If you haven’t already visited the United Arab Emirates, then you definitely need to plan your trip, or at least consider visiting.
After years of dreaming about visiting the country, I finally got the opportunity in early February, spending 11 nights in Dubai, beginning February 5.
I was quite hesitant about making the trip but as it later turned out, I had nothing to worry about. I ended up having the time of my life, while spending around just $20 (My friends hosted me and I didn’t go shopping because I was trying to save money).
You can also have fun in UAE even on a stringent budget. Here’s my experience and how you can make the most of your visit while keeping your expenses minimal;
NB: I know it sounds impossible but you can actually survive in UAE without money as a visitor, as you can see in Simon Wilson’s vlog series, ‘Dubai With no Money’. Of course it’s an entirely different story if you’re a resident.
UAE Visa from Kenya
Obtaining a visa was expectedly the most difficult part. You can get a visa from the UAE embassy in Kenya, apply online via the Emirates website (only if you have a Fly Dubai or Emirates ticket) or use an agent. The option of the agent is obviously more expensive but in my opinion, the most convenient.
The agent I used generally charges Ksh 10,000 for a 14-day tourist visa but I paid Ksh 13,500 (it costs more for African women below 30 because of the strict requirements). Everyone typically assumes you’re an escort going on business.
The agent was, however, extremely understanding and helpful, getting immigration to waive the $300 security deposit I was to pay and processing my e-visa in just two days. It’s better to print it out before arrival at the airport.
Flight From Kenya to UAE
Since I was broke, I obviously couldn’t fly a top-tier airline like Emirates. Surprisingly, though, there are varied options for budget flights from Nairobi and other African cities to UAE. I used Air Arabia, an extremely low-cost airline, paying a round trip airfare of just $320.
There are much cheaper options from Nairobi to UAE, some costing as low as $250 for a round trip, like RwandAir. The affordability comes with a hidden cost, of course, including particularly long layovers, mostly in Addis Ababa. However, if you’re on a tight budget and your goal is to save money, then you don’t really have a choice. This link provides an accurate list of flight options from Nairobi to Dubai. There are budget flights for less than $300.
Due to the flight’s affordability, nearly all the passengers were Kenyan. A few were working in UAE, but the astounding majority were young and slightly middle-aged women working as house helps, on transit to Saudi Arabia.
It was also my first time flying a budget airline. It was quite comfortable, but on the downside, meals are not inclusive of the ticket, so you have to pay for them separately, either during pre-booking or on the actual flight.
If you’re trying to save money you can forego the meals because it’s just a five-hour flight and the food isn’t much anyway.
The free luggage allowance is also minimal (20kg check-in and 10 kg carry-on), forcing me to carry just basic necessities. It is another reason why I didn’t go shopping, because then I’d have extra luggage and be forced to pay for it.
Another downside of Air Arabia (I’m not sure whether all budget flights are like this) is that the seats don’t have screens or charging ports, so it was a boring five hours. My phone was going off by the time the flight took off. I had to charge on my laptop when I arrived at the airport.
Arrival in UAE
Air Arabia operates from the Sharjah International Airport, just under half an hour from the Dubai International Airport and also not so far from the Al Maktoum International Airport, which will soon be the world’s largest airport. We landed in Sharjah at nearly 8 p.m. (Sharjah is one of UAE’s seven emirates, just next to Dubai). Unlike Dubai, Sharjah is a cultural city that seems to have stayed off modernization and can, therefore, give you a more authentic feel of Arabic culture. I just barely managed to capture this aerial view as we landed in Sharjah, before my phone went off.
I got an Etisalat sim card for free at the airport, although I had to buy 20 Dirhams worth of airtime (around $5.50). It was my first solo international trip, and my first time traveling out of Africa, so of course I got lost at the terminal, but everyone was surprisingly friendly and ready to help.
The next 11 days were filled with memories that will definitely last a lifetime. Here’s a list of the things you should do and places to visit when you go to Dubai, even if you are tight on cash. Most of these places are free to visit or charge low entry fees (most fees is below $50).
Luxury Malls: The Dubai Mall & Mall of the Emirates
I visited the Dubai Mall, ‘the world’s largest shopping and entertainment destination’, on my second evening in UAE. There’s actually so much to do, you can’t complete everything in a single day. The visit was definitely worth it. This is the view I enjoyed as we entered.
It was the first time I ever saw luxury clothing stores, from high-end designer fashion stores like Louis Vuitton and Gucci to Tom Ford and Alexander McQueen and designer jewelry stores like Cartier and Tiffany & Co.. The stores are intimidating even from the outside, spotting posh layouts and expensively-dressed attendants, so of course I didn’t dare enter.
It was also the first time I ever saw an Apple Store, Sephora or Starbucks (the Mall of Emirates has nearly five Starbucks’s and around three Dolce and Gabbana’s).
You can go window shopping, although some stores like H&M are pretty affordable. Still you can opt not to shop since you can get similar items in Nairobi for up to a quarter of the price.
The malls also have multiple entertainment offerings, like the Dubai Mall’s Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, with stingrays and sharks and the Mall of the Emirates’ Ski Dubai, one of the world’s premier indoor ski resorts. If you’re on a budget then there’s no need to pay to go inside. You can as well get a taste of the experience from the outside, whether it is the aquarium at Dubai Mall, Ski Dubai or the Dubai Ice Rink.
I was, however, surprised to learn that malls in UAE have valet parking, often for high-range cars, which are parked separately from the rest.
The Dubai Metro (Sky Train)
The malls and many parts of downtown Dubai are accessible by Dubai’s metro, also known as the ‘sky train’ because it is elevated along the city and offers an awesome, almost futuristic aerial view, which you can see in this video I took.
There’s a business class, which I hear offers magical and surreal views of the city, as well as an economy class. There are also cabins for women and children alone and others for both sexes. You need to buy and top up a metro card which you swipe before entering the train (I have no idea how much it costs but you can get it at the stations).
If you’re broke then there isn’t much need to pay for a first class or business class cabin. Instead, you can take the rear economy cabin, which offers exceptional views of the grandiose skyscrapers. The metro is quite efficient, coming around every few minutes and offering access to many parts of downtown Dubai.
Like anywhere else in the world, it is better to use cab-hailing apps like Uber or Careem if you don’t want to use public transport, since they are pretty inexpensive. If you’re on a budget then avoid traditional taxis. Their charges, especially in Dubai, are absurd.
The Burj Khalifa
The Burj Khalifa is the most famous fixture in Dubai so you should try by all means to visit it when there, although you can’t really escape it as it is visible from nearly every point in downtown Dubai. The air, however, gets a bit foggy at times and you might struggle to get a clear view.
I was lucky to have gone in February, just in time for Emaar’s New Year’s laser and lights show and fountain display at the Burj Khalifa. The version running now will last until March 31. It is a toned-down version of the New Year’s Emaar lights, laser and water display.
It’s better to go early in the year if you wish to witness an awesome show. This is also the best time to generally enjoy UAE because it is winter (although technically it isn’t winter because temperatures are still high compared to Kenya.
The Burj Khalifa is accessible via metro and is attached to the Dubai Mall. Th two were developed by the same company, Emaar Properties.
I didn’t get to tour the Burj Khalifa, though tickets aren’t that expensive (around 135 AED for adults ~ $36). The Dubai One Tower, a new mega-skyscraper under construction not far from the Burj Khalifa will open in 2020, making it the world’s tallest residential building. Of course by then Burj Khalifa will already have been upstaged by Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Tower as the tallest building globally.
Beaches, Water Parks, Marinas and The Palm Jumeirah
There are plenty of beaches, from surf beaches like Jumeirah Beach to Lamer Beach and Barasti Beach. Jumeirah Beach is where the famous Burj al Arab is located, which claims to be the world’s first ever seven-star hotel. There are also multiple venues for snorkeling and water sports.
I didn’t get to visit Barasti Beach although I was meant to so I can’t review it but I’d recommend Lamer Beach over Jumeirah (the two are just minutes apart). Jumeirah Beach is too crowded, especially on weekends and too tourist-y, making it somewhat inauthentic. It’s also old and lacks the shine and vibrancy of newer beaches like Lamer.
While you’re at Lamer, you definitely need to visit ‘The Inventing Room’, for their liquid nitrogen snacks (my favorite was, of course, the ice cream). There’s liquid nitrogen ice cream in other countries but not yet in Kenya.
The Palm Jumeirah is another place you need to visit. I heard it’s the priciest address in UAE and has some of the world’s costliest hotels like Atlantis, the Palm. I only visited the Palm’s boardwalk at night. It offers awesome views of the towering Dubai skyline, from the Burj al Arab to the Burj Khalifa. However, it’s better to go during the day since The Palm gets too windy and chilly in the evening.
Fun Fact: While at these beaches and marinas, you can also marvel at the engineering wonders of land reclamation. The entire Palm and Jumeirah is actually reclaimed land (a large section of UAE is). Atlantis and Burj al Arab are actually built on reclaimed land.
I visited the desert twice, the first time being for a desert safari. The drive through the sand dunes was definitely thrilling , but the same can’t be said for the other activities on offer. The venue and entertainment were so-so, and the food didn’t live up to expectations (there was no barbecue like promised). The service wasn’t also so nice — one guy supervising the food queue was smoking the entire time yet there were kids on the queue. It was quite an off-putting experience. Nevertheless, there are also luxury desert safaris and camps for those who can afford.
The Miracle Garden is another place I was meant to visit but didn’t. It’s the largest natural flower garden in the world.
The ticketing attendants told us I could get in for free or with a discount if I showed my journalist pass, which I didn’t have on me. We decided to return another day with it but didn’t get time. It’s definitely on the list of my places to visit when I’m in Dubai next.
Global Village is also another spot I was destined to visit but on the actual day we were too tired. It was on my last night in the city. However, I heard hat it is a fun spot especially for families. Of course if you visit you’ll get to see the famous Dubai Eye, which is way bigger than the Marina Eye in Abu Dhabi and even larger than the London Eye. It’s actually the biggest ferris wheel in the world.
As I stated previously, I didn’t tour Sharjah although I hear it’s a great destination for cultural tourists, quite a departure from the highly modernized Dubai (It’s on my list of places to visit next time I’m in UAE). I visited Abu Dhabi for a few hours, touring downtown Abu Dhabi, going to the Abu Dhabi Marina, the Marina Mall and the famous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. A considerable section of Abu Dhabi is also reclaimed land.
Downtown Abu Dhabi is pretty small, more or less the size of Nairobi.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the largest mosque in the UAE. I’d recommend visiting it during the evening as I did, because it’s utterly beautiful when illuminated.
NB: I consider the mosque to be the most beautiful piece of architecture I have ever seen.
Fun Facts About the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
- The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has the largest carpet in the world, located in its main prayer hall. It was designed and created in Iran and weighs 35 tons.
- Its chandeliers have real Swavroski crystals. The largest chandelier in the mall is the third largest chandelier in the world.
Points to Note When Visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
It’s better to visit on a weekday. Getting parking on a weekend is hell. Alternatively, you can take one of the tour buses that bring tourists.
Dress decently. Although you can wear whatever you want, it is best to dress decently as a sign of respect. All women entering the mosque are, however, required to wear abayas. These are provided by the mosque so you don’t need to carry one.
Wear comfortable walking shoes. The mosque is extremely enormous and has swarms of tourists so you’ll be more comfortable in flat closed shoes.
From my experience, it is better to get the ticket to the mall on arrival as opposed to pre-booking online as the queue for confirmation of online tickets moves too slowly.
The mosque is a common destination for high-profile visitors touring UAE, from the Pope to Camila Cabello, both of whom visited this past February. It has also been visited by tons of celebrities in the past, from Rihanna and Miley Cyrus to Gigi Hadi and Maria Sharapova.
Points to Note When Visiting UAE
-There aren’t really restrictions when it comes to dressing and you can pretty much dress as flimsily as you want. Still, it’s always better to dress decently when visiting public spaces, especially if you’re an African girl (people will automatically judge you by your color and dressing and assume you’re a prostitute. You can tell by the stares).
-Photographing local Emirati women is not allowed, which can make taking photos in certain places difficult. Nevertheless, it’s better to adhere to the laws to avoid fines or being banned from visiting again. The government is pretty strict at enforcing laws.
-Water is really expensive, due to UAE being a desert. It’s better to avoid buying water in restaurants or when you go out to eat and instead drink in your hotel or wherever you’re staying, or ask for tap water instead if you’re dining outside. Observing this will save you a lot of money.
-Photographing mosques is not permitted, save for specific mosques like the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
-Stand on the right when using an escalator in any public space. Unless you’re in a rush, then you can use the left, which is an expressway for those in a hurry.
Best Things About UAE
-Dubai’s population is quite young, diverse and cosmopolitan so it’s really easy to meet people, unlike in Nairobi. It’s a city I would recommend for any single lady. From dating apps to hang-out spots like beaches and clubs, the list of where you can meet people is endless. I was extremely surprised by how easy it is to make friends.
-Most malls, restaurants and other public spaces offer free Wi-Fi so if you’re tight on cash you can save a lot on data charges by using the free public Wi-Fi.
A method that worked for me was geo-tagging my Twitter and Instagram posts. If your account is public, other people might offer to show you around or hang out. Social media is extremely powerful and if you’re on a budget, you need to take advantage of it. Nevertheless, you need to be careful.
-There are plenty of Kenyans and Ugandans in Dubai so it’s easy to feel at home.
-UAE is exceptionally safe so you need not worry. You’ll feel secure walking anywhere, regardless of the time. There are also no security checks when entering public spaces, unlike in Kenya.
The complaint I heard is that sometimes certain men try to grope women on the metro, although I never experienced this.
-Dubai’s night life is exciting, first because of the country’s largely young, diverse and cosmopolitan population.
There are plenty of spots to visit and women are at an advantage owing to the many ladies’ nights, most of which are on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s. In one bar in Bur Dubai, a predominantly Indian zone, they offer three free drinks for ladies, on condition of a meal purchase. However, the meals are discounted by 30 percent, making everything even more affordable.
In a pub in Dubai’s Financial Centre, the drinks were free (a maximum of three each), without any attached conditions, as with Barasti Beach.
If you’re a lady looking for fun on a budget, then you totally have to take advantage of such offerings.
What I Disliked About UAE
-Smoking shisha in public is outlawed but smoking of cigarettes seems largely permitted. There are smokers everywhere, from streets to public spaces, which is very irritating.
-Shopping is generally cheap but Dubai’s economy is entering a slump and commodity prices are increasing so while items like clothing and hair accessories are affordable, they’re not as cheap as they used to be.
-Everyone seems to use too much perfume. Get ready to be dizzied or nauseated when visiting a public place like mall if scents easily affect you.
-Even though it is extremely easy to meet guys there if you’re single, from the few interactions I had, majority of the men are too liberal for my taste. Everyone seems to be into weird stuff.
The Arabs, especially local Emiratis, are extremely handsome. I heard Emiratis are a no-go zone, though. If you’re looking for fun or something long-term, you will most likely find it. However, if you want a traditional and ‘normal’ guy, then good luck finding one.
While at it, exercise extreme caution. Any type of sexual relationship before marriage is forbidden and if you’re discovered by authorities you may be jailed (which is why Emirati men are a no-go zone). However, I haven’t heard much of these cases and actually saw may unmarried couples staying together, even though it is illegal.
There is obviously a lot more about UAE. This article is purely based on my experience.