I figured I’d tell my story about getting into Morocco, my first country in Africa. Perhaps it’s not the best guide, but it gives an idea of what to expect, how cheap it can be, what to avoid and a few tips.
Finding a Plane Ticket to Morocco
If you have unlimited funds to throw around, you can probably buy your ticket from wherever you are to Marrakech or whichever city you want to visit in Morocco. That’s not the case for me. Utilizing my steps for finding cheap flights, I searched Skyscanner to find what the cheapest flights were from anywhere in the UK to anywhere in Morocco in the month of November and then narrowed down the dates for the Trablin conference I was planning to attend. The conference was in Marrakech from November 10th to the 17th. I ended up finding a round-trip flight from London to Rabat with Ryanair for $68, plus another $15 under the new cabin baggage fees.
Budget airlines are a great way to travel around Europe, but they’re finding ways to not be so budget friendly. For one thing, baggage restrictions keep getting tighter. Ryanair used to allow two free cabin bags, one that would fit into the overhead and the other under the seat in front of you. As of November 1st, 2018, they’re charging $7.50 for the overhead baggage (my Osprey Farpoint 40 is about as big as you can take). The free carry-on for under the seat must be the size of a small backpack or handbag. Basically, it sucks! With the paid baggage, you get priority check-in, which means the priority line is now several times longer than non-priority! Um…
Getting from Rabat to Marrakech
After I booked my plane ticket, I started looking at how I would get from Rabat to Marrakech. Talk about doing things in the wrong sequence! After a bit of searching, I found ONCF, the website for all the trains in Morocco. Unfortunately, the last train from Rabat to Marrakech was leaving at 8 p.m., about the same time my flight was scheduled to arrive. The next train was at 5:15 in the morning, which would get me into Marrakech after my first tour started.
Finding long-distance buses on Google Maps doesn’t really work. It took me some time, but I finally found the website Lagare.ma which listed all the buses. They were leaving every few minutes, so I didn’t really have anything to worry about. They were also cheap, about $8-10 each.
Arriving in Morocco
Unsurprising for Ryanair, my flight was delayed and arrived in Rabat half an hour later than scheduled. I had napped on the flight and must have missed the announcement to fill out to the entry card, so I was sent back to do this when I made it to the immigration window, adding another few minutes to my schedule. Anyone coming in from the US or UK definitely has to fill out the card, which is at the beginning of the immigration queue.
Once in the lobby of the airport, I did one of the first two actions to take in a new country. I went straight to the ATM to withdraw some cash. I had already checked XE.com to find the exchange rates (Morocco is about 10 Moroccan MAD to $1.05 currently). It’s always good to take out just enough for the whole trip, as ATMs around the world charge per transaction, although my Schwab Debit Card refunds this charge every month. The second action I should have done was purchase a SIM card, but I didn’t see any stands in the airport and I wanted to get into town and on my bus as soon as possible.
Rule #1 for saving money at an airport – ignore the taxis and find the local transport. Wiki Travel has a page for every city in the world, and it usually gives the cheapest way from the airport into town. In Rabat, this was a bus for 20 MAD ($2.10). It left a few minutes after I got outside, and 20 minutes later I was in the center of town.
The airport bus dropped me off outside the train station, which would have been perfect if there had been a train I could take. I even went to check at the station to see if there was one, but it clearly said the next train to Marrakech was at 5:15 the following morning. I asked the ticket manager where the bus station was, and he directed me on the map, saying I would need a taxi to get there as the bus station is almost outside of town.
I went outside to get my taxi and was immediately quoted 50 MAD (Moroccan dirham). I knew this was a ridiculous price for a 10-minute trip but only managed to haggle it down to 40. I probably could have walked a couple streets from the train station and gotten a better fare, but it was really starting to get late and I wanted at least a little sleep.
As soon as I arrived at the bus station, I was accosted by several men trying to sell me a bus ticket. I was expecting this and walked through them to the ticket counters. I recognize one company, CTM, but their windows were closed. Only one window was labeled for Marrakech, and I got a bus ticket there for 80 MAD, which I knew from the Lagare website was one of the cheaper options.
Oops! In Morocco, as with nearly everywhere else, cheap means cheap. My bus was absolutely packed and had no amenities – no toilet, air conditioning, WiFi or anything else. But that wasn’t what really sucked. What should have been a 2.5 hour trip to Marrakech ended up taking nearly 6 hours! The bus stopped several times along the way, and sometimes for half an hour at a time. At one point, I saw the luxury CTM bus pass us by, clearly labeled with the full range of amenities. I could have cried.
Arriving in Marrakech
At 3 a.m., I awoke as we pulled into a bus depot. It was nearly abandoned, but the guy in the seat next to me said it was Marrakech as he got off the bus. I disembarked and immediately started to get worried. There was nothing around. Not only were there no taxis waiting, there weren’t any buildings to be seen either. It seemed I was still out in the desert somewhere. I was really starting to regret not getting my SIM card.
After a few minutes of wandering around trying to figure out what to do, the bus driver found me and pointed at the bus, saying Marrakech. Seemed we still had one more stop. Thank god! Ten minutes later, we pulled into a bus station near the center of town. A passenger on the bus miraculously knew where my hostel was and was able to get a cab for me. Another 30 MAD and I was brought the last two miles to the entrance of the Kasbah. From there, it was a short walk through deserted alleyways to the Dream Kasbah Hostel.
I arrived at the front door at 3:30 a.m., glad I had received an email that I could check in at any time. I had specifically picked a hostel with a 24-hour reception…or so they said. For the next half an hour, I stood in the alley knocking at the door and pressing the buzzer until the receptionist groggily let me in. He took my passport (despite my feeble attempts to argue) and brought me to an empty bed, saying I could check in in the morning. I set my alarm for 7:30 to be ready for my tour at 8.
Less than three hours later, the receptionist was shaking me awake, saying the tour driver was waiting for me. What?! As it turns out, 2018 is the first year that Morocco isn’t observing daylight saving time, but Google and Android didn’t get the memo. My phone hadn’t automatically updated the time, and everything that had happened the previous night had really been an hour later. That meant I had actually gone to bed at 5:10 in the morning, and my 7:30 alarm wouldn’t go off until 8:30. Sixty seconds later, I had changed my shirt, grabbed my bag, collected my passport from the receptionist and run out the door for my tour to Essaouira.
All told, I spent 170 MAD (about $18) getting from Rabat to my hostel in Marrakech. That’s a lot less than I would have paid for a flight directly to Marrakech, and I’ve been told a taxi from the airport in Marrakech can be as much as $15 if you fall for a scam. I did get some sleep on the plane and the bus, plus a couple cat naps on the way out to Essaouira. Stressful? A little. Worth it? Hell yes! Morocco is my first country in Africa, and so far I’m absolutely loving it! Stay tuned for my story about Essaouira with Time Out Marrakech Tours, which I’ll try to get written while enjoying an amazing luxury desert safari.
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Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
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