There are hundreds of Muslims in America who go for Hajj Pilgrimage each year. Hajj is one of the five pillars in Islam and all Muslims who possess the health and wealth to perform this ritual are under religious obligation to do so once in a life time. Since performing Hajj involves a major expense to your savings there are careful considerations to be made in picking the Hajj package. Below are the top 10 things to consider when picking the Hajj package
1. Cost of the Hajj Program
This is one of the most important consideration that one will take into account when picking the Hajj package. Everyone has a certain budget based on their savings and affordability. Hajj packages offered in America start at around $6000 per person. Anything lower than that would most likely going to be a scam and either there would be additional cost demanded at later stages of your Hajj payment phase or there would be other surprises once you reach there in Saudi Arabia. I have heard of some companies offering low cost packages, planned the arrival of their pilgrims after the cutoff date set by Saudi government and were later refused to onboard their connecting flights from Europe eventually sent back home losing all their savings.
The most pricey Executive package is offered by Dar el Salam and is somewhere around $17k per person. Dar el Salam is a premium Hajj tour operators and their most economical packages start at around $9600 in 2018. For 2019 there is another 10% increase in their prices from 2018. Every program level also comes with Double, Triple and Quad occupancy plans. There are also other variety of options that range between $6k to $10k. So if you are planning to perform Hajj in 2019 then expect packages from various tour operators in the range of $6k to $18k
2. Total Number of Days of the tour
There are various plans ranging from as little as 10 days to as many as 25 days programs. There are pros and cons with both the extreme ones. The ones with 10 days program are good for those parents leaving behind their young kids with friends and relatives. So to be able to return back at the earliest after completing all the mandatory rituals could be a good option. The other option with 25 days program is good for folks who are retired and have more time at their disposal, they don’t have to worry about the young kids left back home and hence can spend more time in the sacred land competing the 40 prayers in Medina. The best option for the majority of individuals who are relatively young and have jobs with limited vacation days in a calendar year and also with young kids may opt for the 15 days program option. It provides an opportunity to complete all the optional and mandatory rituals along with coming back within the 3 weeks of their vacation time. To me 15 days are the optimal number of days for a Hajj package and should be a better choice for the majority of the people going for Hajj.
3. Mecca First vs Medina First
This is another important consideration in picking the Hajj package. For some it might be better to start the tour on a lighter note with less stressful time in Medina and then as the days pass by and one starts getting adapted with the weather and the environment they move on to Makkah for Hajj where it would be more stressful and would require greater energy to sustain the days during Hajj. Another advantage for going to Medina first is that when you are traveling from US or Canada and taking that 13 hours non stop flight or coming via transit route in Turkey or Dubai you may be exhausted by the time you reach Jeddah so then to be able to perform Umrah within few hours of reaching the hotel may be challenging for some. As the overall time between you left your home for airport in USA or Canada and complete your first Umrah, may be anywhere around 30 plus hours without actually sleeping on the bed. This may be simply very exhausting for majority of the people not to forget you will be also required to put on your Ihram either on the flight or at the Transit Airport restrooms or lounges and then also manage the loading and unloading of luggage from the conveyer belts at the airport in state of Ihram which is not an easy task by any means. Its manageable but still little inconvenient.
Advantage of taking Makkah first is you will do all your mandatory rituals first and once the Hajj is over, the time spent in Medina will be very relaxing. You can do all your shopping for gifts and Hadya in Medina without having to be worried about packing your luggage with gifts during the days before Hajj. Also the flights from Medina back to US will be less hassle then to take it from Jeddah as it will be really busy out there in Makkah and Jeddah airport. When you will arrive in Medina, majority of the pilgrims would still be in Makkah and hence you will be able to do your prayers in Riyad ul Jannah and visit to Rodha of the prophet without extreme crowd to deal with.
4. Stay at Aziziyah vs near Haram
This is one of the option that drives the price higher or lower. Aziziyah apartment complexes are located near the Mina camp therefore while your stay in Makkah, you will be dependent on public transport or tour operator arranged shuttle service. Mostly folks who live in Azizyah arrive at Haram for Asar prayers and leave after Isha as doing back and forth between prayers is not feasible. Also during days of Hajj, it gets real busy so for you to be able to move between Haram and Aziziyah might take an hour or two in certain cases due to traffic. The advantage of choosing Aziziyah accommodation is that the program will be more economical and will suit those with lower budget.
Staying at or near Haram has obvious advantage of being able to go back and forth from hotel to Haram in between prayers and hence allowing you to pray all your five salats at Haram. Also if you are staying at the clock tower complex then those hotel towers are equipped with the voice system connected to the Haram and people are able to pray from within their hotel rooms or the hotel prayer halls and hence can avoid the crowd at Haram.
5. Stay at 5 star hotel at Clock tower complex vs 3 star or 4 star hotels
If you stay at one of the clock tower hotels then you will have all the amenities available at the same location including mall, food court, pharmacy, direct walkway to Haram and a grocery store. Facilities at the 5 star hotels in the clock tower complex are top notch and will make your stay very comfortable while you are in Makkah. Disadvantage is that the cost of these hotels are high and will bring your program cost to around close to $10k per person. Any tour operator who is promising a stay at these hotels for a lower cost under $8k would be lying to you and you will most likely get an unpleasant surprise once you reach Makkah.
Like Aziziyah, staying at the 3 star hotels few blocks from Haram will require walking back and forth for each prayers or staying at Haram for a longer period of time during the evening prayers. It can be very tiring after few days and by the time you will get to Mina for Hajj you might already be exhausted. Advantage is obviously the package cost will be lower and economical.
6. Staying at VIP Camp vs Regular North American camp
This is another very important consideration. Please check with your tour operators if your Mina camp location will be at the VIP North American camps or Regular North American camps. VIP camps are 5 minutes walk from Jamarat stoning place and makes its very easy to go for stoning and come back during early morning hours and avoid the crowd. Also less walk would mean that you will eliminate the long walking factor. These packages are however on the higher side staring at around $9500. Dar el Salam and Caravan travel Mina camps are located here in the VIP section.
7. Transportation between Mina to Arafat and Muzdalifah using Al Mashaer train service vs regular bus service
Al Mashaer Train service is another great option that saves you from getting stuck in traffic for long hours while moving from Mina to Arafat and back to Muzdalfah on the day of Hajj. The train station are located within the walking distance from the VIP camp at mina or Arafat and Muzdalifah camp locations. Not all tour operators provide this service so you may want to check if this is included in your package. If your package is below $9k then most likely this service is not included. You will be given wrist bands to show while on-boarding these trains during the two days of Hajj. All Dar el Salam programs include this train service.
8. Air Travel between Makkah and Medina vs Traveling by Bus
Another option with in the packages to consider is the Air travel between Makkah and Medina. Program 3 and above offered by Dar el Salam includes the air travel instead of the bus travel between Makkah and Medina or vice versa. To me this is not a big deal. Traveling by bus might take longer however you do not have to worry about the hassles you have to go at the airport boarding and going through the security check points. Instead of spending your time at the airport you can spend sleeping in the bus and by the time you will reach your destination you could take enough rest in between.
9. Preparation or Pre Hajj Program
Tour companies that prepare you for the Hajj, prior to your departure should also be an important consideration. Although I assume that all tour operators might do this but our experience with Dar el Salam was great. The spiritual training that their Shaykhs and Alim provided, even the last minute before our departure through webcast and social media was excellent. They preach an important reminder to all the pilgrims to be patient on the tour no matter what and to avoid getting into conflicts and back biting. Dar el Salam also provided many sessions to brief us about logistics and things to bring and prepared us for the time during Hajj via forums and webcasts.
10. Reliability of the Tour Operator
This is the most important consideration when picking the package. No matter you pick an economical package or an Executive program, make sure you pick the tour operators who are honest and upfront. You want tour operators who deliver what they promise. There would be small challenges here and there as things are often unpredictable during Hajj but as long as your tour operator is making a sincere effort to rectify the situation you should be fine and your time at Hajj will be spent with peace of mind focusing only on your prayers and Hajj rituals. Talk to people who have used a certain travel company before and get their feedback. Their are companies who would offer you a stay at a 5 star hotel and then switch you to a 3 star hotel away from Haram. If you complain then they will remind you that its Hajj so to leave it for the sake of Allah. To me that is cheating and deceitful. Our experience with Dar el Salam was great, we selected it based on the feedback we received from our friends. This company does not cut corners and they do their best to serve their pilgrims. We received what was promised and sometimes even more than our expectation. They also have their areas for improvement but that would be with any type of business or organization.
Those who are planning their Hajj in 2019 , I wish them good luck in picking their Hajj package.