Getting Started on Planning Your Trip to the Middle East and North Africa
The Middle East and North Africa, also called the MENA region, is a region of the world filled with a long, rich history, complex and interesting cultures, wonderful cuisine (for you foodie’s out there), stunning natural wonders and friendly locals.
Many sites and countries in the Middle East and North Africa are on traveler’s bucket list — feel like an ancient explorer crawling around inside Egypt’s Great Pyramid, take a cruise down the great Nile River, follow in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia in Jordan, take a cafe crawl for the best mezze in Beirut, rock climb in Wadi Rum, take a hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia, photograph some of the best Islamic architecture in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet, head off on a camel trek through Morocco’s Sahara desert, discover the famous ruins of Carthage in Tunisia. No matter your travel interests, there is something for everyone in the MENA region.
A key component to making the most of your travels is preparation. Trip planning and research, even more so than in Europe or Australia or the US or Canada, is tremendously beneficial in the MENA region. A little trip planning goes a long way to helping keep your travels as smooth as possible and the make the most of your time in these fascinating countries.
Some countries in the Middle East are expensive, others are not. A little planning and preparation before your trip will help you create a good working budget and help you get the most VALUE you’re your travels. It’s not about traveling cheap; rather travel smart. Focus on the VALUE you are getting for what you spend. You are spending money on experiences and memories that will last a life time.
As you research and plan your trip, always keep in mind that no one source in the definitive travel expert to that country or region. Don’t weigh one opinion or piece of information as the “way” it is. It is best to collect a lot of date, eliminate the outliers and see what trends emerge. The idea is the more information you collect the clearer the trends are.
Get Inspired: Crafting That Travel Wish List
Dreaming up your wish list of places to visit and experiences to try can be just as much fun as the actual trip itself. When planning make a wish list, talk with friends, talk with other travelers to the region, explore travel books, read travel magazines, look at photos of the places you hear about, watch travel shows, watch documentaries on ancient and modern history of the country and regions, take classes. Get inspired!
Researching helps you find out all you can about the destinations you’d like to visit, and the things to do and see there.
Books are not dead. Good travel books are invaluable.
The advantage to most guidebooks is they are often carefully and meticulously researched, edited and put together. While the amount of research, follow up, and fact-checking on websites can greatly vary. A great guidebook can save you a lot of time, energy, and hassle in planning and executing your trip, while also helping you find the best value for your budget. Visit your local library and bookstore. Order a few travel books on the country or area of the Middle East and North Africa you intend to visit. Armed with this good information you’ll be able to make the most of your time on the ground. Also, read books on the culture and history of the place you plan to visiting. Understanding a subject matter makes it more accessible and interesting – countries are the same.
Sign up for a few travel classes
Like books and good websites, travel classes can provide invaluable information. Inquire at your local bookstore or travel store or university for travel classes on the country or the greater MENA region.
Mine the Interwebs
The internet can be a great resource, but it can also be a terrible, unfiltered, unedited. Mine the Interwebs, but also use discernment regarding what you read. To help filter out bias, poorly rewritten/researched articles, skewed opinions, don’t rely on one piece of information. Rather gather as much as you can and see what the common themes are. The internet is filled with thousands and thousands of pages of useful, and not so useful information and recommendations.
Recommended Forums: Thorntree, Internations, ExpatForum.com, Tripadvisor
Recommended for finding photos: Pinterest, Google images, Flickr, 500px, Smugmug, Thumblr
Recommended Videos: Youtube, Vimeo
Tap your Family, friends and fellow travellers
Often we are only a few degrees separated from someone who has lived in or traveled the country we are considering visiting. Tap your family, friends and fellow travelers for good, smart, on-the-ground information. Email or call family and friends. Put a call to action on your facebook wall and ask for contacts on the country where you wish to go. People love sharing information and insight about the regions where they travel and live. Current information is important. Someone who is living in-country or has just visited the country can give you a good idea about what you will actually experience when you land and can provide lots of accurate travel information. They can tell you their favorite restaurant in Beirut, or the current cost of riding the elevator to the top of the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, or which popular restaurants in Cairo may no longer be open. They can also provide a sense of safety while traveling in the country, this is something that the news and many government warning sites cannot provide.
Keep in mind that that this information is based on their specific experience, how they travel and their perspective – it may not be how every traveler experiences the country. Like information on the internet, remember to keep perspective on other traveler’s bias. Collect their stories and information, add it to the mental database you are building and see where you find consistency and trends. Don’t lose site of perspective. One traveler may have gotten sick, had a bad experience with a shop keeper trying to scam him (happens in every country), or a woman may have received some harassment (it happens from New York to Seattle to London to Cairo. Frequently, I meet travelers determined on following poor advice and misinformation from friends and family. Compare what they say with guidebooks and travel websites.
Traveling Solo or with a Group – to Tour or Not to Tour
Planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Middle East or North Africa requires time and investment to research and plan your itinerary. Some travelers enjoy planning, while others do not enjoy the process. If planning a trip sounds like a chore consider traveling with a partner who likes to plan, hiring an experienced travel planner or traveling with a tour. The extra cost of a tour or hiring a travel planner can be an invaluable investment that pays off in the long one with a smooth, worry-free trip of a lifetime.
Tours to the Middle East and North Africa can be a great value and a good investment in your travel experience. Many countries of the Middle East and North Africa are still developing nations. This means that travel generally is not as smooth and easy as traveling in more developed nations. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a wonderful travel experience – instead the opposite is true. It makes for interesting travel experiences learning about the country and culture and how its is growing and changing. When traveling in developing nations sometimes things just work differently than they do at home and a tour can help take out some of the hassle so you can have a more relaxing travel experience. A tour allows you and your travel partners to explore a country without the stress and time commitment of planning the trip and then navigating the country.
Traveling can require a lot of emotional and mental energy. How do we get to the next town? Where is the best place to eat? How do you navigate the chaotic taxi system? How much does something cost so we know what to bargain for? This is where a good tour company comes in. You’ll enjoy the culture, the sites, the people, the local guides without the hassle of sorting out logistics. Tours are often more efficient because the company and guides know the country well. When traveling with a good local guide, it’s like being show around a country by a local friend. You can get the insider view.
Wherever your travels take you in the Middle East and North Africa, you are sure to have a wonderful experience filled with friendly locals, beautiful landscapes, rich modern cultures, long ancient history, tastey cuisine and a lifetime of memories. I look forward to seeing you out in the MENA region.
Stay curious and have wonderful travels!
When researching and planning there are plenty of great resources on ArchaeoAdventures to help you get started and plan that trip of a lifetime.