My husband and I, along with another couple, took a trip to Morocco in November 2008. I did all the planning myself to keep costs down, and we only used a guide for camel trekking in the Sahara and half a day in Fez. TripAdvisor forums helped enormously, and I just wanted to post a summary of our trip here, including many of the things I'd wondered about before going.
Morocco is extremely tourist friendly. The locals are kind, and because the new king has made tourism a priority, the country is run in a way as to make it really easy for people to visit. If you speak French, you will have no trouble getting around, as almost everyone we encountered knew French. English is spoken to varying degrees by those who interact with tourists -- hotel staff, shop owners, some restaurant staff, tour guides. English was less common with taxi drivers, small store / food stall owners, and generally in less touristy areas. It helps to know a couple Arabic phrases, just to be friendly and to better connect with the locals.
Dress modestly. Even though Morocco gets a lot of tourists, especially Europeans, it was more conservative than I expected. Although I'd read that some women do wear short sleeves, which I did see, I ended up not wearing the short sleeves that I packed, just because I didn't feel that comfortable walking around in them. Our male friend went jogging in shorts a couple mornings and remarked that he got some stares in Fez but not so much in Marrakech (which is much more touristy). We didn't get harassed, but out of respect and to blend in better, I'd recommend long sleeves and pants (or ankle-length skirts for women) for both men and women -- you can find lightweight material for the hot summer and dress in layers in the winter, as the temperature fluctuates a lot from morning to night. You probably wouldn't want to wear open-toed shoes, as the medina streets can be quite dirty.
There were some incredible deals direct from the East Coast to Morocco through Iberia airlines in January, but at the time we were going (November), it was most economical to book the cheapest flight to Europe we could and then take a budget airline from there into Morocco, which also allowed us a little time in Europe.
We flew from DC to Barcelona (London had some good fares from the East Coast, too, but in terms of getting into Morocco, there are more options via Spain.) I used the site whichbudget.com to help figure out which budget airlines would fly in/out of which cities. I absolutely love this site and can't recommend it enough! (I first heard about it here on TripAdvisor!)
We ended up flying Clickair and Vueling, and both were great. They were punctual and had the same space and comfort as regular airlines. The only downside with the budget airlines would be that you can only book 3 months ahead of time at the earliest, which makes planning ahead harder, and you have to be flexible in terms of the days of the week the flights are available. But there are enough options with various airlines that you can make it work.
Our itinerary looked like this:
Flight from Barcelona to Marrakech, where we stayed 2 nights
Bus to Essaouira, where we stayed 1 night and took the bus the next morning back to Marrakech
Rented a car and drove from Marrakech to Ait Benhaddou (1 night), Sahara Desert (1 night camping trip), and Fez (2 nights)
Bus from Fez to Chefchaouen (1 night)
Grand taxi from Chefchaouen to Ceuta, where we took a ferry to Algeciras, Spain and then...
Bus to Seville (2 nights) and flight from Seville back to Barcelona
Looking back, I think I would have tried to get a flight from somewhere in Morocco back to Barcelona to get home, as the traveling towards the end of the trip got tiring. And I would have stayed an extra night in Essaouira and Fez both, as well as extended the roadtrip part to spend a night in the Todra Gorge, which everyone in Morocco recommended. A lot of guidebooks and reviews mentioned Casablanca as being not that interesting, so we did not go there.
For a short stay, I'd recommend Marrakech and Essaouira -- that combination is a great introduction to Morocco, as Marrakech is sort of a quintessential Moroccan experience (think Aladdin or the Arabian nights), and Essaouira is a small, quiet, relaxing port town that's an easy 3-hr bus ride from Marrakech. For longer, I'd definitely recommend camping in the Sahara. Fez is also a great city, much less touristy and more authentic-feeling than Marrakech.
CAR RENTAL / DRIVING
As long as you're prepared to drive defensively (and aggressively in the cities) the entire time, driving is the best option to get to the more remote parts of Morocco, as it is the most flexible and cost-effective. Just make sure to rent from a reputable place, NOT a local agency (we used Hertz). Also, all the cars are manual; there are no automatics. The alternative would be to hire a guide (which is very expensive for a multi-day trip) or take a combination of grand/petit taxis and bus. The taxis are still expensive going long-distance (you have to share with other people to split the cost, unless you pay for all the seats yourself -- and the grand taxis really pack people in there -- it would not be a comfortable trip). Buses and taxis both would require transferring, possibly several times.
There are a lot of winding, mountainous roads from Marrakech all the way out to the Sahara. You can't always see what's going to be around a turn, and there's no shoulder in a lot of parts. But the roads are paved and well marked all the way there. You also want to avoid driving after dark, as there are no lights, and you can't see if there's someone at the side of the road. Because some of the roads are only one lane in each direction, cars often move into the opposite lane to pass ahead. Our friends who drove took to honking every time we came to a curve or if the road dipped down, to warn any cars that might be ahead. We only rented a car for four days, to keep the cost down as well as to avoid driving in the cities. Driving is really not recommended (or necessary) in the medinas!
All of that said... our roadtrip was a lot of fun because we had our own car. I'd say it is very doable; just expect to be an attentive driver most of the time, though there were also some stretches where the driving was pretty leisurely. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous throughout the country -- lots of valleys, mountains, gorges. We saw all kinds of scenes of local life: women doing laundry in the river, people on donkeys, goatherders, children playing. If you drive on your own, you're free to stop any time and anywhere you like.
From the budget hotels ($30/night or less) we stayed at, the Hotel Sherazade (hotelsherazade.com) in Marrakech was hands down my favorite of the places we stayed. It's beautiful, inexpensive, and the hotel staff was awesome. We booked early and reserved the two smallest rooms with a private bathroom (they are pretty small, with just enough space for a double bed and a little walking room). But they are considerably cheaper than the rest of the rooms -- about $30/night, as opposed to double that for other rooms with a private bath. Plus, the hotel has a lot of common areas -- a beautiful courtyard, cozy nooks with cushions and tables, and a lovely rooftop terrace and restaurant. So we hung out in the sitting area and played cards at night. The staff, especially Ismael, was really helpful -- he actually had someone go out and buy our bus tickets for us to Essaouira that next day; we just had to give them money for the tickets and the taxi fare to the office.
Cafe Argana in Marrakech, which has a large terrace facing Djemaa el Fna square (big sign -- you can't miss it), is a great place to get a meal. The best tagine I had was there, and you can see all the activity down in the square below without being in the midst of it.
While doing research for the Sahara, I came many companies offering. But most turned out to be difficult to get a hold of, and I suspect that their tours are in groups rather than individually as ours was. We ended up booking our Sahara camping trip through Youssef from roughtours.com, and he was very helpful and resourceful. But when we arrived in Merzouga, it turned out that his helper, Ali, would be the one taking us out to the desert. But this turned out great in the end -- we loved Ali! A lot of the guides in Morocco can seem really pushy, but Ali was quite genuine and kind, and he told us a lot about life in Morocco. Plus, he makes a great chicken and vegetable tagine! Ali doesn't speak too much English, though (but is fluent in French), but Youssef is very well traveled and speaks English well. Youssef did meet and talk to us before and after the camel trek (he fixed us breakfast back at Merzouga in the morning). And despite the initial confusion, Youssef was helpful from the time I contacted him via email at home all the way to giving us advice as we left the Sahara for Fez. He'll advertise his services to you, but he'll also respect what you want and not push things on you.
Youssef's recommendation, which I pass along here: Stop at any of the roadside places where you see meat hanging and ask for a kilo of lamb. They'll shave the meat off, grill it over coals for you right there, then serve it to you with bread. Best $3 meal you'll ever have.
If you can, do your shopping in Marrakech. A lot of the things I wanted to get turned out to be not as widely available (definitely not as much of a selection) in the other cities. The souks have a lot of touristy things available (bargain hard), but also the nouvelle ville has some great stores for better quality items (that are probably also more expensive).
We found the Lonely Planet guidebook to Morocco to be really useful. The maps are an absolute necessity in the medinas (though Fez is hard to navigate even with a map -- best to hire a guide there, of which there are plenty -- just make sure they're official; it's also nice to have a guide if only to stop all the other faux guides from harassing you).You can look at roughtours.com or contact me for more information