After spending a few days in Baku, my friend and I decided we wanted to get out of the city and see some of the amazing sites that are just a little ways away. We wanted to see the Gobustan mud volcanoes, the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Gobustan, the Ateshgah of Baku, Yanar Dag, a Soviet war memorial, and two medieval Azeri castles. And we wanted to see these all in one day.
Unfortunately for us, none of the day tours in the area hit all of these spots in a single day (we might have been a tad ambitious), so we had the brilliant idea that we should rent a car in Baku and see all of these sites ourselves.
I’ve written before how I’m obsessed with driving in foreign countries. I figured if I could drive in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Malta, Portugal, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Puerto Rico, it was time to stretch my foreign driving credentials. And honestly, it’s way easier to drive in Azerbaijan than in parts of Ireland where the road is tiny and full of a herd of cows when you also factor in that I was driving on the opposite side of the road.
But there are a few things I wish that I would have known before the day started. Here’s everything that someone should know before renting a car in Baku based on my personal experiences. Since there’s far too little information about driving in Azerbaijan available online, I would love it if you would comment and share any of your experiences, too!
The Ateshgah fire temple outside of Baku
When to Rent a Car in Baku
I would not recommend someone rent a car in Azerbaijan as their first time driving in another country. However, if you’re driven internationally a few times, then I don’t think it would be an issue. The caveat here is that I only drove within two hours of Baku, so if you’re driving into the interior, you’ll need to do more research about conditions there. See the end of the article for information about renting a car in Nakhchivan.
There are a few times when renting a car makes more sense than taking public transportation between places. Public transportation here is mainly by bus, marshrutka, Uber, and taxi. Here are the main reasons you might want to get a rental car in Azerbaijan:
- You want to see more than is included in a day trip itinerary to places near Baku (this was why we chose to get a rental car)
- You are going somewhere that is not accessible by public transportation
- You need flexibility in timing, but a taxi to your destination is more expensive
We spent about $50 dollars US to rent an automatic car. I don’t know how this price compares to others since we booked fairly last-minute. How much it costs to rent a car in Baku depends on a few different factors: type of car, season, the day of the week, etc. The day tours we looked at would have cost more and we would have seen less. A taxi probably would have been less, but we wanted the freedom to stop and take pictures whenever we wanted without having to deal with translation issues.
If your plan is to rent a car in Baku and drive to Tbilisi, make sure to call very far in advance and speak with the actual company. I cannot guarantee that any international car rentals are available in Azerbaijan since the international situations here are different than in other parts of the world. This old Trip Advisor thread was the only information I could find online about international rentals. It is possible to drop it off in Sheki or another city, but make sure to arrange this ahead of time with the company. According to one user in the thread:
I made an agreement with Avis to pick a car in Baku and drop it off at Georgian border. Then with Georgians to wait for me at the other sige with their car so I don’t have to bother to go to Tbilisi (it’s scheduled last on out trip). Border line we shall pass on foot. Of course you’ll have to pay the fee for different drop-off location.
If your plan is to rent a car and drive to a major city that’s accessible via public transportation, I would opt for public transportation instead. It’s much cheaper.
How to Rent a Car in Baku
I used AutoEurope to pick out our car. I selected the cheapest option that was available that fit my needs, and I compared the price to a few other sites to make sure I got the best deal I could get. For my rental, I was not asked to use a credit card to hold the reservation or pay in advance.
Before renting, make sure your driver is over the age minimum for the company (typically 25, but not always). I was not asked to pay extra for additional drivers, but we didn’t mention that we had additional drivers, either. Check on additional driver fees for yourself if you plan to have more than one.
Mardakan Fortress is near Baku but it’s hidden in a small village and not easily accessible by public transit.
What Kind of Car to Get?
Picking out which kind of rental car to get is entirely up to your needs. For our trip – a short day trip with two women carrying two backpacks and two tote bags – the smallest car was perfect. A few things to check:
- Make sure to specify automatic if you don’t drive a manual car. If you’re not used to renting a car online and you need an automatic, be aware that selecting automatic nearly always results in an increase (sometimes a huge increase) in price. If you can drive a stick, you’ll save money.
- Pay attention to mileage limits (will be listed in kilometers). I like to map out my itinerary in Google Maps to make sure I’ll be under, and then pay the unlimited miles fee ahead of time to avoid charges from going over. If there’s a car with unlimited miles available, select this option if you’ll go over the mileage limits from other offers. This is a major way that the cheapest car can end up becoming more expensive than the second or third cheapest offer since you’ll get dinged at the end of the trip.
- This matters less ahead of time, but find out at the counter if the car is diesel or petrol/gasoline. I have friends with horror stories about getting stuck after putting the wrong kind of gas in the car. If you’re American, know that diesel fuel is much more common internationally than it is in the states. Worst case scenario, you can always check the car manual in the glovebox before pumping your gas.
When is the Best Time to Pick Up a Car?
When you make your reservation online, you’ll specify a time that you will pick up and drop off. The pickup time matters more than the drop off time. Note: car companies can and will cancel reservations that aren’t picked up during their pick up window. I found this out the hard way in Romania when I showed up two hours late to find my rental gone. So plan your pickup time ahead and make sure it’s a feasible one for you.
Before deciding what time this will be, make sure the company will be available to give you your keys. One time I showed up in Malta after the company typically closes. Even though my rental agreement specified my pick up time, they didn’t contact me to let me know they’d be closed. Luckily, someone from another company was able to process my rental for me, but just know things like this can happen. I recommend always picking up a rental car during normal business hours.
In addition, if you’re picking up your car at the Baku airport or another busy place, give yourself at least thirty minutes to wait in line and get processed. The rental cars are far out in the parking lot, and there aren’t always multiple attendants. Plan this time into your day if you have a specific place to be at a specific time.
Yanar Dag (Fire Mountain) is a natural gas fire that has been burning continuously for over 70 years! It’s a thirty-minute drive from Baku.
What Documents Do You Need to Rent a Car in Azerbaijan?
I needed my passport and my American driver’s license. If you are coming from a different part of the world and hold a different kind of license, you should call ahead and make sure your license will be accepted. Everyone needs to show their passport. The rental car company will make copies of these documents to keep on file while you have the car.
What is the Rental Car Deposit in Baku?
Every country where I’ve rented a car has had rental car deposits, and they’re all different from country to country. I paid a deposit of $400 dollars US in Azerbaijan on my credit card. After signing the car back in and getting a clean bill of health, I was told it will be off my card in 5 business days. I’ll report back if I have any issues on this, but I don’t anticipate having any.
Where to Pick up a Car at Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku
There are several places to rent a car in Baku. We picked ours up at the airport, but you can also get it at the rail station. If you are picking up at the airport, it’s on the first floor in Terminal 1 (the newer, nicer terminal). The kiosks look almost too nice to be rental car kiosks, and the signs are small papers in plexiglass on the desks. If you can’t find your company, just ask at the information desk.
After you are processed for your rental, your car will be in the parking lot in front of the building. There are no signs, so our attendant walked us to the car, showed it to us, and then walked us to the airport exit to get us through the parking without having to pay.
A Quick Introduction to Driving in Azerbaijan
Driving in Azerbaijan is actually totally fine, but there are some things that threw us off at first, a few things that were stressful the entire day, and a few things to watch out for. A few things to note before we get into specific issues:
- In Azerbaijan, people drive on the right side of the road like in the US and continental Europe
- Highways have two or more lanes
- The streets are very clean in major areas
- Smaller streets can get abruptly narrow in older parts of small towns and villages
- Most places have great parking (except for Baku)
We missed the sign for the turnoff for Gobustan and had to drive an extra twenty minutes to find a place to turn around.
Beware of Azerbaijan Road Signs!
Okay, now that we’re on the same page about general road conditions, here are the major things to look out for when driving in Azerbaijan. The first, and weirdest, is the near complete lack of street and highway signs.
Because of this and Google Maps acting up (more on that next), we missed nearly every major exit. While it was easy enough to correct after the fact, it was annoying. It’s baffling how a country with so much oil money and infrastructure can have practically no highway signs at all. Like at all.
Using Google Maps in Azerbaijan
Definitely have either GPS or google maps geared up for your trip, since navigating via highway sign is not possible. You will need to have an online version of Google Maps. Do not rely on offline maps only, since you will need to be able to look up alternate routes quickly. (Read: How to get a sim card in Baku if you don’t have one yet).
If you have a GPS from your rental company, then great. If you’re planning on using Google Maps like we did, here are some things to note:
- Not all of Azerbaijan is covered by Google Maps
- We could not get audio instructions. Instead, we could only look at it in “preview mode.” This meant one of us was always looking at the map while the other drove (no road trip naps for us! Well just one…). This was also an issue in Apple Maps, so it’s not unique to Google in Azerbaijan.
- There were some major points of interest (like the Gobustan Mud Volcanoes) that Google Maps doesn’t have yet
- Because we were on our phone so much, we had to have extra backup battery power. Our rental car did not have a USB port
- When Google Maps does work, it lags. Like a lot.
Russian was extra helpful whenever we need to bargain for the price of a taxi.
Azerbaijan Toll Roads
We didn’t see any toll roads in the areas where we were. If you’re going further out than Gobustan, ask your accommodations or your car rental company about possible toll roads. We haven’t seen any in the parts of Nakchivan we’ve covered, either.
A Word about Speed Limits
Speed limits are posted pretty frequently. Don’t speed! Our attendant made it very clear that there are cameras everywhere (we saw dozens of them) You will get caught and get a ticket, which your rental company will charge to the credit card on file. Worse, you might get pulled over by the police (more on that later).
Baku Traffic is NUTS!
We were not anticipating driving in Baku; however, the lack of street signs and lagging Google Maps meant that we got lost within five minutes of setting out and ended up driving straight through Baku. While the streets in the city are great (and clean!), the drivers are nuts.
They constantly swerve, change lanes without signaling, cut you off, etc. I’ve spent years driving in rush hour traffic in Philadelphia, I’ve driven through Manhattan, and I’ve driven through Dallas. But Baku drivers are nuts. Once you’re out of the city, things calm down a lot. Note, this is because there are fewer cars, not because the drivers are any calmer.
If you accidentally drive back into Baku, you’ll see the Heydar Aliyev Center on your right. You might also die in traffic if you try to look at it.
Make Sure You Have Insurance!
I always use the insurance on my credit card since my American credit card has this as a benefit. If you use this, make sure you do not pay for additional insurance from the company or your credit card won’t cover it and check that Azerbaijan is one of the covered countries. Otherwise, make sure you have some kind of car insurance to cover possible accidents.
Things You Need to Have With You at All Times
Make sure to have a cell phone with the internet in case you get stuck and to navigate. It’s also a good idea to have water, emergency snacks, and extra layers of clothes in case you get stuck somewhere. (Read: how to get a Sim card in Azerbaijan).
Watch Out for Street Cleaners!
Everywhere we went except for the seriously small villages, we found women sweeping the sides of the roads. And to be fair, the streets were super, other-worldly clean. However, when you’re sailing through Baku trying to make sure you don’t get hit by the guy changing lanes illegally in front of you, it’s disconcerting to find a woman in a full face mask (usually in a chic print), sweeping the side of the highway with a thrush broom.
It’s also disconcerting (and upsetting) when your Uber driver yells at one of these workers to get out of the way. I’m pretty sure if she could be somewhere else and not sweeping the side of the highway, she’d be gone in an instant.
Watch Out for Police Wanting Bribes!
Thankfully this one didn’t affect us, but the car rental attendant warned us about it repeatedly: police target tourists and try to get bribes. This is part of why it’s so important to not speed and to follow all traffic laws. However, they can pull you over even if you’re not breaking the law.
We were told that if this happened to us, to call our rental company immediately. We didn’t have to find out what would happen, but talk to your rental agency and find out what they want you to do in a similar situation. Most likely they will broach the topic with you, but be aware to ask if they forget.
Watch Out for Cows!
We saw many cows grazing on the side of the highway. Make sure you keep your eyes on the road and avoid a car-on-cow collision.
Filing Up Your Gas Tank to Return Your Car
If you’re returning your car to the airport, there are gas stations nearby. The one we went to was full-service. They pumped the gas, took a credit card payment, and refused a tip when offered. Gas (petrol) is also pretty cheap in Azerbaijan compared to Europe and America. We paid fifteen manats for a half tank of gas, which is the equivalent of about 7.5 euros. The tanks are smaller, but that’s still a pretty good rate for driving around all day!
Potential Extra Charges on Your Rental Car
The major charges to look out for:
- Speeding and other traffic violations from the cameras (charged later)
- Damage to the car
- Going over your mileage limit
- Not returning the car with a full tank of gas
This is where we filled up on Petrol. It’s not more exciting than that.
Returning Your Car to Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku
Returning the car was simple, but there were a few things that were different than when I’ve returned rentals in other countries:
- We had to take a parking card at the entrance and give it to the attendant when we returned the car
- There wasn’t a clearly designated space to return the car to, so we parked in the general area of where we’d picked up the car.
After that, it was pretty straightforward. We gave the attendant the keys, he went and inspected the car, and then we signed forms that showed we didn’t owe any extras and were on our way.
Bonus: Renting a Car in Nakhchivan
For Nakchivan, while I didn’t rent a car personally, after having ridden for two days in taxis to all the major sites outside of Nakhchivan City, I can confidently say that the driving conditions in this region are lovely and safe. People drive pretty slowly here compared to Baku.
If a car rental is a possibility, then I wouldn’t hesitate to say the road conditions are great. However, I can’t find any documentation that car rentals are even available in Nakchivan (there are none listed on any websites). I am going to ask around a little more on this to see if there are companies you go to directly once on the ground. Otherwise, taxis and marshrutka are readily available. Uber is not available in Nakhchivan.
Driving in Azerbaijan gives you access to places you can’t get to easily, and it also gives you the flexibility to plan your day exactly how you want it without including a driver. It does come with some unique circumstances that you should be aware of.
If you’ve read this and are nervous about renting a car, then I would suggest skipping it and using a taxi, Uber, or booking a day tour. I am personally really happy with our rental experience, but my friend and I are both seasoned travelers who have driven in multiple foreign countries before. However, if you read through this and it seems like everything listed is something you can handle, then driving in Azerbaijan is for you.
Just be careful and talk with locals about your plans to make sure they’re easy and safe if you’re planning on doing something outside of the normal tourist destinations.
More about Azerbaijan Travel
More about Traveling the Caucasus
Many people who travel Azerbaijan combine it with a trip to Armenia and Georgia:
Armenia Travel Resources
Georgia Travel Resources
Have You Rented a Car in Baku or in Azerbaijan? Are you planning a trip and trying to decide what to do? Please share any tips or questions below!
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