Ramadan Travel Tips
July 19th, 2011
Often we book trips based on our own calendars, and not the holiday calendars of the places we intend to visit. This is especially true if we’re going to a place that has different celebratory or religious customs than our own, since we may not even be aware that there’s a holiday taking place during our vacation. Such is the case for many Westerners traveling to Muslim countries during Ramadan.
Maybe you planned a trip to a Muslim country and only after you’d bought your tickets did you realize you’d be there during Ramadan. Maybe you’re curious about Ramadan and are wondering whether you, as a non-Muslim, can experience it.
Either way, if you’re going to be in a Muslim country during Ramadan you’ll need to know enough about it so you’re prepared and so you don’t inadvertently break the rules. Not only that, if you haven’t planned your trip yet, you definitely need to know whether traveling during Ramadan is a good idea in the first place.
You’ll find all that information here.
When is Ramadan this year?
Because Ramadan isn’t based on the Gregorian calendar, and is instead based on the lunar Islamic calendar, the “dates” for Ramadan vary depending on the year. In 2012, Ramadan starts at sundown on July 19 and goes through August 18. The holiday marking the end of Ramadan, called Eid al-Fitr, begins on August 19. The name of the holiday means “festival of fast-breaking,” and it typically lasts for three days.
In 2013, Ramadan will run from sundown on July 9 through August 7.
Is traveling during Ramadan a good idea?
The answer to this question depends a bit on where you’re going, and a bit on what kind of travel experience you’re looking for.
If you’re mainly going to be in the more touristy areas of whatever country you’re visiting, then you’re more likely to be able to buy snacks and especially water during daylight hours (although you’ll still need to consume them in the privacy of your hotel room). If, on the other hand, you’ll be away from touristy areas, then you’ll need to be fasting during daylight hours just like the locals out of the inability to find any place offering food or water before sundown.
For many Muslims, Ramadan becomes a time for relaxing – it’s difficult to keep up a normal level of activity when you’re fasting, so this means that things like transportation can be impacted as well (buses and taxis not running as frequently, etc). If you’re the kind of person who plans vacations down to the minute, this kind of relaxed attitude may not be ideal for your visit. If you don’t mind going with the flow – which may mean not just fasting during the day but also kicking back and taking it slowly – then Ramadan may be a great time for you to visit a Muslim country.
What do I need to know about travel during Ramadan?
If you do decide to travel in a Muslim country during Ramadan, there are some things you need to know beforehand to help you understand what you’ll experience and to make sure you don’t accidentally offend anyone.
- Fasting means skipping more than just meals. – During Ramadan, Muslims avoid more than just food and beverages. The goal is also to avoid things like smoking, sexual relations, gossiping, etc. That means if you’re visiting a Muslim country during Ramadan you shouldn’t walk hand-in-hand with your beloved, smoke a cigarette, or exchange a smooch in public.
- Even if you’re not Muslim, you shouldn’t eat during the day. – Ramadan may not be your religious holiday, but when you’re visiting a Muslim country during Ramadan you need to show respect to the people whose country you’re in. You don’t have to fast during daylight hours, but if you’ve smartly collected a stash of snacks and bottled water to get you through the day, you still shouldn’t eat or drink in public until after sunset. Go back to your hotel room for any daylight snacking – even a sip from a water bottle can be seen as impolite.
- Getting around at sundown is tricky. – As soon as the sun sets and the moon has officially been spotted, Muslims who practice Ramadan drop everything to break their fast with the evening meal (called Iftar). That means everyone – including taxi and bus drivers – are eating at sundown, and that makes getting around a challenge. Plan to get where you want to go before sundown, so you’re not stranded until after the meal.
- If you do find a restaurant open during daylight hours, be very nice (and thankful). – As mentioned, in more touristy areas you’re more likely to find not only food and drink available for take-away but also sometimes restaurants open for business. Keep in mind that the people working at those restaurants are probably fasting – so even though it’s perfectly okay for you to eat in those establishments while the sun in shining, be respectful of the fact that your server may have a very growly stomach.
- Business hours are shorter. – Because things slow down so much during Ramadan, working hours are generally shorter so people can go home by mid-afternoon and relax while they wait for the evening meal. Don’t be surprised, then, if you find shops closing their doors by 2pm all month long. This also means that if you’re feeling energetic in the late afternoon you’re more likely to have otherwise busy neighborhoods to yourself.
- It’s all about the night. – Days during Ramadan may be quieter, but as soon as the sun goes down and the fast is broken Ramadan comes alive. After the evening meal, people have their energy back, so that’s when they do things they might otherwise do midday – visiting friends, shopping, etc. If you’ve cleverly rested in the afternoon like the locals, then you can enjoy the night-time party, too – because once the party starts, you don’t have to be Muslim to participate.
- Stay put during the post-Ramadan holiday. – The month of Ramadan ends with a 3-5 day holiday called Eid al-Fitr, and many Muslims travel during that holiday. In other words, if you haven’t booked well in advance, finding an available seat on a train or a vacant hotel room in certain places can be extremely challenging. If you haven’t secured transportation and a room well in advance, your best bet is to stay put and enjoy Eid where you are. Move on afterward.
>> For more information about traveling during Ramadan, see this post on the BootsnAll boards with tips from people who have visited Muslim countries during the fast, and this list of reasons why one non-Muslim long-time Dubai resident loves Ramadan.
photo by Apple Jia