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 the invitation 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. As a woman alone in a stranger place is always vulnerable. And that’s 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 in Saudi Arabia, but I was cautious in my surrounding. There was a part of Riyadh where I was staying on the other side of the city that I didn’t go out anymore when it is dark, but I have no problem in other places.
But one thing you can’t avoid as a solo female traveler is getting men’s attention even dressed modestly or wearing an abaya (long robe). You can’t steer clear of it.
And sometimes very annoying if walking on the street during the day, you have been followed by taxis or other vehicles. But I never take it, ignoring is the best you can do. However, some of them don’t take NO for answers until you’re frustrating.
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 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 abaya in shopping malls, but they’re expensive. However, if you don’t want to spend a lot of money on an 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 if traveling to Saudi Arabia, especially with taxi drivers. But there’s more to that, like the streets were mainly in Arabic. I’ve lost many times during my walk, and thanks to Google Maps on my phone – I find my way back.
It is handy to have google translate on your cellphone by using the camera for translation on the street’s name.
Moreover, the building numbers nearly do not exist in Saudi Arabia. If booking a room, you will notice that the hotel address shows only a street without a number, which is sometimes difficult for taxi drivers to find.
Don’t book a hotel in Arabic name
Sometimes we learn from mistakes or after we experience them – I arrived at Riyadh airport coming from Jeddah. And for convenience, I ordered a taxi at the counter, as I couldn’t read Arabic.
So I let them see the name and address of my hotel and put them in his navigation system. I’m glad he can speak a little English, which was a relief because only one of the ten drivers could utter the language.
Gosh, we have searched the hotel for almost two hours and could not find it. Of course, he complained that I occupied his time, but I doubled paid his service.
Time is running and getting late, so I told him to stop and look into my phone for another hotel. I haven’t paid yet, so I am canceling that hotel. And from that moment, I’ve learned never again to reserve a hotel in Arabic name.
Flights to Saudi Arabia
There are dozens of airlines flying to Riyadh and Jeddah – these were 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, 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 my journey.
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 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 taking cash out with credit cards in Saudi Arabia, as my bank charges me five euros. And I can only take out the maximum of 2000 riyals for each withdrawal.
However, credit cards are primarily acceptable overall, and even in some establishments, 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 for 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 the Uber, 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.
Where to stay in Riyadh
Riyadh is a sprawling city with different districts, which is not easy to pick a neighborhood. However, if you want to stay close to the center, Al Olaya is the midpoint of Riyadh.
Although accommodation prices in this area are high, also one of the safest places for a single woman. I walk here at night going to the malls without any problems.
I stayed in two different hotels, one in Al Olaya at Plaza Business Hotel – the location is close to Kingdom center and walking distance to shopping malls.
The other place is where I stay, 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.
Places to stay in Jeddah and Medina
Jeddah is the second-largest city in Saudi Arabia. Wherever your choice is 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.
Accommodations near the center are expensive, so I stay away from the bustling area and book my hotel in a quiet neighborhood.
I stayed at OYO 278 Taj Saba Furnished Units – it’s an apartment type. As I mentioned, staying in apartments is cheaper than hotels. The location of this place is within walking distance of the restaurants and shops.
And after that, I move to Jeddah Gulf Suites, another 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 Mirage Al Salam Hotel – its location is excellent near the Prophet’s Mosque.
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.
Click 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 valid email address. The procedure reminds me of visa applications for India.
And the benefit of having an e-visa for Saudi Arabia, you don’t need to line up in a long row at the airport. As for e-visa holders have a separate counter. It makes it quicker to go outside, as the lines are shorter.
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.
Requirements for a tourist visa to Saudi Arabia:
- Air ticket
- Hotel booking name
- ID photo
- Credit card
If you book different accommodations, fill in the hotel’s name where you stay for the first night. And your passport must be valid for at least six months on arrival. As well, you need a credit card for payment. And the last thing is your ID photo, which you need to scan.
Last but not least, print out your tourist visa; once granted, make two copies of them.
Things to know if traveling during Pandemic
Things change after the pandemic, which is no longer easy to go on a journey without hassles. You must be immune if traveling to Saudi Arabia without a 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 and at the 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 was 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; as a 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.
As I have driven in the Philippines. So I thought, why not? I’ve seen the worst country in my life where I see horrific drivers on the road. Steering a wheel in Saudi Arabia isn’t that bad.
Hiring a car
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 planning to drive in Saudi Arabia, you need your country’s driver’s license that must be in English version – as well you need a credit card. It depends on which companies you hire a car; they block 500 riyals from my card.
Booking in advance is not needed. I wasn’t sure about renting a car because I wanted to observe how drivers behave on the road.
However, there is no shortage of car rentals in bigger cities like Riyadh and Jeddah. Check their location because they have different branches in the town like Riyadh.
For example, if you stay near Al Olaya, car rentals have offices in downtown Sulimaniyah. The one I have rented was Enterprise in Riyadh, with their smallest car costs 35 USD a day, including primary insurance.
But I recommend taking full covered insurance if renting a car to avoid surprises because drivers are ruthless, especially in big cities. So it looks like the speed limit doesn’t exist here because you see everyone moving swiftly. If you keep your 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 cellphone 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 taxi. However, it’s the only way to move around in bigger cities. So, if you want to see 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.
Using Uber, you need to have an application on your phone download 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 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 that I was not too keen on, so I avoided taking cabs at night.