What’s it like to drive in the Greek Islands?

While in Europe for a couple of months in 2019, we hired small automatic transmission cars and drove quite happily on the islands of Crete and Santorini. Google maps worked well, although we did find a couple of time-saving new roads that Google had yet to discover.

Having a car gives you the freedom to explore the highlights you choose, when you choose. You can also change your plans at the drop of a hat. If you’re staying in self-catering accommodation, a car makes it easy to shop at the bigger supermarkets, like Aldi or Lidl, which are often on the outskirts of the main town centres.

Tips for driving on Crete

Crete is a large island and the big attractions are typically an hour or two by car from the main towns. Although your first experience of Crete traffic may look pretty busy and chaotic, driving yourself is easy once you understand some local customs – but you do have to concentrate the whole time. In Crete you drive on the right hand side of the road and give way to traffic on your right, even if you’re on a roundabout or traffic circle.

The first thing to be aware of is the custom of driving on the hard shoulder, so cars coming up behind you, or towards you, have room to overtake. This system works well, but you do have to look out for rock falls, parked cars or even goats that may be occupying the hard shoulder ahead. Pulling over for cars behind you comes easily, however also pulling over for cars coming towards you that decide to overtake by straddling the centre line takes some getting used to. And when two cars travelling in opposite directions both want to overtake a car on their side of the road, it seems to be a matter of first in first served. You will see some heart-stopping moments, but just concentrate on your own driving and remember the locals grew up driving this way. Certainly, don’t be tempted to block their passage because you think they shouldn’t be driving that fast or that crazily.

Shoulder driving and hidden road signs

The second thing to bear in mind is that the typically dry roads can be as slippery as wet roads, because they’re often as smooth as glass from years of use in the heat. This simply means driving conservatively on corners, not following too closely and not leaving your braking for intersections to the last minute.

Driving in the mountains of Crete, a one-way tunnel with traffic lights

In the mountains, the roads are often narrow and winding. Before exploring these roads make sure you have a good feel for the width of your car and how to position it as close as possible to the side of the road while driving. It’s also important to adjust your speed to whatever you feel comfortable driving at and not feel pressured to drive faster. If traffic builds up behind you, which it will, simply let it pass by indicating and pulling over whenever it’s safe to do so. This takes all the pressure off and let’s you enjoy the drive. Remember you’re on holiday, so allow plenty of time and take frequent stops to soak up the magnificent scenery. Greek drivers are polite, but they don’t go in for thank you waves, and it’s worth remembering that waving your palm at someone is typically considered offensive. Tooting your horn to get noticed is not considered rude, so don’t get upset if you’re tooted at.

Driving on the shoulder so a car can overtake

Speed limits are generally clearly marked, but not as frequently or as well as you might be used to at home. Apart from one stretch of road on the island, the maximum speed limit you’ll ever encounter is 90km/h. Lower speed limits can seem to come out of nowhere on the highway, but these are usually indicating the speed for people intending to exit on an approaching off-ramp. In the countryside speed limits are often reduced for intersections and don’t seem to increase again for a while after the intersection has passed. As you’d expect, lower speed limits are posted as you enter and pass through towns and villages. As you leave the intersection or village, the increase in speed is sometimes indicated as the lower limit in black with a diagonal line through it. In other words, they tell you the lower limit has ended, but you have to remember what the previous higher limit was. Sometimes you’ll simply see the village’s name in black with a diagonal line through it, indicating you’ve left town and, presumably, the reduced speed limit. Be aware that many signs have faded or are covered by overgrown vegetation, so remember to keep a good eye out for signs as well as on the road.

Hiring a rental car on Crete

Our visit to Crete began in the ancient city of Chania, where we’d booked a car from Auto Rentals. We arrived by ferry at 4:30am, so they met us at our accommodation later that day with an immaculate one-year-old white Hyundai i10. Enjoying a touch of irony, we nicknamed the car ‘snowball’ as we were experiencing temperatures in the low 30s Celsius. The agent spoke excellent English and he was very easy to deal with. We completed the paperwork using the bonnet as a desk, recording the numbers of my New Zealand driver licence, international driving permit (a translation of the NZ licence) and passport. He and I then took photos around the car to capture its pristine condition. The level of the fuel tank was noted and I simply had to return it with at least that amount in it.

Snowball, our rental car on Crete

We were handing the car back a week later in Heraklion and the agent simply dropped and saved a pin in Google maps for me on my phone, indicating the car park right where our ferry to Santorini would depart. When the time came to leave Crete, another agent from Auto Rentals was there to meet us at the ferry car park. He quickly checked snowball’s condition and fuel level on the spot and gave us the OK. So easy and convenient.

Hiring a rental car on Santorini

For our week on Santorini, we’d booked a car from Tony’s Car Rentals. We arrived by fast ferry from Crete and were deposited into the barely organised chaos at the small strip of land known as the ferry port beneath the towering cliffs of the volcanic caldera.

Thankfully our driver was there to meet us as promised, with our name on a sign. He led us through the crowds, cars and trucks, which were both leaving and trying to board the ferry. Soon we were in his car and climbing the narrow zigzag road up the cliff, past the gridlocked traffic trying to get down. The view was breath-taking as he muttered and waved his hands at the slow traffic. When we came to a halt for a broken down bus his agitation increased, so I tried to ease things by suggesting it was a good opportunity for us to take photos out the window. ‘One minute’ was his pleasant response and as we got moving again he pulled over on a bend. I realised he’d misunderstood my remark and very kindly stopped so I could get out to capture the view on my phone. I explained I’d already taken some shots, but by now a bus had pulled alongside blocking us in, so he had to back out into the traffic and continue. I decided to keep my thoughts to myself from here on.

A hasty shot out the window as we climb the zigzag road from Santorini ferry terminal, with our fast ferry already on its way

Once free of the zigzag road he gave us a white knuckle demonstration of how ‘good’ the local drivers are. Pushing out through the cross-traffic at intersections, as is the local custom, overtaking whenever it was barely possible and driving well beyond the speed limit at times. On one long high-speed straight, he had to brake heavily while giving a tourist a taste of his tongue for misjudging his speed and pulling out from a supermarket across in front of him. It occurred to me that as we were among the last passengers off the ferry and with the slow exit from the port he must have been running late for an appointment or something.

As we wove our way through the traffic-clogged one-way system of the main town, Fira, he pointed out designated car parking land on the outskirts where we should park and walk in if we were visiting. Eventually we arrived at Tony’s offices and after gesturing for a couple of tourists on quad bikes to move forward, our driver found a parking space right outside.

Tony was there to meet us. He quietly took us through the paperwork explaining that our comprehensive insurance cover didn’t include tyre and under-car damage from driving on ‘rough roads’ and we would still have to pay the first XX Euro towards the cost of any damage. Because we would be leaving Santorini on an early morning flight, he asked us if we would mind coming back to his office the day before, so he could check the car and give us instructions on where to leave it at the airport.

Paperwork done and handy maps of Santorini and the Fira one-way system provided, we stepped outside to meet our car, a very tidy white Nissan Mira. I was invited to check the car with him, and he said I could take photos if I wanted, explaining it wouldn’t offend him. When I said it was in very good condition he said ‘yes it’s one of our best cars’. It was as though he genuinely cared for it. The fuel level was noted and again I just had to return with at least that much in it.

Fira driving and parking map supplied by Tony’s Car Rentals Santorini

We decided to call this car Feta, after all the cubes of oregano-sprinkled cheese we’d been enjoying on delicious Greek salads. Feta served us well and although a little underpowered, it didn’t matter as the highest speed limit we encountered anywhere on the island was only 50km/h.

When the time came to leave Santorini, we simply parked Feta on some vacant land close to the terminal and hid the keys on the car where we’d been instructed. Before saying goodbye to the car, I took photos of its condition and the fuel gauge, just in case. But we never heard from Tony and the agreed rental amount was duly charged to our credit card.

Leaving Feta, our Santorini rental car, at the airport