Friday, 16 February 2018

Choosing a Hajj Operator #HajjSeries

Assalaamu Alaykum and welcome back Readers!

I have only recently realised the overwhelm prospective pilgrims face when needing to decide on a travel operator with whom they will travel. Since we were accredited so late, we didn't have the opportunity to shop around and were given 24 hours to confirm our travel operator as well as our chosen package (which was kind of chosen for us, as is the case with a late accreditation). With the deadline looming for prospective pilgrims for this year to make a final decision, I have put together a few pointers on choosing the right operator for you

Even though I am a seasoned traveller, it was essential for me to have the right operator. For this trip, your operator, along with the Saudi government, manages your movements in and out of the city. They take ownership of your passport, book your accommodation, arrange your transfers and look after you during the days of Hajj. For this reason it is critical to be comfortable with your operator, and to trust that they will deliver on all the promises made.

I am not specifically advocating a particular travel operator in this post, however, I believe that my operator, Rasools Travel, contributed greatly to my overall Hajj experience. If you followed their page, or mine, during or after Hajj, you would have seen that my journey was indeed a phenomenal one, completely fulfilling spiritually. And the logistical aspects were comfortably taken care of by my operator. 
When deciding on your travel operator keep the following in mind:
  1. Do you trust the operator? This is someone who literally plans your entire trip, where you stay, the period you'll stay for 4-6 weeks. And all of this needs to be paid for upfront before you arrive in the kingdom.
  2. Reputation and track record of the operator: Chat to pilgrims who have travelled with the operator before, read reviews from previous travellers and research the various muslim  news platforms for any developments. 
  3. Even if you're travelled before, this journey is unlike any other trip, so ask as many questions as you need to, to feel comfortable making the final decision. Elderly travellers who have never been abroad will need some guidance as this simple exercise can prove to be extremely overwhelming. 
  4. On this note, check how big the group travelling with an operator will be, the bigger the group, the more you'd need to be independent and be able to manage on your own. The agent would have arranged what they can, but it is very difficult to attend to individual needs with a large group. My group last year was one of the smallest at 80 people, and our operator knew each Hujaaj, by face, name, our chosen package and what our individual requirements were. One cannot underestimate the importance of this!
  5. Carefully tabulate the costs, ask about hidden costs and specifically the proximity of the hotel as well as the length of stay at a specific hotel. It is crucial to note, that any hotel more than 300m from the Haram will mean 25min walk to get into the Haram during Hajj season. This is mainly due to large crowds, and the entrances being closed off randomly everyday to safely manage the large influx of people. Shuttles cannot get close to the Haram during this time as roads are closed, so it will still require a walk from your hotel. Aziziyah accommodation do not offer shuttles, instead one has to try and catch a SAPTCO bus on the main road. This too is a mission, as it includes a walk (often in the blazing sun) to the main road, and then waiting for a bus or taxi. It could take about an hour to get to the Haram, and then a 25 min walk from the bus terminus. 
  6. Don't forget to include any additional costs in your calculations, this would include food for 4-6 weeks (which is a very real cost and so expensive), travel costs for taxis /buses, any ziyarahs, spending money for gift buying, hosting your guests before you leave and ensuring the home and kids, even elderly parents, are taken care of financially.
  7. Before paying any deposit, ensure that you have a contract, in writing, with a detailed itinerary, and that it includes ALL costs. At this point in time the costs for airfares, tanazul and your days of hajj have not yet been finalised and will still need to be added onto any package quoted (if not stated).
I have tried to keep it as simple as possible, but cannot stress enough the importance this decision will be in your overall Hajj journey. While on pilgrimage I witnessed the unhappines hujaaj expressed with their packages, it was either different to what they expected, a lesser hotel or just that the group was too big. It placed such a dampener on an experience which is meant to be amazing! I realise that cost is a HUGE factor, and it is therefore important to consult with a few agents (perhaps keep it to a minimum of 3/4 to prevent confusion) and ask if they are able to accommodate a certain budget. Or even if they are able to make exceptions on certain packages, by substituting one hotel for another or reducing length of stay; this could be a possibility for an agent with a smaller group. My opinion on a cost saving measure would be that one can compromise on a Madinah hotel, as most of them are pretty close to the Haram, and rather fork out for a good hotel in Makkah- where your ibadah is actually centered around.

Good luck making this decision and my thoughts are with all the prospective hujaaj. Furthermore, there has been an awesome development this week, Saudi has granted South Africa an additional 1,000 visas! This means people who thought they may not go this year stand a very real chance! 

Taken one night before we left while greeting all our well wishers

Collecting our final documents at the agents offices
The morning we left
We chose to leave a day early and get some rest in Johannesburg before embarking on our journey the next morning

SAHUC and agents assisting with the checking in process



The first sight when you land in Madinah and enter the airport

Madinah airport

Our spiritual leader for our group hosted lessons in the Madhinah hotel prior to our performimg our first Umrah

Ghaalid & I spent a lot of time on our own, exploring and visiting landmarks
I hope this guide is useful, if you have any questions, please ask!

Caio for now, 
RuBe xoxo