In this post we will give several tips for traveling to Albania, how to get there, what documentation to bring, currency issues and the controversial issue of driving. The country of eagles was one of the three countries of our summer vacation in 2018. A place that, at first glance, doesn’t sound good to most people. Ignorance makes many believe that this is a dangerous country, with mafias, poor and in poor condition. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It is obviously one of the countries at the bottom of Europe, but it does not mean anything from the point of view of the traveler. After our experience touring Albania by rental car and bus, we will explain a small guide with tips in case you are thinking of traveling there. These tips are nothing more than conclusions and experiences drew after a week of traveling there.
How to travel to Albania
To locate us, Albania has a size similar to Galicia (about 30,000 square kilometers). A small extension that has only one airport, the international airport Madre Teresa of the capital, Tirana. He is planning to build a second airfield in Vlora, in the heart of the Albanian Riviera, but for now, the idea does not go beyond paper and there everything goes very slowly.
Unfortunately, there are no direct flights to Albania from Spain, so you will have to make a stopover. The Italian companies and the Spanish low-cost Volotea are the best options if you want to fly to Tirana. The best thing is to check the list of airlines that operate in the airport of Albania.
On my first trip to Albania we opted for a somewhat different combination, flying to Corfu (Greece) and back from Pristina (Kosovo):
- Madrid – Bergamo (Ryanair): 27 euros
- Bergamo – Corfu (Ryanair): EUR 24,99
- Corfu – Saranda (Finikas Lines): 22 euros
- Pristina – Budapest (Wizzair): 9,99 euros
- Budapest – Madrid (Iberia): 45 euros
However, Albania has many miles of coastline and several ports connecting with Italy and Greece, so the boat is a very interesting option to get there.
On our trip, we chose to reach Albania by sea. Studying the map I found that Saranda, the southernmost city in Albania, is opposite the Greek island of Corfu with its respective ferry connections between the two. And Corfu, a much more touristic place, has an airport with many more flights.
Specifically, we flew from Madrid to Bergamo (Ryanair), from Bergamo to Corfu (Ryanair), to finally catch the ferry that in barely an hour leaves you in Albanian territory. Both Ryanair and Volotea were the two main options we used to make these combinations to Corfu from Madrid.
In my opinion, traveling to Albania through Saranda is an excellent option and I would certainly repeat it. You arrive in the heart of the Albanian Riviera and in the extreme south of the country, the perfect place to start to travel from there, from south to north. You can check the timetables of the boats on the websites of Ionian Seaways and Finikas Lines.
Of course, you can also arrive by car, if you are thinking of visiting the Balkans. You should check the conditions of your car insurance, as many companies exclude Albania from their coverage. The journey will be long until you reach the north of Albania, through Montenegro.
Ferries linking Italy and Albania have the capacity to board vehicles, so it’s another option to consider if you have the idea of taking your car.
Travel Documentation in Albania
Although Albania is not part of the European Union, you will not need a visa or passport to enter the country. With the DNI is enough, although it is never too much to carry the passport, a document much more standardized internationally. In addition, no one spares you from losing your DNI during the trip, so carrying a second identification document is always important.
The Spanish Embassy in Albania is in Tirana. You can check their website for more information, as well as follow their social networks for any last minute, and have a look at the Albanian travel recommendations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As you are not part of the EU, you cannot use your European Health Card in Albania so you will not have medical coverage. And as you can imagine, Albania’s public health resources are not comparable to those in Spain. Taking out travel insurance is a very convenient option to be at ease in the event of any unforeseen health problems, with transport or with the car. In my case, I took out Totaltravel Mini travel insurance from Intermedial, a company specializing in travel insurance.
Remember that most credit cards also include travel insurance. Try to pay for your reservations with one of these cards to activate these coverages.
Expenditure in Albania
The official currency of Albania is the lek. One euro is equivalent to 126 leke in 2018 (see current exchange rate) and 100 leke is about 80 cents or 1000 leke is about 8 euros. In most tourist businesses (hotels, restaurants) also accept euros at a reasonable exchange rate but rounded in their favor. On more than one occasion we could not pay with card and we were short of leke, so pulling euros came in handy.
There are plenty of ATMs so withdrawing money is not a problem.
As you can imagine, Albania is a very cheap country. In fact, it has always been known as the poorest country in Europe. And as in other European countries with a lower than average GDP, Albania lacks a middle-class population. That translates into two price realities. In a country with an average salary of 300 euros, you can pay 20 euros for a beach towel, but also less than five euros for eating in a restaurant.
This binomial will mark the economy of your trip. Eating at a local Albanian restaurant ranges from 5-10 euros per person. A night in a simple hotel with breakfast is around 25-30 euros. However, the liter of gasoline has a price similar to the one we have in Spain. Or a visit to the supermarket, always so instructive, you will see that many products are above the euro at the exchange rate, that is, as in Spain.
Driving in Albania
It’s one of the big questions everyone asks themselves before a trip to the Balkan country. Is it dangerous to drive in Albania? If we look at the numbers, Albania is the European country with the highest number of road deaths, along with Bosnia. The first piece of information that puts us on alert.
You only have to look at the map to see what kind of roads you can find. There are hardly any motorways, and the type of national road would be equivalent to a regional road in Spain, narrow, with many curves, asphalt in poor condition, potholes and even holes. All dressed with external elements such as a very old-fashioned car fleet, horse-drawn carriages, tractors, animals and many lorries (without motorways or trains, the goods only have to travel by road).
So get used to the reality dictated by Google Maps: from Saranda to Vlora, the two cities of the Albanian Riviera, only 125 kilometers but three hours on the road.
However, we didn’t have any problems at the wheel in Albania.
Roads are just roads. If you slow down, you slow down. With prudence, you don’t have to get out of hand. For example, the famous SH-8 road that runs along the Albanian Riviera is narrow and mountainous but has asphalt in very good condition and little traffic. Honestly, I expected it worse. Walking through it is a delight.
The really important factor (and out of our hands) is the Albanian drivers. They drive really badly, we could even say that they don’t know how to drive and there is no road safety culture. The reason is that in 1991 there were only 600 cars in Albania. Enver Hoxha’s iron dictatorship did not even allow the Albanians to drive, so imagine what the fall of the communist regime meant. From absolute nothing to madness.
Examples on the road:
- Impossible overtaking in a continuous line, in a curve and with a car in the opposite direction.
- Total disrespect for speed limits and certain signs such as a pedestrian crossing.
- Roundabouts in which the one who circulates inside has to brake to let in the one who joins the roundabout.
- Unbelievable changes of direction.
- Absence of use of indicators.
- Dense traffic in the cities and disorder in general, chaotic and anarchic circulation.
- Authentic scarcity of traffic lights.
- Using the mobile while driving? That’s nothing…
- Don’t be angry with them, you won’t change anything. It’s not that they’re brave at the wheel; it’s just that the safety issue doesn’t matter too much to them.
But calmly, with temperance, you have nothing to fear. The first time you see barbarity you’ll scream in the sky, nothing more. In fact, in Romania, I saw a greater risk on the road than in Albania.
Car rental in Albania
There are no trains, bus trips are uncomfortable and slow… Rent a car! It’s the best way to discover Albania. You can get to know the interior of the country, see how people live in the countryside, stop at any beach on the Albanian Riviera or take pictures with any of the hundreds of thousands of bunkers spread throughout the country.
The car rental process in Albania is like in any other European country. Minimum age of the driver, need for a credit card for a guaranteed block, obligatory third party insurance and the classic extras you can add to your booking.
It is recommended to carry the International Driving Permit, along with your usual driver’s license. In my case, I didn’t need to show it, but the theory says so.
In Albania, you will find the main international rental companies, especially in Tirana. On my first trip, we took the car in Saranda, so the options were reduced. Finally, I opted for the local company Eurocar (not Europcar), which allowed me to rent the car in Saranda and return it to their office in the center of Tirana.
The prices, as with petrol, are absolutely out of touch with the reality of the country. A Volkswagen Polo for five days for almost 200 euros. It wasn’t all going to be BBB, was it?
Public transport in Albania
As we have already mentioned, Albania does not have a train. Well, it really does have a train, but it is neither operational, nor reliable, nor in a minimally decent state. In forums, there is even talk of stoning the train as it passes through a locality. Unfortunately, knowing the Albanian railway network is nothing more than a pipe dream. In our journey, we saw many empty tracks and a single, ramshackle two-car train running near the city of Fier. The only line that seems to have regularity is the Shkodër-Vlora axis.
As you will find out by preparing the trip, a lot of information is missing on the internet. It is like going back to the year 2000, to the beginnings of the network, with pages whose design does not help to give reliability to the information. Searching for and specifying something about trains has been really inefficient.
So you will only be left with the bus or van, the local name of a private minibus but in inferior conditions. As it is the fundamental bus to vertebrate the country, the possibilities multiply. But again, disorganization rules and not even this transport boasts a modern infrastructure.
Unlike in Spain and most countries, in Albania, several companies can operate the same line. So if you approach a station to ask for timetables, each company will inform you of theirs. Let everyone stand their own sail. If you go to the Internet, again you will find disparate information and without an official version.
Is it dangerous to travel to Albania?
The bad reputation of Albania and the Albanians is wet paper. In a week of traveling there, we have not seen any kind of danger. Not on the street, not in hotels, not on the road, not on transport. Precautions always, just like anywhere else in the world. But this bad role is limited to the mafias that do not live in Albania.
The people are charming. Just as you read it. Maybe it’s because of the scarce tourism that visits them and the pride that comes when someone takes an interest in you. It may be the welcoming character of the Balkans. It can be hard historical baggage. It can be the mere economic benefit of tourism and new opportunities. There can be many reasons, but what we found were always nice people, willing, generous, English speakers (fundamental this last one) and even lovers of the Spanish (it will be that we are something exotic for them).
Are there any peculiarities? Of course: there is a lack of light at night, there are sewers without their corresponding covers, loose cables, old structures that do not transmit much safety and corners with a lot of rubbish and its corresponding fauna. You should also take some precautions, such as avoiding drinking tap water (bottled water is very cheap and easily accessible in any small shop). If we want to put these examples in the chapter of danger, go ahead, but nothing more than that.
In short, Albania is a safe country and worth visiting because it’s time to do so.