How Much It Costs To Travel In Saudi Arabia | Lost With Purpose
A guide to how much it costs to travel in Saudi Arabia, with tips on traveling Saudi Arabia on a budget. Includes information on cheap accommodation, transportation, food, sights, and tips for backpacking in Saudi Arabia.
As of 2019, Saudi Arabia opened its borders to international tourists from dozens of different countries, in the hopes of attracting a major influx of visitors to the Kingdom. Although the country clearly hopes for wealthy visitors interested in 5-star luxury resorts and package tours, I foresee plenty of backpackers travelers visiting the Kingdom in coming years.
The problem: Saudi is not a budget destination.
Accommodation is pricey. Due to a lack of public transport, transportation quickly drains your wallet. Mainstream entertainment is for the upper class.
But don’t let that deter you! It’s possible to travel Saudi Arabia on a relatively small budget, considering it’s a Gulf country. Here’s how much you can expect to spend in Saudi Arabia, and how to travel Saudi Arabia on the cheap.
Overview of travel costs in Saudi Arabia
At the time of writing, US$1 is roughly 3.75 SAR.
- Average spent per day: US$55
- Budget hotel room/apartment: 100-150 SAR | $25-50
- Cheap meal: 8-12 SAR | $4-6
- Street food: 2-4 SAR | $1-1.50
- Mid-range meal: 120-150 SAR | $30-35
- Cup of tea: 1 SAR | $0.25
- Half hour Uber: 40-50 SAR | $10-12
- Tourist site entrance: 5-20 SAR | $1.50-5
- SIM card with 10GB data: 160 SAR | $43
Currency and cash in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia uses the Saudi Riyal (SAR). One riyal is composed of 100 Halalas.
There are banknotes of 1,5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 SAR, as well as 1 and 2 Riyal coins.
ATMs in Saudi Arabia
ATMs are widely available in Saudi, and they don’t charge any convenience or other fees. Woop!
All ATMs offer English menus. Most ATMs automatically dispense 500 SAR notes when possible (less woop). Considering this is a lot of money—around US$130—try to withdraw an amount that forces the ATM to gives you smaller denominations. Ain’t nobody likes having to break a 500 SAR note.
Paying by credit card in Saudi Arabia
Credit cards are accepted in most establishments in Saudi Arabia. Visa, Mastercard, and Maestro are widely accepted. Mobile services such as Google Pay and Apple Pay are also increasing in popularity in cities.
Cost of accommodation in Saudi Arabia
Cheap hotels and apartments in Saudi Arabia start at around 100-150 SAR (US$26-49) per night per room/apartment.
Mid-range hotels in cities will set you back around 180-375 SAR ($50-100) per night.
Luxury in Saudi Arabia knows no bounds—you can pay hundreds to thousands per night for a room depending on what floats your boat. But that’s far from my area of expertise!
Budget accommodation in Saudi Arabia
Budget accommodation options are extremely limited in Saudi Arabia; backpacking is still a very new concept. Don’t expect hostels or cheap guesthouses on your trip!
Solo travel in Saudi Arabia can get costly quickly—accommodation prices are per room, not per person. When traveling to Saudi Arabia, I suggest partnering up if on a tight budget. On the bright side, it’s now legal for men and women/unmarried couples to share rooms. Single women are also allowed to have their own room in Saudi Arabia, if sharing isn’t your thing.
When you travel in Saudi Arabia on a budget, you’ll likely stay in hotels or apart-hotels. Apart-hotels are basically apartments for short term rent with two to four rooms, and they’re usually the best value.
For this price, you can expect (mostly) clean rooms, a sit-down toilet, hot water, and usually a spacious living room and one or two bedrooms in apartments. Apartments also include kitchens with hot water heaters… but not much else in the way of cooking utensils. Extras like towels are not always included, especially not in apartments, but if you ask they’ll sometimes be provided.
How to find cheap accommodation in Saudi Arabia
In major cities, it’s usually easy to find accommodation on Booking.com. You can book online, and usually you don’t need credit card information to book a room.
Alternatively, you can find hotels on Booking.com, then visit the hotel in person to see if you can bargain a better price. Bargaining is possible, but not necessarily expected. Don’t be surprised if the clerk doesn’t give you a discount. But it’s always worth asking—I got discounts ranging from 10 to 100 SAR.
Let it be noted that there were also many instances where the price of the hotel was cheaper on Booking.com than in person. In those instances, the clerk would told me to book online instead of offering a discount. Strange, but so be it.
In places where there aren’t any hotels on Booking.com, I searched “apartment” on Google Maps and usually found a handful of apart-hotels, even in remote towns. They often had poor reviews, but even the ones with bad reviews were usually sufficient. Saudis are harsh reviewers!
Browse Saudi hotels on Booking.com
Couchsurfing in Saudi Arabia
Couchsurfing is possible in Saudi Arabia. Though the community isn’t as developed as other countries, there are always a handful of active hosts and members in cities. You can count on being hosted in most major cities if interested, and Saudis are very hospitable: hosts will often take your around in addition to letting you stay in their home.
The bigger issue is that many people, for cultural reasons or otherwise, are not able to host travelers. You’ll receive many offers to be shown around, but finding an actual host might be trickier. Look for people who have reviews from actual surfers.
Couchsurfing in Saudi Arabia as a solo female traveler
Couchsurfing as a solo female traveler in Saudi Arabia IS possible, for the record. I had hosts in Riyadh and Jazan. Ideally you’ll stay with a woman or a family, but there are some good men on Couchsurfing, too. Just be careful when selecting a host—it’s extremely unusual for lone women to request such things, and women being allowed to spend time with unrelated men is still a very new concept. Men might consider your request an invitation; stay on your guard.
Read: Female travel in Saudi Arabia: here’s what you need to know
Cost of food and drinks in Saudi Arabia
At the budget end of things, food in Saudi is reasonably priced… and portions are massive. Expect to pay about 8-12 SAR ($2-3) for a kebab or chicken and a mound of rice (kabsa or mandi) with a drink.
In some cities you’ll find street stalls or food trucks serving food for roughly 4-6 SAR ($1-1.50) per person. For more cheap food choices, look for women selling homemade food on the street in cities.
Is eating in Saudi more expensive for women? Female travelers will have more trouble finding cheap food than men—restaurants are divided into “singles” men’s areas and family sections for women and their entourages. Many of the cheap restaurants are men-only. If you want to eat their food, you’ll have to get it wrapped in a million layers of plastic and take it away to eat elsewhere. Women who want to travel to Saudi can find more info in my guide to female travel in Saudi Arabia.
At more upscale and traditional restaurants, entree prices start at 40-50 SAR ($10-12). A multi-course shared dining experience for three people will be around 120-150 SAR ($30-35) per person.
If you’re staying in an apartment or have cooking supplies, self catering is possible. There are plenty of large supermarkets everywhere, and groceries in them are similar in price to the US or Central Europe. Local products are a bit cheaper; find them in smaller shops or street markets in old cities. The main issue is that many apartments do not come with cooking utensils, despite having kitchens.
You can get tea at roadside stops for 1 SAR per cup. Since these cups of tea are delicious, I highly suggest you make an effort to seek them out!
Coffee or tea at nicer cafés are around 15-20 SAR ($4-5). Pricey, but they’re usually good quality.
Fruit shakes and other similar sweet drinks are around 10-20 SAR, and a bottle of water is roughly 2 SAR ($0.50).
Alcohol in Saudi Arabia is illegal… but, like everywhere in the world, it still exists if you know who to ask. A modest bottle of local arak liquor costs approximately 80-100 SAR ($20-25).
Cost of transportation in Saudi Arabia
Saudi is massive, but public transport systems are not well developed. In some cities, there are a few bus services… but good luck figuring out routes and times! Between major cities it’s possible to take a bus or fly.
Read: A road tripper’s guide to Saudi Arabia
Ride share apps
Within cities, you can get around by using Uber or Careem, another popular ride share app. A half hour Uber ride costs roughly 40-50 SAR ($10-12).
A long-distance bus between Riyadh and Jeddah starts at around 180 SAR ($45). Buses are generally comfortable. SAPTCO is regarded as the best and most affordable bus service in Saudi Arabia. For more information on routes and costs check out the SAPTCO website.
Flying between major cities is the most common form of transport for the upper and middle class—understandable when the cost of a plane ticket is roughly the same as the cost of a bus ticket! Personally, I’m against unnecessary flying due to the excessive carbon emissions of flying… but your call. You can check out Google Flights for deals on flying within Saudi—Saudi Airlines and FlyNas are two well-established carriers.
Renting a car
Although it’s possible to see some of Saudi by using buses and planes, I strongly recommend renting a car.
You can rent a small car for about $700+ per month. Petrol is cheap (1.5 SAR per liter) because of Saudi’s state-run oil companies. Although you won’t be able to go off-road with a small car—4x4s are significantly more expensive—renting a car does give you decent freedom of movement. If you’re traveling with two or more people, it’s actually more economical than taking a bus or flying.
Cost of sights in Saudi Arabia
Rejoice: most sights in Saudi are free, or charge a nominal entrance fee! There is no dual pricing in place, either.
The most expensive I encountered was the Sky Bridge in Riyadh’s Kingdom Centre tower, which costs 60 SAR ($16). Besides that, most places charged between 5-20 SAR ($1.50-5) to enter.
Several places run by the government are free to enter. Another common sight is the private heritage museum: people who run small family museums in their traditional homes. Many happily invite guests in for free. Although there isn’t always an official fee for these home museums, it’s nice to leave 5-10 SAR per person as thanks.
Cost of mobile data in Saudi Arabia
A SIM card with 10GB data on it costs roughly 160 SAR ($43). A mobile top-up of 10 GB is roughly 100 SAR. STC is slightly more expensive but has more coverage, Mobily is slightly cheaper, but has less coverage outside cities.
Most SIM bundles come with 1000+ minutes of calls and messages. You can buy SIM cards at the arrival hall of international airports.
Tips for backpacking Saudi Arabia on a budget
As I said: Saudi is not a budget backpacker destination. When I traveled to Saudi I spent roughly $55 per day.
And this included making efforts to save money through Couchsurfing, wild camping, and renting a car. The sky is the limit when you visit Saudi Arabia, but if you want to stay within a reasonable backpacker budget you have to put in some effort. Here are some ways to do so:
Couchsurfing is used in most cities, and is a great way to both save money and immerse yourself in Saudi life.
I Couchsurfed in several places, and recommend you to do the same at least once. Couchsurfing is especially helpful for solo travelers—it enables you to go places and experience things that otherwise would be tricky or expensive to do on your own.
Instead of staying in hotels all the time, I highly recommend camping while traveling Saudi.
Not only will you save money on accommodation, camping in the desert or in a wadi (valley) is gorgeous, and an integral part of Saudi culture. Camping is immensely popular in Saudi; it’s likely you’ll make local friends who are also out on a camping trip if you go on the weekend (Friday/Saturday).
There are no rules about where you can and cannot camp, although you should avoid blatant trespassing. If you plan to camp along the road, consider finding a prayer stop. People understand if you pitch your tent by one, and likely won’t mind if you sleep in the prayer hall.
Don’t be surprised if locals show up to investigate what you’re doing, or to make sure you’re okay when you’re camping in an area that isn’t an obvious camping ground.
Camping is almost always free, and there are plenty of designated camping spots along the coastline. Do note that the coastguard patrols the coast actively. If you plan to camp on the beach, bring copies of your passport to give to the coastguard officials.
Don’t eat “local”
DON’T eat local Alex? You hypocrite, you!
Wait, wait—hear me out. Local SAUDI places, especially traditional restaurants, are often quite expensive. If people want Saudi food, they can just eat it at home with their family!
For cheap food, search for places run by expats; Pakistanis, Indians, and Egyptians are a few nationalities with huge communities in Saudi that often run restaurants with cheaper food. Besides, much of Saudi’s food culture draws from other cultures anyway.
If you want to eat local food, try searching for small food stands or food trucks.
Buy food in supermarkets
Many supermarkets are American-style affairs, with an overwhelmingly large selection of food to choose from. Get your breakfast and lunch supplies from these to avoid paying for more expensive food in sit-down places.