If you’re off to Morocco, one thing you definitely can’t miss is the opportunity to explore the Sahara Desert on the back of a camel and sleep under the stars surrounded by the impressive Erg Chebbi dunes. Thankfully, there are literally hundreds of companies that all run variations on the same tour from either Marrakech or Fes, and reasonably inexpensively as well, meaning it’s not hard to tick this incredible experience off your bucket list. With all these options, though, it can sometimes be difficult to know if you’re getting the best (or even a decent) deal, so I’ve assembled top tips for booking the best Sahara Desert tour that will ensure you spend your time filling up memory cards and making friends rather than sweating and stressing.
What does a Sahara Desert tour involve?
Basically all the tour companies offer the same itinerary, tweaking only very minor details like the hotel you stay in or adding/subtracting one or two minor stops (but of course it’s always a good idea to ask when you book, see a list of questions to ask the tour operator below). Departing from Marrakech, you’ll cross the impressive High Atlas Mountains early on, and then stop to visit the kasbah-covered Aït Benhaddou, the “Moroccan Hollywood” Ouarzazate, and the beautiful Dadès Valley before staying somewhere nearby. On the second day, you’ll admire some more beautiful kasbahs before stopping in a Berber village for a walking tour that finishes at a rug store, where you’ll definitely be encouraged to by a rug, though don’t feel obligated. Then you’ll visit the impressive Todra Gorge before driving on to Merzouga, where you’ll pack a few things for the night into a small backpack, leave the rest of your stuff behind in the van, and hop onto your camels for a 2 hour ride through the desert to reach your camp. You’ll have the opportunity to watch the sunrise over the dunes in the morning and then return back to Merzouga, either to drive back to Marrakech or to continue onwards (we continued to Fes). If you booked a 4 day tour rather than a 3 day, apparently you’ll spend the extra day in the desert doing not a whole lot, which is why we happily opted for the cheaper 3 days. Read more about all our tour stops and see photos from our trip in this post.
How much does it cost?
This is where there starts to be significant variation between tours, and really is largely the point of this entire post! If you’re looking at tours online, expect to see prices around 300€ for a 3D/2N tour, but prices will easily be 1/4 of that if you wait to book in Morocco. If you take only one piece of advice away from this entire post, don’t book your tour online before you leave! Yes, the companies with websites will have Tripadvisor reviews and provide you with heaps of information, but the prices are so incredibly inflated that it’s practically robbery and, at the end of the day, the tours are all so similar anyway. I spent hours researching tours online before we went and was all but ready to book something before someone gave me this same advice, and I’m so thankful I listened! The tours won’t book up because there are honestly so many companies, you’ll have more flexibility booking as late as the day before you want to leave, and you’ll save so much money, which means more scarves and lanterns and jewellery. So, seriously, wait to book your tour until you’re in Morocco.
What all is included in the tour?
The tour cost will generally include all of the following:
- your transport in the van (obviously)
- your accommodation (night 1 in a private hotel room and night 2 in a shared tent in the desert camp, or you can pull your bedding outside for more fun)
- breakfasts and dinners (they will cook up really delicious breakfasts and dinners for you, usually salad, bread, tajine, and fruit for dinner and Moroccan style pancakes, bread, and fruit for breakfast)
- the approximately 2 hour camel ride to and from the desert camp (we opted to ride camels there and ride on the roof of a 4×4 on the way back, which was quite fun)
It will usually not include:
- the bucketloads of water you’ll be drinking every day (but the driver will stop reasonably often for you to buy cold bottles)
- snacks for the drive
- lunch (the driver will stop at a restaurant for you to buy your own lunch, usually tajine)
- upgrade to sleep in fancier desert camp (some tour companies offer an optional upgrade if you don’t want to slum it in the desert camp with everyone else, but honestly it seems unnecessary, it’s just one night!)
- if you’re ending the tour in a different location, it may not include onward transport (we started in Marrakech, so we had to make our own way from Merzouga to Fes at the end)
What kind of options do I have?
Even though the tour itineraries are quite similar, you do have a few options when it comes to the exact tour you join. Have a think about what you want before you start speaking to companies just so you know which tours to ask about.
The most popular tours are 3D/2N tours or 4D/3N, but, as previously mentioned, we were told that the extra day on the 4D tour is typically spent in a different (and allegedly much less impressive) part of the Sahara doing another camel ride, so it seemed unnecessary to us. If you aren’t happy with 4 hours on the camels traveling to and from the desert camp as part of the 3D tour, then it might be worthwhile, and, full disclosure, I haven’t done the 4D tour so I can’t conclusively say it wouldn’t have been better! But we were satisfied with our 3D tour and would definitely recommend it to anyone.
Start & end point
Typically, the Sahara Desert tours start and finish in Marrakech or Fes, although it’s probably possible to find a few tours from other cities as well. You can either start and finish in the same city, in which case the entire last day of your tour will be spent driving back to your starting point, or you can finish in another city, which will also involve a full day of driving, but may incorporate some new stops since you’re passing different places. We started in Marrakech and finished in Fes, which meant that our last day was still spent visiting points of interest rather than just driving, but it was not included in the price of our tour. For reference, we paid 20€ each for the 9 hour day (including stops) from Merzouga to Fes, but it was a tour in and of itself, so I’d definitely recommend! Read more about our drive to Fes in this post.
As mentioned previously, some tour companies will offer optional upgrades, like paying to have a nicer room at the hotel or paying to stay in a fancier desert camp. In my opinion, these are totally unnecessary, as the hotel rooms are private and you’re in the desert anyway, so just sleep outside for one night, it’s part of the experience!
How do I book a tour?
Once you are in Morocco, it’s not hard to find a travel agent to help you book your tour. Walk around Jemaa el-Fnaa for 5 minutes and you’re sure to pass someone shouting about excursions. Just ask to hear more about their Sahara Desert tours and they’ll take you into the office, which is often just out the back of a shop in a rather dilapidated room, and the travel agent will give you all the details. This is where it’s really handy to know what questions to ask and how to play ball, so to speak. Walk into the office with confidence, keep a distinct air of skepticism about yourself, like you’re not even convinced you want to do the tour and could easily walk away, and always look offended by the first half dozen prices they offer you— they are expecting gullible tourists, so make it instantly clear that you are nothing of the sort. I have done my fair share of tour bartering with similarly sketchy travel agents all over South America and Asia, so I was ready to fire away, and I like to think that it got us a really good deal. Here is just a small sample of essential questions you should ask:
What stops are on the tour?
Get the agent to go through all of the stops along the tour and describe your exact itinerary for you. They will have photos of places, usually in a very dated PowerPoint or on an equally dated printout, and they will have a map, so get them to describe what you’ll be doing each day and ask how much driving is involved.
Specifically, what is included in the tour price?
Does it include your accommodation both nights? Which meals are included? Does it included cold water? Does it include the camel ride? Does it include your transportation onwards if you aren’t returning to your starting point?
What activities will you be doing?
How long will your camel ride last? Will you be riding to and from the desert camp? Do you have the opportunity to go on a 4×4 ride through the dunes or go sandboarding? Will it cost extra?
What is the transportation like?
Is it a van or a bus? Will it have aircon? How many seats are there? Is it reasonably new? They will often have photos of the van as well, so ask to see them.
What is the accommodation like?
Where will you be staying each night? Will you have a private room at the hotel? Will you have a private bathroom with hot water? Where are you staying in the desert?
Does the driver speak English?
Will your driver be acting as a tour guide for you? Does he speak your language? We had a mix of English, Chinese, German, Spanish, and Polish being spoken in our van, and obviously the driver doesn’t speak all of these languages. The Spaniards in particular spoke very poor English and therefore missed out on a lot of what was being said by the driver, but it’s not uncommon for Moroccans to speak 4 or 5 languages, so just ask about the driver!
How many other people will be on the tour?
Will there be enough seats for everyone to sit comfortably in the van? If you’re travelling alone, will you have to share a room with another solo traveller in the hotel?
Will we be picked up from our hotel?
How will you get to the van for the start of the tour? Will they come pick you up for free in the morning?
What is the best price you can offer me?
After you’re completely satisfied that you know everything about the tour, then you can start talking price. It’s always a good idea to read up online or speak to other travellers to find out what people have paid recently for similar tours. For your reference, we paid 700Dh (60€) each for our 3D tour in August 2017 from Marrakech, which included private hotel rooms, transport in a rather new van, and delicious Moroccan meals. Have an idea in your head of what you’d like to pay and don’t accept their first price, or even their fourth price if it’s still too high. Expect that, whatever they offer, you should be able to negotiate to about half that, as a rule of thumb.
Some good negotiation tactics to employ:
- say you’d like to speak to some other travel agents before you make up your mind (which you should do anyway), but it will almost always get them to offer you a better price, since they know full well that if you leave it’s unlikely you’ll be back
- talk in a stage whisper to your travel companion about how it’s too expensive and you think you may just have to skip it altogether
- have a lowball amount in cash separate from your other cash so you can say “all the cash I have left is $$, and I’ll book it right now if you’re happy with that amount, otherwise I’ll have to try a different company, I can’t take anymore money from the ATM today”
Finalise your tour
Once you agree on a price you’re happy with, which may take a bit of shopping around, you’ll want them to write out a receipt or voucher for you. If possible, only pay a deposit— if you still owe them money, they certainly won’t be “forgetting” to pick you up for the tour, so write on the voucher the remaining balance. Make sure it also says your full name and accommodation, as well as the pick-up time agreed upon. Lastly, get the name of the agent, the name of the tour company, and a business card with the phone number and details on it so you can contact them/hold them accountable if something goes wrong.
Hopefully this guide has been helpful and you enjoy your time in the amazing Sahara Desert!