BUDGET Slow Travel Guide
Last update March 2020. This page about Oman is part of a budget slow travel guide collection, and the result of a month-long trip in 2019 plus more recent updates by locals.
Rather than giving you a list of popular sights and itineraries, we focus on practical information to help you prepare your own authentic and independent adventure in the Arabian peninsula for 15-25$ a day.
The Gulf countries have arguably lost much of their soul between the skyscrapers and air-conditioned malls. Not so in Oman. The Sultanate admirably finds a balance between culture, tradition and modernity. Add to that the highest mountains of the peninsula, lush oases, lonely beaches and sandy deserts. And a very visitor-friendly atmosphere. This is the Arabia of our childhood dreams. And surprisingly affordable for budget travelers if you follow the tips in this guide.
Visas For Oman
Gulf Cooperation Council countries don’t need a visa for Oman. Otherwise, more than 70 nationalities can get a single entry eVisa online, valid for 10 or 30 days. The fee is 5 and 20 OMR respectively. Another 25 nationalities can also apply if they hold a Schengen, US, UK, Australian or Canadian visa. There is also a 50 OMR 1 year multiple-entry tourist visa, with each stay lasting 30 days.
The old visa on arrival has been officially abolished. In reality you can still get one at both land and air borders, but this could change without notice. Best to play it safe with the eVisa.
Regular tourist visas can be extended once for the same duration and fee. This can theoretically be done by the Royal Oman Police in any major city. But in practice your best chances of success seem to be the Visa Cancellation offices at the Departures of Muscat airport.
Finally, there is the elusive joint visa facility with Dubai. If you are eligible for a visa-free entry to the Emirate of Dubai, you might be able to claim a 21 day non-extendable free visa to Oman. But first, you have to enter the UAE at Dubai airport. Other emirates or Dubai port doesn’t work. Second, you have to cross into Oman at the Al-Wajajah border only. Third, you need an immigration officer in a good mood.
Entering The Country
Muscat Airport. You can regularly find affordable flights to Muscat with the national carrier, Oman Air, and the Omani low-cost carrier Salam Air. Budget airline Pegasus flies to Istanbul, and IndiGo and Spicejet to India. Comfortable Mwasalat city buses take you into town. Avoid the overpriced taxi ride.
UAE. State-owned Mwasalat runs 3 buses a day from Dubai to Muscat over the Al-Wajajah border. It takes between 6 and 8 hours depending on traffic and delays at the border. Buy your ticket at least a few hours in advance to secure a seat. Catch a cheap onward flight from Dubai, or the ferry to Iran. As of November 2019, it’s also possible to enter the UAE overland from Saudi Arabia with the brand new tourist eVisa.
If you are planning to hire a vehicle in the UAE and drive to Oman, check first with the rental agency. Vehicles usually need extra insurance to cross the border, making this an expensive proposition. Often it is much cheaper to take the bus and rent a vehicle in Muscat.
Saudi Arabia. A brand new border crossing opened at Ramiat Khaliya at the end of 2019. Officially you can only exit the Kingdom on one of the new tourist e visas, although this is likely to change soon.
Public Transportation In Oman
General considerations. In Oman the car is king. There are a few public buses in and around Muscat and between major cities. Shared taxis also ply the major routes. But for anywhere further afield you will have to rely on hitchhiking. Or bite the bullet and rent a car.
Buses. Muscat has a growing network of brand new city air-conditioned city buses. The routes are well integrated with Google Maps, but the schedules somewhat erratic. The stops are often a long way from your actual destination, but it’s better than nothing.
State-owned Mwasalat runs most intercity buses and the service to Dubai. A few private companies also operate between Muscat, Salalah and a handful of bigger cities. All Mwasalat buses originate at the new terminal. The parking at Al-Sahwah is the informal hub for the private bus companies in Muscat and a major stop for all Mwasalat busses heading South or West.
Shared taxi. In Muscat shared taxis and minivans ply the highway 1 / Sultan Qaboos Street. Fares should not be much higher than the public buses. Always agree on a price before entering the vehicle.
Shared taxis also link the bigger cities. In Muscat they mainly start from the Al-Sahwah parking. Again, you shouldn’t pay much more than a Mwasalat bus ticket. In other cities, ask the locals for the shared taxi stand. It’s usually a car park or bus shelter on the outskirts of the city.
Transportation In Oman:
Licensed cabs are all white and orange. And they are not exactly cheap for a budget traveler. As a guideline, for intercity rides in Muscat multiply the Mwasalat bus price by 4-5. The more Western you look, the harder you will have to bargain. Starting to walk away usually does the trick.
In Muscat, if you have a local mobile number, the OTAxi app is a good alternative. If you are seriously considering hiring a private taxi more than once of twice, it is much more economical to rent a car.
boats & Ferries
The Musandam peninsula is an exclave best reached by ferry. There is also a road from Ras Al-Khaima in the UAE to Khasab. But if you choose that way you will need a new or multiple entry visa. State-operated NFC sails daily between Shinas, Khasab, Lima and Dibba. To reach the smaller villages along the coast you can try to find a local boat going there and hitch a ride or negotiate your passage for a few rials.
Transportation In Oman:
Hitchhiking is relatively easy outside of Muscat. Getting out of Muscat is the hardest part. However, around popular destinations locals are starting to get used to tourists. They might offer you taxi services at inflated prices, so it’s best to make your intentions clear.
In remote rural areas locals are very happy to assist a visitor. It’s not uncommon to receive an invitation for tea. Tourists too might have a spare seat in their 4WD. The main problem is that you often have to wait a while for someone to pass by. Bring enough water!
Transportation In Oman:
General Considerations. Surfaced roads are generally in excellent condition. Fuel prices are fixed by the government and relatively cheap. Omanis are very civilized drivers compared to some Gulf countries. Beware of flash floods when it rains in the mountains. Even highways are regularly affected. Drivers tend to flash their hazard lights when there is livestock on or near the road.
Long Term Vs Short Term. Rental prices drop sharply after a few days and become attractive if you are staying a few weeks. Monthly rentals start at the equivalent of 10-15 USD a day. Shared between 2-4 people that’s hard to beat. Keep in mind that most rentals in Oman come with a daily mileage limit that varies between agencies.
4 Wheel Drive. There’s no doubt, a 4WD opens up a lot of opportunities. Some mountain roads and beaches are not accessible to sedans. The book Oman Off Road has become somewhat of a reference. But a 4WD rental isn’t cheap. If you are 4 sharing a vehicle it can still work out. Otherwise, you can get to most places in a regular vehicle. Budget travelers will opt for a sedan and hitchhike or walk the final part when needed. Sedans are usually not covered by insurance if you venture on unsealed roads.
Local Agencies. They often offer excellent weekly and monthly deals on their website. Some will happily confirm this over the phone. However, once at the office it is not uncommon for conditions, vehicle and even the final price to change dramatically. When doing the bidding of the big brands at the airport, they seem more reliable. However, don’t lower your guard. Read the small print, and check online reviews beforehand.
Budget Accomodation In Oman
General Considerations. Accommodation in Oman is very expensive, with very little under 50 USD a night. There are a few active Couchsurfing hosts in Muscat. But outside it’s difficult to find a couch. Similarly, AirBnB lists a few attractive options in and around Muscat. But that’s it. Therefore, renting a car and systematically camping becomes by far the most comfortable budget option.
Camping. You can pitch your tent in incredibly scenic places. On lonely beaches, between sand dunes, in the Hajar mountains. You’d miss out on a lot if you’d travel all the way to Oman without a lightweight tent.
Many Omanis were nomadic a generation or two ago. It’s still in their blood. As a general rule, you can camp almost anywhere outside of cities. Even in the hills just behind Muscat.
Omani Cuisine is a delicious mix of Arab, Mediterranean, Indian and African influences. Most dishes are rice based, with chicken, lamb or fish. Real traditional food is hard to find outside Omani homes. If you are invited, say yes!
Vegetarians. Traditional Omani food features a lot of meat. But overall vegetarians and vegans have it easy. Between Indian and Middle-Eastern classics there is plenty of choice. Hummus, falafel, baba ghanoush, veg biryani, just name it.
Indian Restaurants And Coffee Shops. Workers from the Indian sub-continent do most of the hard labor in Oman. You will also find them running small coffee shops and restaurants even in remote villages. These are great places for a cheap snack or cup of tea. A gigantic plate of biryani with salad will cost you less than 2 USD in local currency in the Ruwi neighborhood of Muscat.
Supermarkets have almost totally replaced smaller shops across the country. The big Lulu supermarkets are usually the cheapest, and a good place to stock up on supplies if you have a vehicle. You can find virtually anything.
Drink. Traditional Arabic coffee, qahwa, is flavored with cardamon and served with dates. Black tea is also very popular.
It’s possible to buy alcohol at upmarket bars and restaurants, mainly in Muscat. But it’s pricey. There are also a few liquor stores, but you need a special license. The laws surrounding consumption are quite strict. You can’t bring alcohol into the country at land borders.
Sustainable Travel In Oman
The average visitor to Oman doesn’t fare well on the sustainability front. There are however ways to improve:
- Don’t rent a 4WD. Take public transportation when possible. If you do rent a car, share a sedan, and hitch the final few kilometers when a jeep is really needed. Pick up hitchhikers to further reduce your footprint.
- Refill your water bottles. Finding drinking water dispensers is not hard.
- At the supermarket, reuse your bags or use a cardboard box. You will have to insist, but you will save large quantities of plastic bags that way.
- Favor the rare local produce. Alternatively, Pakistan and Egypt are still much closer than Chile or New Zealand.
Drinking Water. Tap water in the coastal cities comes from desalinization plants. Fortunately, you can regularly fill up your bottles at public water dispensers. There is usually one at or near the entrance of mosques. Likewise, you will find them at petrol stations. And randomly towards the center of many villages. Sometimes the taste is poor, in which case you might want to bring an activated charcoal filter.
In the mountains the water comes often from natural springs. You might still want to use a water purification system, particularly if there is livestock nearby.
Oman is a peaceful and safe country. There really isn’t much to worry about. Beware of flash floods in the mountains. A shower, even far away, can transform a dry river bed in a raging river in a matter of seconds.
Religion. The majority of Omani are Ibadi Muslims. The Ibadi branch of Islam predates the Sunni-Shia split, and has some unique views. While being a conservative movement, Ibadis are also very tolerant towards other cultures and religions. This can give the false impression that tourists can do whatever they want. Indeed Omanis are extremely polite and will rarely say anything if offended. But respect and a modicum of modesty are essential in such a context.
Dress. Omanis still wear the traditional dress, the white Dishdasha and Omani cap for men and the black Abbaya for women. For visitors, it’s much more relaxed. However, it’s still a good idea to keep shoulders and knees covered. In more conservative areas such as Nizwa long trousers and skirts are advised. Opt for loose clothing, and women should avoid low cut tops. Swim suits are ok at remote and private beaches, but not near rural villages.
Guest Workers. Nationals from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka do most of the construction, restaurant, fishing and farming work. They often have to walk long distances along the road under the scorching sun. If you have a vehicle and have enjoyed their hospitality in their home country, this is a rare opportunity to give back. Offer them a ride or a cold drink!
Omani speak their own dialect of Gulf Arabic. Most younger Omanis also speak excellent English, making the country very tourist friendly. However, learning basic formal greetings in Arabic is a mark of respect and should be the minimum for any traveler wishing to visit the country. Learning to read road signs in Arabic can also be extremely useful when asking for directions or hitchhiking. Transliteration into English often changes the pronunciation, confusing native speakers.
Public Wifi is only sporadically available in upmarket cafés, restaurant and hotels. Outside of Muscat and other touristic locations your best bet is the mobile network.
Omantel has by far the best coverage. Don’t have high expectations in the wilderness. But most towns will at least have decent 3G coverage. You can get a SIM card at the airport or any branch upon showing your passport.
The Omantel tourist pack cost 5 OMR for 4 GB data, but is only valid for 10 days. If you are staying longer a better option is to get a regular prepaid SIM card for 2 OMR. This includes 1 OMR credit and 1.5 GB bonus data valid for 10 days. Add the 30 day validity data plan that suits your needs, starting at 3 OMR for 500 MB.
Money & Budget
Cards. Omanis use credit and debit cards for most purchases. You too can use plastic to purchase food, fuel, pay for car rental and intercity bus tickets. Just make sure that your financial provider doesn’t charge you for foreign currency transactions.
Cash. Some cash is handy for purchases in small shops and restaurants. Also for Muscat city buses, shared taxis and entrance fees. Most ATMs accept foreign cards. This is your best option if your bank doesn’t charge you any ATM fees or foreign currency markups. Alternatively, there are a lot of currency exchange bureaus because of the large number of foreign workers. The rates on major currencies are generally good. You usually find them in bigger cities and shopping malls. Unimoni, formerly known as UAE Exchange, has competitive rates and branches all over the country.
Budget. So how much do you need? By far the most comfortable budget strategy is to rent a sedan between two or more and systematically camp for free. If you stick to self-catering with the occasional cheap restaurant you can get away with 15-25 US dollars a day, plus the visa. If that’s still too much, consider filling the car with 4 people, or switch to hitchhiking, which could bring your budget down to 10 bucks a day.