Budget Slow Travel Guide
To Saudi Arabia
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, for 20-25$ a day.
Why Saudi Arabia?
Let’s be honest. If it’s your first visit to the Arabian peninsula and you want a comfortable, straight-forward journey, Oman is a better bet. But for the seasoned traveler, a surprisingly diverse, rapidly changing and at times highly contradictory country awaits.
Saudi Arabia, the forbidden kingdom of old, is finally opening up to foreign visitors. And therein lies it’s main appeal. Being one of the very first tourists to be allowed to roam freely in the heart of the Arabian peninsula is a privilege. And an opportunity to confront many preconceived notions.
Visa Policy For Saudi Arabia
The brand-new tourist e visa, also available on arrival, is available to citizens of the US, Canada, the EU plus several other European states, the UK, Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Singapore, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. More countries should gradually join the list over the next year. And under certain conditions, holders of valid Shengen, US and UK visas are eligible too.
Mecca and Medina remain off-limit to non-muslims.
The tourist visa follows a scheme similar to Shengen, with a standard validity of 1 year, multiple entries and a maximum stay of 90 days for every 180 day period. Nevertheless, this generous system comes with a hefty price tag, at around 125 USD in local currency. Evidence of travel to Israel and Iran are NOT a problem, we can personally confirm this.
After a complicated and protracted birth, the e visa process has been sped up dramatically. Ours was approved within minutes. Especially if traveling overland, this is still the best option over a visa on arrival.
Entering The Country
By Air. Because of the large influx of foreign workers and pilgrims, Saudi Arabia has lots of cheap flights from neighboring countries, South Asia and beyond.
Most visitors will opt for flights to Jeddah or Riyadh. Dammam (and by extension, Bahrain) are the other official ports of entry, in the East of the kingdom. Check out low-cost Saudi carrier flynas for cheap flights. Pegasus, operating out of its Istanbul hub, also has regularly attractive offers.
By Sea. A regular ferry sails from Port Sudan to Jeddah, opening up interesting overland itineraries. Officially, tourist visa holders may not enter the country by sea. However, there is anecdotal evidence that a few foreigners successfully managed to get in. It’s likely that this option, perhaps along the Safaga-Duba crossing from Egypt, eventually end up on the official list of ports of entry.
By Land. The causeway from Bahrain and the Al Batha crossing from the UAE are open to visitors traveling overland. Again, a few backpackers are rumored to have slipped through the Jordanian border. It’s possible that authorities are more lenient when it comes to leaving the country. But don’t count on it. SAPTCO runs regular buses along these international routes.
Public Transportation & Taxis
In Saudi Arabia
General Considerations. Public transportation in Saudi Arabia has a loooong way to go. It could be a potentially interesting alternative to driving huge distances. But once you arrive at your destination, your choices invariably boil down to the same 3 options: renting a car, hitching a ride or hiring a taxi. And cyclists, forget about it. You’d probably die. Seriously.
Domestic Flights. Relatively affordable and far too popular, due to the size of the country. With a smart itinerary they are easily avoided.
Train. Saudi Arabia completed 3 prestige high-speed rail projects. The Mecca-Medina railway is off-limits to non-Muslims, and the Al Jauf and Dammam lines to Riyadh are of little use to most travelers.
Intercity Buses. State-run SAPTCO plies the routes between all major cities. Tickets are affordable, but generally there is no local public onward transportation once at your destination, forcing you to once more take a taxi or hitch.
Taxis. Expensive and best avoided. Negotiating a fare should be cheaper than using the meter, but as a foreigner results may vary. If you are forced to hail a cab, ride-share apps Uber and Careem work well in the bigger cities.
Local Transportation. Riyadh, and to a lesser extend Jeddah, have ambitious metro and feeder bus network projects at various stages of completion. It looks good on paper, but as long as crossing a road remains suicidal for a pedestrian this will not be a practical solution.
Transportation In Saudi Arabia:
Car Rental & Hitchhiking
Car Rental. The key to (relatively) comfortable budget travel in Saudi Arabia, if you play it right and split the costs between 2 or more. An international drivers license is theoretically required, but airport agencies tend to turn a blind eye.
Local companies are used to foreign corporate clients with deep pockets. And are experts at hidden costs and extra charges. They also do the bidding of big international brands. Do your homework. Read ALL the small print. Check the reviews. Deals on sedans start at the equivalent of approximately 20 USD a day.
Fuel is cheap and roads are good. Most rentals are limited to 200 kilometers a day, and Saudi Arabia is a huge country. Plan accordingly. A sedan will get you to most places. Careful driving allows you to navigate some unsurfaced roads in the desert. However, rental insurance explicitly doesn’t cover this. If you get stuck in the sand, a Bedouin cum pick-up truck is never far!
Road Safety. “Driving is a thing here” our Saudi friend mentioned. He forgot to add the word “reckless”. Testosterone-fueled overtaking (or undertaking) on narrow country roads regularly occurs at speeds in excess of 160 kmh / 100 mph. Abruptly cutting 3 lanes of traffic for no apparent reason is totally cool, too. Speed cameras do exist, and even work sporadically, but the speed limit is more of a suggestion.
Especially on undivided highways, you have to constantly veer off onto the hard shoulder to yield to overtaking traffic. Mr Speedracer can appear from behind, obviously, but also pull out suddenly from behind an incoming vehicle. Or both simultaneously.
Hitchhiking. Saudi drivers also tend to be very helpful, and you shouldn’t have to wait for long for a ride. However, the local driving habits make it a life-threatening endeavor. And remember at all times that the hard shoulder is considered a driving lane.
For your safety, favor a stretch of road with a speed bump or a sharp bend. Service stations are good too. Stick your arm out to signal you are seeking a ride. Be prepared for a no seat belt, death defying high speed adventure.
In Saudi Arabia
General Considerations. Vision 2030, the main driver behind the new visa scheme, aims for luxury tourism. Fortunately, the cunning budget traveler has a few options too.
Apartment Hotels. This typically Saudi concept includes a kitchenette, and generally offers decent value. Especially for a small, self-catering group. Prices start at the equivalent of around 20 USD in local currency, but most venues are rather uninspiring. Many are listed on booking.com.
Couchsurfing/Spontaneous Invitations. Hospitality is deeply ingrained in the Arab culture, with some unique Saudi twists. There is an active Couchsurfing scene in the bigger cities, especially in Jeddah. Elsewhere, you will regularly bump into curious and welcoming individuals. Invitations for tea and more invariably follow.
These priceless opportunities give a rare glimpse into the rather inaccessible heart of Kingdom’s society, the family. You would miss out by only staying in hotels.
Camping. Bedouin nomads still herd their camels in the desert, although tents have often been replaced by truly gigantic trailers, complete with 6 aircon units and pulled by a truck.
You too can camp for free pretty much anywhere in the desert. In small municipalities, that applies to parks too. Many have basic facilities. Families and (male) youngsters come for picnics, and sometimes stay for the night.
Restaurants & Coffee Shops. Restaurants in big cities aren’t exactly cheap. However, the nascent cafe scene, an offspring of the recent liberalization of the Kingdom, deserves a mention. At least as an interesting social phenomenon. Elsewhere, you will only find uninspiring fast food franchises and drive-thru coffee shops.
Nevertheless, the occasional Pakistani or Indian restaurant could offer a welcome change. But menus are not as attractively priced as their Omani counterparts.
Self-Catering. Large supermarket dot the country, and sell everything from local (deliciously juicy) dates to Thai curry paste. Panda stores tend to have lower prices and more local produce, for what it’s worth.
Traditional Food & Drink. Typical local dishes vary a lot between regions, but are rarely served outside of someone’s home. Rice, meat and spices are heavily featured, as well as fish along the coast. Traditional Arabic qahwa is made from green coffee beans and cardamon pods, freshly ground in front of the guest. No sugar is added, but dates are always offered.
Vegetarian. Self-catering travelers will have no problems whatsoever. In educated Saudi families, the concept of a meat-free diet isn’t totally alien either. However, if you are invited in a more rural setting, you will be offered copious amounts of meat as the guest of honor.
Off The Beaten Path
& Slow Travel
If there will ever be something resembling a tourist circuit in Saudi Arabia, it will encompass Riyadh, Jeddah, Al ‘Ula and perhaps a few poorly renovated historical sites further South.
Take Rijal Alma, with its stunning architecture reminiscent of Yemen. After pouring much money into turning the central area into a luxury hotel with colorful facades, the project lies unfinished. Presumably the money ran out. Around the corner, the rest of the village crumbles away.
The good news is that there is an incredible wealth of untouched alternatives, from ancient towers to mysterious deserted hamlets. It’s an open invitation to get lost on purpose, explore and renew with the pleasure of being surprised.
Slow travel in a country where people rarely venture more than a hundred yards away from their vehicle is challenging. But not impossible. Instead of just driving around the country, here are a few suggestions:
- If you are a rock climber, bring your gear. The Saudi Climbing And Hiking Federation has, under the patronage of a prince, equipped 2 crags with over 100 well-bolted routes. The local scene is small but extremely enthusiastic, and a great way to meet locals.
- The same federation is also promoting hiking, with regular outings and a fledgling network of trails. It’s not exactly multi-day trekking material yet, but it’s a start.
- Snorkeling/free diving along the Red Sea, more specifically the Gulf of Aqaba. Untouched coral reefs and free beach side camping, without the crowds you might have grown accustomed to in Egypt. Go there quickly before Neom floods the area with concrete and skycrapers.
In Saudi Arabia
Per capita carbon dioxide emissions and water consumption are among the highest in the world. Even with best intentions and a big effort, a trip to the Kingdom will leave a significant footprint.
- Flying in and out of Saudi Arabia (or nearby UAE and Bahrain) is hard to avoid. However, internal flights can be reduced and even eliminated with a smart itinerary. Or replaced by a strategic bus ride.
- Saudi Arabia is huuuuge. Focusing on a smaller area will help reduce your mileage. As a bonus you won’t spend days behind the wheel driving through the desert. Less is more.
- Not wanting your shopping wrapped in two dozen plastic bags is still a totally alien concept. Finding an empty cardboard box and filling it with your grocery at check-out triggered the least resistance by supermarket staff.
- Buying bottled drinking water is almost unavoidable. If you have a car, buy the big 16-20 liter jugs. You might even be able to refill them with spring water in the mountains.
- Some fresh local produce is available, especially at the bigger Hyper Panda supermarkets. And very rarely, at road-side stalls.
- لا شكرا (“laa, shukkran”): no, thank you (to turn down something)
- دون كيس (“bedun kis”): without bag
Water comes either from rapidly-depleting aquifers or desalinization plants. For the latter, especially along the coast, reverse osmosis stations are sometimes available. Otherwise bottled water might be your only option.
In the mountains, the water often comes from deep wells and is of excellent quality, although filtering it is not a bad idea. If in doubt, ask the foreign workers toiling under the sun. They can’t afford fancy Nestle plastic bottles and know where to find safe drinking water.
Toilets. Public toilets are in short supply. Fast food restaurants, shopping malls, public parks and mosques are good places to look for if you are in a city.
Women. Saudi Arabia remains a safe place for women. With draconian laws and the pride of the monarchy at stakes, it’s unlikely that anything would happen to a tourist, even to a solo traveler. However, with a public sphere totally dominated by men, it’s easy to feel extremely uncomfortable. You can spend days in the countryside without spying a single female soul. And the tension in the gaze of deprived young men is palpable. Especially when they slowly drive by in their pick-up trucks. It’s something to be aware of.
Dealing With Authorities. Local policemen don’t mind a good ‘ol fashioned power trip once in a while. However, the entire population was recently instructed to be nice to the new tourists. Hand over your tourist visa, you will most probably be immediately waived through check points with a big smile.
Traffic Accidents. The statistics speak for themselves, with one of the highest death tolls in the world. If you end up behind the wheel, stay alert.
Dress. The public decency code has been relaxed for tourists, but “modesty” is still required. For men, that translates to pretty much anything as long as shoulders remain covered. Shorts are totally OK. Women, on the contrary, should have legs and arms covered with loose-fitting clothes. However, the abaya, the traditional Saudi cloak, is not mandatory anymore for tourists. The hijab isn’t, and never was, obligatory.
In practice, female visitors will find that wearing an abaya allows them to blend in more easily in public. It can even be considered as a mark of solidarity with our Saudi sisters who don’t have the luxury of choice. A new wave of more colorful designs are gradually replacing the plain black model, and are available in most shopping malls.
Moral Police. Now entirely powerless. So you can relax if you accidentally transgress the dress code.
Opening Hours. Shops have to close during prayer time. Some supermarkets enforce a sort of lock-in, but most places simply kick you out. During Ramadan many shops are shut or have limited daytime opening hours. Get one of the many Saudi prayer time apps to have a better idea of exact times.
Eating. Always exclusively use your right hand if sharing a big traditional communal dish with your host.
Couples. Tourists will not be asked for proof of marriage anymore if booking a night in a hotel. It’s still easier to always say that you are married if asked, as the notion of having a boyfriend/girlfriend remains a taboo.
Male Travelers. Restaurants and other public spaces are gradually removing the family/male only segregation. If in doubt, always head over to the space where all the guys are. Shopping malls should now let a lone male tourist enter.
Invitations. A gift is customary if you are invited. Something exotic, ideally from your home country, will go a long way.
Most Saudi speak at least functional English to communicate with foreign workers. Many who have studied abroad are fluent and surprisingly westernized. Road signs are bilingual, except sometimes in the South. In fact, English seems like the second official language of the Kingdom at times.
Learning basic Arabic greetings is easy and will be appreciated by your hosts. Learning the script is not necessary in Saudi Arabia, although still an interesting endeavor.
Wifi is available in many restaurants and cafes. But then again, there aren’t many restaurants and cafes outside big cities. And you still have to navigate prayer times. Best to get a local SIM card.
Mobile Internet. 4G coverage is good across populated areas, with state-owned STC providing the best coverage. Data isn’t cheap, though. Any mobile shop can issue a SIM within minutes. Bring your passport. Your fingerprint and registration number (written upon entry in your passport) are required.
Money & Budget
Cash & Inflation. Most ATMs, supermarkets, bigger shops and gas stations accept foreign cards. Make sure yours doesn’t charge any extra fees and foreign currency mark-ups. Check out our article about beading those pesky fees while traveling here.
A small back-up in local currency is advised, as some small gas stations, rural shops and roadside stalls only accept cash.
Budget. If you find a good car rental deal shared between 2, camp for free most of the time and rely on self-catering, 20-25$ a day is perfectly possible, without the visa fee.