I must say that I give them a resounding 5 thumbs up.
There was nothing significant that I could complain about.
They were perfectly-organised, and virtually everything went as planned, and even if it did not, they handled it perfectly.
The guides were all experienced, cool and always smiling.
I was most of all impressed by the organisation of the stone throwing ritual - how they had a team dedicated to it, complete with walkie-talkies and up to the minute reports of the safety situation.
The stoning exercise went like a military assault operation, with briefs and re-briefs, equipment checks, close group movements. Excellent.
Anyways, that brings to mind the issue of how important your hajj travel agent is.
It is the advice of the Prophet (s.a.w) that whenever more than 3 of you set out on a journey, appoint one as the leader (amir).
This is a very important spiritual issue often neglected by pilgrims.
Hajj is not your usual holiday. The amir is your guide, both physically and spiritually.
So I listed the desirables of a hajj travel agent.
He/she should be a person we trust with our lives and property to be kept safe and to be led to and from the holy land safely. In this regard, I would rule out most of the smaller, less experienced agencies. A large agency would have the resources to attend to your needs better. Whilst I was there I saw some agencies which did not have enough staff, which meant that the pilgrims had to do a lot of things themselves, like carry and check in their own luggage, etc.
Second, he/she should be trustworthy. Some travel agencies have had chequered records of the past, even including lawsuits and fights between guides and pilgrims!
Third, how is the spiritual guidance? For Shahidah, the principal ustaz (there are several) is Ustaz Yusuf Ali. He is over 60 years old, a senior imam at Masjid Khadijah, and has been bringing pilgrims to the holy land every year since 1994. He is a friendly, no-airs person, very fatherly and has a great sense of humour. In addition, Shahidah had a team of 3 ustaz who actually live in Makkah. They are Indonesians (including the father of our local hafiz Ust Alayna). All these ustaz, inclusing Ust Yusuf, were fluidly conversant with the Arabic spoken locally, and this was a great advantage for practical purposes.
A principal consideration for me in this regard is that the ustaz is of the same spiritual approach as my family’s (i.e. Sufi-oriented). For example, I know someone who went with a Wahabi travel agent, and she was very disappointed that there were none of the zikrs that she was accustomed to when they were in 'Arafah. You see, when you are in 'Arafah, you are surrounded by all your neighbouring travel agents, who would all be blasting out their zikrs over unavoidable sound systems, and if you are not into this, then it could be quite a problem. Of course, if you are a Wahabi who \is against the loud zikr sort, then if you choose a travel agent like TM Fouzy which has round the clock zikr pumped through state of the art performance sound systems, then you would have a problem too. Thus it is important to check this sort of thing out beforehand, as it is a matter of ibadah, and ibadah is precisely why you are going there for.
Now, most travel agents conduct pre-hajj classes. This is also very important. The ustaz conducting the pre-trip classes should actually be the same ustaz who is going with you to the holy land. You would be surprised at how often this does not happen. For some agencies, they have a well-known ustaz conducting pre-trip classes, but then at the Holy Land, someone else takes over, in at least one case I known of, it was not even a qualified ustaz, but a guide.
Use the pre-trip hajj classes as your gauge for shopping for a package. They are all free and open to everyone, regardless of whether you decide to go with their respective travel agency or not. The agencies use them as advertising, so go for them; Mrs Mudpie and I attended almost all the travel agents' pre-hajj classes at least once each to have a feel of things and ask questions.
Another consideration which I didnt realise then, but I would add now, after the trip, is how flexible is the religious programme? TM Fouzy has a whole day timetable from pre-suboh to post ishak - if you prefer a preplanned programme, then that's good for you, but if you dont, then maybe that could be somewhat smothering.
Whilst there I saw some agencies with ustaz who were not the ones who conducted the classes back home in Singapore. This is not desirable for many reasons, not least of which is that there will inevitably be mixed messages and confusion. Some of the ustaz who conducted the classes in Singapore have not been for the hajj for a few years, and as any experienced hajj guide will tell you, the developments that take place there are on a year to year basis, so what was experienced 3 years ago is now out of date. So - next point to check - when was the last time the ustaz went for hajj? It should not be more than 3 years ago. (Umrah does not count.)
Another factor is, of course, notorious - that Shahidah flies SIA and not Saudia. Saudia is probably the most crappy airline in the world. I mean, what airline actually brings earlier the date of departure by a few days (as happened to my cousin last year, and he had to beg his boss to release him early) and often delays return, sometimes by up to days? Also, everyone knows that Saudia never keeps to its schedules, so your family could be left waiting a long time at the airport for you arrive - late. Also, SIA gives greater allowance for your luggage weight than Saudia, and their stewards and stewardesses are friendlier and more helpful. I had been on a Sudia flight for umrah before, I can tell you, it was miles behind.
One factor came up just as we were choosing packages and agents.
TM Fouzy was pushing for us to take their package which houses in a place called Aziziyah. This is an apartment district in Mecca, but of some distance away from the Masjidil Haram.
The assurance is that you do not have to go to the mosque all the time, so you just stay in the apartment, where they have arranged an impressive array of programmes to keep you occupied every waking moment, lectures by Ust TM Fouzy, a lot of singing of nasheeds and zikirs, etc. It was all fine and good, and I have nothing against TM Fouzy, except that I am not going all the way to Mecca to attend classes and sing nasheeds, TM Fouzy though it may be.
I was going there to go to the MasjidulHaram, and see the Ka'abah.
Why would I travel a few thousand kilometres there and go to a place just a few kilometres away?
TM Fouzy or MasjudilHaram - no prizes for the winner. It did not make sense to me, so I insisted that we stay at a hotel next to the Masjidil Haram. The TM Fouzy lady who was manning the counter told us that we had to stay in Aziziyah and there was no choice. She didnt seem too interested to think of how to help us anyway. I guess business is already too good for them, so they could afford to lose some of ours. I felt (rightly or wrong;ly) that this was not a good indicator of the type of service attitude we would be getting. So we went over to Shahidah.
At Shahidah, they had no more rooms near the Haram. However, they listened to our concerns and bent over backwards. They cleared one room meant for their officers, and gave it to us instead. It was a triple room, but there were 5 of us. They arranged with the hotel to squeeze one more bed and treat the 5 of us as a group of 4.
2 of my smaller sons shared a bed. We were close enough to hear the azan, qamat, and every takbir of the imam during prayers as if we were in the Haram itself. In fact, we the hotel was at the edge of the Haram itself. We were able to go to the MasjidulHaram 5 times or more a day, every day - which we did. Alhamdulillah.
Summary – choose a package where you maximise your stay in Mecca at the MasjidilHaram itself, and do not fall for those where you stay half the time in Azizyah instead.
The hotel we stayed in was a small building. This created an advantage - the whole hotel was booked for Shahidah, and so they had control of the whole hotel. They could thus take over the dining hall, and provided Singapore food for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. The dining hall was also used for lessons, briefings, etc. And, because we were the only people in the hotel, all the pilgrims became close friends with one another.
Here is a pic of the hotel.
Now, one piece of advice I think I can give to intended pilgrims. Just because you are going to pilgrimage and performing a selfless act of worship, do not assume that your travel agent has to help you and act like a charity. They have a business to run, staff to pay, and a profit margin to maintain. They are not mosques or Muslim organisations, which do things without a profit motive. You get what you pay for, and if you pay less, you get less.
Someone said that preparation is half the battle won. Hajj is a major battle, on more than one front, both spiritual and physical. I found that the physical preparations such as choosing an agent also start to prepare you spiritually for the trip, because it forces you to imagine and think of the trip before you actually go.