Jordan’s public transport is a hotchpotch. Bus routes cover what’s necessary for the locals, and there is little or no provision for independent travellers. With some highly visitable places inaccessible by public transport, the best way to see the whole of Jordan is to rent a car for at least part of your stay.
Buses and serveeces
The most common way of getting between cities is by bus, most of which are fifteen- or eighteen-seater minibuses. Some larger buses and air-conditioned coaches also serve as public transport. Throughout this book, we’ve used “bus” as a catch-all term, though in most cases minibuses are the only transport option available.
Timetables are rarely in operation: buses tend to depart only when they’re full. This means that, on less-travelled routes especially, you should factor in sometimes quite considerable waiting time for the bus to fill up. Once you get going journeys are rarely arduous: roads are decent, and the longest ride you’re likely to need – from Amman to Aqaba – is four hours or less. All buses and minibuses have their point of origin and destination painted in Arabic script just above either brake-light on the rear of the vehicle.
Locals know the system by word-of-mouth, but no official information about bus travel exists: in most situations, you simply have to turn up at the point of departure (which may not be advertised as such – we offer guidance in relevant parts of the book where possible) and ask around. You’re unlikely to wait long for a bus on popular inter-city routes – Amman to Zarqa, say, or Irbid to Ramtha – but longer trips, or more isolated destinations, may be served by only one or two buses, or by a handful of departures clustered together at a certain time of day. Miss them, and you’ll have to come back tomorrow. Guides and hotel staff may be able to help, but given the lack of information even they often can’t advise effectively on public transport. If you are travelling around quieter regions by bus, keep your schedules loose.
Bus fares are very low. As a guide, a half-hour hop between towns costs around JD0.50. Slightly longer journeys, such as Amman to Jerash, or Karak to Tafileh, are in the order of JD1 or JD1.25. Rip-offs are rare: if you ask the fare, you’ll invariably be told the truth. Expect higher fares on routes serving major tourist sites: Petra to Wadi Rum is JD5. There is no price competition between minibus operators.
A few companies operate large, air-con buses in competition with the minibuses on some long-distance runs. Jordan Express Tourist Transport, or JETT (w jett.com.jo), has daily timetabled services from Amman to Aqaba, Petra and a couple of other destinations; Trust International Transport operates Amman–Aqaba and Irbid–Aqaba; Hijazi operates Amman–Irbid, mainly for Yarmouk University students; and there are a few others. These all offer the advantages of comfort and speed over the minibuses, and most allow you to book in advance (in person only, at the company’s offices).
On most inter-city routes, shared taxis or service taxis (universally known as serveeces) tout for business alongside the buses. A serveece (pronounced “ser-vees”) is a white car, often seating seven or eight people, which offers, at a slightly higher price, the single advantage of speed over the same journey by bus – though being squashed into the back seat on a long journey can counter in discomfort what might be gained in time. Serveeces also operate the system of departing when full, but because there are fewer seats they leave more frequently. If you’re carrying bulky or heavy luggage, you may find that serveece, and some minibus, drivers will charge you a small supplement per bag.
For getting around within cities, most places have their own systems of short-hop buses and serveeces.
Bus and serveece etiquette says that a foreigner should ideally not be sitting next to a Jordanian of the opposite sex. You may find that the locals shuffle themselves around to make sure that men are sitting next to men and women next to women.
Hitching a ride on well-travelled routes such as Amman to Petra will likely take you hours (or days), since drivers won’t have a clue why you can’t just get the bus like everyone else. However, in areas where buses may be sporadic or nonexistent – the eastern desert, the southern portions of the King’s Highway, the link road from the Desert Highway into Wadi Rum, or just from one village to the next on quiet country roads – local drivers stick to a well-established countryside protocol about picking people up if they have space. The way to show you’re hitching is to hold out your arm and loosely flap your index finger.
The first rule – apart from foreign women never hitching alone – is that you should always be prepared to pay something, even if your money is refused when offered. Trying to freebie your way around the country will inspire contempt rather than camaraderie. Travellers who decide to hitch should do so always in pairs. The risk of unpleasantness is minuscule but nonetheless does exist; women should never sit next to local men, and if you’re alone, spontaneous offers of hospitality should be accepted only with caution. Water and a hat are vital accoutrements: dehydration is probably the greatest threat.
For a great account of hitchhiking across Jordan in 2011, check out w engagingcultures.com/blog/long-way-there.
Compared with Egypt or Syria, driving in Jordan is a breeze; compared with the West, it’s a challenge. Apart from driving on the right and always obeying a policeman, rules of the road tend to have individual interpretations. Most roads aren’t marked out in lanes, so overtaking on both sides is normal – always accompanied by a blast or two on the horn – as is pulling out into fast-moving traffic without looking. There is no universally accepted pattern of right of way. It’s wise to follow the locals and sound your horn before many types of manoeuvre; out in the sticks, look out for kids playing on the hard shoulder and give a warning honk from a long way back. Traffic lights are always respected – cameras record red-light runners – as are most one-ways. Right of way on roundabouts goes to whoever’s moving fastest.
Road surfaces are generally good, although there are lots of unmarked speed bumps and rumble strips in unexpected places (including main highways), as well as killer potholes. Look out for drifting sand in the desert: if you’re going too fast when you hit a patch of sand, you can be spun off the road before you know it. Speed limits – posted fairly regularly – are generally 100kph or 110kph on open stretches of highway and 90kph on main roads, dropping to 80kph, 60kph or 40kph in built-up areas. Mobile police radar traps are very common – if you’re caught speeding, expect traffic police (who may or may not speak English) to demand to see your driving licence and car registration documents before issuing you with a spot fine of JD20 or more, all recorded and receipted.
On major roads, directional signs are plentiful and informative; most have English as well as Arabic. Large brown signs around the country direct tourists to major sites, superseding older blue signs. On unsigned back roads, the only fail-safe method of finding the right direction is to keep asking the locals.
Night driving is considerably more scary. Lighting is often poor, so speed bumps, uneven road surfaces, children or animals (or objects) in the road and potholes all become invisible. Slow-moving trucks and farm vehicles often chug along in the dark without lights or reflectors. It’s common – if inexplicable – practice on dark country roads to flip to main beam when you see somebody coming, dazzling them blind. Many people flash their headlights to say “get out of the way”, but some do it to say “OK go ahead”, others merely to say hello: you must make up your own mind at the time which it is.
Although a normal driving licence from home is sufficient, an International Driving Permit can be useful, since it has an Arabic translation; these are available very inexpensively from motoring organizations in your home country.
Renting a self-drive car
For the freedom and flexibility it brings, a rental car is a worthwhile investment, best arranged before you arrive. The rental market is huge, but most local firms cater more to Jordanians’ friends and family than to Westerners – although you can get some great deals on the fly, many of these tiny outfits are no more than a guy with a phone renting out old cars on the cheap with no insurance, no papers and no service.
Amman has more than a hundred car rental firms, all of which can match or undercut the international agencies’ rates – but few of which maintain equivalent levels of quality and service. The best-value and most conscientious outfit is Reliable, located in Abdoun, not far from 5th Circle (t 06 592 9676, w rentareliablecar.com). They charge about JD25–30 a day for a new or one-year-old car (manual or automatic) with air conditioning, comfortable for four people, including unlimited mileage and full insurance. Prices drop for longer rental periods. They’ll bring the car to you, and you can drop it off for free, at the airport or anywhere in Amman, 24 hours a day – and their customer service is excellent. Collision damage waiver (CDW) costs a few dinars more, but is worth it. Options such as theft protection (TP) are unnecessary.
Cheaper deals are available elsewhere (as low as JD15–20/day) – but this will buy you an older vehicle, dodgier paperwork and less reliable backup when you’re out on the road.
The global names have broader coverage – and higher prices. Hertz (t 06 581 2525, w hertz-jordan.com) is good for one-way rentals, letting you drop the car off for free at any of their Amman offices, the airport, the Dead Sea or Aqaba if you rent for more than two days. Avis (t 06 569 9420, w avis.com.jo) and Europcar (t 06 550 4031, w europcar.jo) also have offices around the country. A listing of other firms is at w visitjordan.com.
For all but the most dedicated adventurers, a normal car is fine for getting around Jordan. Four-wheel-drive vehicles cost from about JD50 a day upwards. These are essential for getting to out-of-the-way archeological sites and touring the desert, but you need familiarity with 4×4 driving – and a local guide with you – before you head off-road. It’s a good idea to keep a few litres of bottled water in the car, in case you get stranded in some remote spot.
If you’re involved in an accident, to claim costs back from the insurance company you’ll need a full written report from the police, and from the first doctor on the scene who treated any injuries.
All fuel sold in Jordan is unleaded – standard 90 octane (tisaeen) or pricier 95 octane (khamsa wa-tisaeen). Diesel (deezel) is available rarely. Almost all petrol stations have attendants to do the pumping for you: either hand over, say, JD10 or JD20 before he starts, or just ask for “full”. Most stations accept cash only.
Despite the Jordanian driving style, accidents are infrequent, and rarely amount to more than a prang. However, under Jordanian law any accident involving a car and a pedestrian is automatically deemed to be the fault of the driver: if you hit anybody, cause any sort of injury, or even if someone falls out of a window onto your stationary vehicle, you will be held responsible by the police and (often worse) by the victim’s family. Complex negotiations involving large sums of money may ensue. If you hit an animal – goats, sheep, donkeys and camels roam more or less freely beside roads – you will have to pay the owner compensation. With a goat costing, say, 100JD, and a camel ten times as much, you’d do well to keep your eyes peeled.
If you’re in any sort of accident while behind the wheel of a rental car, call the rental company first: if they’re trustworthy they will then call the police on your behalf and send someone out (for free) to pick you up. Otherwise, call the police yourself on t 911.
Taxis and chauffeur-driven cars
Taxis are generally yellow with green panels in Arabic on both front doors, and they’ll go anywhere if the price is right. Inexpensive and quite often essential within Amman, their good value declines the further afield you want to go: renting a taxi to cover the transport-thin eastern desert, for instance, will cost you almost twice as much as if you drove there yourself in a rental car (but, obviously, with less of the stress).
As far as fares go, other than within Amman city limits, where taxis are metered, you’ll probably have to negotiate with the driver before setting off. Ballpark figures for particular routes are given in the guide, but where you’re inventing your own itinerary, you’d do well to ask the advice of a disinterested party (such as a hotel receptionist) beforehand. Then check rates and services with Jordan Taxi (t 077 724 4189, w jordan-taxi.com), who offer a private hire service nationwide.
Most rent-a-car agencies can provide a driver for the day for about JD25 on top of the price of the rental; on a longer trip, JD45 a day should cover his food and accommodation costs. However, if you want your driver to also be a (qualified) guide, explaining sites along the way, you need to book with a local tour company – and pay accordingly.
Jordanian women wouldn’t get in the front seat next to a male driver (there are very few female taxi-drivers). Wherever possible, foreign women should follow suit and sit in the back.
No scheduled passenger trains operate in Jordan. The historic, narrow-gauge Hejaz Railway (w jh-railway.com), running from Damascus to Amman and south into the desert (see The Hejaz railway), has been taken out of service and now only hosts occasional specials chartered by foreign tour operators and steam enthusiasts. A proposal to launch tourist services on the freight line from Aqaba to Wadi Rum – otherwise reserved for trains carrying phosphates to port from desert mines – has so far come to nothing.
Royal Jordanian (t 06 510 0000, w rj.com) operates the only domestic flights, twice daily between Amman (Queen Alia) and Aqaba. Flight time is a little over half an hour. At JD56 one-way, it isn’t prohibitively expensive, and means you can travel from city centre to city centre in around ninety minutes (including check-in and ground transfers), compared with more than four hours overland. In addition, the airborne views over the desert, the Dead Sea and the Petra mountains are exceptional; sit on the right-hand side heading south.
Cycling around Jordan is a very pleasant way to travel, although only a handful of locals cycle (mostly in the flat Jordan Valley) and you’re likely to be regarded as mad if you try. Apart from the heat and steep hills, the chief dangers are oblivious drivers and – occasionally – groups of stone-throwing kids in remote villages. Although it may seem counter-intuitive you should try to dress conservatively if you’re planning a solo ride in the hinterlands: rural villagers simply aren’t used to lurid skin-tight Lycra.
There are no bike rental firms in Jordan. Check the Cycling Jordan group (t 079 885 4454) on Facebook and Twitter for details of spare-parts outlets, weekend bike trips and to make contact with like-minded locals. The adventure tour operator Terhaal (w terhaal.com) runs regular mountain-bike excursions around Madaba, Mukawir and the Dead Sea.