Getting around Morocco: Transportation Tips
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Regular flights and ferries connect the country with Europe and the Middle East. Once there, getting around Morocco on public transport is generally easy, with a rail network linking the main towns of the north, the coast and Marrakesh, and plenty of buses and collective taxis. Renting a car can open up routes that are time-consuming or difficult on local transport.
Despite a limited network of routes, getting around Morocco by train is the best option if you are travelling between the major cities. The trains are comfortable and fairly fast, but can sometimes be subject to delays.
There are two main lines: from Tangier in the north down to Marrakesh, and from Oujda in the northeast, also to Marrakesh, joining with the Tangier line at Sidi Kacem. Branch lines serve Nador, El Jadida, Safi, Oued Zem and Casablanca airport. A high-speed line (LGV) from Tangier to Casablanca is under construction, which should reduce the journey time between the two cities to just over two hours, with eventual extension to Marrakesh.
Train schedules rarely change, but it’s wise to check times in advance at stations. Timetables are displayed at major train stations, and any station ticket office will print you off a mini-timetable of services between any two stations. You can also check schedules (horaires) and fares (tarifs) and buy tickets on the ONCF website. Tickets do not need to be booked in advance, except for sleeper services, and can be bought at the station. The price of a second-class ticket is slightly more than what you’d pay for buses. On certain “express” services, ticket prices are around thirty percent higher.
There are couchettes available on the Tangier–Marrakesh and Casablanca–Oujda night trains – worth the money for both the comfort and the security, as couchette passengers are in their own locked carriage with a guard. Most stations are located reasonably close to the modern city centres. Note that they do not have left-luggage facilities.
Getting around Morocco by bus is generally only marginally cheaper than taking a shared grand taxi, and around thirty percent slower, but also safer and more comfortable. On some older buses, legroom is limited, and long journeys can be uncomfortable for taller passengers. Many long-distance buses run at night when they are both quicker and cooler. Note that the rate of accidents involving night buses is quite high, especially on busy routes.
Travelling during the day, especially in summer, it pays to sit on the side away from the sun. Travelling from north to south, this means sitting on the right in the morning, on the left in the afternoon, vice versa if going the other way. Travelling from east to west, sit on the right, or on the left if going from west to east. In fact, Moroccan passengers often pull down the blinds and shut the windows, which can block out the scenery and make the journey rather claustrophobic. Note too, especially on rural services, that some passengers may be unused to road travel, resulting in travel sickness and vomiting.
Buses run by CTM (the national company) are faster and more reliable than private services, with numbered seats and fixed departure schedules, which can be checked online. CTM services usually have reading lights, though you may have to ask the driver to turn those on. Some of the larger private company buses, such as SATAS (which operates widely in the south) and Trans Ghazala (which runs in the north) are of a similar standard, but many other private companies are tiny outfits, with a single bus which leaves only when the driver considers it sufficiently full. On the other hand, such private buses are much more likely to stop for you if you flag them down on the open road, whereas CTM services will only pick up and set down at official stops.
Most towns have a main bus station (gare routière), often on the edge of town. CTM buses usually leave from the company’s office, which may be quite a way from the main bus station, though in several places CTM and the private companies share a single terminal, and in some cases, the CTM bus will call at the main bus station when departing a city, though not when arriving.
Bus stations usually have a number of ticket windows, one for each of the companies operating out of it. There is occasionally a departures board, but it may be out of date and in Arabic only, so you should always check departure times at the appropriate window. Bus conductors or ticket sellers may be calling out destinations in the bus station in any case, or may greet you as you come in by asking where you want to go. On the more popular trips (and especially with CTM services, which often run just once a day in the south), it’s worth trying to buy tickets in advance, though this may not always be possible on smaller private-line services.
Buses can arrive and leave already full in small towns along major routes. It’s sometimes possible to get around this by taking a local bus or a grand taxi for the next section of the trip (until the bus you want empties a little), or by waiting for a bus that actually starts from the town you’re in. Overall, the best policy is to arrive at a bus station early in the day (ideally 5.30–6am).
On private buses, you generally pay for your baggage to be loaded into the hold (or onto the roof ). The standard fee is 5dh, but this may be forgone on short hops. Note that you only pay to have your baggage loaded, not to have it unloaded on arrival, whatever anybody may say.
On CTM, SATAS and Supratours buses, your luggage is weighed and you are issued with a receipt for the baggage charge (usually 5–10dh, depending on weight and distance – allow time for this procedure). On arrival, porters with wheeled box-carts (chariots) may offer their services, but always agree a price before engaging one.
Supratours express buses run as feeder services on main routes by the train company ONCF. These are fast and very comfortable, and run from Tetouan, Essaouira, Agadir and the Western Sahara to connect with rail services from Oujda, Tangier and Marrakesh. Timetables and fares for Supratours buses can be found on the ONCF website and on their own site. Supratours services compare, in both time and cost, with CTM buses. They do not use the main bus stations but depart from outside their own town-centre offices. Through tickets to and from connecting rail stations are available, and travellers with rail tickets for connecting services have priority. It’s best to book tickets in advance if possible.
Royal Air Maroc operates domestic flights from its Casablanca hub to major cities nationwide. You will usually have to change planes at Casablanca in order to travel between any other two points, unless both are stops on a single Casa-bound flight (Dakhla to Laayoune, for example). In general, travelling around Morocco by plane is not really worthwhile, except for long-distance routes such as to Laayoune or Dakhla in the Western Sahara, when they can save you a lot of time. A flight from Casablanca to Laayoune, for example, would take an hour and three quarters, compared to nineteen hours by bus. Casa to Dakhla would take you two hours and twenty minutes by air compared to 28 hours by bus. If you are tight for time, flying is the best way to travel long distances in Morocco.
Information on Morocco’s airports, including daily departure lists for some of them, can be found on the website of the Office National des Aéroports. You should confirm flights 72 hours before departure. Student and under-26 youth discounts of 25 percent are available on RAM domestic flights, but only if the ticket is bought in advance from one of its offices.
Car rental in Morocco starts at around 3000dh (£250/$320) per week or 500dh (£40/$55) a day (there’s usually a three-day minimum) for a basic car with unlimited mileage and insurance cover. Having a car pays obvious dividends if you are pushed for time, especially in the south, where buses and taxis may be sparse, but chartering a grand taxi and agreeing on a daily rate will not cost that much more.
Many visitors rent a car in Casablanca, Marrakesh or Agadir, but it may work out cheaper to arrange car rental in advance through the travel company who arranges your flight. With international franchises such as Hertz, Budget, Europcar and Avis, you can book from home by phone or online. Local firms have the advantage that the price is more likely to be negotiable, though you should check the condition of the vehicle carefully. Many hotels can arrange car rental at reasonable rates. If you can’t or don’t want to drive yourself, car rental companies may be able to arrange a driver for around 400dh (£32/$42) a day.
Before setting out, make sure the car comes with a spare tyre, a toolkit and full documentation – including insurance cover, which is compulsory issue with all rentals. It’s a good idea to get full insurance to avoid charges for bumps and scratches. Most car rental agreements prohibit use of the car on unsurfaced roads, and you will be liable for any damage sustained if you do drive off-tarmac.
There are few real problems driving in Morocco, but accident rates are high, largely because motorists routinely ignore traffic regulations and drive aggressively and dangerously. Do not expect other drivers to indicate or observe lane discipline. Beware when coming up to blind curves or hills where vehicles coming in the other direction may be trying to overtake without a full view of the road ahead. Treat all pedestrians with the suspicion that they will cross in front of you, and all cyclists with the idea that they may suddenly swerve into the middle of the road. All this makes driving a particularly hair-raising experience in towns, and even experienced drivers may find city driving quite stressful. The difficulty of finding places in cities due to the lack of street signs adds to the problem. Be particularly wary about driving after dark, as it is legal to drive up to 20km/h without lights, which allows all cyclists and mopeds to wander at will. Wild animals may also pose an extra danger when driving at night.
With all that in mind, daytime and certainly long-distance driving can be as good as anywhere. Good road surfaces, long straight roads, and little traffic between inhabited areas allow for high average speeds.
The usual speed limit outside towns is 40km/h (25mph) in built-up areas, 100km/h (62mph) on ordinary roads, and 120km/h (75mph) on motorways. There are on-the-spot fines for speeding, and oncoming motorists flashing their headlights at you may well be warning you to slow down for a police check ahead (radar speed traps are common).
The French rule of giving priority to traffic from the right is observed at roundabouts and junctions – meaning that cars coming onto a roundabout have priority over those already on it.
By law, drivers and passengers are required to wear seat belts. Almost no one does, but if you follow suit and are stopped by the police, you may have a small (possibly unofficial) fine extracted. Given Morocco’s high road accident rate, it is foolhardy not to wear a seat belt anyway. You drive on the right.
The minimum age for driving in Morocco is 21 years. EU, North American and Australasian driving licences are recognized and valid in Morocco, though an International Driving Licence, with its French translations (available from the AA or equivalent motoring organizations) is a worthwhile investment, especially if your domestic licence doesn’t have a photograph on it (Moroccan police will find that strange). You must carry your driving licence and passport at all times.
Whether you rent a car or drive your own, always make sure you’re carrying a spare tyre in good condition (plus a jack and tools). Flat tyres occur very frequently, even on fairly major roads, and you can often be in for a long wait until someone drives along with a possible replacement. Carrying an emergency windscreen is also useful, especially if driving your own car for a long period of time. There are lots of loose stones on the hard shoulders of single-lane roads and they can fly all over the place. If you’re not mechanically minded, be sure to bring a car maintenance manual – a useful item, too, for anyone planning to rent a vehicle.
Filling stations can be few and far between in rural areas: always fill your tank to the limit. Unleaded fuel is available in most places nowadays, but it’s always worth filling up when you have the chance as supplies can be sporadic. Fuel prices are generally lower than in Western Europe, at 10.11dh (€0.91/82p/$1.07) a litre for unleaded (sans plomb or bidoun rasas), and 11.60dh (€1.05/95p/$1.24) for diesel (gasoil, pronounced “gazwaal”). In the Saharan provinces (basically the Western Sahara), fuel is subsidized, and costs about a third less. Fuel in the duty-free Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla is cheaper than it is on the Spanish mainland, but slightly more for petrol than in Morocco proper, at around €1.22 (£1.09/$1.40) for unleaded (sin plomo) and €1.13 (£1.01/$1.29) for diesel (gasóleo).
Moroccan mechanics are usually excellent at coping with breakdowns and all medium-sized towns have garages (most with an extensive range of spare parts for most French cars, and usually for Fiats too). However, if you break down miles from anywhere you’ll probably end up paying a fortune to get a truck to tow you to the nearest town.
If you are driving your own vehicle, there is also the problem of having to re-export any car that you bring into the country (even a wreck). You can’t just write off a car: you’ll have to take it out of Morocco with you.
Insurance must by law be sold along with all rental agreements. Driving your own vehicle, you should obtain Green Card cover from your insurers. If you don’t have it on arrival, you can buy it from Assurance Frontière at around €145 (£130/$166) a month for a car or camper van, at Tangier port, Nador port, or the land frontiers at Ceuta and Melilla, or online, or contact the Fédération Marocaine des Sociétés d’Assurances et de Réassurance.
Parking in almost any town, you will find a gardien de voitures, usually licensed by local authorities to look after cars, and claiming a couple of dirhams by way of parking fees. Alternatively, most of the larger hotels in the Ville Nouvelle quarters of cities have parking spaces (and occasionally garaging). It’s always worth paying for a gardien or parking in a garage, as new or well-looked-after cars attract a certain level of vandalism. Red-and-white-striped kerbs mean no parking is allowed.
Shared grands taxis are one of the best ways to travel in Morocco. They operate on a wide variety of routes, are much quicker than buses (usually quicker than trains, too), and fares vary from slightly more than the bus to around twice as much.
The taxis are usually big Peugeot or Mercedes cars carrying six passengers. Most business is along specific routes, and the most popular routes have more or less continuous departures throughout the day. You just show up at the terminal and ask for a place to a specific destination.
The best time to arrive is early morning (6–8am), when a lot of people are travelling and taxis fill up quickly; lunchtime, on the other hand, is a bad time to turn up, as fewer people will be travelling, and the taxi will take longer to get full. As soon as six (or, if you’re willing to pay extra, four or five) people are assembled, the taxi sets off. Make sure, when asking about grands taxis, that it is clear you only want a place (une place in French, plassa in Arabic, or hold up one finger) in a shared taxi (taxi collectif), as drivers often “presume” that a tourist will want to charter the whole taxi, which means paying for all six places. Women travelling alone may wish to pay for two places and get the front seat to themselves rather than be squashed up against male passengers.
Picking up a shared taxi on the road is more problematic, as they will only stop if they have a place free (if a passenger has already alighted). To hail a taxi on the open road, hold up one, two or more fingers to indicate how many places you need.
Fares for set routes are fixed, and drivers do not usually try to overcharge tourists for a place (though occasionally they try to charge for baggage, which usually travels free of charge). If you think that you are being overcharged, ask the other passengers, or check the price with your hotel before leaving. Occasionally, five passengers may agree to split the cost of the last place to hasten departure, or one passenger may agree to pay for two places. You pay the full fare for the journey even if travelling only part of the way.
If you want to take a non-standard route, or an excursion, or just to have the taxi to yourself, it is possible to charter a whole grand taxi (une course in French, corsa in Arabic). In theory this should be exactly six times the price of a place in a shared taxi if the route has a set fare, but you’ll often have to bargain hard to get that. Hotels can sometimes be useful in helping to charter grands taxis.
Some people consider shared taxis dangerous. It is certainly true that they are prone to practices such as speeding, and overtaking on blind curves or the brows of hills, and that they have more than their fair share of accidents. Drivers may work all day and into the night, and it seems a large number of accidents involve them falling asleep at the wheel while driving at night, so you may wish to avoid using them for night-time journeys, especially on busy roads. Note also that with the seating arrangements, it is not usually possible to wear a seat belt, though if you pay for two places, you can get the front seat to yourself and put the belt on.
Morocco has all the major attractions sought by motorbike enthusiasts. If you are travelling around Morocco by motorbike, it is a sensible idea to go as part of a group. H-C Travel in the UK, Moto Adventures in Andorra and Wilderness Wheels in Ouarzazate provide off-road and trail biking packages. Taking your own bike is subject to the same bureaucracy as taking a car. One way of avoiding that is to rent a motorbike in Morocco. So far as road conditions are concerned, our comments on driving also apply to motorbikes.
Top image: Curve serpentine winding road in Dades Gorge mountain canyon © Breslavtsev Oleg/Shutterstock