Saudi Arabia solo female travel advice 2018
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Some of you may have seen my previous article, My Experience Travelling to Saudi Arabia as a Woman that I wrote after my first visit to the country in 2015. I’ve had several ladies contact me off the back of this article asking for some more advice about travelling there alone as I still think there’s limited information out there on this. I thought it was high time for an update as I travelled there again in April this year and Saudi is currently going through a rapid pace of change in terms of its culture and laws; for example, only a few weeks ago, a new law allowing women to drive in the country came into force. It’s funny actually, because reading my previous article I can tell that I was super cautious about travelling there on my own, whereas now I’m much more confident about it! In this update I’m going to try and cover the main concerns/questions you may have if you’re female and considering travelling to Saudi Arabia alone, my personal experience and some tips to manage cultural differences.
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TGIF and a relaxing evening after a busy day! I only have three full days left of my trip and it’s absolutely flown by 🇸🇦 I attended a work event at this restaurant, the Najd Village a few years ago so I thought I’d head back here again during this trip! ‘Najd’ is Arabic for ‘upland’ and refers to a geographical area in the middle of Saudi Arabia where Riyadh is located. They serve traditional Arabian food and have beautiful Arabic decor throughout the restaurant, including working water wheels 🙌🏻 The restaurant spans three floors with lots of different rooms and areas to discover 🍴
It’s still crucial that you wear your abayas ladies, so don’t get too excited about dress codes just yet! However, there are some slow changes and you can now get away with colours and open abayas in some parts of the country. I wore an open black abaya in Jeddah and had no problems, whereas in Riyadh I felt more comfortable being more covered. It’s down to personal choice what type of abaya you want to go for, and I prefer not to attract unwanted attention! I still didn’t see any women not wearing abayas apart from some French ladies at breakfast in my hotel in Jeddah, the Novotel Jeddah Tahlia.
Maybe it was because I wasn’t at a big event this time or maybe I got lucky, but I didn’t have any run-ins with the infamous religious police this time. This meant that not once was I asked to cover my head. I’d still recommend having a scarf with you just in case, but you won’t need to wear it out and about in general, unless you really want to. The only time I chose to cover my head during my trip in April was when my colleague and I visited the Gold Souk in Riyadh, which is very much full of locals and I wanted to go ever-so-slightly more incognito.
This is a question that seems to come up a lot and I’m not really sure where this advice is coming from… I know that there are rules around women with Saudi nationality requiring a male guardian’s permission to do things such as leave the country, but as far as I’m aware no such rule exists for foreigners. I did happen to be with a male colleague when I travelled to Jeddah in April, but I went through immigration alone and subsequently travelled to Dammam on my own without any problems. That included taking a flight, getting taxis, checking into my hotel and going for meals alone. In fact, it’s quite nice because I found the staff were very attentive and made sure that everything was OK for me as I was alone. I also observed that there are often lots of groups of women out and about with their children and no male chaperones, so in my experience this isn’t really a thing anymore.
As I mentioned above, I successfully travelled from Riyadh to Dammam alone without any issues. If you’re travelling alone and you’re nervous about your journey, I’d always recommend contacting your hotel to send a car to pick you up from the airport when you arrive. I tend to do this in most places to be honest, especially when I’m not familiar with the country and their local taxi system. Once you’re settled, I’d recommend Uber. I used it all the time in April and it was a life-saver – especially when I had a driver who couldn’t speak English. One tip though: it would seem that locals tend to put a random destination into the app and then ask the driver to take them somewhere completely different. So if they keep asking if you actually want to go where you’ve put into the app, that’s why! As the driving is pretty hectic I also started opting for Uber XL as they felt much safer on the roads.
Going through the airport is really straightforward too. It’s the same as anywhere else: turn up, check in, drop bags, clear security. They do have separate security for men and women, which I didn’t find problematic at all, because they also have separate staff for the different areas.
Finally, I wanted to address the issue of walking. You can give it a go (I usually do!) but it’s quite tricky. I identified The Cheesecake Factory about 5 minutes’ walk from my hotel in Jeddah and when I actually started walking it turned out there was extremely limited pavement available. In Riyadh, we wanted to get a pizza and had to get an Uber to cross the road from our hotel because there was no way we’d make it on foot! This brings me back to Uber and how it’s really useful as it’s also way cheaper than a hotel car and you can pick them up pretty much anywhere in the major cities.
Now this one is always a big question and certainly an issue that will make a lot of women nervous about travelling to Saudi Arabia. I think the main point on this is that whilst yes, gender segregation is still alive and well in Saudi, it doesn’t mean that you’ll feel as though you’re treated as a second-class citizen when you visit because of being female. I’ve always found both locals and expats to be so welcoming and excited to show you their country when you visit. Having said that, here are some obvious places you may find gender segregation and how to navigate them:
- Airport security (but not immigration): Both times I’ve arrived into the country there hasn’t been obvious gender segregation; everyone just piles into the same free-for-all queues. When I went to Riyadh in 2016 women were pulled out of the queue as one of the first ‘groups’ to go through immigration, but this didn’t happen when I arrived in Jeddah this year. So that kind of thing is pretty ad-hoc and one of those go-with-the-flow situations rather than a written rule. Airport security on the other hand is always split into a male and a female side, so check the signs as you head through the airport.
- Restaurants: Most restaurants will still have a male-only area and a family area. As a woman, you’re looking for the family area. They will typically have different entrances and the male-only section may be labelled ‘singles’. Yes, you may be alone but attempt to walk through that door and you’ll quickly find out that you’re not supposed to be there! It’s not a problem though, you’ll just be told to go in the other entrance. I was hosting an event at the wonderful Najd Village restaurant in Riyadh where the entrances weren’t clearly marked and one of the staff members indicated I wasn’t supposed to go in the male entrance. Shortly afterwards, the manager offered to give me a tour of the restaurant while I was checking the arrangements and he finished the tour at the male entrance anyway. So it’s not exactly a serious offence and the rules can be bent!
- The hotel gym/pool: Possibly the most irritating of all the times you’ll see gender segregation (for me, anyway!). Unless you’re in a women-only hotel, you can forget the hotel pool. You can definitely go and sit by it if it’s outdoors, but usually only men are allowed to swim… which makes sense as the dress code is still very strict for women. This usually also applies to the gym, but I was so excited when I checked into the Movenpick in Riyadh (now the Voco Riyadh) because they had a gym for women! I just had to ask for the key at the front desk and I had access to what was actually a pretty decent gym. Bear in mind that not all hotels have this so it’s worth checking if you want to go to the gym. I had also taken my yoga mat with me so I could do exercise in my room, which also worked well.
This section is actually applicable to anyone, not just women but I thought it’d be useful to include. Let’s start with the basics: avoid tap water where possible. I tend to err on the side of caution here because I’m terrified of catching any bugs or getting an upset stomach, especially when I have to work. I usually also brush my teeth with bottled water too. In terms of actual food, expect to either eat a lot of Middle Eastern food involving various combinations of meat and rice or American food. You’ll find loads of American brands in all of the major cities in Saudi Arabia so if you don’t fancy trying the local cuisine you can opt for burgers and pasta instead. Where you’d typically find pork products such as bacon, there’ll usually be a beef substitute. Yes, that’s right, beef bacon… I tend to pass personally. The final point to note on this topic is pretty well-known: alcohol isn’t available to purchase in restaurants or hotels, so get ready for that detox!
There are a few other things that I think could be helpful for when you travel to Saudi:
- Remember to check prayer times. This is really important, especially if you’re like me: You get to the end of a long day working and are mega hangry, so go to the closest food place and… oh, it’s literally just closed for prayer time so you can’t eat for another 45 minutes. I carried Nakd bars with me everywhere which were brilliant for those moments. Prayer time happens 5 times a day, and whilst it’s really atmospheric to hear the calls to prayer echoing around the cities, it can be a bit awkward for getting food. If you happen to already be in a restaurant before prayer time starts, you’re good to carry on eating, but they won’t let any new customers in.
- Hand shakes. I always find this quite awkward. In most places and business contexts I’m perfectly happy (and would expect) to shake hands with people I meet, but I’m never sure which men are comfortable with that kind of contact and which ones aren’t. I’ve learnt to follow their lead, so sometimes I shake hands and sometimes I don’t.
- Hospitality. One of the things I find is that the Saudis are extremely hospitable and welcoming. They’re very keen to talk about their country and its history, as well as the culture there. If you do travel to Saudi keep an open mind and if you get the opportunity you should definitely make the most of any opportunities to find out more about the country and its people; it might surprise you.
I hope this advice has been helpful – I had a very positive experience this April and I would love for more women to feel comfortable travelling to this fascinating country. If you’re travelling to Saudi Arabia and have any questions, you can either comment below or contact me by email or on social media.
*Since I travelled to Saudi Arabia in 2018 there have been even more changes than between my two visits in 2015 and 2018. The biggest change is that citizens of 49 countries are now eligible for tourist visas! If you’re planning a trip sometime soon, make sure you check out Tripadvisor’s best of Saudi Arabia for some more travel inspo!