Athenians rioted in the streets following Greece's passage of fiscal austerity measures on Sunday. But for tourists who aren't put off by the turmoil there, experts say now may be the time to visit.
Flights to Greece are less than half of what they cost in the summer and, even for this time of year, the lowest-tier fares are still available for last-minute getaways, according to travel websites like Orbitz.com and Expedia.com. As Greeks brace for more austerity measures, it has never been more important to attract visitors, travel experts say. "Tourism is Greece's number one source of revenue and they need cash," says David Lytle, editorial director at Frommers.com.
For flights leaving in the next two weeks, for instance, Delta Airlines, Swissair, Iberia and American Airlines all have roundtrip tickets to Athens for $770 to $800. Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO and founder of CardHub.com, says they're usually closer to $1,000. Hotel rates across Greece's major tourist spots have dropped by up to 20%, according to a recent survey of 1,300 hotels by travel website TripAdvisor.com.
Of course, travel pros warn that prices are down for a reason. While the U.S. State Department has not listed Greece as a no-go destination, experts warn that travel insurance companies likely won't cover cancelations if the turmoil spreads. (Most policies don't cover civil unrest and "known risks" ahead of traveling.) Plus, the risk of more strikes could lead to the closing of museums and restaurants. Even with low prices, Papadimitriou cautions travelers to bargain on hotel prices. And, for those who are content on spending time closer to home, a milder winter in the U.S. has also led to more domestic travel deals, too.
Americans shouldn't be put off visiting Athens, especially with hotel rates down 8% versus this time last year, according to Emma Shaw, TripAdvisor spokeswoman. Demonstrations by citizens protesting austerity measures have taken place mainly in the 10 blocks surrounding the Greek parliament and financial institutions, Lytle says: "The Acropolis is not in flames." Others say Athens would not be advisable for nervous travelers: Gregg Mauss, who runs Expeditions-Redefined, a New York-based luxury travel firm, says he would give Athens a "yellow flag" for tourists. "I would have no issue going," he says, "but it all depends on your level of expertise." He cites one other big advantage, especially for those who don't like standing in line for museums and historic sites: lack of crowds. There are six-night deal packages from $1,050.
It's not quite beach weather this time of year, but locals say touring this island is still appealing. There are resorts, fishing villages and sites like the "Palaio Frourio," an old Venetian fortress, says Papadimitriou. "It has lots of history and an Italian influence on the architecture," he says. Hotel rates on this island in the Ionian Sea experienced Greece's biggest drop -- over 20% versus this time last year -- according to TripAdvisor.com. The average room now costs around $105. That said, tourists should be prepared for cooler weather temperatures currently hover at around 50 F. Mauss also points out that there's limited ferry service to neighboring islands, and reduced hours at museums.
It's not widely known outside of Europe -- or even Greece, for that matter -- but the mountainous regions of the country have over two dozen popular ski destinations, which are open between December and mid-April. The biggest ski center is Parnassos, just 112 miles from Athens. Parnassos is made up of two sections -- Kellaria Mountain and Fterolaka Mountain -- and, according to Fodors.com, there are 23 trails with 9 miles of skiing. Many other peaks in Greece are over 2,000 meters high and have a range of slopes just like the Alps and the Rockies. Despite cold weather, the ski industry in Europe has been hurt this year by the lack of snow, though not as badly as the U.S., Mauss says. That means poorer conditions, but "travelers can expect to find bargains in a destination so desperate for euros," Lytle says.
Located in the north, Greece's second largest city often gets overlooked in favor of the islands or Athens. "It's considered the cultural capital of Greece thanks to all its events, festivals, and vibrant nightlife," Mauss says. While Thessaloniki has experienced some protests and strikes, he says it has been mostly spared the kind of rioting in Athens that has made headlines around the world in recent times. One downside is the weather. The temperature in Thessaloniki also known as Salonika or Saloniki currently varies from 27 F to 43 F. It's also about 320 miles north of Athens, the main hub for international flights, but there are several daily flights between the two cities, which take about 50 minutes. Despite protests in Greece last weekend, there were no delays at major airports, according to Anne McDermott, editor of FareCompare.com.
The Cyclades Islands
The Greek islands -- so popular during the summertime among both Americans and Europeans -- were eager to boost offseason tourism even before the current troubles, experts say. One option: Instead of sitting on the beach, island-hop among the Cyclades off the southeast coast. The "Greek Island Hopper" costs $1,600 and takes in Athens, Mykonos and Santorini over eight nights. "Santorini is not great for swimming, especially this time of year," Papadimitriou says, "but it has the most incredible views you will ever see." Other deals offer three nights in Athens and three nights island-hopping for $1,700 through the Aegean Sea, making stops at Mykonos, Santorini and neighboring Turkey. And for those thinking about late spring or summer island vacations, Mauss says now is the time to book.