It might seem like the most counter-intuitive travel advice that you’re likely to read, but it is possible to enjoy a Dubai vacation on a budget. Yes, the city that boasts the world’s tallest building, the world’s largest mall, and the world’s only 7-star hotel is actually affordable to Globetrotters with an average budget.
Let’s be clear, we’re not talking about Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City-levels of affordability, where you can live like a king if you’re willing to spend more than $100 a day. However, if you adjust your game plan and book early and wisely, you can transform Dubai into an attainable destination, even if you haven’t recently been bequeathed some funds by a distant relative or are the beneficiary of a trust fund.
Travelling to and Around the City of Gold
Getting to Dubai, which is located in the United Arab Emirates, is one of the few non-negotiables in price. International airline tickets are expensive and getting to Dubai will cost you more than flying to London or Paris. Book your tickets early and look for seat deals or trust your travel agent to find you the best deal, even if it means a few connections in order to save a few bucks. If you choose to fly Emirates or Qatar, you’ll be rewarded with award-winning service and pampering treatments – something travellers in North America are severely missing out on at the moment.
Once you’re in Dubai, it’ll be easy to navigate the city’s tourist sites without breaking your budget. While most visitors opt to traverse the city by taxi, which can be affordable for short trips, the charges quickly rack up. Smart Globetrotters like yourself should circumvent the cluttered streets at rush hour and ride the Dubai Metro. These driverless trains are the most efficient way of getting around the city, allowing you to jump between the tourist sites without worrying about gridlock.
The Dubai Metro is one of the most affordable transit systems in the world, with an average trip between two zones costing 6 AED (around $2.20). The metro system breaks the city up into zones and fares are determined by how many zones you pass between on a given trip. You then pay the correct fare upon exiting the metro. A day pass allows you to pass between all the zones for one flat fee. To travel on the Metro, buy one of the electronic fare cards, load it with funds or a day pass, and then easily navigate around the city.
If you want to travel more at street level, bikes have become more common along the main drags of the city. You can easily find bike rentals along Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Boulevard and the Dubai Marina promenade. Bikes cost around 20 AED per hour ($5.50 US), while renting it for an entire day can hit around 80 AED. If you’re planning to stay around the marina area, renting a bike is a good option to flit between sites and work some exercise into your day. Also consider hiring an abra, a traditional wooden boat, which can take you across the Dubai Creek to the traditional souks for around 1 AED (approx. 30 cents) for a 10-minute ride. It’s an incredible deal.
Go Traditional to Save on Accommodations
Aside from flights, hotels will comprise the largest part of the budget of your Dubai vacation. You’ll have to shoulder a hefty bill to stay at the most glamourous hotels around the waterfront or the biggest tourist sites like the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. However, if you opt for more traditional accommodations and hotels in the older sections of the city, you’ll save a fortune. Areas like Al Basha, Al Mankhool, Bur Dubai, and Deira are your best bets for budget accommodations. Staying in these older areas will also offer you the chance to experience how the city was before its commercial boom. They offer a window into Dubai before it became the “City of Gold.”
Soak in the Culture or Lounge on the Beach
While Dubai is a luxury shopper’s paradise, there is more to this booming city than simply draining your bank account at Dubai Mall, the largest shopping mall in the world. In fact, there are a variety of affordable activities to pursue during your trip to Dubai. You can tour the Jumeirah Mosque, the largest mosque in the world and the only mosque in the city to allow non-Muslims to visit. Guided tours occur six days a week and cost 20 AED per person. Children under 12 are free. You can also visit the Dubai Museum, also known as Al Fahidi Fort, to learn about the city’s 200-year-old history and walk the battlements of this old fortification that happens to be the oldest building in the city. Admission is only 3 AED per adult.
If you’re not thrilled by the notion of visiting museums and mosques and want to experience more of the culture first hand, head to the old city around Dubai Creek, where you’ll find traditional souks to wander at your leisure. The Gold Souk showcases jewelry and precious metals, while the Spice Souk offers the sort of spices, herbs, and incenses that encapsulate the popular notion of an Arabian bazaar. Wander through these bazaars to experience the rhythms of local merchants and shoppers and gain insight into the city before it transformed into a haven for oil magnates.
Dubai also has many beaches to lounge on as it sits right on the Persian Gulf and enjoys consistently warm and dry weather. While most beaches are owned by the luxury hotels that reside on the shoreline, there are some good public beaches that offer gorgeous sands, clean facilities, and affordable prices. Both Jumeirah Beach Park and Al Mamzar Beach Park are perfect spots to spend an afternoon. Admission fees are only 5 AED per person. Lush greens like Al Safa Park also offer affordable alternatives to the major tourist sites and are perfect places to lounge during the day’s heat.
The Best Way to Play Tourist
If you feel like your Dubai vacation would be shortchanged by not visiting the major tourist attractions like the Burj Khalifa, there are some tips for getting the best bang for your buck. If you’re planning to go up the Burj Khalifa, buy tickets well in advance of your trip. Booking tickets online can save you a serious amount of money as tickets purchased on the spot cost 75 per cent more. It’s worth planning ahead to carving out a specific time to summit this 830-metre tower and save a few dollars in the process. It’s also worth noting that the Burj Khalifa is impressive to see even if you don’t want to climb the tower due to fear of heights or cost. The base of the tower features dazzling fountain shows, and merely gazing up at the tower is enough to overwhelm you with awe.
Other famous sites like the Dubai Mall are free to enter, so don’t avoid the spectacle of this shopping mecca, even if you have no intention of spending money there. For more affordable goods and souvenirs, head to the traditional souks around Dubai Creek to engage in some good old-fashioned bartering, or the Karama shopping district where you can find affordable souvenirs and imitation goods of almost every brand you can imagine. You can bargain for deals at most stores you visit, just be sure to be reasonable in your haggling and don’t try to get goods at prices way below their worth. Settling for around halfway between the salesperson’s initial price and your initial counter offer is reasonable.
Food and Drink
Of course, no Dubai vacation would be complete without enjoying its robust restaurant and nightclub culture. While it’s important to keep in mind that most restaurants and bars for locals do not serve alcohol so as to respect Muslim custom, hotel bars and clubs in the tourist districts do cater to foreigners and are your best bets on finding a stiff drink in town.
To save on food, avoid the ritzy restaurants around the marina and eat like the locals do. Befitting its international nature, Dubai offers good food from all over the world, but there are specific cuisines that the city does better than others. As there are many Indian and Pakistani day labourers in Dubai, the city is a haven for delicious and affordable Indian and Pakistani bites. Head to Al Dhiyafah Road to feast on Indian, Pakistani, Lebanese, and Iranian food like the locals do, buying affordable meals from small, traditional vendors who line the street.
As for drinks, it’s hard to find cheap options in the city. For female travellers, the best bet is to hit up the many bars and clubs that offer Ladies’ Nights, where women drink free. These usually occur on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.
Dubai might be best equipped to accommodate the wealthy and powerful, but that doesn’t mean budget-conscious Globetrotters should avoid this booming international centre. With some smart planning, an understanding of the city’s infrastructure, and a willingness to do as the locals do, you can enjoy Dubai’s splendour without breaking the bank.