Travel Tips for Dubai
I recently returned from Dubai and have the following tips to share.
Airline: We flew non-stop on Emirates from San Francisco to Dubai, roughly a 15-1/2 hour trip. Our flight path took us north over Canada and the North Pole, then south over Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran and into Dubai. The flight was suprisingly comfortable even in the back of the plane. Emirates has hundreds of entertainment channels available at your seat, food is good, and the flight crews professional and pleasant. I'd fly Emirates again without hesitation.
Money: The currency of the United Arab Emirates is the UAE Dirham, abbreviated AED or Dhs in displayed prices. There are 100 fils in 1 dirham. The dirham is pegged to the US dollar at approximately AED 3.7 to US$1. Do not bother exchanging money when leaving the USA. Wait until you arrive in the Dubai airport to exchange money as you’ll get very close to the official rate. The exchange booths (and multilingual ATMs) are available just after exiting customs and are open at all hours. Make sure to get some small bills from the exchange booth. One side of the dirham currency is in Arabic, the other side is in English. Coins are marked in Arabic numerals only. Credit cards are widely accepted; advise your credit card company in advance of your trip that you'll be using the card in the UAE. Some vendors (hotels, restaurants, shops) may ask if you want to be billed in US dollars when using your credit card. This very rarely works in your favor so tell them no thanks. Our credit card doesn't charge a foreign exchange premium and we always told the vendor to put the charge through in dirham.
Language: Arabic is the official language however English is widely understood and is the international language of business in the UAE. Signage throughout the country is frequently bilingual Arabic/English.
Hours: Dubai's weekend is Friday/Saturday. For the Islamic holy day of Friday, check opening hours for malls, museums and attractions (online) before heading out. Major shopping centers open daily at 10:00am and stay open late into the evening. Souks (traditional markets) sometimes close for a few hours in the afternoons between 1:00 and 4:00.
Ramadan: Dubai as well as the rest of the UAE observes the holy Islamic month of Ramadan. Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during this month as well as observe other traditions during this period. This year (2014) it is expected to begin around June 28 and last to July 28. Islamic holidays are based on the lunar calendar and their dates vary from year to year. If your travel plans include a visit during Ramadan then do your research so you understand how it can impact your trip relative to dining out and sightseeing.
Arrival: Dubai’s primary international airport (DXB) is fairly easy to navigate although walking distances can be long depending on your arrival gate. We booked Ahlan’s Meet & Greet Service in advance; an Ahlan representative met us at the gate, escorted us by buggy to Ahlan’s lounge where we freshened up after our 16 hour flight from San Francisco, escorted us through a separate VIP lane at immigration (bypassing long lines), helped us retrieve our baggage, walked us through customs and helped us get a taxi to our hotel. Understand that this is really not necessary as getting around the Dubai airport is really easy, but it is a nice splurge. For the record Dubai recently completed a second international airport (DWC) located way out of town that has limited passenger service but is expected to grow significantly over the next decade. For now DWC is not something you need to be concerned with.
Departure: If you are flying to the USA or Canada make sure you are in the right line at DXB for checking in or dropping off your suitcases as these destinations are treated a bit differently (security) than other destinations. You will clear UAE passport control and security before being released into the terminal to make your way to your departure gate. Exchange your leftover dirham at the airport before departing Dubai.
Taxis: Cheap and metered in Dubai. Flag drop is AED 5 except when leaving the airport where the flag drop is AED 25. The cab fare from the airport to our hotel (Raffles) was about US$25 or so. Tipping is not expected per se although I usually rounded up the fare to the next multiple of five dirham (i.e. for AED 37 fare I’d give the driver AED 40 and tell him to keep the change which was appreciated). This is why you want some small bills when exchanging your money. Drivers understand some English but make sure he knows where your destination before setting out. Women should ride only in the back seat.
Metro/Subway: Clean, safe, convenient and air conditioned. Also the fares are inexpensive. Fares are based on zones & distance; you can buy a daily or weekly pass or single ride tickets. A first class car (plusher seats and less crowded) is available for a premium fare. Fare machines, maps and signage are bilingual Arabic/English. You need your Metro ticket to enter and exit the system. If you underpay your fare (like we did once) go to the manned ticket booth to pay the correct fare along with a small fine in order to exit the system. During rush hour a section of a car near the rear or front of the train is reserved solely for women and children.
Abras: Passenger ferry boats that go between the two sides of Dubai Creek. For one dirham per person this is a fun way to get between Old Dubai (on the Bur Dubai side of the creek) to the Deira side of the creek where the gold and spice souks are locate. Give your dirham coin to the ferry driver upon boarding.
Bus: Can’t speak to them as we used taxis as needed since they are cheap. Many bus stops are air conditioned which is a good thing in this climate.
Rental Car: You could rent a car and drive yourself but with good public transit and cheap taxis it really isn't necessary for most tourists. The city does charge tolls on the superhighways through an automated toll system. It is possible to drive from Dubai to Oman if you have the necessary legal paperwork from your rental car company allowing for taking the car across the border.
Hotels: We stayed three nights at Raffles Dubai (luxury property) which is attached to the Wafi shopping mall and a couple of blocks from the Dubai Healthcare City Metro Station. We also stayed one night at the Hilton Dubai Creek (luxury property) while transiting Dubai on our way home. Many visitors like staying near the beaches in the Dubai Marina area. We preferred the convenience of being closer to the airport and Bur Dubai / Deira districts instead.
Food: Suffice to say you won’t go hungry in Dubai given the wide range of restaurants and cuisines in all price ranges available. Shopping malls have food courts with all the usual suspects along with chains you’ve probably never heard of before.
Water: We drank tap water in Dubai without any issues. Bottled water is easily available.
Clothing: Shorts are really only appropriate here while at the swimming pool or beach.
Public Displays of Affection: Don’t. It is prohibited and can get you in trouble.
People: Dubai is a multicultural city; supposedly there are over 120 nationalities represented in its population. Most of the guest workers hail from India, Pakistan and the Philippines. We were told there are only around 1 million Emiratis in the UAE so they are a minority in their own country.
Safety: The UAE and Dubai are generally safe destinations although petty theft is not unheard of. Summer heat and humidity are brutal here – temperatures can approach 50C (122F). Keep yourself hydrated and use that sunscreen.
Annoyances: Souk merchants and touts can be persistent; just ignore them and keep walking if you are not interested in what they are selling. Always use your best bargaining skills in the souk.
Trivia: The UAE is a federation of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain. The capital of the country is in Abu Dhabi, not Dubai. The country was established on December 2, 1971.
Don’t Miss: The Dubai Museum. A meal or heritage tour with the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding. A desert safari (Arabian Adventures is the well known brand in town; we went with another company Platinum Heritage and while pricey was worth every dirham).