Thursday, September 28, 2017

Hajj package (USA) review

This is a long overdue write up, but I felt it is important to share my experience and opinions for the benefit of others out there.  In 2016, I went online looking for a US hajj package provider that would be able to cater to American citizens living outside of the country.  The previous year I had tried the same, but out of all of the companies I found in google, none were responsive to emails.  In 2015 I tried again, and attempted to contact at least 8 different companies.  The only one that actually responded to an email was Hilal Hajj.  From the online description of the package, it looked good, and the fact that they had a sheikh that I had actually heard of before (Omar Suleiman), I thought it would be a good group to go with.  The short summary of that is, yes, they are an outstanding tour provider and I was happy with my selection.

To summarize a few Pro's

1) They accept people who live overseas.  Some companies only want to fly out of one specific location as one big group.  While I can see the ease of logistics for them, some people don't want to have to fly around the world twice when they can just fly a few hours to Saudi.  Hilal was great with this and I wasn't the only one in the group that was an expat coming in.  I few in to Saudi via a layover in UAE, where at least 12 others from the group had flown in.  So we arrived in Medina together and were able to organize and find our tour operator.  Not only were they good at coordinating the ticketing, if you fly from a location where the flight is cheaper, they will reduce the price of your package accordingly.

2) Most importantly, they respond to emails.  Many times over the whole process of registration, visas and everything else, they were quick to respond.  Some of the responses were not always clear, but something is better than nothing.  I would never want to put a lot of trust in any tour operator that only works over the phone.  If they email, at least you sort of have something in writing.  Besides, for those of us overseas, its a pain to have to stay up late at night to play phone tag with some operator in the US.  Every other company I contacted via their listed email or their website contact form did not respond at all, so no business for you.

3) Knowledgeable operator.  Hilal has been in the business for a long time now and they seem to know all the best times to move and get things done during the hajj days.  Everything went smooth and we were where we needed to be and well within the specific times for the rituals.  On Arafat, we were there hours before Zuhr, so we could be well rested and prepared for the day.  In Muzdalifah, they managed to find an area that was almost empty, so we were packed in a really tight location.

4) Good spiritual leadership.  Sheikh Omar gave guidance throughout the tour and specific guidance before every ritual that we performed.  There were a few other sheikhs in the group that were part of the other packages, as well as a few Madinah university students that Hilal had brought along.  So there were always people to answer questions.  Additionally in Mina, this tour operator hooks up with a few groups from other western countries and they have a mini conference with various other Al Maghrib instructors (Abu Eesa, Yahya Ibrahim, etc).


1) Jeddah departure.  This isn't really a problem with the tour operator specifically.  This terminal is a complete mess with no real information dissemination, and everyone you ask gives a different answer.  The reason I bring this up as a review of the operator is due to the wide variety of departure flights for the different people and packages, you get sent there in separate groups with no one from Hilal being there while you try to figure out your flight.  So it can be a bit difficult to get to where you need to be, especially if no one in your group speaks arabic.

The Omar package is a Medina first package, which is something I would recommend of any package.  Being able to go to Medina first helps you acclimatize to the weather as well as get yourself ready spiritually.  Medina is so much more peaceful than Mecca, so you have a chance to relax, spent time at the masjid, and get shopping out of the way.  We had several sessions of talks in Medina, and were also able to have a session with Sheikh Tahir Wyatt.  Sheikh Tahir also gives talks at the masjid, so you can pick up some knowledge and guidance before the trip to Mecca.  The people that go with this group are typically married couples in their 30's.  Its a friendly and diverse group of people.   In Mecca, the accommodations for all packages before and during the hajj days is in Aziziyah.  Hilal has a building they are leasing which is split up into 4 man rooms.  Its decent and comfortable.  The food is mostly Pakistani and seemed fine to me.  In the days of Mina, we were shifting back and forth between tents and their building with usually half the night spent in Mina.

Hilal is a family run business with the Father/mother doing most of the administrative and logistics work.  You will interact with them in the communications before the trip.  The Omar package group leaders are their son and his wife.  They make everyone feel welcome.

In summary, Hilal was a great experience overall.  Others that were in our group and had been with many companies said their experiences with this company were the best.  I'd definitely go with them again if I go in the future.

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