By Sean Haley | Sep 14 2011backpacking tunisia ,beach ,chep ,expat tips ,inexpensive travel ,
A surprising thing about living in Tunisia is how simple it is to travel from city to city within the country. There are planes, trains and buses that have routes going between most major cities. One of the more unfamiliar ways for ex-pats to travel around Tunisia, however, is by louage. What is a louage, one might ask? A louage is a shared long-distance taxi that is a very convenient way to travel within Tunisia. The concept of a louage is relatively unorthodox for many coming from North America and Europe and needs a bit of explaining.
A louage is a nine-person passenger van that is clearly delineated by its color. White vans with a red stripe indicate that it is a city-to-city louage. Most important Tunisian cities are served by the red-striped louages. There are also white vans with yellow stripes that are for regional transport. These louages serve rural areas from major cities within the region. As an ex-pat, you most likely will be taking the red-striped louage.
It is important to keep in mind that louages depart when all seats have been filled for a certain destination, not on a pre-set schedule. Departures tend to be fairly frequent, with major routes having over ten departures per day. Rides are inexpensive and louages are often the fastest way to travel between cities in Tunisia. All louages are for specific routes and they are marked at the top with their destinations, but in Arabic script. If you don’t read Arabic, don’t fret but be sure to speak up about where you are going when you get to the louage station.
The Louage Station
There is a louage station in every city in Tunisia. Larger cities have multiple stations depending on your destination. If you live in Tunis, for example, know that there are three louage stations – one in Bab Saadoun with louages departing for northern cities, one in Bab Alioua with louages departing for Cap Bon and one in Place Moncef Bey departing for destinations in the south of the country.
Arriving at a louage station will feel like stepping into chaos. Its dirty and loud. Expect to hear drivers shouting their destinations: “Hammamet, Hammamet!” “Sousse, Sousse!”. Tell someone where you’re going and they’ll point you in the right direction. You’ll always be taken to the louage that is next to go, assuming there are enough seats for your party. Some louage stations will have little coffee shops where you can get coffee and other beverages before your voyage. These will be dirty and crowded.
Paying for the Louage
Louage prices are set by the government and each route should have a fixed rate. There are also supposed to be booths selling tickets in the louage station that you give to the driver. Theory, however, rarely becomes practice, especially since the revolution. Normally, what happens is that you pay the driver directly the same cost of the ticket.
Prices in louages are sold per seat – that means that the 4-dinar trip to Hammamet from Tunis is 4 dinars per seat. It is important to be vigilant and pay attention to what other people are paying the driver for their spot in the louage. A basic knowledge of Arabic and French numbers goes a long way here. Keep an eye on the amount one person pays and how much they get back to know what to expect. Most drivers are fair in their dealings as they still are employed by the government. Occasionally, however, one comes across an unscrupulous driver looking to take advantage of a foreigner’s ignorance and perceived largess. Keep in mind that because there are other people who are riding with you, these people are witnesses to this crime. If you feel that you’re paying too much, ask other passengers and they can intervene on your behalf. Most drivers recognize this and do not want any kind of problems in their louage – they’re happy to do their job without any distractions and go.
Drivers will either ask you to pay before the ride, during the ride, or after the ride. In my experience, during and after the ride have been more common post-revolution. If you pay during the ride, it is common practice to hand your money to the driver via the other passengers if you’re sitting in one of the back rows. The driver will pass your change to the other passengers who will pass it back to you. Nothing will be taken.
Once again, louages don’t leave until all the seats are paid for. If you’re in an extreme hurry, you can pay for multiple seats to ensure that the louage leaves faster. Given the already low fares, if you value time more than money, this is acceptable and even some locals do it.
Riding in the Louage
OK so you’ve found your louage, and everythings going smoothly. Before getting in, think of strategic sitting. If you’re a tall person, and in a smaller, older louage, try to avoid the back row. Also, often times the windows in the back row do not open, and louages almost never run their air-conditioning (if they even have it).
The primary thing to think about when it comes to seating is to not sit in the front in the small seat next to the driver. Not only is this the smallest seat in the louage, but the gearshift will often be hitting your knees, causing extreme discomfort. Also, if you don’t feel like talking then do not sit in the passenger seat directly next to the driver.
Louage drivers are a mixed lot, some driving like maniacs while others plodding along like grandmothers. Be prepared for either or, although experience teaches that maniacs are more prevalent than grandmothers. As in most taxis, you will not have a seat belt. Now these drivers are professionals and good at what they do – just know that there are risks involved as there are in any travel. If you have a fear of speed or riding in cars in foreign countries, then a louage might not be the best choice of travel.
The other passengers in the Louage will, for the most part, leave you alone. There might be some excitement at first as foreigners, for the most part, never travel in louages. The Tunisian passengers are there to get from point A to point B in as little time as possible, just like you. Sleeping and listening to iPods are very common activities on a louage ride.
Women traveling alone should exercise caution. Louages are not bastions of harassment and young Tunisian women often travel alone on louages, but be careful not to wear revealing clothing or anything that would attract unwanted attention. Strategic seating does become more important in this situation – sit next to the other women if you want to avoid unwanted stares. Most of the time, you should be fine.
Bags go in the back of the louage. Trunk space is limited so don’t expect to be able to move all of your belongings from say, Tunis to Sousse.
Some routes require a stop in some cities before continuing on to the final destination. The route between Tunis and Djerba, for example, will stop in Sfax. This is completely normal.
Finally, many Tunisians will ride in louages to be dropped off at small towns along the way. If people get in/off of louages at weird times, do not be alarmed. This is also to be expected.
There you have it. If you want to explore Tunisia, and do it cheaply and quickly, then do not be afraid to hop in a louage and go. It is a unique experience that is lacking in several countries and serves the local and foreign population well. If my mother has done it (Summer 2010, Tunis-Kelibia and back), then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try it!