Jordan has always been at the top of our destination list, so as soon as we found cheap flights, we were ready to go. We highly recommend the region of Aqaba, which is close to western culture but still keeping the oriental atmosphere and tradition. It can be a cheaper and better alternative to Israeli Eilat, with a comparable standard of accommodation, tasty food, and friendly people.
Easy Jet operates from Berlin to Aqaba, the most suitable town for tourists. The tickets were reasonably cheap compared to the distance you need to cover. Schönefeld had a surprise for us. Our underage daughter’s passport was valid for five and a half months, while Easy Jet’s custom officer demanded full six-month validity. We tried explaining that Aqaba is located in Jordan’s Special Economic Zone, which was created to promote trade and tourism. Thus, it has different, more liberal restrictions regarding entry. Visa at the Aqaba border and airport is free, and the 6-months validity of passports does not apply to the Zone. Nevertheless, it did not convince the customs officer, so our family was parted. Despite the circumstances, we were not going to give up.
The next day we took Ryan Air flight to Bergamo and then to Eilat. Our plane was delayed and landed at Eilat airport at 7 pm. The queue to passport control was so long that we thought we would not make it to the border, which in November closes at 8 pm. While we were waiting for our turn, I was checking some affordable hotels in Eilat. 40 minutes later, we were done. My older daughter, determined to get to Aqaba as soon as possible, ran to the nearest taxi driver. In a hurry, I forgot to ask about the price, so he charged us double. When we reached the border, we had three minutes left. This time there was a pleasant surprise from the Jordanian side. The officers waited for us, although it was already after 8 when we left Israel. They did not mind working overtime, and they did not check the validity of our passports. I was asked to fill in a document called manifest. There they required the date of the issue of the passes. Some Internet sources say this manifest is necessary and warn tourists about losing it. But on the way back, no one even mentioned it. Anyway, we were thrilled to enter Jordan with a free visa and with the passport, which was about to expire in less than 6 months. The unfortunate part of this story is that Easy Jet refused to refund the extra tickets and expenses, so due to the incompetence of their staff, we had to pay from our own pockets.
Visa for Aqaba & Jordan Pass
Aqaba is the second airport in Jordan. The first one is in Amman. As mentioned before, the Aqaba region is called the Aqaba Special Economic Zone, which was inaugurated in 2001 to ensure the town’s commercial and cultural development. It aimed to become a regional hub for trade and tourism and industry. In consequence, Aqaba gained quite wide autonomy and have become one of the main tourist destinations, which resulted in shifting visa payment. Those coming to Aqaba will be granted a free visa upon arrival at the airport or harbor if they leave at the same border point.
If you are planning to reach Aqaba from the Israeli side (Wadi Araba/Arava Crossing), the visa is free if your stay is longer than 3 days or 2 nights. At other border crossing points, the visa is 60 JD.
Jordan Pass is a safe way to reduce the total cost of visa and entrance fees. However, there are two conditions to be met. Firstly, you need to purchase before arrival if you want your visa to be included in the price. Secondly, you need to stay in the Kingdom for a minimum of 3 nights.
The Pass comes in three price levels depending on the number of days you want to spend in Petra. It starts at JD70 (about US$98) with a day at Petra. There are also two other options with a 2- or 3-day stay in Petra for 75JD and 80JD, respectively.
A single entry is 50JD, so you can save a lot thanks to Jordan Pass, which includes tickets to over 40 museums and historical sites in the country.
Wadi Rum, another famous tourist attraction, is paid separately and directly to the local jeep safari organizers.
What to remember
Choosing Aqaba as our holiday destination, we took into consideration lots of things.
As the town is located near the Israeli border, it is possible to take a taxi, go to Eilat and be back on the same day. The trip is costly, though. Not from the Jordanian side but Israeli. If you are staying in Israel for a shorter period of time than 24 hours, you need to pay a border tax upon departure. It’s about 60 USD per person. A Jordanian taxi takes you as far as to the border. In November 2019, we paid about 10 JD as a result of tough bargaining. Then on the Israeli side, you have to get another taxi. The city of Eilat is about 15 minutes away by car. The price is about 60 Shekels. Keep in mind to ask in advance. We didn’t and overpaid. On the other hand, the taxi driver did his best to be on time. Apparently, he knew some of the border guards as he volunteered to convince the Israeli part to let us pass, even though we were late.
Those who are used to typical vibrant Arab cities might be surprised. There is no extended traffic, no noisy and pushy shop keepers forcing tourists to buy their goods. In this respect, Aqaba is positively different. It is more similar to European cities.
Aqaba has a great balance between being tourist-friendly and still keeping the taste of the Jordanian culture. It’s not overflowing with tourists, but at the same time, tourists are not a rarity, so you don’t get stared at while wearing shorts or miniskirt. The locals speak English quite well and they are very welcoming. Of course, you should obey the custom and bargain as much as you can, but this mainly refers to taxi drivers. In markets, the prices are fixed and displayed so you won’t get confused.
Some tourists come to Aqaba to see coral reefs. For us, it was stunning and breathtaking. Still, we don’t have much experience in diving, as the only reefs we’ve seen are in Marsa Alam and Sharm El-Sheikh. Marsa Alam reef is surely more colorful. It feels like in a fairy tale, swimming with bigger and smaller fishes. While swimming, you can hear joyful music in your mind. Fishes seem to be dancing around. The one in Aqaba seems more mysterious and looks scarier. Maybe it’s the size of sea urchins, which are enormous in comparison to their Egyptian relatives. We also encountered a few more eels while seeing only one in Marsa Alam.
If you want to experience snorkeling, Southern Beach is more suitable. It stretches south of the town and is divided into several parts, which an ordinary tourist is not able to see. So Japanese Garden Beach, Tala Beach, Southern Beach is exactly the same beach, which is long enough to be shared between different diving centers, hotels, restaurants that name it according to their will.
The costs of a taxi from downtown to Southern Beach usually began with 10 JD and finished 6JD after the bargain was struck.
You can also visit a local beach in the center of town, but it is dirty, mainly with cigarettes, leftovers, and plastic bags. Also, the color of the sand is grayish, which makes the beach seem even dirtier. Some residents go there for barbecue or family meetings, and usually, only men swim in the sea. Women in bikini are a rare view, so if you don’t want to feel uncomfortable, choose Southern Beach. The feeling may come from the fact that you are the only one in a swimming suit. Although observing their own culture and traditions, the residents seem open-minded, so occasional female tourists swimming in the sea won’t stir up any unnecessary commotion.
Another disadvantage of Aqaba beach (Northern Beach) is the terrible noise coming from boats. This loud music is supposed to attract potential customers, but for us, it was kind of repelling. We visited this beach only once.
Traveling in Jordan
Traveling around the country is simple. Rent a car is a popular and convenient option. The cars are considerably new, well-maintained, and various choices for insurance are offered. Roads are signed in both Arabic and English, so it’s easy to find your way to the destination. GPS and Internetwork as they should.
Wadi Rum and Petra are out of the Zone, so keep in mind to take your passport, just in case the police ask at the checkpoints. They are not very detailed when it comes to controlling documents or the content of the trunk in rental cars. They rather focus on catching the locals trafficking in cigarettes or alcohol.
Although we thought of renting a car first, we eventually chose to hire a taxi driver to take us to Petra and Wadi Rum. Finding a driver was fun. We used to halt at a random taxi stop and talk to people. It was the best way to get the most suitable offer. Bargaining was an enjoyable experience compared to other Arab countries. It was rather a friendly chat. The price was agreed kind of in the meantime. I had the impression they want to help us find cheaper transport rather than push us into accepting their offer.
Jordanian cuisine is well-known for its taste and delicacy. Hummus is a big part of the cuisine. Dishes are nicely flavored with spices. One of the most recommended meals is Mansaf. It consists of lamb meat, usually eaten with rice. In Jordan, extremely popular is yogurt. It is commonly served alongside food and is a common ingredient itself.
Food is reasonably cheap if you are staying in a self-catering apartment. But why not to experience local dishes? In Aqaba, you can find all kinds of restaurants. Some of them are on the pricier side, but most restaurants offer delicious Jordanian cuisine at a good price. Although we rented an apartment with a fully equipped kitchen, we did not cook at all. Once we found an Al Tazai restaurant within a short distance of our accommodation, at Al Hussein bin Ali Street, we had most of our breakfasts and dinners there. The dishes we liked the most include different types of Shawarma, falafels, yogurt, and Tabbouleh salad.
We paid 7-8JD for dinner for four people. Feeling hungry during the day, we would drop to a nearby falafel bar to get a snack for 0.20 or 0.30 JD. It was always big enough to keep us going for the next few hours.
Coming to a conclusion, eating out in Aqaba is surprisingly cheap, and you will enjoy a variety of dishes.
If you are looking for a peaceful place to enjoy sandy beaches, warm sea, breathtaking coral reefs, and tasty food, Aqaba should be your goal destination. In addition, nearby Petra and Wadi Rum will give an unforgettable experience.
Written by Laura Babat & Ewa Witkowska-Babat