Using the Bus in Malta and Gozo
Buses in Malta in 2014
Those of you who visited Malta before July 2011 (and many people visit Malta time and time again) will remember the quirky old buses. You probably either loved them or hated them, depending on your point of view. Those who loved them admired them as a piece of history, lovingly looked after (in the main) by their owners. Those who hated them, which included a large part of the Maltese population, yearned for a modern public transport system with air-conditioned buses and well-trained drivers.
The latter part of the population got their wishes, at least in part, with a massive change in July 2011. The old vehicles (at least the oldest ones) were swept away to be replaced with new air-conditioned buses from China and some second-hand bendy buses from London. The old association of bus owners and owner-drivers (the ATP), which previously had the contract to run services on behalf of the government, were paid off and ceased to be, replaced by British-run Arriva (by now owned by German Railways). Many new routes were introduced, including several linking the airport to various parts of Malta. There were also new local routes within Valletta itself, using Castille (pictured below) as their focal point, rather than the bus station. Evening services were improved and ran later, whilst modernised facilities sprang up such as the bus stations in Valletta (pictured here), Bugibba and Victoria (on Gozo).
Sadly, early optimism turned sour due to industrial relations problems and a route network which required constant tweaking, with people in some areas experiencing long delays and overcrowded buses. Furthermore, problems with the bendy buses meant they were withdrawn in summer 2013 at the government's insistence, with other operators being brought in with a hotchpotch of replacement vehicles, which is still the situation today. Arriva ended up losing a heap of money and came to an arrangement in January 2014 for the government to take over the whole operation, pending awarding of the contract to a new operator. For now the services are being operated by Malta Public Transport Services Ltd, a division of Transport Malta. As far as the public are concerned things are likely to remain largely unchanged for now, although the Arriva name has been removed from the vehicles. There are likely to be changes to the route network later in the year.
The good news is that most parts of Malta have a fairly frequent service, and reliability has improved, although the withdrawal of the bendy buses has led to overcrowding on some journeys. Fares (see below) are very good value, especially if you buy day or 7-day tickets. Although it's not without it's problems, I would definitely recommend that you try using public transport to explore Malta and Gozo during your stay. Use the links on the left to find timetable summaries and maps to help you along, as well as details of the plentiful open top bus tours run by private operators.
There is some logic to the route numbering system. One and two digit numbers, that is numbers in the series 1-99, run to and from Valletta bus station, and run roughly in geographical order in an anti-clockwise direction around Valletta. Routes X1-X7 are limited stop routes all serving the Airport; X4/X5/X7 link Valletta with the Airport and beyond. Numbers in the 100s and 200s are local routes not serving Valletta. However 122/3 are routes from Valletta Castille rather than the bus station and 130-133 are Valletta local routes, also from Castille. Routes on Gozo are numbered in the 300s. Finally, the network of Night Routes linking various parts of Malta with the bars, clubs and restaurants of San Giljan (the stop formerly known as Paceville) are numbered in the N series; in winter the night routes run on Friday and Saturday nights only (separate fares apply - see below).
Route numbers generally form part of the electronic destination display. Note, however, that with the demise of the bendy buses, several routes are being run by private operators using buses, coaches and minibuses in a variety of different liveries (for further details see next section). On these vehicles the route number is generally displayed on a sticker in the window.
Fares and Tickets
Fares are straightforward, and are now better value than ever following the discontinuation of a separate level of fares for non residents. There is a flat rate on Malta of €1.30, valid for 2 hours. Only a little more is the day ticket at €1.50, valid for the whole day as the name suggests, whereas a 7-day ticket costs just €6.50. Note that the 7-day ticket expires at the end of the 7th day (it is not a 168 hour ticket like in some countries). There are also tickets for 30 days and 90 days. None of these tickets are valid on Night services (route numbers starting with N), on which there is a flat fare of €2.50 for each single journey.
The child fare for 2 hours is €0.30. A child day ticket costs €0.50, whilst the child 7 day ticket is €2.30. Children under 3 years old travel free, and those aged 11 and above must pay the adult fare.
Note that tickets purchased in Malta are not valid in Gozo, and vice versa (see below for Gozo fares).
All tickets (but see below) are available onboard the bus from the driver, and also at certain points from ticket machines or kiosks (the latter are located at Valletta bus station, Bugibba bus station, Malta International Airport and Sliema Ferries). If you are at a location with a kiosk, such as Bugibba bus station, it's best to buy your ticket from the kiosk before you board the bus. You always board at the front of the bus, and if you already have a valid ticket you need to show it to the driver on boarding the vehicle. You should of course retain your ticket in case you are requested to show it to a company inspector. Penalty fares are payable if you travel without a valid ticket.
An important exception about paying the driver applies to some of the replacement buses which are running on certain routes since the demise of the bendy buses, and which are temporarily operated by local coach and minibus operators. Most of the full size buses used on routes X2, X3, X4/X5/X7 have now been fitted with ticket machines (this is a change from April 2014), but you might be unlucky and find one without a ticket machine, so it's best if you have bought a ticket beforehand. On the following routes, however, drivers are not able to issue tickets, and they are being operated mostly by minibuses or midicoaches with limited capacity: 101/102, 106, 109, 110, 117/118, 119, 122, 123, 135, 136, 201, 226 and 401 (also certain journeys on route 223 Bugibba - Ghajn Tuffieha). Of the routes with replacement buses, the ones most likely to be used by tourists are the X numbered routes, and route 201 from the airport to Rabat via the coast, serving the Blue Grotto, Hagar Qim and Dingli (see warning about this route below). Some new buses have been sourced for Malta so hopefully this situation will not last into the summer.
For the record, prior to 6th January 2014 non residents paid €2.20 for 2 hours, €2.60 for 1 day, €12.00 for 7 days. The EU were apparently not keen on this two tier system.
Route 201 - a Warning
Popular route 201 is one of those subcontracted to the coach and minibus operators as stated above. Unfortunately this hourly route is being run by small minibuses despite many tourists wanting to use the route, which runs from the Airport to Rabat via the coast, serving Wied iz-Zurrieq (for the Blue Grotto) and the temples at Hagar Qim. In my experience the hourly minibuses are running full for most of the day and are leaving people behind at many stops. They frequently don't serve the stop at Zurrieq at all as they are already full (and the same may happen at Siggiewi). I would recommend not to use this service unless you are getting on at the start of the route (and even then you should have alternative plans in case it is full). A better way to visit the Blue Grotto and Hagar Qim is with the hop-on hop-off open top buses described elsewhere.
Buses on Gozo
Buses on Gozo used to be a different colour to those on Malta but from 2011 they became indistinguishable from those across the water in Malta. Fares for travel wholly in Gozo are €1.00 for 2 hours and €1.50 for a day ticket (children €0.30 and €0.50 respectively). Tickets are not interchangeable between Malta and Gozo so if you have a 7-day Malta ticket and visit Gozo for the day, you will need to buy a separate day ticket when travelling on your first bus in Gozo.
If you visited Gozo in the past (pre July 2011) you will find a big improvement to the frequency of services in Gozo compared to the old days. Unlike Malta, services generally do not suffer from delays due to traffic congestion, so you can be fairly sure that your bus will run to the advertised timetable.
The routes between the ferry at Mgarr and Victoria can get very crowded. Bear in mind that route 301 is not the only service between these points, as 303 takes a route which is only a little longer. Route 322 links Marsalforn with Mgarr so a good way to return to the ferry at the end of the day is via route 310 Victoria to Marsalforn then route 322, but check the timetable as the 322 only runs every 90 minutes.