Apart from the capital city of Porto Novo and the major tourist attractions of Ganvie and Ouidah, the large majority of the small West African country of Benin goes unnoticed by most travelers.

There are no train services in Benin, and there's only one commercial airport (Cotonou Cadjehoun International Airport) so you won't be taking any internal flights. A trip to Ganvie will be made as part of a boat tour and most towns and cities are best explored on foot – other than that, expect to get around by road. Unfortunately travelers with mobility and access issues will find that there isn't any special provision for them in Benin.

Here's what you need to know about local transportation to explore the length and breadth of Benin, from Abomey in the north to Grand Popo in the south.

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Traveling by car is the best way to explore Benin

Driving is the fastest and most convenient way to get from one place to another in Benin. You could rent a car, which is a reliable and comfortable way to move around the country, but it is the more expensive option. The costs of car rental in African countries is much higher than in other continents because the transportation network isn't as developed, yet road travel is the most common way to get around and there is a high demand for cars. You can either arrange car rental before you travel, or hire one at the airport or in Cotonou. You'll need an international license to hire a car. The price varies depending on the rental service, and those aged under 25 will be charged more. 

Drive on the right side of the road. Keep a look out for frequent domestic animal crossings (cows and goats mostly, occasionally monkeys). Be prepared for dirt roads and potholes – there are sealed roads but they aren’t in very good condition.

Alternatively, a much more cost-effective and convenient option is to hire a vehicle with a driver who will act as your guide and take you to all the destinations you're keen to visit. Your hotel will be able to help you find a suitable driver-guide. Car rental can cost $200–300 per day while costs for hiring a car with a driver can be as little as $50–150 per day.

Three heavily loaded taxis drive down a dirt track
In parts of Benin, expect dirt tracks rather than sealed roads © peeterv / Getty Images

Live like a local by taking a bush taxi 

If you are traveling on a budget, you could reduce your transportation costs by using bush taxis, which come in two forms: minivans and private cars. This is the best way to get the local experience in Benin because you will travel how the Beninese do.

You can find a bush taxi on any highway or any taxi yard in the big cities of Cotonou and Porto Novo. They connect different cities and towns around Benin, and the price changes depending on the location you’re traveling to, starting from around $5.

You have to play it by ear here, there's no prior planning that needs to be done. All you have to do is ask which direction the taxi is going in and see if there's enough space for you and your bags. One vehicle can transport anything from 5 to 14 people – sometimes you may be the first person in the taxi or the last person inside, it's never guaranteed. Most of the time, you'll be squeezed in besides strangers. It's an experience that may not be comfortable but will save you a few coins.

Remember to always carry cash for your bush taxi fare as this is the only acceptable form of payment. Beware of pickpockets in bush taxis, and always keep your belongings in close proximity.

A motorcycle rides along a sandy palm-lined track alongside a beach
Taking a ride on a motorcycle (zem) is an essential Benin experience © peeterv / Getty Images

A zem is the best way to cross short distances

You cannot travel to the African continent and not have a motorcycle experience. In Benin, local motorcycles are called zems. You will find zems on the corners of practically every street in towns and cities of Benin and they are perfect for transporting you relatively short distances (max 10km/6 miles).

Zems are a cheap and efficient way to get around towns and cities and are highly recommended as an experience on your trip. Remember to be careful, as they are known to move very quickly. Hold on to your driver or the back of the motorcycle for stability. Zems can't take luggage and usually will only take two riders (the driver and one passenger), but three can fit on board in an extreme scenario.

Bus services are unreliable

If you're traveling on a budget, one of the first modes of transportation that you might look for are buses. Currently in Benin, buses are not a reliable form of transportation because the bus schedule is not fixed or guaranteed. If you have a fixed itinerary and need to get from one place to another, make sure you use a car or bush taxi to get there. 

Navigating through Benin

Benin is a French-speaking country and very few locals will know English, so you won't get very far if you don't speak French too. Locals can help French-speakers with directions, or you could try to communicate through a translation app.

Alternatively hire an English-speaking guide. Ask at your accommodation for a recommendation. Google Maps is the only mapping app that can help you navigate in Benin.

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GANVIE, BENIN - JAN 11, 2017: Unidentified Beninese family in a wooden boat at the port of the lake Nokwe. Benin people suffer of poverty due to the bad economy.; Shutterstock ID 593573411; full: 65050; gl: Online Editorial; netsuite: Best places to visit in Benin; your: Jennifer Carey
A Beninese family in a wooden boat sailing across Lake Nokoue in Benin.

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