Getting around in Lebanon will seem daunting for the traveler new to the country. Roads tend to be extremely narrow, and where they’re not, cars line each curb bumper-to-bumper. Traffic laws, such as they are in Lebanon, are roundly ignored, and accidents are a common occurrence. Aside from a few major intersections in some of the larger cities, traffic lights are almost nowhere to be seen, and every busy crossing is negotiated between drivers by way of improvised hand signals.
For the American or British traveler especially, the streets of Lebanon will seem chaotic and even dangerous. However, there are cheap and easy ways of getting around Lebanon without having to brave the roads in a rental car. In the cities, the taxi is the travel method of choice for tourist and local alike. Taxis are plentiful, especially in Beirut, where rush hour traffic can turn a simple ten-block trip into a serious test of patience. If you plan on traveling anywhere within Beirut or any other major Lebanese city, simply flag down a taxi and tell the driver where you intend to go. Depending on the distance to your destination and his planned route, he may accept you as a passenger or refuse you. If you are refused, don’t worry; there’s sure to be another taxi shortly on its way.
If the driver gives you the go-ahead, make sure to ask him how much the ride will cost before getting into the car. There are two kinds of taxi services in Lebanon: “service” (pronounced ser-veese) and the normal “taxi” service. Most drivers are willing to provide either service depending on the circumstances. Service trips typically cost 2,000 Lebanese lira (LL), or about 1.33 USD, and they’re generally available for short trips, up to around fifteen to twenty blocks depending on the city and whether the area is urban or suburban. If the distance is a bit longer, the driver may ask for “serveesain”, meaning “double service”, or 4,000 LL. If your destination is farther away, the driver may instead offer you the “taxi” service, usually priced at 10,000 LL, or higher if the distance is very far. A trip from the airport to downtown Beirut should cost around 30,000 LL, or 20 USD.
Another difference between the service and taxi services is that you may be sharing a service ride with up to three other passengers, while during a taxi ride, you’ll have the car to yourself, and the driver will take you directly to your destination without making any other stops. This is certainly a factor to take into account if you want to reach your destination quickly. If your destination happens to be a remote area where other taxis are not to be readily found, ask if the driver will wait for you while you do your business. This will significantly ratchet up the cost of the trip, but if you need to visit the US Embassy in the extremely distant Aukar district of Beirut, for example, it is a necessity.
Lebanese taxis do not have meters, so the fare should be agreed upon before the trip begins. While the above fares are informal standards that are generally agreed upon between driver and passenger, they are not set in stone. The driver may ask for a higher fare if the destination is out of the way of his usual route. Occasionally, a driver will try to raise the fare during the trip. If a driver tries to unfairly raise your agreed-upon fare, do not be afraid to argue with him and hold him to the original amount. Bargaining and haggling are common elements in everyday Lebanese life, and the driver may very well agree to keep to the original fare if he sees you are firm about it. Some drivers will also attempt to overcharge tourists, assuming that they’re not familiar with standard Lebanese taxi fares. Be sure to make it clear to the driver that you know what the standard fares are.
When traveling from city to city, taking a taxi is also an option, albeit an expensive one. A taxi from Beirut to Sidon in the south, or to Tripoli in the north, may cost around 50,000 LL (33 USD). In this case, taking the bus is a much cheaper alternative. Buses run several times a day out of Beirut to the other major cities of Lebanon. The bus station in the Cola district, in the south-central area of Beirut, serves passengers traveling south to Sidon, Tyre and the Chouf region. The Charles Helou and Dawra stations, in the east and northeast of the city respectively, provide passage to the northern cities of Jounieh, Byblos and Tripoli, as well as to the inland cities of Aley, Zahle and Baalbek. There are a variety of buses and minibuses to choose from at any of these stations, but the best choice by far is the Pullman. The Pullman buses are comfortable, large and air-conditioned, and one seat costs about 2,500 LL (1.66 USD). Buses in Lebanon do not have on-board bathroom facilities, so make sure to relieve yourself before taking your seat.
Lebanon is an exciting and fascinating travel destination, and the adventurous traveler should not let the minor inconveniences of travel around the country deter him from visiting. With just a little preparation, you’ll be able to get around Lebanon with ease.