A Travellerspoint blog

Bristol - London - Riyadh

The start of another adventure


View Saudi Arabia 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Foreword

As often happens with our trips, as soon as we mention where we are going – this time Saudi Arabia – we find the other person's eyes widening, their whole face turning into a huge question mark, and their mouth uttering “Really? Why? Is that safe?”

Sigh. Why should it not be safe?

Too many people seem to rely on the gutter press to form their opinions of a country, and confuse political headlines with everyday life for citizens and visitors.

As for why we want to go, it all started with an article in the travel magazine Wanderlust about the historical site Al Ula. I was captivated by the photographs and intrigued by the little-known historical sights. Two days later I phoned up Undiscovered Destinations to book a private trip for just the two of us to KSA, following the same itinerary as their group tour.

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Saudi Arabia only opened its doors to regular tourists in 2019 (up until then, visas were generally just issued to religious visitors and workers), with their long-term plan to be in the top ten tourist destinations in the world by 2030.

Obtaining a tourist visa was remarkably quick in a smooth and easy online process. David's visa landed in the email inbox before we had even finished applying for mine, which arrived a few minutes later. That has to be some sort of record! I have since been told that the approval system is mostly carried out via automated bots that look for certain 'correct' answers, and then a team of workers are available to give the final authorisation. It is not a cheap service, however, at £123 each.

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Are they ready for an influx of large numbers of foreign visitors? Do they have enough to offer curious travellers? Follow my blog to read about my experiences and opinions.

Thursday 13th October 2022

With an early start tomorrow morning, we figure we are better off staying in a hotel near the airport, rather than leaving home at some unearthly hour of the morning, so we travel up to Premier Inn this afternoon. We like Premier Inns, they are clean, reliable and reasonably priced. We have stayed at this particular one before, so we know what to expect.

After checking in, to what we discover is a large family room with one double and two single beds, we wander down to the restaurant for a drink before dinner, enjoying our last drop of alcohol for the next two weeks (KSA is a dry country).

One of the other things we like about Premier Inns is that they nearly always have a restaurant or pub attached, which – like the hotels – are usually very dependable. Premier Inns are part of the Whitbread Group and have a variety of different restaurant brands too. Here at Bath Road, there is an enormous atrium, part of which houses the Thyme restaurant. Their restaurants are usually as dependable as their hotels, and while it is not the sort of place I would go for a celebratory meal, it is certainly good enough for an overnight stay. Although indoors, the atrium gives the restaurant a nice open and airy feel to it. We are able to sit 'outside' in the atrium part, which is nice. The menu features classic British pub food, and I choose grilled salmon with chips, whereas David has grilled chicken with vegetables. We share the chips and vegetables.

Friday 14th October 2022

After an interrupted sleep, I drag myself out of bed at 5:30. We are too early to take advantage of the legendary Premier Inn breakfast, so drive directly to Terminal four at Heathrow. In the period between our flight tickets being issued and us travelling, Saudia Airlines moved their operations from Terminal 2 to Terminal 4, something that the ticket agents omitted to inform us of. Thankfully we do check these things, although there was conflicting information available online too. In the end, I relied on the Heathrow phone app, and David got his information from the Saudia app.

Valet Parking
We nearly always book valet parking these days, where a driver from the parking company meets us at the short-term car park, collects our car and keys from us, and takes the car off-site for parking while we are away. They then deliver the car to the same place ready for us to get in and drive off on our return. It is so much nicer than having to take a shared bus from a long-term off-airport car park to the airport and the reverse when arriving back. To us it is worth the extra cost.

Special Assistance
Because of a knee injury which has plagued me all through the summer, I booked a wheelchair through Saudia Airlines and headed directly to the Special Assistance counter before check-in at the terminal, conveniently situated just inside the door. While I am capable of walking short distances, I am unable to stand for any period of time, and walking longer distances causes me a lot of pain.

The special assistance kiosk is full of wheelchairs, but no other waiting passengers. There are two members of staff there, and I approach the lady at the counter, explaining that I have booked a chair. She asks which airline we are travelling with and whether we have checked in yet (which we have not). “You need to check in first and come back here” she explains. I point out to her that if I had been able to walk all the way down to the other end of the concourse to the check-in desk and back again, I wouldn't have needed to book a wheelchair. She sighs and reluctantly asks her colleague to push me down to the Saudia desk.

Once she has brought me back to the Special Assistance holding area again, she suggests it would be better for David to push me from there on. This is unfortunately typical of the lack of service we have found at Heathrow for less-able customers.

Security
Unsurprisingly for such an early start, there is no queue at security, but they are really quite thorough this morning (fresh on shift, I am guessing), and ask me to take my camera out of the bag, something that I can't remember being asked at Heathrow before. David gets the full treatment, having to remove his shoes and walk through the scanner a couple of extra times, as well as being patted down by hand and with swabs.

Breakfast
Having left the hotel too early to take advantage of their excellent breakfast, we head to the Prince of Wales pub in the terminal. I'd checked out the options before leaving home and found that the pub had more options and better prices for breakfast than the other restaurant here.

One of the reasons I chose the Prince of Wales for this morning's meal, is that the menu features my favourite breakfast dish – Eggs Royale: toasted English muffin with smoked salmon, poached egg and Hollandaise sauce. David, predictably, has the full English breakfast.

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Unfortunately, as is often the case, expectation and reality don't quite match this morning; and I am rather disappointed in the ridiculously meagre amount of salmon. With its lacklustre presentation, the dish does not warrant the £9.35 price tag.

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Saudia Airlines
One of the benefits of travelling in a wheelchair is that you do get to board the aircraft before the other passengers. We have aisle and middle seats in the centre section of their 3-3-3 configuration. Thankfully the plane is not full this morning, which means we are able to spread out and have the whole row of three seats to ourselves, making for a much more comfortable flight.

Soon after the crew start the meal service, we experience turbulence, and they have to stop serving and take the trolleys back to the galley for safety reasons. This happens several times in a row, and some passengers are getting impatient, aggressively pressing the call button and demanding their food NOW! The interrupted service also creates some confusion as to who has already been served their main meals; resulting in the ice cream dessert being separately distributed while some people are still eating their main meal, and for others (like David), it arrives before he has even received his other tray.

I have to say the ice cream is a very welcome addition to the menu, however, and it is one of my favourite brands, too.

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Once the meal service is over, I manage to grab some semi-decent sleep before we land in Riyadh after a 5.5-hour flight.

King Khalid International Airport
A wheelchair is waiting for me as we exit the plane, and I am taken through corridors and tunnels of the modern airport, which bears no resemblance to the scruffy underbelly of Heathrow that I was previously taken through on arrival there. Here the walls are covered in colourful tiles and everything is looking gleaming, clean and pretty.

Immigration
Our visas are obviously already on the system, as we are not asked for the paper copies we have printed out. We are, however, required to submit fingerprints, but the scanner for this is seriously unreliable. After several unsuccessful attempts, the official gives me some hand sanitiser to use and tells me to try again. Eventually, it accepts my fingerprint, and my passport is stamped. I'm in!

Immediately after passport control, our hand luggage goes through an X-ray before we get to the luggage carousel. I can see David's case on the belt, and the porter who has been pushing the wheelchair with me in it, runs off to retrieve it before David is even through passport control! Mine arrives very much later, as one of the very last pieces of luggage to come off the plane. I guess someone's bag has to be the last.

Arrival
As we exit through the very unobtrusive customs hall, I can see a smart young man in a dark suit and immaculate white shirt carrying a placard with our name on it. Such a reassuring sight when you arrive in a foreign country. He goes off to collect the car – a massive 6-seater SUV (GMC Yukon XL) - and pulls up right outside the exit door to pick us up. The car is so high that I struggle to get in, but is very comfortable. The driver, who introduces himself as Bacha, moves the front passenger seat forward so that I have plenty of legroom in the back. The car is spacious, clean, and very comfortable.

During our journey from the airport to the hotel, George, the local agent that Undiscovered Destinations use here in KSA, rings to welcome us to the country and to inform us that we will be picked up at 16:00 tomorrow for our booked excursion.

Riyadh
My first impressions of Riyadh are a city of bright lights, fabulous modern architecture, wide avenues, and definitely not a walking city! We see very few pedestrians about anywhere, just a few people milling around by the market.

Hotel Centro
As Bacha pulls up outside this posh-looking modern hotel with its inviting facade, I wonder if there has been a change of plan. Our original documents had us down to stay here, but the latest version of our itinerary suggests that we are booked into the Gloria Inn instead.

The friendly and chatty receptionist confirms my suspicions, as he can find no record of our booking. Bacha insists that this is where we are staying, and shows us the instructions he has received on his phone, which quite clearly state Hotel Centro. While he phones George, I look up the confirmation I received from Undiscovered Destinations. Bacha returns and explains that it was an 'office mistake', and that we are indeed staying at Gloria Inn. Oh good, we all agree now. Hopefully, Gloria Inn will be aware of us too. With a cheery “maybe next time” to the helpful receptionist, we leave Centro Hotel and get back in the car while Bacha googles how to get to Gloria Inn from here. “Just another 20 minutes” he informs us as we head off into the bright lights of Riyadh again.

Gloria Inn
After the more upmarket Centro Hotel, Gloria Inn looks a little shabby. Several of the bulbs in the name sign on the front of the hotel are missing, and the side entrance looks disappointingly uninviting.

The welcome more than makes up for it, though, with the receptionist greeting us from behind a huge smile, and our room key ready and waiting on the desk. Phew, that's a relief!

After the usual formalities including showing our passports and visas, we say goodbye to Bacha as the porter takes our luggage – and us – to our room. The initial anticlimax I felt when we arrived here, is soon replaced with delight: the room is huge, with a nice seating area and a large double bed.

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Room Service
When we checked in, the receptionist explained that the hotel restaurant is only open for breakfast, but we can order dinner from a room service menu to be delivered to the room, which is what we do.

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The porter arrives with a large tray of food, and a credit card machine for us to pay for it. We both have spicy chicken sandwiches with chips and a Diet Coke. While the chicken is anything but spicy, it has a crispy coating and the bread roll is fresh.

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Just after we've finished the meal, the room phone rings. The person the other end introduces himself as Ali, explaining that he will be our guide for the duration of our stay here in Riyadh. He suggests that 16:00 is way too late to leave from the city tomorrow, so he will pick us up at 13:00 instead. That sounds a much better plan to me.

After a long and tiring day, we sneak into bed early to get some rest for an exciting day tomorrow. Welcome to Saudi Arabia, and THANK YOU to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 21:51 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged airport breakfast security visa heathrow ice_cream immigration arrival wheelchair customs riyadh middle_east saudi_arabia ksa undiscovered_destinations visa_application premier_inn valet_parking tourist_visa saudia special_assistance room_service whitbread thyme_restaurant eggs_royale saudia_airlines king_khalid_international_airpo hotel_centro gloria_inn

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Comments

Nice to see this and hope to see the rest soon. Look forward to the beautiful pictures you've been taking at all the scenic spots in the KSA.

by Aadil Desai

Thank you Aadil, more coming soon.

by Grete Howard

Hello, Grete! Thanks for your interesting story! I hope you are feeling much better now.

by Vic_IV

Hi Victor, thank you so much for your kind comments ♥

by Grete Howard

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