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A trip to Greece has been on my to do list for a long time, but, I must admit, I was a bit put off by pictures of crowded beaches and tourist overrun islands. But when I learned that Greece is one of the first European countries to open to U.S. travelers, I quickly jumped on the opportunity to see Greece without the crowds and the cruise ships. 

My husband and I planned the whole trip in less than two weeks, something I’ve never done before (I usually take a long time to plan and make decisions), and looking back now, this was one of the best trips we’ve ever taken. We had a feeling of having the country to ourselves, and it was such a privilege to experience Greece before the tourism resumed in full force. 

We were awed by the beauty, the variety of landscapes and the amazing hospitality we received. Everywhere we went, every hotel we stayed at and every tour we did, we were made to feel like the most welcome guests. 

Greece with no tourists – no crowds at the Acropolis

We also found the experience of traveling around the country to be very easy. There are so many cheap flights between the islands and the ferries were easy to book. The small local car rental agencies we used brought the cars to us, there were no shuttle busses to the remote car rental lots and no standing in long lines at the rental counter. 

The focus of this trip was to see as much nature as we could and to be outside, so we didn’t visit archeological sites (except for the Acropolis in Athens), monasteries or museums. There’s just too much to see and do in Greece, and I had to set priorities, but we will be back for sure! 

This is part one of my trip report where I’ll discuss trip planning, COVID-19-related restrictions, how I booked the flights, what we used to get cell phone coverage and some travel advice. In part two, I’ll focus on how we booked accomodations in Athens and on the islands and things that you can skip or shouldn’t miss if you decide to go to Corfu, Santorini and Crete.    

Practical Travel Tips

Here are a couple of tips to help make your trip easier. It took me some time to find and research these so I hope that these save you some time in your planning process.

International Driving Permit 

Yes, you do need an IDP for Greece. We rented a car three times and were asked for the IDP by two out of three rental companies. Also, if the police stop you and you don’t have one, that probably means a big fine. These are easy enough to get for $25 through a couple of channels. 

We got ours on e-ita.org and the process couldn’t be easier. You fill out an online form, upload a photo you can take with your phone, pay $25 and in a couple of hours you get your IDP. 

Or you can get it at the AAA, for $20 plus the cost of two passport pictures. 

eSIM

When I found out about eSIM cards, my mind was blown. I used to buy data-only SIM cards on Amazon before a trip, or get one on location if I couldn’t find it on Amazon. However, most newer phones have an embedded SIM card (eSIM), which is basically a small chip inside your phone that enables you to switch cellular providers without swapping the physical SIM card that comes with your phone. I am not going to bore you with the technical details, which I don’t fully understand myself, but believe me, it’s pure magic. 

There are a few providers selling eSIMs. I used ESIMDB to compare prices and I purchased mine from Airalo because they had the best price. These are data-only plans, so you can’t make regular voice calls. Everyone in Europe uses WhatsApp, so it was easy to do a voice or video call from anywhere via WhatsApp. 

The installation instructions come with the eSIM but if you run into any issues with Airalo you can chat with an agent via their website. I’ve purchased eSIMs from Airalo for my stay in Israel and Greece and when I landed in Greece and tried to switch to my Greek eSIM I couldn’t connect to the network. I quickly contacted them through the chat and they helped me troubleshoot. My husband and I bought a 3GB eSIM each, and that was more than enough. 

COVID-19 Travel Restrictions

To enter Greece you either need a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of departure or to have been vaccinated more than 14 days before the trip. If you aren’t flying to Greece on a nonstop flight, it’s very important to check the entry restrictions for each connecting airport. United has a great resource for checking entry and transit requirements. When you navigate to United.com, click on Alerts on the top right.

United search bar

On the next page, scroll down to International documents and entry requirements. 

You’ll also need to fill out a passenger locator form, which, along with the vaccine card and the negative test results (if needed for your connection), will be checked by an airline employee. You’ll also have to show that you filled out the PLF form at check in. When you land in Greece, you’ll have to present the QR code that will be emailed to you on the day of arrival in Greece (not departure).  

Greece has been in a pretty tight lockdown for about six months prior to reopening. However, once they announced the reopening, they relaxed almost all restrictions. Right now the dining is allowed outside only, but who’d want to sit inside when the weather’s so beautiful? Live music is allowed, but we’ve only seen a musician play in a taverna once. 

At the time we were in Greece, there was a curfew from 12:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. You are supposed to wear a mask inside and outside. However, a lot of people don’t wear them outside at all or wear them around their chins. Inside, everyone wore a mask. Our tour guide in Athens told us that police stopped enforcing the masks outside rule a while ago. 

I haven’t worn my mask outside at all during the two and a half weeks I’ve spent in Greece with one exception. When we visited the Acropolis in Athens, the staff asked us to wear a mask. Masks are a non-issue at restaurants because the dining is allowed outside only anyway. Hotel staff wore masks everywhere, inside and outside. 

We asked a few locals about the pace of vaccination in Greece and everyone we spoke with either got their first shot or had an appointment to get the first dose. Greece had made vaccinating the people living on the islands a priority, but even in mainland Greece, the vaccination is well on its way.  

Our Itinerary 

There were four places on my must visit list for this trip and the order in which we went was partially dictated by the ferry schedule. I wanted to fly into Athens, spend a couple of days there then go to Corfu, Santorini and Crete. 

I have been a little obsessed with Corfu since watching the British TV show The Durells in Corfu. If you’re thinking about going to Greece, I highly recommend this show. Does anyone else pick their travel destinations based on TV shows? If you have been inspired to see a new place after seeing it on TV, let me know in the comments.  

Corfu Town, Greece

I also really wanted to see Santorini because it’s so iconic and beautiful and before the cruise ships and the crowds came back. I picked Crete because it’s such a diverse island and is within an easy two-hour ferry ride from Santorini. 

Oia, Santorini 

Crete is a huge island that has everything for everyone. There are spectacular mountains, breathtaking beaches, stunning views at every corner and the food is considered to be the best in Greece. I can’t be sure about the last claim, as I haven’t been everywhere in Greece, and maybe the claim gained ground thanks to Crete’s savvy tourism board, but the food was definitely very good. 

Crete, Greece

If you are going to Greece for less than two weeks, then skip Crete. It’s so big, and there’s so much to do, that going there for less than five or six nights doesn’t make sense. If you can only do a shorter trip, then explore smaller islands that you can reach with a short ferry ride from Athens or Santorini.  

Ferry service among the islands was greatly reduced due to COVID-19 so our schedule was partially dictated by the ferry schedule. We caught the ferry from Santorini to Crete on the first day it resumed its regular operations. If you are planning to island hop in Greece, make sure to consult the Ferry Hopper website for up to date ferry schedules, especially if you are visiting in the off season.  

Keep in mind that most restaurants, hotels, boat tours and other island tourist attractions are closed from about mid-October to mid-May. It would be great to visit Greece in the shoulder season, but you’ll find a reduced ferry schedule and not many things will be open.

How I Booked Our Award Flights to Greece

At the time of Greece’s reopening I was visiting my family in Israel, so I was just a short two hour flight away. I used United miles to get to Israel a few weeks prior and all I had to do was book a cheap one way flight from Tel Aviv to Athens, Greece. 

I then set off on a hunt for my husband’s award flight from the U.S. to Greece and to book our return flights home. I’ve had about a two-week notice – and I’ve never booked anything so close to departure – so I went to work. Because international travel was just opening up, I was able to find a couple of decent options. 

My husband had a healthy balance of United miles in his MileagePlus account from a couple of cancelled trips, so that’s what I wanted to use first. His flight to Greece was before the airlines restarted their nonstop flights to Athens, so we found him a decent itinerary with a connection in London (LHR). At the time all he needed was to take a rapid antigen test 72 hours before departure to be able to connect in London. His business class award cost 69,000 United miles, and he flew in a combination of United Polaris and Aegean business class.       

United miles are fairly easy to earn with a combination of the Chase United℠ Explorer Card and a number of Ultimate Rewards earning cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Ultimate Rewards points transfer to United 1:1, and the transfer is usually instant.   

For the return flights I used Avianca LifeMiles that I also had in my account from two cancelled trips. Our awards cost 61,410 LifeMiles each in business class. We flew from Athens to Istanbul to Chicago (ORD) in business class and from Chicago to our home airport in economy.  

A nonstop business class award between the U.S. and Europe usually costs 63,000 miles, but thanks to LifeMiles program quirks, you can bring the price down by booking a short economy segment. Because the domestic flight from Chicago to our home airport was in economy cabin, we saved 1,590 miles each. And we could’ve saved an additional couple thousand miles if there was an award space available in economy on the Athens to Istanbul flight. 

LifeMiles is a transfer partner of American Express, Citi and Capital One. These credit card issuers, and sometimes LifeMiles itself, often offer 15% to 25% transfer bonuses, making the points even easier to earn. They also run frequent points sales and you can purchase enough points for a one-way flight to Europe in business class for about $900. Some of the miles I already had in my account were purchased during one of the earlier sales and some were transferred in from Citi during a transfer bonus promo.  

Turkish Airlines Business Class

Inside an airplane

Turkish is one of my favorite airlines, and I’ve flown through the new Istanbul airport more times than I can count. I enjoy the catering, the good customer service onboard, and I love their lounges at the Istanbul airport. Turkish is also very generous when it comes to opening up award space to its Star Alliance partners.

Unfortunately, the business-class lounge in Istanbul airport is still closed and business-class passengers can use Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles lounge. The two are almost identical, but with just one lounge operating, it felt a bit crowded. There was still a good selection of food, and some came already pre-packaged in small dishes, but hot food was served by the lounge staff. Their lentil soup is not to be missed and for me is a highlight of transferring in Istanbul. 

Turkish airlines miles&smiles Lounge

Both of our Turkish Airlines flights had their old 2-3-2 business class configuration. The seats I chose were in the middle section – I was hoping that the Istanbul to Chicago flight wouldn’t be completely full, and my gamble paid off. There were only a couple of unoccupied seats in business class, and we got lucky and didn’t get another seatmate. 

In 2019, Turkish Airlines severely cut its onboard catering and reduced it to a box of cold prepackaged food. Thankfully, they rolled back most of their cuts and restored service almost to the pre-pandemic levels. The on board chefs are flying again, but the business-class meal service still isn’t 100% back to normal. 

menu

There was absolutely no service on our Athens to Istanbul flight, and we were just given a tiny bottle of water. On the long-haul flights, there’s thankfully warm food again, but all the cold food, such as the appetizers and the salad, come prepackaged on a big tray. The white coat chefs then bring around the hot entree still with the lid on, so the food presentation is clearly not where it was before. 

Food

I got peckish in the middle of the long 11-hour flight and asked for tea and snacks that included nuts and some dried fruit. The second meal served about 2.5 hours before arrival thankfully wasn’t a breakfast. So often airlines will serve breakfast as their second meal even if you are arriving at your destination in the middle of the day. 

Movie bar

We really enjoyed the stuffed eggplant and a couple of mezze, a real Turkish treat, and it was an appropriate meal for the arrival time. 

There was no pre-departure beverage service but the alcohol is being served again, as well as the hot drinks. Speaking of hot drinks, they brought back their delicious teas, and my husband really enjoyed his espresso. 

After dinner, the flight attendants came around and made our beds with a nice mattress pad, pillow and a cozy blanket. 

Final Thoughts

Greece doesn’t have any land borders with other European Union countries and it takes a while to get there. However, it’s well worth the effort because once you get there, you are almost guaranteed to have a great time. Greece is also fairly affordable, especially when you compare it to other European countries. If you don’t spend much time in touristy spots like Santorini or Mykonos, you’ll find plenty of affordable hotel options, tours and delicious and inexpensive food.  

Stay tuned for the second part of my trip report where I will describe how and why I chose our accommodations and how I booked them with points, as well as some recommendations for things to see and do in each destination. 

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