Getting Around Saudi Arabia
There are many domestic airports, and air travel is by far the most convenient way of travelling around the country. Saudia (www.saudia.com) connects all main centres. Budget carriers flynas (www.flynas.com) offers economy-class connections to and from Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dammam. Many carriers offer special flights for pilgrims arriving at or departing from Jeddah during the Hajj.
Side of the roadRight
The road network is constantly being upgraded and expanded and, on the main routes, much of it is of the highest standard. The Corniche, which winds down the escarpment between Taif and Mecca, is as spectacular a feat of engineering as may be seen anywhere, as is the King Fahed Gateway that links Saudi Arabia to Bahrain.
However, standards of driving are erratic, particularly in the Eastern Province. As foreigners are tolerated rather than welcomed in Saudi Arabia, it is best to drive with extreme caution at all times.
Most major international car hire agencies have offices in Saudi Arabia, both at the airport and in town. The minimum age is 25.
Metered taxi services are available in all major cities. If you're feeling bold, you can attempt to negotiate the fare in advance (especially for long trips or fares that will take you through dense traffic) but it's often easier and not that much more expensive to rely on the meter.
The bravest among Saudi Arabian visitors might consider bringing along a bicycle. Be warned: local drivers are unaccustomed to cyclists, and riding near motor vehicle traffic is a risky proposition.
Inter-country bus travel in the Gulf can be daunting, but travel by bus between Saudi Arabia's cities can be quite pleasant. The national bus company SAPTCO (www.saptco.com.sa) maintains stations in most major cities. Routes are plentiful, tickets are affordable, and the vehicles themselves are clean and in good condition. A good bet is the Riyadh-Damamm route, a five-hour voyage through deep desert.
Women are not allowed to drive vehicles or ride bicycles on public roads. However, women will be allowed to drive starting 2018.
A national driving licence is valid for up to three months if accompanied by an officially sanctioned translation into Arabic, though this provision is often waived for anyone with an American or British licence. An International Driving Permit (with translation) is recommended, but not required by law.
There are restrictions on women travelling by car with men who are not related by blood or marriage, though officials are sometimes more lenient with citizens from Western countries.
Non-Muslims may not enter Mecca or the immediate area; police are stationed to ensure that they turn off onto a specially built ring road, known among expatriates as the 'Christian Bypass'.
It is possible to explore Saudi Arabia's urban centres by walking, but travellers who set out on foot from their hotels will be met with quizzical staring from drivers and incessant honking from eager taxis, both of whom rarely see anyone walking in the city. This is true partially because of the often-extreme temperatures but also due to the overwhelming ubiquity of the automobile. Take a bottle of water.
A metro system is under construction in Riyadh and expected to open in 2018.
Plans are also afoot for a new integrated public transport network in Jeddah, which is expected to include a metro and light rail system, plus buses and a tram line. In the meantime, taxis are the easiest way to get around.
The rail system is operated by the Saudi Railways Organization (www.saudirailways.org). The main railway line is the 570km (354-mile) Riyadh-Dammam line, which links Dhahran, Abqaiq, Hofuf, Harad and Al Kharj. There is a daily service in air-conditioned trains, which offer first-, second-, and third-class cars, which descend in corresponding levels of seating comfort and food and beverage service. Children under four travel free.
The railway on the west coast made famous by Lawrence of Arabia's raid has long since been abandoned to the desert. Currently, the Haramain High Speed Rail project is about to revive this old connection. The Makkah-Medina high speed rail will link Medina with Mecca, the King Abdulaziz International Airport and Jeddah starting March 2018.