If you are one of the millions of Muslims from around the world who could not make the trip this year but are planning to make the pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah, here’s a few top tips to help you make the trip – all without breaking the bank.
Very wealthy pilgrims can often undertake the journey multiple times, and enjoy comforts such as five-star hotels and business or first class airfares. But if you only have limited means, it’s handy to spend some time researching the journey in advance.
So, let’s get started:
Start saving money
Unless you are a Saudi resident, undertaking Hajj is not cheap. Some experts say that costs have risen dramatically in recent years from countries such as the U.S. and UK. Expect to pay from around $3,000 to $10,000, or even more if you live in a country very far away from the kingdom.
Haroon Moghul, a U.S.-based academic and commentator on Islamic affairs, said that for poorer pilgrims, making the trip is “usually a matter of [spending] life savings.”
Funding a hajj trip can be even more difficult due to an Islamic teaching that pilgrims are forbidden to borrow money to pay for their pilgrimage, Moghul said. Would-be pilgrims must settle all debts before they make the journey.
Or, if you do not have the ability to raise enough money for your trip...
Find a sponsor
Some countries sponsor pilgrims. If you are a Muslim in India, the government has long had a hefty “hajj subsidy” in place, which includes large discounts on airfares. Although be warned: New Delhi has suggested it will cut the subsidy in the next few years.
In most countries with a substantial Muslim population, there are likely to be groups that subsidize trips.
Some of these include student groups, universities, Islamic centers, mosques, and other Islamic charities, to help people make the trip, whether through informal fundraising or a regular kind of program.
Start applying early
Due to limited capacity, Saudi’s hajj ministry has for years limited to the number of pilgrims who can take part. In some countries - including Turkey, Libya, and Egypt - Islamic authorities hold lotteries for Hajj visas, giving pilgrims from all economic backgrounds an equal chance.
Some Hajj operators contacted by Al Arabiya News last week reported that people have already begun expressing interest for next year’s Hajj – before this year’s pilgrimage had even begun.
Search for a (reputable) Hajj travel agency
In 2007, an elderly Egyptian woman sold all her belongings to make the trip – only to find that her visa issued by a travel company was a fake. While she was eventually able to enter Makkah after authorities intervened, many other horror stories abound.
In the UK last year, authorities inspected around 182 Hajj tour operators, according to Khalid Pervez, general secretary of the Birmingham-based Association of British Hujjaj (pilgrims).
“We were shocked that more than 80 percent were not within the legal requirements of UK legislation,” he told Al Arabiya News earlier this week.
However, the Saudi government has a list of agencies in each country licensed to organize Hajj trips.
The list of accredited agencies can usually be found on the Saudi embassy’s website for your country, while another list for each country can be found on the Samirad Saudi info portal.
Find a package that suits you best
With a lot of firms, well-known imams and scholars will lead the groups on the pilgrimage. Some of those have discount options available, or “if they’re large groups, they become cheaper because they’re buying in bulk,” said Moghul.
Organized tour groups are also easier because they do a lot of the work for you, including the logistics, the itinerary, and the rituals. With these, “you don’t necessarily have to know exactly what you’re supposed to do, because someone’s there to tell you,” said Moghul.
Be prepared to pay a premium if your group is led by a very reputed Islamic scholar or imam.
Make sure to pick an experienced travel agency – newer firms without an established reputation are more likely to lead to inconvenient and disappointment.
For people who are new converts to Islam, make sure that you’re going with people you trust - and with a group that has a reputation for being able to handle a diverse clientele, said Moghul.
“Sometimes what happens is [that you are put with] a group that only works with say Egyptians or Pakistanis, and if you’re let’s say a white American convert, and you don’t speak Arabic or Urdu, it’s going to be a pretty difficult trip.”
Don’t forget to work out
Although this is not a financial tip, being fit and able is sure to make your pilgrimage less difficult, regardless of your budget.
Remember that one Hajj ritual sees pilgrims walk 10-12 kilometers to the Arafat valley and 10-12 kilometers back to Makkah. Another ritual, known as Tawaf, has the pilgrim circling the Kaaba in Makkah’s Grand Mosque counterclockwise seven times.
“It’s quite physically taxing,” said Moghul. “It’s not an easy journey.”