Hajj, which purifies man of all sins, is a very sacred journey whose spiritual aspect can be overshadowed when faced with logistical troubles. Therefore choosing the "perfect" hajj package is crucial to allow you to focus on the spiritual aspect of the journey wholeheartedly.
Following are some aspects to consider when choosing a hajj package:
1. Choosing an agency registered with the Ministry of Hajj over a sub-agent increase your chances of a smooth journey. Registered agencies are more aware of the latest rules and regulations of processing visas, can contact Ministry of Hajj to resolve a problem, are accountable to Ministry if pilgrims file a complaint and are more resourceful in making airline, hotel and transportation arrangement. They are also cheaper because travel arrangement in Saudi Arabia can only be done by authorized agencies. Sub agents have to buy services from these agencies and therefore sell the package at a mark up price.
2. Despite all the advantages of licensed agents mentioned above, you can choose a sub agent if you have heard good things about them. All Authorized agents may not give a good service while some sub agents are very professional. Therefore one should choose a hajj package provider based on referrals.
3. Company of a knowledgeable and experienced guide in your group is necessary. No matter how much information you have accumulated from books and lectures, you may face questions, you had not anticipated before. It is also important to know if the travel agency seeks advice from their guide. For logistical ease, some agents may plan departure to Arafat and Muzdalifah before the time recommended by Islamic law. Choosing an agency that plans the trip under a reputable imam can mitigate risks of taking shortcuts or going against Sunnah.
4. Be sure to check that the Imam will do the hajj with the pilgrims of the package you have selected. It is difficult to contact the Imam if he is staying in a different hotel, traveling in a different bus or living in a different tent in Mina from yours. This problem is especially common with agencies that offer large variety of packages under the guidance of one or two Imams only.
5. Having a female guide would be of added benefit for sisters performing pilgrimage.
6. It is useful to check if the travel agency has a full-time employee in US and Saudi Arabia. The more an agency relies on outside resources, the more likely it is to suffer from mismanagement. Also the longer an agency has provided Hajj services, the better equipped it is to give a organized service.
7. Most Hajj packages advertise price with fare from New York to Jedda. If you live elsewhere, be sure to include the cost of domestic air fare to New York when choosing a package. Also add the cost of Hajj fees and Zabiha to get an estimate of the exact amount you will be spending per person.
8. Accommodation in a convenient site is very useful. Hotel close to the Haram and Masjid – e- Nabwi is more important than the number of stars of a hotel as it would cut travel time, conserve energy for worshiping and save time by not having to stand in long lines to do wudu or use restrooms . It may be better in cases to share your room with 4 people in a hotel close to Haram and not sharing room with one other person but at a greater distance from the Haram. Moreover hotel ratings are per Saudi Government standards which are different from the American standards of rating hotels.
9. Do not worry too much if a hajj package does not offer meals in Makkah and Medina. There are plenty of options around Haram to eat and drink in between prayer times, but may take up a lot of your time waiting in a line. Hotel buffets could be a time saver or a big distraction, as often people may spend a lot of time socializing too much. It is however good to receive food in Mina and Arafat as options will be limited. If you are performing Hajj with family it may be better to choose a package that offers meals throughout the trip.
10. Choosing hajj packages that land in Medina first, can save time spent in immigration lines. Pilgrims landing in Jedda can experience 14 – 18 hours in immigration before leaving for Makkah. However choosing package where pilgrims land in Jedda opens up many more flight options and may be cheaper. Same is true for leaving Saudi Arab. Medina as a port of entry or exit could save a lot of time.
11. Ask the agent about the location of the tent in Mina. VIP Tents are mostly (if not all) at a short walking distance from Jamarat. However regular tents in the North American Camp are as far as a 50 minute walk to Jamarat one way. In fact some tents are not even pitched in Mina. They are located beyond huge sign boards that say "Mina ends here"!
12. Hajj packages promising access to private apartments during stay in Mina is a plus. Tents in Mina are small with just enough space for people to sleep. Pilgrims can thus leave their luggage in their rooms during their stay in Mina. It also opens up the option to use the bathrooms and showers of the room and not the ones set up in Mina camp.
13. Hajj packages that offer free shuttle service from Mina to Haram can help you save money. Taxi fares increase exponentially during Mina days. Lured by the profits, a number of people come from other cities to work as taxi drivers and may even get lost while trying to drive pilgrims to Haram. Buses though cheaper take a long time to arrive. Therefore a shuttle service provided by your agent would be quicker and free.
14. Most hajj packages give out SIM cards. This could be a time saver too. Otherwise you may have to wait in lines to get a SIM card.
Considering these logistical issues while choosing the perfect hajj package will hopefully cut your worldly worries of performing hajj and allow you to concentrate on your worship to your heart's content.