So here in the Washington D.C. area we’ve been experiencing some intense heat and humidity, but luckily we’re nearing the end of summer! YAY! But just because Summer is almost over, doesn’t mean you can’t still squeeze in a little summer vacation; and what better place to enjoy a beautiful relaxing vacation than the Greek Islands.
The most famous of the Greek Islands is Santorini; well known as a summer hot spot that has amazing sunsets and quaint buildings surrounding the cliffs of the volcano caldera. Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could be one of the lucky ones that call Santorini home, year round? Maybe this can be my retirement plan! It’s honestly one of the most gorgeous places we’ve been, combining natural beauty, amazing hospitality, and ultimate relaxation. With that being said, Santorini is NOT, I repeat NOT known for their beaches. They have them, but you don’t go there for that, Mykonos and other islands have much better beaches. What you do go to Santorini for are incredible sunsets that are the stuff of dreams! While you are attempting to get those instagram worthy photos, I want to warn you that the Greek Islands can be very windy, so bring a hat and wish for a bit of luck; bright side was that the wind was cooling in the hot sun. Also be wary of where you are posing, you may be trying to stand on someone’s roof, and most likely you’re going to get shoo’d way.
1. Best time to Visit
The most popular time to visit the Greek Islands is during the summer months of June-August, however, if you want to see the Greek Isles and save a little money, definitely consider the shoulder (low) season. When is the shoulder season? Mid to late May and early June is a good time as it is just starting the tourist season and September is also excellent as it is the end of the season and you might actually get some palatable temperatures in the water. Lets just say the rest of the time, the water is freaking cold! Sorry, I’m from Florida. Other than saving a little money, what can you expect during the shoulder season? Well, cruise ships typically stop bombarding this tiny little island and you get to experience a more laid back and tranquil environment. Trust me, you don’t want to be here fighting a million other people while you’re exploring this beautiful island and fighting people for the best views of the sunset.
You might be wondering why you shouldn’t visit during the off season. Although it’s true that the ferries still run and so do flights, most “tourist spots,” restaurants and even shops will not be closed. People still come to visit the island during those times, but just to do a quick visit. I highly recommend the shoulder season to both save money and avoid the crowds.
2. Traveling to Santorini
There are many non-stop flights from Europe and of course Athens directly to Santorini. This is a great way to save some time, the flight took less than an hour from Athens; granted you have to arrive to the airport early to check in and get through security.
We were already in Athens, so we flew Volotea, which is a budget airline. Here are a few tips if you do decide to fly Volotea:
- Make sure that you print your boarding pass in advance, or they charge you €30 at the gate!!! They must use some special ink!
- Volotea allows you to have a carry on and a personal item that is 10 kg (22 lbs). We packed light for this trip and were able to make it on the plane with just the carry on and personal item.
- Keep an eye on your departure gate; when we first arrived it didn’t say what gate we were (just B3-B30) so we kept waiting. Suddenly, 5 minutes before our boarding, the monitor flashed B30 and said FINAL CALL! We were so surprised and hot footed it to the gate to find out everyone pretty much was on the shuttle and had just made it in the nick of time. We were shuttled to the flight and boarding was fairly quick and painless. The plane itself is definitely nothing fancy, it’s definitely bare bones.
- Unless you pay in advance, Volotea will select your seat for you. I thought that they would put families in the same reservation together, but they do not. I strongly believe that they purposely force your group apart so you you will be forced to pay to sit next to your family. When we boarded there was no reason we were separated. So dastardly! The only upside is that everyone else was separated so it was easy to switch seats.
Arrival in Santorini was very simple, once we got off the plane and took a quick shuttle to baggage claim, we were able to walk right out to arrivals.
The Santorini port is quite small, but has a few overpriced cafes and restaurants. They aren’t great, but they are a good way to kill time while waiting for your ferry. The day we arrived there were only 2 ferries and many ferries in the area were on strike. Luckily our ferry was still running – phew!
The check-in process to get our tickets was painless. Boarding is at the far end of the port; the terminal has air conditioning, which was nice, but it gets crowded quickly as boarding time nears. Our ferry was scheduled for a 12:20 PM departure, but we didn’t actually board until 12:38 PM, so no need to be too early to the port. Just know that if you’re cutting it too close, you may not get seats with your party.
A few things to keep in mind when taking the ferry:
- Since there is no assigned seating, just find a spot you like when you board and get seated.
- If you have rolling luggage or large luggage they basically put it in a huge stack, so keep in mind that it may take you a while to get it when you get off the boat.
- We hit some big waves during our trip, if you’re prone to sea sickness, bring some Dramamine.
- The A/C on the ferry blows quite fiercely and you may want to bring a jacket to keep you safe from the arctic temperatures.
Greece is part of the European Union an as such, United States citizens are authorized up to 90 days for tourist or business purposes without a visa upon landing.
3. Getting around Santorini
We decided to rent a car and did it through Spirodakas Rental Car Agency. The reason we chose them is because we were arriving by plane but departing by ferry and were having trouble finding agencies that allowed us to do the one way drop off. Upon arrival, the rental car company was there waiting for us. They drove us to the their rental agency in Fira and we filled out some paperwork and were shown our car. The process was pretty smooth, but we did have a small surprise when we discussed payment. I had given my credit card number when I made the reservation, so I assumed that I had paid for the car already, but the rental agency said that the price I reserved was for a cash rental and my credit card was used only as a guarantee. They wouldn’t let us pay with our credit card, unless we wanted to pay a higher price, so if that is a concern for you, book with the larger, international companies.
Santorini is a small island full of some crazy drivers; watch out for people who don’t stop at the stop sign, don’t stay in their lane, and be prepared to stop at any moment because a bus or van may be stopped or coming head on because the road isn’t wide enough for both of you! We were told that there are many accidents because people aren’t used to the windy roads, but we didn’t actually see any.
Getting gas was very easy, pumps are full services, so just pull in, tell them how much gas you need and they will fill it up for you. We spent about €25 for our 4 days there. There was a 24 hour station on the outskirts of Fira and they even give you free ice cream – Best Gas Station EVER!
Another popular option for getting around the island is by ATV; there are plenty of tourists buzzing all around the island this way. We decided that this option wasn’t for us as we wanted to have A/C, be shielded from the sun and other elements and didn’t really want to drive an ATV for 4 days straight. In my opinion, we made the right choice by renting a car.
If you’re on a budget or have a lot of time on the island, riding the public bus is a great option for getting around. My only caution is that you will need to be prepared to walk and to wait for the bus to come, it’s doesn’t come very frequently and some of the bus stops require some foot power to reach your final destination.
Last but not least, there’s no shame in just going for a super relaxing vacation where you stay at the resort and just lounge all day and you need no transportation. Scott and I definitely decided that we want to visit again and go this route, so it’s highly recommended. I mean part of the reason you come is for the view, why not enjoy it?!
As of 8/17/2018, $1 is equal to about €0.86.
Greece is part of the European Union and uses the Euro, which is really handy if you are visiting a lot of the other European countries. Don’t be concerned about exchanging too much cash as you are able to use your credit card almost everywhere (restaurants, tours, souvenirs).
You should also note it is customary for tourists to tip in Greece. Check the bill to see if the restaurant added any gratuity. If not, oftentimes people will round up to the nearest Euro, but in nicer restaurants, you should tip around 10%.
5. Cell Phone
One great thing about having T-Mobile cell service is having free international data. Surprisingly the free international data was adequate the whole trip and we hopped on WiFi when it was available. Having cell service is a nice to have, but not a must, since Santorini is such a small island. If you decide to go without cell service, don’t forget to see my post about how to navigate with Google maps while you’re offline.
6. Where to Stay
The 3 main towns in Santorini are Fira (the capital of Santorini), Imerovigli, and Oia (the most popular town on the island and the subject of millions of instagram photos). Fira is known more as a party town whereas Imerovigli and Oia (pronounced “eeyah”) are known for being more romantic.
Our goal was to have a nice room that was conveniently located, but affordable. We didn’t want to splurge and stay at the hotels and resorts that are on the cliffs of the caldera since we really wanted to see the island. After doing some research, we opted for Thea Studios which was a 10 minute walk to Fira and our room had a hot tub in it! I mean who doesn’t love a hot tub? Honestly, we loved our hotel, the staff was friendly (especially Alex), the breakfast tasty, and the rooms nice and spacious. If you’re paying for your room with a credit card, I would recommend that you make sure the hotel charges you in local currency, not your home currency, as the hotel exchange rate will usually be worse than your bank’s.
I hope that you consider a trip to Santorini soon and that these tips come in handy. I’m looking forward to sharing the beautiful places we saw and the incredible food we ate while we were there and hopefully make it your choice for your next vacation. See you next time!