As deals pop up, I find myself wanting to do a quick scan of the essentials to decide if that destination really is somewhere I want to go. When you only have 24 hours to make a decision, it helps to already have some background knowledge of that region, but obviously that isn’t always realistic. Instead, I’d love to find the quick and dirty rundown to see if that destination will fit into my interests and the length of stay I can commit to as well as the season of travel allowed by the deal. Here’s what I think is important to know as a basic first step.
- Booking Award Flights to Morocco
- Battle of the Business Class Flights
- Stopovers: Take ‘Em or Leave ‘Em?
- Morocco in a Nutshell
- The Best Aspects of my Hotel Stays
- A Suggested Two-Week Itinerary for Morocco
- Dar Seffarine: My New Favorite Hotel
- Giving Madrid a Second Chance
How do I get there?
The only nonstop flight from the USA right now is New York to Casablanca, operated by Royal Air Maroc. However, you’ll find connections via just about every major air hub in Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East, including options for award tickets on all three alliances to Casablanca or Marrakech.
If you’re looking to head to somewhere other than Casablanca or Marrakech, you’ll find a few alternate options, particularly from Paris-Orly or Madrid to airports including Agadir, Essaouira, Fes, Ouarzazate, Rabat, or Tangier. Otherwise, just fly to CMN or RAK and look at domestic flights, rail, or road transfers from there.
As an American citizen, do I need to apply for a visa ahead of time?
Nope, just show up. Passport control is fast and simple.
Any safety concerns?
Some of the current concerns elsewhere in Northern Africa have not spilled over into Morocco and the Morocco & USA have a peaceful relationship. I had no concerns about traveling to the country whatsoever. We had no concerns about our safety at any time and except for using some common sense, didn’t feel the need for outrageous precautions. Moroccans are friendly people who may try to outwit you out of a few dirham but aren’t thieves, bullies, or violent.
Any health concerns?
You won’t need any special medications or inoculations for travel in Morocco, but many people do get sick while traveling here. Don’t drink the water (we relied on a combination of purchased bottled water and water we sanitized on our own using a Steripen). We were fairly daring in the foods we ate – some local restaurants, some street food, and even some fresh, raw salads – and have no regrets. Both of us ended up getting sick with a strain of the Moroccan flu, but I am pretty convinced it wasn’t foodborne based on the symptoms and the timing (Mike caught it while traveling but I had the exact same illness four days after returning home).
What does it cost?
Whatever you want it to. Seriously, you’ll find hotels for $20/night or resorts for $300. We ate dinners at street markets that were only $1-2/person or there were tourist restaurants with 3-course meals for $45pp. Many tourist attractions cost $1 or less to enter while some spas and golf courses could have American prices. A bus ride from one town to another could be under $5 or a private luxury SUV transfer could set you back $250.
A couple can travel quite comfortably throughout Morocco for an average of $150/day, including a riad with private bathroom, hot water, and heating and air-conditioning (yes, you need to ask about those things instead of assuming they come standard), meals cooked at hygenic restaurants, admissions, and first class train rides. There were days we spent far less without even trying and you could stay under $50/day without too much trouble. Haggle on everything.
How do you pay?
While some places accept euros or dollars, the Moroccan currency of dirham is by far your best bet. At the time of our trip, 1 US dollar was equal to about 8 dirham and you’ll want cash for just about everything. Some hotels accept credit cards, but are frequently overpriced to begin with and may charge an additional 3% processing fee on top of that for your convenience. The same goes for restaurants, not to mention the fact that the ones that do will be visited solely by tourists.
ATMs are widely available and we had no issues using a Charles Schwab ATM card, which I love since it refunds all ATM fees as well as providing the bank exchange rate. The only downside to using an ATM is that you’ll find they almost always only spit on 100 or 200 dirham notes. You’ll want small change for everything from tips to taxi rides, admissions, cups of tea at the market, taking pictures of touristy snake charmers, or 100 grams of dates. Many vendors do not have/offer change, so having smaller bills or especially coins is a necessity. Break bills whenever you can or even consider the small fee at a currency exchange or bank in order to get dirham in more useful denominations.
What’s the weather like?
In December, mostly dry with temperatures between 40-65. While it does snow in the mountains, it doesn’t get horribly cold (expect 20s-30s in winter). In the summer, it can be downright hot, so I’d avoid June-August as a time to travel unless you truly don’t mind the heat. Most tourists will find spring or fall as the most comfortable seasons to travel in, but I found December to be absolutely perfect for us since we spent more time hiking rather than lying on the beach. Be aware that the temperature can swing wildly throughout the day with cool mornings and warm afternoons (not to mention any elevation changes you might be driving through), so dressing in layers is key.
Were the locals friendly? Any tips on making communication easier?
Moroccans have truly mastered the meaning of hospitality and we found guesthouse staff and restaurant owners in particular who were happy to chat for extended periods of time about things to do, local customs, American politics, or how “Gangnam Style” is a hit song on at least four continents. Many people – especially in Marrakech – spoke English. Most people throughout the country, also spoke French, with still others speaking Spanish. There were a few people we encountered who spoke nothing but Arabic/Berber but they also were friendly as we pantomimed how many admissions we wanted, etc.
My advice? You’re not going to learn Arabic in the six weeks leading up to your trip anyway, so focus on mastering 3-4 phrases (you’d be how many tourists can’t even say a simple shukran or thank you) and instead spend any additional time brushing up on your French. You’ll want to know your numbers for pricing and bartering, maybe some food ingredients, and some navigational phrases (“Where is the bus station?”).
How do you get around?
Use the Moroccan train system whenever it’s available rather than domestic flights. Train schedules are easy to figure out, roughly on time, and the ride is quick, smooth, and inexpensive by western standards. Pay the extra for first class since seating is reserved (and thus capacity is controlled) – at roughly $2/hour premium over second class, you can afford it. Unfortunately, the train routes are somewhat limited, and while they go to the larger cities of Casablanca, Marrakech, Fes, Tangier, and Meknes (along with smaller cities along route), they aren’t much help to get into the countryside or smaller villages. Bus service fills in most of these gaps; try CTM or Supratours for more “tourist-quality”. Local buses and grand taxis, though cheap, are slow since they stop everywhere and might have twice as many people onboard as you’d think could fit. Backpackers with more time than money may find this acceptable, but most other tourists would rather pay a $10-15 fare on a comfortable bus or train and be done with it.
If you’re planning on including a fairly touristic route of Marrakech -> Ouarzazate -> Erg Chebbi & Merzouga Dunes -> Fes (or vice versa), there’s a lot to see and do along the way making point-to-point bus schedules limiting. You’ll find tour groups traveling this route and making stops along the way. I wanted more flexibility to stop at the things I found interesting (local markets, scenery) and less time at things I didn’t care about (tourist shops), so we hired a driver for several days. I cannot recommend Jalil at Morocco Unplugged highly enough. He was the perfect guide, spending time sharing Moroccan history, politics, and culture with us during drive time, stopping for every photo stop we requested, taking us to off-the-beaten-path attractions, ordering local delicacies we weren’t even aware of for us to try, not wasting our time with tourist shops, and above all else, staying incredibly flexible with our requests.
That being said, after seeing road conditions and navigational signage, I’d have no hesitations in renting a car in Morocco next time. No, I wouldn’t dream of driving near the medinas of Fes or Marrakech, but everywhere inbetween looked simple enough to navigate. However, given what the cost of renting an automatic, fuel, and maps would have been, I think hiring a driver was just as affordable, especially once you factored in that Jalil always knew where secure overnight parking would be, when to not pay traffic police bribes, and how to effectively haggle down prices on everything.
Was the food good?
Yes, but not as good as I expected. I had an amazing bowl of harira soup in Fes, simple yet incredibly delicious lentils in Marrakech, and consistently delectable breads and juices throughout the country. We also sampled tagines, pastilla, couscous, spiced kefta ground meat, a Berber “pizza” cooked in the hot sand, beef and lamb sausages, and grilled camel. Everything was good, but rarely extraordinary.
Moroccan meals are heavy on the carbs, with bread making up a substantial portion of every meal, often accompanied by potatoes or couscous as well. Surprisingly to me, portion sizes at both local restaurants and tourist restaurants were on the large side. You can counterract this by eating one meal a day as picnic style, like nuts, dates, and other fruits from the market. We also noticed that not a single restaurant gave us a second glance when we basically split meals, having one person order a full entree while the second person ordered only a small bowl of red beans or soup.
Vegetarians may have a little trouble getting by in this country. Even “vegetarian” tagines seemed to be cooked with meat bones for flavor as did some sauces, soups, and beans. As a proud carnivore, I didn’t really care about this, but others may want to be upfront about dietary preferences.
One other sidenote: even though we rarely ordered the same food more than once, it seemed like we were eating the same thing every day. You’ll notice many of the same spices and flavor profiles over and over again. When you see something really different on a menu, take advantage of it.
What should I see? Anything overrated?
If you’ve only got a weekend, choose Marrakech or Fes. Both are wonderful cities with a lot to see and do. If you have a full week, see both and throw in a third or fourth location, ideally not a city because the Moroccan countryside is worlds different from the cities, regardless of whether you choose coastline, mountains, or desert. Two full weeks would give you a solid overview of the best of Morocco. (I’ll post a suggested route in an upcoming portion of this trip report).
We were a little disappointed by Ait ben Haddou, Morocco’s only kasbah with UNESCO world heritage status. The setting is lovely and it is nice to look upon from the outside, but touring the interior was a little lackluster and we much preferred the underrated Kasbah Telouet. Similarly, Ouarzazate is a typical overnight option on the way to the desert (due to its position as a transport hub), but staying in one of the kasbahs in Skoura – just thirty minutes farther – is a more rewarding experience for those with a car.
We absolutely loved the scenery and villages between Ouarzazate and Merzouga, including the Dades Valley and Todra Gorge and could’ve spent longer there. On the flipside, we were incredibly underwhelmed by Tangier and probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone with limited time.
Any unique purchases I should consider?
First of all, even if you’re not a shopper, you may want to shop in Morocco. It’s quite the experience and can involve a friendly chat with a shopkeeper over several glasses of mint tea before haggling on a price you’re happy with. Some of the handiwork is quite impressive – just make sure you’re really buying from an artisan instead of wasting your time on some trinkets made in China and sold at huge profits in tourist markets.
Each town has its own style when it comes to the products sold, meaning the carpets in Marrakech may be entirely different from those in Fes. I especially loved watching some of the punched copperwork being done in Fes (hey, when you watch them make it, you know it’s the real deal) and some of the paintings in Chefchaouen.
We didn’t buy much, but I ended up with a mass-produced pashmina because I was legitimately cold and wanted a scarf to wrap up in and the world’s softest, most gorgeous brown leather bag that I am proud of obtaining for 500 dirham rather than the 1300 asking price. Even still, it’s the most expensive bag I own but worth it if only for the shopping experience and the chance to see tanners at work in Fes.
Any last thoughts?
Bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself at a squat toilet needing both of these things and still being expected to pay for the privilege of using their bathroom.
Stay nimble. We arrived in Marrakech finding ourselves needing to cross a street that looked nearly impossible to accomplish while staying alive. Thank goodness we were traveling with sneakers and backpacks rather than heels and wheeled suitcases. Even when traffic isn’t an issue, many riads (guesthouses) are only accessible on foot and have narrow, winding staircases so packing light is a good plan. The experience of staying in the thick of things at a local place is well worth it compared to staying at the Holiday Inn twenty minutes outside of town (when that option even exists).
Be respectful. This should go without saying, but embrace their local customs rather than insulting it. Know when you are allowed to take photographs and when you should create a memory instead. Respect certain sites which are not open to non-Muslims and instead seek out places you can visit without offending anyone. Dress modestly.
Plan “me time”. There is a lot to soak in with incredible natural beauty, interesting local customs, and new experiences and taking thirty minutes a day to reflect on all of this can be worth its weight in gold.
Overall, consider a trip to Morocco. It’s a country filled with friendly people and beautiful places and definitely worth a visit, especially considering how easy it is to get there.