Along with Singapore, Tokyo, London, and New York City, Dubai is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Attracting tourists for the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, among other things, and having possibly the largest percentage of expats when compared with the Emirati Nationals (~85%), this coastal city surrounded by desert was seemingly built as a refuge for those unconcerned with spending thousands on incoming airfare, hotels, and meals in five-star restaurants. Nevertheless, there are a few ways to pass through Dubai on your way to SE Asia or Africa without taking out a loan.
1. Free airport shuttles
This should be your approach in every tourist destination to cut down on costs, but unlike in many other cities, where public transportation and even taxis may be reasonable options, they’re less forgiving in Dubai. Though you might be able to get a taxi from the airport to your hotel for under 100 AED (~35 USD), the traffic on Sheikh Zayed may make you question your sanity. The metro, while cheap by many standards (5 AED from the airport to the Marina), can still leave you with a bit of a walk in the 40+ C heat with heavy bags. Though any hotel that offers a shuttle bus is likely to be on the expensive side, this service not only saves you a lot of walking in the airport after a long flight, but two taxi rides. In addition, if you find flying into Abu Dhabi cheaper, many airlines offer free shuttle service from the airport to major hubs in Dubai.
2. There are actually hostels.
There are a lot of contradictions in Dubai: a dry country that only allows alcohol to be sold at certain venues; a conservative culture that has a popular beach where expats and locals are free to soak in the sun without a burqa. In addition, unlike the UAE’s neighbors where the religious police enforces laws (sometimes brutally) concerning how men and women come into contact with each other, Dubai does have laws against unmarried couples cohabitating, but it often ignores them in the case of foreign tourists staying in hotels. There are only a few cheap (under 50 USD) hostels in Dubai where both men and women are allowed to stay together. Even so, visitors should be advised not to overtly advertise the fact they’re unmarried and sleeping in the same room.
3. Spice souk
There are many attractions in Dubai that require an exorbitant entrance fee before you even get to do anything. However, one area that remains free, open, and popular with everyone — some for shopping, some for sightseeing — is the Old Souk in Al Ras. Spices, shisha, and fragrances greet every visitor, but this is hardly the only place one can see. The Dhow Wharfage, where ships are still unloaded by hand, is quite a site and worthy of a few Instagram shots. Other markets are all within walking distance if you want to buy a fake Rolex or see how you look in a dishdasha.
4. Eat and shop where the workers eat and shop.
The people responsible for building nearly everything in Dubai live in cramped apartments, get paid at wages that don’t allow them to experience what they create (and they’re more likely to send this money to their home country), and work in some of the most extreme heat this planet can create. If you don’t see them at least once during your trip to the UAE, you’ve most likely been avoiding the outdoors at all costs… which is understandable.
Do you think these workers, mostly from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, go into the Dubai Mall when they need a snack, blowing a week’s worth of wages at Magnolia Bakery? Hardly. There are areas of the city many tourists and foreign residents never see, or choose not to see, with shops and restaurants at prices they can afford. Indian food with naan bigger and crispier than you’d get at a high-price place at JBR. T-shirts for a dollar or two, rather than the 20-40 you’d spend for one after skydiving over the beach. Even if you don’t want to spend, eat, or shop in these areas, they’re worth seeing to open your eyes to the areas of Dubai that aren’t covered in marble and air-conditioned.
5. Visit a mosque.
Dubai may have come to be famous for its Las Vegas-like atmosphere and the Burj Khalifa, but at its core, it’s still a city in a conservative Islamic country. As a result, mosques for daily prayer are ubiquitous. Some of the bigger ones like the Jumeirah Mosque offer tours to visitors for 20 AED, which includes entry, tea, and a snack, while the Grand Mosque is free from 9am-10pm. Granted, provided you’re respectful and have adhered to the dress code (usually required in public anyway), all mosques are open to those willing to pray… just be careful not to act like a stereotypical tourist galavanting into a small mosque in the middle of one of the official prayer times.