One of the friendliest countries you’ll ever have the pleasure of travelling to, Syria is a breath of fresh air from the hassle and expense of its neighbours, Turkey and Jordan.
It was surprisingly easy to travel independently as a backpacker through Syria using a mix of public transport and chartered taxis, and surprisingly cheap. So cheap, in fact, for the first few days I was double and triple checking my records and the exchange rate to make sure I hadn’t tripped up somewhere.
We crossed the Syrian border at Bab Al-Hawa, after taking an overnight bus from the Turkish town of Kayseri (near Cappadocia) to Antakya (also known as Hatay), roughly three hours including border crossing from the Syrian city of Aleppo. You can read my account of the trip between Turkey and Syria overland here.
It’s very easy to get to Antakya from almost anywhere in Turkey. Once there, it will cost around 10 YTL in a coach to cross the border. The bus driver assists with the border crossing, and you won’t leave the frontier until everyone is across. Luckily, there were only five people on our bus, so we got across very quickly. Leaving the country on a full coach was a different story.
We already had visas in advance, but two of our fellow passengers (Japanese) got theirs quickly and easily at the border.
Note: we got dumped on the outskirts of Aleppo, so make sure you know where the driver is going to drop you, and argue (and refuse to get off the bus!) if necessary.
While they’re not exactly the space-age, plane-style buses you might be used to if you’re coming from Turkey, Syrian coaches are mostly comfortable and quite safe, even if the vehicle doesn’t look particularly well maintained. If you get motion sick, plan for this – something to do with the suspension perhaps sees them wobbling all over the road. Windy and winding desert roads probably don’t help!
Buses are incredibly cheap in Syria – to get from Aleppo to Hama costs around 100 SYP, and from Hama to Damascus, a two and a half hour trip, it costs around 145 SYP.
Since the country is so small, you can charter a taxi to take you pretty much anywhere, but if you’re solo or travelling as a couple, it can be very expensive. We chartered a taxi between Aleppo and Hama and it cost 2000 SYP, around 50 USD for a two-hour trip.
Car & Driver
The best way to see the country is by chartering a car and driver to visit several sites on a day trip from your base, whether it be Aleppo, Hama or Damascus. We never had any problems finding other travellers to split the cost with – and if you stay in Hama, the hotel will find other travellers for you. Just let them know where you want to go the day before, and they’ll sort it out.
These trips, in a car that seats 5 including the driver, never cost us more than 700 SYP each, the cheapest being 600.
Unless you have a valid ISIC card (and trust me, they’re not interested in your IYTC card), you will have to pay the full cost of entry at Syria’s sights. There seems to be a standard price for all sights, large or small, city museum or hilltop ruin, of 150 SYP.
If you’re visiting Palmyra, also consider a side trip to Apamea from Hama. A great contrast, and you’ll likely have Apamea all to yourself.
We didn’t have the best experience with food in Syria, thanks to our Aleppo Affliction, so I can’t exactly provide the best advice.
However, food is incredibly cheap, and it’s easy to eat on a budget. Breakfast of boiled egg, bread, butter and olives was included in the room price at every hotel we stayed in.
A fresh sandwich filled with falafel (fried chickpeas), potatoes (aka french fries), tomato and mint can cost as little as 15 SYP, and a meat kebab and a selection of mezze never cost more than 200 SYP each. Eat meat with caution.
Roasted chicken shops are also a great way to eat a substantial amount of food on a budget. A half chicken with rice and a 1.5L bottle of water set us back 200 SYP each.
Sweets and pastries are also cheap, and a gigantic plate filled with more than you can eat will never cost more than around 100 SYP.
There are two Jordanian JETT buses that leave at 8.30am and 3.30pm daily from Al-Samariyeh bus terminal in Damascus. To get to the bus station from the budget hotel area (like Al-Rabie hotel), take the green 15 bus for 10 SYP. The coach across the border costs around 500 SYP, and they’ll want to see your passport. There are several falafel stands and plenty of snack stalls so you won’t go hungry if you have a long wait like we did – although the bus terminal is not air-conditioned.
Be prepared for a long day, and if you take the 3.30pm bus, a long evening. In total, there’s only about two hours of driving involved but it took us almost ten hours including visits to two duty free shops, a restaurant, customs searching the bags of all Jordanians and some possible cigarette smuggling by a group of passengers.
It’s easy to get a Jordanian visa on the border for a cost of 10 JOD. Get your passport inspected first, then buy the visa, then remember to get your passport stamped. There are several checkpoints before you leave the frontier where your passport will be inspected again.
There’s also an ATM next to the immigration hall, so you don’t need to worry about changing money.
I’m fastidious about recording my daily spend. The cheapest city in Syria was Aleppo, and Damascus was almost three times the cost of Aleppo or Hama. Here’s what nine days in Syria cost:
Accommodation: 620 SYP/day. We could have almost halved this by sleeping on the roof.
Food: 271.31 SYP/day.
Transport: 305 SYP/day.
Sights: 81.67 SYP/day.
Communications: 33.33 SYP/day. This includes internet.
Including miscellaneous costs like small souvenirs, the average cost per day of backpacking in Syria was 1,376 SYP.
Thinking about adding Syria to your own RTW itinerary? Check out the archives for posts about my time in the country.
On my RTW trip during the summer of 2010, I met my friend Alicia in Istanbul and we spent the next 46 days travelling overland through Turkey, Syria and Jordan before I headed to Egypt solo to join up with a quick organised tour through upper Egypt.
Read more about this leg of my trip on my Middle East roundup page.