Considering it wasn’t even on the map 40 years ago, the UAE is a pretty incredible place. An oasis in the middle of the desert, a playground for the super wealthy, a massive melting pot of nationalities and culture. It’s also notoriously expensive to visit, and often those on a backpackers budget would simply wait out their stopover in the airport and jet off ASAP. Not ones to back down in the face of a challenge, we decided to see if we could include the UAE in an itinerary without breaking the bank! Like most places, we discovered Dubai and Abu Dhabi on a shoestring budget is entirely possible with a little bit of work and planning. We cooked all our own meals, researched all the best free activities in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, utilized public transport, Uber and car hire everywhere, and really felt we were still able to make the most of it
Stay – Diera City Centre (close to airport, metro and supermarkets without the massive price tag!)
Eat – We suggest cooking for yourself if possible (we had a mini kitchenette in our apartment), and treating yourself to some street food
Do – Jumeirah Beach, Burj Khalifa & Fountain Show, The Palm, Dubai Museum, Gold Souk, Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Ferrari World, People Watching & Window Shopping
There are actually a lot of fun, cheap activities in Dubai. In fact, we paid a total of $1.15NZD for entry into attractions across the whole week. We purchased a metro card for $0.70NZD and loaded it with 5 daily passes at $7.80NZD each – so we could go anywhere on the Metro, Tram and Bus networks from Midnight – Midnight, every day. The metro stations are all modern, clean and safe (there are carriages for women only, and the option to upgrade to a gold class ticket too), most bus stops have shelters which are air conditioned and the services across the network are very regular. The free/cheap activities we recommend most in Dubai are below and are all accessible through the public transport system;
Jumeirah beach, a public beach with no entry fee and a fabulous view of the Burj Al Arab. A fantastic photo opportunity to say the least
Dubai Mall, there are lots of surprises in here including a waterfall and aquarium. You can see plenty of the aquarium without actually paying to go in. Don’t forget to look up at the ceiling, down at the floor and inside all the glitzy stores. Mall of Emirates is also a great one to visit and see the indoor ski slope!
Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the whole world is obviously not to be missed. You can pay the extortionate entry fee to go up it and get a pretty good view over the city… OR, you can walk around the fountain and gardens at the bottom and appreciate the ginormity and beauty of the building from the ground (for free!). If you go between 6 and 10pm there is a choreographed fountain and light show every 30 minutes too – also free
Atlantis the Palm is another must see. You’ll have to pay a small fee to use the monorail (not included in the daily metro pass), which gives you a birdseye view over the water park and palm itself. There is also a great skyline view back over the city. Ride to the end, take a stroll along the water front and snap a selfie in front of the infamous Atlantis Hotel – all this without having to pay any entrance fees!
Dubai Museum can be found in the old city and is a fantastic place to visit for some history and insight into the rapid development of the UAE over the last 40 odd years. It’s set in an old fort and is much bigger than it looks from the outside! Allow yourself a couple of hours to read through the whole thing. This is where you’ll pay whopping (but not really) $1.15NZD for entry. From here, you can catch a traditional style boat across Dubai Creek to…
The Gold Souk, A real treat in the midst of a towering city. Best to visit here in the evening time when it is a little quieter. You can literally get lost in the winding streets of the souk, mesmerized by all the glitters and shimmers in the windows. Although it is free to visit here, it could end up being an expensive trip, depending on your self control!
People watching a classic free activity, and always enjoyable. Sit yourself in the shade, take a moment to drink some water and just watch everything that is unfolding around you
There are also some great free attractions in nearby Abu Dhabi. We found the flexibility and ease of car hire suited us best for this little day trip – 24 hours hire and GPS came to $60NZD. The most notable stop in Abu Dhabi is Sheikh Zayed Mosque or “The Grand Mosque”. Hands down the most beautiful religious building we’ve ever seen. A towering structure of white marble with English and Indian inspired decoration. Entry is free, and they will provide the appropriate clothing for coverage if you don’t already meet the requirements. Time your visit just right and you’ll be able to take one of the two free tours that run each day (in English). This is the best way to learn all about the mosque, and also gives you access to areas other visitors can’t get to – which means better picture spots and no crowds! While you’re out that way, head over to Yas Mall (on Yas Island) and have a look at Ferrari World. It connects directly to the mall, so you can see the high speed roller coasters in operation, snap a photo in the entrance way and check out the merchandise for nothing more than the price of an ice cream (which is optional, but highly recommended). If the budget allows, we would also recommend booking a visit to the Falcon Hospital
You can also save big bucks by visiting the UAE in summer, it’s low season for tourism (because it is really really really hot!), so there are lots of deals on accommodation. Stay away from the Marina area; although it’s very central, the public transport in Dubai is great, so you can afford to stay away without too much inconvenience. We would recommend staying in the Deira city centre area to get the most bang for your buck. We called this j5 Hotel home for our 5 day trip, they were offering a heavily discounted price for the off-season and we could not have picked it any better. It’s a 3 star hotel, but feels like absolute luxury. The service was second to none, the room was huge and included a kitchenette (a great way to save money on food!), daily housekeeping and free bottled water each morning. Within 5 minutes walk from the front door was Deira City Mall which has a big supermarket and is also a stop on the all important Metro line. The metro will take you anywhere you need to go – one way to the new city with its epic skyscrapers, one way to the old city with it’s winding Souks
We have lots of other budget friendly break ideas too!