Here's help in deciding if renting a car in Greece is right for your trip - or if you're better off relying on other forms of transportation during your trip to Greece.
Booking Car Rentals in Greece
Most on-line travel companies offer car rentals in Greece. You can check aggregators, such as our About.com partner Kayak, which posts prices from many US car rental companies operating in Greece, or you can do searches on almost any of the major travel booking engines.
You can also book through the U.S.-based websites for many major car rental agencies operating in Greece, such as Budget, Avis, and Hertz. This is often cheaper than going to the national sites for these same companies in Greece.
Should I Rent A Car at the Airport?
Airport rentals in Greece, as is true everywhere, will be generally more expensive, though this may not be the case if you have booked ahead. The drive into Athens is relatively easy but can be confusing for jet-lagged, first-time travelers in Greece. You may prefer to rent from your hotel in Athens or at a local agency. This also applies to Thessaloniki. On the smaller islands, the rental car agencies may be only located at the airport, so you'll end up renting from them regardless.
Is it a Good Idea to Rent a Car in Greece?
Driving in Greece can be seemingly more stressful than driving in the U.S., but this does depend on what you're used to.
One constant is that the "major" urban streets are often surprisingly narrow and complicated, and signage can be absent or small enough to miss. Outside of the cities, the roads can be winding and steep, with many switchbacks. But if you want to really experience Greece, especially mainland locations, having your own rental car is almost essential.
There are so many "minor" archaeological sites which buses will zoom right by. Your alternative is to hire a car and a driver, but expect to pay about $200 a day and up for this type of service.
Gas in Greece is expensive. Fortunately, most rental cars have been selected to get good mileage, but the costs can still add up quickly. And remember, most of the major highways in Greece are toll roads - which can easily add 20 or 30 Euro to a trip, on top of the gas prices.
Gas stations can be spaced fairly widely in Greece, and they often are closed on Sundays and holidays, especially outside of the big tourist areas. Don't zoom past them if you're getting below a quarter of a tank - stop and fill up. Ask at your hotel where an open station is if you know you need gas on a Sunday.
Most gas stations are full serve. Gas is "venzeena" in Greek - and diesel is, conveniently enough, "DEEzel". "Fill it Up" - which is usually what you will want to do - is "Yemeestee to, parakahlo". "Yemiste" is handy in another context - it means "fill" and also applies to stuffed peppers and stuffed tomatoes.
Driving at night in Greece can be challenging. Many roads have few lights and the usual problems - narrowness, curves, steep drops, unfamiliar routes - all take on a new menacing quality in the dark.
Try to get to your destination well before sunset.
What Car Do I Need to Rent in Greece?
If you are using your rental car mainly to go out from a hub - visiting sites in the countryside around a town or city, then flying out of that spot or taking a bus, ferry, or train - you can get away with a small car since you will not be carrying all your gear with you for overnight journeys. But if you have several people all with full luggage allowances, you may find it is almost impossible to fit everyone into one vehicle comfortably. Take a look at the trunk before signing the final papers. Nobody likes seeing the beautiful Greek countryside over the top of the suitcase on your lap.
Love Automatics? Book Ahead
Greece still loves the gearbox and most rental cars will be manual shifting. This can be challenging to learn - or remember - when combined with Greece's winding mountain roads and narrow urban streets.
But you'll pay extra for having an automatic transmission, and even if you book one in advance since numbers are limited, you may find that you don't get your preference once you're at the car rental agency desk.
Can I Take a Greek Rental Car on a Greek Island Ferry?
Surprise~! The answer may be no. Many car rental agencies in Greece, especially those on smaller islands, do not want you to take their cars onto a ferry. First, there's the risk that you may damage it maneuvering in the tight area (or be damaged by someone else doing the same), and secondly, they like to keep their cars on their home island.
In practice, many people do rent cars and blithely take them onto the Greek ferries without mentioning their plans to the car rental agency, but if anything does happen, it's one more strike against you.
Remember that not all Greek ferries take cars anyway- and the limited slots may require reservations in advance.
More on Greek Ferries
If you are planning on driving a Greek rental car across a national border, that's an entirely different situation and you will need to clear that beforehand with the car rental agency. Also, if you know you are planning strenuous driving - lots of mountain roads, or dirt roads, more than a typical tourist in the area would attempt - mention it. You may be given a more powerful or more reliable car or be urged to upgrade to a more appropriate vehicle.
Does Greece Have Rent-A-Dent?
In the States, you can find cheaper car rental agencies using less than pristine vehicles. This is true in Greece as well, but they are usually not advertising and the average traveler will not find them. What will happen is that, on questioning, your hotel will know of a "cheaper" rental car agency, often one which will come directly to the hotel to sign up renters. Be careful in these situations and pay special attention to the pre-rental car inspection - note down everything.
Combining Car Rentals and Train Passes in Greece
As of this writing in summer 2013, this option is not a very good one in Greece since train transit has been cut back severely. The good news is that it is expected that the national train system of Greece will move into private hands toward the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014. If this does in fact happen, train service should improve and international connections should resume. (Right now, border crossings are by bus - you can take a Greek train to near the border, get off, get on a bus, go across, then get on a train in the adjacent nation.)
Do I Need the Extra Insurance?
Extra car rental insurance fees can run up your bill considerably. But your car insurance from back home may or may not cover you abroad. Find out for certain before you rely on this. Also, some credit cards give you additional car rental insurance coverage if you book the car rental using that specific card - find out if this is a benefit you have.
Why Are Greek Rental Cars All Chartreuse?
It only seems that way, but it is true that many Greek car rental agencies choose the most vivid colors possible for their cars. This was explained to me once as a way of protecting both the tourists and the Greeks - the bright red, yellow, pale green or orange cars were the equivalent of a giant "INEXPERIENCED DRIVER IN GREECE" sign on the roof. Surrounding Greek drivers, who would never buy a car in that color, would know to cut them some slack. And, once as I drove the wrong way up a narrow but bustling lane in one small town in Crete, I was happy I was safely coddled in the car-color equivalent of a neon sign saying "AVOID ME PLEASE!"