Updated 12 October 2016
Since 1963, the ferry line Baku (Azerbaijan) - Turkmenbashi, former Krasnovodsk (Turkmenistan) connected both cities across the Caspian Sea. Up to 8 vessel of the Class "Dagestan" are operated on the line in the presence of freight: "Ak. Topchubashov", "Azerbaijan","Dagestan","Ak. G. Aliev", "Prof. Gul", "Nakhichevan", "Mercury-1". The Mercury-2 freight and passenger ferry drowned on the way from Aktau (Kazakhstan) to Baku in October 2002 in stormy weather. All vessels are in operation under the flag of Azerbaijan. Each ferry capacitates 27 railcars and 200 passengers. The cities lay practically on the same parallel at the distance 306 km. Time on the route is 12 around hours. For comparison, planned term of delivery freight from Baku to Ashgabat around the Caspian Sea, via RZD, Kasakhstan and Uzbekistan Railways exceeds a week.
There are no scheduled ferry services between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan so people have to rock up and take their luck. When the ferry leaves depends on many factors: weather conditions, how many tickets been sold, etc. Another reason for the ferry not departing could be waiting for a train cargo that migth take days to arrive. Keep in mind, the ferry is mainly for freight and won’t take passengers if it isn’t loaded with freight. Basically, it leaves when it is full
If you can handle the uncertainty of ferry travel and have some time flexibility (if you plan leave Azerbaijan by ferry ALWAYS make sure that you have extra days in your visa just in case), we highly recommend taking the slow boat across the Caspian [to Turkmenbashi (Turkmenistan) or to Aktau (Kazakhstan)]. The sunset alone is worth the trip and offers a dazzling display that you are unlikely to encounter anywhere else. Moreover, the ferry offers an ideal slow-paced transition into unusual Turkmenistan.
Currently the Caspian Shipping Company have 5 boats in service, all leaving from Alat for Aktau. They no longer have a passenger only boat where you used to be able to buy a ticket for $30 and sleep on deck. The only tickets they have now are $70 and $80. The boat has room for around 35-40 passengers. Standards on the boat vary - some have windows in the cabins, some not. The Caspian Shipping Company website will show where are all the boats and what time they are due to arrive - these timings are correct +/- 3 hours, as they claim to update it 3 times a day. Boat locations are quite acurate though and there are many apps available to track boat whereabouts.
Ideally, there is a daily ferry service between Baku and Turkmenbashi (Turkmenistan). Some delays might happen but usually you might be pretty sure that you won't get stuck in the port for more than 2-3 days. Service between Baku and Aktau (Kazakhstan) is less frequent and harder to predict. Generally ferry to Aktau runs 1-2 times a week (roughly every 4-5 days), frequency depends on cargo volumes. At MarineTraffic you can check the position of the vessels online. The passage takes around 30 hours for Baku-Aktau and 17 hours for Baku-Turkmenbashi. Also, keep in mind, passing the sea doesn't mean you are ready to unboard. Since ports are busy the ferry might wait for 1-2 days before it is allowed to unboard. You can also might have to wait before you could embark in the harbor of Turkmenbashi because of the weather conditions. The weather might actually be not that bad, but the channel is not deep, which means that even small waves will cause a delay.
Tickets for both itineraries could be bought at ticket office of Caspian Shipping Company (better in the morning) at the day when ferry leaves. NO PRELIMINARY bookings are available. It's a matter of going to the ferry terminal everyday and asking "Is there a boat today?". They will only sell tickets once there's a confirmed sailing. Also, bear in mind that the boat takes anywhere between 18-48 hours to cross the sea, so make sure that you have enough time with your visa. Turkmen transit visas are 5 days, and they are date specific, so that moment might be really tricky.
Passenger ticket to both Turkmenbashi and Aktau is $70-80 USD per person (price depends on type of cabin). Only passport is needed to buy passenger ticket. Cabins are private with shared toilet. For a small extra charge (from $5 to $20) you might get lucky to get a private cabin with own toilet.
UPDATE (OCT 2016): The official website of the Azeri shipping company that runs all the ferries has introduced online booking system. It's in Azeri and English, and you presumably can purchase tickets from Baku to Turkmenbashi, and from Alat to Turkmenbashi or Aktau. Tickets are only sold for the ferries going from Azerbaijan. According to the website a passenger ticket costs $60 to Turkmenbashi (both from Baku and Alat) and $80 from Alat to Aktau. You can make a payment online here: https://public.acsc.az/online/payment/index/en/ The system also confirms that for pedestrians ferries from Aktau are all supposed to go to Alat, as well as the majority from Turkmenbashi, except the ro-ro ones which all go to Baku. For vehicles, the system only allows you to book Baku-Turkmenbashi or Alat-Aktau for some reason. Anyone's report on this experience with booking ticket online would be highly appreciated.
COST TO CROSS WITH VEHICLE
Those travelling with vehicle will need copies of passports and documents on vehicles.
There is a separate charge for those crossing the sea with their vehicles. Roughly, they will charge you extra $50-$70 USD per meter of the length of the vehicle transported to Turkmenistan and $70-$100 USD per meter for vehicle to Kazakhstan. One motorbike will cost you $110 USD (Turkmenistan) and $115 (Kazakhstan), bicycle will cost $10-20 USD to both destinations. So a car ferry ticket for an average sedan would cost around 220-250, plus 100$ per passenger/driver plus smaller charges for (un)boarding.
Another charge is for using special bridge to board and sometimes unboard the ferry: 1 car is $25 USD, motorbike and bicycle $20 USD. Not all boats do this, though.
The process of boarding is quite lengthy. If there is a large group the whole process might take 6-7 hours. Besides passengers are allowed to board only after all the cargo is loaded. There is no waiting hall there, but 2 cafes nearby are fine to wait while sipping tea. 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 captain’s cabin to regain your passport.
Bear in mind that ferries are used now mainly as a cargo ship, do not expect a ship with lot of passenger comfort. Despite that fact the boat trip would be fun and you would be rewarded with beautiful coastline views of Turkmenistan and Baku Bay.
Try to bring your own food. Journey might take up to 3 days with all the border and customs procedures. Besides, food served on board might not be tasty and could be overpriced.
If you are travelling out of tourist season don't expect to have many passenger around. Most likely there would be just couple of you and 40-50 crew members. Though it is not a passenger boat, there are about 20 cabins; but they are hardly occupied all even in a peak season.
WHERE TO BOARD
Since autumn 2014 some ferries (but not all) leave/arrive from a new port in Alat, 70 km south of Baku (follow M2 south, it is just several km south of Gobustan, across Y intersection where M2 splits into E60 and M3), instead of in Baku. This brings a lot of uncertainty, especially for non-driving travelers as it would roughly cost $50 USD to get to Alat by taxi. There is some minibus going there (this would be cheaper than taxi) but you will need to ask around for the route N and where it leaves from.
Those sailing to Turkmenistan leave from Baku, ferries bound to Aktau levave from Baku port. But it is always better to check with the ticket office the exact port of departure.
From what they say all non-driving travelers have to board at Alat, whilst those coming with vehicles will need to board at Baku. Also ferries leave from Alat most days now and only once a week from Baku's dock. To get to Alat either take a taxi (but this might cost around $40-$50) or take a bus N195 leaving from Shihov (this will be around 2-3$). From the road it would be probably about 4 km walk following the road to the boat loading barrier. Taking bus is much cheaper but it could be difficult on your own if you only speak English, especially if you only have a few hours to get from the ticket office to the terminal. The bus drops you off on the highway and it is a long walk to the terminal. You could do all of this on your own but it could be extremely difficult if you don't speak Azeri/Russian and are in a time crunch (which you will be).
After passing immigration office you will have to walk about 10 minutes to the actual ferry. When you get to the ferry you board where the trains/cars board and not on the side like a normal boat. There is no real directions, so just walk towards the bridge and give your ticket and passport to controller.
Directions in Baku: Go to the ferry office. Follow the main street - Neftchilar Prospekti then Nobel prospecti (the one next to the major hotels and the Caspian Sea) towards Marine Passenger Terminal (you will pass it, you head for cargo port) north until you arrive at the railway bridge. There also would be a large restaurant Asiman on the left. The main street will turn left then right before you arrive at the bridge. Walk alongside the bridge (not over it) on the right side. When you get about half-way along the bridge turn right onto one of the streets going to the port (towards the Caspian). Follow the street past the railway tracks and ask someone where the ferry office is located. It's not very well marked, but someone will show you where it is located. You don't have to speak much Russian (just ask 'Parom' - which is ferry in Russian); the people have seen foreigners and know what you're looking for. Just in case here is the GPS coordinates for the ticket office: 40.36440; 49.93475. You can take a bus N 175 or 46 that will take you there. Ask the driver to drop you at the Asiman restaurant, that would be the easiest to give a landmark.
Boarding the ferry. The police at the boom gate near the dock will not let you through until cargo is loaded and only couple of hours left before the ferry leaves. When you pass the gate, they will write your details down in a book, and then you must head through to customs and passport control (next to each other), and then you can walk on the dock itself and up the gangway to your waiting ferry. Passport control will check some proof that you will not be turned back at Turkmenbashi port (visa or LOI).
On the ferry. You'll sit around in a waiting area with other passengers until someone comes to show you to your cabin, give you a key, sheets, etc. You will need to surrender your ticket and passport to an official member of crew when asked. When the ferry docks go to captain's cabin to regain your passport.
It is best to bring some food with you on board since you never know if the chef will have extra food for passengers. You can purchase food from the cafeteria en-route, that would be around 7-10 USD for lunch/dinner, but it would be wise to bring sufficient supplies yourself.
You need to have your Turkmen visa ready before leaving Baku. Even if have LOI in hand to have your tourist visa issued in Turkmenbashi port Azeri borders guards will not allow you to board the ferry. Read below.
NOTE: You won't be allowed to board the ferry to Turkmenistan unless you have Turkmen visa in your passport. Though it is possible to obtain visa upon arrival in the port in Turkmenbashi with the LOI, Azeri border guards are not letting people without visas to board the ferry. If you have a LOI visas could be obtained in the Turkmen embassy in Baku. Visas are given only on Mondays and on Fridays. Visa is issued same day. Embassy has moved recently and is located now somewhere behind Grand Europe Hotel. Also bear in mind, that when applying for visa a consular fee has to be paid to specific bank branch that is located 20 minutes drive away from the embassy, very inconvenient.
PROS & CONS
1. Saving time
2. Unique experience
3. Beatiful scenery, do watch sunsets
1. Expensive if crossing with a car
2. Forget comfort, boat safety is under question
3. Uncertainty with schedule, hassle with tickets/boarding
4. Waiting times for boarding & unboarding can take 10-12 hours and in rare cases days
5. Never know from where the ferry leaves out of 3 ports (concerns Baku only)
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