In the West, taxis are usually considered a luxury. In the Middle East they’re often unavoidable. Some cities have no other form of urban public transport, while there are also many rural routes that are only feasible in a taxi or private vehicle.
Taxis are seemingly everywhere you look and, if you can’t see one, try lingering on the footpath next to a major road and, within no time, plenty of taxis will appear as if from nowhere and will soon toot their horns at you just in case you missed them, even if you’re just trying to cross the street.
If you want to save money, it’s important to be able to differentiate between the various kinds of taxis.
On the whole, taxi drivers in the Middle East are helpful, honest and often humorous. Others – as in countries all over the world – find new arrivals too tempting a target for minor scams or a spot of overcharging. Here are a few tips:
Regular taxis (variously known as ‘agency taxis’, ‘telephone taxis’, ‘private taxis’ or ‘special taxis’) are found in almost every Middle Eastern town or city. Unlike shared taxis, you pay to have the taxi to yourself, either to take you to a pre-agreed destination or for a specified period of time. They are primarily of use for transport within towns or on short rural trips, but in some countries hiring them for excursions of several hours is still cheap. They are also often the only way of reaching airports or seaports.
A compromise between the convenience of a regular taxi and the economy of a bus, the shared taxi picks up and drops off passengers at points along its (generally fixed) route and runs to no particular schedule. It’s known by different names – collect, collective or service taxi in English, servees in Arabic, sherut in Hebrew and dolmuş in Turkish. Most shared taxis take up to four or five passengers, but some seat up to about 12 and are indistinguishable for most purposes from minibuses.
Shared taxis are much cheaper than private taxis and, once you get the hang of them, can be just as convenient. They are dearer than buses, but more frequent and usually faster, because they don’t stop so often or for so long. They also tend to operate for longer hours than buses. They can be used for urban, intercity or rural transport.
Fixed-route taxis wait at the point of departure until full or nearly full. Usually they pick up or drop off passengers anywhere en route, but in some places they have fixed halts or stations. Sometimes each service is allocated a number, which may be indicated on the vehicle. Generally, a flat fare applies for each route, but sometimes it’s possible to pay a partial fare.
Fares depend largely on time and distance, but can also vary slightly according to demand.
Beware of boarding an empty one, as the driver may assume you want to hire the vehicle for your exclusive use and charge you accordingly. It’s advisable to watch what other passengers pay and to hand over your fare in front of them. Passengers are expected to know where they are getting off. ‘Thank you’ in the local language is the usual cue for the driver to stop. Make it clear to the driver or other passengers if you want to be told when you reach your destination.
In most cities and towns, a minibus or bus service operates. Fares are very cheap, and services are 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, fewer still do so in English, and they are often very crowded). Unless you can find a local who speaks your language to help you out, your best bet is to stand along the footpath (preferably at a bus stop if one exists) 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.