Riot in Syntagma Square, 2010
As we planned our trip to Crete, a process that began early in 2011 and went on through the spring, it was clear to us that the economic and political turmoil in Greece had the potential to strew our path with inconveniences and impediments of various kinds. We didn’t anticipate danger to life and limb—the violence we saw on TV seemed pretty much confined to the area around the Parliament Building on Syntagma Square in Athens, conflicts that involved relatively small numbers of protesters and police. But strikes that shut down airports, or interfered with public transport in other ways, seemed to happen frequently.

We bought our air tickets in February, nailing in place the date we’d depart for Greece and the date we’d return home. There are no direct flights from North America to Crete, so we booked round-trip tickets between Boston and Athens, and separate tickets on Greece’s Aegean Airlines between Athens and Crete. We planned on traveling from one end of the island to the other by bus and occasional taxi—Crete having no railways—so it made sense to fly from Athens to one end at the beginning of our trip and from the other end back to Athens when it was time to go home. Fortunately for this plan, Chaniá, Crete’s westernmost city, and Sitía, its easternmost, both have airports served by Aegean, so we booked one-way tickets for our trips between Crete and Athens.

Soon afterwards we began the process of reserving hotel rooms, and all of those commitments were in place well before September 21, our scheduled departure date. We’ve never been such easygoing travelers that we can wait until the last minute to catch a bargain fare or go on standby. When we were young enough to travel as casually as that, work prevented us from scheduling long vacations—defined as anything more than a couple of days—at the last minute. Retirement demolished that particular obstacle, but by the time it happened we were no longer young enough to toss a few clothes in a backpack and leave all our worries behind. (If anyone over 25 ever really does that.)

That’s why, as September 21 neared, we watched the news nervously for reports of airline strikes in Greece. And, on the Sunday before we were to leave, we were suddenly blindsided by the announcement, reported in our Sunday paper, of a strike that could utterly ruin our departure plan.
Not in Greece—in Canada.
Air Canada
We had bought our round-trip tickets—back in February, through the Expedia website—from Air Canada. They would fly us from Boston to Toronto, and thence to Athens. (The return trip, though on an Air Canada ticket, was to be handled by Swiss Airlines: Athens to Zurich, then Zurich to Boston. That last leg, as it happens, was on the same Swiss flight that brought us home from our last trip, to Slovenia and Croatia, in 2008.) As a glance at the map in the heading shows, Toronto isn’t exactly a shortcut on the way from Boston to Athens, but no nonstop flights from Boston are available, and even though some one-stop flights involved slightly less flying time, the tradeoff was usually a long wait on the ground between flights, lengthening the time between departure and arrival. Air Canada offered a fairly short wait between planes, so the whole journey from Boston to Athens took no longer than most of the competition, and both the departure and the arrival times were convenient for us. Besides that, the price was right.

However, the last thing we expected from our calm and even-tempered neighbour (spelling intentional, as a diplomatic courtesy) to the north was labour unrest. According to the Boston Globe, the union that represents Air Canada’s flight attendants had filed notice that it would, barring a last-minute contract settlement, go on strike starting September 21, the coming Wednesday. That was our day to fly. A spokesperson for the airline suggested that passengers who might be affected by a strike postpone their departure to a later date.

I won’t say we panicked, but we did get fairly excited. All our reservations had been made far in advance. It wouldn’t be easy to move them all back for some number of days—it might even be impossible in some cases. We could, perhaps, begin the trip wherever in Crete we had made reservations for whatever date we managed to get there. But skipping the first part of our itinerary would give us less time, or perhaps no time at all, in Chaniá—one of the major highlights of the trip. It would cost both time and money to start in the middle, follow our itinerary and reservations east, and then go all the way back west to visit Chaniá at the end.

Dorothea phoned Air Canada to verify that a strike was indeed likely and to ask what we might do about it. A very nice man on the other end of the line suggested something that had apparently not occurred to the official spokesperson: why didn’t we leave a day early—on Tuesday—instead of one or more days late? He checked, and told her that seats were available on both legs of Tuesday’s flight.

Such a deal! It didn’t take us long to accept. One of the benefits of retirement is that Tuesdays are just as likely to be free as Wednesdays, and we still had Monday for the few last-minute errands left to do. Our bags were pretty much packed already, because—being concerned about whether we could get everything we needed into our smallish bags—we had been doing some advance work on this problem.

On the original schedule, we were to leave Boston on the afternoon of the 21st and arrive in Athens on the morning of the 22nd. We had tickets on Aegean Airlines for a flight that same afternoon from Athens to Chaniá. But now we were going to arrive more than 24 hours in advance of that flight. Rather than fly to Chaniá a day early and take our chances on finding a place to stay, we decided to spend a night in Athens instead. This would be insurance against the possibility—unlikely, but enough to concern us slightly—that our flight from Toronto might be delayed so long that we missed our plane to Chaniá.
Aegean Airlines
Staying in Athens wasn’t a totally new idea. Back in February, when we bought our tickets, we had chosen our departure and return dates on the criteria of price and convenience, within a bracket defined by the tradeoff between the tourist crowds getting smaller (good) and the weather getting cooler and wetter (bad). It was only after buying the tickets that I sat down to plot an itinerary taking us from Chaniá in the west to Sitía in the east, from which city we would fly back to catch our plane in Athens.

But, in planning that end of our trip, I hadn’t looked closely at the Aegean Airlines timetable. In the course of working out the itinerary, I discovered that flights to Athens from Sitía—the smallest of Crete’s three airports—are not a daily event. The plane left so early in the morning that we could easily catch our flight to Zurich on the same day—but it was going to fly only on the day before and the day after our flight out of Athens. The second alternative wouldn’t help us much, so we’d have to choose the first and spend the night of October 11 in Athens waiting for our flight home the next day.
Plaka Hotel, Athens
Well, we thought, that’s no hardship. Athens, at least away from Syntagma Square, is hardly a war zone. So I looked around on the Net and found the Pláka Hotel, located within sight of the Acropolis in an area (called, as it happens, the Pláka) that’s known for interesting ruins as well as good restaurants and tavernas. We reserved a room there for the night of October 11.

Now that we were moving our departure date up, we had to decide whether we should try to make arrangements for an earlier arrival in Chaniá, or spend the first as well as the last night of our trip in Athens. Making reservations at most of our Cretan lodgings had involved an exchange of email correspondence over the course of several days. We didn’t have that kind of time now, but because of the arrangements we’d made for the end of the trip, we knew that the Pláka Hotel has a good online reservation site. I went to it again, and it took only a couple of minutes to book us a room for the night of September 22.

That solved the problem. We could spend not one but two pleasant evenings in Athens, one at each end of the trip, like bookends. As the excitement subsided, we were left with the feeling that, despite the extra Euros we’d have to spend, those militant flight attendants in Toronto had done us a favour.

It’s a good thing we felt that way, because the strike never did happen; union and management reached an agreement at the last minute. But besides providing us with an excuse to stop in Athens, the change of schedule may have saved us much greater misery, for reasons that will become clear as this narrative continues.