Doing More With Less: Dubai on a Budget

Dubai on a budget - abra boats crossing Dubai Creek (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

A must-do in Dubai is crossing Dubai Creek in an abra, preferably at sunset. It costs just pennies. (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Changing people’s perceptions about travel to the Middle East can be a full-time job. No matter what anyone says, there will still be plenty who think that Dubai, the UAE (United Arab Emirates,) and pretty much the entire Middle East is unsafe for travelers.

Beyond safety issues, there is also the belief that Dubai only caters to wealthy globetrotters and people who like to shop, so if you are on a budget you should avoid the place.

Not true!

Here is how I spent my time and money there….

There Are Moderately-Priced Hotels in Dubai

I booked the Ibis Dubai Deira City Centre across the road from the Deira City Centre mall. Ibis is a two-star chain with France’s Accor Hotels – they’re similar to a Days Inn in the U.S. – but I’ve found them to be very well-kept and tremendously affordable. I paid around US$70/night for my room in Dubai.

Dubai on a budget; here's a standard double room at the Ibis Dubai Deira City Centre hotel (photo courtesy Accor Hotels)

Sample double room in the Ibis Dubai Deira City Centre hotel – exactly what mine was like. (photo courtesy Accor Hotels)

It had a good location, basic but clean room (“does what it says on the tin,”) a very generous and plentiful free breakfast with lots of variety, free WiFi, and easy access to the Metro subway system that runs all around town.

Dubai on a budget - Breakfast at Ibis Hotel Dubai Deira City Centre (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Choices from many cultures and cuisines at the free Ibis Dubai Deira City Centre hotel breakfast (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

There are plenty of other chain hotel options if you’re searching for something familiar; just look for ones that are near a Metro station so that you can get around.

Make sure you have current information, as new places are opening all the time. For example, while I was in Dubai, I visited with my friend Grace Gomez-Fujimaki who writes the Sandier Pastures blog; we met at a new hotel she was reviewing, the Hyatt Place Baniyas Square, which is very close to a Green Line station.

There are Airbnb options all over Dubai as well.

There is Still Local Emirati Culture to Explore, Including Food

This is particularly true in the older (Deira or Bur Dubai) side of the city. That includes food, if you know where to look.

I considered taking a Dubai food tour with the local expats (correction thanks to Lara Dunston’s comment below – the tour founders are from Dubai) who write the “I Live in a Frying Pan” blog, but they weren’t available during my time in the country.

There is a list on the Visit Dubai website of where to eat Emirati food, including an Emirati breakfast or lunch in the older Al Fahidi part of town, at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.

Another local favorite is through vaulted doors into the Al Fanar restaurant for Emirati cuisine; I enjoyed a delicious meal there with Grace and her family. It is located inside a small shopping mall, with handy underground parking, and I saw bus stops nearby, too. The restaurant interior is full of historic photos, traditional decor, and an outdoor seating area with woven barasti huts over the tables. It was too hot to eat out there in September, but Grace says it’s perfect in cooler months.

Dubai on a budget - traditional Emirati cuisine at Al Fanar restaurant (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Traditional Emirati cuisine at Al Fanar restaurant in Dubai (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The menu had plenty of photos and descriptions; choices included entrees like Machboos Samak or Deyay (fish or chicken simmered in stock and spices, served over yellow rice) and for dessert we had Leqaimat, a sort of donut, served with fresh dates.

Dubai on a budget - leqaimat dessert at Al Fanar restaurant Emirati cuisine (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Leqaimat dessert at Al Fanar restaurant, featuring Emirati cuisine in Dubai (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

At one point, I overheard Grace talking to one of the waitresses; at first I assumed it was in Arabic, but when I asked, I learned that they were speaking Tagalog. Grace is originally from the Philippines, and she explained that many of the waitstaff were also Filipina, although with their traditional hijab and clothing I would not have known it at first glance.

I also ate a lot of meals at malls, which are, yes, a center of social life for many in Dubai. Mercifully air-conditioned for the heat and high humidity, they really come alive at night.

The extraordinary variety of expats living in the UAE means a lot of different kinds of mall restaurants, but I always ate at the mall food courts because there were so many choices, it was affordable, they’re open late, and the people-watching was hard to beat. One of my best meals was a curry and lassi from an Indian food stall, and it was cheap, too.

Yes, you can get alcohol at plenty of local bars, pubs, and restaurants; Tuesday and Wednesday are huge for Ladies Night free or low-price drink offers all over Dubai. Friday is when everyone goes for an extravagant brunch, if you want to splurge.

Local Transportation Makes it Easy to Get Around

The joke is that the only ones who don’t use Dubai’s extensive Metro are the Emirati citizens themselves; some say that they think it is “beneath them” to use public transportation. I’m not clued-in enough to the local scene to know if that’s true, but I used the system a lot and liked it.

Dubai on a budget - take the bus! A lot of bus stops are air-conditioned like this one.

Air-conditioned bus stop in Dubai; not an extravagance in that heat (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

It’s simple to get around via the Metro rail, or the bus system (complete with air-conditioned bus stops in many areas.) Keep in mind that it usually shuts down around midnight, and does not run on Friday mornings.

Budget Dubai - buy your Nol Card ticket and learn some local history in the RTA Dubai Metro (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Buy your Nol Card ticket and learn some local history from wall plaques and photos in this RTA Dubai Metro station (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Uber is available in Dubai, and taxis are relatively cheap and plentiful if you can’t get there any other way.

Budget Dubai - A female-only car for women on the Dubai Metro (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

A female-only car for women on the Dubai Metro (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

You can purchase a “Gold Class” ticket for the subway for not that much more than standard adult fare, but other than plusher seats, I didn’t see anything that justified buying one. The women-only subway cars allow for UAE cultural sensibilities, but I never felt uncomfortable or unsafe in regular cars.

As you can see from the above photo, women are not required to wear a head scarf in Dubai. I saw women in shorts, and I worried unnecessarily about covering my shoulders; there were plenty of bare ones. As with any cultural issues related to clothing, lean toward a conservative approach and you can’t go wrong.

There’s one more type of transportation that you must try….

Dubai on a budget - Grace from Sandier Pastures and Sheila take a wooden abra boat across Dubai Creek (photo by Grace Gomez-Fujimaki)

Grace from Sandier Pastures and post author Sheila take an abra across Dubai Creek (photo by Grace Gomez-Fujimaki)

It was a highlight of my trip to cross Dubai Creek with Grace in a traditional wooden abra boat. Our sunset timing for the five-minute ride meant lovely views but big crowds; really, though, it’s the best time to experience a crossing.

The cost is about 1 dirham, which is a steal considering that this is the “real deal,” not the 75 dirham ride in a sanitized reproduction boat that is offered elsewhere in town.

Shopping and Sightseeing

I like to shop but my life does not revolve around it, which is probably true for many people.

You can certainly wander the malls, and there are plenty of things to see there – aquariums! – that are way beyond shops, as I shared in an earlier post, Postcards from Dubai.

Dubai on a budget - window gaze about how to bling out your hijab at a shop in the Deira City Centre mall in Dubai (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Bling out your hijab – a shop in the Deira City Centre mall in Dubai (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

There are still traditional Gold and Spice Souks in Dubai, with winding alleyways, tiny stores, and assertive shopkeepers who are ready to haggle.

It's free to wander the souks - Spice Souk offerings in old Dubai (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Spice Souk offerings in old Dubai (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The traditional Heritage Village in the city’s Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood is full of shops and restaurants, with shopping opportunities that won’t break the bank.

Items for sale in Heritage Village in the Al Fahidi neighborhood, Dubai (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Items for sale in Heritage Village in the Al Fahidi neighborhood, Dubai (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Don’t miss a chance to duck through scrolled wooden doors to find yourself in a pretty little courtyard like the one below, part of the XVA Gallery, Cafe, and Hotel.

One of three shaded courtyards in the XVA art gallery, hotel, and cafe complex inside Heritage Village, Al Fahidi neighborhood, Dubai (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

One of three shaded courtyards in the XVA art gallery, hotel, and cafe complex inside Heritage Village, Al Fahidi neighborhood, Dubai (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The Village can feel a bit “canned” and perfect, since restoration and building was completed in 1997, but ironically it was part of the inspiration for the design of an even more “perfect” shopping area, the Madinat Jumeirah over in the newer side of town, close to the Gulf.

It’s an attractive shopping arcade, well-designed, and worth a visit if for no other reason than to capture a scenic shot of the Burj Al Arab mixed in with traditional windtower architecture.

The view is free - Burj Al Arab hotel seen from a prime spot in Souk Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai (photo by Grace Gomez-Fujimaki)

My view of the Burj Al Arab hotel from a prime spot in Souk Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai (photo by Grace Gomez-Fujimaki)

I was lucky to have a local like Grace to point me in the right direction (there were a lot of Facebook messages going back and forth between us) but if you are looking for resources, take a look at Time Out Dubai for listings of what’s on in town. This post about how to experience the real Dubai, from Grantourismo, was very helpful as I planned my visit.

No doubt I’ll be back in Dubai someday, and there will be some over-the-top building to see or new attraction to experience, but now I know that a visit there can still be quite affordable if I ignore the more expensive touristy baubles.

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