Backpacking Saudi Arabia
Looking for important travel information while backpacking in Saudi Arabia? Here you will find information on working in Saudi Arabia, entry visas, Saudi Arabia hostels, and much more.
Table of Contents
- Facts About Saudi Arabia
- Top Things to Do
- How to Travel Around Saudi Arabia
- Hostels & Budget Accommodation in Saudi Arabia
- Know before you go: Entry Visas, Health, and Safety
Facts About Saudi Arabia
The sprawling deserts of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) account for 80% of the Arabian Peninsula, though most of the country is uninhabited. Since the discovery of oil there in the 1930s, Saudi Arabia has become a major exporter. The wealth that this has brought is seen in the country’s ultra-modern cities. Today Saudi’s economy is almost entirely oil-based and it is home to a large number of migrant workers.
Saudi Arabian lifestyle may shock Western visitors as the country’s law and culture adhere to Islam very strictly. All citizens are required to be Muslim and there is no religious freedom. Conversion away from Islam can result in the death penalty.
Temporary migrants may be of other religions, excluding Bahai and Jehovah’s Witness, but public expression of these is forbidden. Those with a connection to Israel are not allowed into the country at all. Insulting Islam or saying anything that might be perceived as offensive to the monarchy, the Saudi people or government can result in harsh punishments.
- Currency Saudi Riyal
- Time GMT +3
- Language Arabic
- Telephone Services +966
- Emergency Numbers Police 999, Ambulance 998 and Fire 997
Climate in Saudia Arabia
Saudi Arabia consists of large areas of harsh, arid desert. However, there are pockets of more forgiving landscape; beaches and rivers, beautiful mountains and green oases in the desert. It is one of the hottest countries in the world and in the summer, temperatures of 50oC are common.
Heatstroke is always a danger for unprepared travellers. In spring and autumn, the average temperature is 30oC. The winter months of November to February are the best time to visit. At night, temperatures quickly fall to more comfortable levels. Coastal areas are cooler but also very humid. Mountainous regions are usually cooler and wetter.
Rainfall in Saudi Arabia is infrequent and highly unpredictable. It is possible for the entire year’s rain to fall in one or two sudden downpours. Asir, in the southwest, is subject to monsoons.
Things to do in Saudi Arabia
Tourists are usually attracted to coastal areas such as Jeddah in the west and Dammam and Alkhobar in the east. Areas of natural beauty include Taif, Al Baha and Abha. Other sites are well-known for their historic remains. Nabatean tombs can be found in Madain Salah. Hiking and camping in the country’s vast deserts are popular activities with many visitors.
When deciding the best things to do in Saudi Arabia, there is an abundance of options. Here are the top bucket-list items when backpacking Saudi Arabia.
Because of its large number of oil-workers and other migrants, Jeddah is the most culturally diverse and tolerant city in Saudi Arabia. Efforts to attract tourists and other visitors have led to numerous and often bizarre works of public art. The famous Jeddah Fountain and the Floating Mosque are also worth seeing. The coral reefs along the coast of the Red Sea are popular among divers. Jeddah has some excellent museums and one of the best souks (markets) in the country.
For Muslims, Mecca (Makkah in Arabic), 45 miles east of Jeddah, is the most important site to visit. As Islam’s holiest place, every able-bodied Muslim is required to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. Note that non-Muslims are not permitted to enter. Medina, the second holiest city, is also forbidden to non-Muslims.
Nightlife in Saudi Arabia is virtually non-existent. Alcohol is banned and there is almost no public entertainment, though there is a strong culture of cafes and restaurants. The social life in expat compounds is generally slightly better.
Unique Activities in Saudi Arabia
Since popular places in Saudi Arabia can get crowded during tourist season, it is wise to reserve tickets and activities ahead of time. GetYourGuide sells entrance tickets to museums and landmarks at face value so you can avoid the lines and save that precious time for more exploring. The most popular tour on Get Your Guide is the Al Madinah Hop-On Hop-Off Sightseeing Tour.
Viator is another popular travel website that helps you book things to do in Saudi Arabia. They work directly with local tour operators in Saudi Arabia, so you won’t have to scour the internet or roam around town trying to find the best deal.
How to Find Cheap Flights to Saudi Arabia
The best way to get into Saudi Arabia is by plane. Saudi Airlines regularly fly from London. Women travelling alone must be met by their husband or a family member at the airport and are required to have confirmed accommodation for the duration of their visit.
In order to find the best flights to Saudi Arabia we recommend using a few well-known flight comparison search engines. These websites offer powerful search options, like entering flexible dates and airports in order to find the cheapest flight to Saudi Arabia.
Our go-to flight search engine is Skyscanner, which we love for its extremely flexible search options. Our favourite way to get travel inspiration is their “Everywhere” feature. Simply enter “Everywhere” as a destination, and it will then list all available flights from your departure city in order of price. This also works when entering the entire country of Saudi Arabia as your destination. Skyscanner will search all possible airports in the country in order to find the cheapest option.
Kiwi is another new favourite flight search engine among savvy travelers. Kiwi works by combining flights from different carriers in order to get the best deal. Also, if there is a better ground or ferry option for the route you’re searching, Kiwi will include that in the search results. On average, we have found the cheapest flights to Saudi Arabia with them compared to the other websites out there.
There are no rail links from Saudi Arabia to other countries. Car crossings can be found at every border, although the one with Iraq is currently closed. A ferry service operates from Egypt. The Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company, SAPTCO, runs buses to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. SAPTCO also operate buses within and between Saudi’s cities.
How to Travel Around Saudi Arabia on a Budget
The best way to get around Saudi Arabia is on their extensive bus network. It is run by Saudi Public Transport Company (SAPTCO), and consists of over 2,000 buses. The bus network covers both travel both within major cities and between regions.
There are also train lines connecting two major routes. The Saudi Railways Organization (SRO) operates the line from Dammam to Riyadh, and the Saudi Railway Company (SAR) operates from Riyadh to Hail.
Taxis are also readily available, although they will be more expensive than buses.
Driving in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has one of the worst driving accident rates in the world (dial 993 in case of an accident). There is no requirement to insure your vehicle and many drivers simply do not bother. Alcohol is banned and drink-drivers will be severely punished. Some driving offences are punishable by mandatory imprisonment or corporal punishment. Others incur heavy fines. Visitors are advised to have insurance and drive extremely carefully, as blame for causing an accident may by default fall on the foreigner.
You will be able to drive with your existing licence for 3 months, after which you should obtain a Saudi one. Some licences, including those from the UK and US, can be converted without the need for another driving test. Women are currently not allowed to drive and are not issued with licences. Women are also not allowed to travel with men who are unrelated to them, unless they employ a driver.
Drive on the right. Petrol is extremely cheap in Saudi Arabia (around 20% of the UK price) as it is a major oil-producing nation. The minimum age to hire a car is 25. If you decide you want to rent a car in Saudi Arabia, you can use DiscoverCars to compare offers from the major car rental agencies in the region.
Backpacking Group Tours in Saudi Arabia
Though part of the fun of backpacking Saudi Arabia is exploring on your own, there are situations, especially when venturing off the tourist trail, when it does make sense to go with a guide or a small group.
G Adventures is another great option for organized travel, but with a smaller group. It’s a great choice for anyone backpacking Saudi Arabia alone who would like to meet up with like-minded travellers. It’s also a practical option for exploring places where you need an experienced guide, like a long hiking adventure or visiting a place well off the beaten path. You can choose from different styles of small group tours like active, wellness, hiking trips, 18-30somethings, and more.
Saudi Arabia Hostels and Budget Accommodation
A wide variety of hotels is available throughout Saudi Arabia. Most tourist cities will also have furnished apartments for short-term lets, called shigka-maafroosha. Owners can often be found scouting for clients in hotel lobbies. Prices for these and for small hotels are negotiable; remember that bargaining is part of the culture! Prices for larger hotels are similar to those in the UK.
We have had good experiences finding hostels in Saudi Arabia on HostelWorld. They have the largest inventory of hostels worldwide, and with over 10 million reviews and ratings from other travellers, you know exactly what to expect.
Another good way to find accommodation in Saudi Arabia is by checking booking.com. You’ll find hotels, homestays, hostels, and other unique accommodations. They have the most reviews and advanced filtering of any accommodation-booking site, so you’ll be sure to find a great place in your budget. Many of the places on booking.com also offer free cancellation, which takes the pressure off the planning phase of your trip to Saudi Arabia.
If you are backpacking with another travel companion, we highly recommend booking a rental via VRBO. With a vacation rental in Saudi Arabia, you’ll have more space, your own kitchen, and you’ll get a better feel for how the locals live. Plus, the cost of a vacation rental can be split among your group, oftentimes making it cheaper than doing individual hotel rooms.
If you’re looking to save even more money while backpacking in Saudi Arabia, there are plenty of creative ways to get free accommodation in exchange for work. For example, one of our favorite ways to stay in amazing locations for free is by signing up as a petsitter with Trusted Housesitters. The site connects responsible animal lovers with petsitting opportunities in Saudi Arabia and all over the world. It’s a win-win for both sides – travellers can stay in amazing locations for free, and homeowners can rest easy knowing that someone is watching over their place.
And lastly, CouchSurfing is a great community that connects travellers with local hosts in Saudi Arabia. You can stay for free with verified hosts, who will usually take some time to show you around the local spots.
Entry visa requirements for Saudi Arabia
Although highly restrictive in past years, the Saudi government is now promoting tourism. A sponsor is no longer necessary for tourists but visas are still required for both entering and leaving, as well as a valid passport with at least six months left on it. These can be obtained from the Saudi Embassy, or Saudi consulates around the world. Visas are granted for business, tourist, transit, residency, family, hajj(pilgrimage) or conference attendance.
Customs controls are very strict. Items that will be confiscated include: alcoholic drinks, any equipment for making them or any cooking item that includes alcohol (like vanilla essence); any narcotics; pornography; games of chance; any weapons, real or ornamental; military uniforms or equipment; radio transmitters of any kind; statues or carvings representing human or animal forms.
Visa requirements for Saudi Arabia can vary widely depending on your country of origin and can change over time. To avoid any unpleasant surprises, be sure to check the latest visa requirements while you’re still planning your trip.
Health and safety in Saudi Arabia
As with travel to all other countries abroad, it is vital that you get travel insurance before you leave for Saudi Arabia. Even for short trips, our go-to travel insurance provider is World Nomads, which is also recommended by Lonely Planet, HostelWorld, and other major travel companies.
You will need to have a variety of inoculations before you arrive. These are decided by the Ministry of Health. The regulations about these can change at short notice, so check in advance. They may also be different for those arriving for pilgrimage due to the large number of people of many nationalities packed together.
Saudi Arabia has an extensive public health system, although the services offered by this are limited. Private hospitals, often run with foreign assistance, offer a range of facilities. Pharmacies are common and prescriptions are not necessary for many types of medication (though some drugs are tightly controlled).
Tap water is not safe to drink. Bottled water is readily available (though famously, more expensive than petrol).
Work permits and backpacker jobs in Saudi Arabia
You will need a Saudi sponsor to gain a work visa. To leave the country you will need your sponsor’s signature. Bear in mind that falling out with your sponsor might have implications for going home!
There are a number of work opportunities for Westerners, usually in the oil, teaching and medical industries, and the pay is generally very good. There is a high demand for male, native-speaking English teachers in schools and colleges. Positions often include many advantages such as paid accommodation and transport and a tax-free salary.
You may find a number of teaching jobs advertised here. Employers will be looking for well-educated men, usually with some previous experience of teaching English as a foreign language. Your sponsor will be able to supply you with a list of requirements for working in Saudi Arabia.
Official Language of Saudi Arabia
Arabic is Saudi Arabia’s official language but many people will know English as it is taught in schools and used in business. Note that Arabic has several sounds that are completely unfamiliar to the English ear.
Useful links for backpacking in Saudi Arabia
- GAdventures – guided small group tours in Saudi Arabia, great for solo travellers or for those interested in a more adventurous trip which would require a guide
- DiscoverCars – The world’s leading rental car search engine to rent a car in Saudi Arabia
- Kiwi and Skyscanner – Flight comparison search engines to find the cheapest flights to Saudi Arabia and within the country
- GetYourGuide and Viator – a collection of local tours and activities in Saudi Arabia. Also offers Skip the Line tickets for crowded attractions
- HostelWorld – #1 hostel search website to find accommodation while backpacking Saudi Arabia. Thousands of hostels and millions of reviews from fellow travellers
- Booking.com – commonly used booking site for accommodation in Saudi Arabia. Find hostels, hotels, and other unique accommodations in Saudi Arabia with advanced filtering and millions of reviews
- World Nomads Travel Insurance – Comprehensive travel insurance for long and short trips when backpacking Saudi Arabia
There you have it, the ultimate Saudi Arabia backpacking guide. We hope you have found all the information you need for backpacking around Saudi Arabia.
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