All domestic bus services are operated by the Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company (Saptco; 800-124 9999; www.saptco.com.sa). The company is professionally run and has a good safety record with well-maintained buses (usually replaced every two to three years).
The buses are comfortable, air-conditioned and clean. Standing passengers are not allowed, talking to the driver is prohibited and smoking is strictly prohibited. Saptco also guarantees that if a bus breaks down, a repair vehicle is sent within two hours, a replacement within four.
All buses have on-board toilets, and make rest stops every few hours. For general information, fare prices and timetables, dial 800 124 9999, toll-free (with recorded messages in both Arabic and English).
Unaccompanied foreign women can travel on domestic and international buses with their iqama (residence permit) if an expat, or passport and visa if a tourist. The front seats are generally unofficially reserved for ‘families’ including sole women, and the back half for men.
Check in half an hour before domestic departures, one hour before international departures (though passengers with hand luggage can arrive 10 minutes before). If the bus is full, you can join the waiting list and board the bus five minutes before departure if there are no-shows.
Note that during the haj, services are reduced across the country as buses are seconded for the pilgrims.
Bus fares cost approximately half of the equivalent airfare. Return tickets are 25% cheaper than two one-way fares. Note that at the time of writing, only cash was accepted for payment.
Despite its impressive public-transport system, Saudi Arabia remains a country that glorifies the private car (the large private car above all), rivalled in this regard only by the US. Roads are generally sealed and well-maintained.
Motorcycles are an extremely rare sight on Saudi roads (they’re rather unfamily friendly because of the heat, dust and their price relative to cars), though in recent years Harley Davidson clubs have opened in Jeddah and Riyadh.
It currently costs just 47 halalas per litre for unleaded petrol (introduced in January 2007) and 60 halalas for leaded fuel. All stations charge the same (by law). Petrol stations are ubiquitous throughout the country on sealed roads.
International and local car-hire agencies can be found in the larger towns in the Kingdom, as well as at international airports. Local companies tend to be significantly cheaper, but always check that full insurance is included. Prices usually stay the same throughout the year.
Rates for the smallest cars at international agencies generally start at SR75 per day (including full insurance) and can start from SR450 for 4WDs. For rental of a month or more, prices drop by around 30% or more. Be sure to negotiate.
There’s usually an additional charge of around SR0.75 to SR1.5 per kilometre, although most agencies offer the first 150km free. Women travellers (who are not permitted by law to drive) will need a driver – around SR105 per eight-hour day (SR20 per extra hour).
If you are travelling with a car from another GCC country, insurance and the Collision-Damage Waiver (CDW) are mandatory. With car hire, it is usually included in the price, but it pays to check very carefully that it is.
Note that schedules change often; check the website for the latest information (www.saudirailways.org). Maximum luggage allowance is 50kg (per excess kilo SR0.50); luggage is loaded onto a separate carriage.
The gate closes five minutes before departure, but you should get there one hour before departure for the sometimes time-consuming police checks and luggage x-rays.
There are three classes: 2nd, 1st and the new VIP class. The main difference between them is a bit of space (and TV screens and a meal in VIP class). All classes have access to the train restaurant.
Women can travel unaccompanied (with ID) and sit in any class (in 2nd – there’s a separate carriage; in VIP and 1st, designated areas).
You’ll need either your passport or iqama to buy a ticket. Travelling by train in 2nd class is slightly cheaper than the equivalent bus fare, but note that the company will be privatised by the end of 2007/2008, so prices may change. There are discounts for Saudi students only.
When purchasing your ticket, you’ll need to show your passport (visitors) or iqama (expats). During the haj season, during Ramadan or in summer, booking at least a week in advance is advisable.
Tickets can be bought up to three months in advance for domestic journeys, six months for international. If tickets are cancelled or unused, you can get a refund (less 10%) for a one-way ticket (or unused return) or 30% for a return ticket if it hasn’t expired (within three/six months for domestic/international destinations).
Note that you can only buy tickets from the point of relevant departure, and that you can’t make a reservation unless you’ve bought a ticket (so you can only make a telephone reservation for the return portion of the ticket).
Tickets are best bought from Saptco itself (as opposed to its agents which are less reliable vis-a-vis reservations).
Reservations (92 000 8886) can be made a minimum of 24 hours before departure and a maximum of 90 days in advance, and from any station to any station.
Tickets can be changed up to three hours before departure though you’ll forfeit 10% of the total ticket cost. Check all tickets are correct after purchase, and note that there is no refund if you miss your train.
During school holidays, Ramadan and the Haj Eid, book well in advance. At the weekend, book three to four days in advance.
Domestic air services in Saudi Arabia are operated by Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia; www.saudiairlines.com). Once Saudia has been privatised, the monopoly on providing domestic passenger services will be lifted, and it’s likely that new domestic air companies will spring up.
Saudia flies frequently to major towns, generally runs on time and is very reasonably priced. Unlike international tickets (which travel agents can sell at discounted prices), domestic Saudia tickets cost the same price whether bought from an agency or direct from Saudia.
Domestic tickets can also be bought from abroad. Tickets can be changed as often as you like (though SR20 is sometimes charged). You can get refunds (minus an administration charge of SR20), even on missed flights. Putting yourself on the waiting list is well worthwhile therefore as there are so many no-shows.
Check in 1½ hours prior to departure is advised for domestic flights. Note that Medina airport lies outside the haram (forbidden) area so can be used by tourists.
Prices are very reasonable and haven’t changed in six years. Schedules also don’t alter much either. Bookings by telephone can also be made if you’re flying within 24 hours (you can pick the ticket up at the airport). For information on flight schedules and information, call 920-022 222.