The Caspian Sea ferry is a collection of cargo ships that ply different routes between the nations surrounding the world’s biggest lake.
Although some people say it is easy to take the ferry across the Caspian Sea, the rules change all the time and it usually comes with a fair bit of uncertainty and confusion. Make sure you budget enough extra days and are flexible with your schedule, so taking the ferry can become a fun and rewarding experience instead of a nerve-wrecking one.
If you have the chance, we recommend going overland and avoiding the ferry – it’s much more fun. If you are with a car, it is much cheaper as well. Interesting experiences await you in Iran and Dagestan. We really do not understand why so many people who have the chance to visit these places insist on taking the ferry instead.
All updates and questions on the Caspian Sea ferry go in this forum topic.
After 2 relatively quiet years in 2016 and 2017, the ferry in 2018 is causing more problems again. 2 issues dominate:
- A perceived lack of boats on the Baku-Aqtau line (we’re not sure there are less than before)
- A change in Aqtau: boats now leave and arrive from a new port near Kuryk
For those taking the ferry for the first time, it seems like a total mess. We’ve been doing this for almost a decade: it’s business as usual.
|Point A||Point B||Type of transport|
|Baku/Alat (AZ)||Aqtau/Kuryk (KAZ)||Old freighter with room for passengers|
|Baku/Alat (AZ)||Turkmenbashi (TM)||Old freighter with room for passengers|
|Baku/Alat (AZ)||Turkmenbashi (TM)||Berkarar and Bagtiyar|
|Olya (RU)||Turkmenbashi (TM)||Berkarar and Bagtiyar|
Plans for a ferry between Aqtau and Makhachkala are on the table, but so far, there is no sign of progress yet.
There is no timetable for any of these ferries. When they leave depends a lot on the weather, and on the amount of freight that is loaded. Basically, it leaves when it’s full. This means every 3-5 days between Aqtau and Baku and every day or every other day to Turkmenbashi and back. The passage takes around 30 hours for Baku-Aqtau and 17 hours for Baku-Turkmenbashi.
However, serious delays happen. Between Baku and Aqtau you can wait up to 2 weeks if you are unlucky. Although the Baku – Turkmenbashi is much more reliable, the port in Turkmenbashi is sometimes too busy, which means you can wait up to a day or more in the port before you are allowed in. One traveler waited for 6 days! This can happen in the other ports too, by the way.
If you are going in summer
The Mongol Rally circus rumbles across Eurasia somewhere in July and August. Last time we checked, there were about 700 teams in the Mongol Rally. Luckily, they don’t all want to get on the boat, but be aware that it does get busy.
The surge pricing that used to be common during the Mongol Rally seems to now be a thing of the past.
On the map of the Caspian Sea, look for the following vessels: Bestekar Fikret Amirov, Nakchivan, Dagistan, Qara Qarayev, Heydar Aliyev, Mercuri-1, Professor Gul, Barda, Akademik Topchubashov, Shahdag, Azerbaijan, Berkarar, Bagtiyar.
These are the vessels we know take passengers. Please let us know if you find out about another boat.
In 2018, so far only Mercuri-1, Professor Gul and Qara Qarayev have been reported to take passengers between Aqtau and Baku. This could represent a new evolution. It might also just be a lack of information.
Ferry tickets and prices
Since October 2016, tickets can now be bought online, but only with departure from Baku and Alat. For vehicles, the system only allows you to book Baku-Turkmenbashi or Alat-Aktau. You pay online in USD. The first report on using the booking system is in.
Main takeaway: the online ticket process is smooth, easy and works. However, at the moment you still have to go to exchange your ticket at the office, so there is no real benefit vs buying it straight at the office.
Official prices are mentioned on the Caspian Shipping company website. A passenger ticket costs 60-80$ to Turkmenbashi from Baku/Alat) and 60-80$ from Baku/Alat to Aqtau/Kuryk. These are prices for a 4-person cabin. A 2-person cabin costs 80$. Children go half-price.
You might need to show onward visas when you buy a ticket. Onboard the Berkarar from the passenger manager it costs $50 for a seat, $105 single bed, $160 twin bed.
Prices for the Berkarar and Bagtiyar between Baku and Turkmenbashi are higher: $130 per person in a cabin, $100 seat only, $150 deluxe cabin.
Where to buy tickets
See the chapters of the different ports for more on that.
When to buy tickets
Tickets for both itineraries can usually only be bought on the day the ferry leaves (online it’s possible to book in advance). However, since 2018, it seems the office in Alat sells tickets before a boat has been announced.
You can find out when the ferry leaves by leaving your phone number at the ticket office, having someone call everyday (twice a day is better) or turning up yourself and asking “Is there a boat today?” A combination of these is best.
However, for the Berkarar and Bagtiyar boats running between Baku and Turkmenbashi, ticket sales do occur in advance. These boats are booked out weeks in advance so you will need to book on time.
Ferry with a bicycle, car or bike
Prices for vehicles are currently as follows:
- Bicycle – 10USD
- Motorcycle – 110USD
- Car – 300USD
Cars and motorbikes also need to pay an additional 7-12$ bridge tax and a port fee of 20-50$.
If you are thinking of taking your car to Turkmenistan, see our article on driving in Turkmenistan for a full account of all the costs.
Turkmen transit visa issue
When going from Turkmenbashi to Baku, previously, you could get stamped out by the border guards before your boat had arrived and wait beyond the border if your transit visa has expired. Then there were a few reports of people who could no longer do that and got fined or deported, around 2015-2017.
In 2018, we got a report saying the situation had reversed once again: once you have your ticket you can enter the waiting area of Turkmenbashi port and get stamped out and NOT be deported.
Ports in Azerbaijan
Since 2015, much of the ferry traffic has moved from Baku to Alat, 70 km south of Baku. Since 2017, all ferries to Aqtau have left from Alat. For the boat to Turkmenbashi, you have the option. The Berkarar and Bagtiyar leave from Baku, while cargo ships leave from Alat.
How it works
Option 1: You can wait in Baku for a ferry, call the office every day until they say a boat is coming, go to Alat and board immediately.
Option 2: You can go straight to Alat and camp in the ferry terminal there until a boat shows up.
Where to buy tickets
Baku: The ticket office can be found on the Boulevard at the Marine Passenger Terminal (Gmaps/OSM). They can be reached at +994 55 999 91 24. Alternatively, try +994 50 420 09 05 or +994 55 555 17 57. In summer 2018 someone reported it was no longer possible to buy a ticket in Baku, saying they got sent to Alat to buy it there.
Alat: the ticket office is at the ferry terminal and can be reached at +994 559 999 124. Some people have reported that they were initially refused a ticket, being told you have to get it in Baku. Every one of them managed to get one in the end, by saying they would not go back and wanted to get one in Alat. In short, you can get a ticket in Alat.
Just in case, the word for ferry in Russian is parom, ticket is bilyet, cash desk is kassa.
The port is in the middle of nowhere. There is a cafe, a shop that sells basic groceries, SIM cards and exchanges money, and a 24/7 ATM that spews Manat, USD and EUR. There is also a free (sometimes warm) shower near the toilet container, an option to charge electronic devices for free, and wifi (paid).
The port’s telephone number (not for ticket sales) is +994 50 746 2962.
There is no accommodation at the port, but camping is possible. A no name hotel 15 min walk from the port has been recommended. It seems as if it is closed, but it’s open. It has a huge blue roof. A double room with ensuite bathroom costs only 20 manat. There is wifi, a pool table and a gym you can use free of charge. rooms have own bathroom, wifi and you could use the bar for playing pool, or the gym for workout.
Getting there and away
Baku -> Alat
Or, from the İçәri şәhәr Metro Station, you can take bus 6 (costs AZN 0.20) to Sәbail Rayon Dövlәt Yol Polisi İdarәsi, then bus 195 (costs AZN 0.80) to Alat (get off at the roundabout after the Alat Train Station). From there, take a taxi (costs AZN 5) to the port.
A taxi from Baku would cost around 30 AZN.
Alat -> Baku
There are no buses from the Alat port, only taxis ($50 to Baku, they take dollars). On a budget, ask to be taken to the bus 195 stop a few kms away, using your phone to write 195 and saying “otobüs”. Pay no more than 5 dollars, and try to get change. The bus to Baku costs 1 manat.
Ports in Kazakhstan
Since 2018, the Aqtau port is no longer in use for the ferry. All ferries now arrive and depart from the new port of Kuryk.
Buying a ticket
Ilgar speaks a bit of English and works for the ticketing company that deals with the Kuryk port. Ilgar’s number is no longer +7 708 158 32 40, now it seems to be +7 707 292 99 55. Since the switch to Kuryk, he seems to have become the main man for ticket sales.
Another contact is Sultan +7 (777) 583-88-70.
Another option is the ferry office in downtown Aqtau, 8 km away from port, at 5-29-1 (microrayon 5, building 29, appt 1, ground floor – Aqtau is that place where the streets have no name – OSM/Gmaps). Here you meet Julia, who does not speak English but is very nice and will call you when the boat is coming. Open Mo-Fr 9-18, you can call +7 777 490 46 63 or +7 (729) 250 03 46, [email protected]
The Hotel B&B Aktau can buy a ticket for you in advance (not really in advance, just when it becomes available) for an extra commission of the daily tenge equivalent of $3 (they require a passport copy, and will charge your credit card). But make sure they buy it from the office with the quickest boat.
Waiting in Aqtau or going to Kuryk?
Travelers have reported it would make sense to wait at the port in Kuryk. If you have a car there is no problem to go each day to Kuryk village (15 km away) and buy stuff. Without a car, pack plenty of supplies and get ready to be bored. On the other hand, if you wait in Aktau the information about a boat will come very spontaneous and you have to organize a taxi at a moment’s notice.
Kuryk is a new port in full development, located 30 km west from the village of Kuryk (Gmaps). It’s a 45 minute drive south from Aqtau (9000 tenge by taxi has been quoted). The port now has a functional hotel and cafeteria, and an exchange service, but no ATM. Dollars, rubles and euros are accepted, Azeri manat is not.
Taxis might be hanging around the port. If not, hitchhiking is the only option for foot passengers. The town of Kuryk has an ATM and several small shops, as well as onward transport to Aqtau in the form of shared taxis and minibuses.
Taxi drivers at the port have the following scam going: they tell you they will take you from the port straight to Aktau, but in the end just drive you 20 km to the village of Kuryk, where they have you pay again to another driver for the second part of the ride to Aktau.
Unlike at other borders in Kazakhstan, if you are driving your own car, you need to get insurance at the port: 30 days for 13000 tenge, with a minimum of 15 days for 9250 Tenge. More info at driving in Kazakhstan.
A new ferry terminal has been in use in Turkmenbashi since April 2018. From the motorway, follow the signs to the International Seaport. Continue past the cargo terminals until you see signs for “ro-ro vehicle and ro-ro pax”. That will lead you to a large plaza with a control tower. (You can see the control tower from the motorway, you can’t miss it)
The building you’re looking for (the hotel and ticket office) is across from the control tower (adjacent to the entry gates)
Buying a ticket
When you go into the port terminal there is a booking and a currency exchange office. Both of these are unmanned and you cannot buy a ticket there. Instead, find the port hotel.
Left of the hotel there are some unmarked white doors. Go up the stairs here and open the first fire door you see. Then you will arrive in a hallway where you will see two large clear windows (one for each ferry operator).
Alternatively: enter the left side of the building and look for the two windows with metal grates. One is labeled “Kassa”.
For the Berkarar and Bagtiyar you can now buy tickets in advance. If you failed to do so, or if you need a cargo ship that goes to Alat, a different system similar to the Baku-Aqtau line might still be in use.
Port and hotel
Once you pass the gates you can’t go back. There’s no food or water so prep! You could be in for a long wait!
The new port hotel may or may not let you know when the boat is leaving; if you fail to get the message, you might miss the boat so stay on high alert. The hotel is excellent but does only have 26 beds or 12 rooms, book in advance if you can; $30-40 for a single room, 50-60$ for a double. The hotel number is +993 243 49610.
Boarding the ferry
You cannot board the ferry before all cargo is loaded, so you will have to sip some tea in the waiting area. Customs officers will ask to see some proof that you will not be turned back once you arrive at your destination (eg. a visa or LOI). Once on board, someone will demand your passport and, in Turkmenistan, the passage fee. It is safe to give them your passport, they need them to log who is on the ship. When the ferry docks go to the captain’s cabin to regain your passport.
Details of the journey and a bit of history
The coastline views of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan are beautiful. It’s a real delight to steam slowly over a quiet body of water, gazing at the horizon punctuated with oil rigs. While crossing the Caspian Sea, you might be able to spot Neft Daslari, an entire city built upon the foundations of sunken oil tankers 55km away from the nearest shore.
Probably the most exciting part for Western travelers, besides a glimpse of the shocking amounts of corruption and bureaucracy underpinning life around the Caspian, is watching the sun sink into the sea. The colors it affords are truly stunning. You are also free to wander around the boat wherever you like; into the hull, the machine room or the bridge… it’s quite interesting. Crew and other passengers are very happy to chat.
A less exciting part of the journey will be your first encounter with your cabin. Some boats, like the Qara Qarayev or Barda, are not too bad (even clean) when it comes to hygiene. Others are awful. Some cabins have port holes, others don’t. Shower and toilet are in the same place, and are usually not too clean, but there are public toilets elsewhere. Bring a sleeping bag, as your mattress and pillow are not guaranteed to be clean.
You might not need it, but to be safe, bring some food. Recently, people have started reporting better service and even free food included in your ticket price, but this is not a given, and every ship is different. So some have gotten 3 meals for free, others got the chef to fry up some chicken for a few manat or dollars, and sell them some beers, vodka and cigarettes to boot, whereas even others saw the food run out quickly (there is always an emergency vodka ration though), or got nothing at all, with no cups or even water available.
Seeing how you can get stuck in the harbor for days, it would be wise to pack some food. Make it something that can stay for long, in case you do get tasty food, and don’t forget to bring a bottle of water.
Some people, upon seeing the aged ships (they are over a quarter-century old), might wonder if it is safe to travel on a rusty vessel like the “Dagestan“. We found an answer in Lutz Kleveman’s, The New Great Game: Blood and oil in Central Asia.
The MV Nakhichevan is a Dagestan class rail ferry, an ageing relic of the Soviet era and one of seven rusting hulks pressed into service to bridge the gap between the Caucasus and Trans-Caspian railways. As much as I relished the idea of leaving Azerbaijan, the sight of the ferry made me worry that the corrupt police and the slag heap behind me may be the lesser of two evils. The ship was barely afloat. The Dagestans weren’t designed for open water, their topsides too high to survive the violent storms of the Caspian. Even moored to the groaning linkspan the ship looked unstable, rolling against the dock bumpers as the rail cars shunting into the hold upset its balance.
At 154 metres the Nakhichevan is almost the length of the enormous passenger ferries of the English Channel, but barely half as wide. The ship shares the same depth as those of the Channel, but while the Pride of Dover sails with a draft of over six metres the Nakhichevan sails with less than three. Its dimensions are all wrong for the open water: narrow, top heavy and prone to roll like a drunk in all but the calmest of seas. Their crews keep the Dagestans from the sea bed only by steering constantly into the wind. That and fervent prayer.
Seven years earlier these prayers were ignored when the Merkuriy-2, sister ship of the Nakhichevan, was lost in stormy seas while carrying a shipment of oil from Aqtau to Baku. Force eight winds and six metre high waves proved too much for the vessel, and when the constant roll caused the cargo to break loose the ship was sent into a fatal list. Of the 51 souls aboard only nine were saved.
As a result of this accident, the shipping company is now reluctant to put too many people on any ferry in case there is another accident.
Customs and visa
Customs are another nasty feature of this ferry ride. With a car especially, you can get stuck for hours in customs. Turkmenbashi can take from 1 to (my personal record) 7 hours, Baku is equally bad, and Aqtau is the worst, with people reporting to get stuck there for a whole day with their vehicle. Also, customs only seems to work 9-5 in Aqtau, so although foot passengers can get off the ferry in the middle of the night, drivers can’t.
Azeri customs once agaon allow passengers on the ferry without having the actual visa of their destination in their passport, be it a transit or a tourist visa. For all your other visa questions, please refer to the relevant chapters: Turkmenistan visa, Kazakhstan visa and Azerbaijan visa.
Turkmenbashi – Baku and Olya ferry
Since 2016, there is a new boat in town, it’s called the Berkarar and its brother, the Bagtiyar. It seems to operate under the same conditions as other boats (see more on that below), meaning no timetable and same confusing way to buy tickets. Maybe not! We don’t have enough info yet, really. But it is more set up for passengers. We only have one report so far, here is what we know:
It’s a fast ferry which can probably cross Baku – Turkmenbashi in 8 to 10 hours, but you should still budget 1-2 days as loading on and off can take ages. Ferry is tourist class, just wait until or if the 2 bars, buffet and shops open. The kids playroom is equipped so bring your children. Beds are great, good ship bathrooms with hot water showers. They even have lounges and large flat screen TVs with hundreds of useless channels, so bring some USB movies for the Turkish drivers.
What about the route to Olya? The Berkarar seems to be going there, but we are in doubt when it comes to the details.
More updates welcome.
Why (not) take the ferry?
To finish off this long article, a little overview:
- no airplanes involved
- a unique traveling experience
- beautiful scenery and sunsets
- could be expensive when traveling by car
- possibly a lot of frustration and lost time, especially on the Baku-Aqtau line
- missing out on wonderful Dagestan and interesting Iran
- Turkmenistan is tricky because of the short Turkmen transit visa