The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was a mystery until 2019. The world viewed Saudi Arabia as a country that only opened its doors to pilgrims seeking Hajj and Umrah trips or special tour parties. It was the dawn of September 27th, 2019 that changed everything. Saudis announced the issuance of an electronic tourist visa for more than 49 countries worldwide.

KSA is a strong religious country. As a Muslim, I have no restrictions on travelling to any part of the country. On the contrary, non-Muslims are not allowed to enter Mecca and Medina. The laws regarding Medina have been eased a bit since 2021, and non-Muslims can enter the city and go up to the Prophet’s Mosque’s perimeter. I would still suggest to my non-Muslim readers to check the latest rules, as the punishments are severe for breaking local laws.

This guide discusses how you can backpack across Saudi Arabia without spending too much. I will share my experiences and walk you through different tips that’ll help you save a lot of money. So, let’s start our journey.

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A First-hand Account of My Backpacking Trip in Saudi Arabia

Religious Duties First: Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina

I travelled to Saudi Arabia last year in December. I picked December for two particular reasons. Firstly, the weather is very nice and the mercury stays between 9°C and 29°C. This is somehow best for Londoners, as we can’t bear the too-hot summer in the Kingdom.

The second reason was local holidays. I decided to make the most of my off days and planned a 10-day trip to the mystic land. I arrived at Jeddah airport and took a train from the megacity to Mecca. I performed Umrah right away and started looking for cheap hostels. I was lucky enough to find a 10-pound per-night hotel. I stayed there for 2 nights, and honestly, it was not too bad. The only hard luck I had was my roommate’s stinky feet, but luckily I had my deodorant with me.

It felt a bit awkward getting my head shaved after Umrah because I love my long hair, but when duty calls, you oblige. Shaving your head is an essential ritual of Umrah. Female pilgrims are only required to cut their hair for 1-2 inches.

Once my 2-day stay at Mecca was over, I planned on getting to Medina. I had the option and finances to travel by train, but I decided to hitchhike to experience the real Saudi life. I got a ride until Mecca’s last point. Here, I waited for an hour or two before I finally found a 4×4 SUV going to Medina. The total distance from Mecca to Medina is around 4 hours and 30 minutes. I was lucky enough to find two Pakistani expat brothers who worked in the Kingdom.

The trip was smooth, they drove nicely, and I didn’t get to live my nightmare of being in a SUV driven at 180 KM/HR on two side wheels. Soon, the city of Medina dawned upon me. The brothers lived there, and it was great of them to offer me tea at their place, which I gladly accepted because the hunger pangs in my stomach. While paying my regards and saying goodbye, I asked them about a good place where I could stay a night without breaking the bank. They gladly shared a hostel’s name, which offered excellent bedding and breakfast at affordable rates. So, I headed there right away and booked my slot. Then I went to explore the city and visited the holy mosque. I tried some local street food there, which was too delicious and amazing.

The next day, I decided to move to my next destination, Jeddah. All my time in Mecca and Medina, I had one question in my mind: how can someone perform Umrah and visit the holy cities without too much hassle? I then realized that many people hire an Umrah Travel Agency that takes care of everything for them. The Umrah deals from such companies include flights, hotels, guided tours, and Mecca-to-Medina transportation.

The Majestic Jeddah

I checked train ticket prices from Medina to Jeddah. The lowest price I got was around 70 pounds. This was too much for me, so I decided to hitchhike from Medina to Jeddah again. The journey was not too smooth this time as I had to switch 3-4 rides. This time I got the taste of crazy Saudi driving famous all over the world.

I covered a distance of 4 hours in 8 hours, but I saved a handsome amount of money that I spent on living and food for the next three days in Jeddah. Jeddah is a commercial hub and a true reflection of modern-day Saudi Arabia. The megacity is lined with high-end hotels, beautiful beaches, and various sculptures that show the country’s history and culture.

I started my tour with Al-Balad, a historic town dating back to the 7th century that has homes built with coral. Then I explored King Fahad’s Fountain and took some amazing pictures. The other attractions I visited were Red Sea Mall, Jeddah Corniche, Mall of Arabia, Fakieh Aquarium (an underwater aquarium), Silver Sands Beach, and Al Rahma Mosque. The most notable and costly activity was a desert safari on a quad bike.

My 3-day stay in the city was as entertaining and adrenaline-kicking as a visit to any top tourist attraction in the world. I used a local taxi service and hitchhiked to get to my destinations. If you are visiting this city, make sure you chalk out the activities you want to do and arrange them in a sequence so you don’t have to traverse through the city’s corners.

Back to Opulent Riyadh

Riyadh and Jeddah are almost 10 road hours away, and the journey can be quite tough if you decide to hitchhike. Moreover, foreign travelers may get uncomfortable looking for rides in the deserts and unknown lands. So, it is better to take a flight and travel conveniently. The flight takes around 1 hour and 40 minutes, so it is the best option for foreigners, especially if you are coming from Europe or North America.

The flight from Jeddah to Riyadh took a major share of my total trip expenses, but there was no other option. Riyadh can get extremely costly as there are plenty of luxury hotels to stay in and fancy places to dine out. On the contrary, you can also find cheap hostels and places for backpackers that offer rooms on a shared basis. The street food options are also limitless and offer affordable, authentic Saudi cuisine.

The official Saudi tourism site mentions Riyadh as “a city of ancient history and modern dynamism.” I found it no different. You can experience the country’s history at the National Museum and enjoy the modern Riyadh at the Kingdom Centre Tower. Then you can go on a desert safari or enjoy the architectural marvel in the shape of Al Nakheel Mall.

The nightlife in Riyadh is not as extensive as Dubai, but there are a few options you can enjoy. There is Syrup (a karaoke bar), Comedy Pod, and MDBLEAST. Alcoholic drinks are generally banned in the Kingdom, but they have opened a liquor store in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter. The store only supplies liquor to non-Muslims and has strict quotas.

The Wrap-Up: A Few Budget Trips

I enjoyed my time at KSA a lot. Here are some tips that can help you save a lot of money while backpacking.

  • Purchase tickets at least 4-5 months before you plan to travel. I always use SkyScanner or Kiwi to book my tickets.
  • Don’t forget to search for backpacker-friendly places in the cities you plan to stay. There is no shortage of them, but you need some time to find out the best ones.
  • If you are planning to change your backpacking to a working holiday, there are both good and bad parts to it. The bad part is that you need a sponsor to get a work visa, and you can’t leave the country without your sponsor’s signature. So, stay humble if you get a job, as falling out with your sponsor may create problems for you. The good part: there are a lot of vacancies for westerners, especially in teaching, and Saudis pay very well.
  • Hitchhiking is fun; locals stop immediately or even take U-turns to get back when they see westerners, but it can be dangerous as Saudi drivers are crazy. I experienced this myself during my hitchhiking adventures.
  • Saudi cuisine is amazing, and the most delicious food is found at small shops instead of lavish restaurants. I tried a few of the upscale places, but they were no match for the roadside eateries.
  • For all Muslims looking to perform Umrah and travel to top tourist places in the country without hitchhiking or finding hotels, pre-made packages are an excellent option. These packages come in different variations like 3-star, 4-star and 5-star Umrah packages. The variations allow people to select the best package as per their budget and preferences.