Greek and Athens Public Transport and Its Mysteries
The system in public transport here is that passengers have to know how things work. When riding the bus you are expected to know when to get out. Bus stations are not announced. You are also mostly expected to guess that the bus to take is Nr. 117, where to get your ticket (in the bus, at the station, at the vending machine), and when taking the ticket at the vending machine which ticket you need. But things have improved, so read on for some hints...
Until a few years ago, all you got in Athens was that the busses had numbers and they were labeled with their destination, like "108 Kalamaki". But you had no idea if the bus was headed for the centre of Athens or for Kalamaki. Sometimes the label "Kalamaki" was missing too, and usually you would have to guess where the city endpoint of the line was. But what was and still is more problematic: You have to know which bus to take at all, there is no map that tells you for going from Athens to Nikaia which choices you might have. The OASA organization used to have such a map to mail to you, but they sold out. And don't expect something like that on public display.
The long distance busses "KTEL" have the similar problems, have to get out at a station midway? You better know when to get out yourself. Announcements when to switch the bus are often done without the microphone system and difficult to understand for foreigners. Going to Patras I was surprised by the ticket control guy, whose function I was barely able to guess from the reactions of surrounding passengers. Gotta know what this is.
In the Intercity train from Athens to Thessaloniki the station announcements where in Greek only and even knowing Greek most often not comprehensible. Stations are poorly labeled, so good luck if you don't want to go all the distance.Things got better
So what improved? Lots of things: Athens bus stations are labeled much better, giving a list of the stations, including the direction you're currently facing and the endpoints. You get the approximate frequency, and the first and last scheduled departures from the start point. A lot of the trolley busses have displays that announce the next station (in greek letters, so you have to know at least these). In the Tram the situation is even better, computer screens inform you about the next 5 stops in latin and greek characters, and lately I have heard recorded announcements. On another interesting sidenote, few of my friends were able to tell me the name of their bus station. I guess they have the "have to know" system learned deep already.
The Metro (Subway) sports fancy announcements in Greek and English, plus it has Metro maps so you can see where to switch trains. Small problems arise in inter-category switching: The tram has one station as "SEF" (which is "Stadio Eirinis kai Filias", the old Olympic Stadium), while the Metro has it as "Neo Faliro" with a pictogram of the Stadium. Also getting out of the tram at that station you just follow the flock of passengers to know where the Metro is, don't expect any meaningful signs.Look it up on the web
There is a website (OASA) where you can look up connections in the Athens area, but in some tries I did not have much success with it. Either the database had some problems, or else you would have to be able to guess how to formulate queries -- which would go with the general philosophy of public transport in Greece. The long distance busses have their website too (KTEL) but I haven't tried it, I don't think they would have had the bus schedules I needed on Limnos Island.Tipps when coming for a visit
So what could you do when you come here for a visit and want to use public transports to go to a friends house?
- Try your luck with the OASA site.
- Ask your friends for any hints they might have and for the name of the bus or trolley station near them.
- If you can get there by Metro, that would be preferred and they will know.
- Taking the bus or trolley, read carefully the info sign at the bus station, be prepared to count stops to know where to get down.
- In the bus try to glimpse bus stop signs.
- As a last rule of thumb, ask the driver to inform you where to get down. Surprising enough the bus drivers are often friendlier than they look. And asking is your last line of hope when everybody is just expected to know.
- In the Intercity trains grab the train magazine, find the timetable and navigate to your station by time. The train might not be exactly on time, but you will have a big clue when to get ready to get out.
- Tickets: For the bus and trolley at a kiosk, for the metro at the machine (70 cents being the rule of thumb) or at the counter, for the tram at the machine. Long distance busses: Usually at the counter, sometimes in the bus too. Trains: At the counter in the station.