There are a couple of things you need to know when travelling to or through Saudi Arabia. First things first, SA is an Absolute Monarchy which basically mean whatever the King says, goes. What does the king say? No revealing clothing (including men), no PDA (including hand holding), no entering the country without a visa etc. That visa one is sticky because you may not even travel through SA if your layover is over 12 hours because 9/10 you won’t qualify for a visa. So why go through here? Well for one, it was an experience I’ll never forget since It’s not too often North Americans can even be in the middle east and two, it was cheapest.
I flew on Saudi Arabia Air, the flag carrying air carrier. These planes are fairly nice. They give you blankets, pillows, a row to myself on 2/4 flights, pay wifi, a comfort pack with socks, eye mask, earplugs, tooth brush etc. and 2 checked bags . Not bad. The food was fine for airplane standards and what was cool was two prayer rooms on the plane for praying. You don’t see that every day.
The airports on the other hand vary greatly. Here’s what I found:
King Abdulaziz International Airport, Jeddah Saudi Arabia JED
Wow is all I can say about this airport. I arrived on ‘National Day’ so I was given a rose with a SA flag, chocolates and an extremely unpleasant airport experience. Once deplaned in Jeddah, we line up to get our passports checked and then had our bags haphazardly scanned. Next we were escorted to a more normal security check where they separated us by gender and scanned our things and sent the women through a curtained off room where I got discretely checked by a metal detecting wand. I felt like I was entering a haunted house the way the narrow space was set up. Once through, the harsh reality of my 8 hour layover washed over me. This airport had NOTHING I’m not sure if I was there on a particularly busy day but there were about half the amount of chairs for people, a couple food options and one room to contain all this. They were thankfully taking the leather couches out of the airport lounge which they left in the hallway for a few hours so I got a quick nap on these thankfully but otherwise it was rather grim.
Food: Yes – Tim Hortons, Baskin Robins and a cafe
Bathrooms: Squat toilets and a lot of water everywhere
International plug ins: No
Atmosphere: Frantic, chaotic, messy
Airport lounge: Yes
How to survive: Head to the cafe in the back left corner, get some food and score a booth. Hopefully you’re with someone and you can take turns napping. Alternatively, do yourself a favour and pay the entrance to the lounge it’s well worth it.
King Khalid International Airport, Riyadh Saudi Arabia RUH
I arrived at this airport and was pleasantly surprised when we taxi’d up, the outside looks pretty impressive. Good sign. Once in, I tried joining the cue for immigration by accident. For future reference stay upstairs and to the right. Again there was a scanner and a private room to check women. After that we went upstairs and waited in a glass room until a soldier let us out into the airport. This airport is excellent. It is clean, fairly traveller friendly and modern and once I tracked down a guard who used their phone to generate a pin code for the wifi, it was even better.
Food: Yes – Starbucks, Cafes, Dominos
Wifi: Yes with a SA phone number
Cleanliness: Above average for an airport
International plug ins: Yes 1 for every 20 chairs
Atmosphere: Heavily guarded, calm
Airport lounge: Yes
How to survive: Try possibly getting free wifi at Starbucks, they have comfy couches to lounge on as well.
As I said before, flying through SA was an experience. Which is what travelling is supposed to be isn’t it? I’m glad I went, I’ve never been so uncomfortable and out of my element than I was in SA and I’m grateful I got to experience it with no major incident.