Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Umrah-on-a-budget: Part 2

The last entry was on transportation, so next on the budget are accommodation and food. Obviously you need to book your rooms in advance so that you won't be stranded in the streets in case all hotels were booked on your arrival. Especially if you happen to reach your destination at night. So you need to book online. Though I must say that not that many of the hundreds of hotels there are in Makkah and Medinah has websites for you to do your bookings. But you have to search and find a suitable one: one in Makkah and one in Medinah before you embark on your journey. By suitable, you also need to consider the distance from the hotel to the Mosque; no point booking a reasonably priced 'luxury' hotel only to find that it's 10 kilometers from the Mosque. And fortunately all you need is to book, you don't need to pay anything in advance. And another tip is you could book for 2 or 3 nights only even if you had planned to stay for more days because when you reach your destination, you could always search for another suitable accommodation. Well, we booked the Menaret El-Aqsa in Medinah for 2 nights. When we reached there around nearly midnight, there was no room for us! (you have to be ready with glitches like this) The hubby insisted (be assertive and hold your horses - we didn't make any advance payment after all!) that we had booked online and after waiting like half-an-hour we got our room, Alhamdulillah. For the third night there we moved into another hotel, a bit cheaper but okey. With accommodation, it's up to you really whether you want a 5-star hotel or a no-star one. But for us, as long as we have clean sheets and a clean bathroom. We're not going to spend most of our time in hotel rooms, are we? Anyway for accommodation in Medinah we spent SR900 altogether (RM765). Well, in Makkah we had booked the Mubarak which is slightly far from Masjidil Haram but shuttle coasters were provided (around 10-15 minutes journey). For the 7 nights we paid SR700 (RM595). Obviously hotels are more expensive in Medinah.. but you never know in the future: they're tearing down old hotels in Makkah and in the process of building new ones.. Anyway, with hotels in Makkah, the further away from the Mosque the cheaper are the rates. So now, adding the two numbers we have = RM1360.
Okey, now food. If you go with an agency, food will be provided but I think most people would also like to sample food sold outside (thus spending more on food). If you travel on your own you have to buy your own food and you can save quite a bit because food is reasonably cheap here. Of course you need to be less formal in your eating habits: for example; most shops don't provide seats, you have to find somewhere to sit to eat (Muslims are not encouraged to eat standing, right?). For Malaysians, you don't have to worry about not getting your staple food (rice); you can get all kinds - thanks to the great number of Indonesians and Bangladeshis working here... Alright, we spent about SR7 for breakfast (for 2 including tea), about SR15 for lunch and for dinner we don't have a heavy one just sandwiches maybe; so around SR10. Therefore on average for a day you might spend about SR32; throw in some juices, let's give it a round number = SR40. Which means you would spend SR400 for 10 days, which is equal to RM340.
Now, adding the two highlighted numbers, we have RM1700. Remember we spent RM3501 for transportation (last blog entry). And not to forget we also spent RM500 for visa which you would need to get through an agency 2-3 months before your journey. That makes the total expenses for our umrah = RM5701, which means per person it would come to RM2850.50. I didn't add the RM260 we spent on vaccinations for us both before our trip because with an agency you also have to pay your own for it. So, there you have it; only about half of what you would pay for an average umrah package! But of course it's not for everybody; if you aren't very healthy or don't want to bother dealing with problems met along the way, then go with a package. It's safer. But if you do decide to go on your own, don't go alone, though. It's safer to have a companion. Here are some more pictures of our umrah trip:

Second hotel we stayed in Medinah
Basic necessities
A hotel right at the 'doorstep' of Masjidil Haram - not in our price range!
Waiting for a room at Menaret El-Aqsa..
Food for breakfast..(These guys simply love to have their picture taken!)
We bought additional veggies because they didn't give much - balance diet ok?
I remember this meal as one of the tastiest but simply served. They always give the plastic sheet for easy tidying or for simply eating on. Don't bother with plates I'd say!
 One meal for 2 people! Seriously, it's enough, MasyAllah.
So, I hope this entry and the one before would be very helpful to those who want to have a bit more challenge - by going for umrah on your own! Good luck and all the best!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Umrah-on-a-budget: Part 1

In today's entry I would like to share with my dear readers how we managed to go for umrah without joining any group packages and thus were able to cut down on expenses. However this may only be relevant to Malaysians as I'll be quoting airline prices from and to Malaysia. In our country group packages for umrah cost on average from RM4000 - RM6000 per person (about USD1290 - USD1935: I'm roughly estimating USD1=RM3.1). Usually the length of stay is between 10 to 14 days. We spent 10 days altogether ( 3 in Medinah and 7 in Makkah).
Of course there are advantages and disadvantages for going on your own and going with a package. If you are the adventurous type and ready to face challenges along the way (and don't want to spend a lot of money..) then you may be interested in making the journey on your own but if you don't like the hassle of booking things online and having to handle problematic people and situations (and sleeping on cold hard airport floors!) then you are better off going with a package.
Okey dokey, I'll start with the basic rule of planning your journey, and that is to book your flights way in advance. For our trip in April, the hubby had booked our flights 7 months earlier ie in September 2011! You need to go online and check relevant airline websites for the best deal. And the best deal is almost always NOT a direct flight from KL to Jeddah.. The best deal for us then was taking a flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka from KL and then only to Jeddah. The first leg was with Air Asia (RM500 - for both of us) and for the rest of the journey was with Saudia. Saudi Arabian Airline is a good deal really but curiously, if we start the journey with the airline from KL, it would become considerably expensive.. Anyway, we spent USD1150 for tickets (for both of us) on journeys: Collombo - Jeddah - Cairo - KL. If you're not going to Cairo, then it would be a bit less: USD820 = RM2542. We also took a flight on Air Asia from Kuala Terengganu to KL which cost us RM240 which I'm not going to add to the expenses because you may not be travelling from there. Okey then, when we reached Jeddah we travelled to Medinah on Saudi Arabian also and ticket price was SR280 (converting it into RM where the rate of exchange was SR1=RM0.85) or RM238. Therefore the amount we spent on airplane tickets altogether = RM3280. Now, remember this is for 2 persons..
For this blog-entry, I intend to write about expenses on transportation only; dealing with accommodation and food on  my next entry. Now, let see..from Medinah airport we got a taxi paying SR50 = RM42.50 to our hotel. When we came out of the airport a taxi driver offered to take us for SR100 but the hubby decided to ask around and found a taxi driver who needed passengers for a return journey. From Medinah we travelled to Makkah by bus (SAPTCO) and tikets for 2 cost SR110 = RM93.50. And from the bus station in Makkah to our hotel: SR20 = RM17
Okey, after a week in Makkah, we went back to Jeddah to catch our flight to Cairo. Fom Makkah we decided to go by bus (SAPTCO again), a cheaper means of transport but comfortable nevertheless and bus tickets were SR30 = RM25.50. Now, on arriving at the bus station in Jeddah we hadn't a clue as to how much it would cost us to take a taxi to the airport. But luckily for us (Alhamdulillah, Allah made things easy for us), the bus driver was Indonesian and we met another Indonesian gentleman at the bus station who informed us that the usual fare is SR50 (armed with little Arabic you can still get by over here because there are many Indonesians working in SA and most are willing to help, MasyAllah) So, we got us a taxi to the airport for SR50 = RM42.50. Now we add up all the green-highlighted numbers = RM221. Add this to the blue-highlighted numbers and we get... RM3501. Thus, this is how much we spent on transportation only, for 2 people.
While we were in Makkah we did umrah a number of times and that meant travelling to the nearest place outside Haram territory which is Taneim. Vans cost range: SR6 - SR10 to and fro. (battered-looking vans cost  Buses were cheaper: SR4 both ways (but slower because they pick and drop people along the way). Let say you'd like to do umrah 4 times (after the one which you'd done on entering Makkah for the first time) and taking the average cost of transportation to be SR7, that means you'll spent SR28 and times 2 (persons) would be SR56 = RM47.60. However, this is just extra information as the extra umrah you do with or without a package you pay yourselves...
Here are some pics of interest:

At Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo
The number of scissors confiscated before boarding at BI Airport..the Sri Lankan umrah goers should have been warned before-hand that scissors for 'tahallul' (snipping off a few strands of hair at the end of umrah's ritual) shouldn't be carried as hand luggage!
The mosque in Taneim where we went to, at the start of all our 'extra' umrahs
In Makkah
Saudi Arabian International Airport (the Airline has its own airport)
The friendly check-in officer at SA International Airport who was delighted to know we are Malaysians as he is half-Malaysian himself and proud to be able to speak our language and was most helpful..Alhamdulillah!
Boarding the airplane bound for Cairo..
In my next entry I will write about accommodations and food..insyAllah.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Umrah and Cairo

Gosh..I haven't been updating my blog for over a month! No entries at all for April?! Before anyone says anything about my resolutions to update every week, well I have a perfectly good reason.... we had been doing some travelling and I didn't have much time to blog. The hubby and I had been planning to perform our umrah for quite sometime and we started our 16-day journey on the 12th of April . It was about 8 years ago that we performed our Hajj and since then we haven't had the opportunity to go for umrah. Ooh..I was that excited when the hubby started booking our flights since September 2011.. I did intend to write about my preparations but so many things happened leading up to our departure date. First, the hubby caught the flu. Then it was my turn - must have caught it twice because it was like forever that I suffered from a cold that even affected my hearing! (visited the homeopathic clinic twice) Anyway, another thing that happened of any interest was an accident involving the hubby where he went a bit too fast round a bend and our car flipped on its side about a week before our flight! Miraculously, Alhamdulillah, he came out without a scratch (started driving at a snail's pace after that - traumatised he claimed - only he almost always drives slower than me...). The car is still under repair, meaning another month driving a monster of a car; an old Pajero lent by a contractor which emits all kinds of sounds its embarrassing to stop at traffic lights..(*sigh*)
Well, we went for umrah without joining any Group Packages but on our own. That is, we book our own flights and hotels; only procuring the visa needed to enter Saudi Arabia through an agency. We found out that it was much cheaper than going with a Group, obviously and we had much more freedom in terms of decision-making. ( Hmm.. I might just make an entry or two after this about how to go about going umrah on a budget..)
Anyway, below are some pics of our trip. And oh yes, we took the opportunity to visit our youngest in Cairo after our umrah.
We started our journey from Kuala Terengganu, boarding Air Asia Wednesday night (11th April) to LCCT in Sepang.

At Sultan Mahmud Airport - crowded with people (going to umrah, too but most were the senders-off)
Hubby with our luggage - travelling light (we were actually underweight)
Arriving LCCT at about 10 pm
Our next flight was to Colombo, Sri Lanka which was at about 6 the next morning so we had to pass away the night at the airport (on the cold floor..the most uncomfortable part of the journey)

Yeay.. the Nasi Lemak Pak Nasser on Air Asia! (RM20...gasp!)
We were like the only Malay couple on the flight. An air-stewardess we passed by on the way to the airplane even asked me where I was heading for, seeing us among the crowd.. probably making sure I was on the right airplane!
We reached Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo morning, and our next leg of the journey was to Jeddah on board Saudi Arabian Airline in the afternoon (it was delayed for about 2 hours). By the way, the airport seriously needs to add more trolleys..
The Saudi Arabian plane was HUGE and the stewardesses were always busy, busy especially before take-off. At least they (the girls) were better-dressed than Air Asia flight attendants! Although there was this one intimidating hostess who was quite scary with her blue-painted nails, ruby-red lips and braces..

At Bandaranaike International Airport.
In the departure lounge - we were among the Sri Lankans going for umrah

Arriving in Saudi Arabian International Airport, Jeddah
Queuing up at passport control - shown are groups of umrah goers from India
From Jeddah, we took another flight to Medinah, arriving at Medinah Airport late in the night. Managed to get a taxi to get to the hotel that we had already booked. Unfortunately the bookings were not verified but we waited patiently for things to sort out and about after midnight we were able to rest our weary limbs..

The Prophet's Mosque
This is the hotel that we moved to for the last night in Medinah

Fascinated by the unfurling of the giant umbrella around the mosque

Selling wares along the street to the mosque - really cheap stuff!
The sliding roof - open in the early morning
I am really happy that I managed to go to Raudhah and prayed there despite the really long wait to enter the chamber! Well, after 3 days in Medinah, we left for Makkah taking a bus for the 6-hour journey.

Sights along the way - either rocky or sandy..
Yeay.. camels!
At last.. Makkah, where we were going to do the umrah. I'm not going into details about the umrah rituals but just to show some pics taken round and about Masjidil Haram. They used to ban cameras when we were there for Hajj but these days you can snap pictures to your hearts' content. (though it seems inappropriate, I feel to assume the Kaabah like..erm..the Eiffel Tower for instance where you pose and snap pictures like you're some kind of tourists..)

Sitting-down view of the Kaabah
Peak time for tawaf (construction seen going on in preparation for the Hajj season)
Night view
Viewed from the inside the mosque - I think this is the last picture I took before leaving Masjidil Haram.

The clock tower - a land mark that can even be seen from outside Haram land
A row of Zamzam water dispensers..(best drink in the world)
Inside Masjidil Haram
Outside the mosque - construction workers making supplications before starting work
Two of the hundreds of workers keeping the mosque spick and span day and night
A street in Makkah - usually it's more hectic; traffic jams, horns blaring, exhaust fumes... God, I miss Makkah!
Construction workers taking a break - a rather...err..creative way to use your safety helmet when there's nowhere clean to sit on..
After about a week in Makkah, we got on a bus to Jeddah (about an hour ride) and a taxi from the bus station to the airport. We boarded Saudi Arabian Airline to Cairo arriving in the evening on the 22nd of April (we were the only Malaysian - the rest were Egyptians). Adik waited for us with a rented car - his friend drove us to the place we had booked at Rumah Perlis. We didn't do much sight-seeing as this was our 3rd time in Cairo. However, some pics of our activities in Cairo:

The living room of Rumah Perlis (comfortable and affordable)
Love the fruits here!
Hubby buying souvenirs for his staff
Adik buying T-shirts - time to spend dad's money eh dearie...
Old man selling tea - everything carried on his back; poor thing
Went to part of Cairo not visited by regular tourists
Adik buying perfume from his favourite shop - dad's paying of course!
So, we were in Cairo for about 5 days, leaving on the morning of 27th of April. From Cairo we transited in Jeddah (7 hours...), boarding Saudi Arabian straight to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (this time the passengers were 90% Malaysians)

This is Cairo Airport - just to show how airport officials flaunt their disregard for their own rules of no smoking..
Aerial view of Sepang - ahh back home at last!
Waiting for the daughter to pick us..
We arrived on the 28th of April (Bersih 3.0..) at about 1.30 pm and that night we drove (daughter's car) back to Kuala Terengganu; me driving from Kemaman to our home for 3 hours straight, arriving in time for subh - thanks to jet lag! (Alhamdulillah)