Beach and palm tree, Ksamil, Albania

10 Tips For A First Time Traveller To Albania

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Albania is a growing tourist destination in the Balkans with visitor numbers growing year on year. I’ve now been twice and have fallen for the country, with its great nature, amazing beaches and unique culture giving me the impression that visitors will continue to grow in years to come. 

I’ve tried to tell people about Albania and I’ve helped people on various Facebook groups for travellers to the country. There are some interesting questions on the forums but there are also a lot of questions from first time travellers to Albania about how things work in the country that may be different to back home.

I’ve compiled this list of some of the most common questions asked by a first time travellers to Albania to help you enjoy your trip to one of the last hidden gems in Europe.

The 10 tips for a first time traveller to Albania

The people at bus stations actually want to help you

As someone that has travelled far and wide and has been offered a helping hand from people in bus stations more than once to find they often like a monetary reward, its a pleasure to report that isn’t the case in Albania.

Many travellers first taste of heading around the country will be at Tirana’s bus station where buses leave to all corners of the country. For the uninitiated, it can seem like a concrete frenzy of shouting and bus horns. 

But despite this, you will often have people ask where you are going and will happily point you in the right direction and help you get onto the bus. Albanians are a very friendly people and will help you when you’re in need.

Buses at Tirana bus station, Tirana, Albania
This may not look like the most attractive bus station in the world but locals will try and help you

Buy your tickets on the bus

The next bit of confusion involving buses for first time travellers to Albania is how to buy tickets.

Each bus is slightly different but on intercity buses in Tirana, a conductor will come and collect the fare from you. The airport bus that runs to and from the airport to the centre of Tirana also has a conductor that will come and collect your fare from you.

Long distance buses heading to Vlora, Durres, Saranda or Berat from Tirana (or vice versa) have a similar system. Get onto the bus and wait until it departs. At this point I’ve experienced three different ways of paying: a conductor will squeeze through the minibus and collect the bus fare from you, the bus driver will pull over after driving for 30 minutes and then collect the bus fare (this has only happened to me once but still felt strange) or, what I have experienced most normally, you pay the driver as you get off the bus at your destination.

I don’t know a reason why they do it this way but in all cases, you pay when you are on the bus and don’t need to purchase a ticket in advance.

But timetables are “flexible”

Don’t be surprised if the bus has left 10 minutes before the departure time. But also don’t be surprised if it leaves 10 minutes late. They normally leave when full and if the bus is full early, it will leave early.

When getting the airport bus from Tirana city centre, I arrived 20 minutes before scheduled departure and it left 10 before before it should have as the bus was full. 

When going from Vlora to Berat, I turned up 5 minutes early to be told that the bus had already gone. I’d recommend getting to any bus station at least 15 minutes early to guarantee your spot.

Bus time table and tickets , Tirana, Albania

Sit down in cafes and bars and they come to you

Coming from the UK, where in bars you go up to the bar and order, this always strikes me as strange when I first do it, but after a couple of weeks, seems perfectly normal and natural. 

When you’re walking along a promenade with the beach on one side of you and a row of restaurants and coffee shops on the other, walk in and take a seat. A friendly waiter will be over shortly to take your order. When they bring the drinks, sometimes they will also bring a receipt, and proceed to bring a receipt with each subsequent round of drinks you get. Other times, you will ask for the bill at the end and then they will bring a receipt over.

Either way its a very easy experience and on the whole, the waiters are very attentive and easy to get their attention. Even in very small coffee shops with one old man working, you can often order shortly after sitting down.

Take your time

Albanians never seem to be in a rush. And I like that.

The food will arrive when it arrives, don’t expect it to be there immediately. The bus will leave when it’s ready. Bureaucracy happens and things take their time, it is a way of life.

The coffee is to be enjoyed slowly. I have sat sipping on an espresso for an hour and that is seen as normal. Compared to the hustle of other western countries of having a coffee and getting out the cafe as soon as possible, it is nice to enjoy the coffee, watching the old men talk about their day. 

Slow down. Be like Albanians.

Gjirokaster, Albania

Driving isn’t for the faint of heart

If I were to write down a list of Albanian driving rules, I would finish with a blank sheet of paper.

Or so it seems.

Overtaking on blind corners? Why not!

Speed limits? What are they!

Parking? Just pull up somewhere and get out, it will be fine if you are double or even triple parked.

I know people that have hired a car and survived, but it isn’t for me. Narrow roads, crazy drivers and personally witnessing three crashes made me think again.

If you do decide to have a car and get into an accident. You must leave the car in place and wait for the police to arrive otherwise your insurance is null and void. Even if you are blocking a busy junction, cars will find a way past you.

Cash is king

Despite what many tourist may want to believe, cash is still the main source of payment in Albania. Card use has increased slightly since my first visit but most places still accept and prefer cash. 

Coffee shops, restaurants and supermarkets in tourist areas do accept card, but many don’t. Buying souvneirs from market stalls, or fresh produce from elderly locals on the side of the road still require small notes or coins. Smaller local bars and coffee shops will also only take small notes, as do buses.

It’s not to say card can’t be used, but cash is more widely accepted.

The local currency of Albania is the Lek (named after Alexander the Great) but Euros may be accepted in some touristy areas for things like tours or hotel stays, normally at a rate of 100Lek to €1, but it is still recommended to check first.

It is also normal to exchange cash to Lek at the many many money changers you will see in all the major towns and cities that have excellent rates and a lot better than many money changers I’m used to using in western Europe.

Albanian Lek
Albanian Lek

Every bank has card fees

I’d recommend taking Euros or another currency in cash and exchanging it when you arrive in Albania.

Even though I have a Wise card, that doesn’t charge any currency conversion fee, every single ATM I went to in Albania now charges a fee to withdraw cash. Fees vary wildly from 300-800Lek per transaction so it definitely pays to shop around to find an ATM with a smaller fee. 

In Berat, it took four ATM’s until I finally found one with a 300Lek fee.

I’ve heard that Credins bank didn’t used to charge a fee but in my experience they now do (let me know if this is different).

Tipping isn’t expected

Tipping isn’t a part of Albanian culture no matter what Americans might want to tell you about how much they appreciate the money. Yes people appreciate having money given to them, but whatever is on the bill is what is expected with nothing more needing to be added.

Don’t expect everything to be perfect

Albania is still a very poor country by European standards. Even with tourism starting to arrive, there are still things that don’t work, power cuts happen, and roads and pavements aren’t perfect. Embrace this part of the culture that it is.

The country was completely shut off from the outside world within my lifetime and these things take time to implement.

My tips for travellers heading to Albania for the first time is you get what you pay for. If you want everything to be perfect, then maybe it would be better if you spent more and went to western Europe instead?

Blue Eye, Saranda, Albania
Roads under construction in Saranda

Summing up the tips for a first time traveller to Albania

Albania is a country I love and I can’t want to go back to and explore more.

It has it’s quirks but it is also just like any other country in that you just need to know how things work and it will make your trip so much more enjoyable. Hopefully this guide has made things easier to understand and will make your first trip to Albania one to remember and will keep you heading back for more!

 

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