Most people doing a road trip in a foreign land spend a little time reading up on what it is like - after reading a few articles that were less than rosy about driving in Albania we started to second guess the need to drive as far as we did.
But never being ones shy away, we did it anyway - and were glad that we did. Here is our experience from renting a car in Albania, driving from Tirana up to Shkoder, back down to Himare, out to Gjirokaster, and back to Sarande.
International Drivers Permit
The first thing to note is that Albania requires an International Driver's Permit and you must have the physical paper copy of it. So we had to do Brad's international drivers permit online with a company in Florida and get it shipped to us in Portugal. We only had two weeks from applying to leaving Portugal, so had to pay extra for DHL delivery. It worked well and we had time to spare.
The Car Rental
We booked on rentalcars.com and got a car with a local car company. The day rate was amazingly low (USD$8 per day for 13 days), but we had to pay an additional USD$115 as a one way fee for dropping it off in a different city.
We were booked in for a 9am pick up and arrived at 8.50am. We managed to drive out at 9.50! What an excruciatingly slow process. Every single thing that was already done online with the booking was manually re-typed into a document.
Unfortunately for us the day we picked up the car was the first morning after a public holiday. As a result, the car was there but hadn't been cleaned. It was pretty dirty inside and out. The rental attendant said that if we wanted to get it cleaned it would take half an hour (which we guessed meant at least an hour) - already running late we just had to deal with it and get going. (We did have anti-bacteria and virus spray on hand, so did a quick cleaning ourselves.)
The car had a pretty high mileage - 108,000 km. We soon realised that the heating didn't work in the car - not a problem most of the time but we did have a few 6 degree celsius mornings which made it a bit chilly sitting in there.
** Update after returning the car ** - there was no one there in the office to meet us when we went to drop off the car at the designated time. When we rang there was no answer. So we rang the Tirana office and it eventually diverted to someone's mobile phone, the guy that answered sounded like we had just woken him up. He tracked down the guy from Sarande who came to meet us and take the car back. He was apologetic and said that he had checked the system yesterday and there was nothing scheduled to be returned - so seems like all those manually typed forms didn't make their way into the system!
We also learned that upon return that they have a way to see if the car has any unpaid penalties (speeding, parking tickets etc), so you can't hide from it if you did. We were ok, but he told of us a couple that dropped a car back recently that said they had no penalties, but in the system it should 4 parking fines!
Driving in Albania
In a sense driving in Albania is not too much different than other southern European countries. There are narrow roads, challenging parking, reckless overtaking, and everybody and everything is on the road.
In general the roads are in ok to good condition. The highways were generally good, as were the roads in the tourist towns, but outside of them they are generally a bit rough.
The bigger roads generally have good line markings and corner advice signs. But once you get off these main roads then the line markings are very inconsistently applied or non existent. In the mountains with sharp drops near the road, guard rails are generally there and in good condition.
Out on the highways the speed limit seems to be optional, in the towns & cities it is a lot better but speeding still happens like most places in the world with some heavy footed drivers. Speed limits are regularly posted, but sometimes can be a bit confusing when they post a 30 sign suddenly on a highway because an intersection is coming up.
We drove out of Tirana and headed north to Shkoder. It's about 100km and most of the way is a single lane each direction.
On the way down to Berat we had a really good section from Tirana to Durres and then most of the way to Berat with two-lane highways.
From Berat to Vlore and then onto Himare was all one lane, and especially between Vlore and Himare was incredibly narrow and windy as we made our way up and down the mountains.
There are no toll roads in Albania at this time, so you don't need to be concerned about signing up for electronic tags or getting fines.
The one thing you never ever need be concerned about in Albania is running out of petrol. There are so many gas stations that it isn't funny. With no exaggeration, between Tirana & Shkoder (100km) on average there would be one gas station per kilometer, it's crazy.
From our experience they are all full service stations (they don't wash your windows or anything like that), where you sit in the car and they come and fill you up. English was not a problem as they generally could ask what you need and if you want it filled up. You need to pay in cash, and there is no tipping on top of the price. Prices were about 10% higher on the coast than inland. Prices do vary dramatically (for example, diesel was between USD$1.32 and USD$1.56 per liter) , so it pays to shop around. And don't stress, if you miss a good price there will be another chance to fill up in the next 500 meters,
The highways are really just bigger roads and in most cases are not like motorways. They have street intersections, house driveways and shops along them. You'll find plenty of people riding bicycles and motorcycles, and the occasional horse/donkey pulling a cart. Not to mention pedestrians, and even shepherds with flocks of sheep or turkeys. Yep, flocks of turkeys.
On the dual lane highways everything runs smoothly and the risks are pretty low. But once you are on the single lane highways then you have to be watching not only for obstacles like flocks of turkeys, but also oncoming cars in your lane from people overtaking dangerously like on corners, with not much visibility, and sometimes even creating a third lane on a two lane road so that they can squeeze between the traffic.
In our experience the overtaking is the most hazardous part of the driving. It's not always the cars coming at you head on that are dangerous, the ones coming from behind you and then forcing their way in between you and the vehicle in front of you that you need to be very wary of. Sometimes you also need to overtake, but you have to triple check in your mirrors that someone hasn't already started to overtake you as Albanian drivers don't really worry about whose turn it is, they will just do what they want.
We did find some of the architecture amusing as we drove along highways. Next to some shops or farms or ramshackle old buildings will suddenly appear a grand modern building in neoclassical style decked out with statues of people or chariots, grand columns, and bold colours. Then around the next corner will be large multi storey structures that are just the concrete shell of an abandoned unfinished building.
Within a city
The challenges are a little different in the towns and cities.
The main challenge in the towns is the erratic behaviour of drivers - especially turning anywhere and stopping anywhere. People will often just stop in the middle of a narrow road for a chat with someone or to drop off/pick up a passenger. Sometimes someone would just cut a corner from behind you and force you to go wide or just stop as they get in front of you.
But probably the worst thing is the double parking. Yes, we get it, parking is tough in some town centers, but the Albanians take it to another level with some streets just filled with double parked cars. This also mostly happens on a road only wide enough for two cars, so you have to squeeze past very slowly. This has a major impact on the traffic flow, but also adds to the noise levels as people that have been parked-in sit there blasting their horn trying to get the double parker to move!
Like most European old towns there are a lot cobbled streets. When in the hilly towns like Gjirokaster it feels a bit dicey driving up and down the steep streets - especially in the rain they look very slick and slippery, but we drove up and down some very steep streets (very slowly) with no problems.
Being a pedestrian can feel a little hazardous as most drivers don't tend to give way to pedestrians that are standing on the edge of a pedestrian crossing, and will likely try and squeeze in front of you even if you are in the middle of a pedestrian crossing. It feels aggressive, but generally once you are moving across the road they will yield to you. When we were driving and would stop to allow a pedestrian to cross the road they often give us a surprised look :)
Our Tips on Driving in Albania
The usual advice on driving in foreign country applies - be cautious, be alert for pretty much anything, but no need to be fearful.
Google navigation leaves a lot to be desired in Albania. Quite often our Google navigation would get confused and start issuing all sorts of conflicting directions. Google also can't differentiate between a road and goat track. Best thing we did when getting confused instructions was just to stop and look at the roads in Google and do a quick work out what is best. We never got lost, but had to turn around to avoid going down some goat tracks. We tried to update Google Maps with roads that were closed or non-existent and were told that was not available in this country.
Parking can be challenging at times in the busy centers, but we always managed to find free street parking wherever we went. We did see a couple of parking meters, but that was in Tirana. In general it is free parking on the streets, and as far as we could tell there was no permit restricted areas either. In summer I imagine street parking is more challenging in the towns like Himare and Saranda but there are plenty of small private paid parking lots available if needed - we saw prices anywhere from 100 - 500 Leke for 24 hours (US$1 to $5).
** Parking Updated ** - when we returned the car we found out that you can't actually park on the wrong side of the street (eg facing the oncoming traffic), and we also found out that where there are yellow painted lines you can't park there, this is for police or taxis. Of course we found that everywhere we went these rules were not being followed - but it's probably worth avoiding it to reduce the risk of a fine.
A few general tips from our experience:
Make sure you have a current international drivers permit (physical copy), and your original driver's license
Like most of Europe, automatic cars are not the norm, so make sure you can drive a manual or seek out a rental that is auto
Drive on the right hand side
Drive with your lights on at all times. This is especially important when driving out of any town or city so that you are easier to spot by oncoming traffic that is overtaking and driving on your side of the road
If you are feeling pressured by cars behind, just put your right indicator on, slow down slightly and move over to the right - this will give the impatient driver behind a chance to see more clearly ahead and then overtake you safely
Have an offline map system available in case you can't get your online maps. We use Maps.me which is excellent
It all sounds a little chaotic and risky, but at the end of the day everyone just does what they need to in order to get around, and I think the Albanian road rules are pretty much "do what you want, just don't hit anybody or anything" - adopting to that style of driving worked well for us!