Dubai may have a reputation as a luxury destination – and we didn’t do anything to dispel that myth by staying at a swish villa on The Palm, did we? – yet it doesn’t have to be an expensive place to visit. Here’s our guide to Dubai on a Budget.
It’s easy to experience a life of luxury in Dubai with its abundance of opulent hotels, sumptuous shopping malls, and posh fine dining restaurants. However, it’s also not that hard to experience Dubai on a budget, if you know how.
Dubai on a Budget – How to Experience Dubai on the Cheap
Book an airport transfer ahead of time
You’ll save loads of money by booking this US$15 airport transfer ahead of time. Unless you’re staying near the airport, you’re going to pay a lot more.
Check into affordable accommodation
Dubai’s reputation as a luxury destination was built on its lavish five start hotels and resorts, however, the city-emirate boasts plenty of budget accommodation too.
When we first moved to the UAE in 1998, before we shifted to Dubai, we were living in Abu Dhabi and used to visit Dubai for weekends. In those days we continued to travel as we always had up until then, as backpackers, and stayed in Dubai’s dodgy budget hotels in the gritty Gold Souq area in Deira.
These days there’s a far wider choice of cheap and cheerful 2-stars, including the ubiquitous global budget brands like the Ibis and Holiday Inn Express, which are each in a number of locations, and start at around AED220 or UK£39 / US$60. Dubai also has a youth hostel, however, this caters more for young Arab students, youth groups and sporting teams rather than backpackers.
We prefer to settle into one of the many serviced apartments targeted at business travellers, which for the same price as an Ibis or Holiday Inn Express, will get you 3- or 4-star facilities, more space, a kitchen and living area, and sometimes a swimming pool, which the budget hotels don’t have.
Use Dubai’s cheap and plentiful public transport
The sleek Dubai metro service is a delight to use. Click through to the link for metro maps and information on how to buy the metro pass. Buses are even cheaper and run frequently while taxis are also affordable and plentiful.
You can rent a car for as little as UK£20/US$30 a day, yet negotiating Dubai’s traffic can be stressful for those unaccustomed to driving in the Middle East.
A ride from one side of Dubai Creek to the other on an abra (wooden water taxi, pictured above) costs just AED1 or UK£0.17.
Do a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour
Travellers in Dubai on a budget will save a lot of money on transport and get to see a lot of sights (Burj Kahlifa, Jumeirah Beach Park, Al Fahidi Fort, Dubai Creek, etc) on a 24-hour or 48-hour Big Bus Dubai Hop-on Hop-off Tour. The ticket also includes heaps of additional benefits and free admissions to museums, a free dhow cruise, a free Dubai walking tour, a Wafi shopping mall discount card, among other great deals.
Get cultured: Dubai museums are free or cheap
For travellers experiencing Dubai on a budget, the city’s cultural sights will be a high priority. Dubai has some engaging museums that offer a fascinating insight into the pre-oil days. Most museums are either free or cost as little as AED1 or UK£0.17.
Dubai Museum in Al Fahidi Fort, near the Bur Dubai waterfront, should be your first point of call. The museum provides a quick introduction to Dubai’s rapid development through a multimedia presentation, exhibitions of antique firearms, musical instruments, costumes, and jewellery, kitsch life-size dioramas, and a compact but compelling archaeological section.
Across Dubai Creek, the splendid Heritage House, a restored pearling master’s residence, and the adjoining Al Ahmadiya School, Dubai’s first school, near the Gold Souq in Deira, are also worth a visit.
Explore the historical Bastakiya or Al Fahidi Neighbourhood
On the waterfront near Dubai Museum, the lovely labyrinthine Al Bastakiya quarter is worth a wander. Dubai’s oldest quarter, it was settled by Persian merchants from the Bastak area, in what is now southern Iran, in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Recently renamed the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, the compact area boasts narrow lanes lined with traditional Persian courtyard houses with splendid windtowers which were beautifully restored in the 1990s.
The quarter is now home to atmospheric boutique hotels, excellent art galleries such as Majlis Gallery and XVA, and cafes such as the lovely Arabian Tea House (formerly Basta Art Cafe), where a thirst-quenching, freshly sqeezed mint and lime juice drink in the leafy courtyard is a treat.
Stroll Dubai Creek and Dhow Wharves for free
A saunter along Dubai’s action-packed Creek, from the Bastikya, where you can take in stunning views of the striking Deira skyline from Al Seef Road Park, to Bur Dubai souq, where you can browse the bustling textile market, is a must.
From there you can continue your amble along Dubai Creek to Shindagha, the oldest part of Dubai, and home to the Heritage and Diving Village, a recreation of the early fishing and pearling village, and Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum’s House, dating to 1894, one of several grand old residences lining the waterfront. Once the home of Dubai’s ruling family, it has fascinating exhibits of old black and white photographs. (See my walking tour here on National Geographic Traveler’s website).
You can then backtrack to the abra dock and take one of the little wooden boats across to Deira where you can mosey along the Dhow Wharves, checking out the extraordinary array of stuff the sailors load onto the old dhow boats – everything from kitchen sinks to cars!
See our guide to experiencing the real Dubai and our Old Dubai walking tour for more details.
Eat affordable street food at modest eateries
If you’re doing Dubai on a budget you definitely need to skip the hotel restaurants in favour of street food and simple street-side dining in the down-to-earth Arabic, Iranian, Indian, and Iraqi neighbourhood eateries that line the streets of Bur Dubai and Deira. They are liveliest in the evenings and many have alfresco seating – lovely at this time of year.
Dubai is home to several ‘eat streets’ including Al Dhiyafah Road, Satwa, and Al Riqqa Road and Al Muteena Road, a bit further afield on the Deira side of the Creek. At any of the fluoro-lit restaurants here a family of four can feast on an array of dishes and fresh juices for as little as AED100 (UK£17).
At Kan Zaman, an alfresco Arabic eatery adjoining the Heritage and Diving Village at Shindagha, you can snack on a few mezze and a mango juice, followed by a fragrant sheesha (narghile/hubbly bubbly) for AED60 (or UK£10), and take in the enchanting Creek views for free.
See our guide to Dubai street food and the eat streets and neighbourhoods where you’ll find it or if you’d like some guidance, book this excellent Dubai street food tour that provides a great introduction to eating in Dubai on a budget.
If you’re in Dubai on a stopover, see our guide to doing a Dubai Layover Like a Local, the first in a series of new guides and a taster for our soon to launch website.
BOOK AFFORDABLE DUBAI TOURS AND ACTIVITIES
UPDATED: September 2017
Disclaimer: some of the links in our Dubai on a Budget guide take you through to Get Your Guide where you can book tours. Any bookings you make earn us small commissions which go to support the work we do on this site.