Getting around this compact country is pretty straightforward, thanks to a far-reaching network of public transport. Rail, bus, and collective -- or grands -- taxis pretty much cover most of the country, with larger transit-vans and Berber trucks covering the more inaccessible areas.
However, although the coverage may be good, it always pays to have a bit of "Moroccan time" up your sleeve, as delays can sometimes occur on public transport.
The state-run Office National des Chemins de Fer (ONCF; tel. 0890/203040 within Morocco; www.oncf.ma) operates a safe and comfortable rail network connecting most cities west of the Atlas Mountains, including Fes, Meknes, Tangier, Rabat, Casablanca, and Marrakech. ONCF's subsidiary, Supratours , runs buses linking some other destinations to the rail network, such as Essaouira. Rail travel in Morocco is quite cheap when compared to that in Europe and North America. A first-class ticket on the network's longest journey -- the 15-hour, 825km (513-mile) trip from Oujda to Marrakech -- costs 420dh.
Timetables rarely change, although special schedules are arranged during Ramadan and the two subsequent festival times of Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha. Timetables are usually posted within the station, or can be viewed on the ONCF website (horaries for schedules, tarifs for the fare). Station counter staff can also print the schedule between two particular stations. Punctuality and reliability can be hit or miss on the network, with trains operating with Swiss-like precision at times, and other times running frustratingly late. There are two types of trains, Train Navette Rapide (TNR), also called ordinaire, and Train Rapide Climatisé (TRC), also called train à supplement or train noble. Almost all intercity services are TRC trains, which are air-conditioned and offer both first- and second-class travel. Drinks and snacks are available on the train, and smoking is (theoretically) not allowed in compartments, just the carriageway.
First-class compartments have six seats; second-class ones have eight. All overnight trains have couchettes, and some also offer sleeper cars. Couchettes consist of four or six bunk beds in each compartment, while sleeper cars offer one or two beds, a toilet, and washbasin. Each couchette and sleeper car has its own attendant for security, who'll also wake you in time for your stop. Couchettes and sleepers must be booked in advance, with a couchette costing an additional 90dh on top of your ticket, and sleeper cars costing no more than 350dh, depending on the length of the journey. Reservations can be made from within Morocco only, and can be made 2 months in advance for couchettes, while first-class tickets for other journeys can be reserved 1 month in advance. Tickets prebooked over the phone must be collected from the departure station at least 4 hours before departure. Second-class seats can't be prebooked. Other than that, you can simply purchase your ticket at the station before departure, or even on the train, although this incurs a supplement. Prebooking is especially recommended for overnight couchettes and for travel during Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha. Also, first-class fares on many routes can get sold out, so it's worth getting to the station early; even second class on some routes is often overbooked and commuters can be left standing in the aisle. All tickets are sold at train stations -- payable in cash only -- and authorized travel agents. The flip side of being so organized is that many Moroccans are unaware of, or don't understand, the concept of prereserved seating, and you may well find someone in your seat. If you have any difficulty in procuring your allotted seat, there are conductors moving through the trains regularly.
Tickets are valid for 5 days and are worth hanging onto during the journey, as conductors check them on the train and often collect them at the arrival station. A return (retour) ticket is exactly double the price of a one-way (aller simple), and any journey that includes a Supratours service (called a Road & Rail ticket) can only be booked one way.
There are a few reductions and discounts available. The Billet Week-end offers a 25% reduction on return journeys of a minimum of 360km (223 miles) made over the same weekend. The Carte Fidelité, which costs 149dh and is valid for 1 year, is for those 26 years old and over and gives a 50% discount on 16 one-way, second-class journeys. The Carte Jeune costs 99dh and offers the same discount for those 25 and under. There are also reductions available for small children, seniors, and families. You can inquire at any train station; you'll need a photocopy of your passport and a passport-size photograph.
Most luggage, including surfboards and bicycles, can be taken on as carry-on. Moroccan train conductors are friendly, well informed, and helpful. They usually announce -- in Arabic and French -- each station well in advance, but many stations are poorly signposted, so it pays to stay alert as to when your station should be coming up; don't be afraid to ask your fellow passengers. Platforms on some stations are only accessed by walking across the tracks. The stations themselves usually offer luggage storage for up to 24 hours for 10dh per item.
Buses are the cheapest and most popular way to get around Morocco, and they have by far the greatest reach. A complex network of private bus companies crisscrosses the country, with many competing lines covering the most popular routes. The "big four" are Compagnie de Transports Marocains (CTM), SATAS, Trans Ghazala, and Supratours. CTM (tel. 0522/541010; www.ctm.ma) is the privatized national carrier and the most reliable. Their network covers the entire country, and buses depart on fixed schedules with numbered seating. SATAS and Trans Ghazala are the best of the private lines, operating largely in the country's south and north, respectively. Supratours (tel. 0522/298163 central reservations; www.supratours.ma) operates in conjunction with the national rail carrier, ONCF. Their routes supplement ONCF's schedule to destinations south of Marrakech (including Agadir and Essaouira) and to the northern cities of Tetouan and Nador, and are direct point-to-point services. All of these companies offer well-maintained, air-conditioned buses, and due to seat numbering, don't oversell. They also, theoretically, only pick up and drop off from designated stops.
All the other private companies operate with smaller fleets, often running on a definitive timetable and departing only when the driver and his attendants think the bus is sufficiently full. These operators are very competitive for business, often paying commission to hustlers and touts. Their fleets can be poorly maintained, with vehicles driven recklessly in order to arrive at particular destinations before their competitor. Their advantage over the bigger companies is their access to the country's smaller villages and more inaccessible towns.
Some companies, CTM included, operate overnight services on long-distance routes, such as between Fes and Marrakech; Casablanca and Tangier; and Casablanca and Er Rachidia. From June to September, these services are a popular -- and cooler -- alternative to traveling during the day.
Fares can be as little as 40dh for the 1-hour journey between Fes and Meknes, and even the 12- to 15-hour long-haul routes cost no more than 300dh.
Most towns in Morocco have a main bus station, called a gare routière. This can sometimes be similar to the Western perception of a bus station, but can also be a simple patch of ground. More often than not, it will be located some distance from the center, but there are usually petits taxis parked nearby. Some cities have more than one gare routière. This is in addition to CTM, which largely operates from its own terminals, located outside its offices. Supratours buses operate either from the train station or from their own office. In the larger towns and cities, the gare routière can feel intimidating upon arrival. Each bus company will have a ticket counter, usually displaying their departures in the window. Normally upon arrival, Western travelers are approached by ticket touts called courtiers. Although overwhelming initially, courtiers do usually know their stuff and can be handy in some of the busier stations. Advise your destination, and you will be directed to the appropriate ticket counter. A courtier earns a small commission for every passenger he brings to the company, but he will also expect a small tip from you for his service. To get the most value out of this service, and some peace of mind, I always ask to be shown to the particular bus that I will be traveling on before I purchase my ticket.
It's worth trying to buy your ticket in advance, especially if you're traveling to a popular destination or wish to travel with one of the companies mentioned above. At the very least, try to arrive early in the day to give yourself the most options. This is particularly wise in the smaller towns, where buses traveling through are already full and therefore don't stop.
When traveling with the companies mentioned above, luggage is usually charged extra per piece. You should be given a receipt, and your luggage will be stowed for you. With the private companies, you are normally charged a per-item fee, paid to an independent porter. Either way, it's never normally any more than 10dh per piece. Most gare routière and CTM stations have a luggage storage where you can leave your bags for up to 24 hours for around 10dh per piece.
In rural areas, such as the High Atlas villages, there may be no bus or grand taxi services. In their place you will normally find trucks or lorries (camions) and transit vans (transits). They operate pretty much the same as grands taxis and can be a fun and memorable way to travel around the far reaches of the country.
By Grand Taxi
Morocco's collective taxis, called grands taxis, are the workhorses of the country's public transport system, operating in every corner throughout the day and night, linking villages with towns and towns with cities. They are usually old Mercedes sedans and are located at organized ranks next to bus stations, train stations, and even street corners. Most routes are short and regular, with longer or less popular routes normally leaving early in the morning. Grands taxis always travel with six passengers -- two in the front next to the driver and four in the back. If it sounds cramped, you're right. Travelers with just a slightly bigger budget than stone broke often choose to pay for two seats and claim the front seat for themselves. This is an especially good idea for single female travelers. Many taxi drivers will try to push this onto Western travelers, however. If you only want to pay for one seat, you can use the words wa-hed (one) and collectif (collective taxi). The fares are fixed, and drivers rarely attempt to overcharge Westerners, though they often try to add on extra for luggage, which is fair if you're accompanied by a surfboard or three suitcases, but not for any reasonable piece of luggage.
I've given many examples of routes and their corresponding fares. Grands taxis leave when full, and there's no system of prebooking a seat. A good option for small groups or families is to charter a whole taxi. This allows for much more freedom within the journey (rest and toilet stops, for example), and can often be organized by your hotel. Although it seems obvious that the cost of chartering a whole grand taxi should be six times the single fare, this isn't always the case. Bargain hard.
There are some pertinent safety concerns attached to traveling in grands taxis. Many drivers are under pressure to work long hours, and falling asleep at the wheel is a definite possibility on night drives, so it's best to travel by day. Within that busy day, a driver is trying to fit in as many journeys as possible, and will often drive as if there is no one else on the road. Overtaking on blind corners is common on many grand taxi journeys. Added to this is the lack of available seat belts, because it's either too cramped within the vehicle or there quite simply aren't any. Needless to say, when chartering a grand taxi, stress on the driver your expectations toward his driving.
Given enough time, driving yourself around Morocco is a great way to enjoy the country -- if it wasn't for Moroccan drivers. Accident rates are very high, and aggressive driving practices and lack of road safety awareness by pedestrians, cyclists, and moped riders can make for a stressful experience. However, if you can handle what sometimes feels like a driving free-for-all and desire maximum flexibility and independence, then self-driving in Morocco is definitely plausible. The road network linking the country is generally very good, with some European-standard motorways (called auto-routes), many other well-surfaced (though sometimes narrow) secondary and minor roads, and a network of dirt roads, called pistes, through the Atlas ranges.
The minimum driving age in Morocco is 18, though most rental companies will only rent to those 21 and older. You must have both your driving license and passport available for inspection by police at any time. An international driver's license isn't required, so long as your domestic license bears your photograph. Driving in Morocco is on the right-hand side, the same as in continental Europe and North America, and most roundabouts apply the French rule, where priority is given to those entering, rather than those already on, the roundabout. On the motorways the speed limit is 120kmph (75 mph), while on other open roads the limit is 100kmph (62 mph). In built-up areas the limit is usually 40kmph (25 mph). Road signs advising the speed limit are relatively common, but so are police checks and speed traps. Oncoming motorists usually flash their lights to warn of an approaching roadblock or speed radar. On-the-spot fines for speeding start at 400dh. If you're caught speeding, pay the official fine rather than baksheesh (a bribe); this will perhaps lessen the seemingly inherent corruption within Morocco's police force.
Motorways are superb for getting quickly between the major cities and regions, as they connect Tangier, Rabat, Casablanca, Fes, Meknes, Marrakech, and El Jadida. An extension connecting Ceuta to Tangier opened in 2008, and work is underway on a Marrakech-to-Agadir extension that should be complete by the end of 2010. Toll stations are located regularly along the routes, and the cost (calculated on the distance traveled and the size of vehicle) is very reasonable given the quality of the roads. For example, the current cost for a sedan is 107dh from Tangier to Casablanca; 20dh from Casablanca to Rabat; and 145dh from Casablanca to Marrakech. The toll stations are about the only services in Morocco that always have change, so pay with your notes and keep the change for everyday use. Modern roadside gas stations-cum-restaurants are also dotted along the routes, as are emergency assistance patrols.
Fuel is referred to as "petrol" or "essence," with leaded petrol called super, unleaded sans plomb, and regular diesel gasoil. Some gas stations also offer Euro Diesel, which is supposedly more environment-friendly and thus more expensive. Leaded and unleaded currently cost around 11dh to 12dh per liter, regular diesel is around 8dh per liter, and Euro Diesel around 10dh to 11dh. Four liters is approximately 1 gallon. Leaded and diesel fuel are both usually available at all gas stations, located throughout the country, but sparsely between towns in rural areas. Unleaded can be difficult to procure sometimes, and it's therefore best to fill up whenever you can; the Afriquia stations are your best bet. If you break down, there is no national roadside assistance service, but every reputable car-rental agency will advise you of a phone number to call in case of an emergency such as a breakdown. In addition, Moroccan mechanics are experts at getting your car back on the road. Parts for most cars, especially French makes, are usually readily available.
Driving in Morocco's cities can be extremely daunting. One particularly crazy time is nearing sunset during Ramadan. The mad rush to finish work and get home (it's traditional to break each day's fast with family or close friends) brings about even crazier driving tactics than normal. Conversely, the hour or so after sunset sees the streets practically void of any traffic, motorized or pedestrian. If you can time your entry or exit with this time of the Ramadan day, you'll have a free run.
Parking in Morocco's urban centers can be difficult. Most top-end hotels will offer private parking, while street-side parking is attended to by gardiens. Gardiens are often licensed by the local authorities to keep a watch over vehicles in a given area. Gardiens only earn money from the tips they receive from drivers. They may ask for a fee, or tip, upfront if you are staying for more than a day, as sometimes arguments break out between a day-shift and night-shift gardien as to who has earned the money. Budget on 10dh per shift, and you'll keep everybody happy. If you're lucky, you might even find your car has been washed before you depart. Note: Red- and white-stripe curbing means no parking.
The major international car-rental firms are all represented in Morocco, with agencies in most of the major cities and airports. These include Avis (tel. 0522/312424; www.avis.com), Budget (tel. 0522/313124; www.budget.com), Europcar (tel. 0522/313737; www.europcar.com), Hertz (tel. 0522/484710; www.hertz.com); and National/Alamo (tel. 0522/472540; www.nationalcar.com). There are also countless local car-rental firms. To rent a car in Morocco you'll need to be 21 years or older and theoretically have a year's driving experience. Group A vehicles, usually a small, four-door hatch or sedan, are the smallest available and perfectly adequate for most road touring in Morocco. The next size up is Group B, usually a small to medium four-door sedan, which will have a bit more power and may offer air-conditioning and a music system. Generally, it can be difficult, but not impossible, to acquire an automatic-gear rental car.
Car rental is a very competitive industry in Morocco, and daily rates ebb and flow according to season, demand, and supply. Costs for a Group A can range from 350dh to 500dh per day with unlimited mileage. These rates will usually include basic third-party insurance, but I recommend paying an extra 50dh to 100dh per day for collision damage waiver (CDW) insurance. This usually still has an excess of between 3,000dh and 5,000dh, which can be waived by paying a "super" collision damage waiver of around 50dh per day. There's usually no additional fee for an additional driver, but each driver's name must be recorded on the rental agreement. Most companies request an imprint of your credit card as a deposit.
All of the above costs are usually non-negotiable with the international firms, especially if you prebook, but can often be negotiated with the local firms, especially outside of high tourist season (June-Sept). Although this can be advantageous for your wallet, first compare the logistical and mechanical assistance offered between companies. Also, not many local companies offer one-way rentals.
By Petit Taxi
Operating in all cities and large towns are local taxis called petits taxis. These small four-door vehicles are the most convenient and inexpensive way to get around town. They are usually a four-door hatch, and those operating in each city or town are all colored the same; beige in Marrakech and turquoise in Tangier, for example. Government-regulated drivers are only allowed to carry up to three passengers, though these can all be traveling on separate fares, and are only allowed to travel within the city/town limits. At all times, request (sometimes this becomes a demand) the driver to charge by his electronic meter, as he is legally bound to no matter the time of day or night. After 8pm, a 50% surcharge kicks in. Fares are usually no more than 15dh to 20dh per trip -- not per person -- and are quite often less.
Most international travelers only fly within Morocco when connecting directly from an international flight, such as New York to Marrakech, where you will more than likely change planes onto a local carrier in Casablanca. Domestic flights are relatively expensive when compared to road and rail, and are subject to frequent delays that often negate the quicker flying time. As there are only two domestic air carriers, competition is low and fares are relatively high. Both carriers have an extensive network of flights servicing the country, mostly emanating from Casablanca.