Dreaming of a trip to Oman but worried about the cost? This part of the Middle East has a reputation for being expensive—but Oman can be surprisingly budget-friendly, provided you follow a few tips. Check out my money saving advice for visiting Oman on a budget.
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Bestowed with incredible natural beauty and a cultural heritage that some of its regional neighbours are lacking, the Sultanate of Oman is a wonderful place to visit in the Middle East. But when I talk to people about our 10-day road trip around the country and try to convince them to give Oman a go, I often find they’re fearful of the costs involved in travelling to Oman.
I don’t blame them—the UAE and Qatar are both known for being expensive for tourists, and four of the world’s top 10 highest-rated currencies belong to countries in the region. Oman is never going to be a backpackers destination; it’s always going to err on the expensive side. But I strongly believe that Oman can be surprisingly budget-friendly, provided you know what you’re doing.
Money in Oman
Oman’s official currency is the Omani rial (abbreviated as OMR). One rial is equivalent to 1000 baisa. Oman uses both bank notes and coins—the biggest denomination being a 50 rial note, and the smallest being a 5 baisa coin. Omani currency is not closed, meaning you can exchange it outside of Oman.
Fun fact: Before 1940, Oman used Indian Rupees as its official currency.
Oman’s currency is consistently rated among the highest in the world. This is one of the reasons Oman has a reputation for being an expensive destination. As of 2018, Oman has the third-highest rated currency behind Bahrain and Kuwait.
One OMR is currently worth $2.60 USD or $3.56 AUD. The Central Bank of Oman provides up-to-date exchange rates.
Using credit cards in Oman
Most restaurants, hotels and businesses in Oman accept all major credit cards. One exception to this is taxis, which typically only accept cash. It’s good practice to notify your bank before you travel to ensure you don’t have any trouble using your card in country. Cash is still widely accepted in Oman, and it’s advisable to carry some rials on you to pay for small purchases such as fuel.
Withdrawing cash from ATMs in Oman
There are ATMs throughout Oman, including inside airports, gas stations and convenience stores. HSBC is one of the more recognisable providers (see here for a full list of HSBC ATM locations). Note that HSBC and others have daily withdrawal limits that may be a little lower than you’re used to at home.
Changing currency in Oman
While I always recommending withdrawing local currency using your ATM card, it is possible to exchange major currencies for OMR either before your trip, or when you arrive. You can find currency exchange services at Muscat airport and dotted across most of the major cities and towns.
Oman on a budget: 11 easy ways to save money
Now that you’ve got your rials and baisa sorted, you need to know how to stretch them as far as possible! Here are my top 11 money-saving tips for visiting Oman on a budget.
1. Hire a car
Renting a car isn’t only the easiest way to get around Oman, it’s also the cheapest. Since most tourists hire vehicles, car rental is pretty competitive, meaning you can often find a good deal—particularly if you book in advance. In the absence of public transport, the only real alternative to self-driving is booking back to back group tours or hiring a private driver. As you can imagine, that all adds up pretty fast. If you want to do Oman on a budget, having your own wheels is an absolute must.
And then there’s the cost of fuel. Being from Australia where petrol regularly nudges the $2 per litre mark, the novelty of filling up at the bowser for a handful of pocket change never once wore off for me! Gas is very affordable in oil-rich Oman—around 0.23 OMR (or 60 US cents) a litre at the time of writing. On top of this, Oman’s main highways are smooth, well-kept and generally pretty empty, which makes for a very fuel-efficient road trip.
Oh, and there’s no tolls.
Planning an Oman road trip? Check out my epic 10-day itinerary for self driving in Oman.
2. Pre-plan your route, and stay on road
Upgrading from a sedan to a 4WD is going to cost you a lot more. Some people will tell you that a 4WD is essential for Oman—well, it’s not. We got around just fine in our little automatic car. And we still got to experience the desert, because most camps include a free transfer from the nearest town in their own vehicle. Unless you’re desperate to visit remote mountain villages or go dune bashing, it pays to stick to paved roads and hire a cheaper sedan car. For anything that does require going off road, it can still work out cheaper to hire a 4WD and driver for the day and stick to a sedan for the rest of your trip. In this respect, a little advance route planning can go a long way.
3. Eat local
Oman’s national fare references Arab, Persian, South Asian and East African influences. While I probably wouldn’t rate it as one of my favourite world cuisines, I did enjoy the food in Oman. If you’re travelling in Oman on a budget, majboos is going to be your new best friend. This traditional saffron-inflected rice and meat dish (which is similar to a biryani, pictured above) is served in extremely generous portions—more than enough to share between two people. Shawarma kebabs and mishkak grilled meat skewers are also very popular and a good budget-friendly choice when purchased from street stalls and family run restaurants.
There are a lot of reasonably priced Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Turkish restaurants in Oman, probably to cater to the country’s sizeable population of expats and migrant workers from those countries. Many eateries in the bigger cities also offer lunchtime deals, where you can get a set meal for a low price. I highly recommend making lunch your big meal for the day and just grabbing a snack for breakfast and dinner.
Breakfast is probably the trickiest meal to figure out in Oman. On our first morning in Muscat, we failed our breakfast quest miserably and found ourselves sitting in an expensive chain cafe sharing an exorbitantly priced packet of biscuits. While I highly recommend trying the brunch at Kargeen Cafe for a taste of traditional Omani food, if you want a decently priced breakfast, head straight for the nearest mosque. As we later discovered, these restaurants (there’s usually at least one for every mosque) are the only local venues that are suitable for breakfast—they open early to cater to the crowds leaving the mosque after morning prayers. These modest, family run joints offer some of the cheapest eats in Oman. For breakfast, you’ll typically be served sweet, milky tea and Omani raised pancakes with honey on the side.
4. Pitch a tent… Or use Airbnb
Wild camping is legal in most parts of Oman, so you can pitch a tent just about anywhere if you’re so incline. (One place where you definitely can’t camp is the protected turtle habitat in Ras Al Jinz. Be wary when camping on beaches lest you accidentally find yourself on a reserve.) If camping ain’t your thing, there are also some good accommodation deals to be found on Airbnb.
We used Airbnb in Muscat and Nizwa, and in both cities, it turned out much cheaper than staying in hotels. We shelled out a bit more for the privilege of staying at Misfah Old House in Misfat Al Abriyeen, which is in my mind is one accommodation splurge you should definitely indulge in.
5. Shop around for deals on desert camps
Oman’s Sharqiya Sands makes up the fringe of the Arabian Desert, one of the most majestic landscapes on the planet. Spending a night or two in the desert is yet another Oman must-do. Unfortunately, desert camps are not cheap; but if you start the hunt well in advance, you can find good deals online. We found an incredible rate on the 1000 Nights Camp when booking through Agoda. As well as booking in advance, it also helps if you’re travelling in shoulder or low season.
6. Consider skipping some of the bigger attractions
When we visited Nizwa Fort on our Oman road trip, we paid 0.5 OMR (or $1.30 USD) each for a ticket. In 2018, the cost of entry went up to 5 OMR (or $13 USD)—that’s a pretty astronomical price hike! Tickets for many of Oman’s bigger institutions, mosques and historical sites don’t come cheap. In my opinion, this is usually justified—as a state, Oman does a pretty wonderful job of protecting and restoring its cultural treasures, which is of course a big part of the country’s appeal.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t visit Nizwa Fort, but if you’re on a tight budget, you will definitely need to be selective about which big-ticket landmarks you pay to see. Also, be aware that some of the bigger institutions, particularly museums in Muscat, have a treble-tiered pricing system, meaning that foreign residents pay more than nationals, and tourists pay more than expats.
We only visited a handful of ticketed attractions in Oman. Nizwa Fort was one of the better ones, but we could have happily skipped Al Hoota Cave for instance. At 5 OMR per person, the National Museum of Oman is another expensive morning out—but well worth it in my opinion. If you’re lucky, you might just find yourself in Muscat on one of the museum’s occasional free days.
7. Stick to outdoor activities
Rolling down a sand dune at dusk, trekking in the Jebel Shams mountains, bomb diving into a wadi. What do all these activities have in common? Apart from being Oman must-dos, they’re all completely free! Yes, Oman has some breathtaking natural landscapes and very unique outdoor experiences to offer. Of course you should include a few museums and forts in your itinerary, but it’s just as lovely to wander through an ancient mud village or saunter along the shore at Sur to see the dhow boats. If you really want to see Oman on a budget, try to focus your itinerary on outdoor activities. Oman has no shortage of them.
8. Ladies, dress modestly
As in most Islamic countries, dressing modestly (with covered forearms and calves) is highly recommended for women. (Note that it is not mandatory to cover your hair in Oman (except at mosques), but it is acceptable to wear open-toed sandals.) Not only does covering up demonstrate cultural sensitivity and respect, it can also save you some cash.
Mosques in Oman enforce a strict dress code for visitors. I showed up at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque on our first day in Muscat wearing long, loose pants that didn’t quite cover my ankles. As a result, I had to hire a hijab for the morning, which cost me extra money on top of my entrance ticket. If you have the right clothes and accoutrements with you (including a light scarf to cover your hair), you can avoid having to pay a dress hire fee.
9. Be spontaneous
Omani people are known for their warmth and hospitality—it’s one of the things we loved most about the country. I would be surprised if you didn’t get at least one spontaneous invitation to drink coffee or share a meal with a local. Taking advantage of such invitations (while of course exercising common sense) is a great way to experience unseen parts of the country. Don’t be afraid to have a chat with people. Most Omanis, in our experience, are very approachable and kindhearted. Plan your itinerary in advance, but leave some wiggle room day to day for spontaneity. (After our experiences in both Oman and Georgia, this is our preferred style of travel now.)
We had a couple of interesting encounters in Oman. On one occasion, we went swimming with a group of a young Omani men, who then very kindly bought us lunch. Another day, a man jumped into the backseat of our car to show us around his village before taking us to his cousin’s house for coffee.
10. Do your souvenir shopping at a local market
Muttrah Souq in Muscat and Nizwa Souq in Niwza offer some of the country’s best souvenir shopping. Prices for frankincense resin, antiques and carpets are generally fair in comparison with boutiques and specialty shops. Don’t be afraid to bargain hard when shopping at souqs—it’s accepted and all part of the experience. This post runs through my top Oman souvenirs and where to find them at Nizwa Souq.
Looking for the perfect Oman souvenir? Here’s my guide for finding the best Oman take-homes at Nizwa Souq.
11. Set up a VPN before you go—and buy a local sim
For whatever reason, Skype doesn’t work in Oman. When we had credit card troubles in Muscat, we were a bit stuck as to how to contact our bank. In the end, we used a backup card—but we could easily have spent a fortune on international calls trying to get a hold of the bank. Installing a VPN is always a good idea to protect your identity when travelling. It’s particularly handy to have in Oman, so that you can access Skype and other blocked services while you’re in the country. I also recommend picking up a local sim card so that you can use Google Maps to navigate around.
What are your best tips for seeing Oman on a budget? Which of my Oman money-saving tips most surprised you to learn? Which one do you think would come in most handy? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below!