I didn’t plan to write about Greece. It was my annual holiday – you know, the kind where I travel to a destination to see it through my eyes and not through the lens of a camera; the kind of trip where I’d spend more time staring out at the sea than into a laptop screen.
And then the media exploded about the Greece Crisis.
Of course, Greece has been in economic strife for quite some time but it was just days before my trip that the banks in Greece closed ahead of a referendum that would determine whether the people of Greece wanted to accept the latest bail out terms (they didn’t).
I travelled through Greece during the referendum and for about 10 days more after that. All the while, the media was whipping up a storm about the merits (or not) of visiting the country.
All across the web, in the media and out of the mouths of people who have never visited Greece, the scaremongering was in full swing:
“Bring LOTS of euros!”
“Don’t go to Greece – the food is going to run out”
“The pharmacies will be empty”
“What if the ferries don’t have fuel?”
“ATMs have no cash and the queues run from Mykonos to Rhodes”
“They may go back to the Drachma while you’re there and you’ll be stranded.”
As someone who travelled through Greece at the height of the media furore, the comments were bewildering to me. I spotted a few journalists in Athens but there wasn’t much to cover so instead of chasing a story through the streets they were sat in the shade, sipping a coffee, video camera down, soaking up the sun. The media storm was, it seemed, greater than the story behind it. And it’s the media storm that made people reach out to me – people who were considering going to Greece but had been put off by reports in the media.
Is it Safe to travel to Greece 2015?
While there is no denying the financial trouble that Greece is in, the situation had almost zero impact on my 16 days of travels through Greece. So, from someone who’s been to Greece recently and who has no motivation other than to report the truth, here’s my summary of whether it is safe to travel to Greece 2015 (correct as of July 2015).
Can you use the ATMs or should you take all your euros with you?
I took the advice of the FCO and took all my euros with me. Their advice was to “make sure you take enough euros in cash to cover the duration of your stay, emergencies, unforeseen circumstances and any unexpected delays”
The advice was pretty unhelful because the whole point about ‘unforseen circumstances’ is that they are unforseen! Nevertheless, I took 50% more euros than I thought I’d need and I’ve returned to the UK with all those extra euros in my wallet. In hindsight, I could have used Western Union to get a money transfer from the UK if I’d found myself experiencing an ‘unforseen circumstance’
That said, I’m pleased I took all my euros with me, because the country was in a lot of flux when I was there – the banks were closed and some had run out of €10 and €20 notes. However, as the banks have since re-opened, I’d given serious thought about packing all that cash.
And on the subject of ATMs…
At the beginning there was a lot of misinformation about the ATM situation suggesting there was a €60 limit per day for everyone and also huge queues. In reality, tourists were unaffected by the €60 limit and could withdraw amounts up to €600 a day (the usual tourist limit in Greece) assuming your home bank will let you withdraw the same.
As for the queues – yes, there were some ATMs with long queues of 6 or 7 people, but that’s the kind of queue I would find in Central London on a Friday night. I didn’t once see a queue like those portrayed on TV – in many cases there were no more than 2 or 3 people waiting at each ATM and I regularly saw ATMs with no queues at all.
What about using credit cards?
Initial advice also suggested that your credit card was as useful as a square of plastic in Greece, but that simply wasn’t true. Some businesses would not accept credit card but the owners were keen to impress on me this was not to do with the crisis – they had never accepted credit cards and the high fees that come with doing business that way.
As always, cash is king but if you’re dining in high-end restaurants and staying in similarly high-end hotels, using your credit card won’t be a problem. I even managed to pay for some souvenirs with my card and my hostel in Athens would also have accepted credit card.
Are people so desperate they will rob the tourists?
I’ll confess that packing a lump of cash way larger than anything I’ve ever travel with made me a bit nervous – after all, with the media screaming “pack thousands of euros”, tourists are suddenly an easier but also a more worthwhile target…and people can behave differently in a crisis, so I understand the worries of travellers.
But let me put your mind at rest: the Greek people are some of the kindest people I’ve met on my travels (after helping an elderly lady down the winding steps of Ios old town, she planted the most grateful kiss on my face). They also seem to be a very proud nation. Watching individuals suffer because of the crisis was one of the hardest things about my trip to Greece, but this crisis has not turned the country into a living version of the Hunger Games!
I didn’t hear of a single case of tourists being robbed due to local desperation. It’s simply not happening and I can’t see it happening in the future either. We’re talking about Greece, not Hollywood.
How should I carry my cash?
With all my euros withdraw before I arrived in Greece, I had to give some serious thought to how to pack all my cash. For a while I thought about travelling with a money belt and one reader even recommended I buy a portable safe – I even spent an awkward hour with my curtains drawn trying out various configurations that included stashing my cash in my bra. Eventually, I put my money where I usually put it – in my daypack along with my passport and I had no trouble at all.
Travel tip: if you are carrying a lot more cash than usual, check what your travel insurance provides in terms of coverage. You can read my tips on buying travel insurance here.
Is Greece going back to the Drachma (and will I be stuck without the right currency)?
None of us can see into the future but the changing of a currency has historically been a matter that has taken a lot of time and planning. Over a couple of week’s holiday, it’s unlikely that you’re going to find that the currency has changed overnight. This BBC news article on the Greek debt crisis and moving from the single European currency is an interesting and helpful read.
Is Greece running out of food?
If there had been a risk of Greece running out of food while I was there, I’d have been on the first plane out! Once again I can’t help but wonder where these Hunger Games style of reports are coming from but there were absolutely no signs of food shortage in Greece while I was there and certainly from a visitor’s perspective the restaurants were busy and fully stocked. In a country where so much of the produce is locally sourced, I’d say your biggest worry is going to be over indulgence not under-eating.
Is Greece running out of medicine?
I didn’t need to visit a pharmacy or doctor while I was in Greece. Here’s what the UK Government advises on the matter: “There have been some media reports of a shortage of medical supplies in Greece. While pharmacies across the country appear to be operating relatively normally, you should make sure you have enough medical supplies (including prescription medicines) for the duration of your stay and any unforeseen delays.”
Once again, for a short trip, it is good advice to take what medicines you need with you in any case (as I found out in Madrid when I tried to get a local version of my migraine pills).
Is there striking and rioting?
I didn’t experience a single strike while I was in Greece. The ferries ran on time as did the local transport.
Although there were media reports of some rioting in Athens, I was out of the capital on the day of the referendum and the only instances of ‘riotous behaviour’ I saw in the Greek islands came from the drunk tourists!
Strikes and protests can be a reality in countries where there is disharmony. I’ve been nearly stranded by strikes in France and London Underground goes on strike more often than I’d like. However, with research and by keeping a close eye on local news, you should be able to work around any strike issues and keep clear of any protest areas.
Should I go to Greece?
Greece’s financial crisis didn’t happen over night and tourists still continue to flock to the country (evidenced by my inability to book accommodation last-minute in some of the more popular areas). Whether you decide to visit or not will come down to your own comfort level but as someone who has recently been to Greece I’d like to reassure visitors that, save for the media, there was no outward visibility of the Greece Crisis while I visited the country. The people were kind and welcoming, transport worked smoothly, I had no issues with cash or credit cards and there was certainly enough food to keep me happy.
With talk of discounted flights and package deals coupled with being able to help a country by spending your holiday money there, I can’t personally think of a better time to visit Greece.
If you have been to Greece recently, let me know your experience in the comments.