DIY Umrah Trip: Opportunities and Challenges, Dr. Emdad Khan
What motivated us for the Umrah trip as it happened and what is Umrah? Should one go on his own or go in group packages? What facts and tips one should know upfront before going for the trip? We experienced an amazing 2 weeks stay in Makkah and Madinah in February 2017.
In mid-January 2017, we suddenly decided for an Umrah trip by 1s week of February 2017. We had no idea what to do and how to go. We looked at internet and called few friends. All travel agents or masjid based Umrah packages were for March break and a bit expensive for going the way we liked, single rooms and other flexible things for two persons.
We knew, Saudi Embassy in Canada (or anywhere) does not issue Umrah or Hajj visa directly. Everyone must go through an agent.We googled, how to get Umrah visa, what are the requirements. Called travel agents and masjid based agents who gives Umrah package to customize to meet our requirements for for 2-week duration.
We found an Ottawa based visa agent to get visa in few days. We made on line ticket booking ($1,220/per person Ottawa –Jeddah) and submitted Canadian passports, photos and copies of her and my native country passports [to show husband wife relationship] and from GP mantra certificates from our GP.
We booked on line using booking.com website, a 4 – star, Nawazi Watheer Hotel, only for 3 days, for $63 /day one room for 2 persons. In Makkah, again booked the same one for second 6 days but at a lower rate of $53/day. While in Makkah, we booked for 3 nights for Medina, a 3-star Dar As-Shuhada hotel at $50/day for 2 persons. It was a 3-star (C-Category), but an A-Grade hotel in all aspects.
Our Internal Travel Arrangements:Jeddah to Makkah by Taxi, SR 200 but can book online or bargain SR150-SR250. Makkah to Medina: Bus SAPTO VIP SR120 per person, standard, SR 65.Medina to Jeddah Taxi SR400, Bargain SR350 –SR500.Makkah Hotel to Aysha Masjid to Haram (2nd Umrah): SR40. Hotel to Haram: Heavy bargain, SR10-SR20. Visit sightseeing- heavy bargain for 1- 2 hours SR 50 -SR200
What is Umrah?A spiritual visit to Makkah, Saudi Arabia to perform in sequence four pre-defined ritual activities. Consist of Ihram (Sacred state], Tawaf, Saee, Halq/ Qasr [Shaving/Clipping].
Unlike Hajj, Umrah, can be performed in any time of the year. It does not require to be staying in Mina, Arafat, Mujdalafah or animal sacrifice. Umrah or Hajj does not require a visit to Prophet’s Masjid but almost all people visit prophet’s masjid.
DIY Self Arranged Vs Travel Agent or Masjid Based Group Package:
If one family or few families make a group, it is best, a lot of flexibility, almost one third cheaper. One can book own ticket and on line, arrange injection, and only visa via www.visaenterprise.com. If going by package, pay extra $1,000 for two person hotel occupancy and per person package $2500 to $3000. May have for more fun and more spiritual or if not careful, less spiritual but more gossip.
Important, Useful Facts and Tips:
- 4 identify marks are essential not to get lost, (a) hotel name, phone, road, (b) entry point in external courtyard of Haram, (c) entry to Kaaba by which large & small gate, say Gate King Fahd and small, gate 79, (d) entry to courtyard of Kaaba, say Muqame Ibrahim, facing toward King Fahad gate
- Not to get separated from Female relatives: before 10 minutes of prayer time, Saudi security will make sure no women are within the courtyard of Kaaba. So it is vital pre-select a location where the women will be moving in one of the nearby designated women praying place
- In Madinah, also mark, a women meeting place, say gate no 25, as women entry and exit are different than men ones.
- While in Makkah, make a habit of drinking only Zam Zam water. We used to take two empty water bottles with us for each prayer trip and on return filled up and put in room freeze.
- In Madinah, also, Zam Zam water is available but only bottles can be filled up. At the entrance water taps in Madinah but not Zam Zam water.
- If one like to bring Zam Zam water, old fashion, water can are not allowed any more for planes. One has to get only from Jeddah airport, official one or two 5- liters, packaged plastic zam zam can, each at a cost of SR 9
- From masjid Haram, external courtyard, then large, new King Abdullah, King Fahad extensions, then old extensions, then Kaaba courtyard and then black cube or Kaaba, will be up to one KM, a 20 minutes’ walk.
- Also the whole masjid haram is segmented into, may be over thousand, blocks, and some of the blocks are closed or has barriers.
- For new comers, it is puzzling, and also look for sign, how to go to the place to make Tawaf around Kaaba or make Saee from Safa to Marwa. Please fix pre-defined place for group members, if get lost. It is very easy to get lost
- In Makkah and Medina, all around , only few metres away, a large number of sky scrapers [hotels], make the original masjid haram or masjid Nababee look like small buildings [ as if dwarfs]
- If one stay in the nearest hotel in Makkah, only few meters away, still will need 20 minutes’ walk to reach Kaaba or 10 minutes in medina to reach original masjid Nababee after crossing courtyards and all the new gigantic extensions
- In selecting a hotel, make sure, it has its own buses/carts/cars 24 hours to drop off and bring back you, especially in Makkah. Still from drop off point to reach Kaaba, it is about 500 metres to one Km and budget 20 minutes.
- So staying near to Haram is important but also important nearby ethnic restaurants for eating.
- In our view, it is better not to take hotels with breakfast inclusive, if you like ethnic food. Almost near every hotels, except the big ones, nearby plenty of ethnic restaurants
- On currency, please take U$100 notes as Saudi Riyal flagged to US dollar, US$100 = SR375, not exchange fees and we will be better off
- For weak and physically challenging persons, free wheel chairs [in Arabic called Arabia, not speak English and require some identity] services exist. In Masjid Haram, next to King Fahad gate near Women Washroom 2 and in Madinah, a bit away from the women entrance gate 25. These services are good, but not up to the desired quality. Also, one can get the wheel chairs from the hotel itself.
- Private but approved paid wheel chair service exist in Makkah and Madinah
- In Makkah and Madinah, small but stable chairs exist in sufficient quantities
- In Makkah, be careful, about 30 minutes before prayer, the wheel chairs or entrance to Kaaba [and some gates of masjid] is closed/stopped and open after Jamat. Also be careful, one may be separated from accompanying women, if not carefully planned and may be lost if pre-defined meeting place not fixed.
- A lost and found service [uni-language] [ for items and human] exit in Makkah, off King Fahd gate, Near Women wash room, 2 but not up to standard quality.
- Also a paid Locker service exists for up to 5 hours with limited capacity
- Be careful about Taxi services. From your hotel to Haram both in Makkah and Madinah, it should be SR10, but they will ask a high up to SR50. One has to have thick skin to make heavy bargain
- Bargaining is applicable for sightseeing in Makkah & Madinah or local transport
- Be careful, some of the Umrah visitors busy in talking or using smart phone all the time while making Tawaf or siting in masjid Haram or masjid Nababee.
- In few cases, signs are in English. Unfortunately most of the signs/display boards especially in Madinah are in Arabic. Most of the support staff are uni-language. So learning few common Arabic terms are useful.