As you might know if you pay attention to the posts I’ve been sending out on Facebook and Twitter, I arrived in Athens, Greece this morning — my maiden voyage to the birthplace of Western civilization. Like I tend to do when I visit somewhere for the first time, I’ve spent the day discovering the city’s treasures on foot, in spite of my intense jetlag.
Unfortunately, I encountered a series of annoyances and obstacles before I even arrived at my hostel — and I want to make sure that none of you who have a trip to Athens in the pipeline fall victim to them. Having an idea of potential difficulties that may befall you on your first day in Athens will help you save not only time and money, but a great deal of frustration as well.
1. Limit the amount of currency you exchange at Athens International Airport
In certain places — namely, China and Southeast Asia — the government fixes exchange rates at airports (and in Thailand, even eliminates commission charges), which makes exchanging currency at the airport a no-brainer. In Greece, however, the airport exchange rate is shit. According to Google, $1 should’ve bought €0.69 today. It wasn’t enough for the airport exchange counter to offer me just €0.62 on the dollar — they also had to charge me a €6 commission, leaving me with just €55 in exchange for $100, when I should’ve had €69.
2. Brace yourself for the cost of the metro ride into the city
The good news about arriving in Athens is that the city’s metro (the blue line, specifically) takes you directly from the airport to the city center, saving you an expensive — to the tune of €35 — taxi ride, a convenience largely thanks to the 2004 Olympics having taken place here. Unfortunately, starting your journey at the airport subjects you to an €8 charge, four times the usual €2 you’d pay for an ordinary ride on the Athens Metro.
3. Don’t bother buying a ticket if you’ve got balls
The Athens Metro doesn’t have turnstiles, but rather phallic scanners that “validate” your ticket with a laser that doesn’t leave a trace on it. Even if there aren’t a lot of people waiting to board the metro at the airport itself, you can bet the train will be too full to walk by Koropi, the next station. I didn’t see a single uniformed person over the course of my entire half-hour ride into the city.
4. Have a story prepared just in case
Of course, you could have super-bad luck, in which case you’ll have to play the “stupid tourist” card really well — warnings inside the vehicles, posted both in English and in Greek, prescribe a penalty equal to 20 times the cost of a metro ticket from the airport, or 60 times, if you begin and end your journey anywhere else — in other words, €160. Ouch.
5. Get a hostel after you arrive in the city center
I was elated to find out that the hostel I booked on Hostel World (after a last-minute cancellation from the person who was supposed to host me) was located just opposite Monastiraki station, the metro stop closest to central Athens attractions such as the Plaka neighborhood and the Acropolis. Upon arriving, I realized two things: My hostel kind of sucks; There are literally countless hostels and budget hotels in this vicinity. Unless you arrive extremely late at night or early in the morning, don’t bother booking in advance.
6. Exchange the rest of the cash you have
Hostels are notorious for not accepting credit cards or, if they do, for charging exorbitant fees in excess of 7 per cent, both in Athens and elsewhere in the world. Additionally, while hostels in places like Myanmar and Vietnam accept U.S. dollars — they even encourage it in Chile, exempting you from the 19 per cent room tax they usually assess — Greek properties are strict: Euros only. Thankfully, exchange rates are better and commissions lower in the city center. My second $100 netted me €65, just €4 short, compared to €14 at the airport. (On a side note, I tend to avoid withdrawing from an ATM when I can, due to exchange rate discrepancies, bank fees and even the occasional spontaneous card decline).
7. Breathe a sigh of relief
The metro from the airport to Athens’ center might be expensive, and money changers might take pleasure in raping and pillaging you, but fear not: Greece is extremely cheap on the whole. For €1, you can get a small cup of fresh coconut water — or a huge bottle of non-coconut water. Add €0.20 and get yourself a shot of espresso to go and an additional €0.70 to enjoy a sumptuous pork gyro.