When I first booked our trip to Malta I envisioned doing it all by bus. The country’s extensive bus network sounded like a great option for keeping costs down.
And then I went and booked a budget friendly guesthouse, just £440 for the week! Bargain! Except. It’s in the middle of nowhere. There is just one local bus route running from L’Armier in the north east to the capital Valletta in the north west. And they run once an hour. Which is fine, if we plan our timings right. Which we soon discover is difficult when timetables are as accurate as a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
Therefore it makes sense to hire a car for the week. Review forums seem to pit each company against each other as “worst in Malta”. We opt for Avis as we’ve used them previously and they seem to be the best of a bad bunch. Reading about “driving in Malta” horror stories before we go makes me question our decision but Mr Fletche is quite the driving-abroad-pro by now. At least they drive on the same side of the road so that’s one less thing to contend with. Of course, we don’t want to drive all the time so we know that we will sometimes be at the mercy at times of the No 49 bus. And – because it stops running before the second Aperol Spritz had been drunk – Malta’s cab companies.
So here’s the good, the bad and the ugly about getting around Malta. If Mr Fletche had written this, it would be heavily censored for expletives.
(ABH&A Note: I didn’t take any pictures of our car or any buses, so this is a pretty wordy article! I promise lots of pretty pictures of Malta to come in future Travel Diaries!). Here’s a picture of an old vintage Malta bus to break up the words!
The Good: Having a car gave us the flexibility to visit sights which aren’t visited frequently by public transport. Of which there are many. We could visit sights on a fleeting visit rather than committing to spending an hour until the next bus comes along.
We could also fling everything in the boot. The Fletches aren’t good at travelling light so it was a godsend to throw various shoes, a change of clothes and swimwear into the car. Just in case.
Parking was mostly free, although there were a few sights with attendants that required a tip for pointing out a space. A euro would often suffice. We mostly found on-street parking, a couple of streets away from the main areas, but heed any parking restrictions, even if the locals don’t seem to.
The bad: The quality of driving on the island ranges from erratic to aggressive. Indicators seem to be optional, as is stopping at junctions and roundabouts. And there are a LOT of roundabouts. It’s like a more reckless Milton Keynes. Mr Fletche quickly adapted though, using his skills at driving through Birmingham on a regular basis to good effect and forgetting everything he’s ever learned about etiquette.
We didn’t find any gas stations where our UK credit or debit card was accepted. One had an attendant who filled up for us, but the majority have a payment box between pumps where you select your amount and pump number before you fill up. Prices of fuel were similar to back in the UK.
Also bad is the quality of some of the roads. Even some main routes quickly degenerate from tarmac to rutted track in the space of a kilometre. There isn’t a GPS for “non pot-holed roads” unfortunately – in fact, this seems to be our sat nav’s favourite kind of road. Which leads us to…
The ugly: signposts are at best sporadic and at worst, non-existent. And although the GPS got us out of a few labyrinthine villages often the turnings indicated would only be wide enough for a bicycle, or would have a truck coming the other way, or would be one of those roads mentioned in the previous paragraph, only suitable for a tractor or a quad bike. Not a Ford Fiesta.
The good: Buses are air-conditioned, you can pay the driver (change is given but correct amounts are appreciated) and there are “next stop” electronic signage on every bus. As stated above its cheap -, 2€ for a 2 hour trip as long as you’re not returning to your original destination, so good for a connection within that timeframe. If you do plan to use buses for more than 10 trips then you can purchase a weekly ticket for 21€
Main hubs will also tend to have multiple bus routes between destinations so if you’re staying in one of the main resorts then you should be pretty sorted for buses.
We used the ferry to get from Sliema and to and from the Three Cities during our day in Valetta. These were quick and efficient and a fun way to hop between areas. We also took the ferry to Gozo with our car; the ferry is equipped with a cafe, bar, WiFi and plenty of indoor and outdoor seating which makes for a pleasant journey. It was just over 20€ for a car, driver and one passenger, or 4.65€ for a foot passenger.
The bad: We found that although the summer timetable kicked in at the start of June, no-one appeared to tell the bus drivers on Route 49. Which means that arriving at the bus stop in time for the scheduled bus was something of a fruitless exercise. It became difficult to plan bus travel particularly as we had a 15 minute walk to our closest bus stop.
And then sometimes this happens…
The ugly: The bus doesn’t turn up at all. Or because it’s turned up late is so full that the driver doesn’t stop. Or it turns up and is Out of Service. Malta seems to have a LOT of out of service buses. This may be due to those potholes. Which means that your next hourly bus will probably turn up around an hour and twenty minutes later. And will probably be full and this will whizz past without stopping.
Continue until you collapse in a sobbing heap at the bus stop. Or, in our case, you get rescued by a kind Maltese man called Alfred who offers to drop you into your nearest town and tells you Maltese ghost stories. And doesn’t murder you on the way which is the risk we’re willing to take. It took us over two hours to get to Valletta using a mixture of bus, ferry from Sliema and Alfred. It should have been a 40 minute journey.
But one time, the No 49 did turn up on time. That was the last time we got the bus as we feared the bus gods would only smile down on us once.
Twice we found ourselves in our local town after 9:30pm. By now the No 49 has tucked itself up in bed for the night. The first time we used the eCabs app, heavily advertised at the airport. It was a quick pick-up, although our driver doesn’t know where our guesthouse is and we have to direct him.
The second time we used a local white taxi cab from Buggiba Square. I couldn’t remember if I’d read that white taxis were good or white taxis were bad. Once again, the driver can’t understand why we are staying in the middle of nowhere, and we have to navigate. We’re quite the pros at finding our way now. The journey cost us 4€ more than eCabs. We’d have probably used eCabs if there had been a third occasion. Their drivers wore shirts and ties for a start.
Had the buses been more reliable, we would have used the service a lot more. But when relying on making a connection to another route, we couldn’t trust it. This meant we used the hire car a lot more than we intended. Our remote location played a part – we may well have had a different experience had we stayed in one of the main resorts.
Drivers need to be assertive. And be prepared for others not to drive with the same courteousness you may (or may not) get in your own country. Don’t rely on one method of navigation – make sure your passenger doesn’t doze off and keeps an eye out for road signs! We downloaded the Malta maps for offline use from HEREWeGo Maps, they (mostly) did the trick in getting us from A to B.
On the whole, a hire car was the best – if sometimes frustrating – option for us. It was worth the extra expense, but I’d love to hear your experiences about travelling around Malta – let me know in the comments below!
I’m Emmalene, a 40 something with a passion for travel, theatre, food, drink and the occasional accidental hike! I’m a born-and-bred Birmingham native so expect lots of Brum content on here too…