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7 Morocco travel pro tips & pitfalls to avoid

Secondary Categories: Middle East

Anyone planning a journey to Morocco will be wise to take advantage of SA Expeditions’ insider tips and avoid these common Morocco travel pitfalls.

1. Miscalculating how much time you need in Morocco

Try not to let world maps that under-represent the enormity of Africa misguide you; Morocco is a large country, spanning over 170,000 square miles, making it larger in area than the entire state of California. The time involved with getting to Morocco and then traveling between highlights within the country is significant and should not be underestimated.

            Referential estimated USA to Morocco flight travel times

  • New York - Casablanca: about 7 hours direct or about 12 hours with stopover in Madrid

  • Los Angeles - Casablanca: about 19 hours with stopover in Paris or Amsterdam

  • Chicago - Casablanca: about 15 hours with stopover in Madrid or Lisbon

 

            Referential estimated driving times within Morocco

  • Casablanca to Fes: about 3.5 hours

  • Fes to Erfoud: about 6.5 hours

  • Erfoud to Marrakech: about 8.5 hours Marrakech to Casablanca: about 3 hours

1-SA Expeditions 10-Day Morroco Map

Our recommended 10-day Morocco route – any shorter, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice.

Travelers who consider Morocco a quick weekend getaway destination or a short add-on to a vacation in Western Europe are likely to feel rushed and leave disappointed, barely scratching the surface of all this cultural gem of North Africa has to offer.

SA Expeditions Insider Tip: Allow at least 10 days to experience Morocco, including overnights in the highlight cities of Casablanca, Fes and Marrakech and a stay at a luxury Sahara camp outside of Erfoud to explore the desert on camelback.

2. Booking “milk-run” Casablanca group tours

Another mistake to avoid when planning a Morocco expedition is booking group tours from Casablanca. Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco, with a population of over three million (larger in population than Chicago, for example).

Some group tours from Casablanca start and end with “milk-run” pickups and drop-offs, meaning travelers are stuck in a bus or van while it snakes through traffic to pick up and drop off other tourists at hotels scattered throughout the sprawling city.

Depending on where your hotel falls along the route, this can mean hours spent in Casablanca traffic rather than extra time exploring the spectacular Hassan II Mosque, strolling the seaside Corniche, or sampling gourmet Moroccan cuisine at the Atelier Oriental.

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Water reflecting the Hassan II Mosque’s main gate in Casablanca.

SA Expeditions Insider Tip: Avoid group tours and use a private guide and driver for all your excursions, not only in Casablanca, but throughout Morocco. SA Expeditions provides reliable drivers and local, expert guides who speak excellent English. Having a private driver saves you time, and having the same SA Expeditions private guide for multiple days allows you to get to know a local Moroccan, which opens doors and forms friendships that can last for years to come.

3. Forgetting to include Fes

Fes, sometimes spelled Fez, is a must-see city in inland northern Morocco, just northwest of the Atlas Mountains. As Fes might lack the immediate global name recognition of Moroccan destinations such as Casablanca, Marrakech and the Sahara, travelers may make the mistake of leaving this bustling city of about 1.5 million (Morocco’s second largest) off their itinerary.

By doing so, travelers miss experiencing one of the most important historic hubs of North Africa and the cultural and spiritual capital of Morocco. Founded over 1,200 years ago, Fes’ medina, or old town, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with some of the best-preserved madrasas, palaces and mosques of the Marinid era, a Muslim Berber empire that reached its peak in the 13th and 14th centuries.

SA Expeditions Insider Tip: Include at least two nights in Fes, breaking up the drive from Casablanca with a night in Meknes and a visit to the Volubilis ruins in route. Be sure to include a stay at one of SA’s recommended riads, former estates of Morocco’s elite that have been converted into charming hotels. Riad Ritaj in Meknes and Riad Le Calife in Fes are two of our favorites. In Fes, include time to visit the Chouara Tannery in the Fes el-Bali neighborhood amidst a maze of timeless, narrow footpaths in one of the largest car-free urban areas in the world.

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A glimpse of the famous tannery in Fes.

4. Skipping the Sahara

With so much to see in Morocco, how important is it really to include a visit to the Sahara Desert? With the amount of travel involved to get there, and the Atlas Mountain range to cross on the way, one could be forgiven for thinking it might be OK to leave the Sahara off their Morocco trip plan. After all, what is there to see in the desert besides sand, right?

This Morocco trip planning pitfall, skipping the Sahara Desert, may be the worst of all, and to explain why, the following images say more than what could be written in 1,001 nights: 

4-Sahara-Merzouga-Luxury-Desert-Camps-grouped

(Courtesy photos: Merzouga Luxury Desert Camps)

SA Expeditions Insider Tip: Travel from Erfoud into the Sahara via a combination of vehicle and camel, arriving at the Merzouga Luxury Camp in your own private caravan. Visit surreal desert oases and remote Berber villages, absorbing centuries of traditional storytelling, lively music and warm hospitality. Leaving the desert, break up the ride to Marrakech with a stop in Ouarzazate, taking in spectacular views of the High Atlas Mountains in route.

5. Feeling scammed in the Marrakech Marketplace

Stays in Fes and Marrakech offer chances to visit Morocco’s most world-renowned markets and souks (or bazaars), breathe in the aromas of local spices, and take in the sounds of snake charmers’ flutes. Visiting these unique and sometimes chaotic marketplaces unprepared, however, can be a recipe for shock, especially for travelers expecting a relaxing experience.

Moroccan merchants, while generally friendly and well-intentioned, can be extremely persistent, or, some might say, uncomfortably aggressive, in their sales tactics.

For example, in Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fna square, home to Morocco’s largest market, artists often hawk henna designs to tourists. Henna, a traditional Moroccan art form dating back centuries to the times of nomadic Berber tribes, is applied directly to the skin to celebrate weddings, births, and other joyous events.

One approach that local henna artists have been known to use is, upon spying a honeymooning couple, simply taking the hand of the recent bride and beginning to apply the ink to her hand, only discussing price and demanding payment once the ink is setting in. What was intended to be a romantic stroll through the marketplace can easily become a hurried walk back to the hotel to scrub off the unwanted ink, which can last for weeks.

10-morocco-market

A welcoming entryway to one of Marrakech’s vibrant marketplaces.

Goods and services in Moroccan souks and markets generally have no fixed or published price. Merchants will often begin negotiations by asking, “How much do you want to pay?” or floating a high-ball price. They expect customers to negotiate, and, even when a compromise price is reached, as professional hagglers, merchants will almost always give the impression they are undercharging. This type of interaction can be entertaining, and there are bargains to be had, but visitors who are unfamiliar with shopping in this fashion can feel uncomfortable or leave wondering if they got ripped off.

SA Expeditions Insider Tip: Steer clear of henna artists unless you expect to pay for an intricate temporary tattoo. When inside markets, keep a positive attitude and treat the bargaining process like a game. You should be comfortable walking away before accepting a price you are unsure about paying. Rely on SA Expeditions to provide a trustworthy, private, local guide to accompany you through the markets, help you understand your options, and assist you with shipping items back home if you decide to make large purchases. Lastly, be sure to seek out the architectural and cultural wonders of the medinas.

11-Marrakech Medina Jack McCabe SA Expeditions

You’ll find architectural treasures around each bend in Marrakech’s medina. (Photo: Jack McCabe)

6. Getting stuck with obligatory stops at overpriced shops

This scenario is not unique to Morocco, but it does happen, and it can put a major damper on a traveler’s experience. If you have extra time, you might add a day trip from Casablanca down the coast to El Jadida, or from Marrakech to the nearby Ourika Valley. Along the way, some drivers may pull over at roadside shops which sell the same wares that can be found in the city, often at inflated prices. After a bit of browsing, travelers inevitably start to wonder if their guide or driver will get kickbacks from the shopkeepers for bringing tourists there. This can be frustrating, and it can especially feel like a waste of time if shopping was not on your agenda for the day.

12-morocco-market-tourist-1

SA Expeditions Insider Tip: Pre-arrange your trip, including all excursions, through SA Expeditions to ensure you have a private guide and driver you can trust. If you are not interested in visiting shops on any given day, communicate this clearly to your Destination Expert or private guide. Some of Morocco’s markets and artisanal workshops are genuine, unique cultural experiences that are not to be missed. Most shops are not.

7. Sweating in the Sahara’s summer sun

If you are planning a summer vacation, it may actually be a mistake to head to Morocco during the dog days of summer. You might want to consider delaying your Morocco expedition until fall (September - November) or spring (March - April). Summer months see sweltering temperatures, particularly in inland cities like Marrakech, where average highs in July and August hover around 99° F. Winter months see nighttime temperatures plummet, especially in the Sahara, where lows in December to February average just above freezing (34° F to 37° F).

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SA Expeditions Insider Tip: Take a moment to review Morocco’s weather, and contact SA Expeditions to help plan your ideal journey, taking weather, local holidays, and your travel preferences into account to create a tailor-made itinerary.

If you’re ready to begin planning your next Morocco expedition,  contact a Destination Expert  today. For more regional inspiration, pair your Morocco vacation with a private journey to Jordan or an expedition through Egypt.

14-Marrakech Cafe Jemaa el-Fna Jack McCabe SA Expeditions

The author, Jack McCabe, mapping a route through Marrakech from a cafe on Jemaa el-Fna square.

About the author: Jack McCabe is a world traveler, writer, content marketing strategist and graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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