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London to Riyadh: Saudia (SV) J, Holiday Inn Izdihar

London to Riyadh: Saudia (SV) J, Holiday Inn Izdihar

Old May 22, 11, 10:24 am
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London to Riyadh: Saudia (SV) J, Holiday Inn Izdihar

Given the dearth of trip reports on SV (Saudi Arabian Airlines) on FT, I figured I'd write one for a work trip I recently took. Honestly, if I'd had my druthers, I would have booked on the BA non-stop rather than SV, but I was visiting a Saudi university and they were paying, so I didn't have much say. This is my first TR, so please be gentle You should be able to click any photograph to embiggen.

Advance work: Getting a visa to enter KSA

In case you're not aware, most people cannot just say "Hey, I'd like to go to Saudi Arabia." and file for a visa. If you're not doing the hajj, you need an invitation from a business, the government, or a friend/relative. I was invited to run a week's worth of teaching workshops at King Saud University, so I needed to apply for a government visit visa. As a US Citizen living in London, I was pleased to learn that I could apply through the consular section of the KSA embassy in London. However, they were not terribly helpful at figuring out the forms. There's no form on their site for a government visit visa, so you use the business visit form. Then there's the painful process of uploading a photo to the Enjaz website. In the end, I decided to hire Regent Visas for about 70 to take care of this for me. There were too many areas in which I could make a mistake, and they clearly had experience. With their assistance, I had my passport back, visa attached, within a week of posting it off. Given the confusing nature of the KSA visa application process, I suggest others do the same.

Flight #1 SV106, LHR-RUH

Check-in:

SV has recently (from 31 March 2011) moved from LHR T3 to LHR T4. I believe this was planned before SV's impending move to join SkyTeam was announced (and since the other Middle Eastern carriers are in T4, it would have made sense), but now it's totally logical. Check-in was in the A zone, and I was a little confused to walk up and see the boards showing an SV106 to DMM instead of RUH. The greeters noticed my perplexed look and asked if I was flying Saudia to Riyadh. I confirmed and they said I was in the right place. They then asked if I was flying First or Business class and directed me to the appropriate check-in. One person checked my passport for the mandatory visa and then passed me on to the luggage check. I had pre-selected 16D, an aisle seat in the second row of J, which is configured in an offset 2-3-2 so that 16AC and 16JL are not aligned with 16DEF. (The Saudia website's fleet page finally has seat plans for some aircraft.) The agent confirmed I was OK with an aisle seat and printed my BP and tagged my bag. He then gave me an invitation to the SkyTeam lounge with a very detailed map of how to get to the lounge. I didn't need the map, since I usually fly ST out of LHR. I made my way to FastTrack security, where I was simply asked if I was flying F or J and breezed through. (There's been some confusion about what can get you into FastTrack security at LHR. I think answering "Yes" when asked about F/J will work pretty much any time, as I wasn't asked to show my BP there.) I got behind a family with an infant at security, but they kept waving those of us who were prepared around, which I appreciated.

After clearing security, I went to the T4 IRIS enrolment station to try to sign up for IRIS. (One too many long, long, long queue for non-EU passport holders had me motivated to sign up.) Alas, the door was locked with a number shown to call. I tried calling it, and I got a busy/engaged signal. Thus, it was off to the SkyTeam lounge for a late lunch.

Lounge:

Despite being a ST FF, this would be my first time into the much-hyped ST LHR lounge, as my previous flights had all been flying Y and without the ST Elite Plus status that gets you in. I got to the lounge around 1350 for a 1600 departure. (I'd arrived at LHR to allow for IRIS.) They still had hot lunch out, so I grabbed some spice-rubbed chicken (juicy and tasty), some sandwiches, and some pasta with vegetables. (Sorry, don't recall the precise name.) The lounge had plenty of space, so I grabbed a seat and pulled out my laptop to get on the free WiFi. After a second helping of food and an adult beverage, I shifted to the upper level of the lounge to get some work
done. No announcements are made in the ST Lounge except for delayed flights, as best as I could tell. (They said they wouldn't announce my flight and the only announcements I heard were for delayed flights.) I kept an eye on the board and left for Gate 12 about 35 minutes prior to scheduled departure.

Boarding:

I got to the gate about 1530, and there was already a mass of gate lice. No indication that boarding had started yet. I had just enough time to identify the aircraft as HZ-AKA, a 777-268ER, before they announced boarding. They announced F and J could board at their leisure, so I headed straight through to avoid spending any more time with the gate lice than was necessary.

Pre-departure:

I was travelling sans jacket, but the J FAs were swiftly hanging jackets for passengers with them. I found my way to 16D and unpacked a book (Watching the English, which I was just starting and now highly recommend). I had booked into the middle section in hopes of having an empty seat next to me, but EF had suggested that J would be full, and it was. My neighbor didn't speak much English, but when all you need is to get in and out, it's pretty easy to gesture for that. (He did at one point offer me
some paper since I was taking notes for this TR on the back of a receipt.) Most of my experience with IFE comes from DL, which basically just shows you AmEx ads pre-departure. However, the SV system had many features enabled during boarding. You could check out the maps and check the view from the cameras (forward and underneath). However, the movies and music selections were not available. They were showing some images of one of their destinations on the main screen at the front of the cabin.

No pre-departure beverages were offered prior to the door closing. However, once the door was secured, the FAs made it through the cabin with hot towels, Arabian coffee, and dates. I declined the coffee, since I don't do caffeine, but enjoyed the others. Newspapers (English and Arabic) were offered. Since I had a book, I didn't notice what the English-language paper(s) were.

The safety instructions were provided via video, shown both on our IFE screens and the large screen at the front of the J cabin. First the video was played in Arabic, featuring Arabic subtitles and sign language. Both male and female crew were used in the video to demonstrate the safety features. Then the video was played in English, this time with English subtitles and sign language. After pushback, a prayer for safe travels was played over the PA. (It was introduced in both Arabic and English, but being a Muslim prayer, it was only said in Arabic.)

Some of the features of the IFE system (notably the moving map, flight info, and downward/forward cameras) worked during taxi and take-off. However, movies, television, and audio were not enabled at this time. We pushed back roughly on-time (1600) and took off at 1625. The temperature at LHR was 17C.

In-flight:

Shortly after take-off, the seatbelt sign was turned off and all the features of the IFE were enabled. The FAs also distributed SV-branded (couldn't see any indication as to the actual manufacturer) noise-cancelling headphones. They use a THREE-prong connector, with the connection socket being between elbow and shoulder level on the seat's plastic shell. I wanted to read a bit, so I put my seat into a semi-reclined mode and found it reasonably comfortable. I should note that the seat (an angled-lie flat) is not terribly comfortable in the full upright position required for take-off and landing; the seat seems rather hard when in that position. Important warning: The D seats in the J cabin do not have a power socket. All other seats have a universal (US/UK/European) socket, but D does not. If E isn't using
his/her socket, it would be readily acceptable for the passenger in D. However, if you're flying J on an SV 777 and need a power socket, stay out of the D seats.

The flight attendants distributed an assortment of chilled fruit juices. No indication was given as to what each one was, but the one I had was tasty. Before too long, the FAs began dinner service. The cabin crew was a mixture of men and women (probably 50/50 for F and J, from what I observed). The men wore uniforms similar to what you'd expect to see a pilot wearing for a US carrier (sans jacket), while the women were dressed in a manner similar to what I'd seen for other Middle Eastern carriers (small hats, head scarves covering all hair but leaving the face exposed, and long-sleeved blouses with
trousers). Dinner service was excruciatingly slow on my side of the aircraft. The FAs hadn't even finished serving the starter by the time the ones working the other aisle were serving mains. No menus were provided, unfortunately, so I really have no clue what I was eating. In flight photos are from my mobile, so I apologize for the quality.

Starter:



Both options were some sort of fish with a green salad (three types of dressing were offered for the salad). The other option appeared to be maybe some tuna salad accompanied with a half tomato filled with a dairy item (a creamy cheese of some sort?). The starters were served from a cart and were pre-loaded on the trays with cutlery. The FAs didn't even know what they were serving and just said "You can have this or that." The FAs came around with a bread basket featuring a variety of breads, and I selected two items. The starter was fairly tasty. Water was served with dinner. I don't recall seeing anyone with even a second glass of fruit juice, so it may have been the only beverage offering.

Main:



Long after I'd completed my starter, the FAs finally started coming down my aisle with mains. (Those who'd ordered a special meal were served their mains almost immediately after getting their starters.) On offer were fish (salmon?), chicken, pasta (veg lasagna?), and "beef". The photograph above is of the "beef" that I selected. I cut into it and it appeared to be white meat, but clearly wasn't chicken (and obviously wasn't pork on SV). My suspicion is that it was veal. The main was edible, but definitely not something I'd seek out again.

Dessert:



I thought it was a bit odd that the dinner service tray would come with a little box containing two chocolates, as I expected we'd get a full dessert/pudding/sweet, depending on the version and class of English you speak. I soon discovered that the painfully slow service was why we were given chocolates. In the box was a dark chocolate truffle and a truffle containing a lemon creme filling. Both tasty. Eventually the FAs came around with the dessert cart. (It appears they only had one cart, so the speedy aisle got dessert first and then my aisle got ours.) There were several options featuring fruit, but I went for a chocolate mousse-like option with a cup of tea. It was decent but had a bit of an odd aftertaste and the texture was a bit gummier than I would have cared for.

IFE:

After dinner, I decided that I'd been reading enough and would check out the AVOD options. I was impressed with the wide selection of movies and television (lots of CSI) available, both in English and Arabic. The music selection was also ample, providing "radio channels" for which a host/presenter selected an assortment of songs from a genre and entire albums to select. English-audio programs were subtitled in Arabic, and from what I could see of my neighbor's screen, Arabic-audio programs were subtitled in English. I didn't measure the screen, but it was a good size, probably in the 10-11 inch range. (No picture, sorry.) I watched The King's Speech, which I'm a bit ashamed to say I hadn't seen before, so I can't comment on how much it was censored. I did detect some swearing that had been muted out, but I would expect this on western carriers, too. Scenes featuring alcohol did not appear to have been altered. I do intend to
watch the entire film soon, and if there's anything glaringly obvious that was missing from the SV version, I'll post an update.

I'd been hoping to switch on the downward-facing camera for landing in case we approached over the city, but most features of the IFE system were disabled for approach. We touched down in RUH at 0025 AST, where the temperature was 30C.
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Old May 22, 11, 10:33 am
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Immigration and Customs

Upon arrival, we parked away from the terminal building and a bus was provided to take us to the terminal, despite there being open jet bridges. (My colleagues who flew from IAD said they deplaned via jet bridge, so not sure what was going on other than an arrival in the middle of the night.) The first bus had enough seats that F passengers got to sit down, and then the J passengers crowded in around them. The bus pulling up behind us for Y had no seats (or maybe a couple for those with disabilities).

Since the FAs had not provided any landing cards in flight, I went straight for the table with landing cards and filled one out, being accustomed to arriving in the UK with a non-EU passport. Turns out that my visa type didn't require the card, but it didn't take that long and there were no queues beyond the ones forming from our flight. The immigration agent didn't seem to speak English, but he used my visa to pull up information on my computer. He wrote a number in my passport in Arabic (note that Arabic doesn't use the digits commonly called "Arabic numerals!) and stamped it. I then took my luggage to an X-ray machine and put it through. If anyone was watching it, he was asleep, it seemed. (There was a helper there ensuring that no one carried even the smallest bag that hadn't been put through the machine.

After being cleared as having no contraband, I went through the arrivals door and found my driver from the University. We got in the University's giant suburban and started off for the hotel. Given low traffic levels at that time of night, I didn't really get much exposure to Saudi driving, other than noticing that lane markings were more advisory than something that you were expected to follow.
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Old May 22, 11, 11:11 am
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Holiday Inn Izdihar

The driver took me straight to the hotel, and we were greeted by a security guard who insisted on the driver opening the hood. The guard glanced under the hood and in the back of the SUV and then opened the gate and let us in. There was a metal detector (not nude-o-scope) at the front of the hotel, but no one was manning it so we just walked in. The lobby looked like any other western hotel, with the exception of a large number of men smoking in the lobby. My driver had to argue with the night clerk about my room for a while. (First ensuring it was a non-smoking room, then ensuring that I would have a king-sized bed instead of a twin, and then ensuring that I was in the same building as my colleagues. The final bit required involving the manager. I was glad to have a driver from the University to handle this, as I was too tired to care all that much.)

Given Saudis' sensitivity to photography, I don't have any photos of the public spaces of the hotel. However, I do have some of the interior of the room, which said "Executive" on the door in addition to the room number.

Bedroom:





Facilities:



(Note that if you're visiting KSA, it is recommended you carry some toilet paper with you from your hotel. The University's toilets were equipped with a hose similar to the one pictured above and a nozzle under the seat (no separate bidet) but had no toilet paper.)

Electrical connections:

The Saudis tend to have a mish-mash of electrical connections. Every socket in my hotel room was of the continental European (two pin) style. However, the iron was a UK-style plug. Thankfully, I had a plug converter with me. At the University, I witnessed rooms that had all three types of sockets (in one room!).



Internet and Television

The hotel now offers free WiFi. You need a password from the front desk, and even though they initially hand you 24-hour passwords, you can ask for a 7-day one. The Internet is censored in KSA, but I only ran up against the filter once, and that was a site that I expected to be blocked. News sites are generally all accessible, unlike in China. There was also wired Internet, but something was wrong with my connection, so I stuck with the WiFi. If you have a VPN, you should have no problem accessing whatever you need.

There's a broad assortment of television channels available in the hotel. I found it rather comforting to tune in and listen to BBC World my first morning there. Unfortunately (?), I missed the final of the Eurovision song competition, as it was not airing on any of the hotel's channels.



Other features:

I shouldn't have been surprised to find this, but the ceiling of each room features a sticker showing which direction Muslims should face when they pray:



The hotel also features two fitness centers (pretty well-equipped and with bottles of chilled water available), one open most of the day and the other open only in the afternoon and evening. There's also a pool for each fitness center. None of these facilities are open to women.

The hotel also has a restaurant that puts out a buffet for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I ate almost all my meals here, since it would just be charged straight to the room and thus picked up by the University. Breakfast features cereal, all non-pork components of a full English (chicken sausages that resembled hot dogs and beef bacon provided instead), American/Scottish-style pancakes, porridge, and cheese/cold cuts/bread of a continental breakfast. The charge for this was SR109 (about $29), which seemed rather steep. Lunch was an assortment. There was always a wide-ranging salad bar with good hummus and tabouleh. There were usually a couple of varieties of rice, a curry, mixed grill (sausages and chicken skewers), and then a few other things. Dinner was theme night, usually with a lamb stew or curry for those who weren't into the themes. We had Tex-Mex night, barbecue (grilling) night, Asian (mostly Indian) night, Venetian night, and Mediterranean night. Lunch and dinner always had an ample assortment of breads and desserts available as well. (Desserts were excellent!) Beverages were the only thing ordered from the waiters. I generally had water (bottled, as the tap water is not potable), but you could get pepsi/diet pepsi/7-up or a variety of fruit juices (mango juice was good). Lunch ran about SR200 with a beverage. Not sure about dinner, as we generally charged it all to one person's room, an that was never mine.

The restaurant has folding screens that they put up in the event a Saudi couple wishes to dine. The wife would find it very difficult to eat with her veil in place, and with unrelated men not accompanied by wives in the dining room, they could not remove the veil unless behind the screens.
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Old May 22, 11, 11:15 am
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More to come later, including a photo of the SV J seat (well, sort of) from the return flight.
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Old May 22, 11, 8:46 pm
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Excellent TR. Thanks for sharing! The screens in the restaurant would really affect the ambiance of the dining experience one would think.
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Old May 22, 11, 11:39 pm
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Originally Posted by afterDawn View Post
Excellent TR. Thanks for sharing! The screens in the restaurant would really affect the ambiance of the dining experience one would think.
The hotel is mostly westerners and "bachelors" (Saudi men not accompanied by wives, although they might be married), so most nights there weren't even any tables with screens up. When there were, they would ensure those couples were seated on the perimeter of the restaurant or in a little nook, so it wasn't all that weird. If there were a lot of screens, it would definitely have an impact, however.
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Old May 23, 11, 12:42 am
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Very interesting! Thank you for sharing.
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Old May 23, 11, 3:27 am
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What a brilliant read. Really good to see a trip report from there. I know I'll never go to the KSA, but still find the country fascinating.

Ignorance on my part but I thought they didnt have female flight attendants? Just having seen cabin crew waiting in LHR once I couldnt help but notice they were all bearded men.
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Old May 23, 11, 3:29 am
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Originally Posted by milan luka View Post
What a brilliant read. Really good to see a trip report from there. I know I'll never go to the KSA, but still find the country fascinating.

Ignorance on my part but I thought they didnt have female flight attendants? Just having seen cabin crew waiting in LHR once I couldnt help but notice they were all bearded men.
Definitely female FAs, but NOT Saudi women. Most were Asian, as appears to be the case with female FAs on the other Middle Eastern carriers. The male FAs were generally clean-shaven from what I saw. (This is true of both my flights, even though I haven't written up the second one for you all yet.)
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Old May 23, 11, 3:37 am
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Originally Posted by mtkeller View Post
Definitely female FAs, but NOT Saudi women. Most were Asian, as appears to be the case with female FAs on the other Middle Eastern carriers. The male FAs were generally clean-shaven from what I saw. (This is true of both my flights, even though I haven't written up the second one for you all yet.)
Actually I should have pointed out my experience was "ahem" a few years back. Things have obviously changed.

Oh yeah, looking forward to the return leg.
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Old May 23, 11, 5:31 am
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Fascinating report. Thanks for sharing.
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Old May 25, 11, 2:46 am
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Excellent report, thanks and keep it coming!
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Old May 26, 11, 2:06 pm
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Very interesting; looking forward to more...
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Old May 27, 11, 4:03 pm
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Fascinating. Especially the "hose." Better to wear swimming trunks than regular underwear. Do they still ask the religion?
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Old May 27, 11, 6:23 pm
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Originally Posted by Bretteee View Post
Fascinating. Especially the "hose." Better to wear swimming trunks than regular underwear. Do they still ask the religion?
Definitely wrote Christian rather than Atheist on my Saudi visa application...
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