Hajj is the single most important journey a Muslim takes in their lifetime. It requires preparation- mental, physical, material, and spiritual. One of the first things that need to be done, after the intention of course, is to find and choose a package that best suits your needs and budget.
My husband and I went for Hajj in the year 2019, alhamdolillah. While researching packages and weighing all our options, we realized that there can be quite a few things to consider. These things become even more apparent once you’ve been on the journey and have had a chance to talk to others about their experiences.
Around this time of the year is when everyone who has intended to go for Hajj starts finalizing their packages and so I thought I would put together this post of points that both my husband and I thought were essential to consider while booking a Hajj package, based on our personal experience.
The following points are in no particular order but are things you should discuss with your spouse, parents, siblings, whomever it is that may be accompanying you. Once you know how you would like to go about them, make sure you talk to all the service providers personally to have your queries answered so that you can make an informed decision.
Points I will elaborate on below:
- Legitimacy and responsiveness of the agency.
- Where to stay during Makkah.
- Assigned Scholars/Shuyookh.
- Makkah first or Madinah.
- Mina tents: VIP or regular.
- Is the agency legitimate and approved?
This goes without saying. But make sure anyway. Also ensure that the agency has been in the business for quite a few years. Experience is highly essential in dealing with the staff and authorities in Saudi. Things work very differently there than they do in the west. It takes a great amount of experience to deal with the Saudi officials and try to make everything run smoothly. Also note how responsive they are, because the way they deal with you now will set the tone for how responsive they will be during the journey. Check if they have full-time staff in Saudi as well, and also how well they can accommodate any special needs you may have, especially if there are any elderly people traveling with you.
- Where do you want to stay during your trip?
During the Makkah leg of the trip, travel providers give you the option to stay in the hotels around the mosque, or residence buildings in Aziziyah/Al-Naseem. Different packages offer different options. It is up to you to decide where you would like to stay. This will depend on personal preference as well as budget. Hotels near the mosque are expensive as compared to the residences. The reason why people choose the hotels is to be able to go to the mosque as often and for as long as they like. Whereas transport has to be arranged from the residences to be able to go to the mosque. Most providers have a shuttle that goes to and from the mosque but just once in the day. Taking a taxi/cab is an option that will give you more flexibility in that regard but I’ve been told taxis can be very expensive.
During the Mina days (which fall under the Makkah leg), you will have access to your hotel rooms/residence rooms. The residences are closer to Mina and are more easily accessible than the hotels. It would be easier to go back to the residence to get a change of clothes or take care of whatever you may need.
In Madinah, the hotels are where everyone stays and almost all the hotels are around the mosque boundary.
- Do you prefer to go with a certain scholar?
A lot of scholars/ shuyukh/ imams go as the spiritual guides of Hajj groups. It’s great to have a good imam because they guide you through the process one day at a time. It can be very hard to remember what is to be done when while you’re there and the whole process can seem incredibly overwhelming. The shuyukh are an extremely valuable part of the group. You can go to them with concerns and questions and doubts. They pep you up, and they will guide you through every ritual. They also hold little halaqaat in Mina and are available to answer all fiqh related questions you may have. If you have chosen your package because of the imam- great. If not, make sure you find out who the imams/shuyookh accompanying you will be. It helps to know.
It also helps to have a knowledgeable sister or a shaykhah among the ladies for the ladies to be able to go to directly if you can’t find the chance to talk to the shaykh. Shaykh Kamel El-Mekki and Shaykh Yassir Fazaga were our imams, and Shaykh Kamal’s wife was traveling with us too and she was a great resource for us.
Important thing to remember: Bigger Hajj agencies have a dedicated Shaykh for each group. A small Hajj agency will have 4-5 different groups- some staying in the residence buildings and some in hotels (this is for Makkah). In this case the shaykh might be in the residence and not in the hotel. If you’ve been wanting to stay at the hotels, remember why you chose the hotel- to be close to the haram and be able to send more time there. If you want to be where the Shaykh is, opt for wherever they will be staying. Also, during the hotel days you don’t need a shaykh. All you do is pray. During the hajj days, however, the shaykh will be in the same camp as the rest of the group and so easily accessible. That is when you’ll need their help most anyhow.
- Makkah first or Madinah first?
If you’re going a few days before the actual Hajj days, you will likely want to go to Madinah first. The advantage of doing that is that you can relax, get over the long travel hours, and prepare spiritually while in Madinah.
Going to Makkah first means landing in Jeddah in a state of ihram, driving to Makkah, and performing umrah almost immediately. Flying to Jeddah, however, means more flight options and very likely better prices too. Flying to Madinah is slightly restrictive in terms of flight options, but recently Saudi Arabian Airlines has started a Hajj special flight that goes from major cities to Madinah directly. Also, the immigration is very quick at the Madinah airport (took us less than an hour) as compared to Jeddah (which, as is widely known, can take quite a few hours).
- Do you want VIP tents in Mina?
The stay in Mina is what Hajj is mainly about. Muzdalifah, Arafat, and the stoning at jamarat are done during the days you stay in the tents at Mina. Mina is the most important time during Hajj so you have to think about your accommodations accordingly.
For Mina, you can choose between VIP tents or the regular country-assigned camps. Even in the regular country-assigned camps, some providers have different levels of service. Check with them what the differences are and choose accordingly.
The VIP tents are closer to jamaraat so your walk to and from the jamaraat is shorter. From the regular camps it takes about an hour each way. The VIP tents are also slightly bigger and have cleaners cleaning the toilets regularly. Some providers offer a mid-level arrangement too. The tents are the same size but there are dedicated cleaners for the restrooms.
Now, what I am about to say in no way means that I or the people I spoke to had bad experiences. I did not, they didn’t. Everyone I spoke to talked about how Hajj is a test of patience and you are tested on the thing you have trouble being patient over. Everyone’s experience and test is relative.
With the amount of people present in Mina at the time of Hajj, and the different backgrounds everyone comes from, the limited space in the town, and just basic facilities available, nobody has any control over the cleanliness of the restrooms. Which is why I say that…
…If you can afford it, go for the VIP tents in Mina. Why? Because Hajj is a very spiritual experience. And you do not want to ruin it by complaining about the restrooms of all things. Throughout Hajj every single Haji works hard, and it is unfortunate that all that hard work goes to waste once they’re in the tents in Mina. The only thing you hear in the tents sometimes is complaints about the restrooms. If you can’t go for the VIP tents, please go with the intention (and keep renewing it and reminding yourself) to not complain while there and once you’re back. If you can, and would love to do everything to make your Hajj experience such that all you do is concentrate on your ibadah- Quran, dhikr, prayers, reflection- then go for the VIP tents. Once you’ve chosen a package based on your needs, budget, and information, please go with the intention to not complain.
- How many meals do they provide?
Most packages provide 2 meals in the hotel- breakfast and dinner. Being able to eat all your meals at the hotel buffet is great, but if it isn’t available as part of your program, don’t worry about it.There are a lot of options around the haramain and food shouldn’t be a problem generally. Having meal information beforehand is always helpful so that you know what to expect.
A final point I would like to make is this: If you can spend more money during Hajj and can afford good accommodations, please do. This is one trip that you should consider spending a little more than planned on if your finances allow it. Especially because you need to concentrate on your ibadah. Discomfort is extremely likely to distract you from your efforts and put dents in your ibadah. Spending more can give you some control over what to expect. Beyond that everything will work as is Allah’s plan.
May Allah bless your intention and efforts, make your journey easy for you and grant you a blessed and accepted Hajj. Aameen.