Sightseeing can be a very exciting and exhilarating experience in a city like Dubai. Whether it’s shopping for a bargain or just taking in the things that are there to see, when you’re passing through for the tourist average of 3 days, you can pack a lot in if you do some pre-planning and get properly organised.
Here’s a few useful bits of street-knowledge that will help you get the most out of your visit and avoid some of the more common traps and pitfalls.
Take the Minimum
Before you even leave your hotel, try going through your wallet and taking as much out as you possibly can and put it in the hotel safe. Most of us carry large parts of our lives in our wallets and it can be devastating and downright inconvenient to lose credit cards, driving licenses, social security cards, special IDs, ATM cards and the like.
I know. It’s happened to me. It wasn’t the loss of the cash; it was the hours and hours of time and tedium, filling in forms, resubmitting online applications and in some cases, waiting months for replacements to appear.
Now Dubai is not a dangerous place; you are highly unlikely to be mugged and robbed even after dark, nor are you at serious risk of pickpockets, cutpurses and the like. In fact, it is really safe and most people will help you if you if you need help. Just speak clearly as not everyone speaks English as a first language.
The reason for caution is that when we’re in strange and new places, often jet-lagged or exhausted by the newness, the strangeness and the climate, we do dumb things – like putting a wallet down on a counter and walking away, or forgetting to take back a credit card after a transaction.
So protect yourselves by taking the absolute minimum out onto the streets with you and leave the rest secure in your room safe. Some cash; maybe limit yourself to the local equivalent of $US 150.00 – that’s between AED 500 – 600. A credit card, if you really can’t walk past a bargain, but if you have multiple cards, one is enough. You really don’t need anything else, especially on Day One of your visit to Dubai.
Take the Big Bus Tour
Dubai’s Big Bus Company provides a convenient and comprehensive way for the short visit tourist to get a good view of what the city has to offer. The upper deck of the bus is about 60% open – which is perfectly comfortable in the cooler months and the hardy may even brave it during the summer heat, but there is also an air-conditioned cabin at the front third of the upper deck, for when the heat just becomes too much.
Your ticket is good for the whole day. If the daytime heat is too much, you could take a night tour, when it will be somewhat cooler, though in the summer months very humid.
Use Taxis, or the Metro
Some tough and intrepid souls like to think they can do it all on foot and while there are interesting parts of Dubai – the Spice and Gold Souks of Deira, for instance – that can easily be done on foot, moving between major attractions involves just too much distance to be covered this way. Don’t be fooled by what seems like a perfectly reasonable distance in a cooler climate. When it gets hot here, you put yourself seriously at risk by trying to walk in the heat and humidity.
Taxis are very cheap, by European, UK and US standards; the cars are all fairly late model and properly maintained. They are metered, so you only pay the indicated fare and the taxi-business is highly regulated and overseen by the Dubai Road Transport Authority. There are surcharges for taxis from the airport and an extra AED20 is added if you go to Sharjah, but otherwise you pay what is on the meter. If in doubt, take a photo of the number plate and report the problem to the company.
The Dubai Metro is a really efficient, inexpensive and thoroughly modern way of moving around the city, if you prefer to go the public transport way. Just plan your route in advance and check on a paper map, or Google/Apple Maps to see if there is a Metro station that serves the attraction you wish to visit.
Even during the daytime in the winter months, it can be hot and you can easily become dehydrated, and that’s when you start making bad decisions and forgetting things. A 1 litre bottle of water costs AED 1 (1 dirham); that’s $US 0.27c. A better investment in a happy and fun holiday you just can’t make. In fact, restock whenever you run out. There are plenty of little supermarkets and convenience stores in the most interesting tourist areas.
Give Yourself Air-con Time
As well as keeping hydrated, you should also make allowance to spend time during each day in an air-conditioned environment. Many visitors will not be used to the heat or the humidity, so taking a little time out in a more “normal” climate will extend your endurance and the number of attractions you can pack into a single day’s sightseeing in Dubai.
Shopping malls, restaurants (indoors), museums, galleries – all of these will be air-conditioned and have places where you can sit down as well. How often should an “air-con” break happen? This will vary according to age and fitness, but be generous with yourself. Exhaustion can ruin a holiday.
Do Some Prior Research
A little time spent with a map and guidebook in your hotel room or wherever you are staying will help you plan and maximise your street-time. Some places will emerge as better candidates for morning visits, some are OK any time of the day, and some will be evening or after-dark visits.
Doing your homework in advance will also forearm you against too much back-tracking. You can also familiarise yourself with things like buying special cards for Metro Trips, passes that get you into multiple attractions, and the like. Travel without preparation is unwise anywhere.
Go to the Malls and other Attractions Early
This is a very important survival strategy, in the opinion of this writer. The malls get very full and busy as the day progresses. Again, from opening time (usually around 10.00am for most businesses) until around 1.00 pm, it’s not too bad, but with each three hour block until closing time (10.00pm) more and more people arrive.
Do yourselves a favour: if mall-crawling is what excites you, go early. In fact the earlier the better, because even if the retail shops don’t open until 10.00, the malls themselves are open and many of the food outlets (and supermarkets) are also doing business, so you can window-shop and prioritise what you want to go back to after 10.00, punctuated with a nice coffee break, or a late breakfast.
Buy the Best Ticket You Can Afford and the Add-ons
If you want to go somewhere like Ferrari World (Abu Dhabi) to ride the fastest roller-coaster in the world, either get there early, or splash out on a priority ticket to beat the queues. Don’t spend 75 minutes queuing because you arrived late. This is Dubai – upgrade!
The same can apply to other attractions like Wild Wadi or the Aquaventure at Atlantis Hotel water park. Do not spend your holiday standing in queues. But, equally, do not pay to go to an attraction then deny yourself or members of the family the extras. Yes, it costs more to be photographed with the dolphin or do any of the add-ons, but just do it. You are on holiday; everyone will regret it if you don’t.
A great little smartphone or tablet app, this. If you have roaming internet, then you can probably skip past this section, but as many of us don’t have access to internet when we are on holiday, this little gem can be a real timesaver.
Download the app (it’s free and there are iPhone, Android and Blackberry versions), then download the map that’s relevant to the country or city you are in. In other words, you don’t need to download the whole world – only as much as you require on this holiday. For Dubai, you’ll select Download Maps / Middle East / United Arab Emirates.
OK, but what’s the big deal? Don’t Apple and Google have this whole mobile sat-nav thing pretty much sewn up? Maybe they do, but this little beauty doesn’t require an internet connection to work dynamically. All it needs is the SIM in your phone. You know that when you are abroad, you are always getting messages from local providers telling you that you can use their network and your home provider is constantly telling you about great roaming rates – which we all know are actually pretty expensive.
Maps.me uses the locating signal in the satellite to locate you (with a little blue triangle) on the map of Dubai, so that you can see where you are, where you are going and instantly recognise when you are moving away from or towards your target address. And it costs nothing. Trust me, you are not charged by anyone, even though your phone is passively using the local network to always know where you are.
There’s also lots of “free wifi” in places all over Dubai. Good luck! I don’t have the patience to jump through all the hoops required in order to finally access a fairly slow, advertisement-heavy “free” service.