When you hear Dubai you immediately think of the extravagant resorts, expensive cars and luxury. So on the surface its not really a backpackers paradise.
Well good news is you don’t have to sell a kidney to have a good time! If you have more than a couple of hours, better a few days, you can easily explore. Here’s some ideas, tips and things to do so you can visit Dubai on a realistic backpacking budget
Surprisingly, between the exclusive hotels and resorts there is a (slowly) growing hostel scene in Dubai, you will be able to find somewhere.
In a good hostel, on average a bed in dorm room will start around £15/$21 and go up to £25/$35 – after that there seems to be a larger price hike. If you’re on a really tight budget you could check out Couch Surfing, here are a couple of good ones.
Dubai is a large city and the transport system is really good, so do check out how close accommodation is to transport rather than what attractions are immediately near.
Walking! Of course walking is the cheapest option and I highly recommend as you can stumble upon random markets and places to eat, however do look at how far away something actually is before you commit; it can take a lot longer to walk than first appears; I’d take a nice air conditioned bus over walking a couple of hours in the blazing sun it’ll keep your energy levels a little higher and that sunburn away.
For public transport you’ll want a RTA Silver Nol card, AED 25 loaded with 19 to use it on any transport, these are travel cards that you just load up and tap on and off much like an Oyster card in London; a ride starts from 70p/$1 going up with distance and zones. It’s cheaper and often faster than taxis. Buses are also easy to catch and they aren’t much slower than a taxi in reality, but remember they are still cheaper. Nol cards also work for trams and the monorail.
Taxis are easier but more expensive. Also be mindful that if you do cross into another Emirate there’s a AED 25 (£5/$7) toll to pay on top. They are still fairly backpacker friendly for price, but public transport is still cheaper. DON’T get a taxi outside of the airport, they are very expensive and the metro is right there!
Last but not least is a rental car, cost varies for car/driver reasons, they do offer a lot of freedom if you want to travel further afield, but unless there is a group of you and you’re happy to face the traffic – I’m talking 8 lanes, fast cars, insane drivers, traffic jams, awkward signage. Then go for it, I’ll pray for you. If not, just get a bus, there is one for all major attractions.
So you’ve now decided, hey Dubai looks possible, but what can you actually do? There are lots of tours, lots of very expensive guided tours and activities. Great if you can, but you can do a lot of them a lot cheaper by yourself.
All you need for these are transport…
A beautiful place to chill out is Jumeirah Public Beach is completely free, the views of the Burj Al Arab are gorgeous, sand is lovely and soft, sunbathe, relax, swim in the water and my personal favourite is watching the sun set, easy to get to just walk from the metro or grab a bus. Ladies, you can wear bikinis here.
In the heart of Old Dubai are the Gold and Spice Souks which are the two big markets that you can easily spend hours in! The smell of the spices laid out is intoxicating and the opulence of the never-ending gold shops seems insane. There are many more smaller souks across the city to wander around in too! If you are going to buy anything, remember to haggle there either won’t be a label or they’ll start higher, expecting to go lower. You can visit any time of day, but in the evening they really come alive!
Why not walk for free on The Palm, the biggest man made sand island, in all honesty it’s pretty much a residential area with some resorts thrown in, however it is pretty awesome and you can access it via the monorail.
Soak up the sights and sounds of The Creek, there is a lot going on in the area and just taking a few minutes, another moment it’s fantastic to be there, grab a drink and relax close by.
Go across to Dubai Mall for the worlds largest Water and Lights Show you can see it in the day but I would say it’s more impressive at night. Really easy to access via the mall the Burj Khalifa is lit up and there is a show is definitely something worth seeing. 1pm + 1:30pm in the afternoon then every half and hour from 6pm – 11pm in the evening.
Well what can I say but there are A LOT of shopping malls, you might not want to spend anything but they’re air conditioned and most have free wifi if you need. There are amazing some features like the Waterfall in Dubai Mall and Ski Dubai in Mall Of The Emirates, there’s over 50 and many have awesome things to see! It’s worth to see the, architecture and features but at the end of the day – it’s still just a mall, most shops you’ll be familiar with.
Activities that won’t break the bank….
Abra Across The River: AED 1 (20p/25cent)
There are different ways getting across the river either metro, bridge or boat. First two are pretty boring. Have an experience and hit the water! I was approached a couple of times about ‘private boats’ that not only felt shady but were around AED40 (£8/$11approx), water taxis are less but the best and cheapest is to take an Abra it cost just AED 1, its just a boat with a bench on it and people pile on but it’s worth just a ride never mind to get across the river, super easy to get to or from the Gold and Spice Souk.
Dubai Museum/Al Fahidi Fort: AED 3 (60p/80cent)
Located in the oldest existing building in Dubai, the museum is in the fort and it depicts the history of the Emirate, it’s well worth taking the time out to visit, especially as there is a lot in that area. The museum isn’t huge but there is plenty to look at and explore, at AED 3 it’s a steal, long opening hours so you can have some flexibility.
Grand Jumeirah Mosque Tour: AED 20 (£4/$5.50)
This tour is open to anyone of any faith, the admission price includes the tour, Q&A and traditional pastries, dates, Arabic coffee and tea as well as water. The tour is really informative and in depth, going through the process of worship, Islam and letting you in the mosque. It starts at 10:00am (get there for 9:45am and slightly earlier for breakfast) it runs 6 days a week Saturday – Thursday and I don’t think you could find a tour like this at a better price. #OpenDoorsOpenMinds
Miracle gardens/Butterfly Gardens: Combi Ticket AED 50 (£10/$13.50)
The Parks are right next to each other and you can easily get a bus from the Mall Of The Emirates. Looking for a ticket online just brings up a lot of expensive tours, however just go to the ticket desk at one and ask for a combi ticket, that way you can save. I definitely think they are well worth going to and give yourself a couple of hours, the paths and displays in the Miracle Gardens seem to never end.
Desert safari: Around AED 100 (£20/$27)
So this is the most expensive activity that I would recommend for a budget conscious backpacker in regards to what you actually get, it lasts for several hours. It can vary in cost and activities – I booked through my hostel and it was AED100, so that’s what I’m going to include below, there are tones of them so just have a search.
It started in the afternoon with a bus ride from Dubai to a desert where some 4X4’s pick you up and take you dune bashing to a fort. There are a whole host of tables and majlis surrounding a stage in the middle covered in carpets, camels to ride, henna, dinner – with a starter, buffet main and water, falcons, dunes to watch the sunset, ours had 4 different performers with shisha and other drinks costing a little extra. The whole experience was nearly 6 hours including travelling and definitely worth it.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. So I know this isn’t in Dubai but if you’re going all the way to the UAE and have time, it really is a must! It won’t cost you anything to get in and you can borrow appropriate attire if needed. It is beautiful, the most beautiful building I have ever been to, you walk around the designated areas, there can be lots of people, but don’t worry as when you’re actually in, it’s so large that it doesn’t feel busy. You can easily get a bus to Abu Dhabi from Dubai and FYI it’s also insanely instagramable. Worth every bit of effort to get there.
What To Eat
I don’t have a list of specific restaurants or eateries for you here, there are plenty of articles out that review restaurants to suit every taste.
The best cheap and tasty places are local restaurants and eateries with incredible tasting food often less than AED 25 (£5/$7) for a main meal. Mutton, beef, chicken, vegetables, rice, sauces, breads – note they don’t eat pork. Try as much as you can, real falafel is incredible, lots of tasty cooked meats plus amazing Arabic pastries.
I personally fell in love with shawarma, these wraps filled with meat, sauce and salad are fairly large, if you have a big appetite, get two, they often have different meat choices! On average they were around AED 5-8 (£1-2/$1.50-3). Best thing, is they are everywhere!
Essentially it’s ‘go local’ – I know that’s said for a lot of cities, but i feel is important not only for a budget but because of the amazing, cheap, food! It might not have the fancy presentation of a swanky restaurant, but the flavour is what you want!
Enjoy not drinking
Not all backpackers like to party, but some do and in Budapest a, bottle of alright wine or maybe I was already drunk, can be as cheap as £1… Well a pint of beer in Dubai can set you back nearly 10 times that.
As with anywhere there are clubs and bars (all attached to hotels/resorts) and despite alcohol laws there is a rather lively party scene; cocktails, beers, wine, music and more, however they will set you back a pretty penny. There are happy hours that vary, ladies nights and great views to be had from wonderful bars but it’s easy to get carried away so not completely budget backpacker friendly. Save the money and use it on activities, food or to party in your next destination, a beer is still only a beer.
Dubai is accessible to a backpacker on a budget, there are many more activities, tours and shopping that you can splash out on if you wish. These have just been some ideas on how to soak up the city. You can cram in a full day or relax over a couple. OK, so you’re not wining and dining at the top of the Burj Al Arab, but there is a lively and fast paced city, filled with culture that you can get in time with and explore.
If you have any ideas and experiences to help a budget backpacker out in Dubai. Drop them in the comments for others to see!
Here’s Some Popular Spare Change Choices…
Ok, I know I said this was a ‘realistic’ budget backpacking trip, but where ever you go, there are always extra tours and activities which if you realise you can fix in to your budget, then you do go for it, here are a couple!
Skydiving: AED 1700 – 2200 (£335-£435/$460-$600)
For some high octane adventure visit Skydive Dubai the cost depends if you’re doing it over the desert or over The Palm, it is a lot of money, but have you seen the view?
Brunch: Varies AED 180 – 300 (£36-£60/$49-$82) And keep going!!!
The cost can be quite reasonable considering it’s dinner and drinks, but one brunch could cover all other suggested activities. The cheaper ones are often smaller places, less choices and only include limited soft drinks to more expensive ones are larger also including ‘house beverages’ (alcohol). If you are after a bit more of a party and want to splash out. Definitely go for a brunch.
Here’s a list Time Out Dubai did on Bargain Brunches all under AED 300. However if you want greater views, more prestigious locations or bubbly, you’re looking at paying a lot, lot more!
Burj Khalifa: Adult ticket between AED 135 – 525 (£26.50-£103.23/$37-$143)
This is down here because the price can vary drastically… The way it works is there are two different types of ticket; Prime Hours and Non Prime hours – basically the romance of sunset hikes the price up considerably, hours can vary slightly so do double check online. Buying ahead can also guarantee you access when you want it.
On top of the different times there are different floors you can go to, these are the current rates, have a look around as there are often promotions with sunrise and other activities.
At The Top: Levels 124 +125, none prime adult ticket AED 135 – prime AED 210
At The Top Sky: Levels 124 +125 + 148, none prime auldt ticket AED 370 – prime AED 525
Dubai Atlantis Adventure Water Park: Adult ticket AED 275 (£54/$75)
A popular water park with thrilling rides and exciting adventures (with extra costs, see here) as well as the chance to cool off. If you’re not too fussed about the rides remember Jumeirah Public Beach is free!
Ski Dubai: AED 200+ (£39/$54) and up!
Located in The Mall of The Emirates, activities vary from ski/snowboard group discovery lessons for AED 200 upwards. The opportunity to meet penguins, tubing, in door zip line and more. It’s a really interesting concept to see such a vibrant ski slope in the middle of what is essentially a desert. Everything is included equipment wise, even jackets, trousers and socks! Check out all options here!
Hop-On-Hop-Off: Approx starting AED 250 (£49/$68)
There are a variety of companies around that do the standard, hop on, hop off bus tours and if you’re short for time or prefer something more structured then one of these could be for you. They often included a variety of activities and do drop off at landmarks, often available for 1/2/5/7 day tickets.
Enjoy your trip!