Madagascar is a huge place, the roads are bad and travel times long, so be realistic about how much ground you want to cover or you’ll spend every other day in the confines of a vehicle.
Private vehicle If you can afford it, this is the best way to explore Madagascar. You'll be able to go anywhere, whenever suits you. The off-road driving can be great fun too.
Taxi-brousse (bush taxi) Slow, uncomfortable and not always safe, but they are cheap, go (almost) everywhere and you can't get more local than that.
Premium buses A definite upgrade in comfort and punctuality on the taxi-brousse but they only ply the routes between Tana and big cities.
Plane Huge time savers, but expensive.
Flying within Madagascar can be a huge time saver, considering the distances and state of the roads. There is a good network of internal flights, with useful inter-regional routes. All major cities and towns are connected to the capital.
The frequency of flights does vary between seasons. Certain routes, such as Morondava–Tuléar (Toliara) during the high season (May to September) and all flights to/from Sambava during the vanilla season (June to October), are often fully booked months in advance. Plan ahead for cheap fares and to avoid disappointment.
Flights usually cost between €80 and €300, depending on the route, fare conditions and how far in advance you book.
Airlines in Madagascar
Shop around for best fares and availability.
Tsaradia (www.tsaradia.com) A subsidiary of Air Madagascar, this is the main domestic airline. You can book flights directly from its website (which accepts major credit cards) or from its offices (there is one in every major city).
Madagasikara Airways (www.madagasikaraairways.com) Started flights in late 2015: it flies between Tana and all major cities (except Maroantsetra) and also has some inter-regional routes. Its flights aren't as frequent as those of Tsaradia.
A mountain bike is normally essential if cycling in Madagascar. Inner tubes and other basic parts are sometimes available in larger towns.
The terrain varies from very sandy to muddy or rough and rocky.
It’s usually no problem to transport your bicycle on taxis-brousses or trains.
You’ll find mountain bikes for hire (around Ar20,000 per day) in most large towns and tourist hotspots such as Île Sainte Marie (Nosy Boraha) and Nosy Be.
Premium bus services are a great, affordable alternative to slow/dangerous taxis-brousses and expensive internal flights. Vehicles are regularly serviced, they have functioning air-con, only take the right number of passengers, leave on time, serve meals and even have dedicated departure/arrival lounges away from chaotic taxi-brousse stations.
They only ply the main (profitable) routes between Tana and major cities however. The main operators:
Car & Motorcycle
Due to the often difficult driving conditions, most rental agencies make hiring a driver compulsory with their vehicles.
Of Madagascar’s approximately 50,000km of roads, less than 20% are sealed, and many of those are riddled with potholes the size of an elephant. Routes in many areas are impassable or very difficult during the rainy season.
The designation route nationale (RN) is sadly no guarantee of quality.
- Driving in Madagascar is on the right-hand side.
- Police checkpoints are frequent (mind the traffic spikes on the ground) – always slow down and make sure you have your passport and the vehicle’s documents handy.
- If you see a zebu on the road, slow right down as it can panic; also, there may be another 20 in the bushes that haven’t yet crossed.
If you insist on driving yourself, note the following rules:
- You must have an International Driving Licence.
- You must be aged 23 or over and have had your licence for at least a year.
- Wearing a seatbelt is mandatory.
You’ll find petrol stations of some kind in all cities and towns. For longer trips and travel in remote areas, take extra fuel with you.
Spare parts and repairs of varying quality are available in most towns. Make sure to check the spare tyre (and jack) of any car you rent before setting out.
An alternative to hiring a car and driver (difficult in areas where there is little tourism) is chartering a taxi or a taxi-brousse, whether for one or several days. Here are some tips to make the best of it:
- Enquire at the taxi-brousse stand, or ask your hotel for the going rate for your journey.
- Be sure to clarify such things as petrol and waiting time.
- Check that the vehicle is in decent shape before departing.
- For longer, multiday journeys, check that the driver has the vehicle’s documents and a special charter permit (indicated by a diagonal green stripe).
- Prepare a contract that you and the driver will sign stipulating insurance issues, the agreed-upon fee (including whether or not petrol is included) and your itinerary.
Motorcycles can be hired by the half or full day at various places in Madagascar, including Tuléar, Nosy Be and Île Sainte Marie.
Chinese motorbikes are increasingly replacing the well-known Japanese brands.
Wearing a helmet is compulsory; it should be provided in the rental.
Public transport options are few and far between in remote areas – and sometimes nonexistent during the six months of the rainy season. If you’ve hired a 4WD to travel through remote areas, you’ll see many locals hitching for a lift to the next town or village – you (and the driver) may be keen to help out, but some car-hire companies forbid drivers from accepting hitchhikers because of security concerns. Note, too, that villagers reuse water bottles to store chutneys and juices and will often ask whether you have any spare (to the cry of ‘Eau Vive! Eau Vive!’), so don’t throw them away.
Car & Driver Q&A
In Madagascar, the road-transport system is such that most rental cars come with a mandatory driver, making the choice of both a critical decision in your travel planning. Here are the key issues to consider.
Do I Need a 4WD?
It depends on your route. If you’re sticking to the RN7 between Tana and Tuléar (Toliara), you don’t need a 4WD. Two-wheel-drive vehicles are cheaper to rent and run, so this is an important cost consideration. Discuss your itinerary with the car-hire company.
How Do I Find a Good Driver?
Go through an agency, your hotel or a word-of-mouth recommendation. Either way, it is essential you shop around. Talk to the driver ahead of time. Make sure you speak a common language and that the driver has experience in your region. If you’re not hiring through a reputable agency, take a look at the car, particularly if you are going on a long journey. See how well the driver takes care of it. If you are out of the country, ask him to send you pictures.
How Much Does a Car and Driver Cost?
The car and driver are one package (this includes the driver's food and board allowance). Fuel is generally extra, although not always. Prices for a car are typically Ar100,000 to Ar150,000 per day. Prices for a 4WD vary from Ar180,000 to Ar280,000 per day depending on the model of the vehicle (and the area where you're going to). Some drivers will charge by the road surface – dirt or sealed – regardless of the car. Prices also decrease with long-term rentals of 10 days or so. This is negotiable, but a 10-day 4WD rental typically ranges from Ar150,000 to Ar220,000 per day. Also, the renter is responsible for paying to return the vehicle to where it began, which involves both a daily rental fee plus fuel. Finally, make sure you clarify whether or not extras, such as toll roads and ferry crossings, are included as they can add up quickly.
How Can I Pay?
If you go through an agency, you may be able to pay by card or bank transfer. Otherwise you’ll have to go through Western Union or pay cash. Whatever method you opt for, it's customary to pay 30% to 50% at booking, and the rest at the end of the trip.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who do decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
Traffic between towns and cities is thin and most passing vehicles are likely to be taxis-brousses or trucks, which are often full. If you do find a ride, you will likely have to pay about the equivalent of the taxi-brousse fare.
Along well-travelled routes, or around popular tourist destinations, you can sometimes find lifts with privately rented 4WDs.
The Malagasy rail system, known as the Réseau National des Chemins de Fer Malgaches (RNCFM), is made up of over 1000km of tracks, but is used mostly by freight transport.
FCE (Fianarantsoa-Côte Est) Operates trains between Fianarantsoa and Manakara.