Back in December, I booked a trip to Mecca and Medina to perform Umrah with my family. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, Umrah is the “lesser” pilgrimage Muslims make to Mecca. It’s much less rigorous and there are fewer restrictions around when it can be performed. This information isn’t going to be relevant to most readers, but I want to share it for those who might be researching this topic. My own research wasn’t always fruitful, so I reached out to Elena from Muslim Travel Girl. She has a whole DIY Umrah series and was immensely helpful in recommending hotels as well as travel agencies that handled Visa applications. If you’re looking to book your own Umrah trip on points and miles or are curious about how I booked mine, you might find this useful:
- Etihad Business Class San Francisco to Abu Dhabi Review
- Conrad Makkah Haram View Suite Review
- Conrad Makkah Executive Lounge and Al Mearaj Restaurant Review
- My Umrah Experience: Inside Masjid Al Haram in Mecca
- Pullman Zamzam Madinah 2-Bedroom Executive Suite
- My Stay at the Conrad Dubai During New Year’s Eve 2016
- Hyatt Capital Gate Abu Dhabi Executive Suite Review
Obtaining an Umrah Visa Without Booking a Travel Package
Most travel agencies refuse to obtain an Umrah visa for clients unless they’re also booking travel packages. Luckily, I found a few travel agencies that do process Umrah Visas only: Barak Travel ($175 per person) and Chicago Hajj ($200). Chicago Hajj throws in a complimentary 3-night stay at the Al Rawda Hotel and their staff is very knowledgeable. However, my dad ended up going with Barak Travel. He knows the owner, who also booked our flights to Afghanistan in 2011.
Saudi Arabia requires all women under 45 to travel with a male relative (i.e. Mahram). We were required to provide birth and marriage certificates to establish everyone’s relationships. Easy, right? Except unlike our previous President, I don’t have a birth certificate. I was born at home in Kabul while the city was getting shelled and afterwards, my dad registered my birth with local authorities. Whatever document established this got left behind in the Old Country and all my parents have in terms of proof that I’m their daughter is some official document they obtained in Germany. It’s also the only document proving my parents are husband and wife.
There was also the matter of my cousin, who is my dad’s niece by marriage. We had to find a way to get approval for my dad to be designated as her Mahram. So my dad typed up a series of statements stating my date of birth, parents’ date of marriage, and everyone’s relationship to him. He had three witnesses/family members sign these papers, which were then notarized. To my surprise, the Saudi embassy accepted these forms and issued our Visas a few days later. I had provided an overnight shipping envelope for the return of our documents, so we got everything back just four days after submitting them.
Redeeming Miles for Flights to Jeddah
If you’re traveling to Saudi Arabia for Umrah, you can fly into Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport (JED) or Medina’s Prince Mohammad bin Abdelaziz Airport (MED). Umrah rituals are performed in Mecca, but a lot of people recommend flying into Medina first because the airport is less busy. The immigration hall in Jeddah was completely deserted when we landed. I think the total time for eight of us to get fingerprinted and photographed was around 10 minutes. It worked out for us, but that may have been a fluke.
Women must be on the same flight as their Mahram. This made things challenging for our group (me, my parents, brother, sister, grandmother, great-aunt, and cousin). I looked into booking separate flights to a meeting point, then putting everyone on a connecting flight to Jeddah. However, a separate connecting flight was going to cost $1,000 one-way on Etihad.
Two weeks before our trip, Etihad opened up a ton of business class award space to Jeddah. I had heavily banked on Alaska miles, so I didn’t have quite enough miles to fly Eithad. Thankfully, a few awesome people jumped in to trade/lend me their miles.
If you’re saving up points for umrah, focus on Ultimate Rewards. You can transfer Ultimate Rewards points to Korean Skypass and redeem them for Etihad flights. If Eithad doesn’t open up award space, you could use the points to fly Turkish Airlines via Istanbul instead.
Redeeming Points for Hotels in Mecca
There were tons of great hotel options in Mecca on points. It came down to the Conrad Makkah and Hyatt Regency Makkah, which were right next to each other, in identical buildings. Since the Conrad offered larger standard rooms with two Queen beds rather than two Twins, I chose this hotel. The location was great – right across the street from Masjid Al Haram. Thanks to Hilton’s Winter Sale, we scored a rate of around $300 per night with taxes included on two rooms. I decided to treat my parents to a Haram View Suite, which was going for $450 per night.
The staff upgraded all of our rooms to Haram View suites and sent up extra beds to accommodate everyone. I booked the reservations under two Hilton Diamond and one Gold elite member account, so we received club lounge access and breakfast in the restaurant. Overall, the Conrad Makkah was a great choice and one I’d highly recommend to anyone traveling to Mecca. I was able to redeem Arrival miles for the stay, despite my Barclay Arrival Plus card getting shut down.
Traveling from Mecca to Medina
The best way to get to Medina is probably via bus. The ride is 5 hours long on a SAPTCO VIP bus that costs $32. Unfortunately, the VIP bus was sold out the morning we went to buy our tickets, so we had to take the regular bus for $17. It wasn’t that bad. The seats were a bit cramped but fine when reclined. There was a cooler filled with free water, and the bus driver stopped at a rest area about halfway to Medina. If you’re going to take the VIP bus, book your ticket online, well in advance.
A few people I met told me they were flying to Medina, which didn’t make sense to me because it would take the same amount of time (if not longer) than the bus. It takes an hour to get to Jeddah Airport from Mecca. Flights are just $45 one way in economy class, and Medina Airport is just about 30 minutes from the center of town. I would just take the bus – there are more departure time options and the scenery enroute to Medina is pretty nice.
Redeeming Points for Hotels in Medina
IHG has a strong presence in Medina, with two Intercontinental and one Crowne Plaza hotel. There is also a Hilton hotel. So there are enough opportunities to redeem points for hotels in Medina. However, during our stay, standard rooms at the Intercontinental hotels were $400+ per night, while the Hilton had a 3-bedroom suite for $1,800 per night. The best option was the Pullman Zamzam Madina, which offered 2-bedroom suites at $420 per night, and standard rooms with breakfast for three for $200.
I booked a 2-bedroom suite and a standard room to accommodate our group of eight. At check-in, they upgraded the second room to a 2-bedroom Executive Suite, which worked out nicely for us.
The hotel was steps from Masjid an-Nabawi (aka the Prophet’s Mosque), which was very convenient. However, it’s worth noting that the hotel is near the men’s entrance. The women’s entrance to the mosque is on the opposite side, so you’re in for quite a walk.
Redeeming Points for Hotels in Dubai
I’m not a big fan of Dubai. It’s possibly my least favorite place in the world. I don’t care about shopping malls, theme parks, or shiny new buildings. Plus, I’ve been there twice before and Dubai really isn’t my cup of tea. Everyone else wanted to go for New Year’s Eve, so I booked the Conrad Dubai using points and two free nights from my dad’s Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card.
I don’t recommend staying here, as it was probably the worst 5-star hotel I’ve ever stayed at. There are better hotels in Dubai in terms of location, amenities, and service. Next time, I’d probably book the Hyatt Regency Dubai Creek, which is practically brand new and features massive standard rooms for just 12,000 points per night.
Redeeming Points for Hotels in Abu Dhabi
Our return flight home was out of Abu Dhabi International Airport, so I booked the Hyatt Capital Gate Abu Dhabi for two nights. Standard room rates were 12,000 points or $200 per night. I booked one room with points and the other cash, then applied a Diamond Suite Upgrade Award. They upgraded us further from a Capital Suite to an Executive Suite, which was pretty awesome.
The hotel is pretty isolated and food is overpriced, but cabs are cheap and the Sheikh Zayed mosque is less than 10 minutes away. Staying at the Hyatt Capital Gate Abu Dhabi was a nice way to wrap up our trip.
If you’re booking your own Umrah trip on points, it’s definitely worth it to get your Umrah Visa early and look for award space in advance. Also, know that award space may not open up until shortly before your travel date. Still, planning well in advance will help everything fall into place faster once flights do become available.
If you have any tips on booking Umrah travel with points and miles, please share them in the comment section.
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