Saturday, September 18, 2021

How To Travel Around Saudi Arabia

AsiaSaudi ArabiaHow To Travel Around Saudi Arabia

Internal travel permits are a thing of the past. So once you arrive in Saudi Arabia, the country is open to you. However, there are three exceptions:

  • Many archaeological sites around the country, such as Madain Saleh, require permits. The National Museum in Riyadh issues these free of charge, but you should apply for them at least one week in advance.
  • The area around Makkah and Madinah is off-limits to non-Muslims; conversely, those on a Hajj visa are forbidden to leave the area (and transit points such as Jeddah). The restricted zone is well signposted.
  • Some remote areas, especially on the Iraqi and Yemeni borders, are restricted military areas. It is extremely unlikely that you will stumble into these areas by chance.

By plane

Saudi Arabia is a large country, which makes flying the only convenient means of long-distance travel. State-owned airline Saudia has the best schedules, with almost hourly flights on the busy Riyadh-Jeddah route (90 minutes) and a cheap one-way fare of SAR 280 (280 Saudi riyals or about US$75 or USD75). Low-cost competitor Nas can be even cheaper if you book in advance, but their schedules are sparser, changes cost money and there is no meal on board.

By train

The railway network in Saudi Arabia is severely underdeveloped. There is only one line running between Riyadh, Al-Hofuf and Dammam, but it is still the only passenger train connection in the entire Gulf. There are plans to extend the network to Jeddah and to build a Makkah-Madinah connection in the next few years.

The trains are operated by the Saudi Railways Organization and have 3 classes: Second, First and the delightfully named Rehab. The first and second classes are very similar, with air-conditioning and two-person seating, but the first has a few centimetres more legroom. Rehab (VIP) class, on the other hand, has plush leather seats, flat-screen TVs on the roof showing Arabic entertainment, and fancy waiting lounges at stations. There are no reserved seats, so arrive early to get yours, and be aware that in most carriages, the forward-facing seats at the front of the carriage are reserved for families. The trains have a cafeteria car that serves drinks and snacks, as well as a push trolley service.

A ticket from Riyadh to Dammam costs SR60/75/120 in Second/First/Rehab. There are four trains per day in both directions and the journey takes 4-5 hours. (Note that the timetables on the SRO website are out of date (as of May 2008)). It is advisable to buy tickets in advance as the trains are often sold out. You can reserve tickets by calling the service centre in Dammam (+966 3 827 4000) and then pick them up at the nearest station 24 hours before departure.

By car

Car rental is available and petrol is one of the cheapest in the world. The quality of motorways varies greatly, except for those connecting major cities, which are generally excellent. However, there are important reasons to think twice about car rental. The country has some of the highest accident rates in the world. Accidents are not uncommon, and if a visitor is involved in an accident, they are exposed to the extremely punitive Saudi legal system; see the warnings about this elsewhere on this page. Note also that any accident involving a foreigner and a Saudi national is automatically considered the fault of the foreigner under Saudi law, regardless of whose fault it actually is.

If you are involved in a car accident, everyone involved must stay where they are and wait for the traffic police (call 993) to show up, which can take up to four hours. It is unlikely that the police will speak English, even in big cities, so try to use the waiting time to arrange for a translator. The police will issue an accident report, which you must take to the traffic police station and have stamped several times in different queues (this takes almost the whole morning). Only then can any damage to the car be repaired, as the insurance companies will not pay for any bodywork without this report.

It is not uncommon for the traffic police to settle the incident on the spot by determining who was at fault and setting a compensation. So if it is your fault, the police will ask you to pay an amount to the other party – but you are not obliged to do so.

Currently, access to car rental services is restricted to men aged 21 and over. Women cannot drive or cycle on public roads.

By taxi

Within the cities, taxis are the only practical means of transport. Standardized throughout the country, prices start at SR 5 and rise to SR 1.60/km, but outside Riyadh you often have to haggle over the price in advance. Solo travelers are expected to sit in the front next to the driver: This has the advantage that they sit right next to the air conditioning and it is easier to wave your hands to show the way.