You’ve looked into a trip to Albania and you’ve decided doing a road trip is the best way – a great idea! A road trip in Albania is a great way to see the country and is one of the easiest ways of getting around given that public transport isn’t all that reliable all the time.
However, what is driving in Albania like? What do you need to know? Is there anything important to know about renting a car in Albania?
We had all these questions and more when planning our trip to Albania and the internet didn’t necessarily answer all our questions (and, in some cases, answered them but the answers were from 2015 or 2016). So after two weeks of road tripping the Balkans, with one week of driving in Albania, here are our top tips and main things you must know before driving in this beautiful country.
Things You Must Know Before Driving in Albania
I’ll begin with recommendations that are valid for everyone, whether you are renting a car in another Balkan country, hiring a car in Albania or bringing your own car. If you want to know more about hiring a car in Albania then I have an entire section on this below with tips based on our experiences!
Driving in Albania really is an experience in itself and I would only recommend driving here if you’re a confident driver. If you’re not a fan of mountain roads or hairpin bends (switchbacks), then driving here is possibly not the best idea and it might be better to go by public transport or have a driver for your trip (I recommend MyDayTrip – we used them for our long day of getting from Ohrid to Kotor after dropping off our rental car in Tirana).
Driving in the cities
Albanian cities are a relatively easy place to drive compared to a lot of the more ‘country roads’ in other areas (such as down to the southern Albanian Riviera or between places, such as Gjirokaster and Korce). However, there are some vital things you ought to know before driving in Tirana or another city.
Roundabouts in Albania
Roundabouts get an entire section because ALBANIA ROUNDABOUTS ARE CRAZY. Seriously. They are pretty baffling, in all honesty. There isn’t the concept of priority to cars already on the roundabout – it just doesn’t exist.
So, who gets priority?
- Whoever is most confident at pushing in
- Whoever has the biggest car
This is pretty much how an Albanian roundabout works. If you don’t believe me, watch the timelapse below that I recorded in Tirana at one of the bigger roundabouts. We had a pretty massive 4×4 so got given ‘priority’ by most people (basically since if we hit them, they’d come out a lot worse) but it was absolute chaos, yet somehow chaos with some form of order.
It’s highly entertaining chaos to watch, although probably less amusing if you’re the driver at the time. You’ll have pedestrians crossing, cars trying to exit the roundabout and cars trying to enter the roundabout. Cars will be trying to go round the roundabout… and none of this is within the lanes that most foreigners would expect. So keep your eyes open and your wits about you!
Three lanes of traffic on a two-lane road
Just like speed limits, a two-lane road seems more of a concept than a reality. While not as bad as some countries (my dad reminded me of his trip to India, where a two-lane road had about six lanes of traffic, with a bullock cart coming up the middle in the WRONG direction), the idea of lanes doesn’t seem to be as concrete in Albania as it does in other countries.
While in most places, you want to be on the inside lane if you are leaving the road (in this case, turning right), many drivers in Albania will remain in the outside lane and then cut across the other lanes to leave the road. I stopped being surprised after the second or third time this happened and started to accept it as the ‘way things are’. It made life much, much easier.
This also includes roundabouts, where somehow there will be about three lanes of traffic going around a two-lane roundabout, the majority of which will be in the incorrect lane for leaving the roundabouts.
Driving outside of cities
Overall, speed limits in Albania are more of a guideline than an actual rule. The supposed speed limits are as follows:
- 40 km/h in towns (built-up areas)
- 80-90 km/h on rural/main roads
- 110 km/h on motorways
99% of the time, locals will entirely ignore these speed limits and generally go at whatever speed they feel like. You might end up with a local car right behind you, but remember that police will easily spot a rental car and are much more likely to fine you, so do keep to the speed limits.
There will also be other speed limit signs on roads, particularly on some of the winding mountain roads (e.g. 20km/h on tight corners). To be completely honest, I highly doubt that you’ll actually want to go at 90km/h on half of these roads, given the cows/dogs/other wildlife on them as well as the bends and the potholes!
Google Maps vs GPS
After reading a lot of reviews that said getting a GPS was entirely pointless and THEN reading blog posts that said Google Maps was practically useless outside of cities… I wasn’t feeling entirely confident on how well we would be able to navigate in Albania.
However, Google Maps served us well 99% of the time. The only time it caused us issues was in Pogradec, a small town on the Albanian side of Lake Ohrid – Google Maps decided to try and take us (and the car) up a flight of steps. Hmm, that’s a no from me.
Most of the negative reviews of Google Maps in Albania were from 2016-2018, so it seems that 2019 Google Maps is finally catching up with mapping Albania. We didn’t have any issues aside from Pogradec, including when driving fairly ‘off-road’ areas like getting to the Blue Eye (Syri i Kalter) or Bënjë Thermal Springs.
We didn’t bother getting a GPS in the end as we had bought Albania SIM cards, so it seemed easier to just use the phone of whoever was driving to do the navigation. I would recommend bringing a phone holder for the car if you can since we couldn’t find somewhere to buy one (we found the shops but none that sold a phone holder for the car) and having your passenger holding the phone for the day (all day each day) can get a bit annoying.
If you aren’t planning on getting a local SIM (which I would 110% recommend getting, actually), then make sure to download the maps offline so you don’t end up stranded somewhere with no map and no internet.
I purchased a Vodafone SIM card in Tirana airport on a ‘tourist plan’ which included 10GB of data plus minutes and texts for only 1300 lekë (around €11).
Albanian driving can be crazy
When I say ‘can be’ crazy, I mostly mean ‘is definitely’ crazy. Think of overtaking pretty much anywhere, including blind bends. It seems almost required that Albanian drivers need to be talking on the phone while driving, even though it’s actually illegal.
Indicators also seem to be a rarely used part of an Albanian car, so keep about four eyes out for people randomly turning and going directions you didn’t entirely expect.
Get a 4×4
I have a section below with more information about renting a car in Albania but, even if you’re bringing your own car or renting a car in another country and bringing it into Albania, I would highly recommend getting a 4×4. We had a Mitsubishi Pajero, which was big enough that other drivers tended to defer to us in terms of priority (the time where yes, bigger IS better) and it was also sturdy enough that most potholes weren’t too jarring and any more off-road style roads were still manageable.
A lot (read: most) roads will have potholes so having a car with wider tires will mean you don’t even notice most of them. If you’re only planning on driving from Tirana to Dürres or Vlorë then you’ll probably be fine (and even over the Llogara Pass and down to Himarë and Sarandë) with a sedan or similar car, but if you plan to drive to Syri i Kaltër (near Sarandë), to Përmet or from Pogradec to the Macedonian border then a 4×4 is a must.
You must be a confident driver
I legitimately can’t repeat this enough. If you don’t feel comfortable driving on winding mountain roads, don’t drive in Albania. If you don’t feel confident driving on potholed roads, don’t drive in Albania. If you don’t feel confident navigating an Albanian roundabout with three lanes of traffic in two lanes, don’t drive in Albania.
I’m not trying to put anyone off visiting Albania (definitely visit! It’s amazing!), but if you’re not a confident driver or not comfortable with less than perfect roads, then I wouldn’t drive here.
There are so many alternatives to driving yourself that it doesn’t need to be a be-all-and-end-all to an Albania trip. Instead of driving, hire a driver or get around by public transport or private transfers. Public transport may well take longer and not take you to ALL the spots you want to stop at, but you’ll enjoy it more than if you’re constantly terrified by Albanian roads. Hiring a driver or going by private transfer may work out more expensive but it’s cheaper than therapy it’ll enable you to enjoy the experience more. We even did some of Albania with a driver because my parents wanted a break from driving and I recommend MyDayTrip – it’s not on the super cheap side but it’s well worth it if you don’t drive/don’t want to drive.
Not all destinations have paved roads
I would assume this is pretty much a given from the rest of what I’ve written, but not all Albanian destinations are created equal. While Tirana is all paved roads and the road to Dürres is all highway, a lot of the south of the country is less pleasant road-wise.
Certain destinations do require driving on roads that aren’t paved (dirt track style), such as Syri i Kaltër near Sarandë and Bënjë thermal pools between Gjirokastër and Përmet.
The worst road we drove on, hands down, was the road from Përmet to Korçë. A lot of the route consisted of crazy, winding mountain roads that were not really wide enough for two cars. Luckily we only met a grand total of three cars coming from the other direction (considering it was about a three hour drive, clearly not a super busy route) but a lot of the road was without barriers (and we were mostly driving on the outside, so nothing much between us and a large drop) and a lot had potholes or wasn’t even paved.
If you DO decide to go this way (it’s incredibly scenic and the easiest – haha – route to visit Bënjë thermal pools on the way from Gjirokastër to Korçë) then, in all honesty, I would recommend doing your route the other way around and driving from Korçë to Përmet and onwards to Gjirokastër. This way, you’re on the INSIDE of the road and not on the edge without barriers.
Fuel stations in Albania
I feel like everyone needs to experience an Albanian gas station. I’m not entirely sure why, but they do. There are a few important things to note about fuel stations, particularly that they aren’t self-service. This is the same as a lot of the Balkans, actually, but it can be a bit confusing to people since we aren’t exactly used to someone else filling up our car for us.
Aside from the pumps not being self-service, most fuel stations only accept payment in cash. Albania overall is very cash-based but we had made the (false) assumption that they would accept cards. Luckily we JUST about had enough cash to pay for the fuel (and then luckily the restaurant we went to for lunch took card) but it’s very worthwhile to know that the majority only take cash!
Fuel in Albania doesn’t seem to be much cheaper than fuel elsewhere in Europe, which we found relatively surprising since Albania is otherwise much cheaper in terms of accommodation, food and so on. For a full tank of fuel (we filled up about 50-60 litres) we paid around 10,000 lekë (about €80, £70 or $90).
My favourite thing about gas stations in Albania is how they’re basically an entire mini service station – almost all of them will have a café and/or restaurant and many will also have a lavazh (car wash) and an auto shop or a small shop selling drinks, snacks and car items (although apparently not phone holders, as we discovered). Some fuel stations even have hotels as well, so it’s almost like a motorway service station that’s not necessarily on a motorway and appears to have entirely grown up around the gas station.
Albanian wildlife to use as roundabouts
City roundabouts are definitely an experience in Albania. However, just because you’re outside of the city, don’t imagine that you get to drive along a road and not avoid things and use things as roundabouts. Ohhhhhh no.
Once out of the city (actually, often IN the cities too), you’ll find that you’ll have a variety of animals that become somewhat of an obstacle course (including, but not limited to, cows, chickens, sheep and dogs). Most seem to have become relatively used to all the cars so you’re obliged to drive around them, rather than them moving out of the way in any kind of life-preserving fashion.
Avoid white roads on your GPS at all costs
Yellow roads are great. We like yellow roads (mostly). However, white roads are bad. Very bad. Do not recommend. While yellow roads may be potholed and winding and mountainous, white roads are usually little more than dirt tracks (and sometimes calling them a dirt track is an insult to dirt tracks).
You have been warned!
Renting a car in Albania
As promised, an entire section dedicated to renting a car in Albania.
Renting a car in Albania isn’t particularly complex by any means, but there are certain things to be aware of. Some of these are relevant to hiring a car anywhere and some are more important when hiring a car in Albania specifically.
Don’t buy the expensive ‘full coverage’ insurance offered by most car hire firms! The cost is absolutely extortionate and it’s always offered as an add-on. Most people tend to buy the extra insurance because they don’t want to be out of pocket £1000 or so if there is an accident (the usual cost to you if you only buy the CDW – collision damage waiver – rather than a full coverage insurance from the hire company).
However, don’t pay for this extortionate extra insurance! It really is unnecessary and just means you end up paying a lot more than you need to. Instead of paying an extra amount per day for full coverage insurance, look at excess insurance or CDW insurance. Many companies that offer this insurance offer either a very low deductible or no deductible at all and cover anywhere from £1000 (or whichever currency you are booking in) to £7000 or so. Make sure to check that the excess insurance you buy fully covers the excess the car rental company charges.
These excess policies will cover the deductible/excess charged by the hire company if you’re in an accident/crash (usually around £500-£1,000) as well as for any damage such as scratches or dents. This is particularly vital for Albania because it’s very easy to get the odd scratch or dent. The policy should cover damage to windows, tyres, undercarriage, roof etc (which many car rental firms won’t include in their ‘basic’ insurance).
While upgrading to a fuller coverage insurance with the car hire firm can cost around £150 per week or car hire, you can purchase an excess insurance policy for an average of around £30-50 for an ANNUAL multi-trip policy.
As I was saying – these upgraded insurances from the car rental companies? RIP OFF. It’s pretty much how they make their money (as well as excessive costs for extras like booster seats for children or a GPS).
Photograph the entire car
This is important for all car hire! Make sure to photograph the car before you drive away – photograph any dents, scratches or other damage and make sure it’s marked down as pre-existing. Do a walk-round with someone from the car rental firm and photograph any damage and double check that they have them marked down on their paperwork – don’t forget to also check the interior of the car as well!
In Albania, pretty much all the rental cars have some form of damage already so don’t get caught out if a sneaky firm tries to charge you for damage that was already there when you hired the car.
Photos are a great method of proof, especially since it also records the date and time. You can also do a video of the walk-round but I would recommend doing this in addition to photos if you decide to do a video.
Hire a 4×4
I would highly recommend hiring a 4×4 for driving in Albania. Albanian roads aren’t necessarily the best quality (understatement of the year) and if you visit places like Syri i Kaltër or Bënjë Thermal Pools you will have to do a bit of off-road driving.
Roundabouts in Albania are generally a ‘push your way in’ affair and priority is pretty much based on whoever has the biggest car – hence another reason to go for a larger vehicle!
I hope this guide comes in handy if you decide to drive in Albania. It is definitely worth it but you must be a confident driver.