“Now” is the time to visit Albania, the travel blogs say. Why? It’s super cheap, not touristy, nature is pristine, safer than ever, not crowded, wonderful food, and the infrastructure is improving. Those are all good reasons to go.
This is an actual quote I read from a blog about driving in Albania. “A road trip in an around Albania will be a wonderfully rewarding experience and one which will give you lasting memories…”
The truth is, it’s not very far for us to drive from Croatia, but mostly it’s on the way to Greece, where our boat is spending the summer. Since we have other things to do besides sailing, we plan to drive back and forth…twice! Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I tell myself about Albania. I’m going!
My friends all stare incredulously. “You’re going to drive?” they ask in disbelief.
Why not? I live in the Balkans. We’ve driven sub-par roads in rural Bosnia, hiked off-road trails in Croatia, and snaked our way through winding mountain passes in Montenegro. How bad can it be?
We will drive through Albania four times, each time making a couple of stops for a few days, zig-zagging from mountains to oceans, the largest city to the smallest hamlets, in and out through several borders. We will see bizarre architecture, interact with fascinating people, dine on local cuisine and wander the beautiful mountains and towns. This story is not about that! I have a lot to tell you about Albania, but first…
Don’t believe it anyone who tells you it’s easy to drive in Albania. Not even for a second. For starters, when you cross the border into Albania, you have to buy Albanian car insurance. Like other EU automobile drivers, we have car insurance that covers all European countries — except for Albania. All the blogs will tell you that while the infrastructure is still poor, new roads are being built. And it is true…
Okay, now we have insurance. And we have turned of our cellphones.
Why have we turned off our cell phones? Because cellphone companies charge exorbitant rates for in roaming in Albania. We decide we can live without our phones for a couple of days.
No cellphone, no problem! We have a GPS we update specifically for this trip. But every single time we use it, it sends us in the wrong direction, or down rocky trails that were never paved. I assume this is because most maps have extremely old data on them and are not updated to include the many new roads. Having driven many places on this planet, I can assure you this is a: Very. Big. Deal.
Several times, a segment that should have taken 90 minutes takes us 4 hours! And the horrible roads are jarring and banging the car. I fear we will have a flat tire, but we don’t. Instead the car refuses to start in the ancient city of Gjyrokastër. After a few referrals we eventually locate a mechanic…or rather a committee of mechanics who deduce the oil filter has come off and all the oil has drained out.
Whatever the rate of exchange for Lek currency, we are charged only 5 Euro for the repair. But the auto parts shop charges the equivalent of 80 Euro for the oil and filter (there are high taxes on imported goods).
But wait. There’s more!
My husband used to be a police officer. He is a very careful driver. Our second day in Albania, we sit at a stoplight in Tiranë. Once the arrow turns green, Allan pauses and proceeds to make the turn. We are signaled to pull over by a group of policemen and told we have run a red light and that we must now pay them 100 Euro in cash. Of course we have not run a red light, but, as everyone knows, you don’t argue with lawmen. We make a point to appear as though we are respectfully and earnestly searching for papers and money, but we are creating such a delay we are waved on.
Several times we hear that other foreigners have been subjected to shakedowns. One poor couple we met in a restaurant fell prey to this type of extortion twice that week!
My solution: look ahead down the road for uniformed officers and make a point to be looking out the opposite window as you pass by them. They can’t wave you over if you can’t see them. It’s actually fun. Say, the person riding in the front passenger seat observes there are patrol officers ahead on the left? Announce to those in the car, “Look right!” It can be difficult since we are taught to look for and obey law enforcement officials, but practice makes perfect!
Four trips through Albania can teach volumes about how to drive in Albania. Please learn from our experience.
When Driving in Albania, Keep this in Mind:
- You probably won’t be using your cell phone.
Because EU and International cell phone plans do not cover Albania , turning on your phone could result in charges that will make you a pauper overnight! This is critical because you cannot use your maps or travel apps unless you have downloaded them for offline use. When you’re in your apartment or hotel room at night, make sure it’s one with wifi. I learned to research the next day’s activities very carefully and download information, make lists, and take screenshots.
- Shakedowns Happen.
A minimum of two police officers stand on every street corner. Some of them are corrupt. Watch for them and look the other way!
- Navigation is a Challenge.
Your GPS may not have current and correct information. It is therefore important to prepare in advance.
- Get a map, highlight the route and circle the towns.
- Learn the 3 ways the towns are spelled so you don’t get confused.
- Make a list of towns you want to go to and if you use a GPS, only enter the next big town, so you are not diverted to a non-road.
- Take screenshots of the route and the steps along it on your phone to refer to.
- Load a map for offline use. I use one called Ulmon.
- If anything seems ‘off,’ stop at a café and ask a local. If you show a screenshot or write the name of the place you’re headed, most folks are nice enough to use their local data plans to figure out where you need to go if they don’t already know.
- Breakdowns can be Costly
If you are traveling on a schedule, repairs will cost you in time as well as money.
What about Albanian Drivers?
I find it ironic that the same webpage with blog that says driving Albania is a wonderful experience has another blog that says, “Albanians have a reputation for being quite bad drivers.” I would say this is somewhat true, but if you’re used to driving this region, it’s not much worse. Therefore, I am not adding Albanian Drivers to this list.
As you can see, we learn from our mistakes. Hopefully you are learning from them too!
Remember there is much to experience in this unusual country. Please do go, prepare yourself adequately, and…
Please, please please… Take the bus!