This is the story, er guide, of 2 college friends from Houston, TX that decided to take a 5-day trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai together. Read on for details of how we found inexpensive flight tickets, things to do, and helpful tips on how to get around.
Overall, Dubai is a very safe city. So many expats and travelers from all over come to Dubai for work and play alike. The language was never an issue for us; the majority of folks you’ll encounter will speak both Arabic and English. The city offers a varied cuisine, most especially in the area of Old Dubai. In the more contemporary areas, they have an overwhelming amount of popular American joints that you already have at home, but there are also lots and lots of middle eastern food spots to try too.
Keep on the lookout for great flight deals. Scoring cheaper flights really helped with budgeting for a trip like this from the beginning. Theflightdeal.com offered a fare alert on Christmas Day last year to Abu Dhabi from DFW. I was able to book on Orbitz (my friend used Priceline) with a stopover in Frankfurt, Germany for $378 – roundtrip and all taxes included! At that price, I didn’t care if we had to sit with the cargo. But you have to be really fast on the draw because fares like that go insanely quick!
Just a note if you are traveling on Etihad airlines. I must say, they are awesome! The food in Economy was actually fantastic (no plasticware!), plugs/USB connections available at your seat, and the in-flight entertainment was great. If you are flying into Abu Dhabi first, Etihad offers a complimentary shuttle to Dubai if you reserve up to 24 hours before your flight. It’s a 75-minute ride on a clean bus with free bottled water, mints, and onboard entertainment. It takes you to the Etihad Travel mall, which is within an easy walking distance from the ‘Noor Bank’ Metro station. (More on the Metro later.)
If you do have time to visit Abu Dhabi, the Sheikh Zayed mosque is a MUST SEE. We planned most of our trip time to be spent in Dubai, but since we were flying into the capital of the UAE we dedicated our first morning to visit the ‘Grand Mosque’. Not only is it the most expensive, one of the world’s largest, and only one of two mosques in the entire UAE that is open to non-Muslims, it’s absolutely exquisite!
Visitors are welcome to take as many pictures as they’d like, but respectful dress and manner is strictly enforced. I tried to take a shot of my friend putting a little sass in her hips while holding her arms up in a ‘V’, but a guard kindly told us not to take any “action” pictures in front of the mosque. Also, ladies, make sure that you are dressed appropriately when you are on the grounds. A long dress or pants is recommended, and definitely a shirt that covers the “girls” and your shoulders well. Be sure to bring your own scarf with you to cover your head too if you’d like to wear your own clothes. If you aren’t completely compliant, it’s definitely okay. We didn’t bring our own scarves, so we were given an ‘abaya’ to wear; a loose robe or overgarment that covers the entire body with the exception of your face, hands, and feet. Just be ready to hand over your ID in exchange for it. Also know that you will be taking off your shoes when you walk the interior area, so sandals or easy flats are a good idea.
I would highly recommend starting your visit early to avoid the crowds and the heat. The mosque opens at 9 am most days with the first free guided tour of the day beginning at 10 am. Admission into the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is completely free!
People come from all over to be thrown around the sand in a jeep and pose with a camel. Do yourself and your travel buddies a favor and book a Desert Safari. We met folks from various parts of India, Russia, Australia, Germany and of course a few locals that were getting in on the experience too. Believe it or not, one of the easiest methods of booking a safari tour on the cheap is Groupon. The itinerary usually includes a meal, a crazy ride over the dunes, a camel ride, henna, an area to try on traditional clothing, and live belly dancing. There are several companies to choose from, so be sure to read the fine print and check Tripadvisor.com to do a little comparison shopping. The company we selected picked up and dropped us off at our hotel afterwards, so it definitely made transportation a non-issue for us. Although the weather in mid-March was rather mild, we chose a sunset tour to avoid the heat of the day and to take the best photos.
Got Camel milk? While you are in Dubai, why not treat yourself to a ‘Camelccino’ or ‘Camellatte’? At The Majlis Dubai cafe, located on the ground floor of Dubai Mall in the middle of the ‘souk’ (a bazaar or outdoor market) you can order a variety of coffees with the camel milk added. Camel milk is extremely high in iron, vitamin C and low lactose. Unlike the tang of goat milk, camel is extremely similar in taste to cow milk. It’s very mild and smooth with a slight aftertaste. Although we only tried the chocolate camel milkshake (which was absolutely delightful) and a cold glass of plain camel milk, they also offer camel milk muffins, ice cream, chocolates and more!
Also, lots of people pose and take pics with the camel statues in front of the cafe area, so be prepared to ask a stranger for a quick shot or get your selfie-stick ready. I brought a couple of boxes of camel milk praline chocolates home as gifts for my close friends and my parents, which they really enjoyed!
Cross the Old Dubai creek by ‘abra’ + visit the souks! Abras are little wooden boats that ferry passengers from one side of the creek to the other, are incredibly frequent, and will only cost you 1 Dirham (approximately 27 cents)! It is a short 5-minute ride, but it’s really the most convenient and charming way to take in the city’s history by floating between Deira and Bur Dubai.
Walking the souks are so much fun, but be aware of aggressive sellers everywhere trying to get you to see/buy their wares! Everything from belly-dancing costumes and pashminas in any color/design to Louis Vuitton knockoffs is available for sale, but don’t accept the first price you get. HAGGLE BEFORE YOU BUY ANYTHING!
Visit the only completed World Island of Lebanon. This cluster of artificial islands was developed to make an approximate map of the world, but the project hasn’t been touched much since 2006. My travel buddy found yet another deal on Groupon that lets you hang out on one of the islands! The $95 included boat transport to and from the mainland, an included meal, a select adult beverage, kayak rental, and a chance to kick back on the private island of Lebanon while looking back at the Dubai skyline. Honestly, it’s an experience that could be passed up since it’s just hanging out on a relatively sparse island amongst other nearby mounds of sand on the water, but I’d imagine the top-down helicopter view would be pretty interesting though. If nothing else it was an excuse to do some sunbathing and posing on a unique part of history.
The Burj Al Arab, the world’s “7-star hotel”, is a beautiful architectural feat standing on a man-made island and designed to look like a sail. This is also the 3rd tallest hotel in the world. The interior of the hotel has grand gold columns, unbelievable floor tiles, solid Swarovski crystal doorways, and other extravagant eye-fulls (see video for views inside). Unless you are a guest at or have a dining appointment at 1 of the 9 restaurants in the hotel, you aren’t even permitted on the premises. We booked an afternoon tea online at the Junsui restaurant several weeks prior. It consisted of 7 light courses, your choice of two teas and an amazing view for about $112 per person. Oh, it’s expensive, but the experience is amazing! Not to mention the wifi connection is FLAWLESS.
If a visit inside the Burj Al Arab hotel doesn’t sound the least bit interesting to you budget-wise, be sure to get an almost equally incredible (and complimentary) view from Jumierah Beach.
How to get around and where to stay.
Limit your Taxi use. Honestly the first two days we relied on taxis to get everywhere, which got expensive rather quickly. Not to mention the traffic was terrible most of the time. It wasn’t until day three that we actually wised up and realized how extremely easy it was to just use the Metro. It is so much more efficient and the facilities were so clean! We usually paid for a daily pass from the automated kiosk so we could hop on and off of the train as much as we pleased for about 22 AED (approximately 6 USD). The kiosks accepted both Dirhams and credit/debit cards.
Just a quick note for the male travelers on the Metro. Watch for some signs that designate zones for women and children only. Sure, we saw plenty of men sitting/standing in these zones too, but an official randomly came on one of the stops and fined at least 10 guys 100 Dirham each (approximately 27 USD) for breaking the rule. They were all escorted off at that stop too. Just be sure to read all the signs, well, everywhere! You can also be fined 100 dh for eating or drinking, and there is no gum-chewing allowed on the train either. Smoking is prohibited too of course (200 dh penalty).
If you choose to stay in the more contemporary areas of Dubai, I definitely recommend staying in a hotel close by a Metro station. We stayed at City Max hotel (Al Barsha) which couldn’t have been more perfect. For 4 nights my travel partner and I split a room with double beds about $180 each total for a place in walking distance from Emirates Mall, which is connected to a Metro station.
City Max hotel has free wifi in the rooms, they offered a sign-up sheet for (free) shuttle times to and from Jumeirah Beach, has a gym, and rooftop pool. The downstairs area included a small cafe, restaurant with buffet, a small night club on one side, and a small sports bar on the other with the lobby area in the middle. A taxi was always available if we needed and an ATM is located near the entry. Not to mention the hotel staff were very accommodating!
Here’s a link to a downloadable Dubai metro route map to keep handy on your phone or another portable device.
Extra things recommended to bring with you:
- A travel adapter with a USB and two outlet spaces. I ordered the OREI 3 in 1 UK travel adapter plug with USB and Surge Protection, type G (in the USA we use types A & B). City Max hotel did have at least one adaptable outlet available in the rooms already for our use, but it was great to have at our 1-night hotel stay in Abu Dhabi (which didn’t) and while waiting for the airport shuttle in the Etihad travel mall. Besides, trying to find an available plug in an airport can serve as a challenge since everyone needs to power-up their devices at the same time. We only needed to use a single plug to charge 3 different devices, thus avoiding being that typical charging station jerk taking up multiple outlets.
- Speaking of recharging devices, I also purchased the Anker 2nd generation lipstick-sized portable battery charger for my iPhone. Most of our time was spent outside of the hotel room, so it was super handy to have an option for a back-up charge on the go. It charges up to 150% (or a total 1.5 times on a single charge).
- The final addition to my packing was this pocket guidebook to Dubai. This small guidebook was an easy flip-through on the plane ride with details on Abu Dhabi as well. The included full-color pull-out map came in extra handy when we got a little turned around trying to locate some areas in Old Dubai. I mean, yeah you could get the Kindle version for like a $1 less, but you miss out on the map and it’s actually convenient to have at least one tool in your travel bag that doesn’t rely on a battery.
If I had another 5 days, this would definitely be on my list to do & see.
Abu Dhabi –
- Taking the monorail to Palm Jumeirah man-made islands (separate from Metro rail line)
- Indoor skiing in the Emirates Mall
- Going up to the 124th-floor observation deck in the Burj Khalifa (currently the world’s tallest building)
- Taking advantage of Ladies nights on Tues/Wed
- The (FREE) fountain show outside of the Dubai Mall
- Visit the Dubai Museum (in the city’s oldest building) in Old Dubai
- FRIDAY BRUNCH on Palm Island. This was apparently recommended by our friends/co-workers, buuuuuut we never made it. Sad face.
Lastly, 7 minutes of your life that you will never get back.
If you’re interested to see a bit more, here’s a collection of randoms and candids from our trip that I (lightly) edited for my youtube channel.