Archive for June, 2007

Lessons Learned

Saturday, June 16th, 2007

Couple things I learned while traveling that would have been useful to know before going.

Currency Exchange

The dollar hasn’t been doing well against the Euro, but depending on how you change your money things could be more expensive than they need to be.

The days of going to merchants, or relatives to exchange US dollars are done. There’s no benefit to them, and with the weak dollar there’s less incentive to exchange an hold the dollars.

The exchange rate posted on http://finance.google.com for the days I looked at options.

Exchange rate (ref finance.google.com)

5/31 .744103 1.344

6/1 .743937 1.344

6/4 .742942 1.346

6/5 .740302 1.351

6/6 .739919 1.351

6/7 .741510 1.349

6/8 .746826 1.339

Changing money in the US through a bank. This was the least desirable option. You end up carrying around more money than necessary and the exchange rate was about $1.47 for a euro. Exchanging at the airport in Athens, or NY was about the same rate, with other fees tacked on. The only reason to use one of these options is to have some immediate money to be able to leave the airport by rail, or taxi. They won’t take US dollars, so converting some amount of money immediately is recommended.
ATM withdrawls. I signed up for an account at Commerce Bank. They have a feature of refunding any bank atm fees, if you maintain a $2500 minimum balance. The exchange rate was $1.35, which was very good. The other surprising thing was that none of the banks I used charged any ATM fees, so I didn’t need the refund feature. The only negative was the 200 Euro daily limit. If you had to make a large purchase or pay a large hotel bill, this option wouldn’t work.
Changing money in a Greek bank. This required you to have your passport and the rate was $1.36. There seemed to be a $5 euro fee for whatever amount of money you exchanged. This is a reasonable path for a larger purchase where you need to get more than the $200 Euro daily limit of the ATM

Credit Card purchases. I have a mastercard and a couple visa cards. All seemed to have the same costs associated with international transactions. You get the current exchange rate, but they add on a 3% transaction fee. Still useful for large purchases and eliminates the need to carry large sums of cash on your trip.

Tipping

We were never clear on when and how much to tip. Asking if the tip was included on the bill, would always get a response that it wasn’t and was up to you to leave what you wanted. Many restaurant bills had 1-3 Euro table charge for bread and sometimes water. We were using the use custom of 15-20% on most bills, ’til we got to Crete and talked to some relatives. Common practice is to leave some change, and round up your bill, but not anything like 15-20%. Knowing that early would have save us each at least $100.

Structure and formality

Greece is a great place to vacation. in a week we saw many ancient ruins, amazing natural wonders, and great weather. Planning things in advance is a good thing, but not every detail. The Greeks seem to wing most things and normal safety or schedule structure aren’t anywhere near standards you’d see in the US or other countries with such a large dependency on tourism. Two examples were getting tickets for a ferry from Santorinni to Heraklion, and a simple tour of ancient Thira. We booked the Ferry before the trip and paid a 30 Euro courier fee to get the tickets sent to us in the US. When we went to get the ferry, we found the ferry hasn’t been running for about a week, and we had to try to exchange the tickets for another line. They didn’t have any seats for a day and we had to scramble for other options. Travel agent, or ferry company weren’t useful. Others at the port were very helpful and in the end we found a cheap room for 20 Euros in Perisso. All done under the table (no check-in), I think so that the people that run the hotel could avoid some 17% tax. The tour of Ancient Thira was run by a local tour company. The concept is they pick you up near your hotel, take you to the ruins, for a tour, then take you to the beach. After a few hours they take you back to the hotel. All for 18 Euro. We got up to meet the bus at 10am, and unless we went into the office to have them call the bus, it’s pretty clear it woudln’t have come. We get to the ruins, where they drop you off and say they’ll meet you at the same spot at 1pm (2 hours later). no guide, no map, and none of the ruins had signs on them. We got back to the bus and got dropped off at the beach. We tried to get the bus at 7pm and after going into the office, we were told there was no 7pm bus. After showing our tickets they tossed a set of keys to a kid sitting there and told him to drop us back off at the hotel. Again all worked fine, but if you are traveling with someone that needs structure or would stress about things being winged, things could become a challenge.

Mike’s Email log from trip To Greece – May 30 2007- June 10 2007

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

To start, here’s the email log that Mike sent to keep everyone up to date on the trip. There were separate messages each day, I cut and paste them together for this post. all posts and pictures are from Mike’s Blackjack phone.
—–Original Message—–
From: “Michael J. Bruckner”
To: “Steve Crowley” ; “Joe & Al Deluca” ; “Steve DeLuca”
Cc: “Pete Kostakis”

Sent: 6/1/2007 8:37 PM

Subject: Mike and Pete in Greece

Day 1 complete

Playing just outside the parthenon

Pete and I survived our day in Athens and even found time for some backgammon. If you look closely at the background of the picture you can see the Parthenon (OK you cant but trust us we are in Athens, not LBI). Our next pic will be of the great scenery and there has been plenty – Pete even saw an incredibly hot Asian chick who spoke Greek. My Greek is coming along nicely – I hold up money and everyone seems to understand me.
Yasas (thats Greek for adios)
Mike
Michael Bruckner

Santorini

Day 2 complete in Santorini…..
Highlights –
– Pete almost drowns when he realizes he cant touch the bottom of the Med when we go swimming off the boat we went sailing on to an active volcano
– Mike almost causes a 14 donkey pile up when his donkey goes head on into oncoming donkeys while riding them up from the volcano
– Backgammon continues with another Greek national treasure nearby
– International drunkie call from Steve D and Wally at unknown time in the am kicks the day off with a bang
Tommorow we hit the beach – will try to send backgammon pics with more treasures in the background
Michael Bruckner

Day 3 was another great day in Santorini. We saw some ancient ruins (no backgammon allowed using the ruins for a table top – go figure) and then some modern ruins at the beach (why is it that the ones you want to see topless are not and the ones you dont want to see are – Steve D called this one).
Mike went scuba diving only to find out that the greek theory of not hassling over little things like safety or pre-planning extends to scuba diving – not a good thing. The dive was only ok – hard to compare to the great barrier reef though.

Day 4 we have our first major hiccup…….

Day 4 started well. We checked out of our hotel and rented ATVs and cruised the island – neither Pete nor I crashed, ruining the Vegas oddsmakers line of 3 crashes. Then the fun started. Upon our arrival at the port for our ferry to Crete, we learned that the ferry line we had tickets for had been canceled – not our particular ferry that day, but the whole friggin line (interestingly Pete checked the blackberry and they are still booking seats on it). There was another ferry 1 hour later – but it was full. We were told the next ferry was at 4 am and to a different city in Crete than we wanted. Pete worked his Greek magic to get us a ride to and from the port and a hotel room for a few hours near the beach. So it is now 5 am and we are sitting on a boat in the Med playing some sleepy backgammon (a back and forth match so far) and thus the attached picture. Next update from Crete (hopefully).

Day 5/6 – We meet Pete’s family

orange grove

Ferry to Crete

Day 5 was a nice recovery from the ferry fiasco. We made it by boat and bus from Santorini to Agios Nicolas (Crete) on the ferry and then took the bus to Iraklion and saw the temple everyone says is a must see – it was interesting. We then got on another bus and headed to Chania where Pete’s family lives. They all seemed very nice. One issue – when Pete said that most of them spoke at least some English what he really meant was “I am the only one who knows any English”

Day 7 – The Hike

at Gorge
Our final day of the Mike and Pete Show was a great one. We got up at 6 am and met Pete’s uncle outside the apt with his bus. He took us to the bus station where we were comp’ed the bus tickets up to Samaria Gorge (membership has its privileges). We started our 11 mile hike by
descending 5000 feet on rocky switchbacks to the Gorge floor where we hiked next to a stream where the gorge opening was only 10 feet wide but the cliffs were 1000 feet high. It was incredible. The backgammon games were a bit tough in the gorge. For those of you wondering what the over/under was for Mike on the number of rocks tripped or stumbled over – forget it, it was the over. The importatnt thing is neither of us died (distinct possibility) and Pete fulfilled his planning task of getting us to and from the gorge.
Yasas (goodbye in Greek), I’m off to Italia.

PS – we also included some local scenery that was requested.

Michael Bruckner