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Middle East

Getting around

Boat

Practicality is the essence of Middle East ferry services, not luxury. Even in 1st class you shouldn't expect your voyage to be a pleasure cruise, while deck class often means just that. In summer conditions may be a little too hot for many people. While food and drink of some sort may be available on board, many passengers prefer to take their own.

Vehicles can usually be shipped on the services listed below, but advance arrangements may have to be made. For the latest information, get in touch with the head office or local agency of the respective company some time in advance.

Two ferry services operate between Nuweiba in Egypt and Aqaba in Jordan. The fast-ferry service from Egypt (adult/child US$55/39) takes one hour, while the slow ferry (adult/child US$41/29) makes the journey in 2½ to three hours. From Jordan, the adult prices for the fast/slow ferry are US$36/25.

There is also, in theory at least, a twice-weekly catamaran trip between Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh (officially US$45, three hours), but this wasn't operating at the time of research.

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Hitching

Although many travellers hitchhike, it is never an entirely safe way of getting around and those who do so should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. There is no part of the Middle East where hitching can be recommended for unaccompanied women travellers. Just because we explain how hitching works doesn't mean we recommend you do it.

Hitching as commonly understood in the West hardly exists in the Middle East (except Israel and the Palestinian Territories). Although in most countries you'll often see people standing by the road hoping for a lift, they will nearly always expect (and be expected) to offer to pay. Hitching in the Middle Eastern sense is not so much an alternative to the public transport system as an extension of it, particularly in areas where there is no regular public transport. The going rate is often roughly the equivalent of the bus or shared taxi fare, but may be more if a driver takes you to an address or place off their route. You may well be offered free lifts from time to time, but you won't get very far if you set out deliberately to avoid paying for transport.

Hitching is not illegal in any Middle Eastern country and in many places it is extremely common. However, while it's quite normal for Middle Easterners, Asians and Africans, it isn't something Westerners are expected to do. In many Middle Eastern countries, Westerners who try to set a precedent of any kind often attract considerable (and sometimes unwelcome) attention. While this can work to your advantage, it can also lead to suspicion from the local police.

Throughout the Middle East a raised thumb is a vaguely obscene gesture. A common way of signalling that you want a lift is to extend your right hand, palm down.

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Bus & tram

Bus

Buses are the most reliable, comfortable and (for longer journeys, at least) popular means of land transport in the Middle East. Throughout most of the region buses will take you to almost anywhere of any size; on many routes there may be no other form of public transport.

The cost and comfort of bus travel vary enormously throughout the region. One most typical nuisance, however, is the Middle Eastern bus drivers' fondness for loud videos (a fondness presumably shared by local passengers); sleep is almost always impossible. Another potential source of discomfort is that in most Middle Eastern countries the concept of a 'nonsmoking bus' is that these are things that other regions have.

Most Middle Eastern countries can be reached by taking a direct international bus from other parts of the region. For example, Damascus has several daily bus services to İstanbul (30 hours), Ankara (14 hours), Beirut (four hours) and Amman (seven hours), while Aleppo also has daily services to İstanbul (22 hours), Ankara (10 hours) and Beirut (six to seven hours). From Tehran, there are regular services to Ankara (28 hours), İstanbul (35 hours) and twice-weekly services to Damascus. From Amman it's also possible to travel to the King Hussein Bridge (for Israel and the Palestinian Territories; 45 minutes), Cairo (a daily bus-ferry combination; 16 hours) or even Baghdad (14 hours), although the latter journey is chronically unsafe. There are also services from Cairo to Jerusalem and from Cairo to Tel Aviv via Sinai (at least 10 hours).

Even in those countries without any international bus services it's usually possible to get to at least one neighbouring country by using domestic services, making your own way across the border and picking up another domestic service or taxi in the next country. This method is usually cheaper and it avoids one of the big problems of international services: waiting for the vehicle to clear customs at each border, which can mean delays of several hours. However, if you're planning on using domestic buses make sure that there will be onward transport on the other side of the border.

Bus

In most cities and towns, a minibus or bus service operates. Fares are very cheap, fast, regular and run on fixed routes with, in some cases, fixed stops. However, unless you're very familiar with the town, they can be difficult to get to grips with (few display their destinations and fewer still do so in English and they are often very crowded). Unless you can find an English-speaking local to help you out, your best bet is to stand along the footpath of a major thoroughfare heading in the direction you want to go and call out the local name (or the name of a landmark close to where you're heading) into the drivers' windows when they slow down.

Few countries have public minibuses to/from the airport, but top-end hotels and travel agencies (if you're taking a tour) can usually send a complimentary minibus if they're given sufficient advance notice.

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Car & motorcycle

Bringing your own car to the Middle East will give you a lot more freedom but it's certainly not for everyone.

Throughout the Middle East, motorcycles are fairly popular as a means of racing around in urban areas, but they are little used as long-distance transport. If you do decide to ride a motorcycle through the Middle East, try to take one of the more popular Japanese models if you want to stand any chance of finding spare parts. Even then, make sure your motorcycle is in very good shape before setting out. Motorcycles can be shipped or, often, loaded as luggage on to trains.

Hire

Car hire is possible in all Middle Eastern countries, and international hire companies such as Hertz (www.hertz.com), Avis (www.avis.com) and Europcar (www.europcar.com) are represented in many large towns. Local companies are usually cheaper, but the cars of international companies are often better maintained and come with a better back-up service if problems arise. Local companies (eg those offering 4WD vehicles in Libya) sometimes carry the advantage of including a driver for a similar cost to hiring the car alone. A good place to find competitive rates is Imakoo Cars (www.imakoocars.co.uk/directory-in.php/middle-east/), a clearing house for cheap rates of international companies with services in Lebanon, Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Reputable tour agencies can also be a good source of cars, offering competitive rates, decent cars and often a driver thrown in for little extra - usually the best option for short-term travellers. Some agencies can arrange vans, minibuses and buses for groups, but most deal only in cars; very few rent out motorcycles or bicycles.

To hire a car, you'll need any or all of the following: a photocopy of your passport and visa; deposit or credit card imprint; and your driving licence or IDP. The minimum age varies between 21 and 25; the latter is most common, particularly with international companies.

Always make sure whether insurance is included in the hire price, familiarise yourself with the policy, and don't hire a car unless it's insured for every eventuality.

Before hiring a self-drive vehicle, ask yourself seriously how well you think you can cope with the local driving conditions and whether you know your way around well enough to make good use of one. Also compare the cost with that of hiring a taxi for the same period.

Insurance

Insurance is compulsory in most Middle Eastern countries, apart from being highly advisable. Given the large number of minor accidents, not to mention major ones, fully comprehensive insurance (as opposed to third-party) is strongly advised, both for your own and any hire vehicle. Car-hire companies customarily supply insurance, but check the cover and conditions carefully.

Make certain that you're covered for off-piste travel, as well as travel between Middle Eastern countries (if you're planning cross-border excursions). A locally acquired motorcycle licence is not valid under some policies.

In the event of an accident, make sure you submit the accident report as soon as possible to the insurance company or, if hiring, the car-hire company.

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Train

No Middle Eastern country has an extensive railway network and there are few international services. Most railway lines in the region were built primarily for strategic or economic reasons, and many are either no longer in use or only carry freight. However, where there is a choice (such as in Iran and Egypt) the trains are usually much more comfortable than the buses and compare favourably in price. On the other hand, they are less frequent and usually slower, while many stations are some distance out of the town centres they serve.

In general, tickets are only sold at the station and reservations are either compulsory or highly recommended.

The only functioning international passenger services within the region travel between the following cities:

Amman-Damascus A twice-weekly train connects the capitals of Jordan and Syria. It's a slow diesel train with ancient carriages.

Damascus-İstanbul There is a once-weekly service between these cities (via Aleppo).

Tehran-Damascus The Tehran-İstanbul train splits at Van and carriages divert to Damascus.

Tehran-İstanbul This is a weekly train running via Sero, the border and Ankara.

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Travel documents

Reservations

It's always advisable to book bus seats in advance at the bus station, which is usually the only ticket outlet and source of reliable information about current services. Reservations are a must over the Muslim weekend (Friday) as well as during public holidays.

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Air

With no regional rail network to speak of and distances that make the bus a discomforting test of endurance, flying is certainly the most user-friendly method of transport in the Middle East. Tickets are more flexible than buses or trains, schedules more rigidly adhered to, refunds easier to get and information more readily available.

Flying isn't a safe option for getting to or from Iraq, nor is flying possible between Israel and the Palestinian Territories and most other Middle Eastern countries, except for Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. But, these exceptions aside, almost every Middle Eastern capital is linked to each of the others.

If you're in a capital city, it's usually worth buying your ticket through a reputable travel agency. It can give you all the available choices without you having to visit several different airline offices. The price you pay will usually be the same, if not less.

Airlines in the Middle East

Flights are usually operated by state airlines, most of which are reasonable, although an increasing number of charter and private airlines fly around the Middle East.

Of the national airlines, when it comes to service, punctuality and safety, El Al (Israel), Royal Jordanian, Turkish Airlines and Middle East Airlines (Lebanon) are probably the pick of the bunch, while Iran Air and Syrianair have reasonably solid if unspectacular reputations. Libyan Arab Airlines will get you from A to B but not much else and don't expect to arrive on time, while EgyptAir is probably best avoided.

Many of the private airlines that now operate - including Afriqiyah Airways, Mahan Air and Iran Aseman - connect Middle Eastern capitals and provincial centres to cities beyond the Middle East that are not covered by national airlines.

Some other airlines include:

Al-Buraq (021-4444811; www.buraqair.com; Libya) Connects Tripoli to Benghazi, Damascus and Aleppo.

Arkia (03-699 2222; www.arkia.co.il; Israel) Connects Tel Aviv, Eilat and Haifa and has international charters to Jerusalem.

Atlasjet (0216-444 0387; www.atlasjet.com; Turkey) Domestic Turkish services.

Fly Air (0212-444 4359; www.flyair.com.tr; Turkey) Flights within Turkey.

Israir (03-795 5777; www.israir.co.il; Israel) Connects Tel Aviv, Eilat and Haifa.

Onur Air (0212-662 9797; www.onurair.com.tr; Turkey) Extensive domestic flights within Turkey.

Detailed information on all airlines' safety records (including reams of statistics) can be found at www.airsafe.com/index.html.

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Bicycle

Although the numbers doing it are small, cycling round the Middle East is a viable proposition, provided that cyclists are self-sufficient and able to carry litres of extra water.

Most of the people we spoke to reckoned that the most enjoyable cycling was in Turkey and Syria (this is backed up by letters from readers). Although hilly, the scenery in Turkey is particularly fine and accommodation is fairly easy to come by, even in the smallest villages. This is definitely not the case elsewhere, and in Syria in particular you have to expect to spend the odd night in a tent. In Turkey if you get tired of pedalling it's also no problem to have your bike transported in the luggage hold of the big modern buses.

One big plus about cycling through the region is the fact that cyclists are usually given fantastic welcomes - a trademark of the Middle East anyway - showered with food and drink. Cyclists in Syria frequently receive invitations from people along the way to come home, meet the family, eat and stay over. Even the police are helpful and friendly. There are a couple of exceptions - along Jordan's King's Hwy and in Sinai kids throw stones at cyclists (maybe because of the cycling shorts, we don't know) - but these are minor blips of annoyance.

Aside from such isolated cases, by far the major difficulty cited by all cyclists was the heat. This is at its worst from June to August and cycling in these summer months is definitely not recommended. May to mid-June and September through October are the best times. Even then you're advised to make an early morning start and call it a day by early afternoon.

There are bicycle repair shops in most major towns and the locals are excellent 'bush mechanics' with all but the most modern or sophisticated equipment.

The following additional tips may help:

Carry a couple of extra chain links, a chain breaker, spokes, a spoke key, two inner tubes, tyre levers and a repair kit, a flat-head and Phillips-head screwdriver, and Allen keys and spanners to fit all the bolts on your bike.

Check the bolts daily and carry spares.

Fit as many water bottles to your bike as you can - it gets hot.

Make sure the bike's gearing will get you over the hills.

Confine your panniers to a maximum weight of 15kg.

Carrying the following equipment in your panniers is recommended: a two-person tent (weighing about 1.8kg) that can also accommodate the bike where security is a concern; a sleeping bag rated to 0°C and an inflatable mattress; a small camping stove; cooking pot; utensils; a water filter (two microns) and a compact torch.

Wear cycling shorts with a chamois bum and cleated cycling shoes.

Don't worry about filling the panniers with food as it is plentiful and fresh along the route.

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