Nothing can spoil the start of your vacation quicker than getting ripped off by a taxi driver. Taxi scams are a big worry for most first time visitors to a foreign country. Thankfully, they are far less common in most European countries than they used to be. If you stick to licensed, metered taxis, you are unlikely to be scammed in most Western European countries.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Greece. Unscrupulous taxi drivers have been attempting to rip off arriving tourists (and succeeding) for decades. The Athens airport routes to the city center and the port of Piraeus are notorious for this. In fact, the situation is so bad that the leading airport taxi website, Athens Airport Taxi is remarkably matter- of-fact when it reports, "If you are a tourist, expect that most taxi drivers will try to charge you more than the normal fare."
There's nothing new under the sun and the most common taxi scams have not changed much over the years. They are pretty much what you might expect:
- Failing to start the meter or setting the taximeter for the wrong tariff
- Choosing the longest route possible to traveling through traffic clogged black streets
- Playing sleight-of-hand with your money — See "The Small Note Defense", below.
- Demanding payment in advance
- Trying to switch your hotel or restaurant to a different one — See "Stand Your Ground", below.
You don't have to be a victim. Do your research, know what to expect, be informed and stay alert and you can prevent the worst of these traveler abuses.
Here's what else you can do to protect yourself.
Know Exactly Where You Are Going
This may seem like a no-brainer, but think about it. How often, when you hop in an airport taxi, have you worked out in exactly what direction you should be going, how many miles you'll be traveling and what sort of neighborhood your destination is surrounded by? Do a little preliminary research by consulting a map and getting a sense of how far you'll be traveling and what towns you'll be passing through. If you can look at street views online, you'll have a good idea of where you should end up. You might even plot a route using an online mapper so that you can mention the name of a street or two just to suggest you know the territory. Don't do this, though, unless you're sure of the correct pronunciation. You want to seem knowledgeable, but not like a phony.
Another good way to put yourself into the landscape, so to speak, is to use the GPS maps on your smartphone. But wait until you're safely inside the taxi to pull out your phone. Airport and station pickpockets prey on distracted arriving tourists concentrating on their phones.
Know How to Find a Legitimate Taxi
At Athens airport, pick up your taxi from the official, clearly marked taxi ranks, where a policeman dispatches them. It is worth waiting in line for one of these; they are licensed for the right to collect passengers at the airport and can lose that privilege if they abuse it — so they have good motivation to behave within the law.
Elsewhere, you can hail a taxi on most streets in Athens and other urban centers. All legal Greek taxis are yellow, have taxi lights on their roofs and have working meters. If they don't, they are not taxis. Don't be tempted to save money or time by accepting a ride from drivers who hustle for rides near the ends of queues and in popular tourist areas.
And make sure, when flagging a taxi in the street or picking one up at the taxi stands in popular tourist areas like Syntagma Square, that the "TAXI" light on the roof is illuminated. Some drivers try to cruise for fares or wait in the taxi stands with their lights off. They are looking for tourists who are easier to con. Locals know that taxi's with their lights off are unavailable. Tourists don't and, by asking, give themselves away as potential marks.
Find Out Costs From a Neutral Source
If you are traveling from Athens Airport, the fare to the city center — what is known as the "inner city ring" — is fixed. In 2019, the cost remains €38 during the day and €54 at night. Do keep in mind that the word "Day" is used loosely: day fares run from 5 a.m. to midnight and night fares take over after midnight to 5 a.m. So, just because it's dark outside does not mean the driver can charge you the night fare.
The fixed fare from the airport takes in everything: tolls, luggage, all passengers. Before you leave home, find out if your hotel or other destination from Athen Airport is within that inner ring so you know if you qualify for the fixed fare.
If you are going somewhere else, trying to figure out costs adding up kilometres by day or night, luggage fees, waiting time, traffic waiting time or tolls, is dizzying, even for natives. But the worst thing you can do is ask a driver for an estimate of what your ride will cost. Before you head for the taxi ranks or hail a taxi in the street prepare yourself by asking a disinterested party — the local tourist information office or reception at your hotel are good sources - for a rough idea of what you should spend. Keep in mind, such information will only be an estimate and won't take traffic jams and roadworks into consideration, but it shouldn't be too far off the mark.
Once you've got some neutral information, by all means ask your driver for an estimate of what your ride should cost. Be clear about what extras may be included. Some drivers try to charge airport passengers, eligible for the fixed fares, extra for luggage, tolls — even for speaking English. That is against the law.
Make Sure the Meter is Running Properly
All legal taxis have meters that are clearly visible to passengers. You should see the driver turn the meter on when you get in the cab. The meter should not be already running when you enter the taxi. And, if the driver doesn't turn it on, ask him to before you shut the door and take off into traffic. Even if you are heading straight for the fixed fare zone in Athens, the driver should turn on the meter. That ensures that if you change your mind and ask for a different drop off the metered price will still be fair to both you and the driver.
You don't have to understand Greek to read the meter — numbers are numbers everywhere. The meter should be set at tariff 1 for daytime rides (5am to midnight) and tariff 2 for nighttime rides (midnight to 5am). One common way taxi drivers rip off newcomers is by setting the meter to the night tariff too early.
Practice the Small Note Defense
Greek taxi drivers are adept at playing sleight-of-hand. The classic way they do it is by dropping the large note you hand over and then, after picking it up, claiming it is a smaller note and that you still owe them money. Say you give a driver a €50 note for the €38 fixed fare from Athens Airport to the city center. The driver puts down or drops your cash while you wait for your change. But instead of giving you change he shows you a €20 note and claims you still owe him money. There is a really easy way to avoid this trap. Always pay in small notes; ideally €5 and €10 notes and never larger than €20. And when you pay, look the driver in the face and say the denomination of each note aloud as you hand it over.
Stand Your Ground
In one of the most common scams — not just in Greece but all over the world — the driver attempts to divert you away from your choice of a hotel or restaurant to another where he or she probably has a financial kickback or commission arrangement. He or she might insist that your choice of hotel isn't safe or clean or is in a bad part of town. They'll steer you away from your restaurant of choice with stories of bad or overpriced food.
If you have a confirmed booking, based on your own research and recommendations, this can be annoying at best. At worst, particularly for arriving visitors to Greece, it can get downright ugly. Unknowing tourists can find themselves unceremoniously dumped in a strange district with no idea what to do next. Fortunately, most Greeks are helpful, but to prevent having to depend on the kindness of strangers, be prepared to stand your ground as soon as the idea of an alternative destination is mentioned. Phone your hotel or host, within earshot of your driver, and tell them you are on your way by taxi and give them the taxi number or license number.
Stand your ground but don't put yourself in danger. If the situation feels uncomfortable, phone the Greek national tourist police. Their emergency number, from anywhere in Greece, is 1571 and is staffed 24/7. Just suggesting you are going to do that is usually enough to sort out a difficult driver.
Don't Pay in Advance
Be suspicious of drivers who demand that you pay in advance. It is against the law for drivers of metered, licensed taxis to do that, but some may suggest that they can give you a better deal if you pay in advance. Don't you believe it. The only way you can tell what your ride should cost is from the taxi meter. If the driver doesn't turn it on (against the law by the way) how can you tell? And if the meter shows you've paid too much, good luck getting a refund.
Several years ago an academic study used Athens taxis to examine scams and frauds. What Drives Taxi Drivers? A Field Experiment on Fraud in a Market for Credence Goods, published in the Oxford Academic Review of Economic Studies, found that travelers who looked affluent were at more of a risk of being overcharged and otherwise scammed. Dress casually for your arrival to minimize your risk.
Take Public Transportation From the Airport
Most taxi scams and frauds are perpetrated on arriving passengers from airports, cruise terminals and ferry ports. Maybe drivers assume that once you get acclimated you're more savvy about getting around. For whatever reason, you are at the biggest risk when traveling from Athens airport.
Luckily, there are convenient and inexpensive alternatives if you want to avoid the risk of taxi scams altogether. The Athens Metro, massively extended and upgraded for the 2004 Summer Olympics, is a clean, modern, fast and cheaper way to get to the city center. The airport is on Line 3, the Blue Line, connecting with stations on the Red Line (Line 2) at Syntagma Square and with stations on the Green Line (Line 1) at Monastiraki. The adult fare is €10 or you can buy a two person ticket for €18.
Athens Airport Express buses run 24 hours a day. The X95 bus travels to Syntagma Square in about 70 minutes and the X96 takes 90 minutes to reach the cruise and ferry port of Piraeus. Adult Bus fare for either is €6. Half price tickets are available for students with university ID, Seniors over 65 with proof of age and people from 6 to 18 years. Children under six years old travel free.