Planning an Umrah (minor pilgrimage) visit to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is definitely on the bucket list of any Muslim traveller. ? Being able to complete Umrah is a life-changing experience for many pilgrims, and it's a stepping stone to being able to complete your Hajj pilgrimage and fulfil a pillar of Islam. (Here are even more Islamic destinations all Muslims should visit at least once
Pilgrims who wish to perform Umrah have traditionally booked a package with a local tour group that will arrange everything for you, but in recent years there's been a rising trend of people planning their own 'DIY Umrah'! From booking your own flights and accommodations to applying for the respective visas, the main perks of planning your own Umrah are said to be the flexibility and affordability compared to a group package.
But how do you get started planning a DIY Umrah? ? 2 of our readers who've gone for DIY Umrahs of their own have graciously shared their experiences, hurdles, and tips with us! Aneesa (A) is a Singaporean who went for a DIY Umrah with her husband and sister-in-law in end December 2019 for 12 days. Rukzana (R) is a Singaporean who went for a DIY Umrah with her female cousin for 12 days. Their answers have been edited for length and clarity. We hope that their experiences can be a useful guide for you if you wish to plan your own DIY Umrah in the future. ?
Note: Saudi Arabia has currently suspended Umrah visas due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While this has put a damper on Umrah plans for the immediate future, a silver lining is that you have even more time to plan and prepare for an Umrah trip in the future. ☺️ If you're a parent who's planning to go for Umrah with your kids, click here for 20 essential tips to make your Umrah journey a smooth one
1. What made you decide to go on a DIY Umrah, or why did you choose to DIY rather than book a tour? If you’ve been on Umrah with a group before, what were some of the differences you observed?Credit: Aneesa
A: We heard from some friends and family that it was much cheaper to do a DIY Umrah compared to travelling with an agent. My husband and I had both gone for Umrah with an agency three years ago so we knew what the requirements of Umrah were, as well as the travelling route. This gave us the confidence to try doing Umrah on our own for the second time. For the Umrah trip itself, we weren’t bounded by anyone else’s time and plan and as such could plan our days according to how we felt like that day. If one was to go with an agency, your schedule would be dependent on what was planned by the agency.
R: I have always had these thoughts and ideas of making a self-planned DIY Umrah, free of all the hassles, rigidity and costs of organised travel-agent Umrahs. But alas, I was afflicted with a common ailment of the modern Singaporean woman - procrastination. It needed a spark to set these wheels in motion and it came in a little expected form - Saudi Arabia's announcement of a relaxing of visa rules. Poring through the fine print, I came to learn that we can now apply for a Tourist Visa - a one-time annual visa - that allows you repeated entry into Saudi Arabia, within the year. Better yet, we could apply ourselves individually online, and these visas allow us to travel into the Holy Lands as well, for us to perform Umrah!
[P.S. Are you a couple considering going for Umrah together next? Click here to read Singaporean revert Jinghan's experience going on Umrah with her husband for their first trip together as husband and wife!]2. How far ahead did you start planning your Umrah? And how long did the planning process take you?
A: We were still deciding between DIY Umrah and agency Umrah in early August 2019. We decided to go ahead with DIY Umrah in mid August, by booking our flights first.
R: Not knowing how the process would go, I submitted my online e-visa application
and, voila, it was approved within 4 hours. The visa even includes built-in medical insurance for greater peace of mind. The whole booking process was straightforward - all that was needed was a clear photo for visa application. I didn’t even print any documents along, everything was kept on my mobile - this was more eco-friendly, and actually in line with the teachings of our religion in how to protect and preserve our environment.
3. What were some of the documents or visas you had to apply for, or bookings you had to make? Did you face any obstacles during the planning period?Credit: Aneesa
A: We booked our flights first, followed by our hotels in Makkah and Madinah. Following that, we applied for the online visa as it required you to submit your flight and hotel details. After the online visa was approved, we then booked transport for the following: from Jeddah airport to Makkah hotel, from Madinah hotel to Jeddah airport. We had left transport between Makkah to Madinah out first, as we wanted to try the bullet train. We consulted some friends who shared that it was not possible to book the train rides from Singapore. When we arrived in Makkah, we found out that the train rides were sold out for the date that we wanted. As such, we went ahead to book a car ride between Makkah to Madinah. We also did our meningitis vaccination that was compulsory. We opted out of the influenza vaccination that we understand is only optional. We printed out all the documents (hotel details, flight details, vaccination, visa) and brought them along with us in case immigration had questions.
R: Me being me, I tried to sneak in some slightly more luxurious hotel options as hotel prices at the time I was going seemed to be on the low side (I later learnt that this was low-season, and peak season, such as Ramadan, could see prices jump five to tenfold.) Unfortunately, this raised costs a bit, but what about a travel partner? This could divide costs into half. I shared the news with my cousin and she jumped on the idea! Brilliant!
We scanned through flight options - a useful app we found in this process was Skyscanner as it allows you to view quite a variety of options; fastest travelling time, options of transit in KL, Mumbai or Dubai, and so forth. Once it became clear where prices sat, and the options available to us, we decided to book our flight tickets via Emirates Airline's website. Nowadays, air-travel is so seamless, hotel bookings are much simpler and direct, and discounts abound if you are patient, diligent and know where to find them. In the end, it wasn't really a tough task to pull this off, and I'm sure many of you can easily figure this out as well.
I researched the options thoroughly, read many reviews, and considered the need for interconnecting transport links between the airport, Makkah and Madinah. The High-Speed Rail had launched, but sadly, a fire at one of the stations had suspended service for the moment. After considering several options I arrived at the decision to pre-book my transport for Jeddah-Mecca-Madinah and we booked via Umrah Taxi
. Uber was an option as well, but the fear of leaving it till we were there, uncertain costs and safety factors pushed us away from it. Plus this option wasn't too pricey, had great options for comfy cars, and we felt safer with point-to-point transfer from the airport to hotel lobbies.
4. What tips would you offer to someone who’s intending to DIY their Umrah for the first time?Credit: Rukzana
A: The Umrah ritual in itself is a very simple and straightforward process so don’t feel daunted! Planning for a DIY Umrah is exactly like planning for a holiday—book a flight, hotels (of your own choice and budget) and transport. ? Also, we would highly recommend not including hotel food as there is plenty of food choices in both Makkah and Madinah that are affordable.
R: Being first-timers on self-made DIY Umrah, and travelling without any male companions at that, and on a tourist visa, we had reason to feel anxious and worried, but Alhamdulillah, everything went smoothly. Immigration was a breeze and the Officer even said, “Umrah Mabrur”. MasahAllah! Tears of joy rolled down my cheeks.
5. What was your experience once you arrived in Saudi Arabia? Did you face any troubles getting around? What positive experiences did you have?
A: It was a smooth process. We called up the transport company who instructed us to meet at the pick-up point. It was less than an hours’ ride from Jeddah airport to our Makkah hotel. We checked in, washed up, and immediately performed our Umrah so that we could complete the most necessary.
R: It was then a simple process of picking up our bags at the baggage carousel, and once we entered the Arrival Hall, our pre-booked transport was already there waiting with a Placard with my name emblazoned on it. I felt so proud. We had come so far. We arrived at the beautiful Jabal Omar Hyatt Regency Hotel right at the call of Azan Zuhur. We were awash with the excitement and emotions of the moment and couldn't wait to run to the Mosque and lay our eyes on the majestic Kaabah. The hotel reception was welcoming, pleasant and professional. We were served by ladies at the reception counter and it was a different experience from my previous trips - a much more positive experience.
6. If you’ve been on Umrah with a group before, did you feel any difference going through the steps/performing the rituals?
A: It forced us to be responsible by equipping ourselves with the necessary knowledge instead of just leaving it to the tour agency to inform us what to do. As such, we watched YouTube videos from prominent scholars such as Yasir Qadhi, went for classes and consulted some of our friends (some of whom are Ustaz and Umrah pegawais) beforehand to gain confidence on what was needed to be done.
R: A word of advice, if it is your first-time doing Umrah, you might still wish to follow a guided group or go in a group of experienced Umrah travellers, as the first Umrah is a life-changing experience and you wouldn't want to go wrong in any way. There are many religious requirements and rituals require, which might seem daunting at first, but gets easier with your second and third Umrahs Insha'Allah. For DIY Umrah, you can do it with some pre-prepared bookings, or go the route we did and get in touch with some of the Ustaz's based in Mecca and Madinah to guide us. We were fortunate that we had built a relationship with an Indonesian Ustaz from our first-guided trip and trusted him to guide us through this Umrah. It always helps to have an Arab-speaker in your group on DIY trips to Mecca and Madinah.
[P.S. If you're planning to go for Umrah for the first time, click here for 12 useful tips you should know before your first Umrah!]7. Do you have any tips for when people are in Mecca/Medina?Credit: Aneesa
A: If you’re asking for general tips on what to do in Makkah, it would be:
- Try your best to do as much tawaf as possible. This is the only place in the world where you can do so, so try your best to do as much as you can. ? We tried our best to tawaf at least once a day (once after fajr, and once either in between the maghrib and isyak prayers, or after isyak).
- Do your best to pray every single prayer in Masjidil Haram as all prayers amount to 100,000 times than a normal prayer.
- Stay on for janazah prayers that are done after every single fardh prayer. It benefits both yourself and the deceased immensely.
- There are opportunities to do lots of charity. Lots of shops offer pay-it-forward so you can pay them any amount and let them know that it is meant to feed the poor. You can see them in action to feed the poor after fardh prayers. We also bought chocolates and dates to give out to anyone we saw in the masjid. Another thing we highly recommend is keeping your small change for cleaners who keep the mosques spick and span.
R: Here are some tips I learnt from my experience:
- Checking into Jabal Omar Hyatt Regency Hotel in Mecca was a breeze. We highly recommend this hotel due to its proximity to the mosque, luxurious rooms and sumptuous breakfasts! It might be slightly higher priced than some other options, but not by much, and we felt it was well worth it. We initially considered another hotel located within the clock tower, but our previous experience reminded us that getting into the lifts to get to the mosque at prayer time could be a challenge in itself and it could take us 20 minutes or so just to get down. This hotel instead, is not nearly as crowded as it is located in a smaller building and is really close to the gates of Masjidil Haraam. No regrets staying here. Highly recommended!
- Meals were easily found in the many many restaurants in the vicinity of the Mosque and you can get your meals very easily within a 1km radius. This was an exciting adventure in itself. We wouldn't recommend a full-board option for the hotel as there are many different yummy food options there. You can even find prata and Malay food. Meals vary from SGD$2 for a simple meal to SGD$36 for an indulgent steak at Raffles Makkah Palace.
8. How much did you pay for your DIY Umrah in total?Credit: Aneesa
- It is important to plan for the most efficient accommodation in Medina as your stay will be centred around the Masjidil Nabawi. I chose to stay at Shaza-al-Medina because of its strategic location and it offered the best balance of location and cost. The hotel is slightly dated, but its location was excellent, food is good, and rooms passable. But it gets an A for its location as it is really close to the mosque, just a 2 mins walk to the ladies entrance.
- Additionally, it was just a a 1 min walk to the main bus terminal. This is new and so exciting. There is a “hop on-hop-off” bus that brings you around the City of Medina. Tours include Jabal Uhud, Masjid Quba, Masjib Qiblatain and more, all for a fee of just 80 Saudi riyals per person. We were on these buses on a daily basis, travelling to Quba mosque via the aircon public bus. The journey only took 8 mins one-way and we were able to complete our Sunnah prayers all in under 40 mins!
A: My husband and I spent a total of approximately $5000 for our trip. A tour agency would normally offer a package of $3,500 and above during the December period (considered as peak period), and that doesn’t include visa and shopping expenses. As such, we saved approximately $1,500 per person doing DIY Umrah.
R: My cost breakdown was as such:
9. What were some of the learnings or reflections you had after completing your DIY Umrah?
- Visa – SGD180 (1-year visa including medical insurance)
- Hotel in Mecca (170 per night X 3)
- Hotel in Medina (220 per night X 9)
- Transport from Jeddah to Mecca (300 riyal per car – Toyota Innova)
- Transport from Mecca to Medina (500 riyal per car – GMC)
- Transport from Medina to Jeddah (600 per car – GMC)
A: Planning for a DIY Umrah is not as tough as it seems. ? Also, have lots of patience as Makkah and Madinah has such a diverse crowd as people from all walks of lives congregate to offer prayers in the two holiest mosques in the world. We had to constantly remember that people come from different backgrounds, upbringing and cultures that differ from yours. Laugh it off and pray to God for more patience ?
R: I love the idea of a DIY Umrah as you could customize it to your needs and didn't have to follow more rigid travel plans. I particularly wanted to do 40 waktu in Madinah and found it particularly hard to find such packages at the local agencies, and the long stay at Madinah could often push up hotel costs and the overall price of the trip. Of course, on the flip-side, if you travel with an agency you can benefit from Syarahans and Guided tours (we still recommend guided tours for Umrah first-timers). But after you have had your first Umrah experience, you could take this option for subsequent trips as you'd be savvier with the needs of Umrah, and have a greater familiarity of the place. Plus this option gives you the flexibility of time - to do your Umrahs according to your stamina and health.
10. Would you go for a DIY Umrah again? Why or why not?Credit: Aneesa
A: Most definitely! It was a smooth sailing and easy process just like any planned holiday. We know what is required for Umrah and have the confidence to do it once again insyaAllah. ?
R: Alhamdulillah. I am so blessed to have managed to experience this beautiful and magical journey. I hope penning some of these thoughts and ideas down will help some of you to crystalise some ideas to plan and execute your own DIY Umrah, and maybe be the catalyst that sparks you into planning for your DIY Umrah. It affords greater freedom, and lower costs. Cost savings which could be used for additional trip back to the holy lands. Insha'Allah, the savings I have made will enable me to do just that, and I am looking forward to performing my Umrah with my husband this Ramadhan, God-willing. May Allah SWT grant us the perseverance to overcome the challenges this world now face, and may this plague be long gone come Ramadan. We dua for the Best!