All ferry journeys on the Caspian are cargo ships with space for passengers; do not expect a comfortable ride! Because of the nature of the trips, there is no set schedule for when boats arrive and depart, and ferry crossings in this area are often only accessible with local knowledge and luck. Information about these journeys is sparse on the internet.
The only routes available at this time on the Caspian are from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan, and Baku to Aktau, Kazakhstan. There may be a route from Astrakhan, Russia, to Turkmenbashi, but information on this is scarce.
These ferries don't leave on schedule. It depends a lot on the weather, and basically, they leave when they're full. You can find out about departures by leaving your phone number at the ticket office and having someone call daily or twice daily. You can also turn up and ask if there is a boat. A combination of these methods is best.
Buying tickets is only possible on the day the boat leaves (or 2 days in advance in Aktau). You may need to show your visas. Tickets only let you onto the boat, so to stay in a cabin is extra. This shouldn't be more than US$10-20. (This info might be outdated. In June 2017, a berth and food were included in the $80 fare for Aktau-Baku.)
The following boats are known to take passengers: Nakchivan, Dagistan, Qara Qarayev, Heydar Aliyev, Mercurij-1, Professor Gul, Barda and Akademik Topchubashov. You may be able to see these on this map.
This service normally leaves every 3-5 days, although serious delays of up to 2 weeks have been reported on this service. Be prepared for many hours of waiting at the port and on the ship even on the day of departure. The trip lasts 30 hours, or more if the ship needs to anchor outside when the destination port is full. Some ferries might not go to Baku directly, but to Alat (70 km south), ask beforehand. The price for a ticket (berth and three decent meals per day included) was the daily tenge equivalent of US$80 in June 2017.
It is possible to buy tickets in the port office in Baku, or Alat. The Baku office claims passenger tickets are available only in their office, but this is untrue.
The Baku-Turkmenbashi service normally leaves every day or so, and takes 17 hours.
The Turkmenbashi service is more reliable than the Aktau service, however Turkmenbashi's port is sometimes too busy, making boats anchor outside until they are allowed in. This is usually a day or two, but a wait of six days has been reported. Ensure that your Turkmenistan transit visa will not expire in these circumstances.
The price for a ticket was US$90 in January 2015.
Tickets and ports
Azerbaijan – Baku and Alat
Azerbaijan is the most common destination (or source) for passengers crossing the Caspian. Ships mostly depart from Baku, however many ships dock in Alat, 70 km south of the capital. Departures from Baku only take trucks and cars, and departures from Alat take trains and passengers, but no cars. If you are cycling, you will either need to take a boat from Alat, or hitch with a local driver in Baku.
The procedure to buy tickets is the same for either port; arrive at the office in Baku in the morning, if there is a boat, buy the ticket, and go to the port to board the ship.
The ticket office changes location frequently, as of May 2015 it can be reached by taking bus 175, 46, 2 or 19 from the old Seaport. The driver can be asked to stop before the Nagila Cafe station, near Prichal, at a blue sign at the start of a road leading towards the ocean. After following this road until you will find a big iron gate with anchors. The office is in the house on the right before the gate, behind an old grey door.
Vika (Victoria), Amina and other people work at the ticket office; Vika speaks English, while Amina only speaks Azeri and Russian. They will organise space for you and your vehicle (if required). Amina can be reached on ☏, please call from 10:00-11:00 to find out if boats are departing. Other numbers which may connect to the office are ☏ or ☏ .
A man named Ismahel can buy tickets for you for a fee of 30 manat. He can also help with visas. His number is ☏.
Boats departing Baku will leave from either the old seaport or the ro-ro terminal 7 km northwest out of town. The ro-ro terminal is quite easy to find – it is on the big boulevard leaving from the other port, and if you continue straight along, the port is clearly signed. If you’re leaving the ro-ro port, a taxi costs around 8 to 10 manat to Baku city centre.
If you walk about half a mile on the main road (not the railway line), there is a pizza shop and markets. If you’re stuck at the port in Baku and sleeping on the asphalt, there’s a family in a house with a rubber hose hanging from a hook that offers hot showers for 2 manat. The house is located up the train tracks to where the shacks are (facing the road). Just ask a local if you get lost.
Alat port is in the middle of nowhere. Alat has no money-changing facilities or ATMs, but there are taxis and a minibus which can take you to Baku for US$50 (dollars accepted). There is also a bus; from Baku, take a bus towards the Bibi-Heybat Mosque and change buses at a long roundabout with buses parked on the other side of the road. Bus 195 will take you to Alat. In Alat there should be other buses going to the port, or take a taxi, as it is not far.
Kazakhstan – Aktau
A ticket office is in downtown Aktau, 8 km from the port, at 5-29-1 (microrayon 5, building 29, apartment 1 on the ground floor). To buy a ticket in Aktau, you need to put your name on the passenger waiting list. An English-speaking lady named Katia works at the office, and can call you when the boat is coming.
However, tickets can also be bought directly at the port. The office is located next to customs in the same building, it cannot be missed. In June 2017, on the day of departure, it was still possible to get a ticket at the port office, while the lady at the downtown ticket office gave incorrect information and said one had to wait for the next ferry - probably because they could not sell a ticket there anymore and get a commission. Hence going to the port might be worth the trip (or call: 445018).
There is another ticket office at 7-21-1 (microrayon 7, building 21, apartment 1 on the ground floor), close to the World War II memorial with the eternal flame. This office can be reached on +7 872 92 51 77 59, and ask for Aika, who understands some English, however you may need a local's help to communicate. You leave your phone number and they will call when a boat is ready, which may be up to a day before the boat will actually depart. This office takes a US$25 commission.
Turkmenistan – Turkmenbashi
There are no signs to mark the port, or the area of the port you need to go to. However, if you find a sign denoting the Sea Port you have gone too far.
Getting to the port can be confusing and difficult. As you arrive off the desert road into the town, you drive down a hill past a petrol station (on the left). Follow this road down before it sweeps up a hill. There is an unmarked, potholed road before the police check point, which is the entrance to the port. There will be a checkpoint where the vehicle will be checked. After it is checked, it will cost 10 manat if you want to drive out and return. After a blue and white neon sign saying 'parom meneli', park in front of the office.
Put your name on the ticket list as soon as you arrive, so you can buy your ticket once the ferry arrives. A little notebook sits on the counter, this is the list. Once the ferry is docked, you will get a coupon, go through customs and pay on the boat. People have reported getting their ticket at the office for a little extra.
Leaving Turkmenbashi, you may be able to get yourself stamped out of the country before the boat arrives if your visa is running out. You will have to wait outside the border, so ensure you have enough food and supplies for however long you expect to be stuck there.
Be warned that the Turkmen transit visa is very short, and if you arrive in Turkmenistan without a valid visa, you will be deported back to the country of origin, likely Azerbaijan, and they may not let you in either.
Azeri customs do not allow passengers on the ferry without having the visa of their destination in their passport, whether that be a tourist or transit visa.
The ferry's cargo is loaded before the passengers, so you will have to wait. Customs officers will ask to see proof that you will not be turned back once you arrive, like a visa or an invitation letter. On board, someone will want to see your passport and, in Turkmenbashi, they will collect the ticket price. It is safe to give them your passport as they need to log the details of passengers. When the ferry docks at the destination, go to the captain’s cabin to get your passport.
The views of the Turkmen and Azeri coasts are beautiful. You might be able to spot Neft Daşları, an oil city of 2000 people built upon the foundations of oil platforms 55 km away from the shore. The sunsets of the Caspian are stunning.
You are probably free to wander around the boat during your trip, into the hull, the machine room or the bridge.
The cabins are nothing special, although some boats, like the Qara Qarayev or Barda, are better than others. Hygiene standards are mostly low, for example shower and toilet facilities are in the same place, and are usually not too clean. There are public toilets elsewhere. Bring a sleeping bag, as your supplied mattress and pillow are not guaranteed to be clean.
You may not need it, but bring some food to be safe. The boat's chef might fry you up some chicken for a few manat or dollars, or sell you some beers, vodka and cigarettes, but once the food runs out (if they sell you any at all), you’re on your own. It would be wise to pack plenty of food, given the risk of being stuck in harbour for days. Don’t forget water.
Customs and border formalities can take a substantial chunk of time after leaving the boat, especially if you have a car. You can get stuck for hours in customs. Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan can take from 1 to even 7 hours, but Aktau is the worst, with people reporting they were stuck there for a whole day with their vehicle. Also, customs only appears to operate from 09:00-17:00 in Aktau, so although foot passengers can get off the ferry in the middle of the night, drivers can’t.
Vehicles on the ferries
Each boat charges its own tariffs for vehicles.
Since 2014, you will be charged between US$50-70 per metre of the vehicle going to Turkmenistan, and US$100 per metre for a vehicle to Kazakhstan. Half a metre can go either way, so measure well!. A motorbike will cost $110 (Turkmenistan) and $115 (Kazakhstan), a bicycle will cost $10 to both. Another charge is for using the bridge to board the ferry; a car is $25, motorbike and a bicycle is $20. It may seem steep, but some boat captains have no qualms about charging $20 to get off the boat, so count your blessings.
The Baku ticket office discovered the Mongol Rally and now increase prices accordingly; because places are limited, prices can increase dramatically.