Even in spite of stating that I hoped to explore more of the Balkans, in my 2019 Travel Plans post that I published at the start of the year, my recent trip to Albania ended up a pretty last minute affair. I’d been so busy planning itineraries for and writing posts about the places I’d visited in the first half of the year that by the time I returned from hiking Mount Toubkal in May, I suddenly realised that my birthday was only a month away.
And, by way of celebrating my birthday every year, I like to hop on a plane and explore somewhere new.
I had a matter of weeks to figure out where I wanted to go, find flights, sort an itinerary and get everything booked. Eek!
I’d previously set up a couple of flight alerts on Skyscanner to Tirana for a couple of dates in June (and I’d done the same for return flights from Skopje (Macedonia) to Paris – because they were £13 and because I’d won an overnight stay at a fancy hotel in Paris at Christmas), but the prices had increased tenfold since then – to Tirana at least. It was then that I remembered a conversation with Laura, my equally travel-obsessed colleague at work, who’d informed me that Albania was only a short ferry ride from Corfu Town. So, I began searching for flights from the UK to Corfu and, just like that, a plan started coming together. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to successfully incorporate that return flight to Paris (we ended up returning from Ohrid to Luton), but I’m hoping my prize doesn’t have an expiry date and that I can fit in an overnight stay in Paris later on in the year!
So, in a nutshell, I booked our flights, accommodation, car hire, ferry and international bus journey just two weeks before we actually flew. And because I’d poured all my time into researching destinations and things to see and do in Albania, I really had no idea what to expect at ground level. I had only a very limited knowledge of the country’s history, knew very little about its culture and people, and was equally clueless about the logistics and practicalities of travelling over there.
Just in case any of you are as disorganised as I am or have the same fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants attitude (albeit in spite of best laid plans, in my case) to travel, I’ve put together this handy little post of practical Albania travel tips. Here are 10 things to know before travelling to Albania.
1 | Every introduction starts with a glass of raki
When we arrived at the location of our first overnight stop in Albania – Friends Hostel in Gjirokaster – our host checked us in, helped us to find somewhere to park our car and then invited us to join him out on the terrace to enjoy some wild figs and a complimentary glass of raki.
Our trip continued along much the same vein throughout our time in Albania. Raki seems to be drunk much like rum is in Cuba and tea is in England, and although I’m not usually partial to consuming large shots of strong spirits in 30-degree heat in the middle of the day, turning down the invitation felt almost akin to shunning the open-armed welcome that a lot of the Albanian people offered us during our stay.
Restaurant owner Lili in Berat was so grateful to us for offering up our table to some waiting customers as soon as we’d finished eating that he insisted we join him for a complimentary glass of raki at the end of the evening. And because the evening went on longer than he’d planned – due to a steady influx of hungry diners arriving well after the kitchen had officially closed – he plied us with a complimentary carafe of his family’s homemade red wine while we waited.
Even at a rather more upmarket restaurant in Korça, our glass of raki arrived before our starter did 😉
2 | Not all ‘roads’ are actually roads
My advice, if you’re planning a road trip around Albania, is to upgrade your small hire car to a Land Rover (or similar) if your route takes you anywhere other than along the major highways.
Seeing as though the idea of hiring a car is to give you the freedom and flexibility to get off the beaten path a little, we felt more than a little frustrated to discover that our car could not make it along routes that public buses, in fact, could (due to minibuses having a higher wheelbase than our Citroen C2 did). We missed out on visits to the villages of Benjë (famous for its hot springs) and Voskopojë (famous for its churches with floor to ceiling frescoes) as a result of this.
The problem is that not all main roads (identifiable on Google Maps or as being yellow or on Maps.me as being orange and whose names begin with the initials SH (Super Highway? Hmm, I think not!)) are well surfaced. And even those that start off as tarmac roads can, quite suddenly, turn into rocky dirt tracks that wouldn’t even be classified as roads here in England.
We found this out the hard way when we were due to travel between Berat and Përmet, on our fifth day in the country. It didn’t help matters that there seemed to be zero correlation between Google Maps (which we could use to plan routes when we were connected to wifi) and Maps.me (which we had to use when we were on the move, because it allowed us to navigate offline AND had a lot more detail).
Google Maps told us to head south along the SH74, a ‘Super Highway’ that turned into the SH75 just beyond Këlcyrë, whereas Maps.me did not have this initial section marked as a major ‘orange’ road and conversely instructed us to head south on the SH72 and then to join the SH74 just south of Komarak – which we duly did. The route was meant to be 91 kilometres and take us two hours and 11 minutes.
All was good until just after we’d stopped off to check out some abandoned bunkers close to the village of Ibrollarë. What had been a very smooth (save for a few of the usual Albanian potholes) tarmac surface suddenly became nothing more than dirt and rocks.
We persevered with it for a very long time, assuming (very wrongly!) that our tarmac road would return before too long. This was, after all, the route that our Sat Nav had instructed us to take, and was in fact the only route that Maps.me had found that didn’t involve us returning to Berat and driving the same roads we’d driven to get to Berat the day beforehand (a further two hour 43 minute / 186km journey)
But it got to the point that we’d experienced so many bangs and clunks underneath the car that we were worried we’d:
- damage our hire car beyond repair (we’d taken out the full insurance but we’d still lose the €500 deposit we’d put down), or
- get the car stuck somewhere with no phone signal and no more than three words of the local language between us.
So, with just 25 kilometres of the journey left to go, we reluctantly turned back.
We got back to Pronovik, where the road forked. The left-hand fork would take us back to Berat, but the right-hand fork was signposted “Çorovoda” – along the SH72 in the direction we wanted to be travelling. The road looked to be in good condition and would take us back on to the SH75 just north of our final destination – Përmet.
BUT whenever I typed “Përmet” into the Maps.me Sat Nav, it kept telling us to go back the way we came – the route we tried but had to abandon – or to return to Berat to make the long 186 kilometre journey via Fier. It simply could not find / did not recognise the route we were contemplating.
Neither of us wanted to return to Berat, but my gut instict was telling me it was the only way. I remember saying to Stu,
“I think there’s something wrong with this route.”
But he seemed so confident, and he is a lot more familiar with driving than I am (i.e he drives every day and I don’t drive at all), so I placed my trust in him and hoped that the Sat Nav was wrong.
Sadly it wasn’t. We were in spitting distance of the Osumi Canyon Bridge, trundling along a road that was going much the same way the first one had when a couple of local guys passed us in a 4 x 4 and then stopped, rolled down their window and asked if we were heading towards Përmet.
we replied nervously, already knowing what we were about to be told.
“You cannot get through in that car. You need to go back to Berat.”
And so it was that a journey that was supposed to have taken us two hours and 11 minutes actually ended up taking us nine and a half hours! I really wish someone had given me a list of Albania travel tips, warning me of this prior to my visit!
3 | You’ll get some of the best value accommodation here in all of Europe
With the possible exception of Georgia last year, where we scored a couple of rooms for under £15 a night (one of which included breakfast), I can honestly say that we found some of the best value accommodation in all of Europe here in Albania.
Considering that this was a very last minute trip and I only booked the accommodation a couple of weeks before we travelled, our average nightly accommodation cost was £22 / $28 per room. Parking was available free of charge at every single one of these places, 50% included breakfast and the majority came with their own terrace or balcony. And everywhere we stayed – regardless of whether it was a hostel, a room or a whole apartment – far exceeded our expectations in terms of quality and of the welcome and hospitality we received from our hosts.
I book pretty much all my accommodation through booking.com. Due to their wide variety of accommodation options, cheap prices and free cancellation options, one of my Albania travel tips is to do the same!
4| The Wi-Fi is universally awful (unless you’re in Tirana)
Our hosts were all very efficient in ensuring that we had the Wi-Fi code soon after we arrived and that we’d successfully connected to the Wi-Fi network, but unfortunately the connection was ridiculously unreliable and also painfully slow everywhere we went.
The connection would continually drop out and the only way we could reconnect was to either switch our phones on and off again or to reset the router. When the Wi-Fi did work, speeds were fast enough for general web browsing and to send and receive emails, but when it came to uploading photographs it was a completely different story.
The only way I can share photographs taken on my DSLR to Instagram when I travel is to firstly upload them to Flickr, and then to save them to my phone from the Flickr app. Wifi speeds made it virtually impossible to upload any more than five or six photos at once and even that took well over half an hour.
If you work online, this is something to bear in mind. We actually met a couple of digital nomads on the bus from Tirana to Ohrid (Macedonia) and they’d not stayed anywhere in Albania outside of Tirana.
I’m sure, over time, the infrastructure will improve and so too will the Wi-Fi, but for now it’s one of the country’s frustrating challenges.
5 | There are cats everywhere
Hardly surprising really considering that Albania borders Greece and Greece is known for its abundance of cats, but when you’re a cat lover this is an exciting reason to visit somewhere. Watching cats, stroking cats, feeding cats and photographing cats always manages to put a smile on my face.
6 | Take advantage of all the fresh fruit; it’s probably the cheapest you’ll find it outside of Southeast Asia
We’d generally only pay for one sit down meal a day in Albania. Breakfast (if it wasn’t included in our room rate) was generally a grab ‘n’ go kind of deal from the local bakery, and although it was usually enough to keep us going until our evening meal, we did often fancy something to snack on in-between.
And fresh fruit was the perfect solution. It was available everywhere – from little street stalls on the side of the roads to village markets and grocery stores in more built-up township areas – and it was embarrassingly cheap. I picked up around half a kilo of cherries on two separate occasions for around 50 pence, and figs were an absolute bargain too. I guess you’ll get whatever is in season when you visit. We visited in June.
7 | Prepare yourself for the heat in Summer; the temperature doesn’t really drop much at night
After swearing I’d never travel with Ryanair again last February, we reluctantly flew with them to Corfu (in order to transfer to Albania), 17 months later. But this did present us with a problem when it came to packing, because this annoying airline have changed their rules regarding cabin baggage again since last year. You’re now only allowed one small under the seat bag, measuring 40 x 25 x 20 – unless you want to give Ryanair more money (which I don’t).
Knowing that weather can be unreliable and having been caught out in the past for my poor packing choices, I now ensure I pack for all eventualities. I carry my waterproof, a couple of warm layers, some cold/wet weather footwear and a waterproof backpack cover, which doesn’t leave me a lot of room for much else when I’m abiding by Ryanair’s measly cabin bag restrictions.
However, on this trip I didn’t need much else; I could live in shorts and a vest top every day from dawn until way past dusk. The temperature constantly hovered somewhere between the early and mid-thirties and barely dropped at all at night. The only time it got slightly cooler was just after we had a short thunderstorm in Korça, when a thin merino wool jumper was more than enough to keep me warm.
8 | It’s cheaper for you to pay for your accommodation in euros than it is in Albanian Lek
Yes, you’ll need lek for small purchases in shops and to eat out and put fuel in the car, but all the properties we booked to stay at quoted their prices in euros, and if we wanted to pay in lek we lost anywhere between 300-500 lek each time due to the conversion rate the hosts were using.
At 500 lek per night over seven nights, that’s 3500 lek – over £25 / €28! That’ll buy you another night’s accommodation 🙂
9 | The Albanian language is HARD!
Two of the first words I always look up in the language of the country I’m travelling to are “hello” and “thank you.” In my experience, just knowing and regularly attempting to use those two expressions will earn you a massive amount of respect from the locals.
However, “përshëndetje” (the “ë” is pronounced “urh”and the “j” like a “y” in “yoghurt”) took a bit of practising, and didn’t ever really roll off the tongue for us; “miremengjes” (“good morning”– pronounced exactly as it’s spelt but without the “g”) worked a lot better.
Thank you – “faleminderit” was also not an easy one to remember, and there doesn’t appear to be a shortened version like we use in the UK. Cheers – “Gëzuar” was a nice simple one, but cannot be interchanged with “thank you,” as we do in the UK; it’s simply to express good wishes. For example, proposing a toast with a drink in hand.
And that was the sum total of the Albanian vocabulary I managed to learn during my seven days in the country! My advice is to ask a number of different people (hostel owners/Airbnb hosts/serving staff in restaurants) how to pronounce certain words; don’t reply on trying to interpret the voice on Google Translate (unless you want to get some weird looks from locals!)
10 | The cuisine is largely influenced by neighbouring Greece
If you love a fresh Greek salad or are partial to a good home-cooked shrimp saganaki, you’ll be right at home in Albania. Everything seems to come served with olives and feta cheese. There’s also a lot of fish available, due to the country’s extensive coastline.
And, seeing as though this post is full of practical and useful Albania travel tips, here are a few more:
- The official currency is Albania Lek (current conversion (July 2019) is 136 Lek to the British Pound, or 108 Lek to the US Dollar) but euros can often also be used. Albanian Lek can be obtained in the UK but in most cases must be pre-ordered.
- British citizens can enter and remain in Albania for a maximum of 90 days in every six-month period. If you’re not from the UK, you can check the Albania visa requirements here.
- To hire a car in Albania, UK citizens will need a full driving licence, passport and credit card. We used Rentalcars.com to find and book our rental car. The booking process was seamless, as was the return (even though we had to pop into a local garage on route to dropping the car off, in order to fix a part back on to the front, and we’re sure it had a few more scratches on it than it did when we picked it up!). There are generally three places you can collect/drop off your rental car in Albania – Saranda Port, Tirana Airport or Tirana Downtown. It’s important to note that Tirana Downtown can be a much more expensive option than Tirana Airport.
- Albania has one international airport – Tirana. However it’s also worth considering flying into or out of Corfu Town (Greece) or Ohrid (Macedonia), due to their proximity to the country and ease of travel to and from. Obviously, if you do this, you’ll need to check your visa requirements for these countries, too. I always use Skyscanner to research and book my flights.
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