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Everything you need to know about travelling during Ramadan

Everything you need to know about travelling during Ramadan

Ramadan takes place for 30 days during the ninth month of the Islamic, or Hijri lunar calendar, and it’s observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community. For non-Muslim travellers, if they find themselves travelling during Ramadan, it can come as a surprise. We like to prepare our adventurers in advance, so that they can travel responsibly and stay aware of a cultural shift that takes place during this important time in countries where the predominant religion is Islam. Of course, Islam is practised worldwide, but the countries which are predominantly Muslim populations, and where you can have the honour of sharing in Ramadan while on a hiking or cycling holiday with The Natural Adventure, include Morocco, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Pakistan and Turkey.

Ramadan is both for inner contemplation but also for sharing as a community.

Understanding Ramadan

Ramadan holds profound significance in Islam as it commemorates the time when the first verses of the Quran – Islam’s holy book – were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. The period of commemoration and contemplation is marked by fasting, called sawm, from dawn till dusk, so no food, drink (including water), smoking and also no sexual intercourse. Ramadan is a time to focus on spiritual growth, self-discipline, empathy and charitable acts, behaviours that many responsible travellers want to adhere to on their own journeys anyway. 

The crescent moon

Ramadan is not only traditional in terms of its adhering to strict principles of Islam, but also because it isn’t officially declared until the crescent moon has been spotted at the beginning of the lunar month, just after sunset usually. This is how every month officially begins, as the calendar is called a lunar visibility calendar. However, as it’s difficult to spot in many places, there are experts with telescopes and digital assistance, no doubt, whose job it is to spot the crescent moon and announce the beginning of Ramadan. The official announcement of the appearance of the crescent moon comes from Saudi Arabia every year, home to the holiest Islamic sites of Mecca. 

Similarly, Ramadan ends when the sighting of the next month’s crescent moon has taken place, which is why, when planning around Ramadan dates in the future, you come across phrases like ‘Ramadan is predicted to begin on…’. As a result, Ramadan can start on different days in different countries. So, in some parts of the world people may still be eating, when others may have already started Ramadan. 

Travellers who don’t practise Islam should never comment on anything they might consider to be an inconvenience during Ramadan. If anything, your hosts are inconveniencing themselves to support you during their period of calm and contemplation. So it’s our role to thank them for stepping outside their cultural and spiritual norm to help us.” 

The crescent moon, which marks the beginning of Ramadan, is also part of the symbol of Islam, combined with a star.

Cultural sensitivities when travelling during Ramadan

Respect for local customs and sensitivities is important throughout the year, but especially when travelling during Ramadan. You may have to tweak your plans if, for example, restaurants are closed or a guided hike starts later than planned because your mountain guide is at prayers for longer in the morning. Here are some of the traditions that people adhere to during Ramadan, and ways in which you may find that things aren’t business as usual. Remembering that they are, of course, totally usual for Muslims. Because fasting is just one of five pillars of Islam, the others being a declaration of their faith, praying five times a day, practising zakat or charity, and undergoing the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once. Ramadan is an intense month of practising all of the pillars, and a time to press pause on busy lives and look inwards. 

Eating and drinking

One of the most noticeable aspects of Ramadan for non-Muslim travellers is a change in eating habits. Adult Muslims start their day with a pre-dawn meal called suhoor, and then don’t eat or drink again until sunset, with a meal called iftar or fitoor. Young children don’t fast, however, and nor do pregnant or breastfeeding women, women with their periods, or if a person is ill and their condition could worsen because of fasting. If Muslims are travelling, and it’s impossible to respect the fasting hours because of, for example, a change in time zone, then they are also exempt. Private guides are not exempt from fasting, however, so if food is being prepared for you on a guided hike in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, or in the Dhëmbe and Nemërçka Mountains in Albania, be patient and respectful. The same goes for if you have to wait longer for service in a restaurant during Ramadan. 

If you get a chance to join an iftar, it’s a wonderful communal experience which is all about sharing food and, some countries have specific foods for iftar too. In Turkey, for example, you can expect to be served Ramadan pita bread, or pidesi, as well as güllaç, a milk-based dessert. While, in Morocco, harira soup is an iftar special, made with tomatoes, lentils and chickpeas, sometimes with rice added. 

“For the perfect greeting to those practising Ramadan, a good expression is Ramadan Mubarak, which means blessed Ramadan.”

If you get a chance to join an iftar, the meal where families and friends gather to eat together, it’s a wonderful communal and spiritual experience.

How long does Ramadan last?

As the Islamic calendar follows the lunar cycle, it usually lasts 30 days, and it falls on different dates every year. The Islamic calendar is about 11 days shorter than the 365 days Gregorian calendar and so the month of Ramadan is a bit more fluid than, for example, the Christian festival of Christmas. This also affects the length of the fasting day for Muslims so, if it falls in summer in the northern hemisphere, the fasting time between sunrise and sunset is a long time. However, at present, Ramadan coincides with the winter solstice until the year 2031, which also means that, in 2030, Ramadan will fall twice within the same calendar year – first in January and then again in December. The last time that happened was in 1997. 

Eid al-Fitr

This is the celebration that takes place at the end of Ramadan, and it lasts three days. Eid al-Fitr translates as breaking the fast and is not to be confused with Eid al-Adha, which takes place two months after Eid al-Fitr. Eid al-Adha is a religious feast day, the name translating as feast of the sacrifice. This is the time when Muslims plan their trip to Mecca, also known as Hajj. 

Accommodation when travelling during Ramadan

We will handle all your accommodation booking for you, as with all our trips, and will also remind you that it will be Ramadan, if you are booking for travel over the festival. Hotels and guesthouses do stay over, but it’s respectful to acknowledge that it’s Ramadan when you are there, and ask if there are any special arrangements or services provided during Ramadan. Some places may offer suhoor or iftar meals to guests, so that they can share the experience. 

Dress code

No matter what time of year you are travelling, but especially during Ramadan, please beware of cultural faux pas and dress in culturally appropriate ways. You should also avoid public displays of affection, and don’t reveal too much skin. Just read the Ramadan room, and be respectful.

You don’t have to wear a kaftan, but taking care with clothing is a respectful thing to do when travelling. Photo © Catherine Mack

Transportation while travelling during Ramadan

Although we organise a lot of your transfers within the countries where the majority of the population mark Ramadan, if you are travelling within the country before or after your itinerary, and it falls within Ramadan, then public transport timetables can sometimes be different to the usual times. Patience and calm is part of the Ramadan ethos, so try and go with the flow if your airport bus or train connection isn’t at the exact time you had hoped for. 

Although Ramadan invites inner reflection and calm, it is also a time of giving and sharing. People do exchange gifts or offer acts of support and kindness during this time. If you are invited to someone’s home, or you want to thank a guide or cook, offering a small gift for Ramadan is a thoughtful thing to do. It should be something simple, like some dates or nuts, a book or a candle. You can of course, just bring the gift of openness and cultural exchange, and show gratitude to local people for sharing their homes not only at Ramadan but throughout the year. 

For more blogs on cultural aspects of travelling, you may enjoy Our guide to tipping around the world, Get hot and be cool about Finnish sauna etiquette and Responsible travel photography tips