Dubai is probably the most expensive and least backpacking-friendly country I have ever been to. Accommodation, food, alcohol and any sort of activity always turn out to be very expensive. On top of this, public transportation is quite limited, therefore on occasions, you are forced to take a taxi.
Besides that, whereas in other expensive cities (such as London or New York), you can always find a cheaper alternative and free events, in Dubai it seems that only the expensive choice is available. For any kind of social event, you always end up paying an exorbitant amount.
And why is that? In Dubai, people have money. All these events are exclusively organized for expats and these expats, are willing to pay whatever is needed in order to enjoy a couple of beers and have fun. They don’t care because they can afford it.
Yeah, traveling in Dubai on a budget is not easy. This is not a coincidence. Sheikh Mohamed has a very clear objective, which is for Dubai to become the number one destination in the world for luxury tourism. However, whereas it’s true that, in order to enjoy the fancy Dubai, you need to spend a lot of money, there are loads of free activities and ways to save money. I lived in Dubai for over two years and, as the budget traveler I am, I was always trying to have fun at the minimum cost.
How to travel in Dubai on a budget
Top free (or almost free) activities to do in Dubai
One of the few things you can do in Dubai to experience the authentic Emirati culture. Camels can run very fast and attending a race is frankly impressive. These races usually take place on Fridays from 6am to 8am, but only from November to March. Where? In the Dubai Camel Racing Club. If you wanna make sure of the timings (they are not reliable), just call this number: +97148326526.
Deira Gold Souq
Wandering around the Gold Souq and seeing (and laughing at) dozens of tourists posing for a picture in front of the store window containing the biggest ring in the world is an attraction by itself.
Hindu temple (Shiva and Krishna Mandir)
Although Dubai has a huge Hindu population, Shiva and Krishna Mandir is the only Hindu temple in the city. The best time to visit it is on Fridays around noon, when all the Hindus go there to bring offerings to their gods. It’s located at the heart of Bastakiya, the old part of Dubai.
My favorite one. On Friday afternoons, Indians and Pakistanis meet and go to see street wrestling, a typical sport from the Indian subcontinent. Where? Around Deira Fish market.
Crossing the Creek on a boat
For no more than one dirham, you can cross the Creek that divides Deira and Bur Dubai on an abra, a traditional Arab boat.
Horse racing in Meydan
The national sport and also Sheik Mohamed’s favorite. It’s completely free. It takes place on Thursdays at 7pm, from November to March. A spectacle is guaranteed, and not only because of the horses, but also because of all the different types of people who come and gather. For more information, check out the official website.
The bottom of Burj Khalifa
What? Observing the Burj Khalifa from the bottom is free, right? Besides, the fountain show takes place every half hour from 6pm on, every day of the year.
Walking around Souq Madinat
A traditional Arab souq from the 21st century and built in a fancy Dubai style. There are fountains containing giant turtles and you get to see fantastic views of the Burj Al-Arab.
Bur Dubai museum
For only 3 dirhams, the museum gives you a great summary of the UAE’s history, from before the black gold times. It also gives you a glimpse of future innovative city projects.
Wandering around Al Bastakiya
Bastakiya is the old part of the city, which was destroyed during the 80s to build an office complex. However, thanks to a preservation campaign, the project was stopped and the houses restored. Nowadays, traditional Arab Gulf buildings and homes stand along its streets.
Deira fish market
If you like walking around markets, Deira fish market is, without a doubt, the most authentic one in the city. And it’s not only interesting to visit, but also sells the cheapest fish in town.
Dubai Marina and its skyscrapers
Dubai is about skyscrapers and the good thing is that they are impressive and free to see. The marina is around 8km long, with fancy yachts moored all along the waterfront. On each side of the marina, there is a mosque (just one has been built so far) which is also worth seeing.
The walk and beach at Jumeirah Beach Residence
By the beach, the area next to Dubai Marina is called Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR). It’s sort of a promenade trying to imitate the one in Santa Monica. There are camels, the beach, clean toilets and free wifi. What else do you need?
Keep reading: Dubai and Abu Dhabi in four days
Useful things for the free events
The Entertainer is an endless series of discounts for hundreds of restaurants, bars and all sorts of activities, which all expats have. Most of the discounts are 2 for 1. It’s available in book format (500AED) and for mobile as well (450AED). It is valid for one year so, as it’s quite expensive, if you are planning to stay in Dubai for just a couple of days, it’s not worth it. However, if you do plan to stay longer and you have friends to share the cost with, then go for it.
The alternative to Entertainer. In Dubai, Groupon is a big deal and offers very interesting promotions. It’s also quite popular among residents.
Eating cheaply in Dubai
In Dubai, the price of a meal varies significantly among restaurants across the city. One day, you may eat an amazing and filling Vietnamese soup for only $5, and the next day you can end up eating a shitty sandwich and pay more than $30. What do you need to avoid?
If you really want to travel in Dubai on a budget, forget about eating in hotels and restaurants where they serve alcohol. They can charge you double just because you can order a beer along with your meal. At the average night pub, a burger can easily cost you around 90AED ($25). If on top of this you also order a beer, then you’ll end up paying a minimum of $35 for a crappy dinner. So, how to save money on food?
Mall food courts
I know. They don’t serve the best food ever, but many stalls offer reasonably good meals for as little as 25AED. Food is very varied, from Italian, to Lebanese, Indian and Oriental.
The best quality-price restaurants
Outside of hotels, JBR and downtown, there are plenty of high-quality restaurants offering good quality meals for only 50-60 AED. Dubai is a city composed of hundreds of thousands of expatriates from all parts of the world. That means there are also hundreds of restaurants with all types of authentic cuisine. In this post, I have written a list of the best (and cheapest) international restaurants where the expats go.
Cook at home
If your accommodation has a kitchen, I suggest you buy groceries in the supermarket and cook at home. LULU Hypermarket is the one with the lowest prices. Apart from groceries, they also sell ready to eat meals cheaply. There’s a LULU in All Barsha, right next to Mall of the Emirates. Other LULUs are in Bur Dubai or Deira. Carrefour is the alternative to LULU. Prices are slightly higher, but the range is larger. There is a huge Carrefour inside Mall of the Emirates.
As I mentioned before, by buying The Entertainer you get important discounts on food.
Alcohol: How to save money
Dubai is a very conservative, Muslim country, therefore alcohol taxes are fairly high. On average, you pay 40AED ($12) for a pint of beer in most normal bar. Yes, getting drunk in this city is expensive, and getting wasted even more. How to save money on alcohol?
Download Guzzle App
Guzzle is a mobile application which provides 2 for 1 offers on beverages in a large number of restaurants. You can download and use the app for free. They also offer a premium version, which merely gives you a higher number of discounts
Get the best out of the happy hour
Most of the bars in Dubai push for happy hour from Sunday to Thursday, from 5pm to 8pm. Some of the bars offering good deals are Tribeca (Ocean View Hotel), Barasti (Westin Hotel) and Garden 7 (Media One Hotel).
Buy alcohol at the airport
It seems pretty obvious but the truth is that, in Dubai, you can’t buy alcohol unless you are a resident and have an alcohol license. As soon as you land, go to the airport duty-free, and stock-up on alcohol.
Trip to Barracuda
If you run out of duty-free alcohol, only 60km from Dubai, there’s a liquor store named Barracuda where you can buy alcohol without a license. The downside is that you can only get there by car. If you are renting one, great. Otherwise, remember to buy enough at the airport. How to get there? It’s located in the Emirate called Ajman. Google maps finds it as Barracuda Wine Shop, Ajman.
Go for a Brunch
If you didn’t buy alcohol at the airport, you don’t have a car to go to Barracuda and your objective is to get wasted, I definitely recommend you go for a brunch. What’s going for a brunch? For many expats, Friday brunch is sort of a ritual. It consists of all you can drink and eat from 12 noon to 4 pm. There’s no alcohol limit. Prices range from 150AED to 800AED. The Entertainer offers 2 for 1 on many of them. If you don’t have it, some of the cheapest and most popular brunches are Pizza Express (Movenpick, JLT) and Double Deckers (Al Murooj Rotana, Downtown).
If you are a girl, then this might be your lucky day, because loads of bars give away drinks to all girls. Tuesdays is the most popular day for Ladies night. The most famous one is China Grill (Westin Hotel). Girls have open bar all night long. For free. Promise.
Accommodation: Where is it cheaper to sleep
Land prices in Dubai have massively increased over the past few years. Nowadays, it seems that this has stabilized, however, prices are almost equal to those in Tokyo and London.
Expensive areas where you SHOULD NOT look for accommodation
Marina, Jumeirah Beach Residence, Jumeirah Lake Towers, The Palm Jumeirah, Downtown and Business Bay are areas with plenty of ridiculously expensive hotels. Again, if your objective is to save money, forget about sleeping in these places.
Without a doubt, Al Karama, Deira and Bur Dubai are the areas where you find the cheapest hostels. The only disadvantage is that this part of the city is far from where the expats live and hang out. There are a few bars, but they are not cool at all. However, these are nice spots if you wish to explore the old part of Dubai and little India.
- Backpackers Hostel – The only proper hostel is in Al Karama. Given the location and that it’s a hostel, it’s not cheap, but you won’t find anything cheaper. Dorms start AT 90AED ($24).
- Moon Valley Hotel apartments Located in Bur Dubai, this is one of the cheapest. Rooms start from 135AED ($37).
Mid range zone
One neighborhood, which may not be very attractive in itself, but is convenient due to being it’s close to many attractions, is Al Barsha. Here you can find hotel apartments and, if you have someone to share them with, it might end up being a pretty good deal.
- Avaris Hotel Apartment is where my family stayed once, and the truth is that they were quite happy with it. It has a kitchen, a washing machine, a double room and bed-sofa. Rooms start AT 200AED ($54).
The Couchsurfing community in Dubai is pretty active and finding a couch to surf is feasible. Besides, there’s a Couchsurfing meet-up every Tuesday at 8 pm where members gather to have some beers. The meetup point is at the Italian Coffee Shop, Hotel Crown Plaza (Downtown)
There are loads of Airbnb offers. Check out the different prices in the areas I recommended you.
Transport: How to optimize the cost
If you were to ever ask me what’s the thing I hate most about Dubai, I would say that it’s a city built to move around in exclusively by car. It’s a vast city with a very low population density. Distances are huge. The area of the city is a perfect 40×40 kms square and there’s only one metro line that goes through it in a straight line. The bus system is not convenient at all. If you can’t reach a place by metro, you need to go by car.
The cheapest option. Don’t buy single tickets. Ask for a NOL card at the counter. It costs 20AED, but it comes with 15AED of extra credit. A short trip costs 3AED, whereas the longest one costs 8AED.
The metro is convenient only if you go to the main touristic sites: Marina, Burj Khalifa, Deira or Bur Dubai. If you wish to go anywhere which isn’t close to the metro, I recommend you get as close as possible by metro and take a taxi from there.
Renting a car
Honestly, if you are traveling with other people, you should hire a car 100%. Gas is cheap (around 2AED per liter) and outside of Dubai there’s loads of interesting things to do which are accessible only by car. Diamond Lease offers very competitive prices.
The public bus is not convenient at all, except for one line: the line number 8. It goes parallel to the metro from Marina to Bur Dubai but by the sea. It passes by interesting places such as Souq Madinat, Burj Al-Arab and Kite Beach.
Following my advice, how much will cost you traveling to Dubai?
Assuming that you travel by yourself and therefore you don’t rent a car and stay at the backpacker hostel in Deira:
AVERAGE PRICE PER DAY
Accommodation: Budget room: 90AED
Food: Breakfast at home + Lunch at the mall (Entertainer 2×1) + Dinner at an Indian restaurant (Entertainer 2×1): 10 + 15 + 25 = 50AED
Beers: 2 happy hour + 2 beers at home = 40 + 10 = 50AED
Transport: 4 metro trips + round trip taxi to go to see the horse races: 20 + 40 = 60AED
Activities: Only free stuff
Miscellaneous = Water + snacks + tooth paste + shampoo: = 25AED
Total price = 90 + 50 + 50 + 60 + 25 = 275 AED = $75 a day
For further budget tips, check out this article from my fellow travel blogger Eternal Arrival: 101 simple ways to save money for travel