Flying within Madagascar can be a huge time saver, considering the distances and state of the roads. Unfortunately most domestic routes are between Tana and the provinces, with few direct routes between provinces. Internal flights are also notoriously unreliable; you are therefore strongly advised to leave plenty of time if you need to catch an onward flight.
Airlines in Madagascar
Air Madagascar is the main airline to provide domestic flights. Cancellations and delays are unamusingly frequent.
Tickets are expensive (upwards of €200 for a one-way ticket), but generally exchangeable.
You can pay for tickets by credit card or in ariary, euros or US dollars at the head office in Antananarivo and Air Madagascar offices in larger towns. Smaller offices may only accept ariary or euros, however.
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.
A new airline, Madagasikara Airways, started flights in late 2015 between Tana and all major cities as well as Nosy Be and Île Sainte Marie.
Air Penny Saver
Air Madagascar domestic flights are about 30% cheaper when bought in Madagascar compared to when purchased abroad. If your itinerary is flexible, this is a great way to save money, but bear in mind that flights on popular routes are booked far in advance and that it is difficult to get tickets at short notice.
Air Madagascar also offers a 50% discount on domestic flights to travellers who flew with the airline to Madagascar. The discount doesn’t apply to taxes, so the final saving is about 30% of the final fare; still, not to be sniffed at.
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 hot spots such as Île Sainte Marie (Nosy Boraha) and Nosy Be.
In parts of Madagascar, notably the northeast and southwest coasts and Canal des Pangalanes, cargo boats (sometimes called boutres) are the primary means of transport. Cargo boats have no schedules and leave with the tides. There are no amenities, so passengers travel on deck, where they are exposed to the elements.
Capsizing occurs regularly, so don’t get in if the seas are rough, or if the boat is overcrowded. Some precautions to keep in mind:
- Always check the forecast and ask local advice before setting off.
- Make sure there are life jackets on board.
- Bring plenty of water (and food) and sun protection (hat and cream).
- Don’t travel at sea during the cyclone season between January and March.
Engineless pirogues or lakanas (dugout canoes), whether on rivers or the sea, are the primary means of local transport where roads disappear.
Pirogues can easily be hired, along with a boatman, but bear in mind that the ride can be quite rough.
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. Fuel shortages are frequent, even in Tana, so stock up. 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 halfday 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 are Ar150,000 to Ar250,000 per day. 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 Ar130,000 to Ar200,000 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.
The term taxi-brousse (literally ‘bush taxi’) is used generically in Madagascar to refer to any vehicle providing public transport. When you buy your taxi-brousse ticket, therefore, you could be about to climb into anything from a pick-up truck to a rumbling juggernaut with entire suites of furniture tied to its roof.
The most common guise of the taxi-brousse is the 14-seater Japanese minibus (Mazda especially). On longer routes (eg Tana–Morondava or Tana–Tuléar), Mercedes Sprinter minibuses are increasingly popular: they seat 18 people and are the most spacious and comfortable of the lot (comparable to a low-cost European airline).
For shorter journeys (eg Diego Suarez to Joffreville) and in rural areas, ancient Peugeot 504s or 505s are the go. They are smaller and therefore fill quicker and also tend to fill more than their theoretical number of seats (three at the front and four or five at the back).
A bâché is a small, converted pick-up truck, which usually has some sort of covering over the back and benches down each side. Bâchés are used on shorter, rural routes and are hideously uncomfortable.
The camion-brousse is a huge 4WD army-style truck, fitted with a bench or seats down each side, although the majority of passengers wind up sitting on the floor, on top of whatever supplies the truck is carrying. They are used for particularly long or rough journeys. Small Tata trucks now ply long-distance off-road journeys such as Tana–Fort Dauphin – they're more comfortable than the army trucks but agonisingly slow.
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.
In rural parts of Madagascar, the charette, a wooden cart drawn by a pair of zebu cattle, is the most common form of transport. Fares are entirely negotiable.
Pousse-Pousse & Cyclo-Pousse
The colourful pousse-pousse (rickshaw) is a popular way to get around in some cities. Fares vary between Ar500 and Ar2000 for a ride, depending on distance. When it’s raining and at night, prices increase. Some travellers may feel uncomfortable being towed around by someone in this fashion, but remember that this is the driver’s living, and your patronage will be most welcome to them.
Another variation of the pousse-pousse is the cyclo-pousse, in which the cab is attached to a bicycle. They're quicker than pousse-pousse, so fares tend to be slightly more expensive.
The good news is that taxis-brousses are cheap and go everywhere. The bad news is that they are slow, uncomfortable, erratic and sometimes unsafe.
Despite the general appearance of anarchy, the taxi-brousse system is actually relatively well organised. Drivers and vehicles belong to transport companies called coopératives (cooperatives). Coopératives generally have a booth or an agent at the taxi-brousse station (called gare routière or parcage), where you can book your ticket.
Although the going can be slow, taxis-brousses stop regularly for toilet breaks, leg stretching and meals (at hotelys along the road).
There are national and regional services (called ligne nationale and ligne régionale). They can cover the same route, the difference being that on national services the taxis-brousses go from A to B without stopping and only squeeze three people to a row. On regional services, people hop on and off along the way, and there are four people per row, so tickets are cheaper. Make sure you stipulate which service you'd like when booking your ticket.
Seats & Luggage
- Most taxis-brousses, notably the Mercedes Sprinter minibuses used for long journeys, stick to the number of seats in the vehicle. This is less true of bâchés and camions-brousses.
- The two front seats beside the driver are usually the most spacious and most sought after. They are, however, the most dangerous in the event of an accident since there are no seatbelts.
- Seats at the back of the Mazda minibuses will be very uncomfortable for anyone taller than 1.65m and downright impossible for anyone taller than 1.85m (but they'll be fine in the much more spacious Sprinter vehicles).
- You can buy more than one seat.
- Specific seats can be booked, but you’ll have to book at least the day before at the taxi-brousse station.
- Luggage goes on the roof under a tarpaulin and is tightly roped in.
- Taxis-brousses leave when full, which can take an hour or a day. If you’d like to speed up the process, buy the remaining seats.
- The choice of a taxi-brousse will often come down to joining the next vehicle to leave, which will be packed to the roof, or holding out for a decent seat in a later taxi-brousse.
- Fares for all trips are set by the government and are based on distance, duration and route conditions. Ask to see the list of official fares: it is generally displayed in cooperative booths.
- Never buy your ticket from a tout – always get it from the cooperative booth at the taxi-brousse station, or from the driver if in doubt. In any case, get a receipt.
- Prices are the same for locals and foreigners. However, fares can vary between vehicle types and the service (regional/national).
- Children under five travel free (but must sit on a parent’s lap).
Japanese and German minibus taxis-brousses are generally in pretty good condition (which can’t be said of the ancient Peugeots or bâchés plying rural areas), but the one thing to watch out for is smooth tyres. General safety advice is not to travel after dark, but on longer routes it simply can’t be helped. Note, however, that taxis-brousses are required to travel in convoys at night.
The ubiquitous yellow tuk-tuks (motorised rickshaws) are starting to overcome pousse-pousse in popularity. They fit three people in the cab and generally work on a flat-fare basis (Ar500 to Ar1000). You can charter them for longer journeys (to go to the airport or the port for instance).
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.
Madarail (www.madarail.mg) Operates lines from Moramanga.
FCE (Fianarantsoa-Côte Est) Operates trains between Fianarantsoa and Manakara.
These are the only regular passenger train routes.
Tue & Sat
Wed & Sun