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Morocco Itinerary help

Greetings!

My husband and I want to go to Morocco in October, probably for 10 nights max (can't really extend due to my work).

I was hoping to see both Marrakesh and Fes, but I don't drive and my husband hates to and won't in foreign countries. (He's such a nervous driver that it's not worth the trouble of convincing him otherwise - we live in NYC and generally don't need to drive. Even driving in France was a trial for him, and having to do it decreases his trip enjoyment significantly.)

The train ride between the two sounds long, so I thought of instead maybe finding someone to take us out into the desert for 3-4 nights then drop us in the other city. The problem is that it's more expensive to book online due to middlemen, but I've also heard that if you book on the spot you may not be directed to someone who speaks good enough English to tell you what you're seeing.

So my questions are as follows:

Has anyone done a desert trek like that? Worth it? I heard that even 4 nights may not be enough if we don't want to be in a car all the time. Should I give up the idea of going to both cities? Suck it up and take the train between the two? Or pick one (probably Marrakesh) and go to the desert and back from there?

I would say the one priority for the trip is spending time in at least one city's medina (I guess Marrakesh?)... my husband is now attached to my idea of going to the desert and seeing an oasis, though. We do like nature as well as the city and have done a camping safari, so we don't need anything fancy if we go to the desert. I just want to know what's worthwhile given the time we will have.

Again, the length of trip and the no driving are HARD parameters.

Posted by
16883 posts

The train is direct and takes less than 8 hours, so I don't really consider it a hardship. Bring snacks on board. 1st class is affordable, if you'd like a little more elbow room. You can walk around to stretch your legs.

For a city, I preferred Fes and thought of it as "more authentic," partly because I spent more time there. Certainly Marrakech is closer to the desert and would have a range of excursion options, but I haven't used any of those operators.

Posted by
392 posts

Thanks! I should add that I'm not opposed to the train, but aware that those cities aren't ideal in terms of distance from each other.

Posted by
23 posts

We were in morocco for 2 weeks last October. It was incredible experience and a bombardment of the senses. We were in marrakesh, fes and other cities. We always stayed in the medinas. In hindsight we think that was exhausting for us and wished we had given ourselves a bit of a reprieve from the intensity. One of our most memorable experiences was a day trip out of marrakesh to two berber villages. We highly recommend Berber travel adventures. Jamel is incredible. ..you can choose the level of walking. ..we took moderate. He has a taxi driver ( wonderful man) pick you up in marrakesh and bring you to meet him in his village and you go from there. It was affordable and so very worthwhile. As far as the train ride...it's the way to go....driving can be insane. We were also in Rabat, Meknes, and out on the coast in Essaouira. All cities were different. Essaouira is frequented more by tourists. ..and the medina is clean and not closed in. Many Moroccans will not even go to marrakesh because of the craziness. All guides throughout Morocco are government controlled and everyone at every city would slyly take us into shops and then disappear as we were handled by the salesmen and then they would return. Even when we told them we were not wanting to go shopping, it didn't change their itinerary. We learned to go with it and enjoy the sales pitch and politely decline. If you do venture out in the medinas by yourself, it can be tricky and you can easily get lost. Young men will be waiting for the chance to help you...of course for a price. We were cautioned not to eat anything not cooked, we had shots before hand and pills to take for any issues along the way. My husband didn't make it through without getting diarrhea. The only thing he ate different than me was a banana? I would be happy to answer any further questions on Morocco.

Posted by
392 posts

Thanks, felsworth! I am definitely now thinking that we will take at least a 4 day trip into the mountains and desert and bookend with Marrakech and Fes. Still hoping to find a company that will take us from one city to the other, to save time, but the pictures of Erg Chebbi make it look too good to pass up! You're right that a break from the cities will be welcome - we're used to pretty intense city travel, but I know my husband gets especially tired of people trying to get him to buy stuff. (Don't worry, he knows we won't avoid that in Morocco!)

Posted by
392 posts

So it turns out we only have 8 nights, most likely... we were going to go over a long weekend, but that's no longer feasible due to other commitments.

Because of this, I was thinking Marrakech or Fes plus the desert. We were leaning towards Fes, but we can't fly directly (the layover in Casablanca is either 16 hours long, or we have to pay thousands of dollars more.) I am told the airport to the train station in Casablanca is not convenient, so while that's do-able, but it's starting to make the trip very complicated... which is not what I wanted as we took a very complicated one last year.

I guess we could do Marrakech plus the desert or Marrakech plus Fes in the time we have (flying back from Fes is no problem, actually, as the flight times line up much better.) I'm starting to question whether we should wait till we have more than 8 nights, but who knows when that will be?

Posted by
1955 posts

We spent 3 nights in Marrakech last spring, and we had a driver (arranged by the riad) pick up us in Casablanca. Just being driven was an experience......road practices are wayyyy different than in the US.

Have you decided where you will spend the night if Marrakech or Fes? If not, a riad can help arrange day or overnight trips. I can send the name of the riad we used (wonderful), as well as one our neighbors used (and we stopped in to see it while in Marrakech....also lovely). I could also dig up the name of a person who handled a desert trip for a friend of a friend (single lady who traveled just with a guide and spent the night in a tent, etc.).....she seemed happy with the trip, but I personally would not have been that brave.

While I would have loved to visit the Atlas Mountains, our three nights in Marrakech with a hot air balloon ride, a cooking class (which was fabulous) and a camel ride, was really enough for us.

Yes, the pressure to shop is incredible, even though we specified to our guide we did not want to shop...he actually lectured me that I was not willing to engage with the shop owners enough when I just politely declined to buy something!!!! And, he kept taking us into shops to see demonstrations, etc. It was rather disappointing, but we were politely firm. He ultimately then sort of ignored us as he talked on his cell phone all the way back to the riad!!! We just, at that point, wanted to get back safely without any uncomfortable conflict.

Another day, when we went out for 20 minutes on our own, just to see the riad that was where our neighbors had stayed, two different men approached us, offering to guide us or show us a special local craft fair (which turned out to be a rug store), and one acted like he had been our breakfast waiter at the riad (I later realized our server had been a female, but when approached by someone overly friendly, sometimes the travel brain does not immediately click).

We pretty much felt as though we had a big target painted on us in the markets and on the streets........never have felt quite like that before in all our travels. We are generally very low-key, unflashy travelers.

But, the medina is like nothing else...you will see snakes, monkeys, and all sorts of animals. A young man from Ireland who was on our balloon ride said someone threw a half-dead snake on him (I'd rather have half-dead than totally alive), and then also a monkey (who peed on him). Luckily we made in through with no animal incidents, so our guide was helpful in that regard. There was also a local boxing match of sorts going on in the middle of the medina. State Fairs will look so tame now in the future!!

Posted by
392 posts

Margaret, you're making me think I can get a riad to pick us up in Casablanca... to go to Fes! We were in Bali last year, and I think we're not ready for another trip where we're heavily targeted by vendors quite so soon after that. We have a small NYC apartment and just can't bring back very much!

I know Fes will have its share of this kind of thing, but it's also a place I'm more interested in than Marrakech, and there are some excursions I'd take from there. Thanks!

Posted by
3118 posts

We preferred Fes over Marrakesh so I think that your current plan is a good one. Look for a guidebook to the Medina at one of the local tobacco shops. That will help you navigate the winding pathways.

Posted by
5770 posts

I'll add some contrarian bits, some agreement and unsolicited opinions (after 2 trips to Morocco).
Take the train between Fes and Marrakech - it's a no-brainer.
Getting out to the real desert takes longer than you think - it'll take about a full day each way just to get there by private car. Honestly, I don't think you have time to do that. I'd "settle" for the two great cities. Plenty there to keep you wowed.
You now say you have "8 nights". Start by being honest with yourself: nights don't count (you're not going there to sleep). Days - days that do not include your arrival or departure flights - that's what counts. So, be honest...you have, what, 6 days in Morocco? Save the Sahara for another trip, it'll still be there.
Yeah, the driving in the old cities is kind of crazy, but even that is doable - hardest part is being confronted with traffic signs in Arabic script. Ignore that and look for the French and symbols. I did it and survived. Drove from marrakech over the Atlas Mountains to Ourzazatte - beautiful and interesting (saw snow...in Africa). The first 10 minutes was really the only stressful part (hey, the same as driving in Paris or New York), after that it was pretty ordinary driving, if scenic.
I can think of no good reason to spend any of your time in Cabalanca - not much to see there (one mosque). The movie was shot in LA...
Rethink your flights. Spending a lot to fly to Morocco? That's silly. Get an inexpensive flight to nearly any big city in western Europe, then take a low cost flight to Marrakech (dirt-cheap flights widely available). Spend a few days in Marrakech. Take the train to Fes. A few more days there. Plunge into the medinas and dont worry about it. There's no danger, it's just an endless maze of passageways. You will stumble out at some point. Want to know how to navigate back out? Bring a cheap tiny compass, make note of which direction is "out" and tend towards that direction, you will be fine. You do NOT need a "guide" or anyone's help to find your way out, just a little patience and common sense. Note memorable landmarks as you wander (pile of sheeps' heads...shop selling pirated video cassettes...old man chanting endlessly and swaying...donkey...bucket of organ meats...I've used all of these things as landmarks while wandering the medinas, they work fine for an hour or two).
Get used to people wanting to sell you things - politely decline (less politely after a while). Same for "friends" who want to be your guide or practice their English. Honestly, the hassles you get now in Morocco are pretty tame, after the government cracked down a few years back. I was there about 20 years ago and the pressure then was pretty intense. Now there are undercover "tourist police" looking for touts hassling tourists, and there's less pressure.
You will probably be surprised at how "touristy" it is. Morocco is a MAJOR destination for western European tourists. Thin of it this way: Morocco is to Europeans as Mexico is to Americans. The metaphor fits pretty well: it's a cheap destination, warm and sunny in the winter, a little exotic, lots of cheap flights and package deals available. Lots of food, culture and migrants come north from Morocco (and have been for decades, it's nothing new).
If you stick to the main, well known (but utterly worthwhile) destinations (the Marrakech/Fes axis), you will find things pretty easy. Tourism is a big business there, English is widely spoken (if English fails, bad French will work), and the palce sis well set up for foreign visitors. More so than you think.
Have fun.

Posted by
5770 posts

One more bit: don't waste time back-tracking to your arrival city: fly in to Marrakech, and out from Fes (or vice versa). Lots of cheap flights to/from each. Just plan ahead - the cheap flights may not go every day, so you need to research the low cost airlines and see which ones have flights to which city on which days, and align your travel with those. It's quite easy. Buy your tickets well in advance (prices go way up as time gets short) and know the gotchas of the low cost airlines (well documented). Don't just assume you can show up, buy a ticket on get on the plane. With a little planning it's a piece of cake.
Cheers.

Posted by
1955 posts

David's description is spot on, and his advice re: catching a less expensive flight from Europe is also spot on.

Our Morocco trip was an extension of our trip to Spain/Gibraltar. We took a Royal Air Moroc flight from Malaga, Spain. It was a pleasant (but somewhat basic) experience, but much nicer than many other commuter type planes we've experienced. And, I was pleasantly surprised when I telephoned from the US, there was an toll-free number and very helpful, friendly customer service reps (and we know that's not always the case with many other low-cost providers).

Posted by
392 posts

Thank you for the great input, but my husband already has his heart set on the Sahara, so one city (likely Fes) plus the Sahara it is. That was already decided before your comments, but thank you for them anyway :) We will go back for the other city the other time. Since we live in NYC, we really prefer to not have a long layover in Europe (and most of what I was seeing was LONG or involved more than one stop) and given the short time, we don't mind paying extra. That's to a point, though - when I discussed Fes costing more to fly to via Casablanca, I'm talking $2000 more per person. I will however look again to see if I can make a connection in Europe work for the way there. Flying out of Fes is no problem for the price range we have.

I agree it's short (though 8 nights is on the ground, not flying - I'm not a complete neophyte!), but there's not much we can do about that. Our vacation time won't be expanding in the near future, and we have a long list of other countries to visit. Also, we're dying to get lost in the medina and have no expectation of wanting a guide for the city part of things; we just don't want to self drive to the desert and would prefer someone who can pass on knowledge in English or French if we have to have a guide. We are fluent in French and generally well traveled, though my husband more so than me.

ETA: We may also table this until we can give the trip just a couple more nights by firmly planning it during a work holiday or long weekend to make that happen. That's just not feasible this year.

Posted by
5770 posts

OK, it's your trip. Just consider...

Look at the cost to fly to/from a major European hub (London, Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam, Frankfort - pretty much any major city) - that'll be a LOT less than $2000, unless you're really doing something wrong. Then add a hundred bucks (each way) to that (ballpark estimate of a flight between that city to/from Marrakech or Fes). Compare that with what you're considering paying to fly from NYC. I think you will find the difference in cost is pretty dramatic.

Long layover in Europe? Not sure what living in NYC has to do with that, but, you can easily avoid that with just a tiny bit of effort doing some planning. If you just plug NYC-Morocco into an airline's website, well of course that's going to result in useless/insane routings. You do NOT want to fly all that route on one airline or one ticket. Fly to Europe (find your best deal for that). Then, separately, get a cheap ticket from that major hub to Morocco (no airline is going to make that easy for you, it's not in their interest - they would rather charge you an extra $2000 and punish you for asking by routing you through four stops in Uzbekistan...).

From JFK or EWR, you have a nearly endless choice of reasonably-priced flights to any major city in Europe pretty much every day (lucky you - pity those of us on the west coast, or in the middle, if you want to grouse about prices or layovers...). Figure out the cheap ways to get from one of those cities to/from Morocco (flights under $100 if you play your cards right - I paid about $75 from Madrid). Book a nonstop flight to/from JFK/EWR that aligns with the low cost connection to Morocco. I don't know about you, but I would gladly suffer a few hours in some major European airport to save several thousand dollars. Note that you will have to figure this stuff out, no travel agent or airline agent is going to do it for you, but it's quite simple and all the information you need is very readily available if you have an internet connection and make a small effort. Spend an hour with Google, save thousands...or just call United/Delta/American and say "get me to Casablanca" and take what they offer you...it's a choice you make (consciously or otherwise).

As for Fes versus Marrakech, both have their charms, and either one will be a real eye-opener. Marrakech is a little more touristy, Fes is a bit less tidy and more authentic (ratio of ATMs to amount of donkey poo you will need to step over...). Fes is probably a little more, um...intense. If you're at all skittish about the whole Africa/Islamic/develoiping-country thing, Marrakech is probably more accessible. If you're ready to toss caution to the winds, I'd suggest you close your eye and dive into Fes. Regardless, if going from either one of them overland to the desert (a very long day spent driving from either), you will have options for interesting stuff on the way. If going from Fes, try to make at least a brief stop at Todra Gorge. If going from Marrakech, try to stop at Ait Benhaddou, near Ourzazatte. Both are worthwhile. If you don't believe me, just google images from them, I think you would find both interesting.

Your French will serve you well. Getting lost in the medina is a given, you will enjoy it. BTW, I was 100% serious about bringing a small compass, it's very useful in staying oriented and navigating the medinas (although navigating by the stacks of sheeps' heads also works, and appears a little less weird to the locals...). If you go to Fes, be sure to include a visit to the tanneries (but don't do that right after you've eaten a large meal...).

مع السلامة and بالتوفيق
(farewell, and good luck!)

Posted by
392 posts

I think we're crossing wires about the flights, especially since I already decided how to deal with getting directly to Fes. As I said above in the thread, I'm leaning towards just flying in one leg to Casablanca and getting ourselves driven to Fes. Given the short time, we don't mind paying a little more to fly directly to Morocco. The itineraries we're looking at via Royal Air Maroc cost almost $1k each. It's when you tack on an additional $2k not to have a 20 hour layover on the way over to Fes that I start not liking the price.

I've plugged all kinds of things into Kayak. And yes, of course it's possible to fly to Morocco in two stops via Europe, but I haven't yet seen an itinerary for that which we'd consider ideal. That doesn't mean such an itinerary doesn't exist, but what we want may be different than what you'd want, for all kinds of reasons. (One being that I'll probably be arriving on my birthday and would prefer looking at scenery in a car to a few hours to waiting in an airport.)

And I mentioned NYC because it is possible to fly directly from here to Morocco, if not to our chosen destination. If I were coming from, say, Des Moines, this would be a different conversation.

I'll keep the compass in mind! But honestly, I'm ready to table this trip for next year when we can plan for more like 10 nights to better allow for the desert excursion. I may instead choose a European city and surrounding area that we can comfortably do in the 8 nights that we have.

Posted by
392 posts

Yes, we have in fact decided to table this trip till we can devote 10 nights on the ground, at least. Sounds like the desert won't be worth it unless we can devote at least 4 nights, and we want to do it properly. I will keep all this advice in mind for the future, so thank you David and everyone else!