One of the perks of living in the GCC for me has been the long road trips to explore the neighboring countries of the Arabian Gulf, the closest being UAE and Saudi Arabia. Since my childhood we have taken many a road trip from Doha to Saudi Arabia for Umrah, around once every two – three years. While Jeddah or Madinah may be just an hour by flight, there’s always something exciting about an overland journey, especially if you are a large group – the long drives, the stopovers, and the excitement of reaching your destination after traveling for a day is just wonderful!
A bus tour or your own car?
NOTE: As of now, only GCC locals are allowed to go by their own car. Expats are allowed to go only by registered tour operators.
Personally most of our trips were by car and only a few by bus. I absolutely loved it when we went in our own cars as literally you are in the driver’s seat and get to stop as you like. Traveling by car can cost you less especially for a large family as you pay only for the visas and the hotel you book. The only additions would be a small sum for insurance and the fuel charges.
As for buses, there are a lot of tour operators in the gulf who do bus tours around the year ranging from luxury tours to the more affordable ones. They are package tours including the visa + transport + hotel charges so once booked you don’t have to worry about any more planning, just pack your bags and you are set to go. The prices of course vary but 1000 AED/- per person would be a good average. The prices also increase during Ramadan and the other busier seasons. If you are looking for a chauffeur service but would want the privacy of your own vehicle, though a bit pricey, you can book a minibus or an SUV with some of these operators. They charge separately for the car and the driver. About 7000 AED/-
Approximate Numbers Involved
- Distance: 1500 km
- Timings: Stop at border – 1 hr
- Stop at Saudi border – x hrs
- Driving time – 13 hrs
- Breaks – 4 hrs (including Miqat)
- Night stop (if traveling by car) – 6 hrs
- Thawab: n x 10 – 700 or more InshaAllah!
Here are a few tips we have learned over the years for those who intend to travel for this blessed journey.
1) The essentials:
- Prepping the car – Make sure your car is prepared for the trip. A general inspection and checked tyres goes without saying. In addition, you will need to sand proof the front of the car which will be sand-blasted as you drive at top speed on the highways in the desert. A fancy spray or sand coating can be done at any petrol station. A quick and effective DIY trick would be just coat the front with some dishwashing liquid using a sponge.
- Wether travelling by bus or car make sure you have all the documents ready. of course, this is a no brainer but I have seen people returning from Abu Samrah because of missing papers / discrepancies in documents
- Divide the luggage according to how you will be using it. The items required on the road can stay with you. The ‘meeqat bags’ (see below) should be somewhere accessible. The rest of the luggage for your stay is best stored overhead in a rooftop carrier.
2) Ready for the night:
- If you are traveling by your own car, the whole journey from Doha / Dubai to Makkah is roughly a day including all the breaks and a stop at night (which is highly recommended for safety reasons as you shouldn’t be driving in a sleep deprived state in any case).
- Riyadh is a usual choice for pitstop. But depending on how much distance you have covered by the time it’s night you may find you have to stop in another area. We usually are hunting for a place soon after crossing Riyadh. If you are lucky, you might find good, clean rooms at a petrol station for a cheap price. Many charge an hourly rate, but you can negotiate and book a room for a few hours for about 200-300 riyals. When you plan to stop and rest for the night, keep checking for a place at every station on the way until you find a reasonable one but don’t expect much.
- here are things you might want to include for a comfy stay: a clean, fresh single bed sheet per person – so even if you meet dusty sheets you can just get your clean bedspreads over the whole bed and sleep peacefully and blankets – make sure to pack something really warm if traveling in the colder months as you will be smack in the middle of the desert and its going to be frigid cold.`
If you are traveling by bus, carry blankets and travel pillows for neck support as the bus drivers always drive through the night. On crossing the Saudi Border, the time to Makkah is roughly 12 hours including about 3 or 4 pitstops for meals, bathroom breaks, prayers, etc.
3) Packing for Miqat:
One of the last stops in the journey before you reach Makkah is going to be at one of the designated Miqat. where you will be freshening up, making ghusl, donning on the ihraam, making the niyyah (intention) for Umrah before leaving the area and reading the Talbiyyah until you reach Makkah. For people traveling from UAE or Qatar, the Meeqat is Qarn Al Manazil or the village of Sail Al Kabeer.
Now you have 2 options for this,
- you can stop at a lodge at a petrol station around the area for an hourly rate. This way you can also get a place for a brief nap, your own bathrooms and also hot water for the bathrooms.
- or you can directly make your way to the well designed and clean public bathrooms. These areas are located near the mosque, completely segregated for men and women, quite well maintained (although hot water may not be available depending on the rush there) and also include huge shopping areas where you can buy everything from soap to ihraam to books etc.
In each case, pack 2 separate ‘meeqaat bags’ – one for the ladies and one for the gents in the family. Include:
- Toiletries – soap, shampoos, shower gels and other essentials.
- The Ihraam clothes – which is going to be the special dress for the men and the usual dress for the women. Make sure to launder these clothes with unperfumed detergent before packing.
This way nobody needs to be rummaging among the whole luggage to look for their towels and ihraams. The gents and ladies group each grab their bag and go their own way.
4) Let’s talk about food:
Now, there are a lot of restaurants and grocery shops all along the way so you don’t usually need to pack for the road, but if you are traveling as a large family or group of families, then it might be a good idea to pack a meal or two for two reasons – one is you can’t predict how much time you will be spending at the borders for immigration and checking which can range from 2 – 8 hours depending on the rush and there might be no restaurants in the area and second reason is you can’t guarantee finding a restaurant of your choice of food or hygienic enough when on the way. So if you have kids and picky eaters, its good to prepare for the journey. Here are some tips:
- Don’t bother with an ice box. Prepare for one or two meals which can stay good for about 12 hours (like stir fries, dry fried meat, pickled sauces etc.)
- You can always buy arabic bread / pita bread on the way.
- Pack a picnic basket with the food in hotpots and disposable plastic ware.
- A large travel mat – so literally you can sit down in a quiet spot and have a picnic if there are no restaurants around or if you are stuck at the border for hours together as we experienced many a times.
- Don’t carry too many packaged snacks like biscuits, chips, drinks or bottled water as you will find a lot of groceries on the way and you wouldn’t want to be carrying around excess weight.
5) Traveling with kids:
Road trips with kids isn’t going to be easy but it can be done and will be a great learning experience for them. Here are a few tips to make the long drive easier.
- For infants – of course a well stocked diaper bag – with lots of diapers, a changing pad – as you are unlikely to find any changing tables so you may have to do the job in the car, nappy creams, several changes of clothes and all the necessary feeding supplies.
- Lots of tissue papers and hand sanitizer for the way.
- Toys for entertaining them in the car. If your kids are small and have a security object, don’t forget to pack that. For older kids a small coloring book, reading book can be great. It could be a book on Prophets stories or a kids book about Umrah to build the anticipation. Personally, we also loved playing a lot of memory games and islamic quizzes on the way!
- Baby food – If you have a baby or toddler who is just starting out on solid food, I recommend packing a lot of baby food jars not only for the journey but for your stay as I found that it was not readily available in the area around Haram. Had to walk a long distance and the shops / pharmacies that did stock it had a limited choice of brands / flavors. So do include a good stash of your baby’s favorite food jars in your luggage.
Lastly but most importantly don’t forget to pack your heart full of imaan and the intention to do everything you do for the pleasure of Allah and to repent as indeed every son of Adam is a sinner and the Umrah erases the sins. The longer journey means more opportunity to make dua’a as a traveller for it is on of the prayers that is not rejected inshaAllah. So remember to make lots of dua’a for yourself, your family and the ummah.