Can you really travel on the cheap in Dubai?
A city best known for its glitzy high rises and shopping malls, expensive sports cars and gold leaf tea, is it truly possible to visit Dubai on a budget?
It’s certainly no backpackers paradise when it comes to longer term stays, but if you are passing through Dubai on a shoestring budget, don’t dismiss Dubai as simply a transit stop. Get out of DXB and come explore!
There are plenty of things to see and do for free in Dubai, as well as budget accommodation options and cheaper alternatives from transport to takeaway dinners that may still get you through the city of gold while watching those purse strings.
Getting around Dubai on a budget
Unlike many city’s where the cheapest way of getting around town is on your own two feet, this option really isn’t all that practical in Dubai.
Whilst there are areas around town where you can walk extensively, such as around the Downtown Dubai/Dubai Mall, or around the Dubai Marina and JBR, getting from A to B to see the city’s sites is pretty difficult without some form of transport.
Not to mention for a large portion of the year it’s simply too hot to walk far outside – please believe us!
Public transport systems in Dubai are quite efficient, and the Metro train driverless train system is by far the preferred method we would recommend to most travellers.
If you are only visiting Dubai on a very short stopover, a “Red Ticket” Nol card is what you will need. You can purchase this paper ticket from any Metro station at a cost of 2 AED + whatever your starting fare is. You have the flexibility with Nol Red to only pay the exact amount of the fare you will need and top up each time.
Planning on staying a few days and using the Metro often? Then you will benefit from purchasing a “Silver Card”. The Silver Nol ticket costs 25 AED ($6.80 USD) however includes 19 AED in an “e-purse” and you can keep reloading it. The fare you pay when you have a Nol Card with an e-purse is less than on a Red Ticket – we explain all the different types of Nol cards for tourists here.
Taxies are the most convenient way of getting around in Dubai, door to door and certainly, what we would still recommend if you are laden down with luggage. The minimum flagfall for taxies is now 15 AED ($4 USD) making it quite pricey for short trips around the city though.
Other ways you can save on your Dubai travel budget include taking a traditional dhow or Abra to cross Dubai Creek rather than paying for an expensive cruise, and taking advantage of FREE airport transit buses if you are transferring between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Where to stay in Dubai on a budget
Dubai is a series of compromises when it comes to accommodation, and as any good budget traveller will know, flexibility is key when it comes to grabbing a great accommodation deal.
- Closer to a shopping mall or beach in Dubai, you will pay more.
- Dubai’s older areas, closer to the airport and the border with Sharjah are cheaper than Dubai and the flashier new areas such as JBR and the Palm Jumeirah.
- Try to book accommodation that is well-located to the nearest Metro stop. Especially in summer you really don’t want to walk further than 1km to anywhere.
Backpacker Hostels in Dubai
It may surprise you to know that there ARE backpackers hostels in Dubai, albeit they tend to be split into male and female dormitories only, they are best for solo budget travellers through Dubai. Why not take a look at:
- Dubai Beach Host – making it possible to still enjoy ocean views even in budget digs, you will find this 24 hour managed hostel in the heart of Dubai’s popular JBR beachfront area, moments from the beach and marina. Dormitories are mixed and female, shared bathrooms, free linen, towels and wifi. Check out pricing and availability here.
- Travelers Stay – located in the Barsha Heights (Tecom) area of the city and within easy reach of the Red Line metro, there are male and female-only dorms, as well as mixed rooms. Communal cooking facilities are on site as well as access to an indoor pool and gym. Check out pricing and availability here.
- Bombay Backpackers – another great JBR hostel option with mixed and female-only dorms. There are great communal spaces to enjoy, with free wifi and linen, access to an outdoor pool and 24-hour reception. Check out pricing and availability here.
Just be warned that some hostels in Dubai are, in fact, converted apartments and most likely should NOT be operating as hostels.
Cheap hotels in Dubai
For couples and families, we recommend you try cheap hotels instead of backpackers (most have a no under 18’s rule). There are plentiful cheaper hotels in the older parts of town such as Bur Dubai and Deira, still of an excellent standard relative to the star rating.
Some cheaper hotel rooms also come with the convenience of a small kitchenette to help you further manage costs. We recommend you try:
- Savoy Central Hotel Apartments – In Bur Dubai, this clean and comfortable option comes with kitchen facilities and a fold-out sofa bed, plus access to a rooftop pool, fitness centre and in house restaurant. They offer family and interconnecting studio options, and a beach shuttle bus. Check out pricing and availability here.
- Holiday In Express Dubai Internet City – an attractive and modern option in the Internet City area, you are walking distance to the nearest Metro stop and marina tram. Breakfast is included and there are onsite dining options as well a s a fitness centre (no pool). Check out pricing and availability here.
- Pearl Marina Hotel Apartments – a JBR option for those looking to stay beachside without the hefty resort price tag. You will get kitchenette facilities along with a pool in the heart of the action. Check out pricing and availability here.
A warning on Dubai hotel & hostel prices
Your Dubai budget can slowly whittle away if you don’t take note of one really important thing – the +++.
The what? When you are quoted a hotel price you will almost certainly be given the pricing BEFORE taxes and service charges. And there are a few to be aware of!
- VAT 5%
- Municipality fee 7%
- Property service charge 10%
- “Tourism Dirham Fee” per room, per night 7 – 20 AED (varies depending on the grade of hotel, also called Hotel Tax or City Tax)
You can save on these added hotel costs in Dubai by either self-catering or dining out at restaurants that are not attached to a hotel.
Free and really cheap things to do in Dubai
Whilst on the surface it may appear that everything in Dubai is glamorous and expensive – and a lot is – there are still plenty of activities to fill your days in Dubai on a budget.
Here are just a few suggestions for enjoying Dubai on the cheap:
Experience the Dubai Mall & Burj Khalifa
While it’s costly to head up the Burj Khalifa (and can involve extensive queueing at times), it’s totally free to see it from outside and enjoy the nightly light and sound fountain show that occurs on Burj Lake, Downtown Dubai, outside Dubai Mall.
Timings for the sound and light show are currently 1:00 pm & 1.30 pm, then every 30 minutes between 6:00 pm and midnight.
There are many great restaurants where you can grab a bite in the Dubai Mall and adjacent Souk al Bahar with brilliant views, however on a budget we recommend you grab some takeaway from the food court inside Dubai Mall and set up your own little picnic to enjoy the show.
You can also enjoy an outside view of the spectacular suspended aquarium tank of Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo from within the Dubai Mall, completely free. It costs to go through the underwater tunnel and enjoy up-close encounters, but this is one of the best free aquarium shows you’ll get.
Catch some rays at the beach
Hiring deck chairs or taking camel rides at the beach WILL cost, but most of Dubai’s brilliant beach fronts are completely free to enter.
The most popular is Jumeirah Public Beach (also known as Sunset Beach or Umm Suqeim Beach) famous for its views of the Burj Al Arab, or why not try The Beach in JBR, or the fairly newly open La Mer in Jumeirah 1.
Bathroom and change facilities are free but of course, there are plenty of cafes and vendors along these stretches of beach vying for your attention. Come prepared with towels from your hotel and a picnic lunch or dinner to avoid the temptation to spend more.
There are a few beach parks such as Mamzar where you pay a 5AED per person municipality fee for the upkeep of facilities but come with great park space too for barbequing and picnics.
Explore Old Dubai
Enjoy the historical al Fahidi neighbourhood, the Dubai Museum (3 AED) and take an abra ride (1 AED) over Dubai Creek to Deira “Old Dubai” to see the spice souk and the gold souk, or shop for a bargain in Naif market – plenty of ideas on little trinkets and souvenirs you can pick up in Dubai here.
The newly opened Al Seef area seamlessly blends between old and new Dubai to extend your creek-side stroll. Dining along here is not cheap, but there are plenty of shops to stick your head into and browse for free.
Stroll the Palm Jumeirah Boardwalk
In the cooler months, explore one of the cities newer outdoor spaces.
Take a taxi (avoiding the obscenely expensive Monorail) out to the end of Palm Jumeirah, marvel at the amazing Atlantis the Palm (you can sneak a peek at the start of the giant aquarium, The Lost Chambers, for free) then set out to explore the new boardwalk that curves around 11kms of the outer crescent of the Palm.
How to eat in Dubai on a budget
There are huge discrepancies in what you will pay for food in Dubai. Forget high-end dining but do watch where you’re eating – this alone will put a premium on your food. Restaurants attached to hotels as we mentioned above will draw premium taxes.
In a city full of insta-perfect cafes, it’s easy to forget there are plenty of budget buys and a huge range of international cuisines to choose from.
Try eating at shopping mall food courts. There will be the usual array of internationally known fast-food outlets, but also a great range in cuisines from smaller sellers from Lebanese to Indian and everything in between, influenced by the vast expatriate population of Dubai.
Self-catering will always be the best option to save cash. You can find plenty of small convenience stores in neighbourhoods across the city, as well as larger supermarkets that offer an extensive range of pre-made meal options in takeaway containers.
If you add alcohol to the mix, frankly DO expect to pay through the nose for the privilege. Whilst alcohol is available to tourists and expats, it’s heavily taxed. You can learn more about drinking in Dubai here.
When to Visit Dubai
You will find the cooler winter months of the year, broadly November through to April are the most popular, which also means the busiest and most expensive. Christmas to New Year especially hotel prices rise, and around popular events and school holidays.
The summer months are much hotter – June to September sees consistent day time highs over 40c (104F) – however, these off-peak months also have low occupancy so it can be a great time to bad a bargain.
Before you go… More important things you should know when planning a trip to Dubai
- Pop into our essential planning information page, it includes everything you need to know about getting around Dubai, a handy guide on what to pack and top tips for first-timers on the do’s and don’ts, laws and customs to be aware of.
- Check out this incredible list of 150+ places you should visit when you’re in Dubai.
- Pick up a Dubai Pass to save up to 50% on top Dubai attractions
- Don’t forget to pack your travel insurance!!!
- Discover the best areas to stay in Dubai, or bag a bargain on your accommodation here:
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