You saved your whole life for this. You got a passport, bought new clothes, purchased new luggage, studied and found your perfect circle of friends to go with as you venture forth to become a hajji. Your group of friends pool their funds and pick a hajji travel company to help them with the tour and pilgrimage. Your group goes for all of the extras: limos to the airport, bus passes, hotels (instead of tents), side trips, arrange to bring dates and a barrel of zamzam water, plus you have the company help arrange to get livestock slaughter for you. All of these extras are costing the group many thousands more, but this is for the sake of Allah (SWT) so it is worth it. Your travel company is “making arrangements for the airlines, hotels, buses or any other services in connection with the performance of Hajj”.
For some reason the limo never arrives, but you manage to get to the airport safely. You fly the first leg of your connecting flight and land in Egypt. Perhaps, you don’t speak the language, because you don’t understand what you are being told. You are discovering that your luggage (the little there was) is lost, your tour guide that was supposed to meet you is not coming and the airport security is saying you are not really booked for a flight to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)! They quickly ask you to make arrangements to return home, because you do not have a valid visa to stay in Egypt. When you return home the travel company has permanently closed, like it never even existed. Your group hires a lawyer who soon discovers that your contract prevents you from suing and the local better business council does not seem to care!
This story seems too extreme to be true? Unfortunately in 2013 this happened to one group from Chicago and there are hundreds of people who have had similar experiences. Do not let this happen to you! Follow these tips and insha Allah you can have a great pilgrimage – ‘Umrah and/or Hajj!
Start at the top
The most essential factor of having a successful trip comes down to working with a reputable travel company. This can only be done by vetting the company. Start by looking online, read both the positive and the negative reviews. Two trustworthy sites to compare Hajj companies on are http://ratemyHajj.com and http://Hajjratings.com. Ask everyone you know for suggestions. Working with your masjid is a great place to start.
Seldom have people been scammed through their established masjids or Islamic centres, but that’s not to say it has never happened. In 2011, a group of 32 families in New Zealand was not able to complete their Hajj and only learned that the organisation had stolen 12k per person when the Jordanian Airport Security sent them home. They were going through a new company, so even though the masjid was established the company was not.
It is always best to travel with a well established company. Make sure it is a legitimate company with at least two previous pilgrimage experiences. Call and ask: can they tell you about difficulties they faced and how they handle these situations? Any company you consider going with should be able to address possible difficulties, clearly answer your questions and walk you through every step of the pilgrimage, including the transit to and from Makkah.
Many companies do not actually handle the travel arrangements or they might have limited experience coming from your region. In that case, arrange to book your flights yourself. Yes, this can be an additional expense but it can save you hassle later. If the company insists on handling it, make sure you have the emailed, print out or original tickets on your person prior to arriving at the airport.
Know before you go
Before you can purchase a ticket you will need to get a passport and visa. Additionally, you may want to acquire a visa to the country you are connecting through, for example a tourist visa in Egypt or Jordan can help if you need to stay a night, if there is an emergency or if you want to extend your trip and explore outside of KSA. Experts at Travelocity recommend that you never let a travel company arrange for passports or visas, unless it is through a company that you work for and can be trusted or there is a need to expedite it, in which case you have to work with a private firm that coordinates with the proper government agencies. Not only is it safer to not share the personal details with a third party, but you do not run into issues of confusion with mahram-related business or letters of conversion to Islam. The Saudi Embassy updates their ‘Umrah and Hajj visa requirements annually. Travellers who book through a travel agency must submit a copy of the travel licence. For ‘Umrah during Ramadhan 2014 the Saudi Embassy requires that any interested pilgrim files for a visa through a licensed travel agency.
Although you shouldn’t share these personal documents with just anyone, experts on the Travelocity Mecca Forum recommend leaving copies of everything with a trusted family member or close friend who is not going to be travelling with you, so that they can help you in case of an emergency.
On the go
Before you take off, check into hotels and flights ahead of time. This can be done on the phone, but many places have apps that you can access on your mobile devices.
Since you are probably going to be in ihram clothes for much of your trip, packing lightly is much easier than on normal trips. If possible, skip the checked luggage altogether to avoid further confusion or delays at the airport. One former ‘Umrah pilgrim advises bringing an extra set of ihram clothes in case of dirt or sweat.
A big lesson the ‘Umrah and Hajj goers shared is don’t fast! You are travelling, it is not fardh to fast. The start of your journey can easily be sullied with the whole family being stuck at an airport hungry. There is not much food or drink available at the airport when you arrive. They recommend that you try to bring snacks or purchase them on the plane. There are a few restaurants nearby, but you may not be able to get access to them and most do not deliver. When arriving, they currently do not recheck carry-ons for liquids at immigration, so a water or soda should be fine.
If you are unsure of which organisation to go with, include this in your prayer of istikharah for making the trip. Make extra du’as and make dhikr for safe travels of fellow pilgrims. Bring a prayer mat to use at the airport and pray salah. Prayer and worship are the entire reason you want to go to Makkah. Keep Allah (SWT) in your heart and on your mind throughout the process and you will have a wonderful and meaningful journey, insha Allah.
Jillian Pikora is a graduate of North Carolina State University, where she studied the Middle East, Global Perspectives and Political Science. She has worked on several political campaigns and volunteer with Girl Scouts. Jillian has contributed articles to numerous Islamic magazines and is a blogger and YouTuber: http://jillianpikora.wordpress.com.