How to Choose a Travel Agent
To ensure you choose the right service, speak to friends and acquaintances who have been on Hajj or Umrah and enquire about their experience with their travel agent. The quality of service and the level of commitment to the welfare of pilgrims often vary significantly between travel agencies so you’ll want a number of opinions and testimonials if possible.
We have listed a number of criteria that you should look for when buying a Hajj or Umrah package with a travel agency:
Authorised by the Ministry of Hajj
Only registered travel agents authorised by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj are permitted to organise Hajj and Umrah trips. Other operators organising Hajj and Umrah journeys may be sub-agents or sub-groups of those particular agencies, and may belong to them directly or indirectly.
- The authorised agencies for Hajj services can be found here.
- The authorised agencies for Umrah services can be found here.
|There are a number of advantages of using an authorised agency rather than a sub-group or sub-agent:|
|Knowledge – authorised agencies are more likely to be aware of the latest rules, regulations and processes involved with the entire journey including documentation, accommodation, catering and transport requirements. This is less likely to be the case with sub-agents and sub-groups.|
|Accountability – authorised agencies are answerable to the Ministry of Hajj, so if a pilgrim would like to make a complaint or has a concern about the agency, the authorised agency can be held accountable by the Ministry. On the other hand, if sub-agents or sub-groups deliver a lacklustre experience, there’s not much a pilgrim can do since they don’t engage with the Ministry directly.|
|Assistance – authorised agencies can receive direct assistance from the Ministry if a problem arises in Saudi Arabia. This won’t be the case with sub-agents and sub-groups.|
|Recognition – authorised agencies are issued with a four-digit license number by the Ministry.|
|Cost – authorised agencies are often cheaper than alternative options since sub- groups buy services from authorised agencies and add their own markup, thereby increasing the price.|
Approved by the Regulatory Body
Check if the travel agency is registered to the local regulatory body or protection scheme in its respective country.
In the UK for instance, the protection scheme is known as ATOL (Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing) which offers financial protection in the event that the agency that has organised your trip goes bust. To verify if a company is protected by ATOL, click here (you need the ATOL number and company name).
Travel agents often include a knowledgeable and experienced spiritual guide or scholar as part of the package, who acts as a point of reference for pilgrims during the Hajj. Your guide will prove very important, especially on those occasions where an immediate answer is required. Although studying books and lectures regarding the Hajj and its rites are extremely important, having an experienced guide on hand, particularly for those who are performing Hajj for the first time, is invaluable.
Similarly, you may want to enquire as to whether a female guide will be provided for female pilgrims.
Those known to you such as family and friends who are also performing Hajj may be a factor in which travel agent you choose. You may want to be in the same group as one another, so it would make sense to choose the same travel agent.
It is important to establish how long the travel agency has been in business for and how much experience the travel agent has in providing Hajj and Umrah packages.
Unfortunately, particularly in recent years, more and more people have fallen victim to Hajj fraud. Hajj fraud occurs when victims spend significant sums of money only to discover the entire process is, in fact, a scam perpetrated by illegal travel agents / tour operators who later disappear with the money. In other cases, individuals who manage to travel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj or Umrah only arrive to find that accommodation they booked with the travel agent is non-existent. Many people have suffered substantial financial losses and in a number of cases, they have lost their entire life savings.
|Hajj Fraud Statistics|
|25,000 British Muslims travel for Hajj each year.|
|British Muslims spend as much as £125 million on pilgrimages annually.|
|Police have reports of victims losing anything from £1000 – £33,000.|
|42 is the average age of a Hajj fraud victim.|
|The Council Of British Hajjis estimates that the number of victims reporting to Action Fraud is as little as 3%.|
The problem has become so prevalent in the United Kingdom that police forces around the country have set up a national Hajj fraud campaign to raise awareness of fraud and to encourage victims to report fraudulent travel agents.
How Hajj Fraud Happens
Prospective pilgrims are normally attracted by packages which appear to be very good value for money at face value with fraudsters advertising packages significantly cheaper than others. Packages are advertised in the local community, online or even on TV channels. The victims are then asked by the fraudulent travel agent to pay for the package with cash or through bank transfer, either in a lump sum payment or via instalments, with the promise that they will receive their tickets and documentation closer to the departure date. As the departure date draws closer, many find that these don’t arrive and attempts made to contact the illegal travel agent often prove unsuccessful.
Hajj Fraud Advice
How to Avoid Hajj Fraud
There are a number of ways by which you can protect yourself from becoming a victim of Hajj fraud:
Make sure you thoroughly research the travel agency / tour operator.
|There are a number of ways you can do this:|
|Ask friends, family and individuals in the community for testimonials and reviews. Don’t just rely on a single recommendation from a friend or family member.|
|Go online and find information about the travel agency on review websites and forums. Hajj Ratings (www.hajjratings.com) is a great place to start.|
|Call the travel agency and ask them questions. Don’t hesitate to ask them to put you in touch with pilgrims who have used their services in the past.|
Don’t Pay via Cash or Direct Bank Transfer
If a tour agent is asking you to pay by cash or directly into a bank account via bank transfer, simply don’t. The vast majority of legitimate companies have debit and credit card facilities which will allow you to reverse a financial transaction through your bank if something goes wrong. If the payment is made via cash or bank transfer, it will prove extremely difficult to get your money back.
Get Everything in Writing
Don’t just settle for the tour operator’s word – ensure you get everything in writing. Establishing an auditable paper trail and records of financial transactions is extremely important if any disputes arise along the way.
|You should get hold of the following information:|
|Terms and conditions which stipulate the contract between you and the travel agency. Read this carefully.|
|A full itinerary of your trip including flights and dates.|
|The type of accommodation you will be residing in during stay trip in Makkah and Madinah, the duration of your stay in each location, as well as the distance from your accommodation to Masjid al-Haram and to Masjid al-Nabawi.|
|The catering service that you will be provided with in Makkah, Madinah, Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah.|
|The type of transportation that will be provided throughout the pilgrimage.|
Never use an Unlicensed Agency
Make sure the travel agency is registered to the local regulatory body or protection scheme in its respective country, as explained in the previous section. Don’t use an unlicensed agency.
What to do if you’re a Victim
If you’re a victim of Hajj fraud, ensure you report it to the relevant local authorities immediately. Between April 1st 2015 and March 31st 2016 there were 49 reports of Hajj fraud. However, the number of actual instances of Hajj fraud is far higher, with many victims feeling too embarrassed, ashamed or frightened to report what has happened to them. Don’t let this be you. Put your faith and resolve in Allah that the matter will be rectified.
Questions to Ask Your Travel Agency
Due to the increasing number of pilgrims going to Hajj and Umrah every year, the market has grown rapidly. Competition between tour operators is very high and packages often differ significantly. The varying nature of packages may prove fairly difficult to assess, particularly if you’re performing Hajj and Umrah for the first time.
To make the process of selecting the right travel agent and package easier, we have produced a list of factors and questions you should consider and discuss with the travel agent before making your decision:
- Do you have your own license or are you a sub-agent?
- (If sub-agent) What is the name of the main licensed agent?
- Is your agency approved by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj?
- Is your agency ATOL registered? (Or the local regulatory body in your respective country)
- How long have you been established?
- How long have you been providing Hajj and Umrah services?
- Can you provide me with testimonials of pilgrims that have used your services?
- What is your refund policy?
- What is the duration of the package?
- What is the duration of my stay in Makkah and Madinah?
- Packages vary in terms of duration.
- Packages longer in duration may well be lower in cost than packages shorter in duration.
- Duration of stay also varies in Makkah and Madinah.
- When does the package start and when does it finish?
- Will I be able to make any changes to dates?
- If I can make changes, will there be any additional costs and if so, how much?
- Some packages begin well before the commencement of Hajj rituals and finish immediately after Hajj while others start shortly before and finish much later on.
- You may have to take into account your commitments at home e.g. work, family etc. when choosing your dates.
- Which airline is being used?
- What is the baggage allowance?
Type of Flight
- Does the package include direct or indirect flights?
- You may prefer a direct flight or if you’re travelling from afar and you don’t like long-haul flights, you may prefer an indirect flight.
Location of Arrival
- Will I be travelling to Makkah or Madinah first?
- If you’re planning on going to Madinah first, the airport is in Madinah.
- If you’re planning on going to Makkah first, the nearest airport is in Jeddah.
- Less time is spent waiting in immigration in Madinah in comparison to Jeddah.
- Your chosen destination will determine when and where you enter into the state of Ihram and make your Niyyah.
Location of Departure
- Where will I be departing from?
- You may arrive and depart at the same airport or you may arrive and depart and different airports.
- For example, you may arrive in Jeddah, go to Makkah for Hajj, go to Madinah thereafter, then go back to Jeddah for departure (same airport).
- Or you may arrive in Madinah, then go to Makkah for Hajj, then depart from Jeddah (different airports).
- Using different airports may prove easier in terms of travel.
Accommodation in Makkah and Madinah
- What is the rating of the accommodation? (please bear in mind most accommodation providers struggle to meet the universal classification standard)
- How far will I be staying from the Haram?
- Will I be staying within walking distance from the Haram?
- Are there any hills or steep roads on the way?
- If my place of residence is far, will transport be available?
- What type of transportation will be available and during what times of the day?
- Is the hotel located on a busy or main road?
- Is food included? If so, what type of meals and how many per day? (If you opt out, there are plenty of places to eat in Makkah and Madinah)
- Can the receptionists speak English?
- How many people will be sharing a room? (single, double, triple or more)
- Does the room have a safe?
- How many bathrooms are there?
- Are men and women separate?
- Which floor will my room be located on?
- Are there any elevators?
- What amenities do the rooms have? E.g. telephones, air-conditioning etc.
- Is there a room cleaning service?
- Are there laundry facilities?
- Are there kitchen / cooking facilities that can be used?
- Are the rooms available during the days of Hajj?
- Are the rooms available after the days of Hajj?
- Is my package shifting or non-shifting?
- A shifting package is where accommodation is arranged for pilgrims in areas such as Azizyah during the Hajj period.
- The distance of this accommodation from Masjid al-Haram in Makkah can vary from 3 km to 10 km.
- This package was introduced to counter the shortage of accommodation around Masjid al-Haram during peak times.
- Shifting packages can be cheaper than non-shifting packages.
- However, accessing Masjid al-Haram can prove difficult as it is a long way away.
- You need to weigh up whether it’s worth potentially missing out on spending valuable time in the Haram in exchange for a cheaper package.
Accommodation in Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah
- What’s the distance from my tent in Mina to the Jamarat?
- What’s the distance from my tent in Mina to the metro station? (If metro is included in your package)
- How many people will there be in my tent?
- Is food included? If so, what type of meals and how many per day?
- Will there be unlimited access to bottled water?
- Will pillows / mattresses / sofas / blankets be provided?
- How many toilets and washing facilities are there?
- What type of toilets are there? (There are more squat toilets than sitting toilets)
- Tents are provided in Mina and Arafat.
- The tents are normally allocated by nationality.
- There is no accommodation in Muzdalifah.
- What transport arrangements are in place for:
- Airport transfers.
- Ziyarah (Visits to famous historical sites within Madinah – this is optional).
- Transport between Madinah and Makkah.
- Transport to Mina.
- Transport from Mina to Arafat (Foot / Bus / Train).
- Transport from Arafat to Muzdalifah (Foot / Bus / Train).
- Transport from Muzdalifah to Jamarat (Foot / Bus / Train).
- Transport from Jamarat to Masjid al-Haram (Foot / Bus).
- Transport from Masjid al-Haram to Mina (Foot / Bus).
- Transport from Mina to Jamarat (Foot / Bus / Train).
- Transport from Jamarat to Mina (Foot / Bus / Train).
- Can I travel anywhere by taxi rather than bus, at my own expense?
- During Hajj, transportation is provided by the Ministry of Hajj.
- Transportation is pre-paid, as part of your package.
- Thoroughly check what the cost includes.
- Try to negotiate a better price with the agent.
Guide / Scholar
- Will a guide/scholar who is knowledgeable about the rites of Hajj and who can advise me on what to do, what not to do, what places to visit, etc. be accompanying us?
- Is he experienced with the rules, regulations and procedures in Saudi Arabia for customs, immigration, travel, etc.?
- Will he be present throughout the duration of the entire Hajj?
- Can he speak fluent Arabic?
- If he can’t speak Arabic, will an interpreter be provided? (Most Saudi authorities can’t speak English)
- Will a female guide be accompanying us?
- Will you be arranging the animal sacrifice (Hady) on the 10th of Dhul Hijjah on my behalf?
- Is the price for this included in the package?
- Travel agents normally arrange for an animal sacrifice to be made on your behalf on the 10th of Dhul Hijjah.
- There is either a small additional fee for this or it’s included as part of the package.
- They will inform you of the time of the sacrifice so the other rites can be performed accordingly.
- Is the Hajj draft part of the package?
- The Saudi Ministry of Hajj requires a Hajj draft which covers your ground transportation and your accommodation in Mina and Arafat.
- Will you provide a Saudi sim card?
- Will you arrange any lectures or seminars prior to the Hajj?
- Will there be a dedicated doctor / medical professional for the group?