A British woman who travelled around Iraq ‘couch surfing’ on her own has revealed why she loved it.
Madeleine Jay, 23, is a travel blogger and TikToker from Nottingham who’s visited more than 50 different countries.
This year, she set out to solo travel Iraq and stayed in the family home of someone she met online.
Upon her return, she’s made a series of TikToks under her handle @mjayeex, where she gushed about her ‘amazing experience’ and encouraged others to visit the country.
She told MailOnline: ‘Ever since Iraq opened the boarder in 2021, I’ve been interested in going. I love how hospitable the people in the Middle East are.
A British woman who travelled around Iraq ‘couch surfing’ on her own has revealed why she loved it
‘I enjoyed all of Iraq but Baghdad shocked me the most because of how built up it is. High street shops, expensive cars, fancy hotels. There’s so much to do there too.
‘My standout memories were just how hospitable, welcoming and nice the people were.
‘Regardless of the hardship they faced at the hands of British soldiers, they showed no signs of hostility towards me.
‘Strangers I had just met wanted to welcome me to their home, cook me traditional food, they offered money, food and chai tea to a stranger they had just met – you really don’t see those things happen in England’.
The travel blogger said said would encourage ‘experienced travellers’ to go to Iraq but not those ‘on their first holiday’.
She admitted: ‘It’s not the easiest of places to travel as it had no tourist infrastructure. You have to get shared taxis and buses around, which for someone who hasn’t travelled much can be a bit daunting.
‘I believe Iraq is safe for travellers, I’ve heard of many solo females. But I cannot recommend and advise people travel a country which the government advice against all travel to’.
In a TikTok seen by more than 240,000 people, she told her followers: ‘I just returned home from Iraq and I’m gonna tell you how I did it. Don’t get it twisted, I’m not promoting everyone to take their nan to Iraq for a holiday destination.
Madeleine Jay is a travel blogger and TikToker from the UK who’s visited more than 50 different countries
‘But if you do have some experience, especially in the Middle East, then Iraq is beautiful.
‘The people there are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life, it puts English culture to shame honestly’.
Madeleine revealed: ‘I felt completely safe as a female, as a blonde person, fake blonde, but I felt completely safe.
‘Since 2021 the borders have been open for tourism and I’ve always had an interest. I don’t know why, I think it’s the excitement but I like going to countries that haven’t really been travelled.
‘Well they have been travelled but you know what I mean, they’re not popular. I don’t know about everyone else but I certainly did, when you think of Iraq you think of war, conflict, bombs, al Qaeda, ISIS – all of that.
‘But it’s really not like that at all, there isn’t much infrastructure for tourism though, but it is very easy to get around and it’s actually visa on arrival for many passports’.
Moving on to how she got there, the TikToker explained she flew from Turkey to Baghdad for ‘about £60’.
Despite feeling completely at ease on the trip, she did have one bad experience.
She said: ”The people there are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life, it puts English culture to shame honestly’
The solo traveller recalled: ‘A group of young boys did not respect my personal space. I believe this was due to their lack of education about foreign women but members of the public saw what was happening and rushed to help us’.
She added: ‘My host family said that travellers who visit Iraq and speak of the real Iraq are the messengers of the Iraqi people.
‘They give them their voice back which was taken away by the media and misconstrued to make people believe the people there are terrorists and bad. The hospitality and kindness I experienced there from strangers was amazing’.
Talking viewers through how she did it, she explained: ‘The visa process took a while, only because the guy was smoking cigarettes in the corner, but a soldier policeman army guy came over and did the whole process with me.
‘So the visa cost me $70 and you have to pay in dollars – this is another important thing, you have to take American dollars, preferably the hundred dollar bill because you get a better exchange rate than you do with little dollar bills.
‘I’ve been told by every Iraqi person not to use the ATMs so bring the dollars’.
She explained: ‘You fill the form in, you give the passport, they disappear with it, they flip through everything and then they come back about half an hour later depending on how many cigarettes they’ve been smoking, give you a visa and that’s it’.
Next, she explained how to get from the airport into the city centre if you’re planning on the trip.
The travel blogger said said would encourage ‘experienced travellers’ to go to Iraq but not those ‘on their first holiday’
She told her 21,000 followers: ‘Taxis from the airport cost 40 to 50 dollars to get into the center. The reason why it’s so expensive is because you have to have special permission in order to come into the airport grounds, even if you’re just picking your mate up.
‘But there is a bus that will drop you off at Abbas Ibn Firnas at the statue, and then you just get a careem – careem is their Uber. It is cash only but it’s very cheap and it is in English as well.
‘So you can pay the taxi fare or you can get the bus, it’s about $7, it will take you to this place and then you just get a careem into the city center’.
She concluded: ‘There’s not much information about how to travel Iraq, you have to proper dig or invite yourself into these groups.’
After a positive response online, the travel pro made further videos talking about her ‘amazing’ trip.
In a second video, she talked viewers through her decision to couch surf and stay with a complete stranger and his family.
She explained: ‘Before I went to Iraq, I did a lot of research and everyone told me that couch surfing was massive in Iraq.
‘Now I’ve never done it before, I’ve always been too scared – I think I watch too many true crime documentaries.
After a positive response online, the travel pro made further videos talking about her ‘amazing’ trip
‘But I’ve been to the Middle East before and I’ve experienced how warm and hospitable the people are there, so it was in the back of my mind’.
Booking accommodation ‘wasn’t as straightforward’ as she would have liked and she was unable to pre book before landing.
She added: ‘So, just before I went, I got in contact with a guy called Muhammed Kareem, amazing guy, and he said come and stay with my family.
‘He opened up his family house to me, his brother and his sisters, they fed me, they took me around everywhere, they told me their stories. It was just such an amazing experience and one I’ll never forget ever.
‘To hear their personal stories, to learn about Islam, it was just amazing I can’t top the experience, it was crazy’.
She gushed: ‘I’m so thankful and appreciative of how nice Iraqi people and Muhammed and his family were.
‘I also met a guy on the plane, from Argentina, called Nick and he was also couch surfing with his couch surfer called Alaa and, [he was a] legend.
‘I had a better experience couch surfing than I would have done if I just stayed in a hotel.’
Madeleine added that she preferred the ‘immersive’ experience she got staying with the family.
She said: ‘They were telling me their memories about the war and stuff, the not very nice memories but it was really important to consider that, being in their country and to acknowledge the history and learn about it.’
Madeleine finished the video by revealing she wants to travel more in the Middle East and central Asia – adding: ‘couch surfing is massive there too so I’m really excited’.
The TikToker went on to make further videos outlining her exact route and answering people’s questions.
One user wrote: ‘I’m not going anywhere that forces you to wear a headscarf,’ to which the TikToker responded: ‘In Iraq no one forces you to wear a head scarf. Some people in Iraq don’t even wear head scarves. It’s completely up to the person and how religious they are.
‘However, you do have to wear an abaya when going to the shrines because it’s a holy religious place, so you have to respect their religion’.
Other commenters on the videos wrote: ‘I’ve been 4 times I absolutely love it’ and ‘This is so interesting, would love to see more content on your trip.’.
A third wrote: ‘I am Iraqi in the UK and absolutely love how you are showing it, makes me want to go back’.
Meanwhile a fourth added: ‘You are very kind to show people the real Iraq’.
Others penned: ‘Iraqis are super generous and inviting to guests’ and ‘The more I watch your videos the more tempted I am to go solo to Iraq’.