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" and "Mercury-2". Two latter ships are rather new, they were built in Kaliningrad. 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 they 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.
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.
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 runs 2-3-4 times a week, frequency depends on cargo volumes. Tickets for both itineraries could be bought only in the morning at ticket office 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 Turkmenbashi is $100 USD per person. Ticket to Aktau is $110-125 USD per person, expect to be charged extra $5-10 USD (though it's really a bit of a negotiation). Only passport is needed to buy passenger ticket. 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 USD per meter of the length of the vehicle transported to Turkmenistan and $55 USD per meter for vehicle to Kazakhstan. One motorbike will cost you $110 USD (Turkmenistan) and $115 (Kazakhstan), bicycle will cost $40 to both destinations.
Another charge is for using special bridge to board the ferry: 1 car is $25 USD, motorbike and bicycle $20 USD.
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.
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.
Directions in Baku: Go to the ferry office. Follow the main street - Neftchilar Prospekti (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 bridge. 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.
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.
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.
Update on 20 July 2012. Those planning to travel by ferry should be aware of a new rule. All those travelling by themselves (without vehicles) still board the ferry on the same place as it was for many years, just behind Marine Passenger Terminal on Neftchilar Avenue.
For those travelling with their own vehicles the boarding place has CHANGED. They need to board from a new place on Nobel avenue (former Rabochiy Prospekt). Also, expect delays of up to several days, since even if there is a ferry they might allow to board only passengers but not vehicles. So you might end up waiting for several days and missing several ferries until they give a green light for vehicles to board.