How to navigate the bus system in Albania

Or: an Ode to global Bus Travel

Chatting with some fellow travellers in the middle of my recent Istanbul to Zagreb ruins-and-beaches hop, I discovered how odd my choice of vehicle seemed to many others undertaking a similar trip. The idea of European train travel popularised by films such as Before Sunrise and enjoyed by countless students every summer revolved around railways and the (nowadays) phenomenally expensive Interrail ticket – or the even more expensive Eurail pass for non-European citizens.

The two women I was speaking to had hired a car for their journey. This is another popular choice, although if you’re travelling in a line rather than making a circuit fees for different pick-up and drop-off points kick in, and once you start to country-hop these can ramp up quite fast.

Nope, you can save your trains and cars. For me, the most economical and frankly most interesting way to travel a long distance relatively quickly is the humble public bus.

“But I can’t do that. I’m travelling through ten countries, none of which speak a language I’m familiar with!” I hear you cry.

Fear not, linguistically baffled traveller, for here follows my common sense guide on how to navigate any bus system, anywhere, but with particular reference to Albania.

Berat museum city

Berat ‘museum city’

General tips for global bus travel

The fantastic thing about bus travel is that you can pretty much guarantee that wherever you are in the world (barring the Middle East, to my chagrin) large numbers of people have relied on some kind of public bus system to travel between nearby towns and more distant cities since the demise of the stagecoach, so there’s always going to be something you can use no matter how obscure the system.

Another huge bonus is that the word for this system in a large number of languages is “bus,” meaning that you can stop anyone on the street, say “bus + name of destination” while waving your hands in the international signal for “Where the hell is…?” and reliably get pointed in the right direction. Minor points of confusion arise around the concept of ‘bus station’ and ‘bus stop,’ so it’s best to try to find out these words in the local language – if the local language distinguishes between them. Even people who have a relatively high level of English confuse these two regularly, so be aware!

Travelling by bus in Albania

Albania. Where to begin? a) It’s beautiful. It has incredible history, entire UNESCO heritage towns, stunning beaches, and few tourists. b) It has the worst transport infrastructure in Europe. Imagine a bus system run by the same people who ran the world of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Now get a bus in Albania. See what I mean?

I reached Albania at the midway point of my trip, when I was feeling just road-weary enough for the state of bus travel in the country to put me off seeing any more than Berat. Part of the issue is the road network, which is currently quite sparse and not well maintained. This makes any journey longer than it might otherwise be. The main issue is the ad-hoc nature of the system.

If there is a bus station, it is more of a parking ground for all the operators who run to that town. Do the “Bus + destination + wild gesturing” to be pointed to the bus you need, if it is there at that time. To find the times of the buses, ask more than one person who might know (bus station workers, hostel owners / Couchsurfing hosts, people on the street) and evaluate the number of responses that concur. Then turn up around that time and hope for the best.

The main tips I gleaned were: give yourself plenty of time for any journey you make; be prepared for a lot of confusion and hanging around; try to get on at the start of the route – once the bus fills up it won’t stop, so for busy routes you may be standing on the side of a road for literally hours.

The journeys

Ohrid / Struga, Macedonia to Berat, Albania. First, grab a regular bus (40 den. / $0.70) or a taxi (haggle before you get in) from Ohrid to Struga, 15km further along the lake shore. You may have to walk 500 metres or so from where the bus drops you off to the international bus station in the north of the town.

Buy a ticket for Tirana (11 euro or c. 650 den.) but ask the driver to drop you at Elbasan. I took the 9.30am Durmturs bus, which eventually showed up and left around 10. This part of the journey should take approximately 4 hours including the border crossing, which is quick and easy.

In Elbasan, there are a number of bus companies dotted around the city. For Berat, look for the central bus stop, ‘terminali autobusave’ (about 300m walk from where the Durmturs bus stops) where you will find a number of minibuses or ‘furgones’ parked up. Find the Berat bus and get your ticket from the driver. It will be between 300 and 400 lek (= peanuts) and the journey is around two hours.

From the bus station outside Berat, jump on the no. 1 service into the town. The trip is around ten minutes and should cost 30 lek ($0.25).

As a main tourist draw, Berat has a real bus station for all inter-city services, and you can find buses to most other major towns in Albania as well as some international services, particularly south into Greece.

Berat to Shkoder, Albania (via Tirana). Without information on any direct buses, I took the bus to Tirana and changed there. The journey was around 3 – 4 hours, and the ticket around 600 lek. The change in Tirana was messy and confusing and more luck than judgment.

A quick Google maps search for bus stations in Tirana shows there are different bus stations for different bus companies, and for different destinations. The bus we took from Berat pulled in at a bus station that wasn’t on the map, and when we took a taxi to reach the bus station handily labelled for Shkoder, the taxi dropped us at a different one. He was right, there was a bus for Shkoder and it was leaving that minute. I guess the tip is: aim for the one labelled Shkoder but ask plenty of people along the way, and trust the taxi drivers. Also be aware that Shkoder is pronounced “shkodra” – useful to know when you’re doing the waving and gesturing ‘bus + name???’ technique on the street.

From Tirana to Shkoder the road is more direct. This was a little under 2 hours and cost 500 lek. The bus stops in the central plaza in Shkoder, which is walking distance from a number of places to stay.

Shkoder, Albania to Budva, Montenegro (via Ulcinj)

There is a bus which leaves the main plaza at around 2pm. In fact, I think we left at around 2.15 / 2.30. The ticket was around 700 lek and the journey was just under an hour, including very quiet and efficient border crossing.

In Ulcinj there’s one small and very efficient bus terminal. Our bus came in, we bought a ticket for a bus to Budva leaving within ten minutes of our arrival for 7 euros, the journey was about 1.5 hours of stunningly beautiful coastline.

Getting the bus out of Shkoder was the first time I really encountered the insanity of the system. Despite our best research and asking our hostel owner about buses, we banked on incorrect information. Turning up for a morning bus which didn’t exist, we asked a number of taxi drivers, all of whom gave us different times. Then we tried popping in to a couple of shops and asking people who had nothing to gain from our travel needs; they told us about the 2 o’clock bus. A bus that is not mentioned anywhere on the Internet, and that our hostel owner didn’t know about. After that it was a matter of waiting around the plaza and hopefully asking each bus driver who arrived, “Ulcinj?”. Some buses had signs in the window, some didn’t. Ours didn’t. But it all turned out alright in the end.

Departure point: Ohrid

Departure point: Ohrid

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