Primarily for those who are going for the first time based on my first and thus far only time! Feel free to add your tips in the comments.
Drink lots of water
I found that whenever I got the start of a headache it was due to the lack of water, this is a warning sign that you are starting to dehydrate so drink plenty of water and drink it immediately, always keep a bottle with you and always top up at every opportunity. The Saudi government water fountains are good, we drank lots from them with no ill effects.
Wet toilet seat?
OK, so you are not going to see many toilet seats in the wudu areas for the Haramain, however there are some western-style toilets and more often than not they are soaking wet. What I tended to do was to hose down the seat with the istanja device, and gave the seat a really good wash. You can then be safe in the knowledge that the wetness is as a result of the water rather than that other stuff. If I had to use the squat toilet then I would also do the same. Be aware that, usually, there is no toilet paper, this means either carrying some with you or just get used to doing istanja properly with water and water only. Whilst the facilities at both the Harams are quite good and well maintained, you’ll find that the port-a-loos in Mina are stomach churningly nasty, there is really not much you can do about them, you just have to block your nose somehow or just get used to it, remember you’ll be in Ihram at Mina so you can’t perfume yourself either. Same rule applies prior to using the facilities, hose before you goes!
Keep at least a 0.5 litre bottle of water with you, this is your portable wudu device. If you use the water frugally you can complete your wudu with this amount of water. This comes in handy in places where there is a queue for the wudu facilities (Mina) or if you are on the road. Usually helps if someone can pour the water for you.
Your poor feet will take a real beating and you will be in discomfort. Us poor Western Muslims, with our soft, pampered and dainty feet are just not used to it. It is a good idea to take Vaseline to give your feet a good coating when they get dry. It’s a good idea to paste them with it at night, take some athlete’s foot cream or spray and some blister plasters which you can get from Boots the Chemist, you may want to check the fiqh position on using these as they have to stay on for a few days. Rest the poor things at every opportunity and invest in a good pair of sandals, you won’t regret it. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your feet will adjust but it is very painful. Just as well it is all expiation for one’s sins!
When in the state of ihram it is forbidden to wear fragrances or even wash with toiletries that are fragranced. Therefore, you should take with you fragrance-free toiletries such as the range made by Simple.
Also be advised that when you are in ihram NOT to use the soap in the soap dispensers that are there in the Haram’s wudu area, these were fragranced when I was there.
Aside from any prescription medication you may have, I found it useful to keep the following: paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets, Zantac (for heartburn and other mild digestive ailments), some diarrhoea tablets (I didn’t need to take these when I was there), Chloraseptic throat spary and Vicks mentholated. Lemsip or Beechams cold and flu remedy should be in your kit as well. You can get most of this stuff out there but it is handy to have it on you when you go. It is always prudent to keep a small first aid kit as well.
Expect to get a sore throat and a cold or flu, there is no escape!
Mobile phone coverage is generally very good and it would be best if you obtained a Saudi SIM card before you went and gave your number out to near and dear ones. SaudiSim is one such company that you can get a SIM from now, I am not sure how they compare with any others providers. You can top up credit in most shops and places in Saudi.
If you have a flashy phone with all the bells and whistles leave it behind, you don’t need it! Get yourself a simple Nokia such as a 1112 it has 380 hours standby and 5 hours talk time or what I took with me the 3310 which has similar talk and standby times. Make sure you get the phone UNLOCKED before you go otherwise it will not take the Saudi Sim! The appeal of these phones is that you don’t have to worry about charging them up every day, you get about 2 weeks of standy time. This is very important if you are going with family or in a group, you always need to be contactable. Another thing you should invest in for your mobile is a good neckband. It is convenient and ideal in the melee of the Haram.
We were thinking of taking a set of walkie talkies that have a 6km range but not sure how the Saudi Authorities would deal with them.
You can forget about the Internet, there are places where you can hook up to the net but really, you can live without it, I didn’t access or miss it at all in the time I was there.
Most places serve good food and we did not suffer any ill affects, even the “grubby” roadside cafés were good. There is a range of food from the aforementioned cafés to your more recognisable fast-food chains. McDonald’s is strangely missing from the haram but there is Burger King, Pizza Hut and KFC. Hardees is a good alternative to Burger King, in fact I thought Hardees was far more tasty. Expect to pay the prices for these that you would back home so these are not really an everyday option unless you can really afford it (aside from the health implications), I recommend some Baskin & Robbins milk-shake too, hmmmm sooo gooood. The Middle East’s premier fried chicken outlet al-Baik is a worth a visit, it’s not located in the immediate vicinity of the Haram and you’ll find it near Jamraat, be warned it is crammed and very busy. There are plenty of other good options in the shopping centres so there is not much to worry about when it comes to your daily victuals. Mina is an exception, there are a couple of roadside “shops” and some nice African ladies boil eggs and cook chips on the side of the roads. You can get tea, drinks, fruit, bread, tinned fish, processed cheese etc so you can make do and will have to exist on very little.
Carry a compact bag such as a rucksack or an over the shoulder one where you can keep a small Qur’an, Hajj notes etc. Keep a pen and a small notepad and a bottle of water. Get yourself a compact prayer mat as well. The bag will be subject to search in and out of the Grand Mosques so needs to be easily openable. Try not to carry what you don’t need.
Can’t think of anything else at the moment.