Everybody has heard about Dubai: the beautiful, glamorous, ultra-modern oasis of luxury in the middle east.
With a 7-Star Hotel on a man-made island, an ice-skating rink inside one mall and a ski slope inside another, and the tallest building in the world – many of my friends have expressed dreams of exploring Dubai, but assume it must cost a fortune.
Luckily, however, that is not the case! In my first official travel blog post, I present to you:
DUBAI FOR THE LOW: Insider Tips to Stay and Play for Less Than You Thought
Getting there in the first place will likely be the most expensive part, due to sheer distance from the USA. There are still some awesome flight deals out there just waiting to be found, but we’ll address that in a different post entirely. For this article, we are focusing on where you can stay and how you can play all around Dubai – assuming you’re already on the ground – without spending a ton of money.
The first time I went to Dubai, I had no idea where anything was. I flew in to DJ a party called “Massive Urban Fridays,” then spent the following week exploring like a true tourist. Since that first clumsy attempt at sightseeing, though, I have been back to Dubai many times and have gotten my movements down to a science.
1. BOOK A HOTEL IN DEIRA
The parts of Dubai that everybody raves about are also, as you can imagine, the most expensive. To stay downtown or in Jumeirah Beach, for example, will cost you a pretty penny. But there’s a neighborhood called Deira, which is not only convenient for getting around – but also much cheaper. The savvy traveler that enjoys exploring and doesn’t demand luxury will find Deira to be the perfect niche.
Deira is closer to the airport than most of the other areas, and you can actually reach it by taking the Metro train directly from Terminals 1 & 3 when you land. Obviously, depending which hotel you book, you’ll need to look at the map online and figure out which train stop is closest to where you are going. But Deira, and “Bur Dubai” as well, are loosely based around the Union, Al Rigga, and BurJuman metro stations. Even if you choose to take a cab instead of the train, that ride will do far less damage to your wallet than to other parts of town.
In another separate post, I am providing recommendations for hotels based on personal experience. But even if you don’t take my suggestions, you can find a wide variety of decent hotels for well under $100 a night in this area.
2. USE THE DUBAI METRO SYSTEM
As I mentioned above, you can take the Metro most places you’ll want to go, including to and from the airport. Uber works in Dubai if you need it, and regular taxis are everywhere – however, the metro is a STEAL! If you can get where you want to go by train – do it! The Metro system is incredibly organized, orderly, and clean – and also pretty easy to figure out. Despite being super crowded at certain hours of the day, it’s generally your best bet to get all over Dubai for the low-low!
Based on which stop you are getting off at, the price can vary slightly – to travel within “one zone,” it’s less than $2. Even to go through further zones or on a round-trip, it’s generally still less than $5. You don’t even have to bother figuring out which zone you’re traveling through – you just walk up to the information booth, tell them which stop you’re getting off at, and they sell you the proper ticket accordingly.
3. RESERVE YOUR HOTEL ONLINE
As a rule of thumb, from experience, booking your hotel ahead of time online will save you money. Even if it’s literally the day before you need to check in, simply having it done online from a hotel booking website should provide you with a more preferable rate. While in some cities and countries you can find the best deals by being on the ground and walking into a place with cash – in Dubai, generally speaking, that isn’t the case.
All the hotels I’ve stayed at and reviewed for the sake of this travel blog seem to have higher rates if you waltz in the front door and ask to take a room for the night, compared to waltzing in with a confirmed reservation in hand. You can use whichever website you like best to make your booking – but merely doing it online at all usually shelters you from the higher walk-in rates that are posted on their reception desk wall.
4. EAT LOCAL FOOD
Part of visiting Dubai, or any city in the world, is tasting the local cuisine. Not only will it be part of your experience, but it will also save you some major bucks! “Shawarma” is a quick (and delicious) go-to food, reminiscent of a gyro or a pita wrap. And you can generally find them for under 10 AED (about $3 USD).
As an example: on my most recent trip (which actually kicked off this blog), I had some shawarma, zataar, and a couple sodas from some random place with my friend DJ Frogie; and it cost us about $5 each. It was quick and tasted great. On a different day during the same exact trip, I took a beautiful Ugandan lady (who will remain nameless) to the Cheesecake Factory in Mall of the Emirates for Valentine’s Day lunch… and the bill was almost $60.
I’m not complaining about the price – it was a great meal! But this is just to show you the difference between eating at name-brand restaurants that look familiar to you, versus eating some local stuff and keeping it light. You didn’t come all the way to Dubai to eat at name-brand American restaurants anyway – go indulge in the shawarma, habibi!
As a compromise, you can also find fast food places like Subway, KFC, etc which are priced on-par with what you’d expect at home. It may not be quite as cheap as the local joints, but a combo of chicken wings and fries will still get you through lunch if you’re not feeling quite as adventurous on any given day.
5. DON’T BUY SHOTS OF HENNESSY AT THE CLUB
From hilarious but financially tragic personal experience, avoid buying rounds of Henny for you and all your friends when you go out to party. You will learn, as did I, that liquor is VERY expensive at Dubai nightclubs and it’s NOT the way to go if you’re trying to enjoy Dubai for the low-low.
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t go party – or even that you shouldn’t take shots of Henny! But, if you want to avoid paying over $100 USD for three shots of it – heed my advice before you step into any bar or club, regardless how low-key or high-profile it might seem. Alcohol is priced at a premium – you can expect to pay $15 for a bottle of beer at most of these places, much less some top-shelf mixed drink at $30-and-up. Even at what we could call a “dive bar,” drinks are expensive. That’s just the way it is.
How do you mitigate this alcohol-spending risk? It’s a simple formula that my friends and I have perfected, through trial and error. On your flight TO Dubai – either at its origin in the USA, or even on arrival in DXB airport – buy whatever bottle(s) of alcohol that you intend to drink during your trip from Duty-Free. Liquor is not sold at stores in Dubai, so buying something at the corner store an hour before you decide to go dancing is not an option in the UAE. You need to bring enough drank, from the beginning, to last you through the entire trip.
The good news is, they have a Duty-Free AFTER immigration within Dubai’s airport, so you don’t need to buy it before you take off. You can go shopping at Duty-Free in DXB and buy it after you land. But once you leave the airport and clear customs, that’s it – you better have what you want already. Again, if you have a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees – make use of it at Duty-Free! You’ll get a slightly better rate if you pay in Dirhams instead of US dollars.
After you’ve secured your bottles of choice from Duty-Free, pack them up and bring them along to your hotel within your luggage. Before you set foot into any club, just pre-game in your hotel room so that by the time you reach the party – you won’t need to spend your life savings on some cognac. Now you can buy a drink to toast with and sip on, even a few rounds if you want to keep the vibe going – but you aren’t relying on it for the purpose of achieving intoxication.