Transportation - Get In
Almost every national can get a visa at the border, regardless of the fact it is not officially written or recommended. But do not buy a bus ticket that will take you all the way across the border. They will always leave you there because it does take 2-10 hours for US citizens and they will not tell you that in advance at the time of purchasing of the bus ticket. Buy a ticket to the border via minibus/shared taxi (servees) then do the same when you get to the other side. US citizens cost US$16 or €12, while others are more costly, Japanese are USD12-14 or €9-11, Singaporeans are USD33 or €25, Australians/New Zealanders are about USD100 or €75.99, Swiss are USD63 or €47.88. They only take US dollars or Euros. You may only receive a 15-day single-entry tourist visa and will have to go through this process if you ever re-enter Syria. When you exit Syria, you will have to buy/pay an exit card for about USD12 or €9.15.
If going by land, and you are planning to get a visa on the border, bring US dollars, euros or Syrian pounds. Other foreign currency will not get a good exchange rate and at most crossing there are no facilities for credit/debit cards. Travellers cheques are also not accepted.
American citizens need to beware of sanctions on Syria. While travelling and spending money in Syria is permitted, you may not fly with Syrian Arab Airlines, and more importantly, many US banks err on the safe side and ban all business with Syria. Some credit or ATM cards may not work, although many Americans today experience little problems in this regard. Be wary, however, as some travellers have had their bank account access frozen, regardless of whether or not they informed their bank of travel to Syria.
Due to the conflict various areas of Syria are not under the control of the Syrian central government. Areas near to Turkey are under control of Kurdish forces and rebel forces. Foreigners will not be allowed to cross at these borders, and Turkey/Syria borders in general are closed now because of the conflict. From the Kurdish Region of Iraq there are people crossing over the river into Syria at a place called Faish Khabour, however the crossing is only for humanitarian workers and any non-aid workers may not be allowed crossing.
Syria has three international airports: Damascus International Airport (DAM), 35km (22miles) southeast of the capital, Aleppo International Airport (ALP) just northeast of Aleppo in the north of the country and Bassel al-Assad International Airport (LTK), south of Latakia, main sea port of the country. Due to the current civil war, most airlines have suspended service to these airports.
Upon arrival, a free entry visa can be delivered to almost all travellers if they are being received by a local travel agency. Call the Syrian Embassy in your home country for more information.
Syria levies a departure tax of SYP550 (~US$13) at land and sea borders. Since Summer 2009 airport departure tax is included in the ticket price, and airlines will put a manual stamp on your boarding pass.
One of the practical and reasonable ways to enter Syria from Turkey is to take a domestic flight to Gaziantep and then taxi to Aleppo through Oncupinar border-gate in Kilis. The journey takes around 2 hours including custom formalities. The fare is USD60, per car with max 4 and one way. Taxis holding licence can be arranged in Kilis or Gaziantep. Turkcan Turizm, 0348 822 3313
There are two international train connections to Syria: Tehran - Aleppo - Damascusand Istanbul - Aleppo
- Turkish Railways page "trains to Middle East". Shows up to date prices, timetables. The Syrian Railways site has not been updated in English for some time so this Turkish page is a better source of information. [www]
Flying to Istanbul followed a train/coach down to Damascus is a very cheap alternative to flying direct to Damascus (GBP200 return flights from the UK to Istanbul) it takes about 36 hours max to Aleppo (leaves on Sunday morning; see [www]). Contrary to popular belief it does not continue to Damascus, you have to change trains. Seat61 is very accurate and should be consulted.
All trains from Istanbul (Haydarpaşa train station on the Asian side of the Bosporus) are operated jointly between TCDD (Turkish) and CFS (Syria) and are by far the cheapest way into Syria from Europe, flying to Istanbul and continuing by rail can cost €200 - €300 less than a flight to Damascus.
Recent track renovations across Turkish rail network resulted in Toros Express driving Istanbul to Gaziantep (from which another train into Syria can be caught) being suspended, and it is not certain when and if it will resume service. However there are still daily night trains Istanbul to Adana, which is a short bus ride away from Antioch and Gaziantep, the former of which has extensive bus connections to Aleppo while the latter has twice weekly train connection with the said Syrian city.
Tur-ista travel agency can book your train tickets before you get to Istanbul, this is a good idea with trains booking up very quickly (Tur-ista tel: +90 (212) 334 2600).
Buses run from Turkey, with frequent connections from the city of Antakya (Hatay). You can also travel by bus from Jordan & Lebanon.
When arriving into Damascus by bus, make sure to move away from the bus terminal to find a taxi to the centre of town. Otherwise, you run the risk of paying several times the going rate, which should be around SYP150, as cars posing as taxis operate next to the terminal.
This is normally a two-man operation, with one person trying to distract you, while the driver puts your suitcase into the trunk of the "taxi" and locks it.
When travelling from Lebanon, service taxis (taxis that follow a fixed route only, usually from near one bus station to another) are a convenient way to reach Damascus, Homs, Tartus, Aleppo or other Syrian towns. A shared service taxi from Beirut to Damascus will cost about between 700 and 800 Syrian Pounds per person ($17), based on four people sharing the same taxi. If you want a private taxi then you will have to pay for every seat. From Latakia to Beirut a seat in a service will cost SYP800 with around SYP500 being charged from Tartous to Tripoli. In most cases it is necessary to buy a Syrian visa before leaving home, often costing about USD130 or less, depending of the country of residency. It's possible, to obtain free entry visa for tourists if being received by a local Travel Agency. It is also possible to arrive by car from Turkey. A private taxi from Gaziantep Airport (Turkey) will cost about USD60.
Service taxis run from Dar'a across the Jordanian border to Ramtha; from there microbuses are available to Irbid and Amman -- the stop in Dar'a permits a side trip to Bosra, with UNESCO-recognised Roman theater and ruins.
- The nearest car ferry port is Bodrum in Turkey.
- Occasional passenger ferries run between Latakia and Limassol, Cyprus. This service has come and gone over the years, and only 4 sailings in each direction are scheduled for 2008. Confirm that the departure will occur with Varianos Travel before making plans that incorporate this route. [www]
- Latakia and Tartous serve as ports of call for a number of Mediterranean cruise lines.
Transportation - Get Around
The taxis (usually yellow, and always clearly marked) are an easy way to get around Damascus, Aleppo and other cities. Arabic would be helpful: most taxi drivers do not speak English. All licensed taxis carry meters, and it is best to insist that the driver puts the meter on, and watch that it stays on. Most drivers expect to haggle prices with foreign travellers rather than use the meter. A taxi ride across Damascus might come to SYP30. Taxis from the airport to the downtown Damascus cost about SYP600-800, slightly more at night. Private cab services (which advertise prominently at the airport) charge substantially more.
However, there is also a bus from Baramkeh station to the airport for SYP25 per bag and SYP45 per person
Cars can be rented at various Sixt, Budget and Europcar locations. Cham Tours (formerly Hertz) has an office next to the Cham Palace Hotel, which offers competitive rates starting at about USD50 per day including tax, insurance and unlimited kilometres.
Sixt rent a car is one of the premier car rental companies in europe, has recently opened in Syria at the Four Seasons Hotel with its brand new fleet, Rates starting from USD40 per day (All Inclusive).
If you have never driven in Syria before, make sure you take a taxi first in order to get a first-hand idea of what traffic is like. Especially in Damascus and Aleppo, near-constant congestion, a very aggressive driving style, bad roads and highly dubious quality of road signs make driving there an interesting experience. so do be careful.
The only road rule that might come in handy is that, as opposed to most of the rest of the world, in roundabouts, the entering cars have the right of way, and the cars that are already in the roundabout have to wait. Aside from that, it seems that motorists are fairly free to do as they please.
If you have an accident in a rental car, you must obtain a police report, no matter how small the damage or how clear it is who is at fault – otherwise, you will be liable for the damage. Police (road police No:115) probably will only be albe to speak Arabic, so try to make other drivers help you and/or call your rental agency.
Gas (marked as "Super", red stands) comes at SYP40 per litre (+10%tax) so it is SYP44, diesel (green stand) at approx. half the price. If you manage to get out of fuel (try to avoid it), which is quite easy wherever eastern of Damascus-Aleppo highway, or mountains western from it; you can manage to find some local able to sell you few litres from canister, but prices may be high (say SYP70 per litre). Usually gas stations are only in bigger towns and major crossroads in the desert, so try to refuel whenever you can.
The microbuses (locally called servees, or meecro) are little white vans that carry ten, or so, passengers around cities on set routes for about SYP10. The destinations are written on the front of microbus in Arabic. Usually, the passenger sitting behind the driver deals with the money. You can ask the driver to stop anywhere along his route.
Often, microbuses will do longer routes, for example, to surrounding villages around Damascus and Aleppo, or from Homs to Tadmor or Krak des Chevaliers. They are often more uncomfortable and crowded than the larger buses, but cheaper. Especially for shorter distances they have usually more frequent departures than buses.
By bus or coach
Air-conditioned coaches are one of the easy ways to make longer hauls around Syria, for example, the trip from Damascus to Palmyra. Coaches are cheap, fast and reliable way to get around the country, however the schedules, when they exist, are not to be trusted. For the busy routes it's best to simply go to the coach station when you want to leave and catch the next coach, you'll have to wait a bit, but most of the time it's less of a chore than finding out when the best coach will be leaving, and then often finding it's late.
The Syrian railways were reasonably modern. Rail travel is inexpensive and generally punctual, although railway stations are often a reasonable distance out of town centres. The main line connects Damascus, Aleppo, Deir ez-Zur, Hassake and Qamishle. A secondary line serves stations along the Mediterranean coast.
In the summer, on Fridays, a little steam train leaves from the Hejaz Railway Station in Damascus (which has a good restaurant) and climbs into the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. Many locals enjoy the ride to picnic in the cooler mountains.
While travelling by bicycle may not be for everyone, and Syria is by no means a cycle tourist's paradise, there are definite advantages. Syria is a good size for cycling, accommodation is frequent enough that even a budget traveller can get away with "credit card" touring (though in the case of Syria, it might be better to refer to it as fat-wad-of-cash touring). There are sites that one can not get to with public transportation like the Dead Cities and the people are incredibly friendly often inviting a tired cyclist for a break, cup of tea, meal or night's accommodation. The problem of children throwing stones at cyclists or running behind the bicycle begging for candy and pens (such as in parts of Morocco) does not seem to have appeared in Syria. Locals young and old alike will, however, be very curious about your travels and your bicycle and if you stop in a town you can expect a large crowd to gather for friendly banter about where you are from and your trip.
Wild camping is quite easy in Syria. Perhaps the biggest challenge is not so much finding a place for your tent but picking a spot where locals will not wander by and try to convince you to come back to their home. Olive groves and other orchards can make a good spot for your tent, except on a rainy day when the mud will make life difficult. Another option is to ask to pitch your tent in a private garden or beside an official post like a police station. It is unlikely you will be refused as long as you can get your message across. A letter in Arabic explaining your trip will help with communication.
Unfortunately, the standard of driving skills in Syria is extremely low and other road users tend to drive very aggressively. They do seem used to seeing slow moving traffic and normally give plenty of room as they pass. Motorcycles are perhaps the biggest danger as their drivers like to pull up alongside cyclists to chat or fly by your bike for a look at the strange traveller and then perform a U-turn in the middle of the road to go back home. Perhaps the safest option in this case is to stop, talk for a few minutes and then carry on.
Finding good maps tends to be another problem. You should bring a map with you as good maps are hard to find in Syria. Free ones are available from the tourist bureaus but they are not very good for cycle touring. Even foreign-produced maps can contain errors or roads that don't exist, making excursions away from the main route a challenge. Asking several locals for the right road is a good idea when you come to a crossroads. Without good maps it can be hard to avoid riding on the main highway, which while safe enough (a good wide shoulder exists on almost all the highways) is not very pleasant due to the smokey trucks and uninteresting scenery.
You should think about bringing a water filter or water treatment tablets with you. Bottled water is not always available in the smaller towns. Finding local water is easy. Tall metal water coolers in many town centres dispense free local water and water is always available near mosques. The Syrian word for water is pronounced like the English word “my” (as in “that is my pen”) with a slight A afterwards and if you ask at any shop or home for water they will happily refill your bottles.