We arrived at Riyadh airport in the middle of the night. After the immigration process - super easy and speedy by the way - we were greeted by our „meet and greet“ man, Joseph, a guy from India. We had booked a 20 day tour around Saudi Arabia in a rented car, with hotels prebooked, and so the cities as well as the attractions were also defined. This is what we got: on which day to visit what, and where to stay overnight. Rest was on us, in particular the routing from A to B to C and so on was our business. This routing was meticulously worked out by Gisela, my wife and co pilot, in other words, my brain when I was fully busy with avoiding accidents on the road.
Back to Joseph. First what he arranged for us was a local SIM card that you can get at the airport - after some queuing and bureaucracy - and so we left with promised 8 GByte of the Saudi stc operator. On day 19 the capacity ran out after 5 GByte of use, luckily we were already back in Riyadh and could muddle through. But better you insist on more GByte when at the counter.
Thereafter on to the next bureaucratic exercise, which was renting a car, in our case from Budget. After another half hour finally we were handed out the key to our Toyota Corolla sedan, automatic gear. And so we left around 3am on the way to our hotel, with Gisela as my guide, hotel as well the route already marked on the electronic map. Eventually we reached our hotel and concluded our arrival into KSA.
Advise: driving a car in KSA needs thorough preparation. If you are the driver, you will have no time to check out the directions when driving, as in KSA lots of traffic signs are in Arabic language, and sometimes even completely missing. Plan your routing well in advance.
For renting a car, you need to provide an international drivers licence. The rental company even did not ask for my local (German) licence.
I have driven a car in many countries, but KSA ranks clearly as the one with worst discipline of the drivers. Roads are a war zone. As a (foreign) driver you have no time to check out where to take a turn, you will be fully immersed in preventing an accident, as the Saudis seem to not give a damn about traffic rules. In particular the drivers of the ubiquitous Toyota Hilux pickups seem to own the right of way. I was taken over from all sides even when there was practically not enough space, at speeds much over the top. Overtaking traffic from the opposite direction into my lane forced me to escape to the emergency lane, and I believe that once on the road I was fully pumped up with adrenaline.
In big cities many roads are closed, exit lanes are blocked, so you cannot follow your electronic map which frequently does not reflect reality. So your road finder (i.e. your copilot) has to check out for the next best alternative that the electronic map might propose. While you are on alert when having to change your lane…
When going sightseeing in a city, we preferred not to drive, but using Uber. We did that in Riyadh, Jeddah and Medina, and so you can avoid all the hassle that driving entails in cities. Costs are moderate, and when using Uber you need not negotiate the price or explain to the driver where to go.
If you travel alone and have no assistance of a co pilot sitting next to you, I would advise not to drive a car, but instead take a public bus for inter city traffic. From your hotel you can always arrange an Uber or a taxi to get you to your desired destination.
I would further suggest to
bring an adapter from the cigarette lighter to USB, such that you can charge your mobile while on the road
refuel the car when you are down half. Ideally before leaving a city. It may happen to you that for more than 200 km there is no petrol station
If your car should have a cruise control, switch it on. A big blessing as there are radar traps every few km. And because the roads are so good and wide, you may absent mindedly overspeed just the second when you pass a radar trap. Which cannot happen when cruise control is activated.
Avoid at all costs to drive at night. If already during daytime the traffic is a challenge, at night is is a nightmare. Some cars kept their lights switched off…
The police and their countermeasures
You will have to pass many checkpoints on the road, but the police always waved us through. Maximum was that were were asked from where we were. Police was always very friendly - probably because they know no English and still don’t know how to handle us…
And now that the police has to deal with so much of reckless driving, they devised 2 main countermeasures:
radar traps: they are placed every few kilometers, sometimes almost unnoticeable. And they will zap you if you are too fast. Driving constantly at say 120 km/h and not being attentive for a moment when you reach 130 km/h, and oops you are zapped. I wonder how the Saudi drivers handle this, having seen them at speeds close to 200 km/h (when I was overtaken)
Speed bumps: every town you pass through, even when there are just a few dwellings on the road, speed bumps will slow you down. Usually, speed bumps are indicated. But not always. And they are often very badly marked. And if you pass a speed bump with 50 km/h, you will definitely notice that the hard way. I can only advise: be on the alert in populated areas and ask your co pilot for assistance.
No alcohol: this is of course not a counter measure, but part of the Saudi culture. I can only instantly hope that this prohibition of alcohol will continue for a long time.
Our Toyota Corolla was quite ok. However, in the traffic war, when you are attacked, you may end up at the receiving side. For safety reasons you may resort to having a bigger car like a SUV which however is much more expensive.
Another nerve taking moment was - in one instance - with the automatic gear. On the mountain road from Najran to Jazan, driving along the border to Yemen, at one point we went downhill from an altitude of 2,700m to less than 1,000m. That means that over a distance of more than 10 km you have to constantly hit the brakes, as your motor brake will not assist you downhill. Later downhill, we could notice a strong smell coming from the brake pads. Fortunately nothing happened.
And because the roads are in such an excellent condition, you need no 4 wheel drive. Except, as it happened to me, over a distance of 15km, when the asphalt road ended in the middle of nowhere and continued as a very bad gravel road. Good Toyota, you made it while I was sweating blood and water to avoid a flat tyre or getting stuck in the sand.
Many cars display quite a few dents. It seems to me that in the traffic war zone showing dents is the modern version of a warrior with scars on his face.
As far as the insurance of the car is concerned, in hindsight I would prefer a fully comprehensive insurance without any retainer. It would have cost another 200 Euro on top. What we did was accepting a retainer to a maximum of 400 Euro (blocked on my credit card) in case we would return the car with scratches or dents. Now, what happened was that we rented the car in the middle of the night, when insufficient light made not all dents and scratches easily visible. The service man marked perhaps 15 scratches or dents that our Toyota had, but on return of our car he "found" an additional one, a minor one even, and listed it as a damage that I should pay for. I denied, there was a long haggling with the manager, and only after getting to know that it was not us that rented the car, but the local tour operator to whom we would certainly complain, he accepted our denial of responsibility for that additional scratch, and let us go. My suspicion is that that was a plan from the very beginning, not to mark all the scratches (that we anyway could not detect in darkness) and then milk the unsuspecting tourist upon return. To be spared of such a game, just consider to afford the extra 200 EUR.
Most shops and restaurants accept credit cards. We had Visa and Mastercard, Apple Pay worked often. But some restaurants or petrol stations only accept local credit cards. So you have to bring a decent amount of cash with you. Which you can change at the airport or draw from an ATM. For the 2 of us, over 20 days, we spent 1400 Riyal (some 350 Euro) in cash, rest all cashless.
Prior to leaving for KSA, I took some intensive online lessons in Arabic. Which however I almost never had to use. All service staff that you may deal with are foreigners, in particular Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis or Filipinos. So you will somehow survive with English only. However, I would advise to at least getting familiar with the numbers, such that you as the driver can identify the speed limit which is often indicated with (true) Arabic numbers.
And saying „thank you“ would be fine, too. It’s „shukran“.
Saudi tourist authorities do a lot of advertising of visiting KSA. And indeed it is super easy to getting into KSA. But there it ends. Do not expect that attractions which on the website are marked “open” are really open. Or they are sometimes not easy to find. Many attractions for example were not marked on maps.me, or the writing was quite different from your guide book or electronic map.
You need a pioneering attitude when traveling in KSA, and accept the challenge to get along, overcoming unforeseen obstacles. In terms of international tourism, KSA is still underdeveloped when it comes to matching reality with the attractions.
As reckless the Saudis may be when driving, so friendly they are when they come in touch with you. Always curious, always polite. Several times, when we dined in a restaurant, a Saudi approached us, mentioning that our food was already paid by him. We were even stopped when driving, to be invited as a guest. Would you approach a Saudi in your home country doing the same?
Still most women are fully veiled, but this is no longer mandatory. You will see them now driving a car (not recklessly), and rarely also seen together with men in a restaurant (earlier they had to resume to a family restaurant where, after entering your cubicle, curtains are shut).
Gisela was all the time unveiled and even did not wear her Abaya which she packed. Never she was criticized. But yes, starred at, every now and then
GPS & online maps
We used 2 online maps in parallel. Google maps and maps.me. While you can use maps.me offline - provided you download the Saudi maps prior to use - and maps.me lately costs you something, Google maps is free of charge, but you need to be online all the time (thus the local SIM card).
Both maps in combination make sense, they have their individual advantages and disadvantages. In areas where you have no connection, you will be happy to have downloaded maps.me. However, as we learned the hard way, maps.me did not display many attractions, or restaurants, and in some cases not even our hotel.
So you will resort to Google maps, and so you will enjoy being online almost everywhere.
Handling an electronic map requires a co pilot who guides you. You will definitely not be able to handle the directions alone in the Saudi traffic hell when you have constantly to watch out which car will violate the traffic rules to your disadvantage. I would clearly state that as a tourist, being unfamiliar with both traffic situation and the location, it is adamant to have somebody sitting by your side. And I am dead serious about this.
Without a car, you are a nobody in Saudi Arabia. Having finally arrived in our hotel, we often tried to venture out by foot. Already crossing the road was a life threatening experience. And many streets have no proper footway. When you have to cross four lanes for reaching the other side, under heavy traffic, you think twice before attempting so. If you allow me to state so, the ordinary Saudi does not walk, but always takes a car. And if it need be to reach the other side. We, not being familiar with the local situation and how best to reach any location by car (your electronic map is not always helpful), sometimes preferred to dine out in the hotel restaurant (as the only guests) or even ask the room service for providing some food.
You will probably eat Indian or something similar. And almost all staff speaks at least a little English. We did not get any stomach problems, even when eating in small foodstalls. And we liked the food. When on the road, many petrol stations have adjacent restaurants, and even though all the meals are written in Arabic, often they come with a foto, so you can point at your desired food. And food is relatively cheap, compared to Europe.
Not all restaurants accept Visa or Mastercard. Prepare sufficient cash.
And finding a restaurant when you are driving is theoretically easy when you can read Arabic. Otherwise you have to peer into the shops while passing. Using Google Maps is best option, it displays the restaurants. Maps.me often was not helpful.
Even though KSA is not yet fully prepared for tourists, hotels are superb. We staid in 3 or 4 star hotels. High quality, nothing to complain about (except in some cases you may have to order your food to your room, as the restaurant is closed. Reason being probably that most Saudis prefer eating in the room.
There are almost no public toilets in KSA, in particular I did not find any in the countryside, and many restaurants go without bathroom. So, when you have to follow the call of nature, and this applies in particular to women, try to find a Mosque which is open for public. Women have a separate entrance, sometimes located in the back. Of the few key words you need to know when asking I propose „hamam“, which stands for bathroom.
Toilets in Mosques are plentiful and usually very clean. Best is to stop at the big petrol stations that always have a Mosque attached.
Our way of dealing with this issue was to separate the restaurant business from the toilet business. Such that you can enjoy your food without any distraction.
Many attractions are closed between midday and 4 pm. And even in the most touristic place we were, Al Ula, we arrived at certain spots (like the Elefant rock) at the wrong time, being told that the location is only open to public after 4 pm.
Even if you check out online whether a certain museum is open, it may happen to you that you find the museum closed. Since a long time even closed…
On the other hand, many museums or attractions only close at 10 pm or even later.
Probably caused by the considerable heat, life comes to a standstill in the early afternoon. We got used to it and also took our siesta in the early afternoon
It was a bad experience and a good one in the same time. Coming back from our stroll in Taif to our parked car, we found a wheel of our Toyota clamped. Nobody around. And we paid the parking fee. After some time of attracting attention, a Saudi showed up and started to talk to us, in a mix of Arabic and broken English. It took quite some time (and the use of Google Translator) until we learned the reason of the clamps: an earlier customer of our Toyota did not pay a fine, and so our Toyota was officially marked as “overdue”, which the police found out and so clamped our car. Release only against payment of a fine for a violation which we did not commit. Our Saudi angel even drove us to the local office of Budget, only to be told that they would not pay, but we should have to pay first and then claim the money back upon return of of our rented car. So we went back to our Toyota, waited another half hour until police arrived (being called by our helpful Saudi angel). Then I presented my credit card (no cash payment possible) and paid the 230 Riyal, around 55 Euro. A minute later the clamp was removed, and we were set free again.
Even though I cannot understand the logic that we were made victim of this case, I can only repeat again and again that the Saudis are very helpful if you run into trouble.
Of course I had preferred not to make such an experience, and the shock of being taken prisoner (in a certain respect) continued for a while, after being released. The Saudi even left his mobile phone number, in case he should have to bail us out once more.
The story ended well: when returning the car at Riyadh airport, after some haggling with the manager of Budget - and with the valuable support of another Saudi queing behind us - finally we were paid back the 230 Riyal in cash.
In 20 days we just came across 2 other individual tourists - a Jeep from Switzerland and a motor home from USA. Traveling individually, you will always be in the center of attraction and will enjoy the immense friendliness and helpfulness of the Saudi people. But you also need some adventurous mood - it is no easy going, but rewarding.