So I didn't want to make this too lengthy or formal so here are my suggestions and top tips when preparing for your umrah!
Get a Saudi Sim card! Upon arrival at the airport, once you have cleared immigration and retrieved your baggage, you will see small sales office for each of the main mobile providers (STC, Mobily & Zain). It really does not make a difference which one you go for (my buying decision was based on whichever one had the shortest queue!). You will need to show your passport and they will take your fingerprint. Your SIM car should then activate within 10 mins.
When you arrive at the airport and particularly when you have young and/or elderly passengers with you, the last thing you want to do is haggle with half a dozen taxi drivers, none of whom will speak English and my Arabic isn’t great so it makes for colourful negotiations! Royal Travel have this year appointed a new travel company to handle all of our ground arrangements and they are proving very popular. Book your transfers with us in advance and a driver will be waiting for you at the airport. No more haggling and going from taxi to taxi.
Choosing the correct accommodation for your Umrah stay is very important. All travellers have different needs and we can help advise on which hotel is best for your budget and requirements.
In Makkah, hotels in the clock tower have always been popular due to their proximity to the Haram, but those who have stayed there will know how long they can end up having to wait for lifts, especially around prayer time when the demand for lifts is very high. Forget orderly queues that us Brits are used to as it becomes a bit of a free for all! We are finding that some of the newer hotels next to the clock tower are not only very modern and comfortable and still very close to the Haram, but do not have any of the lift issues as they have their own lifts, not shared with another hotel or shopping mall. I tried the Hyatt Regency this time which is excellent, as are the Conrad and Hilton Suites either side of it. Just slightly further and over a bridge are the Hilton Convention, Anjum Hotel and the Sheraton. They offer modern, clean accommodation at competitive rates, but do note that there is a slight incline as you navigate the ramp over the bridge (something to bear in mind for those travelling with the elderly). Don’t worry, we at Royal Travel can advise you on the most suitable accommodation for your group.
In Madinah, we can broadly split hotel locations in to two categories. ‘Dome Side’, which as the name suggests, are hotels located on the side of the Green Dome. These hotels are fantastic for the brothers as they not only provide easy access to the Rawdah, but after Isha, only the doors on the Dome side of Masjid Nabawi are left open, making easy access for the late night Ibadah seekers! For the sisters however, staying on the Dome side means a walk around the Haram for each salah, as access for ladies is from the other side only. We therefore recommend those with families to not stay on the Dome side. On the non-Dome side is where the majority of the hotels are located. For those with families, this is the best side to be on as not only do you have easy access to the ladies entrances, but most of the best food places are located on this side too. A Pilgrim needs his dose of Hardees Burgers and Baskin Robins ice cream to keep the energy levels up! I stayed at the Shaza Al Madinah which not only gave easy access to Hardees but gave easy access to the ladies entrance as well as Gate 22 for the men (the most central gate). The Hilton is just across the road from the Shaza and is also very good. Both hotels are currently ranked #2 and #3 respectively on Trip Advisor (The Oberoi is #1 but does cost significantly more to stay in) We have fantastic negotiated rates with all of these hotels and most importantly, we have direct contacts at these hotels to ensure your stay is smooth and comfortable. It helps that the Royal Travel management are on first name terms with the sales staff at these hotels, ensuring our guests are well looked after.
I travelled for Umrah in the peak December period just gone, where for first time outside of Ramadan, the Haram boundary in Makkah was closed on one occasion due to congestion! This gives you an idea of just how busy it was. How do you manage this with young children? Especially if you have an active 5-year-old who thinks it is a good idea to play hide and seek ALL of the time! I strongly recommend giving each of your young children a lanyard with a plastic sleeve. Inside the sleeve, put details on a piece of paper of your name, passport number, hotel name and room number, as well as your phone number.
As well as visiting the two Holy Mosques, you will no doubt wish to visit sites associated with early Islam and the Prophet (saw). This is referred to as Ziyara(h) in Arabic or Ziyarat in Urdu.
Tell your children lots of stories about the Prophet (saw) and his Companions during your trip. This will especially bring the Ziyaraat to life for them so they can really relate to the Holy sites and places you will visit.