This is a guest post from Zara Quiroga – a Portuguese traveler currently exploring South America with her Indian boyfriend, Ashray. She loves getting to know new cultures and her relationship is proof that she enjoys mixing up too! Zara and Ashray run the travel website Backpack ME, where they share tips and inspirational stories in the shape of posts, photos and videos. With their different cultural backgrounds, they want to inspire anyone to travel, no matter where they come from.
Budget Travel in Dubai
Dubai is generally synonymous with luxury, opulence and extravagance. Although this is a destination usually associated with great power of expenditure, and can indeed be a very entertaining playground for the rich, it can also be explored on a budget.
There are a lot of ridiculously expensive things in Dubai (from 7 star hotels to Michelin star restaurants or exclusive activities for VIPs) but there is much more to the place than splurging! More over, after the recession hit in 2010, general prices have come down making it a bit more affordable to travel around.
Cliche as it might sound, Dubai is a place of contrasts, where opulence can be found side by side with simplicity and shortages, where a concrete and glass city of skyscrapers stands right next to the arid desert. It’s by exploring these contrasts that one can make the most of a trip to Dubai, by discovering not only the city but also the different people behind it, and their very distinct realities while living in the same place.
After living in Dubai for 4 years, I am ready to give you some insider tips that will help you enjoy the city to the fullest, without burning out your traveling budget!
“Dubai is a place of contrasts, where opulence can be found side by side with simplicity and shortages, where a concrete and glass city of skyscrapers stands right next to the arid desert“
Metro: divided into 3 categories (1st class, regular class and women & children only class) the metro is very new, super modern and affordable! You can buy a day pass for AED 14 (about USD 3.8) and get to most places in town, including to-and-from the airport.
Buses: ride the bus with the same card as the metro when you need to go to a place the metro doesn’t reach. And enjoy one of those “crazy things” that Dubai got it’s fame for: bus stops with AC! That’s right! At 50C you wouldn’t want to wait for the bus under that killing sun.
Taxis: taxis are rather affordable too as petrol prices are low in Dubai (to give you an idea: a gallon of petrol is cheaper than a gallon of water in a restaurant!) Taxis are also plentiful around town and getting from one end of the city to the other (around 30KMs) would normally cost you less than USD35. Obviously more expensive than the previous options, but not the end of the world if you’d like a bit of comfort, specially when arriving into town.
Car Rental: if you plan to explore neighboring Emirates (Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, etc) I would strongly suggest a car rental. In fact, a car will allow you to explore a lot of places around the city, and towards the desert, and road tripping in the Emirates can be a lot of fun! Tip: if you head out to the desert, pack some food and drinks as you won’t find many shops apart from convenience stores at petrol pumps. ?Forget about the big car rental company names you’ll see at the Airport’s Arrivals Hall and check these that normally have decent deals: Discount Rent a Car and Fast Rent a Car. Always negotiate for a deal with unlimited mileage (this shouldn’t change the initial figures they’ll quote).
Abra: Abras are the traditional boats used to cross the creek from one side to the other. They cost a mere AED1 and are one of the most pleasant while cheap experiences you can enjoy in Dubai. Taking an abra ride is physical transportation at the same time as time travel, taking you back to a more traditional and simple time.
Contrary to popular belief, booking with a lot of time in advance does not guarantee the best rates when it comes to accommodation. If you are lucky, you can score gorgeous last minute deals that will allow you to live like a royal without having to sell the crown’s jewels. ?Sometimes you can stay in dream like 5 star hotels for less than USD 100/night, which is obviously still not a budget option, but much cheaper than what these hotels would actually cost on regular days.
If true budget options are what you are looking for, head to the older side of town, Bur Dubai and Deira, where hotels are usually much more affordable than in newer areas like Sheik Zayed Rd. or Marina. Bur Dubai and Deira are also the areas where most affordable hotel apartments concentrate and it might be a good idea to consider a place with a kitchen if you want to save on food, particularly if you travel as a group. There are no backpacker hostels in the traditional sense, but many hotels or hotel apartments might match what hostels would have end up costing over here, and you’ll get your own room!
There are Couch Surfing listings for Dubai but keep one thing in mind when going for this: the local law is very strict when it comes to unwed people cohabiting. Although normally no one comes and checks who is living with who, I wouldn’t recommend female travelers to stay with men and vice-versa.
“Contrary to popular belief, booking with a lot of time in advance does not guarantee the best rates when it comes to accommodation”
Food & Drinks
Fancy restaurants aside, there is plenty of good inexpensive food in Dubai. And what’s even better? With residents of about 200 different nationalities, you will find ALL sorts of food in town. Name the dish, and you will probably find it in Dubai.
But Dubai and Deira remain as the areas where you can find authentic dishes at affordable prices. For instance, feast on a multi-course Indian meal for less than USD8, eat a portion of fried rice in a small Bur Dubai cafeteria for less than USD2 or dig into a local favorite, Shawarma, for about USD1. Shawarmas are only served in the evening though!
There are always options if you look around and, particularly, if you look around the less expensive neighborhoods. Rule of thumb: the more westerners you see around, the more expensive things will be. If you are in areas where the majority of people are Asian, you will have a far better chance to come across less expensive options.
Keep in mind that “more expensive” in Dubai does not mean “better quality” when it comes to food. Some of my more memorable meals in Dubai have been in small restaurants, which tend to offer more authentic food and great down-to-earth ambiance.
If you plan to buy your own groceries and cook at home, note that supermarkets in Dubai are not particularly expensive (cheaper than many in USA or Europe) and you’ll be able to choose ingredients from all over the world!
Bars, clubs and drinking in Dubai can easily add up on a night out. The cheapest beer you might be able to find in town would cost you at least USD7. If you want to have fun on a budget, check Time Out Dubai to see what parties and promotions (“happy hours”) are going on during your stay.
If there are a lot of splurgy things to do in Dubai, it’s also true that you can get a great overview of the city and keep yourself entertained on a tighter budget!
Some beaches are public and free while others might cost around USD 1.2 and have facilities such as BBQ areas, bathrooms, gardens, etc.
If you plan to visit the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, keep in mind that it costs AED 400 on the spot but only AED 100 (USD 27) if you book online with at least 24 hrs in advance. If you still don’t want to pay the admission ticket, you can admire the building from the outside at the outdoors area of Dubai Mall. Enjoy a light, sound and fountain show with the Burj Khalifa as a background for USD0!
One of the other popular attractions in Dubai is the so-called 7 star hotel Burj al Arab. There is no way of getting inside without paying for at least afternoon tea, but this fancy tea costs USD 75. A great alternative is to observe the building from the outside, going to the open beach right next to the hotel. This way, you can enjoy the beach and the building views for free!
Never book any activities or tours at your hotel as they will obviously charge a commission that will inflate the prices you pay. Check online for the best deals if you want to take a tour. Several companies offer discount vouchers that can be purchased online. The most popular ones are Cobone, and Groupon. These vouchers can be particularly useful for things such as desert safari or pampering spa experiences, but depending on the current promotions, you might stumble upon decent deals for car rentals, restaurants and even hotel stays.
Internet – ?Internet is normally available at all hotels and very common in cafes and malls, included in your consumption. Just ask your waiter for the password.
Local Sim Card? – If you’d like to buy a local sim card, these are readily available and there are special rate plans for tourists (for international calls). Keep in mind you will need to show your passport and register even for a pre-paid line. There are only 2 service providers, DU and Etisalat, and they don’t tend to vary much in rates. Check who’s offering the best deal at the time of your purchase.
Buy Souvenirs? – Skip the luring malls when it comes to souvenir shopping. Most things you’ll see at the mall will be the same you can find downtown in Bur Dubai and Deira’s souks (markets) for half the price.
Things are open until late? – Shops and restaurants tend to stay open until very late in Dubai, and there are a lot of 24/7 businesses. If you want to eat late at night, head to Al Diyafa Street, where for example a great inexpensive Lebanese grill can be enjoyed even after you come out of the clubs!
Get out!? – Dubai is a great hub to base yourself to travel to other parts of the world. Using the local budget airlines you can get excellent deals for the rest of the Middle East, Asia, and some places in Africa and Europe. Check FlyDubai and Air Arabia for deals. Please note that Air Arabia does not depart from Dubai, but from the neighboring Emirate of Sharjah (about USD35 cab ride away from most places in Dubai or reached by bus via Bur Dubai bus station).
Keep in mind!? – It’s important to keep in mind that Dubai, despite of being the more open minded city of the Emirates and probably of the entire Middle-East, is a Muslim place and certain traditions and social norms must be respected.
Main tips: Do not show yourself drunk in public, do not engage in public displays of affection, do not behave in a way that might be perceived as homosexual out in the open (although you will see Indian men holding hands and that is accepted, as it’s a culturally accepted way of demonstrating friendship) and do not criticize the rulers or religion when talking to people you just met.