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 if your time is tight.
Flying isn’t possible between Israel and 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.
There is a travel blockade between Qatar and some of its Arab neighbours. Check the latest status before planning a route.
Until recently, most flights were operated by state airlines. Of these, 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, with Egypt Air solid and usually reliable.
The growth of private (usually low-cost) airlines, especially in Turkey and Israel, means that flying domestic routes within these countries has become a lot more feasible.
The major Gulf airlines offer a very high standard of service. They have extensive networks and excellent safety records.
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. 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. 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 warm welcomes (a trademark of the Middle East in any case) and are showered with food and drinks. There have been, however, reports of kids throwing stones at cyclists along Jordan’s King’s Highway.
By far the major difficulty cited by all cyclists is the heat, which is at its peak from June to August. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The most popular boat services are the two ferry services between Nuweiba in Egypt and Aqaba in Jordan. The fast-ferry service takes 45 minutes, while the slow (and cheaper) ferry makes the journey in 2½ to three hours. Vehicles can usually be shipped on these routes, but advance arrangements may have to be made.
Cruise ships call at several ports in the Arabian Peninsula including Dubai, Khasab, Muscat and Salalah. There is no other viable boat service operating in the region between countries but several internal ferry services.
Buses are the workhorses of the Middle East, and in most places they’re probably your only option for getting from A to B. Thankfully, most buses are reliable and comfortable.
The cost and comfort of bus travel varies enormously throughout the region. In most Middle Eastern countries, the concept of a ‘nonsmoking bus’ is not always observed and onboard videos are played extremely loud – sleep is almost always impossible.
Within 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.
The exception to the above is the Arabian Peninsula where car is king and only limited bus services connect places of interest for visitors. This is beginning to change in Oman, Qatar and the UAE, all of which offer city bus services.
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 major public holidays.
Car & Motorcycle
Driving around the region (whether your own vehicle or a hire care) can be a good way to go, but you'll need to plan your route carefully. Border crossings can be painfully slow and obtaining the necessary documentation can be complicated. Road safety can also be a concern as traffic accidents are common.
Throughout the Middle East, motorcycles are fairly popular as a means of racing around in urban areas, but are little used as long-distance transport. If you do decide to ride a motorcycle through the region, 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 bike is in very good shape before setting out. Motorcycles can be shipped or, often, loaded as luggage onto trains.
Bringing Your Own Vehicle
Bringing your own car to the Middle East will give you a lot more freedom, but it’s certainly not for everyone. For all the positives, it’s difficult to imagine a route through the Middle East that would justify the expense and hassle of bringing a car and getting it out again.
Anyone planning to take their own vehicle with them needs to check in advance what spare parts and petrol are likely to be available.
A number of documents are also required (if you’re unsure what to take, check with the automobile association in your home country):
- Carnet de passage Like a passport for your car, and ensures you don't sell your car along the way; can be expensive. Ask your local automobile association for details.
- Green card Issued by insurers. Insurance for some countries is only obtainable at the border.
- International Driving Permit (IDP) Obtainable from your local automobile association.
- Vehicle registration documents In addition to carrying all ownership papers, check with your insurer whether you’re covered for the countries you intend to visit and whether third-party cover is included.
If you plan to drive, get an International Driving Permit (IDP) from your home automobile association. An IDP is compulsory for foreign drivers and motorcyclists in Egypt and Iran (and Iraq and Syria when they are safe to travel to). Most foreign (or national) licences are acceptable in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon and Turkey, and for foreign-registered vehicles in Jordan. However, even in these places an IDP is recommended. IDPs are valid for one year only. In the Arabian Peninsula, IDPs are not compulsory but recommended.
Fuel & Spare Parts
Mechanical failure can be a problem as spare parts – at least official ones – are often unobtainable. Fear not, ingenuity often compensates for factory parts; your mechanic back home will either have a heart attack or learn new techniques when you show them what’s gone on under your hood in the Middle East.
Generally, spare parts are most likely to be available for Land Rovers, Volkswagens, Range Rovers, Mercedes and Chevrolets, although in recent years Japan has been a particularly vigorous exporter of vehicles to the region. One tip is to ask your vehicle manufacturer for a list of any authorised service centres it has in the countries you plan to visit. The length of this list is likely to be a pretty good reflection of how easy it is to get parts on your travels.
Usually two grades of petrol are available; if in doubt, get the more expensive one. Petrol stations are few and far between on many desert roads. Away from the main towns, it’s advisable to fill up whenever you get the chance. Diesel isn’t readily available in every Middle Eastern country, nor is unleaded petrol.
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 sometimes carry the advantage of including a driver for a similar cost to hiring the car alone.
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 International Driving Permit. The minimum age varies between 21 and 25 – the latter is most common, particularly with international companies.
Always make sure that insurance is included in the hire price and familiarise yourself with the policy – don’t hire a car unless it’s insured for every eventuality.
Insurance is compulsory in most Middle Eastern countries, not to mention 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.
Make certain you’re covered for off-piste travel, as well as travel between Middle Eastern countries (if you’re planning cross-border excursions).
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, and do so before getting the car repaired.
Conditions across the Middle East vary enormously, but in almost all cases (except in the Arabian Peninsula where the main roads are generally excellent) they’ll be worse than you’re used to back home. The main roads are generally good, or at least reasonable, but there are plenty of unsurfaced examples, and the international roads are generally narrow and crowded. The Arabian Peninsula, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel and the Palestinian Territories probably have the best roads, but those in Lebanon and Iran are worse than they should be but probably better than you’d expect. Some of Egypt’s roads are fine; others are bone-jarringly bad. While fast highways connect most cities in the Arabian Peninsula, a network of unpaved tracks connect villages in remote areas. These generally require a 4WD to drive safely.
Driving in the Middle East can be appalling by Western norms. Fatalism and high speed rule supreme. Car horns, used at the slightest provocation, take the place of caution and courtesy. Except in well-lit urban areas, try to avoid driving at night, as you may find your vehicle is the only thing on the road with lights.
In desert regions, particularly in Egypt, beware of wind-blown sand and wandering, free-range camels – the latter can be deadly at night.
With the exception of the Gulf states, the roads of which are monitored by radar, you’re unlikely even to know what the speed limit is on a particular road, let alone be forced to keep to it – the rules exist more in theory than they are enforced in reality.
A warning triangle is required for vehicles (except motorcycles) in most Middle Eastern countries; in Turkey two triangles and a first-aid kit are compulsory.
In all countries, driving is on the right-hand side of the road and the rules of when to give way (at least officially) are those that apply in Europe (eg give way to your right).
Although many travellers hitchhike, it’s 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 in 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’s 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.
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.
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.
Tips For Catching 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:
- Not all taxi drivers speak English. Generally, in cities used to international travellers, they will (or know enough to get by), but not otherwise. If you’re having trouble, ask a local for help.
- Always negotiate a fare (or insist that the meter is used if it works) before jumping in. If in doubt about local rates, inquire at your point of departure.
- Don’t rely on street names (there are often several versions and the driver may not recognise your pronunciation of them). If you’re going to a well-known destination (such as a big hotel), find out if it’s close to a local landmark and give the driver the local name for the landmark. Even better, get someone to write down the name in the local language.
- Avoid using unlicensed cab drivers at airports or bus stations.
- Note that at the time of writing, travellers to Lebanon were being advised not to use shared taxis because of an increased security risk.
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, savari in Farsi 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.
There are train networks in Egypt, Israel, Iran and Turkey, and these can represent the best transport option on some routes, such as between Cairo and Luxor in Egypt. Levels of comfort vary from country to country – many of Egypt’s trains are badly in need of an overhaul, Iran's are OK, while Israel and Turkey use new trains on some routes.
In general, trains are less frequent and usually slower than buses, while many stations are some distance from the town centres they serve.
Tickets are generally only sold at the station and reservations are either compulsory or highly recommended.
Other than the metro in Dubai, there is no passenger train service anywhere in the Arabian Peninsula at present (unless you count the the 400m of track in Al Hootah Cave in Oman!).