Inter-city travel in a foreign country can be intimidating, but these helpful hints will smooth your journey so you can enjoy the ride.
Your dream came true: You are finally in the land of couscous!
The scent of sweet Moroccan pastries looms across the air. “If only I could stop and grab a delicious honey-drenched chebakia,” you think to yourself, before remembering that you have a train to catch. Your laugh thunders into the city sky.
Observing fast-talking and slow-walking city slickers with pointed slippers, you feel like you are living in an “Arabian Nights” tale that you dreamed of as a teen, but streets filled with cars and taxis braiding their positions across driving lanes bring you back to reality.
Tired, stressed, and carrying burdensome luggage, you refocus to peer into the revolving doors of a distant building.
People with suitcases move to and from the entries. Dazed from all the commotion, you spot taxis lining the sidewalk and travelers shuffling about with purpose. It must be a train station. Eureka!
The humdrum day-to-day foot-work of getting around town is inviting, but you are on a mission. You have been struggling for the last few weeks with your few words in the Moroccan dialect (Darija) and the broken French that you have not used since Mr. Monroe’s class in high school.
The only two Darija terms you have managed to learn are shokran (thank you) and the standard greeting of salamu alaikom (peace be upon you). You are not even sure you have spelled them correctly because every time you say them, people smile as though you are making a beginner’s pronunciation error.
There are plenty of friendly people willing to help you, but it will be difficult to ask for directions with only gestures and these two phrases. Believe me, I have been there myself. I struggled on my first trip in Morocco.
Here are the five tips on catching the train in Morocco that I wish I knew from the get-go.
- Once you arrive at your destination, avoid taking a taxi parked right in front of the train station.
I know that when you are going from the train station to the town center, hauling a heavy bag on your back, the last thing you want to do is walk a few extra meters to get a taxi. Believe me, as much as you would like to take a rest, you had better catch a taxi that is not directly in front of the railway station.
This is because taxis in front of the train station are often overpriced, as drivers may be expecting tourists and even locals from other cities who do not know where else to catch a taxi.
If you walk a few blocks away along the main road then you will come across plenty of vacant taxis and you can skip the crowded passenger lines.
Keep in mind that you can take different types of taxis. There are private taxis that go long distances both inside and outside the city, called “grand taxis.” There are also local taxis, called “petit taxis,” which feature ride sharing. Each type of taxi is a different color, and the color is dependent on the city.
- Make sure you check the rail service website before you go.
Before taking a train, be sure to check routes and schedules on the Moroccan National Railways Office’s (ONCF) website, www.oncf.ma/en/. This will save you time wandering around the station staring at the standard train station architecture, or drinking the awful coffee at one of the Venezia Ice cafes inside the station–it is not an Italian brand so do not get upset–when you would prefer exploring a fascinating ancient city, or “medina.”
Knowing the train schedule in advance, you can plan to explore the city pre-departure. The station is usually pretty close to the city center. Trains travel between major cities including Marrakech, Fez, Casablanca, Rabat, Tangier, and Meknes.
With some extra time, you can enjoy the sights and dine at a local restaurant before heading on your way. If you do not have much time, there are many local cafes near train stations where you can enjoy a Moroccan mint tea and a briwat or a cafe creme while reading a book or simply people-watching.
- Take the high-speed train.
The high-speed rail train is also known in Arabic as Al Boraq and in French as the TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse). With high-speed rail only operating in 20 countries worldwide, it is not often that you will have the opportunity to take such a fast train. Take advantage of being in Morocco and travel on the country’s recently-inaugurated TGV.
This will get you to your destination much faster. At the same time, the high-speed train provides optimal comfort for having tea, enjoying the sights whenever the train slows, or simply relaxing.
Listen to the “clickity clack” of the railroad tracks. Nod off against the picturesque landscape while charging your electronic devices.
The TGV is now only operating between Casablanca, Rabat, Kenitra, and Tangier. Keep in mind that if you go from Fez to Tangier you can take both a normal train and the TGV with only one ticket purchase, and know that the TGV route will soon connect more cities.
- Remember your seat number and remember courtesy.
Once you buy your ticket and you finally board the train with your heavy bags, caffeinated and eager to sit down, remember that there are seat assignments. Your ticket will have a compartment number and a seat number. If you do not know where to stand along the platform to enter the correct compartment, ONCF staff can provide assistance.
Once all the hustling and bustling on the locomotive platform is behind you, it is not uncommon for seating to be a little scrambled.
You may walk into the wrong compartment and take the wrong seat. Likewise, you might find a little old lady in your seat, perhaps traveling with a turtle (true story). If this is the case, politely explain that this is your seat and apologize for the confusion.
Most Moroccan people are quite kind–as long as you treat them with kindness as well–and will understand as this is a common mix-up. If the train is not crowded and there are plenty of vacant seats, do not be nit-picky and simply sit elsewhere. This will save you some hassle and will put the old lady and her turtle at ease.
- Make sure you know about any transfer points along your route.
If your route has a transfer point, you will usually receive two tickets at the train station’s ticket booth. The first ticket will be from point A to the transfer point. The second ticket will be from the transfer point to your final destination, point B. Do not lose your tickets by using them as bookmarks! Keep them handy, as an attendant will come around to scan them.
Once you get to the transfer station, be sure to look at the signs above the platforms. They will have each train’s destination posted.
If you are confused you can always try to ask one of the station agents if you are on the right track. If you are lucky, they will speak English. If you speak Darija or French, even better! If neither of the two are true then it would be a good time to refer to your Arabic or French phrase book, but this is a highly unlikely scenario.
If you do not have a phrase book on hand you can download the Reverso app or go to the Reverso website, type in your phase, and translate it into French or Arabic. This is a good way to learn to communicate while immersing yourself in everyday travel, or to meet a friendly Moroccan who can speak English and translate for you.
Now that you have everything ready for your rail journey in advance, there is no longer any need to worry about trains. It is time to set yourself up for a great adventure in the land of couscous!
If you have any questions about trains in Morocco? Let me know in the comments section below.