Dubai seems like an expensive city to travel in and therefore doesn’t appeal to many budget travelers. The city has grown exponentially in the last few decades and is home to the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest man-made structure, the Princess Tower, the world’s second tallest residential tower, the Dubai Mall, the world’s biggest mall, and the World Islands, an archipelago of islands shaped like the world map and some of the fanciest hotels in the world.
The glamorous image of the city often makes budget-conscious travelers ask if it’s really possible to travel to Dubai on a budget. After all, it’s not an easy decision to make whether or not to visit when the cost of a Dubai trip that lasts a week can sustain your travels elsewhere for a month.
While it’s undeniable that a trip to the city will leave a substantial mark on your travel budget, there are quite a few ways to save money while visiting Dubai on a budget. For one, there are a whole bunch of cheap and free things to do in Dubai.
Here are some tips on budget travel in Dubai and how to be a successful penny-pinching frugal traveler in the city. You might also be interested in my posts about what to wear in Dubai, best romantic hotels in Dubai, and the most interesting Dubai day trips.
Join my Dubai Travel Planning Group on Facebook where you’ll find plenty of free resources, practical information and insider tips about cool restaurants, best cafes in Dubai, instagrammable spots, attractions and things to do in and around Dubai.
Budget Travel Tips for Dubai
Get Around by Metro or Bus
Many first-time visitors to the city don’t realize how much taking a taxi to get around Dubai can affect their travel budgets. If you want to save on transportation that can slowly add up and throw your Dubai travel budget off track, then a little smart trip planning goes a long way. While choosing your hotel, try to pick something that’s close to a Metro station as the Metro is one of the most budget-friendly ways to travel in Dubai.
In fact, the metro is also the cheapest way to travel from Dubai Airport to the city center.
Taxis in Dubai are expensive over long distances compared to other forms of public transport. In the last 5 years, the public transport system has greatly improved and there are plenty of options now to get from point A to B. The Metro, Tram, Buses and Water taxis are significantly cheaper and connect far-flung locations very well. The system is well developed with all information and directions clearly displayed in English at all terminals. There are day passes for the Metro where you pay a certain fixed amount and take the Metro as many times as you like in the day.
If you’re in old Dubai and want to go from Bur Dubai to Deira, traditional dhow boats, locally known as Abras take you across the creek for as low as AED 1.00, a price that’s hard to beat!
photo credit: petjam
Find Affordable Accommodation
Dubai is home to accommodation across a wide range of budgets to suit every pocket, so don’t get discouraged by photos of the fanciest and most exclusive hotels that you think might be beyond your means. Plan in advance, take some time and do your research to find the most affordable hotels in Dubai, and also consider hotel apartments that can sometimes be much cheaper. You might find my guide to where to stay in Dubai useful.
Generally, hotels in the older parts of the city such as Al Mankhool, Bur Dubai and Deira can be cheaper than those in areas such as Dubai Marina. To be close to the Metro, look at hotel apartments on Sheikh Zayed Road or close to one of the metro stations in Deira or Bur Dubai and to be close to new Dubai, consider hotels in Al Barsha, TECOM and Jumeirah Lakes Towers (JLT).
Eat on the Cheap
Almost every kind of cuisine is available in Dubai because the city is home to people from all over the world. Whether it’s good old Fish-n-Chips you’re craving for, or an authentic wood-fired thin crust Margarita pizza, it’s all available here. But remember these dishes come with price tags to match. If you want to keep your meal costs low, consider Lebanese, Indian or Chinese.
Lebanese food is quintessentially Middle Eastern, relatively cheap and it’s simply delicious. Some popular dishes to try are the mezze (appetizers) such as the world-famous Hummus, Moutabbal & Baba Ghanouj, salads like Tabouleh & Fattoush, mains such as Lamb kebabs, Shish Tawook (marinated chicken cubed and grilled on skewers) & Mandi (made of rice, meat, pine nuts & a mixture of spices).
Popular street food such as Shawarma (grilled and shredded lamb or chicken wrap with tahini sauce and garlic), Falafel (deep-fried balls made of mashed chickpeas and lentils served wrapped in Arabic bread) and Manakeesh (dough topped with cheese, herbs or meat and baked) will be appreciated by your pocket just as much as they will be by your tastebuds.
Indian and Chinese restaurants, especially in Bur Dubai, Karama and Deira are also cheap and have a wide variety of dishes to choose from, but be sure to specify how spicy you want your food to be. Karama is home to many of these and you can even try Indian street food such as Chaat, Dosas and Pav bhaji in some restaurants.
Free or Cheap Entertainment
Dubai is in the midst of a creative wave and young artists from the Middle East are keen to showcase their talent to the art and culture-loving people of the city. There are many community-driven initiatives that have resulted in a number of free events being held in the city from time to time.
The Dubomedy School of Arts often hosts top-notch stand-up comedy events with free or minimal entry charges across various venues in Dubai.
Sikka Dubai is an arts festival that is held over ten days in March across a few venues such as the historic Bastakiya district in Al Fahidi and Madinat Jumeirah. It’s free to enter and hosts interactive art displays, movie and documentary screenings, open air musical concerts and dance performances.
The Global Village is a shopping event that attracts talented artists, singers and street performers from all over the world who perform during the festival in various venues within the premises. Entry to the festival grounds costs AED 15 and there are no additional charges to watch the shows. There are plenty of free and cheap events and live shows held in Dubai throughout the year and all information is easily available online.
Photo credit: Natasha Amar
If you’d like to stay on top of your fitness while in Dubai, there are plenty of fun activities that you can do for free, especially from October-February when fitness enthusiasts team up and head outdoors.
The city has some great running tracks for enthusiasts such as along the Jumeirah beach, and at the Al Safa and Zabeel parks. You can also attend free yoga classes by Friends of Yoga, a voluntary not-for-profit that holds classes led by trained instructors across various venues every day.
photo credit: enfad
Unlike many countries where prices of groceries are fixed across various chains and supermarkets, this is not the case in Dubai. Shopping at bigger supermarkets such as Waitrose and Spinneys can mean paying a few Dirhams extra for most items.
Instead, shop at small grocery stores to take advantage of lower prices, discounted prices for many items, cheaper (and sometimes also admittedly lower quality) fruits and vegetables. If you prefer to cook your own food when traveling to Dubai to save costs, then this is a helpful tip to remember.
photo credit: rick
If you get laundry done at your hotel, then be prepared to pay more than double what you would pay to a local laundry service. If you’re staying in Dubai for long, it can be helpful to know that the laundry stores in areas such as Bur Dubai and Karama are significantly cheaper than in areas such as Dubai Marina or Jumeirah Beach Residence and can bring down your laundry bills by as much as 50%.
If you’re traveling to Dubai with a significant other, your family or friends, the Entertainer Dubai Voucher books can be a smart choice. Depending on what kind of activity you’re most interested in, you could buy one or more voucher books. These offer buy-one-get-one-free deals on visits to major tourist attractions such as Wild Wadi Water Park, Desert Safari, activities such as bowling and go-karting, fine dining and casual restaurants, cafés, pubs and bars, and even complimentary nights at hotels.
These are good value for money because you recover the cost of the books and save a lot of money even if you just visit 2-3 restaurants and a couple of attractions. The minimal advance planning you need to do to ensure that vouchers will be valid on the day of your visit is a small effort versus the considerable savings on your budget trip to Dubai.
You can also look for deals on dining out, massages and spa treatments and attractions on sites such as Groupon and Cobone. These discounts are available on activities ranging from a fishing or snorkeling trip to a day trip to Musandam just outside of Dubai.
photo credit: Tara Angkor Hotel
Be a Thrifty Shopper
Dubai is a shopper’s paradise and your shopaholism will be put to the test. However, if you’d really like to limit your spending, then there are a few things to keep in mind. If you plan on going souvenir shopping in Dubai, don’t waste your money on things you don’t need. Here’s what to buy in Dubai as a souvenir or gift.
Head to Outlet Mall to buy branded clothing, suits, footwear and bags at substantially reduced prices. You can also shop from the other malls such as Deira City Center or Dubai Mall when the stores have discounts. Discounts can be as high as 70% so it’s definitely a good time to shop.
If brands don’t matter to you, then there are a number of stores in Bur Dubai, Karama and the markets in Deira where you can buy everything from evening gowns, purses and footwear to spices, crockery and dates at cheap prices. Bargaining is acceptable and you’ll need to brush up on your haggling skills. These markets are also a good place to buy souvenirs and gifts such as dates or Arabic sweets such as Baklava for friends and family back home.
photo credit: Infomastern
For general information to help you plan your trip to the UAE or Dubai in particular and recommendations for off-the-beaten-path day trips from Dubai, culture in Abu Dhabi, cool hotels, or popular places of interest such as the Dubai Miracle Garden and At The Top Burj Khalifa, check out my UAE Travel Blog.
Have you visited Dubai? What would you add to this list?