Want to go on an epic Saudi Arabia road trip? Here’s a guide to traveling Saudi Arabia by car, including information on how to rent a car in Saudi Arabia, tips for road tripping, driving advice, costs, road trip itineraries, and more.
Saudi Arabia is made for cars.
Immaculate roads stretch for hundreds of kilometers between cities, sometimes without even petrol stations in sight. Capital Riyadh sprawls like a small country; it always takes at least half an hour to get from A to B. Saudi’s best sights lie deep within its borders, far from any manicured city.
Trust me: if you want to travel Saudi Arabia you need a car.
Don’t be intimidated. Road tripping in Saudi Arabia is totally manageable! Here’s what you need to know to travel Saudi Arabia by car.
- Renting a car in Saudi Arabia
- Driving in Saudi Arabia
- Finding accommodation
- Road trip itineraries
Renting a car in Saudi Arabia
I rented a tiny Chevrolet Spark with another backpacker for the majority of my three weeks of travel in Saudi Arabia, and it was sufficient. We could access most of the sights we were interested in, could camp anywhere and everywhere, and it had juuuust enough space for our bodies and backpacks (… but not much else).
Best car for driving in Saudi Arabia
If money isn’t an issue 4x4s are best for Saudi Arabia. Four-wheel drive = off-roading on sand and rock—one of Saudi’s favorite pastimes—and access to virtually any location in the country. The downside: 4x4s are costly, as is their petrol.
If on a budget, any sedan will do. The Chevrolet Spark I had was weak, low to the ground, and had a dangerously teeny tank… but it was the cheapest option, and it survived!
Have a bit of wiggle room with your budget? Find a sedan with 4WD that’s a bit higher off the ground to avoid damage from rocks and bumps.
Cost of renting a car in Saudi Arabia
Split between two people, car rental in Saudi Arabia was reasonable.
The little Spark costs about US$30 per day to rent. When driving all day, we spent US$15-20 on petrol. In total: $25 per person per day for a teeny car.
SUVs are more costly. The cheapest are around US$80 per day, but you’re likely to spend upwards of $100 for a decent vehicle. Filling the tank costs upwards of $30-40. Expect to pay $150+ per day for an SUV.
Luckily, petrol in Saudi Arabia is cheap compared to the rest of the world. Gasoline is about $0.40 per liter for 91, and $0.50 per liter for 95.
Some rental companies charge a fee for returning the car to a different drop off point. Ask the sales clerk if you’re planning to drop the car at a different location from where you picked it up.
For other information about prices in Saudi, check out my guide on how much it costs to travel in Saudi Arabia.
What do you need to rent a car in Saudi Arabia?
A driver’s license is the most obvious requirement, but there’s another important item you need: an international driving permit (IDP).
Many car rental companies in Saudi Arabia will not rent cars to foreign drivers without IDPs. You need to have an IDP before entering Saudi Arabia—you usually get them in your home country. Look up requirements for your country’s IDP.
Tip: Once you’re on the road, you don’t officially need an IDP unless your license uses non-Roman script. I don’t have an IDP, and when I was stopped at checkpoints I only showed my US license and passport without issue.
You also need a credit card to rent a car. Car rental companies in Saudi Arabia require a hold—a kind of deposit—to be taken from your card. Our hold was 500 SAR (US$135). It was returned to us on the last day of our car rental.
Note: Though many pickup locations are listed, many local agencies only allow foreigners to pick up cars at airports or major branches. Call ahead to make sure.
How to rent a car in Saudi Arabia without an International Driving Permit (IDP)
Don’t have an IDP? Don’t despair just yet!
Major international car rental companies such as Enterprise and Avis might be more willing to rent you a car without an IDP. It’s best to go to their airport franchises in person to discuss (… argue) with them to convince them to do so. A friend of mine succeeded in renting cars in multiple locations without an IDP in December 2019.
Mileage limits on car rentals in Saudi Arabia
Mileage limits are the biggest issue when renting cars in Saudi Arabia. Most major rental companies have a 200-250 kilometers per day limit.
Sounds like a lot? Wrong.
You can easily drive 200 kilometers and not get anywhere in Saudi Arabia. Just driving from Riyadh to the “nearby” Edge of the World and back is more than 200 kilometers.
If you anticipate driving at least 400 kilometers per day (a modest estimate), you’ll pay at least another $25 per day in mileage. Extra kilometer charges start at 0.35 SAR/km, and increase with the quality of the car.
What to do?
Solution 1: Don’t drive every day.
Cars from some reputable companies on Rentalcars.com offer total mileage limits. So long as your total mileage is less than 250km/day on average, you’re fine. If you drive long stretches then spend a few days in each destination you’ll be under the limit.
Solution 2: Pay for unlimited mileage.
If planning on driving long distances often—like I did—it’s best to shell out extra cash for unlimited mileage… but not every company offers unlimited mileage.
Yelo is a reputable car rental company in Saudi Arabia offering an unlimited mileage add-on for purchase. Cost depends on the length of rental, but it’s still cheaper than paying for extra kilometers. Their website makes for easy bookings, and their customer service is very responsive and helpful.
Solution 3: Rent cars selectively
The most time-consuming option is to take buses over long distances, and rent a different car in each city/area. For example, you rent a car to go around Riyadh, take a bus to Jeddah, then rent another car for Jeddah, the coast, etc.
You’ll lose some time going to and from airports and from dealing with paperwork, but at least you’ll stay under the mileage limit!
Driving in Saudi Arabia
Is it safe to drive in Saudi Arabia?
Multiple people warned me that Saudi drivers are balls to the walls INSANE and utterly terrifying.
Honestly? I didn’t think they were that bad.
If you’ve been to countries where roads are wild and drivers drive fast with no care for rules *coughIrancough*, Saudi Arabia won’t be too overwhelming. To be fair, before traveling to Saudi I was motorbiking in Pakistan, which is far more chaotic, but I still didn’t find driving in Saudi particularly stressful.
Though Saudi drivers aren’t the safest, I think anyone who can drive, keep calm, and carry on will be fine road tripping in Saudi Arabia.
Dangers of driving in Saudi Arabia
Of course, there are some notable dangers of driving in Saudi. Some things you need to watch out for when traveling by car in Saudi Arabia include…
Sand: Probably the riskiest part of driving in Saudi Arabia. It’s easy to get stuck in loose sand, very difficult to get out without a shovel or rope, and you might be waiting for a while before someone passes by. Luckily, Saudi’s main roads are well-paved. You won’t hit sand unless you purposefully drive off-road.
Speed bumps: Seems benign, but they are EVERYWHERE in Saudi Arabia… and aren’t always marked. Checkpoints with five speed bumps in a row are common. Especially in the south, many speed bumps were too high for the Spark to make it over without scrapes. Drive carefully to protect your car and avoid crashes when people slam on breaks to slow for unexpected speed bumps.
Other drivers: Saudi drivers aren’t the worst… but they certainly aren’t winning safety prizes any time soon. You’ll see people driving in the opposite direction of traffic on highways, taking illegal U-turns, driving too fast, ignoring lane boundaries, and crashing into other cars every once in a while. Texting while driving is also common. Roundabouts are particularly perilous places. Drive cautiously; right of way isn’t a concept in Saudi roundabouts.
Running out of fuel: Petrol stations can be few and far between, even on major highways. We almost ran out of petrol on a road leading into Riyadh, the capital, because there was no station in sight. If traveling long distances make sure to fill whenever possible. I don’t advise letting your tank dip far below ¼ full, especially if driving a small car.
Things to know about driving in Saudi Arabia
- Speed limit signs are often only in Arabic. I recommend learning Arabic numerals before hitting the road.
- Do NOT play music during the call to prayer. It’s forbidden. Obviously you can get away with it in remote areas or if your music is quiet; keep windows closed if so.
- STC has the best mobile coverage in Saudi Arabia. Expect working mobile signals with data along the vast majority of Saudi’s highways. STC SIM cards are available from kiosks in major airports, or in franchise stores in cities.
- There are speed cameras. Look for unassuming gray boxes on roadsides. If flashed your ticket will be sent to your car rental company and they’ll notify you.
- You can go 10% faster than the speed limit without getting a ticket. I may or may not have tested this regularly.
- Emergency flashers on moving cars usually mean speed cameras or speed bumps coming. Slow down if you see cars ahead with flashers on.
- Police and army checkpoints are frequent. Usually they’re empty, but sometimes officers stand roadside. If no one is there or no one stops you, keep driving. Otherwise, give the officer your passport and car registration.
- Google Maps isn’t always reliable. Maps isn’t always aware of existing U-turns, and makes you drive too far to change direction on highways. Minor roads are often not listed on Google Maps.
- If you have to pee, look for a mosque. Petrol stations have mosques with toilets and places to wash. Female travelers should ask for the women’s area, often hidden around the back of the mosque.
Getting gas/petrol in Saudi Arabia
Fueling up is pretty straightforward in Saudi—you don’t even have to get out of your car!
Thanks to the state-run oil company Aramco, petrol stations offer very similar prices: around 1.5 riyal/L for Gasoline 91 and 2 riyal/L for Gasoline 95 as of December 2019. Diesel is available at stations frequented by trucks.
When refueling, all you have to do is drive next to a pump with an attendant, open the tank access if necessary, and tell them how much fuel you want. Regardless of language, most understand “full”. You pay after they fill by giving the attendant cash or a credit card. Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted.
Note that attendants disappear and stations essentially shut down during prayer times five times a day.
Can women drive in Saudi Arabia?
Yes. As of 2018, both foreign and Saudi women can drive cars in Saudi Arabia. No male guardian necessary. Solo or otherwise, women can rent cars in Saudi Arabia in their name.
It’s not so common to see women driving, especially outside of cities, but don’t let that stop you. I did have an overly thorough inspection at a police checkpoint near Riyadh, which I suspect happened because I’m a woman, but aside from that I didn’t have any issues except people staring.
For more info for women traveling to Saudi, check out my guide to female travel in Saudi Arabia.
Finding accommodation while road tripping Saudi Arabia
Hotels and guesthouses
A decent amount of accommodation in Saudi Arabia is online on websites like Booking.com and Airbnb. In my experience, accommodation is often cheaper on Booking.com than if booked directly at the hotel. Hotel owners told me to book online if the rate was lower. Mystery, but so be it.
However, in small towns not much is listed online. Finding cheap accommodation was also difficult as many hotels online are mid-range or luxury. Sometimes it’s best to just walk into several hotels and see what your options are.
Furnished rental apartments turned out to be the best value for money in Saudi Arabia, and often the cheapest option. Starting at around 100-120 riyal per night, the spaces usually include one or two bedrooms, a common room, and a kitchen. They’re not always listed on booking websites, but if you search “apartment” on Google Maps in the town you want to stay in there’s usually at least one or two rental apartments listed in each place.
Camping while road tripping
Love camping? You’ll love Saudi Arabia.
Camping is part of Saudi culture—though perhaps not as you know it—and on weekends tents and camps blossom all over Saudi’s otherwise empty expanses.
You can essentially camp anywhere you want in Saudi, and it’s generally safe to do so. However, it can be surprisingly difficult to avoid people unless you have a 4×4. No need to be concerned about danger—the issue is more that police and/or local people will appear out of nowhere to come and make sure you’re okay if they see a car parked near the road.
To avoid this, consider camping in or near the small prayer rooms along empty roads. You can also sleep inside prayer halls in mosques and airports if you’re feeling bold. Otherwise, make sure to get as far from the main roads as you can to get some alone time.
Tip: Many petrol stations have attached shops. Especially in remote areas, these shops are a treasure trove of camping supplies. They have everything from cooking gas to wood to pots to blankets and pillows… in addition to basic groceries. Score!
Camping on beaches
Camping on Saudi’s shores is trickier: they’re patrolled by the Coast Guard 24/7. Though you’re allowed to camp in certain areas—anywhere with picnic shelters and lights is a good bet—the Coast Guard will ask you to leave others if they see you camping.
If you’re determined to stay put, local blogger Nada al Nahdi told me bringing passport copies for officers helps with getting permission.
Saudi Arabia road trip itineraries
Vivid desert sunrises, perfectly silent. Crumbling abandoned villages made from mud. White sandy beaches all to yourself. These are but a few of the things that await you when road tripping in Saudi Arabia.
These itineraries are some examples of possible road trips. Infinitely more combinations and options exist; use these as a base to craft an itinerary that works for you. Peruse sites and spots on Google Maps. And, of course, never hesitate to drive off down a good lookin’ side road. That’s what road tripping is all about, right?
Note: All of these places are accessible by sedan. No 4×4 necessary unless noted.
Saudi Arabia Essentials | 10 days, Riyadh to Jeddah
- Day 1: Riyadh
- Day 2: Day trip to Edge of the World (4×4 necessary)
- Day 3: Pick up car, day trip to Ushaiger Heritage Village
- Day 4: Drive to Al Waba Crater and camp (6.5 hours, 710 km/440 mi)
- Day 5: Hike Al Waba Crater, drive to Jeddah (4h, 350 km/215 mi)
- Day 6: Jeddah
- Day 7: Jeddah
- Day 8: Drive to Al Ula via Yanbu coastal road (7h, 675 km/420 mi)
- Day 9: Al Ula
- Day 10: Drive to Jeddah [via Medina if Muslim] (7.5h, 700 km/435 mi)
- Return car in Jeddah
Riyadh and the East | 7 days, Riyadh to Riyadh
- Day 1: Riyadh
- Day 2: Pick up car, drive to Shaqra via Ushaiqer Heritage Village (2.5h, 220 km/135 mi)
- Day 3: Drive to Hail (4.5h, 460 km/285 mi)
- Day 4: Day trip to Jubbah (3h return, 260 km/160 mi)
- Day 5: Drive to Riyadh via Buraydah (6.5h, 720 km/450 mi)
- Day 6: Drive to Hofuf (3.5h, 330 km/205 mi)
- Day 7: Drive to Riyadh, return car if sedan (3.5h, 330 km/205 mi)
- Day 8: Day trip to Edge of the World (4×4 necessary)
Southwest Saudi | 11 days, Jeddah to Jeddah
- Day 1: Jeddah
- Day 2: Pick up car in Jeddah [visit Mecca if Muslim]
- Day 3: Drive to Al Bahah via Dhee Ayn Village (5h, 425 km/265 mi)
- Day 4: Drive to Abha via Rijal Alma Village (6h, 360 km/225 mi)
- Day 5: Abha and Khamis Mushaiyt
- Day 6: Drive to Fayfa via Wadi Lajab (5h, 300 km/185 mi)
- Day 7: Drive to Jizan (1.5h, 100 km/65 mi)
- Day 8: Ferry to Farasan Island with car
- Day 9: Return to Jazan
- Day 10: Drive to Al Qunfudhah (4h, 350 km/220 mi)
- Day 11: Drive to Jeddah (4h, 360 km/220 mi)
Have more questions about traveling Saudi Arabia by car? Ask them in the comments!
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