Are you going to Saudi Arabia as a female solo traveler? You made a good choice. It may not be on everyone’s list, but truly worth a trip. So here I share my experience of how it felt like traveling in this conservative country. It was beyond the bounds of possible destinations because of their strict visa rules. Before, only business trips and invitations from residents were allowed to enter KSA. So when they announced the tourist visa in 2019, I thought it was about time to explore the country.
But why for God’s sake am I interested in this country? Well, I find Saudi Arabia a fascinating country, and it has been on my bucket list for some time.
Is Saudi Arabia Safe for a solo female traveler?
No countries are safe. A woman alone in a foreign place is always vulnerable. And that is what concerns me as a female traveler as I had one bad experience in years of traveling and avoiding a repeat. I haven’t felt unsafe during my trip to Saudi Arabia, but I was cautious in my surrounding. There was a part of Riyadh where I was staying, I didn’t go out anymore when it was dark, but I have no problem in other areas. It’s just one thing to be aware of, as a solo female traveler to Saudi Arabia, you get lots of attention from men.
Even dressed modestly or wearing an abaya (long robe), you can’t steer clear of it. And sometimes very annoying if you walk on the street during the day you are followed by taxis or other vehicles. But I don’t pay attention, and the worst thing is that some people don’t take NO for answers until you get frustrated. Stay calm and take a deep breath and continue walking. They get tired of following you if you ignore them.
What to wear as women In Saudi Arabia
You can wear whatever you want as a female tourist. But remember, it is a very conservative country by Western standards. Dress modestly and avoid revealing attire. Instead, go for long formal dresses that go over the knee – long pants or stretch jeans are okay, but you need a long blouse covering your bum. Saudi Arabia recently dropped the strictest rules regarding the dress code for female tourists and is no longer obliged to wear an abaya or a headscarf in public places except in Medina. On my first day in Riyadh, walking outside without wearing an abaya felt uncomfortable, so I decided to purchase one.
Where to buy an abaya
You will find abayas in shopping malls, but they’re expensive. However, if you don’t want to spend a lot of money on abaya, go to the souks. I bought mine at Batha market in Riyadh for 50 riyals, including the headscarf. At the marketplace – or what they called the souks, you’ll find selections of abayas for a reasonable price – you can even ask for a discount.
Most people wear black, but you can opt for a different tint. I bought a black abaya as one of my favorite colors, though everyone has their style and favorites. However, when it comes to fashion, the best pick is with a button in front, which is easy when it is too hot – you can leave it open. How about the sizes? I read on some blogs that the smallest size is 52, but this was too big. If you are petite like me, opt for the extra-small.
You will encounter a language barrier when traveling to Saudi Arabia, mainly with taxi drivers. But there’s more to that. Street names were mostly in Arabic. I’ve lost many times during my walk, and thanks to Google Maps on my phone always find my way back. It is handy to have google translate on your cellphone by using the camera for translation on the streets. Moreover, building numbers nearly do not exist in Saudi Arabia. If booking a room, you will notice that the hotel address shows only the road without a number, which is sometimes difficult for taxi drivers to find, especially those unfamiliar hotels.
Don’t book a hotel in Arabic name
Sometimes we learn from mistakes or after we experience them. Coming from Jeddah and landing in Riyadh in the afternoon, for the easy way, I ordered a taxi at the airport counter. I booked all my accommodations before flying to Saudi Arabia, the hotels were so expensive I was looking for a bit cheaper and found a room through Agoda’s website, but it’s in Arabic name.
As I couldn’t read Arabic, I let them see my hotel voucher where the address and the hotel name were stated. They put it on to my driver’s navigation. I was so glad he knew a little bit of English, which was a relief because only one of the ten drivers speaks English in Saudi Arabia.
We searched for almost two hours in that hotel and could not find it. Of course, the driver complained that I occupied his time, but I doubled-paid his service. Time was running and getting late, so I told him to pull over and I will look into my phone for another hotel. I haven’t pay the room yet and I can cancel. From that moment I’ve learned my lesson and will never book a hotel in Arabic.
Flights to Saudi Arabia
There are dozens of airlines flying to Riyadh and Jeddah – these were the two main airports in Saudi Arabia. I flew with Qatar Airways because they were cheaper during my search. I was desperately looking for the cheapest flight one month before my trip, and Qatar Airways offered a competitive price. Still, the long hours of transiting in Doha were so infuriating. Thus I thought, I’m on holiday – so take it as part of the adventure.
If these circumstances occur the same to you with Qatar Airways – read on what to do on a long layover in Qatar. I usually don’t book a flight closer to my departure date. But with the Pandemic, I didn’t want to take risks booking far in advance. However, I did take a good look at the departure point for the lowest price, and departing from Amsterdam was the best outcome.
Currency exchange office -ATM at the airport
Whether you arrive in Riyadh or Jeddah, you need to get local money to pay for a taxi. There are ATMs and banks inside the arrival building to exchange your currency. If you rely on ATMs, check with your bank how much they charged for taking cash out with credit cards in Saudi Arabia, as my bank charges me five euros. And I can only take out a maximum of 2000 riyals for each withdrawal. However, credit cards are widely accepted even in small shops they prefer cards to cash.
A taxi from Riyadh airport to the city center
It is tricky as I read on some blogs they say don’t pay more than 80 riyals – but the price doesn’t exist anymore. Outside there were two colored taxis: black and green. The black car is a fixed rate of 100 riyals, which is suitable for two people, but for a solo traveler is quite a lot. That’s the downside of being a solo traveler, and if you get lucky, you might find someone to share. But traveling during the pandemic, you barely meet other travelers.
The green cab has a meter, and I thought it was cheaper, so I ran to it. I’m pleased that the driver was honest with me – he said if the meter is running the price will be higher than the black taxi, especially during the rush hours in Riyadh. So I’ve checked Uber, and it is even more expensive. So at last, I decided to take the black cab.
Accommodation booking in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is not a budget-friendly destination. You won’t find a lot of backpackers here because of insufficient hostels, but plenty of apartments, and they can be cheaper than a hotel. However, if staying in an apartment you don’t have the same services as in a hotel – like daily room cleaning, or you don’t get bathroom towels or tissue, etc. So that is one thing to consider if you book an apartment. The experience I had wasn’t so bad, but honestly, I prefer staying in a hotel for comfort.
If you want to know how much it cost me for two weeks trip to Saudi Arabia, read my other post. I already figured out when planning this trip that it is not a budget trip. There’s a huge gap if traveling to the Middle East and going to Southeast Asia. It is just that the living standard in Saudi Arabia is pretty high. As for budget travelers can be quite an expensive destination. The funniest thing is that you rarely meet backpackers here.
Where to stay in Riyadh
Riyadh is a sprawling city with different districts and not easy to find a budget hotel. The perfect area to stay for solo female travelers is Al Olaya, the midpoint of Riyadh. This is the business district you wouldn’t have a problem walking here at night, but the hotels in this area are pricey. Also, you are close to the shopping malls and the Kingdom Tower. I walk here every night going to the malls for the food court.
I stayed in two different hotels while in Riyadh. One in Al Olaya at Plaza Business Hotel – the location is close to the Kingdom center and within walking distance of shopping malls. The other place where I stay was at Mena Al Diyar 114, located on the other side of the city. I don’t recommend the area for a solo female traveler – this is the place I booked at the last minute when I couldn’t find that hotel in Arabic name. If you are concerned about safety I recommend searching for hotels around the Al Olaya districts.
Places to stay in Jeddah and Medina
If you’re going to Jeddah and Medina, the hotel where I stay is recommended. Not only were inexpensive, but the locations were also pretty well close to shops and restaurants. Jeddah is the second-largest city in Saudi Arabia and is divided into two neighborhoods: the new and old towns. Wherever your choose to stay, you still need a taxi to go anywhere. But it is so if you don’t have a car the only thing you can rely on is the cab.
The same as in Riyadh, accommodations near the center are pricey. But I feel much safer in Jeddah, so I stay away from the bustling center and book my hotel in a quiet neighborhood. Also, I stayed in two different places while I was in Jeddah, the first few nights I stay at OYO 278 Taj Saba Furnished Units – an apartment type, whose location is within walking distance of the restaurants and shops.
I went to Medina when I check out of the apartment and then came back and stayed in a hotel at Jeddah Gulf Suites a great location close to the establishments. It couldn’t be better as their rooms were huge for single occupancy. If you are heading to Medina, I highly recommend staying at Mirage Al Salam Hotel the excellent location is just a few meters away from the Prophet’s Mosque.
My top three cities to visit, which you wouldn’t miss while in Saudi Arabia: Riyadh, Jeddah, and Medina.
Getting a tourist visa for Saudi Arabia
As of 2019, Saudi Arabia opened its door to the world, and travelers can travel independently through the country with a tourist visa. Check out HERE for the official website of the Saudi Arabian tourist visa. International visitors from 49 countries are eligible to apply online for an e-visa. First and foremost, you need to create an account with a login password and a valid email address. The procedure reminds me of visa applications for India. And the benefit of having an e-visa to Saudi Arabia, you don’t need to line up in a long row at the airport. The e-visa holders have a separate counter, the lines are shorter. It took me less than five minutes to pass through the immigration.
One year valid from the day of issue.
The visa is valid for one year from the day of issue, which allows you to stay for three months in KSA. The price is 125 euros – a bit expensive, but it includes travel health insurance. Remember, visas on arrival are still not available. But getting it online takes less than ten minutes and is a simple process. It surprised me that within five minutes, they granted my application. Just follow the procedure online, and once you’ve completed clicked submit. Before applying for a tourist evisa, be sure you have all the documents needed.
Requirements for a tourist visa to Saudi Arabia:
- Air ticket
- Hotel booking name
- ID photo
- Credit card
If you have booked different accommodations in Saudi Arabia fill the first night of your stay. And your passport must be valid for at least six months on arrival. You also need a credit card for visa payment, and the final you need a scanner for your ID photo. Last but not least, print out your tourist visa; once it is granted.
Things to know if traveling during Pandemic
Things change after the pandemic, and it is no longer easy to go on a journey without hassles. You must be immune if traveling to Saudi Arabia without quarantine. All you need is to print out your vaccination certificate because they might ask at the airport. Also, you need to prove a negative COVID-19 test completed no more than 72 hours before departure.
It is required by the airlines upon arrival in Saudi Arabia. You wouldn’t get a boarding pass if you failed without the negative PCR test. By the way, my PCR test expired one hour before my arrival due to a long layover in Doha, Qatar. So I was a bit tense when I arrived in Riyadh, but it was too busy they did not have a good look at my document.
The arrival form for Saudi Arabia
On top of that, seventy-two hours before the departure, you must register online (arrival form) to muqeem. By clicking the link, it’ll take you to home registration. Whether you are immune or not, you need to fill in this arrival form and print it out because they’ll check it at the immigration together with your tourist visa.
Download Tawakkalna App (Covid-19 KSA)
Tawakkalna apps were available for IOS and Android devices and free to download. You can download the application while still at home, but you can’t do anything more because it only works with a local sim card. Just leave the application on your phone and wait until you arrive in Saudi Arabia. Once you get your local number – enter your details, and it’ll activate. The Tawakkalna is an essential application for Saudi Arabia, as it allows you access anywhere, including airports, and if taking a domestic flight.
Buying a local sim card in Saudi Arabia
It is practical to have a local number and you need this for the Tawakkalna app as it only works with Saudi Arabian numbers. There’s no need to wait to buy a sim card at the city center while you can get it at the airport as well. At the arrival Terminal 1 – you have Mobily, and at Terminal 2, there’s Zain. Now, what’s the difference between these two networks? I heard they’re both fine.
Mobily offers a complete package of 150 riyals with 10 GB and unlimited social media, which is a pretty good deal. It certainly gives you enough mobile data to use. In my opinion, you will need Google Maps a lot in Saudi Araba, as well as for Uber.
It may be pricey; in total, I paid 177 riyals, including tax. You could use the sim card for one month before expiration.
Getting around in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is a country that is not yet fully developed for tourism in comparison to the United Arab Emirates. Therefore, getting around is pretty expensive as you need a taxi a lot. But if you’re self-confident and have experience-driven in one of the Asian countries, you shouldn’t have a problem sitting behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia, as renting a car can be cheaper.
A lot cheaper than taking a taxi or uber every time. At first, I was hesitant but I have driven in the Philippines, the worst country I’ve seen in my life where horrific drivers on the road. Fairly to say, steering a wheel in Saudi Arabia isn’t that bad and there are some beautiful places to visit outside the city center, which you need a car to get there.
Renting a car and prices
Saudi Arabia is the only country where women are not authorized to steer a car, but things have changed since 2018. It is now safe for a woman to drive, so renting a vehicle as a solo female traveler shouldn’t be a problem. If you plan to drive in Saudi Arabia, you need your country’s driver’s license which must be in English version – as well you need a credit card. It depends on which companies you hire a car from, they block 500 riyals from my card. Booking in advance is not necessary.
I booked a car online the night before and picked it up in the morning at their office in Riyadh. It took me a while before renting a car, I even didn’t plan of getting one, and while searching for things to do, I found a nice place to visit outside the city center. Therefore, I eagerly rented a car.
However, there is no shortage of car rentals in bigger cities like Riyadh and Jeddah. Check their location because they have different offices in towns like Riyadh. For example, if you stay near Al Olaya, car rentals have offices in downtown Sulimaniyah. I rented with Enterprise, the smallest vehicle costs 35 USD a day with basic insurance included. I recommend taking full covered insurance if renting a car in Saudi Arabia to avoid surprises because some drivers are ruthless, especially in big cities.
The speed limit doesn’t seem to exist here because you see everyone moving swiftly. If you stay in the lane, nothing can go wrong. There is a bit of discrimination here – they do not want to be overtaken by a woman driver, so keep that in mind. Don’t start racing!
It is forbidden to use a cell phone while driving in Saudi Arabia. I was surprised to receive an email from the rental company that I used a mobile while driving. Indeed I was using my phone for navigation, but I didn’t know it was banned as I’ve seen taxi drivers doing it too while behind the wheel. So it was a stroke of bad luck as I got a fine of 500 riyals.
Uber versus taxi
They are both expensive, but there are some disadvantages between Uber and taxis. However, it’s the only way to move around in bigger cities. So, if you want to visit some sites, plan which areas to go to and what to see and do, so no back and forth using taxis – this saves you some money. Believe me when I say so because I haven’t counted yet how much I spend on public transport I wouldn’t be surprised.
To use Uber, you need to have an application on your phone downloaded from your IOS or Android. Then, create an account – you only need an email address and a phone number. Also easier to have a local number, so you can contact the driver if something goes wrong. Which I have encountered many times. Besides paying cash, perhaps be handy to put your credit card in case of running out of money.
One thing I like about Uber is that you don’t need to explain where you go because you set up your destination on the app, and there is no need to explain the driver. It has never been easy with Uber, especially if you don’t speak Arabic.
PROS: Safe and secure because it shows the brand of the vehicle, plate number, and driver’s name on the app. Also, you can check in advance how much it cost the ride from A to B.
CONS: It sometimes takes ages before they arrive, and maybe only one of the tens of English-speaking drivers, so that’s the disadvantage with Uber. But overall with satisfactions in my experience.
The taxis in Saudi Abia have a meter, but most drivers barely use it. Nevertheless, like anywhere globally cabs aren’t better – they can rip you off. Thus, always negotiate the price before you get in. The taxis are competitors with Uber, and I always name my price lower than what I saw on my Uber app. So that is my trick!
Pros: They can be useful if you need a quick ride while with Uber you have to wait for so long to arrive.
Cons: Taxi drivers are ex-pats, and some of them were aggressive which I was not too keen on, so I avoided taking cabs at night.