DIY Umrah Trip: Opportunities and Challenges
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, my wife suddenly one fine morning requested to take her for an Umrah trip to Saudi Arabia by 1s week of February 2017. We had no idea what to do and how to go. We looked at the 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. But she was persistent, we must go by the first week of February, as in March it will be hot and by end of February, we had AGMs for two charity organizations.
We knew Saudi Embassy in Canada (or anywhere) does not issue Umrah or Hajj visa directly. Everyone must go through an agent.
We were now looking an alternative way, to go ourselves and to get only a Umrah visa via an agent. Is it possible? Let us try, we had some experience, although 20 years old, of going to Umrah trip by driving from Bahrain to Saudi.
We again started to look at Google, how to get Umrah visa, what are the requirements. Started seriously calling travel agents who give Umrah package to customize to meet our requirements, time and duration. Received few quotes for a 2-week duration, during the first week of February. Also found the official requirements of Umrah, called friends in Saudi to sponsor us and looking at online cheap ticket purchase. Is there visa only agent?
Time was short, it seems the Al-mighty has accepted my wife’s prayer. We found an Ottawa based visa agent who agreed to obtain visa in few days, provided we give passport, photos, and mantra injection certificate and hotel booking. We told, it will take time to get the injection. He gave hope and explained two steps process, to give them in first step only Canadian passports, tickets booking, photos to start processing to get permission from Saudi Arabia first and then to give mantra injection certificate in next 2/ 3 days. Well, we needed to get our marriage certificate endorsed by Canadian foreign ministry, as they do not accept certificate authenticated by other embassies. Fortunately, the visa agent told, you originally form South Asia, right? Then if you have your wife’s passport of the original home country, it shows husband name, it will be acceptable to Saudi Embassy.
We made online 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]. By next few days, our friend from Saudi sent sponsorship as well the link of the website booking.com to book a direct hotel and though another friend medical practitioner and pharmacist procured at reasonable cost mantra injection and certificate from our GP.
We submitted to visa agent, and to our surprise in two days, got the Umrah visa. We thought he booked a hotel for us. Again surprise, he said, we book our own hotel and just inform him (visa agent) the name and phone of the hotel.
Very happy, still 4/5 days left, started to look at 5/4/3 star hotels online at booking.com, with distance from haram, internet, nearby hotels, ethnic restaurants and review/comments by visitors to those hotels.
Eventually, we booked a 4 – star, Nawazi Watheer Hotel, only for 3 days, for $63 /day one room for 2 persons. My wife suggested, as hotel rooms sales are on, we book extra days, from Makkah after 3 days stay. In Makkah, we shopped around and again booked the same one for second 6 days but at a lower rate of $53/day. After staying 6 more days, before moving to Madina, we saw same room rate $50/day. It was in category B, a 4 star, but an A- grade hotel in all respect, location, golf cart/bus for transportation, staff, internet, nearby ethnic restaurants, shopping, etc.
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?:
Umrah: A spiritual visit to Makkah, Saudi Arabia to perform in sequence four pre-defined ritual activities.
–Ihram (Sacred state]: Males to wear stich less two sheets [Ihram], preferably white but females wear normal day to day garments , making intention from five pre-determined places [Miqat] about 75-450 Km away from Makkah.
– Tawaf: Perform ant-clock wise seven circuits [Tawaf], starting from Black stone [marked by green light], around the Kaaba, the small black cube, at the center of grand masjid [Masjid Al-Haram] in Makkah. The Tawaf, preferably, performed in bare foot at the courtyard, around the black cube, but can be performed from the surrounding multiple floors of grand masjid. Present day Masjid Haram is so big with all extensions, one need to give proper attention to read signs, to go to the Kaaba, may be 15 to 20 minutes’ walk, from first entrance point of the masjid Haram.
- Saee: Perform seven circuits [walk/slow run], called, Saee [the Effort] , imitating footsteps of Hazra, second wife of Prophet Ibrahim, starting from a tiny hill , Safa [ about 500 meter away from the black cube], to another tiny hill, Marwah, about 500 meter apart. The Saee starts from Safa and ends at Marwah (makes one circuit) and from Marwah to Safa makes second circuit. The two tiny hills and the path between them are now inside a long gallery [multiple floors] are now inside the grand masjid.
- Halq/ Qasr [Shaving/Clipping: After completing Saee at Marwah, males trim all the hair or shave the head completely. Females, only clip, about half an inch of top hair in three bunches. This completes the Umrah and ends the state of Ihram
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 but most of the people going for Umrah, visit those historical places.
Umrah or Hajj does not require a visit to Prophet’s Masjid in Madinah but almost all people performing Hajj or Umrah, 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 for Tawaf and Saee as well as in Madinah
- In Makkah and Madinah, small but stable and quality 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 seems lost the purpose. 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.
Appendix A: Umrah Visa Requirements:
- An original applicant’s passport. It must also be valid for at least six months from the application date and include the place of birth and two side by side blank pages.
- Visa application form (Typed out or hand written in block letters), Saudi Embassy “Form B”
- One recent (No older than 6 months) photographs (4×6 cm) on a plain white background.
- An Immunization Card / document showing vaccination against Meningitis (one dose of ACYW135 vaccine) for adults. The vaccine is valid for a period of 5 years. Meningitis and POLIO record for children under 15 years old.
- a proof of relationship to the sponsor (i.e. birth certificate, marriage certificate, etc.), such certificate:
If the certificate is issued from of Canada, please submit one of the following only:
- Submit the original with a copy for us and we will return the original.
- Notarized by a Canadian notary public or a commission of oat, and Authenticated by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs.
If Birth and Marriage Certificate from outside Canada( not Saudi or any other Arabic country) should be:
- In English or translated to English or Arabic.
- Notarized by a Canadian notary public or a commission of oat and Canadian Foreign affairs.
If Birth and Marriage Certificate from Arabic Countries, we will accept to see the original with a copy for us and we’ll return the original or a copy stamped from their Embassies in Canada.
If the document is a Saudi Birth or Marriage Certificates are accepted even if it is a copy.
- Flight Itinerary / Booking ticket reservations (Please do not pay for you ticket till the visa is ready).
- Accommodation, please provide one of the following:
A Hotel reservations if you do not have a contact person in KSA.
If you have a contact person in KSA (relative or friend lives in Hajaz Area), you may provide us with the following:
Copy of your contact person valid Igama( Saudi residency card).
You contact person phone number.
Place of work information including employer’s name and address.
- Non-Canadian applicants must submit a clear copy of their valid residency permit (Permanent resident card). (Send only copy of front and back of the PR card).
- Applicants who have reverted/converted to Islam must submit a statement from any Islamic Center showing their conversion to Islam.
- For women travelling in group of three or more (Usbat Nesaa), the following is required:
Married women: She has to be at least 45 years old.
A permission letter from the husband signed and stamped by a notary.
A copy of husband’s ID showing signature (passport or driver license).
Single, divorced or widow women: She has to be at least 45 years old.
A letter from legal mahram signed and stamped by a notary.
A copy of mahram’s ID showing signature (passport or driver license