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Should you rent a car in Athens? Athens might have famously tried to reduce its horrendous traffic problems by only allowing either order or even number plated cars to drive on any given day of the week, and the city also invested heavily in a metro system in the run-up to the 2004 Olympic Games. So is this somewhere that you even need to consider getting a hire car?

Do I need a car in Athens? Introduction


This Athens car hire guide looks at whether or not to get a car either for a short break or for a slightly longer holiday involving travelling around between different places. For visitors from elsewhere in Europe, it can be just as easy to fly to one of the Greek islands and then to either stay locally or island hop without needing to get a car. Travellers from further afield will almost certainly head through or to Athens International airport.

This page is aimed at visitors who want to get out of the city of Athens.


Why rent a car in Athens?


Reasons why you should rent a car in Athens

  • Meteora – the stunning monasteries of the Meteora region should be the highlight of any trip to Greece, and if you need a preview, just watch the closing scenes of the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only. Naturally, given how these monasteries perched high on top of rocky promontories, this is a place to go hiking to take advantage of the rudimentary lift systems that operate in some of the monasteries.Yet there is still the small question of getting to Meteora. The train ride from Athens to Kalambaka goes through some pretty impressive scenery and over one or two great bridges, but there are only three trains each day, and only one of these is direct. So for even a brief excursion to Meteora by train, you will probably have to spend two nights there, whereas you could visit this area as part of a long day excursion in a hire car.
  • Rattling railways – Greece could never really claim to be one of Europe’s great Railway destinations, given that the population is relatively sparse and the terrain is unforgiving, yet even on those lines that do remain open following budget cuts, service is slow and sporadic. Unless you are someone who loves train travel, sticking to the roads is  going to be the easiest option.
  • Central what? If you are going to travel from Athens by train, bear in mind that not all surface train services run through the main Athens station (often called Larissa station after its original name, and the name of the adjacent metro station).
    There’s no direct metro connection from the airport to here either.Surface trains from the airport will take you to the new Athens Archarnes Railway Centre (SKA), which is being billed as a new “central” station, although it is out in the suburbs and has no metro station.
    Trains from the airport continue from here towards Kiato on the Peloponnese peninuslar, but the line goes nowhere near central Athens.

Peloponnese

  • Peloponnese – there are lots of great driving opportunities around the Peloponnese peninsula, including the Corinth canal and the engineering marvel of the Rio-Antirio bridge to complement the natural splendours. I’d like to say that this is also a great area to explore by train, but sadly, the narrow gauge Peloponnese railways have fallen victim to Greek austerity cuts. There is little chance of them being reopened any time soon. You can at least take the train as far as Kiato, but from there you’d have to go to Patra and beyond by bus.
  • Corinth canal – if there’s one particular piece of engineering which demonstrates Greek maritime prowess it must surely be the Corinth canal. Perhaps not as famous as its sticky Panamanian brother, nor anything like as timesaving, the Corinth canal still looks far more impressive than any other as it has been cut into its own deep but narrow canyon. This has been done without the need for any locks. Although there are hourly trains, and plenty of coach tours from Athens which will give you a view of the canal, visiting this location in a hire car will let you see things in your own time.  You can also use the canal is the starting point for a driving tour around the Peloponnese.
  • Rio Antirio bridge – this should be the highlight of any tour around the Peloponnese, or possibly of a circuit including the Peloponnese and Delphi on the other side. You can walk or cycle across the bridge and you can also get buses to and from Patra, but the most obvious way to appreciate it is still to drive.

Island hopping

Hopping between the different Greek islands in a hire car is always going to give you that little bit more flexibility than travelling as a foot passenger, although this flexibility does come at a cost.

At the end of the day, the decision whether or not to pick up a hire car in Athens might boil down to which islands you want to visit – for an island the size of Crete, a hire car is extremely useful, but most visitors to this island would fly direct into Heraklion or Chania. For medium-sized islands like Zakinthos (Zante) or Lesbos, then a hire car can be a benefit, whereas for the smaller islands like Santorini, you may well find that a hire car is more trouble than it is worth.Note that despite the need for ferry connections, it can be possible to get one way car rental deals between Athens and other Greek islands – budget for around £100 on top of the hire cost for one week.


Why not? Visiting Athens without a car


Reasons to visit Athens (and the area around it) without a car

  • Odd and even Number plate rules – in 1982, Athens introduced a restriction banning cars from the city centre according to whether their number plates were odd or even. Since then, the number of cars in the city has grown fourfold. The legislation has had little effect, especially as some houses have got round the legislation by owning two cars, one with an odd and another with an even plate.
  • If you rent a hire car in Athens, you will be exempt from the restrictions for 40 days, which should be more than enough to explore the city and the local area. Yet driving on congested Athens city centre is still a nightmare. You still have to find somewhere to park. As with any major city, we would always advise walking or using public transport to visit all the major sites within Athens.
  • Congestion in Athens is a city wide / all day problem – this isn’t just about the city centre, nor is it just about rush hour. Within the European Union (as of 2017 at least), only Bucharest and London have higher congestion levels than Athens – and we wouldn’t recommend trying to drive in either of those cities either!
  • Athens Metro – in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics, Athens invested heavily in an underground system, and this itself was halted many times due to archaeological digs along the route. This has resulted in many displays in the major city centre stations, making this sleek and modern transport network a destination in its own right as well is a way of getting around.
    The underground network is also supplemented by a network of local trains and buses. This includes the historic train link down to the port of Piraeus, where a lot of budget accommodation is available.
    There is no obvious centre of the metro network, with a number of stations being on two lines. The natural social and cultural centre is the area around Syntagma Square, and its metro station is on lines 2 and 3. This is also where many urban bus routes congregate, and where the tram route from the coast terminates.
  • Ancient treasures – need we go say any more? Athens is one of the most historic cities in the world and beyond the indelible impression the Parthenon is going to leave you from its perch at the top of the Acropolis, there are plenty of other places waiting to be explored well within the city boundaries and easy to reach on foot.
    Further afield, there are plenty of places which can be visited on historical tours, or on day excursions by scheduled bus.

Beyond the Athens area

  • Delphi is certainly well worth a visit, and once you get there, you will be walking around the main points of interest anyway, so there isn’t a huge time advantage in having a hire car. However, a group of people sharing a car might be better value. Allow around 3 hours each way by bus.
  • Island hopping on foot  – a hire car might give you a little bit more flexibility when you arrive on each island, but it is a deadweigh just sitting on the ferry, and a very expensive deadweight at that.
  • Why fork out for the cost of a hire car and then for the cost of ferry passage on top, when you can just travel as a foot passenger on the ferry and use local buses for getting around each island? Even if you have to shell out for a few taxis, they are unlikely to break the bank on any of the smaller islands.

Questions

Scope of these questions:

For most destinations, we look at whether or not it might be worth hiring a car to visit places which could either be reached as a day trip excursion from the destination, or which could be reached during a road trip of up to one week from that destination.

Usually, our advice would not overlap with other destinations nearby, so that we can avoid duplication. In the case of Athens, any question about whether or not you should hire a car here is mainly going to be about the area outside the city, and this could include all of the Peloponnese and most of the Greek mainland. Since there are also numerous ferries heading out of the port of Piraeus, these questions also provide a few comparisons between putting a hire car on the ferry and the alternative of simply travelling as a foot passenger.

Is it worth renting a car in Athens just for part of my stay?

Yes, absolutely, in fact all our Athens car hire advice is based on the assumption that you want to spend a few days in the city before or after you rent a car. This really is very different to many other destinations where a suggestion to rent a car would be for the whole duration of your trip.

 

If you do still want to rent a car for all of your stay, then we would advise initially trying to find a hotel somewhere on the edge of Athens that includes free car parking as part of the deal, but realistically, only about 10% of hotels in the city will do this.

 

Your other option would simply be to cram everything you can into a day trip into the centre of Athens, and then to spend the rest of your holiday travelling around outside the city.

 

Is it worth renting a car in Athens even for backpackers, students and other travellers who are on an extremely tight budget?

 

Probably not. When we are advising that it might be worth renting a car in Athens, this is largely as a counterbalance to the preconception that many people have that this should actually be the last place on earth to consider doing so. There is absolutely no need to hire a car in Athens, and you will be able to see almost everything that you want to see without getting one.

 

Young drivers can expect to pay a surcharge with most rental companies, and on top of this, you will need to add in the cost of road tolls on the Greek mainland. If you want to go to any of the Greek islands, work out the cost of taking your car on the ferry, including mandatory ferry insurance which many car-rental companies require you to take out.

 

There really isn’t much of an argument that says it’s worth hiring a car in Athens because that’s going to be better value than using public transport, it’s just that having a car in certain places is going to be a lot more convenient. For most budget passengers, the price of this convenience would probably still be too high, unless there is a group of you who can fill a car.

 

James says - a few trip notes:


 

One consideration for budget travellers who have already allocated a few days to spend in the city of Athens, and who are then considering either a long excursion inland to a destination like Meteora, is that it might be worth hiring a car if you can find places to visit that will keep you entirely within the mainland of Greece, the Peloponnese, or the island of Evia, which you can reach by bridge connection.

 

If you prefer to do the Greek island option, then you really will be far better off as a foot passenger. This isn’t just about saving money on the ferry fare itself, but if you don’t have to worry about returning the car, then you can also arrange a one-way ferry trip, and then fly home from one of the islands, such as Santorini, Corfu or Rhodes.

 


 

Do I need a car in Athens if I am planning on staying downtown?

 

Absolutely not! If you intend to spend most of your time staying in the centre of Athens, then you really won’t want to be considering hiring a car at all. There’s more than enough to see and do in the historic centre, and you will also have easy access to a wide range of destinations, whether you want to travel onwards by train, by bus or by ferry from the main port at Piraeus.

 

Rental cars in Athens aren’t subject to the odd and even number plate restrictions for the first 40 days, but you really won’t want to be testing that rule to the limit! It really just isn’t worth the hassle of dealing with the congestion, which is worse than almost any other city in Europe.

 

If you do want to rent a car for the day, then you might want to consider picking it up from the airport, or from another location around the edge of the city. If you are going to have to jump on a train to get to the car rental location, then you’ll probably find that even if you have to pay a small ticket surcharge to get to the airport, that is where you will find the best car rental deals. Wherever you rent a car from, having it just for the day will also save you having to worry about where you’re going to park it at the end of your trip.

 

I usually try to avoid driving if I can – so should I hire a car in Athens?

 

Absolutely not – what we are suggesting here is that it might be worth hiring a car in Athens if you want the flexibility to drive around between certain locations which can be quite cumbersome to reach by public transport. If you really don’t like driving, there’s just no point in even considering it here, because there is more than enough to see using public transport.

Rail Enthusiasts

The one potential exception is the Odontos Gorge Railway, which runs through to Kalavryta in the Peloponnese. To get to the start of this route using public transport, you will have to take the local suburban train as far as Kiato, just beyond Corinth, and then you will have to make a transfer by bus. This is typically timed so that the bus arrives just a few minutes before the train departs, and even on relatively quiet days, the train can already be full by the time the bus gets there.

 

If you don’t mind driving, but really love taking unique train trips, then it’s probably still worth renting a car in Athens, but finding places to stay which are well outside the city. In this case, then we really would recommend getting to the start of the Odontos Gorge Railway using a hire car.

 

I usually love driving, and prefer to avoid public transport if I can. Is it worth hiring a car in Athens?

 

Yes, if you really relish a great driving experience, then you should rent a car in Athens, but get away from the city and from all the busy roads around it as soon as you can. Driving in Greece might conjure up a lot of negative preconceptions for many people, but the country still has had a lot of investment in new roads and motorways, and even quieter rural roads can still open up some fantastic opportunities to enjoy great views in challenging terrain.

 

You might want to start by looking at some of the routes you could take which will pass through the monasteries around Meteora, or you might also want to look at some of the driving roads around the Peloponnese. As far as engineering is concerned, then you will no doubt want to head to the Corinth Canal, which cuts a deep slice through the land connection into the Peloponnese, but your most impressive experience will be to drive across the Rio-Antirrio bridge near Patra.

 

I am mainly interested in architecture and urban/cultural attractions – should I still hire a car in Athens?

 

Probably not. You don’t really need to have a car in Athens if your main interest is in ancient Greece, as most of the classical sites are in areas which are easy to walk to, or reach using public transport. The major exception to this is Delphi, where you will need to take a specially chartered bus service (around 3 1/2 hours, 4 buses per day, from €10)  to get there from central Athens, but this certainly isn’t enough reason to get a car.

 

Many of the most iconic modern Greek picture postcard scenes are from island towns and villages, and generally speaking, wherever you might want to go on the Greek islands, you should be able to reach easy enough by using local buses from the ferry ports. If you want to visit the hugely impressive engineering feat of the Corinth Canal, then you can easily get there by suburban train.

 

Irrespective of this, in Greece, architecture and landscape usually go hand in hand, and this is especially the case with the Acropolis in Athens or with the monasteries of Meteora or the spectacular clifftop villages on the island of Santorini (see below).

 

I am mainly interested in landscapes rather than cities. Do I need a car in Athens?

 

 

A hire car is certainly going to be useful if you want to explore any of the landscapes which are off the well beaten tourist trails. However, you don’t strictly need to hire a car in Athens if you just want to visit some of the most well-known Greek landscapes.

 

In particular, if you are thinking about heading to Meteora, then you can easily manage this excursion by train, since there is an inland route which will take you from Athens to the terminus at Kalambaka.

 

Meteora – Car or no car?

 

  • By train, this journey will take between 4 and 5 hours. Most services are direct, but sometimes you will have to board and express train to Thessaloniki and then change at – put in station here. In total, there are usually around for weekday connections to Kalambaka.
  • The train fare will vary according to whether or not it is classed as an express service, with fares starting from around €12 one way.

 

 

James says - a few trip notes:


 

Meteora is the sort of destination where the best way to experience everything will be on foot, but there are also regular buses running between the monasteries, so you certainly won’t need a car here, but let’s just say that driving is a nice and easy lazy way. You will probably want to see the sun set, and if you can (as its even better), the sun rise as well.

 

I have to confess that I plan to visit Meteora and I spent a few days in Athens in May, but I decided to go to the Odontos Gorge railway instead. This location is impressive in its own right, but it’s much less celebrated, even amongst train fanatics. The main reason why I didn’t go to Meteora was a simple question of practicality – I’d already booked a ferry to Santorini and then a return flight home from there, and I simply didn’t want to rush a trip to Meteora that would only give me one night there.

 

Bearing in mind that accommodation around Meteora is significantly cheaper than it is right in the heart of Athens, I would suggest that however you want to get here, it would be better to spend at least two nights, and to really enjoy the changes of light at the start and end of each day that you would be able to see in that time, without having to worry about trying to rush for a train or a bus.

 

If you’ve got enough time to do Meteora properly, then coming in by train is going to be a much more relaxing option, especially as it’s a pretty scenic train ride in its own right, and you aren’t having to worry about the traffic if you are coming from central Athens.

 

However, if your timing is a little bit tight, then you will be much better off driving to Meteora, and then using your car to get between the monasteries. You’ll still have to do some walking, as many of these monasteries have very steep access paths. It’s also very easy to put Meteora as the highlight of a Greek road trip, and if you’re coming here from Athens (I suggest you go via Delphi), then it’s easy enough to move on towards Corfu or anywhere down the west coast as the next leg of your journey.


 

How many people would we need in the car before a rental becomes better value than using transit?

 

Four. We don’t really advise renting a car in Athens as a way of saving money over public transport fares, but instead it’s very much about having a transport option that is a lot more convenient than infrequent or unreliable bus and train services.

 

The cost of car rental in Greece tends to rise sharply during the summer season, but there aren’t quite as many bargains to be had during the off-peak season as you might find in other Mediterranean destinations such as Croatia or the Spanish costas. If you have the flexibility to choose when you come here, then consider that it’s probably still worth hiring a car from Athens outside the peak season. During the summer, most public transport fares will still stay the same, although you can expect to pay little bit more for ferries and for some long-distance trains.

 

By the time you add up all the costs of a hire car, together with road tolls and the expense of buying fuel in Greece, you are only really going to feel like you need a car in Athens if you are actually travelling together with 3 or 4 other people.

 

However, in convenience terms, renting a car can still make sense for just two people travelling together.

 

We are senior citizens, should we rent a car in Athens?

 

Actually, you probably still should! Whenever we consider the answers to any questions about needing or wanting to hire a car in any destination, we always remember that the only people who are actually asking this question are the people who are somewhere near the boundary between a “yes” and a “no”.

 

In other words, nobody who loves driving and is confident driving anywhere without really thinking about it would find this website, because they would never search in the first place. Equally, any driver who is really nervous about the idea of hiring a car in Greece would also never ask any question about this, because they would never consider it in the first place.

 

The key thing to consider about whether or not to hire a car in Athens is not so much whether or not you might feel uneasy about driving in Greece, but simply what it is like to drive around Athens when compared to the rest of the country, and in particular, when compared to Greek islands, which you might already be familiar with.

 

Since we are not talking about driving in the city of Athens, but we are talking about driving around the Greek mainland, then this can only be a doddle when compared to driving on the very narrow and heavily congested roads of the Greek islands!

 

However, Greek roads are still very unsafe by European standards. The main reason for hiring a car over using public transport would be that it would be easier to reach more rural locations in a rental car, and that driving will give you more reliability than having to depend on infrequent bus or train schedules.

 

Do I need a rental car if I am flying into Athens airport but staying in another destination outside Athens?

 

Probably.

 

If you are simply staying somewhere that is still in the Athens area, and you want to spend most of your time in the centre of Athens, then in that kind of situation you’ll be absolutely fine using public transport. However, remember that the rail network around Athens really is very poor. Development of the Metro system didn’t start until the city hosted the Olympic Games in 2004, and even this only brought two new lines, together with an upgrade of the existing port line to Piraeus.

 

Whichever way you look at it, the train network is simply atrocious if you compare what is available in Athens with any other European capital city of the same size. Thi is why it is hardly surprising that Athens suffered so much from congestion, and that’s why if you are mainly planning on staying in this region, you probably won’t need a car.

 

The moment you are looking at staying in any other city that you could easily access within a couple of hours travel time from Athens airport, then having a rental car is almost certainly going to be useful. Some of the larger destinations will have direct shuttle bus connections to Athens airport, but once you reach the place you are staying, you’ll probably still prefer to have a car for getting around.

 

If I’m planning on touring around, is this best done in a rental car?

 

Yes – if you are looking at any kind of touring loop from Athens, then this is almost certainly going to be better done in a car. If you are trying to get around Greece without a car, then it’s really not a huge amount of problem to jump between the most popular destinations using a combination of buses and trains on the mainland and then the ferries between the islands. However, travel between smaller towns is often a lot harder, and in many cases, you find yourself having to go back into Athens first and then back out again to the place you want to get to, in a route that is going to take a lot longer than the equivalent by car.

 

However, if you can string together a list of places which you reach using public transport, then you’ll probably find that’s a better value than using a rental car, and this especially the case during the summer, when rental prices skyrocket. Travelling around Greece using public transport doesn’t mean that you have to stick to popular tourist honey traps. There are plenty of places you’ll still be able to get to using local bus services, but the challenge will be about how you link together a sequence of destinations.

 

Should we try to visit Athens without a car because that’s better for the environment?

 

Athens is no notorious for having terrible problems both with traffic congestion and with bad air quality. This causes enormous problems in terms of public health, but it is also causing great damage to the very places which people are coming here to see in the first place. However, all of the questions here about whether you should or shouldn’t hire a car in Athens have been geared towards visiting places which are well outside the city itself.

 

Car travel is generally more energy intensive than using public transport, and cars can still cause a problem in towns and villages which often don’t have enough space to provide proper parking provision. However, once you are outside the main cities, travelling as a group in a modern efficient car may be comparable with travelling by bus, especially if that’s an older bus with very few people actually using it. Outside the Athens t Thessaloniki  express line and metro services  within Athens, all Greek train services will also be diesel powered.

 

Travelling by high-speed car ferry is particularly inefficient, because of the huge amount of energy needed to power the boat, especially as separate spaces needed for the empty vehicles and for the passenger decks.

 

Should I hire car in Athens to start a road trip?

 

Yes, absolutely, as long as you are aware of the general risks of driving in Greece, and the relatively high combined costs of tolls and petrol, then you really should consider hiring a car in Athens to start a road trip. Greece is so rich in terms of not just everything relating to antiquity, but also because of the modern cities and spectacular landscapes, that even with the prospect of high fuel costs, you’ll probably be able to see an enormous amount without actually having to drive that far. If your typical idea of a road trip is to stay somewhere new each night, then you might want to consider travelling around Greece but spending a couple of nights in each place and then just touring locally in between. Since accommodation is usually good value, you should be able to work out a trip that manages a good balance between the cost of driving and the cost of staying overnight.

 

Should I rent a car in Athens and return it somewhere else?

 

Maybe, but your options will generally be restricted to places which are in mainland Greece, rather than on outlying islands. This is because one-way rental costs are based on how much it might cost the car hire company to move the vehicle back to the place you rented it from. Normally, they don’t need to do this – let’s say you rent a car in Athens and then drop it off in Corfu, then there’s a good chance that somebody else could then rent that same car and drive it back to Athens. However, if that doesn’t happen, then that car might have to be moved by ferry, and that adds more cost and complications.

 

If you are considering a one-way rental, then always check that the amount quoted is the total amount you are going to pay. This is sometimes easier to confirm if you book direct with a major rental company, rather than through an agency. In some cases, it might be cheaper to drop the car off in a location which is still on the mainland, and then to continue where ever you want to go by ferry. For example, instead of a one-way rental from Athens to Corfu, rent a car in Athens and then drop it off in the port at Igoumenitsa, then you can simply continue to Corfu as a foot passenger.

 

In some cases, to get the best value, you should hire a car in Athens, drive it wherever you need to go, and then return it back to either the airport or a location in the city centre. You could then continue to your next destination by train, and then decide whether or not you want to rent another car when you arrive at that destination. For example, although we don’t particularly advise renting a car in Santorini, if you wanted to do this, then it would almost certainly be cheaper to hire a car in Athens, return it back to the airport and then fly to Santorini and hire a car there, rather than to hire a car in Athens and take it to Santorini on the ferry.

 

Should I rent an RV / camper / caravan in Athens, instead of a car?

 

Probably not. The main reason for this is that Greece has some of the highest fuel costs in Europe, and this would make touring with a motorhome very expensive on a per mile or per kilometre basis. However, the big advantage of a motorhome is that you can sleep quite a few people in it and save considerably on hotel costs. Since the cost of fuel is not subject to the same kind of seasonal variations that affect the cost of hotels, then renting a motorhome during the peak summer season might not be quite such a daft idea as it might initially sound!

 

Another consideration is that you can still see a great deal here without having to cover that much distance – see what we said about road trips above.

 

Summary

Conclusion – anyone simply thinking about taking a city break in Athens is very unlikely to even consider getting a hire car, but after a few days Athens can start to become quite overbearing on the novice visitor. So whether you get a hire car or not, there’s a good chance you’ll want to get out of the city, and unfortunately, public transport in Greece leaves a great deal to be desired. Should you rent a car in Athens, and then use it for a trip outside the city? This is really going to depend on where you are most interested in visiting from the long list of places mentioned above. Is it worth hiring a car in  Athens just to use within the city – no, never, that bit should be clear enough! But you really don’t have to get far out of the city for public transport to become worth it.

For a country with such a rugged coastline and so many ancient treasures, there’s a good chance you’ll be happy to take things at a slower pace anyway. Yet getting a hire car in Athens is still going to take away a lot of the hassles of planning and executing a holiday when you are dealing with so many different transport companies, all of which operate from their own separate hubs in their own different ways. Public transport integration in Athens is very poor – whether you are trying to change from bus to metro, to get to the Peloponnese by train, or simply if you are trying to find the right berth for your onward sea connection in Piraeus, nothing is particularly well connected.

Verdict

So even though a hire car in Athens remains strictly optional, if you are already considering getting one, then you will probably find it beneficial.


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