Flying Saudia During Ramadan Is Fascinating

Filed Under: Saudia, Travel

Collectively I’ve spent a lot of time in the Middle East, so I’m pretty familiar with the Ramadan customs. As an “outsider,” the most practical implication of Ramadan is that those observing it fast during daylight hours for about a month (Ramadan goes from May 26 through June 24).

Non-Muslims are free to eat during the day, though you’ll notice that things are often a bit different. For example, I’ve written in the past about how Ramadan impacts Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar. While all three airlines still serve alcohol onboard, they adjust other policies slightly. For example, Etihad and Qatar don’t serve alcohol during the day in their flagship lounges during Ramadan.

While I’ve flown Gulf carriers during Ramadan, the experience didn’t seem radically different than usual. That’s probably largely because those airlines carry a lot of passengers who don’t observe the tradition, despite where the airlines are based.

Well, yesterday I flew Saudia from New York to Riyadh to Dubai, and it was a very different experience, which doesn’t come as a surprise. Ramadan sure is challenging when travel is involved, given that daylight hours are always observed based on where you are. For example, if you have a 15 hour westbound daytime flight, it’s entirely possible that you’ll have to fast for nearly 24 hours.

But yesterday I was flying eastbound, and it was interesting nonetheless. My flight from New York to Riyadh left at 5PM and landed at around 12PM the next day. It was light for the first two hours and the last four hours of the flight. So I ate as I usually would, and both meals were during daylight hours.

I got the sense that I was just about the only person on the plane not observing Ramadan. The service was attentive as could be, and my dinner was done before the sun set, while my breakfast started after the sun rose.

Meanwhile it was dark for roughly the middle half of the flight, for a total of maybe five hours. During that time the crew served two back to back meals in economy, since those passengers wouldn’t be able to eat again until the following night.

The flight attendant serving me explained how on a recent westbound flight to the US they had to serve five meals in economy — the normal two meals plus a mid-flight snack for non-Muslim passengers, plus the Iftar (meal after sunset) and Suhoor (meal before sunrise). So they were serving meals almost nonstop.

Also interesting was that as soon as the sun set, there was an automated PA saying “ladies and gentlemen, it is now time for Iftar. May Allah accept all our good deeds.” That’s an announcement you don’t often hear on a flight!

More interesting, perhaps, was my flight from Riyadh to Dubai, which left at 6:05PM and arrived at 9PM (there’s a one hour time change). The flight was just 70 minutes, and it got dark about 40 minutes into the flight.

After takeoff the lovely (Filipino) flight attendant asked if I was fasting. When I said I wasn’t, she served me my meal.

About 30 minutes before landing, as we were starting our descent, there was an announcement over the PA saying that it was time for Iftar, at which point service began for just about everyone else on the flight.

Bottom line

The logistics of Ramadan and travel sure are interesting. Understandably people are really hungry if they’ve been fasting all day and the sun finally sets, so it requires quite some effort on the part of the airline to coordinate all this.

For example, the Jeddah to New York Saudia flight departs at 5:40AM, which is exactly when the sun rises. So those observing Ramadan can’t eat for the entire 13hr50min flight, and then they land in New York at 11:50AM, which is nearly nine hours before sunset.

  1. Did you have a glimpse at the service in Y or J Lucky? It’d be interesting to see whether meal service is allowed for economy or business passengers NOT observing Ramadan. Something tells me that even if you’re not Muslim, you would be forced to fast alongside the rest of the cabin.

    I’d imagine it was different for first class, given the privacy and person service as your review shows.

  2. You are not required to fast while travelling. I never understood why people make such a big deal about this.

  3. Just for your attention even Muslim are not required to fast when travelling so am pretty surprised anyone fasting
    Sick,pregnant,travellers,under age are not required to fast.

  4. thanks for writing this post lucky. it’s a weekend here in the US when there was organized protests against Muslims so it’s really refreshing to read something which just captures the everyday struggles about us Muslims.

    fyi – some Muslims who are flight attendants or live in really Northern places like Norway where the days are really long, use the sunrise and sunset times of Mecca which is reasonable.

    im flying on Wednesday morning JFK-LAX so potentially i could have an extra long day of fasting but i havent decided what im gonna do.

  5. Lucky,
    As other readers have mentioned – fasting during travel is not a requirement. People may choose to fast and receive increased hassanat (good deeds) but the faith provides exception in these instances so as not to overwhelm the body. Contrary to most people who think they are experts it is a violation of the Fast if you put your body in harms way. The reason the airline adjusts their schedule is they do not know how many might be keeping the fast and who may have chosen not to to make up the lost day another time (completely allowable).

  6. Yes it’s true , for a Muslim you are actually exempt from fasting when you are travelling . As well as when you are ill or pregnant .

  7. Muslims don’t have to fast when travelling, but they still have to make up after Ramadan, so many still prefer to do it when they can. It’ll be quite a pain fasting when everyone around is over.

  8. Keitherson…that’s not the case.
    For example In Pakistan on all our flights people are offered meals, its their choice whether they choose to eat or not. many Muslims also DONT fast and are offered meals on our airlines. It’s a personal choice and no one should be forced to do anything.

    Even though Saudi is extremely religious, I think Saudi would offer meals to anyone not fasting whether Muslim or not.

    FYI Muslim women don’t fast when menstruating, pregnant or if they are brestfeeding.

  9. Hiro is correct. The imposition of fasting during travel is quite recent, certainly within the last 15 years. Travellers have always been exempt. Only since the ultra orthodox nutters gained the ascendancy has it become obligatory to fast.
    But who’s to argue with the need to have things just as they were a thousand years ago?

  10. “Did you have a glimpse at the service in Y or J Lucky? It’d be interesting to see whether meal service is allowed for economy or business passengers NOT observing Ramadan. Something tells me that even if you’re not Muslim, you would be forced to fast alongside the rest of the cabin.”

    You obviously didn’t read Lukcy’s post carefully enough, as he says:

    “The flight attendant serving me explained how on a recent westbound flight to the US they had to serve five meals in economy — the normal two meals plus a mid-flight snack for non-Muslim passengers, plus the Iftar (meal after sunset) and Suhoor (meal before sunrise). So they were serving meals almost nonstop.”


    “Non-Muslims are free to eat during the day”

    Not in public in the Gulf countries.

  11. Ben I’m really surprised you don’t seem to know that those traveling are not required to observe the fast while they are traveling. I’ve never had issues in Muslim countries that prohibit eating or drinking publicly during Ramadan doing so in airports, even during Ramadan.

  12. @ Lucky Non-Muslims are not free to eat in public Saudi during the day. It’s entirely possible you’d be arrested for doing so. All restaurants and cafes are shut anyway, but if you ate or drank publicly somewhere I’d imagine you’d be picked up. It’s very strict here.

  13. On our complimentary tour of Qatar during a layover in Ramadan, our guide told us not to eat or drink in public.

  14. @Malc Is that because Saudia Arabia enforces Sharia law? Arresting people for eating in public during Ramandan does not seem fair to ethnic/religious minorities. Is that what was being protested yesterday?

  15. I’ve spent a bit of time in Jordan during Ramadan and there restaurants are not allowed to serve food in public view during daylight. Very few places were even open during the day and those that are are either run by Christians or expats and they draw all their blinds.

    Ben, respectfully, though you have spent a lot of time in the Middle East, my impression is that most of it has been in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Most of the people you’d interact with there are not locals or even Muslim, so I’m not sure I would track from those experiences to the rest of the Middle East.

  16. @keitherson I have lived in Saudi Arabia for one and a half year. Anyone who’s not observing Ramadan is served. Usual business. Also Muslims when travelling don’t need to observe fasting, it’s optional, but then whatever they miss they need to pick it up at the end. So let’s say Ramadan is over tomorrow but I missed one day. No problem. You will fast one more day. For sick people who are not able to perform Ramadan they would need to pay some charity in lieu.

  17. @Emirates4Ever Really, why? Since he’s not muslim, I don’t see why he would have to know it.

  18. We need to stop saying anyone HAS TO fast. People choose to do so to honor their imaginary sky friend.

  19. Really fascinating, specially the five meals being served. It makes sense since for such a long day, people will get really hungry with all logistics of travel if they are fasting. Thanks for the report.

  20. I had a similar experience flying on Royal Brunei BWN-MEL a few years back. Overnight flight with “stacked” meals.

  21. Super like to the post Lucky! Thank you it was fascinating to read about how the meal times are adjusted during Ramadan in long haul flights.

    To all those who are outraging about how it’s not compulsory to fast for a traveller and letting the writer of this post know about it in no uncertain terms, no where has the writer of this post mentioned about whether it’s right or wrong for a traveller to fast or not. He has just reported about the fascinating aspect of meal services and time changes during a long haul flight in Ramadan and in Saudia.

    It would be nice if everyone read the post in this perspective rather than judging whether it’s right or wrong to fast for a traveller which in my opinion is a personal choice.

  22. Off topic @Ben “while my breakfast started after the sun ROSE.” to be perfect just rectify it to SUNRISE

  23. @keitherson my grandmother always said “if you have nothing good to say, then rather say nothing”. If you dont understand how Ramadan works u should inform yourself by doing some well needed research, “google” i suggest.

    Okay so just to explain how things work in Saudia during Ramadan. On domestic flights all catering is cut down to a certain percentage as many of the passengers are fasting. On international flights depending on the length of the flight and the amount of services passengers will be asked who is fasting and who is not in all classes. And service will be done accordingly.

    Personally i think most people when they hear “Saudia” they think “oh rude crew, horrible experience, no alcohol”. Many times the crew gets insulted by passengers and its full on verbal attacks and they are still expected to smile. Many passengers dont know that crew has to be awake long before departure time.

    Example: Your departure time is 05:50am (Riyadh- Washington). The female flight attendant has to wake up at 2:20am sometimes earlier depends on the person and if they would sleep or not. Or simply just to have something to eat. You then have your pick up at 3:20am. Your briefing is at 4:20am and after you have been briefed you head to the terminal to go through a second security check and go onboard to do a pre- flight check and security check. You will then start preparing the cabin for passenagers.

    Many think its just about chicken, bef and fish! When a flight attendant is actually there to save your life incase God forbid any emergency.

    There is so much preparation that goes into getting everything ready to be judged by passengers who have already made up their minds about the crew and company.

    I really take my hat off to the Saudia crew especially the female cabin crew who gets taken advantage of as women. They are disrespected and treated like rubbish and are still expected to serve you with a smile. And on her one bad day she is judged and reported.

    This is kind of a rant but as a cabin crew myself i know what these girls go through and i would just like to tell the arrogent people out there to stop and ask the person serving you ‘If she had breakfast, lunch or supper yet?!How is she doing?! or even if she slept well!’.

    Also its so much better not to have to remember the names of alcohol and still having to deal with people who can not hold themselves together when they’re drunk.

  24. @H Costa There was nothing wrong with Lucky’s English. He was using “rose” as a verb, whereas “sunrise” is a noun. It’s like using a “login” (noun) or going to “log in” (verb).

  25. I just love how it’s totally OK (which it is) to serve 30 minutes before landing. Only the lazy employees at U.S. airlines would refuse to do so as it cuts into their recreational chatting time.

  26. LOL Marina, I am not Muslim either, that is simply one of the basic knowledge of Islam, even an American from a small hick town like myself picks up on quickly. Ben is half German, i.e., European, and I expect more cultural awareness and knowledge from Europeans, Canadians, and Australians, especially from one who states he has spent extensive time in the Middle East.

  27. @Emirates4Ever

    What makes you think that where you come from has an effect on your global awareness? I, for one, think that your “small hick town” butt should be the Secretary-General of the UN.

  28. I just got off the JED-Jakarta flight and was served two full meals during night time (3 hours apart) and then Non Muslims were served breakfast before landing as it was daylight hours. I really liked Saudi Airlines and found the Filipina crew to be fantastic. That said, the male stewards sat in business class and were served like the other passengers. I do not really understand how that works. Do they work at all?

  29. The practice of fasting makes very little sense anyway – I’m not sure why so many of you are surprised that people didn’t take advantage of silly exemptions such as not fasting while travelling.

  30. @betterbub
    This is a matter of **cultural awareness**, i.e., practice and customs of other cultures and countries to include religions, rather than global awareness, which is more about international relations, geopolitical issues, and current events. Watching the news can provide much global awareness but not necessarily cultural awareness.
    My experience across the world, when compared to big cities and metropolitan areas, smaller towns tend to have fewer opportunities to interact with foreigners, residents tend to have less interest to do so or learn about other cultures, and there tends to be less access to knowledge resources should they be interested. Of course the latter is moot in the Information Age with the sum knowledge of the world at our fingertips. Even today, residents in smaller towns across the US show little interest or desire to know even the littlest thing about other countries or cultures. This isn’t unique to the US, I’ve seen the same apathy in other countries, sometimes even in the big cities.
    Hell, the residents in China and Japan for the longest time had absolutely no desire to know anything about the outside world, and paid a huge, bloody price for their chosen ignorance.

  31. @betterbub – as for the UN job, lol I’ll pass, not that you are in any kind of position to nominate me as a candidate anyway…

  32. Typical Saudis, always morphing Islam into something else and yet they are custodians of the holy cities so non believers tend to think they are somehow righteous and correct in their behavior.

    “Scholars are unanimously agreed that a traveler is permitted to refrain from fasting” as others already pointed out and readers can enjoy the rest of the article for themselves.

  33. @Steven M Yes, but just because it’s permitted doesn’t mean it’s advised. The next sentence states that if you miss a fast because you’re on a journey, you have to make it up. So some people choose not to make it up but to fast on the journey. Seems pretty reasonable to me.

  34. @Emirates4Ever I am even full-German 😉 and we have quite a big muslim population here, but still I didn’t know that and don’t see why I would. Your arrogance about the topic is quite amusing though.

  35. @sami “…captures the everyday struggles about us Muslims.”

    WT Serious F are you on about? You do this by choice, based on your beliefs. If that’s a “struggle” for you, perhaps find an alternate belief that you find less oppressive.

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