The majority of main routes are sealed, though off the main routes roads are rutted and potholed, making driving slow and dangerous. Secondary roads are usually graded dirt. Some are well maintained and easy to drive on in a normal car; others are bad, especially after rain, and slow even with a 4WD. Rural routes are not so good, and after heavy rain are often impassable. Several lodges along the lakeshore have poor access roads that need a 4WD. The same goes for the country’s national parks and wildlife reserves.
You need a full driving licence (an international driving licence is not necessary), and are normally required to be at least 23 years old and have two years’ driving experience.
Petrol costs around MK800 per litre (about MK40,000 per tank), diesel around MK770. Supplies are often limited, so always keep your tank no lower than half full (how's that for optimism!). Spare parts are available in Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu. At petrol stations, wait for the attendant to fill your car, and give a small tip.
Most car-hire companies are based in Blantyre and Lilongwe and can arrange pickup, drop-off deals. International names include Avis and Budget, and there are many independent outfits. Check the tyres and spare: bald tread and holes are common. In fact, check the entire car carefully, as vehicles from independent companies are often in bad condition due to the roads and poor maintenance. It is well worth scheduling a day around Lilongwe or Blantyre with the vehicle, or not travelling too far initially, so you can troubleshoot any issues that arise.
With independent companies, self-drive rates for a small car with unlimited mileage, or a high daily mileage of around 150km, start at around US$65 per day. For a basic 4WD such as a Suzuki Jimny, you’re looking at around US$95 per day; for a proper 4WD, around US$150. Charges come down for over two weeks' rental. If you're procrastinating over a 2WD or 4WD, spend the extra cash because a sturdy vehicle with good clearance will remove a lot of the stress from driving Malawi's poor roads. It may even save you money in the long run, as you will be less likely to damage the vehicle in a monster pothole.
To the above charges add the 16.5% government tax, the 1% tourism levy plus a fee of about 5% for using a credit card. Some companies include the first two charges in the price, along with compulsory third-party insurance. Fully comprehensive insurance is available, but it will likely cost a few hundred dollars, so check what insurance will be provided by your credit-card company.
Also, most companies will quote you in dollars, but if you pay by card they’ll have to exchange this into kwacha first – at an unfavourable rate. The only way around this is to take a briefcase of US dollars. The company will of course block off a security deposit on your card.
If you’d rather not drive yourself, most companies will arrange a driver for between US$50 and US$100 a day. Privately hiring a taxi would likely work out cheaper.
Despite most vehicles being crisscrossed with dents and scratches, you will have to sign the standard form with defects marked. When returning the car, the staff will certainly look the car over, but they don't tend to be too draconian. If you do have to replace a part or fix an issue that you caused, the independent companies will likely give you a quote, get the part replaced and the problem solved, and give you the mechanic's receipt. This will happen quickly (in Lilongwe and Blantyre), but the drawback is that your insurer is unlikely to reimburse you without paperwork from the car company. If the bill is steep, try to get the job done through the hire company, so you end up with the right paperwork for making an insurance claim.
Third-party insurance is a requirement for all drivers, but this can be arranged through car-hire companies or purchased at border crossings.
Malawians drive on the left. Seat belts are compulsory. Speed limits are 80km/h on main roads and 60km/h in built-up areas. Try to stick to these limits: MK10,000 speeding fines are common.
Police roadblocks are found at the entrance to major towns and cities. The officers will often wave you on, but sometimes they will check your car's licence discs on the front window, your driving licence and the contents of your boot.
The roads are generally in poor condition, so leave plenty of time for journeys and drive below the speed limit. Crowds of pedestrians and cyclists are common at the roadside: always get off the road before sunset.
You can often share a taxi instead of waiting for the minibus to depart – a safer, more comfortable and faster option. Better still, inquire at your accommodation about the possibility of privately hiring a taxi with another traveller or expat; sharing the charge makes this an affordable and recommended option for long journeys.
If you don't want to drive in Malawi, privately hiring a taxi will likely work out cheaper than renting a car with a driver. You will have to pay a sum including accommodation and food for the driver, but this will often be a small addition that the driver will pocket (they'll sleep in the car). Taking a taxi removes the stress of driving and gives you an unofficial guide and interpreter, but travelling by aged sedan will limit you to the main roads.