Backpacking in the Middle East

Advice and inspiration for travelling in the Middle East

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A gap year in the Middle East

Ah, the Middle East. So frequently on our screens for the wrong reasons. Africa may have been where our species originated, but the Middle East is where we figured out civilisation. These desert lands have played host to some of the most important moments in human history, and are bursting at the seams with utterly fascinating historical treasures.

In contrast, this region is also where you can catch a glimpse into the future. Nations which are positively brimming with riches are using their extreme wealth to create mega cities, like Dubai in the UAE and Doha in Qatar.

Unfortunately, some of the region is war torn or simply too dangerous to travel through. No go areas include Iraq and Syria, and most of Afghanistan, which has somehow failed to turn into a globalised utopia following an American-led invasion and occupation at the turn of the millennium.

On a lighter note, much of the region is reasonably safe to explore, which is good, because there is a lot to see. The best and safest countries for backpackers are Turkey, Jordan, Israel, United Arab Emirates (this is where Dubai is), Cyprus and parts of Iran and Lebanon (always check the latest government advice before booking anything).

Tours in the Middle East

Middle East tours

Although the Middle East doesn’t rank as one of the world’s most popular region for travellers, there is still a huge array of astounding things to see and do there. A guided tour can often be the best way to make sure you don’t miss out on any of it.

Whether your tour focuses on a single country or multiple destinations at once, you’ll benefit from: an expert local guide; an itinerary that includes all the top sights; accommodation, transport, and other essentials taken care of for you; a group of like-minded travellers to experience it with. Tours are a great way to take the stress out of travel.

Best experiences in the Middle East right now

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Essential Jordan

from £302.00

7 days

Start your tour in Amman, Jordan's capital and one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Take in the...

Egypt & Jordan Discovered By Land

from £533.00

15 days

Journey through Egypt and Jordan, visit some of the most astounding sites from the old world. Discover two of the...

Essential Jordan

from £545.00

7 days

From the remarkable rose city of Petra and Karak Crusader castle, to the striking desert landscape of Wadi Rum and...

Jordan & Felucca Explorer

from £1,445.00

15 days

Step back in time exploring the archaeological treasures of Jordan and Egypt - discover two world wonders, watch sunset over...

Essential Jordan and Egypt

from £1,245.00

14 days

Travelling from Amman to Luxor, discover the ancient wonders of Petra, the Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings, camp...

Working in the Middle East

Middle East jobs

Paid work in the Middle East comes mostly in the form of teaching English as a foreign language – more commonly known as TEFL – in local or specialist language schools.

It’s quite common for young people to find teaching work in the Middle East, usually teaching English as a foreign language. Most placements are found in the United Arab Emirates, often in Dubai. These usually pay well, and don’t look too shabby on your CV when you eventually come back home.

Most teaching positions in the Middle East will expect you to hold a degree. You don’t need to speak the local language, as schools will pair you with a local teaching assistant. You will also need a TEFL qualification, usually obtained after a weekend-long course in the UK, though you can also get one abroad.

We recommend being cautious of any school willing to accept you without a degree and/or TEFL qualification, as it can indicate that standards are low, which might mean conditions are too. Ask for testimonials from previous teachers before committing to anything.

Working holidays in the Middle East

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Vegan Bakery Internship

from £810.00

14 - 70 days

Explore the world of vegan baking with this ever-popular internship in the modern city of Tel Aviv!

Volunteering in the Middle East

Middle East volunteering

The Middle East is not a common destination for  volunteering, and you won’t find a wealth of opportunities like you would in somewhere like South East Asia. Placements are usually working with vulnerable people, though some animal projects may also be available.

The few you find are likely to revolve around working in poorer communities, as well as some volunteer teaching positions.

If you do find a volunteer opportunity in the Middle East, make sure you research it properly and think it through before committing to anything. It’s important to consider your strengths, weaknesses, and natural interests, and to think about what you can offer a volunteer project, rather than doing something for the sake of it. You can leave a project in the lurch if you get there, don’t like it, and leave early. Take every precaution you can to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Volunteering opportunities in the Middle East

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Desert Wildlife Program

from £520.00

14 - 70 days

Volunteer in Israel  in a nature reserve with desert wildlife! 

Budget accommodation in the Middle East

Budget accommodation in the Middle East

Many places in the Middle East are well-known for their luxurious hotels that none of us will ever be able to afford unless a hitherto unknown rich uncle dies and leaves us a fortune. That said, it’s possible to find budget accommodation in most countries of the Middle East, including hotels, guesthouses, hostels, and even cheaper resorts.
Prices will vary significantly depending on which country you visit, and where in those countries you want to stay. Hotels in Iran are generally cheap, while accommodation of the same quality in the UAE, Qatar, or Israel will cost significantly more.

Finding and booking accommodation in the Middle East

We recommend pre-booking accommodation wherever you visit in the Middle East. Although tourist infrastructure is well-established in many places, you don’t want the stress of turning up in a new place after a long trip and having to find somewhere to sleep.
If you haven’t pre-booked your accommodation there’s no need to fret. Unless you’re in an incredibly busy tourist area or there’s a major festival or holiday occurring, it’s unlikely every bed everywhere will be taken. Depending on the season, you might be able to negotiate lower prices in budget hotels in some areas of Israel and Iran.

Types of accommodation in the Middle East

In most areas of the Middle East backpackers on a budget are going to be looking at cheap hotels and guesthouses, though in some major hubs there are backpacker hostels available. If your budget can stretch a little further, there are resorts in some areas of the UAE that, depending on the time of year, will cost an arm but not an entire leg.

Hotels

Hotels to suit all budgets can be found throughout the Middle East, with major hubs offering a great deal more variety than more rural areas (though you should also expect to pay more in touristy places).

Budget and mid-range hotels are a little easier to find in countries like Iran, which are still building their tourist infrastructure after recent upheaval, whereas the UAE, Qatar, and Israel tend to skew towards high end hotels.

When you’re booking cheaper hotels, we recommend looking at reviews online beforehand to check that your room will be air-conditioned. Depending on the time of year this can be essential (though you may pay more for the privilege).

Guesthouses

Guesthouses in the Middle East are most commonly found in areas that aren’t super-busy tourist hotspots, and they’re most prevalent in Jordan. They represent something of a mix between hotels and hostels, providing social spaces to meet other travellers, with some even including shared buffet-style meals in the price.

Hostels

Hostels can be hard to find in the Middle East unless you’re in the heart of busy cities. They’re most common in Israel, particularly in Tel Aviv, and their prices are often not much cheaper than a budget hotel. They’re usually only the best option if you’re jonesing for some dormitory action.

Resorts

Resorts are usually well out of most backpackers’ price range, and the Middle East has some shamelessly luxurious ones, particularly in the UAE. If you stay in one it’s likely to be a one-night treat.

That said, cheaper (although rarely cheap) resorts do exist in less busy areas, and although they won’t be as luxurious they do offer a small taste of the good life. Keep an eye out for deals during the low season.

Homestays

If you’re interested in staying with a local family in the Middle East to get an authentic taste of life and culture there, ask at a local tourist centre. Homestays aren’t available everywhere, but some families will rent out rooms or offer space in their homes for a reasonable price. It’s certainly a more unique experience than a luxury resort.

Getting to the Middle East

How to get to the Middle East

The Middle East sits roughly between Europe, Africa, and Asia (the clue’s in the name), which means it’s fairly convenient to fly into from almost anywhere. Indeed, most people will visit the Middle East for the first time on a stopover when flying to Asia or Australia, usually in Dubai. Flying is undoubtedly the fastest way to get there, though there are overland options too.

By plane

Every country in the Middle East boasts at least one international airport, making it easy to jet in wherever you like, from wherever you like. The only exception here is Iran – during its recent tumultuous history many airlines stopped offering direct flights. Slowly, routes to capital city Tehran have been reinstated, but you may find options a little more limited.

Otherwise, it’s easy to fly in Dubai or Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Tel Aviv in Israel, Amman in Jordan, and Doha in Qatar. There are also other options if you’re not aiming for the big cities – have a good look around when you’re booking flights and you should find something to suit your itinerary.

Overland

By train

Train networks in the Middle East are fairly limited, though it is possible to reach the region by rail. Istanbul, Turkey will be your starting point, where you can catch a service to Tehran, Iran (which includes a 4-hour ferry journey across Lake Van). The service usually only operates weekly, and sometimes even less frequently than that. It’s a nice way to travel, offering the opportunity to see the landscape you’d miss while flying, but you need to have time on your side.

Note: there is another train route from Istanbul, but it goes via Syria, which is currently unsafe to visit due to ongoing civil war. Check government advice the latest information on travel to Syria.

By boat

It is possible to reach the Middle East via sea routes across the Mediterranean Sea or the Arabian Sea, usually departing from Egypt and arriving in Israel. However these are limited and much slower than other means of reaching the region.

Getting around the Middle East

Getting around the Middle East

Transport in the Middle East is plentiful and usually easy to use, whether you’re travelling between countries or simply moving around one destination. Public transport isn’t as extensive as in other parts of the world, meaning flying or self-driving is usually the best way to get around. Most of the region is well-used to tourists, and many people speak English, so you’re unlikely to be getting lost anytime soon.

Short haul flights

Every country in the Middle East has at least one major international airport, making flying the quickest and easiest way to move around the region, though it will also put more of a strain on your budget. The largest hub for flights is Dubai, offering access to almost anywhere else in the Middle East.

The only difficulty comes in flying to and from Israel within the Middle East. Political reasons mean Tel Aviv airport is connected only to Jordan in the region. Bear this in mind if your initial flight to the Middle East arrives in Israel, as you may need to consider other options for your onward journey.

Cars, buses and trains

Travelling on four wheels is the second most convenient option for getting around the Middle East, as there are extensive road networks all over the region. It will be a little slower than flying, but will almost certainly work out to be cheaper, and allows for much greater flexibility in your travel plans. It also offers an opportunity to see the places and landscapes between destinations that are missed when flying.

Public transport in the Middle East is not as reliable as in other parts of the world, but in many areas buses are a cheap travel option if you don’t have a tight schedule to meet. While flights usually only serve major destinations, buses visit smaller, more remote areas, giving you the chance to explore.

Local buses are cheap but can be unreliable and overcrowded, and will usually take a long time to get where they’re going. If you’re looking to travel a long distance or between countries, look for dedicated long haul or tourist buses. Your butt cheeks will thank you for it.

Most countries in the Middle East have some limited passenger train services between cities, so they can be an option for moving around a single country, though timetables can prove sporadic. There are very few rail options for moving between countries.

What visas do I need for the Middle East?

General

The information on this page applies to UK residents only. Visas can be a complicated business, and your eligibility will often depend on your nationality. We hope the information on this page will help, but visa requirements often change, especially in a region like the Middle East. We recommend speaking to your travel agent before booking anything to find out exactly what documents you will need for where.

No visas necessary

There are countries in the Middle East that do not require visitors from the UK to obtain a visa. Visitors to Israel can remain in the country for up to three months without obtaining a visa. However you will need to pay an ‘exit tax’ of around £23 when you leave Israel.

A note on visiting Israel: having an Israeli stamp in your passport means you will not be allowed to enter Iran, and may make it difficult to enter some other Muslim countries. It is common now to receive a separate piece of paper instead of passport stamp, but this isn’t always the case. If you are unsure, ask at border control not to be given a stamp.

Visas on arrival

Some countries in the Middle East require visas but will issue them upon your arrival. They can often also be applied for ahead of time, if you want some peace of mind.

Jordan and Qatar issue single-entry visas upon arrival, valid for up to one month. The United Arab Emirates issues a free visa upon arrival that is valid for up to 60 days.

Planning ahead

Some countries in the Middle East require you to obtain a visa before you travel. If you are planning to visit Iran you will need to obtain a tourist visa in advance, which is usually valid for 15 days. If you’re planning to move through the region but not stay for long, you can apply for a transit visa. This is valid for ten days, is easier to obtain, and can be extended once you’re in Iran.

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