same time, help you stay on your route, crucial if you have to make last-minute changes.
- Talk to the Greeks. They always know what is going on and will be happy to tell you, share their opinions, their politics, and their advice.