The attitude towards bargaining varies from country to country in subtle ways, but it's a way of life in most Middle Eastern bazaars. Most other prices are usually fixed, but in some areas accommodation can sometimes be discounted (especially out of season) as well as some taxi journeys.
Bargaining can be tough if you’re not used to it, so here are a couple of pointers. First, when you find something you like, be sure not to show too much interest. Vendors can smell desperation a mile away. Second, don’t buy the first one you see; subtly check out a few alternatives to get an idea of price and quality. With this knowledge, casually enquire as to the price and then make a counter-offer, thus beginning the bargaining process. The vendor will often beseech you to make a better offer: ‘But I have nine children to feed’. However, having looked at the competition, you know what is a fair price so only edge up slowly. If you can’t agree on a price you could try walking out of the store, but if the shopkeeper calls your bluff, you’ll struggle to knock the price down any further than you already have.
Remember that bargaining is not a life and death battle. A good bargain is when both parties are happy and doesn’t necessarily require you to screw every last cent out of the vendor. If you paid more than your travelling companion, don’t worry. As long as you’re happy, it was a good deal.
Dangers & Annoyances
Don’t believe everything you read about the Middle East. Yes, there are regions that are dangerous to visit and you should, of course, always be careful while travelling in the region. But alongside the sometimes disturbing hard facts is more often a vast corpus of exaggeration, stereotyping and downright misrepresentation. We’ll try and put this as simply as possible: there’s every chance that you’ll be safer in many parts of the Middle East than you would be back home.
Is it Safe?
Imagine somebody whose image of the USA was built solely on the 9/11 attacks, or who refused to visit Spain, France or the UK as a result of the terrorist attacks in Barcelona, Paris and London in recent years. Just as these countries are rarely considered to be dangerous destinations, so too, day-to-day life in the Middle East very rarely involves shootings or explosions. There are trouble spots where violence is serious and widespread, such as Syria and many regions of Iraq, and there are places where violence flares from time to time, such as in Israel and the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon. But such outbreaks of violence usually receive widespread media coverage, making it relatively easy to avoid these places until things settle down.
Terrorist incidents do occur, and there have been attacks in Israel and the Palestinian Territories and the Red Sea resorts of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in recent years. While such incidents are clearly major causes for concern, they are the exception rather than the norm. The sad fact about modern terrorism is that you may face similar dangers anywhere in the world and that you’re probably no more at risk in much of the Middle East than you may be in your home country. As one holidaymaker was reported saying in the wake of the 2005 Sharm El Sheikh bombings: ‘Actually, I live in central London. I don’t really want to go home!’
As a foreigner, you may receive the occasional question (‘Why does the West support Israel?’), but you’ll rarely be held personally accountable for the policies of Western governments. Once in Tehran we stood, obviously Westerners, with cameras and pasty complexions, and watched a crowd march by chanting ‘Death to America! Death to Britain!’ Several marchers grinned, waved and broke off to come over and ask how we liked Iran.
While most Western governments advise against travel to Gaza, Iraq and Syria, don’t let problems in some areas tar your image of the entire region. Keep abreast of current affairs, and if you need to phone your embassy for travel advice, then do so. Otherwise, just go.
Perhaps the most widespread threat to your safety comes from travelling on the region’s roads. Road conditions vary, but driving standards are often poor and high speeds are common. Tips for minimising the risk of becoming a road statistic:
- Avoid night travel.
- A full-sized bus is usually safer than a minibus.
- If travelling in a shared taxi or minibus, avoid taking the seat next to the driver.
The Arab Spring uprisings against regimes from Cairo to Damascus have added a layer of uncertainty to travel in the region, although with the exception of Syria, Yemen and, for a time, Egypt and Bahrain, the enduring impact upon travellers has been minimal. Trouble spots in the region are usually well defined, and as long as you keep track of political developments, you’re unlikely to come to any harm. Avoid political demonstrations or large gatherings and always ask the advice of locals if unsure.
Theft & Petty Crime
Crime rates are extremely low in most countries in the Middle East – theft is rarely a problem and robbery (mugging) even less of one. Even so, take the standard precautions. Always keep valuables with you or locked in a safe – never leave them in your room or in a car or bus. Use a money belt, a pouch under your clothes, a leather wallet attached to your belt or internal pockets in your clothing. Keep a separate record of your passport, credit card and travellers cheque numbers; it won’t cure problems, but it will make them easier to bear.
Country by Country
Egypt remains a relatively safe country to visit, although security has become a concern in some areas in recent years, particularly as it relates to women travellers and/or petty theft. Avoid political demonstrations (especially those in Cairo’s Tahrir Sq) and be particularly wary in areas with mixed Muslim-Coptic Christian populations. Check carefully the current travel advisories before travelling to the Sinai Peninsula (the entire northern half is considered unsafe).
Iran is one of the safest countries of the Middle East in which to travel. Violent crime against foreigners is extremely rare, although the southeast of the country, areas close to the border with Iraq, and within 100km of the border with Afghanistan are considered unsafe. Western embassies advise their nationals to register on arrival.
At the time of writing, most foreign governments were advising against all travel to most of Iraq, and against all but essential travel to Iraqi Kurdistan and parts of the south.
Israel & the Palestinian Territories
Although the security situation has greatly improved in recent years, travellers should continue to exercise caution in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Gaza is considered off-limits. Elsewhere, you’re unlikely to experience difficulties in most areas. You should always keep your ear to the ground in Jerusalem, Hebron and other potential flashpoints.
Jordan has largely escaped the unrest arising from the 2011 revolutions, and it remains one of the safest countries in the region to visit. Foreign governments advise against travel in the immediate vicinity of the Jordan–Syria border.
Although it hasn't happened often and the country remains generally safe to visit, the conflict in Syria has spilled over into Lebanon often enough for us to advise caution. Border areas with Syria and the northern city of Tripoli have been particularly affected, while the Bekaa Valley, including Baalbek, was off-limits at the time of writing. Beyond that, the potential for political unrest and attendant violence remains a constant of Lebanese life, and care should be taken in southern Lebanon and elsewhere.
Syria is one of the most dangerous countries on earth for travellers to visit. Don't go there – it's as simple as that.
Turkey is one of the safest countries in the Middle East for travellers, with a stable and democratic political system and well-developed transport infrastructure. Always check the security situation, however, before you travel in areas close to the borders with Syria and Iraq.
With the exception of Yemen, which is currently a war zone, the Arabian Peninsula is a safe and settled region where crime is very low.
Government Travel Advice
The following government websites offer travel advisory services and information for travellers:
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
- Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs & International Trade (www.voyage.gc.ca)
- French Ministère des Affaires et Étrangères Européennes (www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/conseils-aux-voyageurs)
- Italian Ministero degli Affari Esteri (www.viaggiaresicuri.mae.aci.it)
- New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
- UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
- US Department of State (www.travel.state.gov)
An International Student Identity Card (ISIC) can be useful in the Middle East. Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and Turkey have various (and often considerable) student discounts for admission to museums, archaeological sites and monuments. In Israel, cardholders also qualify for 10% reductions on some bus fares and 20% on rail tickets. Bear in mind that a student card issued by your own university or college may not be recognised elsewhere; it really should be an ISIC (www.isic.org).
Embassies & Consulates
It’s important to realise what your own embassy can and can’t do to help you if you get into trouble. Generally speaking, it won’t be much help in emergencies if the trouble you’re in is remotely your own fault. Remember that you are bound by the laws of the country you’re in. Your embassy will not be sympathetic if you end up in jail after committing a crime locally, even if such actions are legal in your own country.
In genuine emergencies, you might get some limited assistance, but only if other channels have been exhausted. For example, if you need to get home urgently, a free ticket home is exceedingly unlikely – the embassy would expect you to have insurance. If all your money and documents are stolen, it might assist with getting a new passport, but a loan for onward travel is out of the question.
Emergency & Important Numbers
Phone number for the police by country:
|Israel & the Palestinian Territories||100|
|United Arab Emirates||999|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Entry requirements vary from country to country. Most border crossings are generally hassle-free, though wait times can be long.
Customs regulations vary from country to country, but in most cases they aren’t that different from what you’d expect in the West – a couple of hundred cigarettes and a couple of bottles of booze.
There was a time when electronics used to arouse interest when entering or leaving Egypt, but it’s becoming increasingly rare. If they do pull you up, items such as laptop computers and especially video cameras may be written into your passport to ensure that they leave the country with you and are not sold. If you’re carrying printed material that could be interpreted as being critical of the government, be discreet, although customs officials at major entry/departure points rarely search the bags of tourists.
Iran is a notable exception to some of these rules – alcohol is illegal in Iran, and any publications showing (even modestly exposed) female flesh will be confiscated if found. This is the same in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and parts of UAE.
Note that neither Israeli citizens nor anyone who has an Israeli stamp in their passport will be allowed to enter Iran or Lebanon (or Iraq or Syria when they're considered safe to visit), and some countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Israel no longer stamps tourists' passports (though it retains the right to do so). Instead, visitors are given a small loose-leaf entry card.
Most visas available on arrival (except in Oman and Saudi Arabia); an Israeli stamp will mean no entry to Iran, Lebanon or Saudi Arabia.
If you do one piece of research before setting out on your trip, it should be to familiarise yourself with the requirements for obtaining visas for the countries that you intend to visit. For the unwary, it can be a minefield. For the well informed, it shouldn’t pose too many difficulties.
The major issue arises if you plan to visit Israel and the Palestinian Territories. If you do, then you may need to think carefully about the order you visit the countries of the Middle East, or prepare for a little sleight of hand to ensure there is no trace of you having visited Israel and therefore avoid limiting the other countries that you’re able visit.
Visas at a Glance
- Visas in Advance
Egypt If entering overland from Israel.
Jordan If you need a multiple-entry visa.
Turkey Purchase online before travel.
Iran Safest option is to obtain in advance.
Oman Purchase online before travel.
Saudi Arabia Visit nearest embassy before travel.
- Visas Available on Arrival
Egypt Except if crossing from Israel.
Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Jordan Single-entry visas except if first entry on King Hussein/Allenby Bridge.
Iran Possibly available at Iranian international airports but there's a risk of rejection – it's best to obtain in advance.
- Israeli Passport Stamps
OK for entry to: Egypt, Jordan, Turkey
Will be denied entry to: Iran, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia (also Iraq and Syria when they're considered safe to visit).
Banned: Israeli Passport Stamps
Arab countries have widely varying policies on admitting travellers whose passports show evidence of a visit to Israel. Jordan and Egypt, with which Israel has peace treaties, have no problem at all, and the same goes for Tunisia, Morocco and many of the Gulf emirates (but not Saudi Arabia).
If there’s any chance you’ll be heading to Arab or Muslim countries during the life of your passport, your best bet is to make sure that it shows no indication that you’ve been to Israel. Fortunately, Israeli passport inspectors no longer stamp tourists' passports and instead issue a small loose-leaf entry card to serve as proof of lawful entry. Keep this with you at all times until you leave Israel.
Unfortunately, Egyptian and Jordanian officials are not so obliging about their own stamps, even though having a stamp from one of those countries’ land crossings to Israel or the West Bank can be no less ‘incriminating’ than having an Israeli one. This is especially true of Lebanon and Iran, which have been known to put travellers on the next plane out if they find even the slightest evidence of travel to Israel. Such evidence can include a longer stay in Jordan or Egypt than is allowed under that country's visa rules with no evidence of a visa extension.
Some countries, including the United States, allow their citizens to carry more than one passport, but it can still be difficult to make this work without leaving unexplained gaps in the entry/exit paper trail.
Most Egyptian tourist visas can be obtained on arrival. It couldn’t be easier if you’re arriving by air, while those travelling from Jordan can obtain a visa at the port in Aqaba before boarding the ferry. Visa fees vary by nationality and can usually be paid in Egyptian pounds, US dollars, UK pounds or euros. Visas granted on arrival allow you to stay in Egypt for one month.
The only exception to these general rules is if you plan to enter Egypt from Israel via the Taba border crossing. In this case, we recommend that you apply for your Egyptian visa in advance in Tel Aviv or Eilat. If you just turn up at this border crossing without a visa in your passport, your visa must be guaranteed by an Egyptian travel agency – more trouble than it’s worth.
Iranian visas can be a pain to organise. The process is slow (start at least two months before you plan to travel) and somewhat unpredictable, and rules can change without warning. But the vast majority of people do get a visa within two or three weeks. Note that all applications stall over the No Ruz holiday period; submit before 8 March to be sure.
There are three kinds of visas:
- Tourist visa Issued for up to 30 days and extendable. Must be obtained before coming to Iran from Iranian embassy or consulate and valid to enter for 90 days from the issue date. The surest option. American and UK citizens are required to be part of a tour group or have an Iranian 'sponsor' in order to obtain a visa.
- Tourist visa on arrival (VOA) Issued for 30 days on arrival at any Iranian international airport. Convenient but risky, as you may be denied entry.
- Transit visa Issued for five to seven days, this is a last resort. You must enter and exit via different countries, and have a visa or a ticket to an onward country. Not available to US passport holders.
Iraq is not considered safe at the time of writing.
Israel & the Palestinian Territories
Tourist visas are issued to nationals of most Western countries at airports and land border crossings. Although most visas are for three-month periods, travellers arriving overland from Egypt or Jordan are sometimes given two-week or one-month visas. Some visas may also come with restrictions relating to travel inside the Palestinian Territories.
Visas, required by all visitors, are available on arrival (JD40 for most nationalities) at international airports and most of Jordan’s land borders. It makes sense for most travellers to buy a Jordan Pass (www.jordanpass.jo) online before entering the country: this waives the cost of a visa in addition to giving free access to many sites in Jordan, including Petra.
It's not possible to get a visa on arrival at King Hussein Bridge or at Wadi Araba. Check the latest status of Jordan's border crossings on the Jordan Tourism Board website (www.international.visitjordan.com/GeneralInformation/EntryintoJordan.aspx).
Free one-month single-entry tourist visas are available at Beirut's airport for many nationalities.
It is currently not safe to visit Syria.
If you come from Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland, you don't need a Turkish visa for stays of up to 90 days.
For most other nationalities, three-month, multiple-entry tourist visas must be purchased online at www.evisa.gov.tr/en prior to arrival. Payment can be made by credit card and fees range from US$15 to US$80 depending on nationality. You then print out the visa and present it on arrival in Turkey. Apply at least two days before you plan to travel.
Many Western nationals can obtain a visa on arrival in Turkey, but this is not recommended as travellers have reported extra charges and bad experiences with the customs officials. Cash cannot be used.
Like anywhere else in the world, the people of the Middle East have particular ways of doing things and these customs can seem strange to first-time visitors. While you should always try to follow local customs, most people in the Middle East will be too polite to say anything if you break one of the region’s taboos. In most cases, an apology and obvious goodwill will earn instant forgiveness.
- Eating Never handle food with your left hand; don't blow your nose at the table, but it's OK to pick your teeth.
- Religion You're likely to be asked what your religion is; this is not considered rude and is asked out of genuine interest
- Clothing Wear clothes covering shoulders and knees at a minimum.
- General Avoid public displays of affection, criticism of the country you're travelling in, and losing your patience; always ask before photographing someone.
Middle Easterners can be a hospitable lot, and it’s not unusual for visitors to receive at least one invitation to eat in someone’s home while travelling through the region. While each invitation needs to be assessed on its merits, our general advice would be that eating in a family home can be one of your most memorable travel experiences in the Middle East.
To avoid making your hosts feel uncomfortable, there are a few simple guidelines to follow.
- Bring a small gift of flowers, chocolates, pastries, fruit or honey.
- It’s polite to be seen to wash your hands before a meal.
- Always remove your shoes before sitting down on a rug to eat or drink tea.
- Don’t sit with your legs stretched out – it’s considered rude during a meal.
- Always sit next to a person of the same sex at the dinner table unless your host(ess) suggests otherwise.
- Use only your right hand for eating or accepting food.
- When the meal begins, accept as much food as is offered to you. If you say ‘no thanks’ continually, it can offend the host.
- It’s good manners to leave a little food on your plate at the end of the meal: traditionally, a clean plate was thought to invite famine. It can also suggest to your host that they haven't fed you sufficiently.
- Your host will often lay the tastiest morsels in front of you; it’s polite to accept them.
- The best part – such as the meat – is usually saved until last, so don’t take it until offered.
There are fewer etiquette rules to observe in restaurants, but it’s still worth trying to do so, particularly if you’re eating as the guest of a local or sharing a table with locals.
- Picking teeth after a meal is quite acceptable, and toothpicks are often provided.
- Be sure to leave the dining area and go outside or to the toilet before blowing your nose.
- Take food from your side of the table; stretching to the other side is considered impolite.
- It’s polite to accept a cup of coffee after a meal and impolite to leave before it’s served.
At some point during your travels in the Middle East, the conversation is likely to turn to religion. More specifically, you’ll probably be asked, ‘What’s your religion?’ Given that most foreign travellers come from secular Western traditions where religion is a private matter, the level of frankness in some of these discussions can come as a surprise. At the same time, there’s no better way of getting under the skin of a nation than talking about the things that matter most in life. So how do you go about answering this question?
It’s usually easy to explain that you are Christian or, in some circumstances, Jewish. The overwhelming majority of Muslims won’t bat an eyelid and may even welcome the opportunity to talk about the common origins and doctrines that Christianity, Judaism and Islam share. Traditionally, Christians and Jews were respected as ‘people of the book’ who share the same God. In fact, many a Bedouin encounter begins with a celebration of that fact, with greetings such as ‘Your God, my God same – Salaam (Peace)!’
The question of religion gets complicated when it comes to atheists. ‘I don’t believe in God’ can call into question the very foundation of a Muslim’s existence. If you are concerned your atheism will cause offence, perhaps say, ‘I’m a seeker’, suggesting you haven’t quite made up your mind but may do so in the future. Be aware that Muslims may respond by explaining the merits of Islam to you. If that’s not how you planned to spend your afternoon, try saying, ‘I’m not religious’. This will likely lead to understanding nods and then, perhaps on subsequent meetings, an earnest attempt at conversion. Phrases like ‘You’ll find God soon, God-willing’ are a measure of someone’s affection for you and a reasonable response would be shukran (thank you).
Tourism has the potential to improve the relationship between the Middle East and the West, but the gradual erosion of traditional life is the flipside of mass tourism. Sexual promiscuity, public drunkenness among tourists and the wearing of unsuitable clothing are all concerns to be aware of.
Try to have minimal impact on your surroundings. Create a positive precedent for those who follow you by keeping in mind the following:
- Don’t hand out sweets or pens to children on the streets, since it encourages begging. Similarly, doling out medicines can encourage people not to seek proper medical advice and you have no control over whether the medicines are taken appropriately. A donation to a project, health centre or school is a far more constructive way to help.
- Buy your snacks, cigarettes, bubble gum etc from the enterprising grannies trying to make ends meet, rather than state-run stores. Also, use locally owned hotels and restaurants and buy locally made products.
- Try to give people a balanced perspective of life in the West. Try also to point out the strong points of the local culture, such as strong family ties and comparatively low crime.
- Make yourself aware of the human-rights situation, history and current affairs in the countries you travel through.
- If you’re in a frustrating situation, be patient, friendly and considerate. Never lose your temper as a confrontational attitude won’t go down well. For many Arabs, a loss of face is a serious and sensitive issue.
- Try to learn some of the standard greetings – it will make a very good first impression.
- Always ask before taking photos of people. Don’t worry if you don’t speak the language – a smile and gesture will be appreciated. Never photograph someone if they don’t want you to. If you agree to send someone a photo, make sure you follow through on it.
- Be respectful of Islamic traditions and don’t wear revealing clothing; loose lightweight clothing is preferable.
- Men should shake hands when formally meeting other men, but not women, unless the woman extends her hand first. If you are a woman and uncomfortable with men extending their hand to you (they don’t do this with local women), just put your hand over your heart and say hello.
- Public displays of physical affection are almost always likely to be misunderstood. Be discreet.
The situation for gay and lesbian travellers in the Middle East is more diverse than you might imagine. Israel is the best place in the region to be gay – homosexuality is legal, and Tel Aviv in particular has a thriving gay and lesbian scene. Elsewhere, especially in conservative Jerusalem, the gay and lesbian scene is well and truly underground. The same doesn’t apply to the Palestinian Territories, and hundreds of Palestinian gays have been forced to seek refuge in Israel.
Homosexuality inhabits a legal black hole in Turkey – not illegal nor is it officially legal. On one hand, İstanbul and Ankara are both home to small but thriving gay communities. Turkey is, however, a Muslim country and homophobia is on the rise; the local authorities have from time to time used morality laws to close down gay advocacy groups. As always, discretion is key.
It is slightly more complicated in Egypt and Jordan, where, although the criminal code doesn’t expressly forbid homosexual acts, laws regarding public decency have been used to prosecute gays, especially in Egypt; the Jordanian capital Amman nonetheless has a couple of gay-friendly spots.
Homosexuality is illegal in the Arabian Peninsula, Lebanon, Iran, Syria and Iraq, although Beirut takes a fairly liberal approach with a small but vibrant gay scene. In March 2014 a Lebanese court ruled that same-sex relations are not 'contradicting the laws of nature' and cannot therefore be considered a crime. A number of similar rulings have led some to claim that homosexual acts are effectively legal in the country, but the legal situation remains unclear.
In countries where homosexuality is illegal or ambiguous in a legal sense, penalties include fines and/or imprisonment. That does not mean that there isn't an active gay scene, but it does mean that gay identity is generally expressed only in certain trusted, private spheres.
Global Gayz – Middle East (www.globalgayz.com/middle-east) An excellent country-by-country rundown on the situation for gays and lesbians in all countries of the Middle East.
Spartacus International Gay Guide (www.spartacusworld.com/gayguide) Good for information on gay-friendly bars and hotels. It also has a Gay Travel Index.
Travel insurance covering theft, loss and medical problems is highly recommended. Some policies offer travellers lower and higher medical-expense options; the higher ones are chiefly for countries such as the USA, which have extremely high medical costs. Watch particularly for the small print as some policies specifically exclude ‘dangerous activities’, which can include scuba diving, motorcycling and even trekking.
Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
Wi-fi access is increasingly the norm in most top-end hotels as well as many in the midrange categories. It’s also getting easier to connect in upmarket cafes and restaurants. In some places, like Tel Aviv, there aren't that many places where you can't connect.
You’re never too far from an internet cafe in all major cities and larger towns across the Middle East, although ones that last the distance are pretty rare. If you need to track one down, ask your hotel reception or head to the university district (if there is one) and ask around.
Given its reputation for political censorship, there are surprisingly few websites that are blocked by governments in the region, although Iran is a significant exception; in the latter everything from BBC news sites to Twitter and Facebook can fall foul of the censors.
Legals systems differ greatly across the Middle East, with the greatest difference tending to be the extent to which Islamic principles and Sharia law underpins the legal order. The spectrum ranges from the codification of fairly strict Islamic tenets in Iran to more secular laws in Turkey and Israel, with many shades of grey in between.
Despite such differences, as a general rule most of the same activities that are illegal in your country are illegal in the countries of the Middle East, but the penalties are usually much harsher. The penalties for drug or alcohol use and smuggling are harsh. Carrying the smallest amount of hashish can result in a jail sentence; don’t expect assistance from your embassy or a comfortable cell. Trafficking heroin or opium carries the death penalty. For most minor crimes foreigners will probably be deported, though this is not an absolute.
ATMs and credit-card use are widespread. US dollars are universally accepted, followed by euros and British pounds. Cash is king in Iran.
ATMs are now a way of life in most Middle Eastern countries. This is certainly the case in Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf countries, where ATMs are everywhere and they’re usually linked to one of the international networks (eg MasterCard, Maestro, Cirrus, Visa, Visa Electron or GlobalAccess systems). ATMs are widespread in Iran, but none accept international cards and are therefore of no use to travellers.
Another thing to consider is whether the convenience of withdrawing money as you go is outweighed by the bank fees you’ll be charged for doing so. It’s a good idea to check the transaction fees both with your own bank back home and, if possible, with the banks whose machines you’ll be using while you travel.
Although credit cards are increasingly accepted, cash remains the most reliable way to bring your money in the Middle East. And not just any cash. US dollars and, increasingly, euros are the currency of choice in most countries of the Middle East, and not just for changing money – many midrange and top-end hotels prefer their bills to be settled in either currency.
If your funds have run dry and you’ve no means of withdrawing money, Western Union (www.westernunion.com) has representatives in every country in the region except Iran.
The only danger in relying solely on travelling with cash is that if you lose it, it’s lost forever – insurance companies simply won’t believe that you had US$1000 in cash.
Credit cards (especially Visa and MasterCard) are accepted by an ever-growing number of Middle Eastern hotels, top-end restaurants and handicraft shops, but the situation is still a long way from one where you could pay your way solely by flashing the card. Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon and Turkey are the most credit-card-friendly countries in the region. You should always be wary of surcharges for paying by card – many Egyptian and Jordanian businesses also sting for commissions over and above the purchase price. Credit cards are useless in Iran.
|Egypt||Iran||Israel & the Palestinian Territories||Jordan||Lebanon||Turkey|
For current exchange rates see www.xe.com.
Tipping is expected to varying degrees in all Middle Eastern countries. Called baksheesh, it’s more than just a reward for having rendered a service. Salaries and wages are much lower than in Western countries, so baksheesh is often regarded as an essential means of supplementing income. To a cleaner in a one- or two-star hotel, who may earn the equivalent of US$50 per month, the accumulated daily dollar tips given by guests can constitute the mainstay of his or her salary.
For Western travellers who aren’t used to continual tipping, demands for baksheesh for doing anything from opening doors to pointing out the obvious in museums can be quite irritating. But it is the accepted way. Don’t be intimidated into paying baksheesh when you don’t think the service warrants it, but remember that more things warrant baksheesh here than anywhere in the West. One hint: carry lots of small change with you, but keep it separate from bigger bills, so that baksheesh demands don’t increase when they see that you can afford more.
Tipping is increasingly expected in midrange and top-end restaurants in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon and Turkey. Check your bill closely, however, as many such restaurants include an additional charge for service, in which case a further tip is not necessary. One country where baksheesh or tipping isn’t as prevalent is Jordan, where many locals feel irritated when tourists throw their money around, not least because some employers are known to deduct anticipated tips from their employees, resulting in even lower wages!
Other circumstances in which a tip is expected is where you’ve taken a tour either with a guide or a taxi driver or both. How much to leave depends on the length of the expedition and the helpfulness of the guide.
In the Arabian Peninsula, tipping is the exception rather than the rule and baksheesh does not exist. Tipping in hotels, high-end restaurants and taxis is common but not mandatory.
With a few exceptions, the working week runs from Sunday to Thursday, so the end-of-week holiday is Friday. In Israel, it’s Saturday (Shabbat), while in Lebanon and Turkey, it’s Sunday. In countries where Friday is the holiday, many embassies and offices are also closed on Thursday, although in areas where there are lots of tourists, many private businesses and shops are open on Thursday and many stores will reopen in the evening on Friday.
It’s worth remembering that shops and businesses may have different opening hours for different times of the year – they tend to work shorter hours in winter and open earlier in summer to allow for a longer lunchtime siesta. During Ramadan (the month-long fast for Muslims), almost everything shuts down in the afternoon.
In the Arabian Peninsula, the weekend is Friday and Saturday. The whole region takes a liberal approach to opening times with many sites, especially outside the cities, opening up when the caretaker feels like it.
As a matter of courtesy, never photograph people without first asking their permission. While that’s a general rule for photography anywhere, it’s especially important in the Middle East. In more conservative areas, including many rural areas, men should never photograph women and in most circumstances should never even ask. In countries where you can photograph women, show them the camera and make it clear that you want to take their picture.
In most Middle Eastern countries, it is forbidden to photograph anything even vaguely military in nature (including bridges, train stations, airports, border crossings and other public works). The definition of what is ‘strategic’ differs from one country to the next, and signs are not always posted, so err on the side of caution and, if in doubt, ask your friendly neighbourhood police officer for permission.
Photography is usually allowed inside religious and archaeological sites, unless signs indicate otherwise. As a rule, do not photograph inside mosques during a service. Many Middle Easterners are sensitive about the negative aspects of their country, so exercise discretion when taking photos in poorer areas.
Post services are quite reliable in most of the Middle East, although in rural areas the service can range from slow to nonexistent – it definitely pays to send your mail from the main centres.
Letters sent from a major capital take about a week to reach most parts of Europe, and anything between a week and two weeks to reach North America or Australasia. If you're in a hurry, either DHL or Federal Express has offices in almost every capital city in the Middle East.
All Middle Eastern countries except Israel observe the main Islamic holidays listed here. Countries with a major Shiite population also observe Ashura, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Hussein, the third imam of the Shiites. Most of the countries in the area also observe both the Gregorian and the Islamic New Year holidays. Every country also has its own national days and other public holidays.
Eid Al Adha (Kurban Bayramı in Turkey) This feast marks the time that Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Eid Al Fitr (Şeker Bayramı in Turkey) Another feast, this time to herald the end of Ramadan fasting; the celebrations last for three days.
Islamic New Year Also known as Ras As Sana, it literally means ‘the head of the year’.
Lailat Al Miraj This is the celebration of the Ascension of the Prophet Muhammad.
Prophet’s Birthday This is also known as Moulid An Nabi, ‘the feast of the Prophet’.
Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkey and Iran) This is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, when Muslims fast during daylight hours. Foreigners are not expected to follow suit, but it’s considered impolite to smoke, drink or eat in public during Ramadan. As the sun sets each day, the fast is broken with iftar (the evening meal prepared to break the fast).
Ashura The anniversary of the martyrdom of Hossein, the third Shiite imam, in battle at Karbala in October AD 680. This is celebrated with religious theatre and sombre parades in Shiite areas, especially in Iran and Lebanon.
All Islamic holidays fall according to the Muslim calendar, while secular activities are planned according to the Christian system.
The Muslim year is based on the lunar cycle and is divided into 12 lunar months, each with 29 or 30 days. Consequently, the Muslim year is 10 or 11 days shorter than the Christian solar year, and the Muslim festivals gradually move around the Gregorian calendar year, completing the cycle in roughly 33 years. Actual dates may occur a day or so later than listed, but probably not earlier, depending on moon sightings.
Islamic Holidays Dates
31 Aug 2019
9 Nov 2019
Lailat Al Miraj
2 April 2019
6 May 2019
Eid Al Fitr
4 Jun 2019
Eid Al Adha
10 Aug 2019
8 Sep 2019
19 Aug 2020
28 Oct 2020
Lailat Al Miraj
20 Mar 2020
24 Apr 2020
Eid Al Fitr
24 May 2020
Eid Al Adha
31 Jul 2020
29 Aug 2020
9 Aug 2021
18 Oct 2021
Lailat Al Miraj
9 Mar 2021
13 Apr 2021
Eid Al Fitr
13 May 2021
Eid Al Adha
20 Jul 2021
18 Aug 2021
29 July 2022
7 October 2022
Lailat Al Miraj
30 Apr 2022
2 Apr 2022
Eid Al Fitr
2 May 2022
Eid Al Adha
9 Jul 2022
7 Aug 2022
- Smoking Most countries of the Middle East have laws banning smoking in enclosed public spaces, although enforcement varies. Iran, Israel and the Gulf countries tend to police anti-smoking laws quite strictly, while Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are works in progress on this front.
Taxes & Refunds
Most countries of the Middle East have some form of sales or value-added tax (eg 11% in Lebanon, 16% in Jordan and up to 18% in Turkey), but quoted prices and tariffs usually include all local taxes; always ask if you're unsure.
Claiming Tax Refunds
Few countries have any system of sales-tax refunds for tourists who purchase items while travelling, but there are exceptions. In Lebanon, you can claim back VAT on purchases in shops of more than US$100 either through the shop itself or at the airport on departure, while in Turkey some shops provide a VAT refund service, and it is technically possible for foreigners to claim a refund on purchases over ₺100 by showing their receipt at an airport tax refund office upon departure. However, this does not always work, so it is best to only pay a price you feel is fair without the prospect of a VAT refund. The UAE also operates a tax refund policy, reclaimable at the airport.
Wi-fi access is increasingly the norm, so the cheapest way to make international calls is using VoIP operators such as Skype (www.skype.com) from your own device, although Skype is sometimes blocked by Iranian censors.
Internet cafes are usually equipped with webcams, microphones and headsets and can sell you the relevant card (there are usually a number of brands to choose from) and show you how to use it.
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Local SIM cards are widely available. Mobile coverage is widespread, but patchy in some areas.
Mobile networks in Middle Eastern countries all work on the GSM system, and it’s rare that your mobile brought from home won’t automatically link up with a local operator. That’s fine for receiving calls, but roaming charges can make for a nasty surprise back home if you’ve made a few calls on your trip. If you plan to be in a country for a while, your best option is to buy a local SIM card – an easy process in every country of the region except Turkey, where it can be complex and time-consuming.
Most countries in the region are GMT/UTC plus two hours, except Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Yemen (GMT/UTC plus three hours) and Iran (GMT/UTC plus 3½ hours); Oman and UAE are GMT/UTC plus four hours. Some countries operate on daylight-saving hours from around April to September, except for Turkey, Egypt and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula.
Outside the midrange and top-end hotels and restaurants (where Western-style toilets are the norm), visitors will encounter their fair share of Arab-style squat toilets (which, incidentally, according to physiologists, encourage a far more natural position than the Western-style invention!).
It’s a good idea to carry an emergency stash of toilet paper with you for the times when you’re caught short outside the hotel, as most of these toilets have a water hose and bucket for the same purpose.
Most countries in the region have tourist offices with branches in big towns and at tourist sights. That said, don’t expect much. Usually, the most the offices can produce is a free map; help with booking accommodation or any other service is typically beyond the resources of the often-nonetheless-amiable staff. The exceptions to this rule are some of the offices in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, which are very useful. Elsewhere, you’ll usually get better results relying on the knowledge and resourcefulness of your hotel reception or a local guide.
Travel with Children
We have a simple message for those of you considering travelling with your children to the Middle East: go for it. If you don’t believe us, look around – you won’t see many families of travellers, but the ones you do see will probably be having a pretty good time.
Best Regions for Kids
For the most part, travelling in Turkey is no different from anywhere else in Europe. The beach resorts of the Aegean and Mediterranean probably hold the greatest appeal, but don’t forget the fairy-chimney landscape of Cappadocia. Public transport and road infrastructure is generally excellent, although distances between destinations can be long.
- Jordan & Israel & the Palestinian Territories
Israel & the Palestinian Territories has terrific beaches, while Jordan boasts fabulous castles, camel trekking and the chance to float in the Dead Sea. An additional plus to travelling in these two compact places is the short distances to get anywhere, while standards of food hygiene are relatively high.
Despite large distances, train rides and sailing boats down the Nile go some way towards compensating. Throw in beaches, Red Sea snorkelling and Tintin & the Pharaohs come to life, and kids could easily fall in love with the country.
Middle East for Kids
Health & Safety
All travellers with children should know how to treat minor ailments and when to seek medical treatment. Make sure children are up to date with routine vaccinations, and discuss possible travel vaccines well before departure as some vaccines are not suitable for children aged under one year.
On the all-important question of security, there are plenty of places in the Middle East that are extremely safe, and any place that’s safe for you to visit will generally be safe for your children.
Public transport is rarely easy with children: car sickness is a problem, they’ll usually end up on your lap, functional seat belts are rare, even in taxis, and accidents are common.
The extreme heat of the summer requires a bit of planning for kids. Hats, sunscreen and water are vital.
It’s common for locals to eat out as a family. As a result, waiters are welcoming, or at least accepting of children. Best of all, the region’s cuisine is generally child-friendly, being simple and varied, although you should always make sure the meat is well cooked. On the downside, Middle Eastern ice creams may be too much of a risk for tender young stomachs and, although some places have high chairs, they’re very much in the minority. Kids’ menus are rare except in Western-style hotel restaurants in larger cities.
The beaches of the Middle East are ideal for families and factoring in some beach time to go with the region’s more adult attractions can be a wise move. The safest and most easily accessible place to begin is Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Egypt, Jordan, Israel, the UAE and Oman all have excellent beaches, many of which have a range of activities on offer, from boat rides to diving and snorkelling.
Unlike any vaguely news-savvy adult, most children have yet to have their perceptions of the Middle East distorted by stereotypes. Discovering for themselves just how friendly the people of the Middle East can be is a lesson that will last a lifetime. More than that, your own chances of meeting locals (especially local families) is greatly enhanced if you’re travelling as a family.
Temples & Castles
- Karnak Temple, Egypt A sound-and-light show that’s a great alternative to history books.
- Petra, Jordan If they’ve seen Indiana Jones, watch them go wide-eyed with recognition.
- Karak & Shobak Jordanian castles filled with legends of knights and damsels in distress.
- Cappadocia, Turkey Fairy-tale landscape made for a child’s fertile imagination.
- Nakhal Fort, Oman One of a thousand castles in Oman that should keep the kids busy.
- Jerusalem Child-friendly activities; brings Sunday school lessons to life.
- Esfahan, Iran Welcoming open spaces with plenty of families enjoying them.
- İstanbul, Turkey Make geography interesting by visiting two continents in one day.
- Dubai, UAE The dancing fountains are a hit with children.
- Abu Dhabi, UAE Give older kids a chance to live their inner Schumacher at Ferrari World.
Beaches & Activities
- Snorkelling the Red Sea A whole new world to make Nemo look tame.
- Spending time on Turkey’s beaches Gentle waters and family-friendly facilities.
- Sailing a felucca up the Nile from Aswan to Luxor An unforgettable journey.
- Floating in the Dead Sea Yes, even Dad floats!
- Riding a camel through Wadi Rum Be Lawrence of Arabia for a day.
- Horse riding in Luxor An original way to experience West Bank temples.
What to Bring
Disposable nappies (diapers), powdered milk, formula and bottled water are widely available throughout the region in most large supermarkets, although don't expect to find your favourite brands; stock up in larger towns as some items won’t be available elsewhere.
If you’ll be travelling by taxi or minibus, you may consider bringing a child’s seat-belt adjuster and/or a car seat; very few vehicles have the latter.
Other useful items to bring include child-friendly insect repellent and a blanket to spread out to use as a makeshift nappy-changing area.
When to Go
The best times to visit the Middle East are in autumn (September to November) or spring (March to May). Travel is certainly possible at other times, but winter (December to February) can be bitterly cold in the evenings and rain can be frequent. And unless you’ll be spending all of your time in the water, avoid travel in the summer (especially in July and August) as the extreme heat can be quite uncomfortable and energy sapping.
Your chances of finding what you need (such as cots) increase the more you’re willing to pay. And you’ll almost certainly want something with a private bathroom and hot water, thereby precluding most budget accommodation. Hygiene standards at many budget establishments can also be poor.
Children under two years usually stay for free in most hotels. There’s often a supplementary charge for squeezing in extra beds. Large family rooms or adjoining rooms with connecting doors are occasionally available.
Generally speaking, scant regard is paid to the needs of disabled travellers in the Middle East. Steps, high kerbs and other assorted obstacles are everywhere, streets are often badly rutted and uneven, roads are made virtually uncrossable by heavy traffic, and many doorways are low and narrow. Ramps and specially equipped lodgings and toilets are extremely rare. The exception is Israel. Elsewhere, you’ll have to plan your trip carefully and will probably be obliged to restrict yourself to luxury-level hotels and private, hired transport.
Where Middle Eastern governments have singularly failed to provide the necessary infrastructure, local officials, guides and hotel staff almost invariably do their best to help in any way they can.
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guides from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
Accessible Travel & Leisure (www.accessibletravel.co.uk) Claims to be the biggest UK travel agent dealing with travel for the disabled, including some options for Egypt. The company encourages people with disabilities to travel independently.
Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality (www.sath.org) A good resource that gives advice on how to travel with a wheelchair, kidney disease, sight impairment or deafness.
Tourism for All (www.tourismforall.org.uk) Advice for disabled and less-mobile senior travellers.
There aren’t many opportunities for volunteering in the Middle East, but some international organisations (including the following) have projects in the region:
Idealist.org (www.idealist.org) Numerous options in the region.
International Volunteer Programs Association (www.volunteerinternational.org) Possibilities in Jordan.
UN Volunteers (www.unv.org) Volunteer with the UN, with occasional opportunities in the region.
Volunteer Abroad (www.goabroad.com/volunteer-abroad) A handful of options in the Middle East.
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures All countries in the Middle East use the metric system.
Despite the Middle East’s reputation as difficult terrain for women travellers, there’s no reason why women can’t enjoy the region as much as their male counterparts. In fact, some seasoned women travellers to the Middle East consider their gender to be a help, not a hindrance.
Your experience of travelling in the region may depend partly on situations beyond your control, but there are some things you can try so as to minimise problems:
- Retain your self-confidence and sense of humour.
- Balance alertness with a certain detachment: ignoring stares and refusing to dignify suggestive remarks with a response generally stops unwanted advances in their tracks.
- Eat in a restaurant’s family section, where one exists, or at places more used to tourists.
- If necessary, invent or borrow a husband, wear a wedding ring or even carry a photo of your ‘kids’. While this may cause some consternation – what sort of mother/wife are you to have left your family to travel alone? – it will deter many suitors.
- Avoid direct eye contact with local men (dark sunglasses help), although a cold glare can also be an effective riposte if deployed at the right moment.
- Maximise your interaction with local women.
- In taxis, avoid sitting in the front seat unless the driver is female.
- On all forms of public transport, sit next to another woman whenever possible.
- Lost? Try asking a local woman for directions.
- If nothing else works and you can’t shake off a hanger-on, go to the nearest public place, such as a hotel lobby. If he persists, asking the receptionist to call the police usually frightens him off.
Attitudes towards Women
For many people in the region, both men and women, the role of a woman is specifically defined: she is mother and matron of the household, while the man is the provider. Generalisations can, however, be misleading and the reality is often far more nuanced.
There are thousands of middle- and upper-middle-class professional women in the Arab World and elsewhere who, like their counterparts in the West, juggle work and family responsibilities. Among the working classes or in conservative rural areas where adherence to tradition is strongest, the ideal may be for women to concentrate on home and family, but economic reality means that millions of women are forced to work (but are still responsible for all domestic chores).
Contrary to stereotypes, the treatment of foreign women can be at its best in more conservative societies, providing, of course, you adhere to the prevailing social mores.
The treatment of women can also be a factor of age: older women will find they are greatly respected and may encounter fewer uncomfortable situations than younger women travellers.
Let’s Talk About Sex
When it comes to sex, the differences between Western and Middle Eastern women become most apparent. Premarital sex (or, indeed, any sex outside marriage) is taboo in most of the region. With occasional exceptions among the upper classes, women are expected to be virgins when they marry, and a family’s reputation can rest upon this.
The presence of foreign women presents, in the eyes of some Middle Eastern men, a chance to get around these norms with ease and without consequences, a perception reinforced by distorted impressions gained from Western TV and the behaviour of a small number of women travellers.
Pros & Cons
Women travellers are no different from their male counterparts in that meeting local people is a highlight of travelling in the Middle East. And unlike male travellers, they can meet Middle Eastern women without social restrictions, opening up a whole Middle Eastern world that men cannot experience. Local women are as curious about life for women beyond the Middle East as you are about their lives, and they love to chat to women visitors. That said, local women are less likely than men to have had an education that included learning English – you’ll find this to be the only major barrier to getting to meet and talk with them.
One other advantage, and one you should exploit to the full, is that in some countries it’s often perfectly acceptable for a woman to go straight to the front of a queue or ask to be served first. This is less likely to occur in Lebanon, Turkey, Israel and Iran.
Sexual harassment is a problem worldwide and the Middle East is no exception. Harassment can come in many forms: from stares, muttered comments and uncomfortably close contact on crowded public transport, to the difficulty of eating in public on your own, where you may receive endless unwanted guests – even the wandering hands of waiters can be a problem. Women also report being followed and hissed at by unwanted male admirers on a fairly regular basis.
That said, although ‘mild’ harassment can be common in some countries, reports of serious physical harassment are rare. Whether that's because it rarely occurs or because it's rarely reported varies greatly from country to country. Significant social stigma attaches to sexual harassment in many Middle Eastern countries.
What to Wear
Fair or not, how women travellers dress goes a long way towards determining how they’re treated. To you, short pants and a tight top might be an appropriate reaction to the desert temperatures, but to many local men, your dress choice will send an entirely different message, confirming the worst views held of Western women.
The best way to tackle the stereotypes is to visibly debunk them. Do as the locals do, and dress and behave more modestly than you might at home and always err on the side of caution. As with anywhere, take your cues from those around you.
Dressing modestly means covering your upper legs and arms, shoulders and cleavage. A scarf is also useful, both to cover your neckline and to slip over your head when you want to look even more inconspicuous or when the occasion requires it (such as when visiting a mosque).
For all the inconvenience, dressing conservatively means you’ll get a much warmer reception from the locals, you’ll attract less unwanted attention, and you may feel more comfortable (long baggy clothes will keep you cooler under the fierce Middle Eastern sun).
In Iran, most female travellers will find dress rules to be both an imposition and an inconvenience. Since the revolution of 1979 all women in Iran, including foreigners, have been required by law to wear loose-fitting clothes to disguise their figures and must also cover their hair. This form of dressing is known as hijab, a term that refers in general to ‘modest’ dress, and is also used to refer specifically to the hair-covering.
Signs in public places show officially acceptable versions of hijab: the chador (literally ‘tent’ in Farsi), an all-encompassing, head-to-toe black garment held closed with hand or teeth; or a manteau (shapeless coat or coat dress) and a rusari (scarf) covering the hair and neck.
It's possible to pick up work in the Middle East to extend your stay and eke out your savings – but you have to know where to look and what you're looking for. Realistically, your best options are Egypt, Israel and Turkey, ie the places where other foreigners gather in numbers.
Centres for teaching English – both of the respectable kind and cowboy outfits – can be found throughout the Middle East. Cowboy outfits are often desperate for teachers and will take on people whose only qualification is that their mother tongue is English. Pay is minimal and you'll probably have to stay on a tourist visa, which will be up to you to renew. However, many long-termers finance their stays this way, particularly in Cairo and İstanbul.
Your chances of getting a job are greatly improved if you have a Celta (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults). This is what used to be known as TEFL and, basically, it's your passport to work abroad. Qualified teachers should also check www.eslcafe.com for regular job postings.
In Israel and the Palestinian Territories (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Eilat) and various places in Turkey (particularly İstanbul, Selçuk, Bodrum, Fethiye and Cappadocia), it's usually possible to pick up work in a hostel, typically cleaning rooms or looking after reception. It doesn't pay much, but it does usually get you a free room, a meal or two a day plus some beer money. The only way to find this kind of work is to ask around.
In all countries of the Middle East, work is not usually permitted on a tourist visa and you will need to obtain a working visa – discuss this with any potential employer before signing any contract.