Renting a Car in Athens: the joys of driving in Athens
A big hairy man in a winter coat met us at the airport. He was from Athens Car Rental Company. Travelling with a baby gave us new challenges to overcome that we had not considered before. My husband Nate and I are used to booking our rooms the night before arrival (or sometimes the day of), and figuring out the details of getting from place to place on the go. We knew that traveling with an infant meant a bit more planning ahead of time, and we had places to stay booked for most of our trip in Greece, but we had not thought of transportation. Since we would be backpacking and using the train to cross Europe, we were travelling light. That meant instead of a stroller we had a backpack carrier, and we would not be bringing a car seat along with us.
Our flight did not arrive in Athens until late. Usually when Nate and I have a late flight we spoil ourselves by taking a taxi, or calling an Uber if possible. Public transit late at night with a baby in tow did not seem like a fun way to start out trip. It wasn’t until the night before departure that I asked “Do you think we can order a taxi with a car seat?”
My mother in law suggested that it may be legal to travel in a taxi without a car seat, as it is at home, but my argument was that we should be using a car seat for the safety of our child, not to appease the local laws. We had been planning on booking and renting a car to get us from Athens to Nafplio, where we had an Airbnb booked for a week, so it seemed like the easiest solution would just be to book our rental car early.
I asked my Airbnb host, who I had been communicating with about pickup, if she knew of a good car rental company, and she recommended Hertz as they are the biggest company in the area. The cost of the car rental at Hertz was 14 Euros/ day, while the cost of ordering an infant car seat was 9 Euros/ day! I couldn’t believe that the cost of renting a car seat could be almost the cost of renting the car! That was how we found Athens Car Rental Company. Nate had been communicating with them about renting a car seat, and they had been willing to lend us one for free! They were not as well known as Hertz, but seemed to have good reviews on local forums.
We had a four and a half hour layover in London Gatwick airport scheduled between flights, so we were not concerned that we were still working out the details of our rental on the day of our departure. That was until our flight got delayed by 2 1/2 hours and we found out that we would need to collect our check luggage, go through customs, check our luggage into our next flight, and clear security within two hours, that we began to get concerned. Nate was still e-mailing the car rental company as out flight began boarding our flight to Athens!
The rental company representative led us to an area with chairs and invited us to sit while he pulled out the paper work. Athens Car Rental Company is not well known in Canada, and though they have a legitimate looking website, it was hard to know for sure what we were getting ourselves into. When the car rental representative asked us for a $500 euro deposit before we had even seen the car little alarm bells went off in my mind. I pulled out my phone frantically searching for Athens Car Rental Company scams. The assurance was that they were asking for payment on machine via credit card, so we paid and kept our fingers crossed for the best. Fortunately when we dropped the car off after Nafplio our deposit was returned without issue!
There is a mountain in between Athens and the airport. There were only two routes to the city, north of the mountain or south of the mountain, so though it did not look far on the map it was an hour long drive! This was our first experience with the deception of distance in Greece. Closer does not always mean faster, as a lot depends on the terrain and quality of the roads.
Nate eased onto the roads, careful to obey the traffic rules and speed signs, as Athenians zoomed past us, motorcycles weaving in and out of traffic! The signs were all in Greek, which we could not read, so the directions on Google map were no good for us. Instead I adapted by saying “Turn left in 500 m, 200 m, 100- must be the next turn!” The stop lights were right above the intersection, making it nearly impossible to see when they turned green if you were at the front of the line up. I found it interesting that when cars were pulled right into the intersection during a green light, they remained in the middle of the intersection when the light turned red! No one signaled, and it seemed like street signs were a suggestion, and some stop signs were even attached on sideways or upside down. At one busy intersection we found ourselves stuck behind a stalled car, and Nate, hesitant at first, had a quick initiation into Greek driving as he had to force his way into the other lane to go around.
Finally we made it to our Airbnb, and only with one wrong turn that ended up being easy enough to correct. It was late, and when I rang the doorbell, as instructed, no one answered. We had no data, and no WiFi, so I could not get online to check with my host as what to do. Nate pulled over on the side of the road. I looked around desperately, and saw a young man standing in the window above. A few moments later, another young man appeared in the opposite window.
“Are you for Airbnb? Marina?” The two men had come out to the street to see if we were OK.
“Yes, she said to just ring the doorbell.”
“I don’t know, she was here but then she left. Don’t worry she is coming back later!”
“Oh yeah? Thanks.”
He saw Felix through the car window and hesitated, “Wait, maybe we can get the keys.” He went back into the building, and came out with a set of keys. “You are upstairs?”
He tried the keys in the lock and the door opened! We thanked him. It turned out that the two men were also renting Airbnb from Marina.
“Do you know where I can park?” Nate asked.
“Just come half on the sidewalk and it is OK,” was the response.
“Drive on the sidewalk?”
“Yes, only a little.”
Nate started to drive very slowly towards the sidewalk, but needed to give a bit more gas before he bumped up, one wheel at a time, until half of the car was up. “Do you think this is far enough?” He asked me.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“I’m just worried about the trolleys.”
Nate went to bring some of the bags inside, and I turned to see a trolley hurtling down the road, full speed, not slowing down for the parked car at all. My stomach clenched up and my breath caught in my throat, whoosh, the trolley zipped passed the car. “Well,” I said to Nate “It’s far enough over!”
It was late, and we had not made it to a grocery store, so we went for our first dinner out in Greece. Felix had been fantastic the whole trip, sleeping soundly on the flights. I had managed to snooze for 30 min- 1 hour chunks. Nate had not slept at all. We ordered a Greek salad and two of the specials. We had not taken in too much about the specials, other than to know one was shrimp, and the other was salmon. We really enjoyed the salad, and we waited in anticipation for the main course, our first taste of authentic Greek cooking! The waitress came out of the kitchen with food on her tray! It was… sushi!
We immediately got our first taste of Greek hospitality when we asked for things to do, and even the chefs came out of the kitchen to put in their advice!
We survived the roads, we learned to trust a local Greek company, and we got a taste of Greek hospitality. Our adventure was off to a good start, and our exposure to Greek hospitality was only just beginning. The next day would prove much less stressful as we settled into the local culture.