Question of the day: Is Dubai / Abu Dhabi worth going to or not?
Truth be told, both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have never been on top of my travel list. In fact, if pressed, the only reason I could think of for visiting these emirates would if I had a ridiculously long layover there. Having said that, when the opportunity to visit presented itself, I certainly wasn’t going to say no.
So, to answer the question of the day… My answer would be yes. Visit once, and probably never again after that. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Dubai and Abu Dhabi to a certain extent (which is why I do recommend you go). They’re beautiful cities so shiny and glittery on the surface – with every single structure competing to be the biggest, the boldest, the brightest; making it every Instagrammer’s dream place to be. But whew, it can get a bit much at times, and the stories of opulence and extravagance sometimes left a bad taste in my mouth + it always felt a bit like I was in a city full of style, but very minimal substance (happy to be proven wrong though!!)
Anyway, for all first time travelers – here’s a quick, helpful guide for anyone who has wondered what it would take to go to Dubai, and what to do once you do arrive in Dubai
Table of contents
- How do I get to Dubai?
- Do I need a UAE visa?
- What type of visa should I get?
- When’s the best time to go to Dubai?
- Where should I stay in Dubai?
- How can I get around Dubai?
- What’s the currency used in UAE?
- Is it safe to travel as a solo female?
- What to do in in Dubai and Abu Dhabi?
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How do I get to Dubai?
Three airlines fly direct from Manila to Dubai everyday (~9 hour flight): Cebu Pacific, Philippine Airlines, and Emirates. Obviously, out of the three – Cebu Pacific is the cheapest. Equally obvious, out of the three – Emirates is the absolute best! It was my first time to fly Emirates and wow, they have the MOST COMPLETE film, TV show, and music collection out of all the airlines I’ve flown. Another perk of flying Emirates is they help you process your visa – which I’ll get into next
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Do I need a UAE visa?
If you’re holding a Philippine passport, the answer is yes. There are a variety of ways you can apply for a visa – but unlike most other embassies, the UAE is really strict in asking for a “sponsor” before they’ll grant you a visa. If you have family or relatives living in the UAE, then good for you – apply via the Embassy if this is the case, and you’re good to. If you don’t have someone willing to sponsor you from UAE, then the following would be your options:
It’s really straightforward. Just book your round-trip Emirates flight, then apply online through the Manage a Booking tab. They’ll ask you simple questions around your booking reference, passport, hotel details, and visa type. Afterwards, they’ll redirect you to the payments page. After ~2-3 working days, they’ll then email you your visa via email – simple as that! When applying for your visa, do keep in mind that their working days are from Sunday to Thursday.
If you don’t plan on flying Emirates, then your next best bet would be via your Dubai hotel. When booking the hotel, ask them if they can help process your visa and what the requirements are. Typical requirements would be: Visa application form, colored passport and credit card copies, credit card authorization form (so they can charge your visa fee to your credit card directly), and colored passport sized photos. Having said that, these requirements would vary depending on the hotel, so just check
If you normally travel via a travel agency, or you don’t want to go through the hassle of arranging everything on your own – then you should simply ask your travel agency to apply for you. Again, the visa application requirements would vary from travel agency to travel agency, but I’ve heard the application can take up to 10 working days – so budget that in accordingly
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What type of visa should I get?
There are several types of visas available – as I’m assuming you’ll be traveling as a tourist (like me), I’ll only go through the tourist visas
As for me, I planned to fly in Thursday early morning, and fly out Sunday night – so I opted for the 96-hour visa (also known as the transit visa). All in all, I ended up paying around ~USD 77 via the Emirates Visa Services after you factor in the taxes and whatnot
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When’s the best time to go to Dubai?
I’d suggest you go from November to March – as far away from the summer months as possible (when temperatures go up to ~40 degrees Celsius, and down to ~35 degrees Celsius at night. As a Filipino, I always thought I had a higher threshold for heat tolerance, but wow, the Dubai summer heat is a whole different story! It is CRAZY HOT (I went in May). I don’t know how people survive to be honest… By my last day, I only ventured out of the hotel once it was past 5pm – in a bid to escape the cloying heat
Also, as Dubai is predominantly Muslim, they observe Ramadan religiously, which means during the Ramadan month (typically sometime in May/June to June/July), many of the establishments would be closed during the day + clubs and alcohol would be strictly prohibited. While I have friends who enjoy touring during Ramadan season, as there are less crowds, I personally would not recommend it
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Where should I stay in Dubai?
Dubai, to my surprise, is really huge – must be all the reclaimed land… So I would advise you to stay near the areas you think you’d want to explore more lest you waste time traveling for ~30-60mins each day (one way) to get to your destination. In my estimation, there are four areas worth staying at:
The Old Town – if you’re eager to live closer to the area which showcases Dubai’s humble beginnings, then this area would be the one for you! Make sure to check out the Dubai Museum, the Gold and Spice Souk, plus ride the abra while you’re here. Having said that, I personally think half a day would be more than sufficient in this area, so would suggest you stay elsewhere instead, and just brave the traffic once to come to this area. This would also be a good place to stay if you want to be near the airport – it’s ~10mins from the airport, ~40mins from the downtown area.
Unsure what’s near this area and if it’s worth going to? Jump to my Deira blurb below to see if you’ll like the area
Friend’s advice: Four Seasons Sheraton
Jumeirah Beach (or any of the beaches)
If you enjoy being near the beach and the sea breeze, then grab a hotel along Jumeirah Beach, a man-made white sand beach with beautiful turquoise waters. This beach stretches from Deira (the Old Town) to Dubai Marina. I’d advise you to stay between Burj Al Arab and the Madinat Jumeirah complex in order to maximize the restaurants and views along this area. Three popular tourist attractions would be: Madinat Jumeirah Souk (for traditional goods shopping), Wadi Wadi (a popular waterpark for families), and Burj Al Arab (the famed 7-star hotel of Dubai). Taxis are plentiful + a tram line – but no metro near this area. Taking a taxi to the downtown area (Burj Khalifa) would require ~30mins, while taking the tram (and switching to the metro) would require ~45mins.
Unsure what’s near this area and if it’s worth going to? Jump to my Jumeirah Beach blurb below to see if you’ll like the area
Friend’s advice: Stay at Jumeirah Beach Residences
Burj Khalifa (Downtown)
Check out the hotels overlooking the Dubai Fountain and Burj Khalifa. This area is the heart of the city, with restaurants and shopping treats alike – starting with the gigantic Dubai Mall! At night, this area turns into a fairy lights wonderland, and it’s worth strolling around to check out all the curious knick knacks you’ll find here and there. If you’re staying in this area, make sure to request a hotel room that faces the Dubai fountains, or better yet, a view where you can see both the fountains AND Burj Khalifa. The Dubai Fountain turns on every night, and showcases a beautiful watery extravaganza that you definitely should not miss.
Quick note: Sheikh Zayed Road is the true downtown area, where most of the financial centers are. Having said that, it would take ~20-30 mins from Sheikh Zayed to Burj Khalifa. So if you’re here purely as a tourist, I’d suggest you stay at or around the Burj Khalifa area, in order to save yourself time and transport cost
Unsure what’s near this area and if it’s worth going to? Jump to my Burj Khalifa and Dubai Fountain blurb below to see if you’ll like the area
Where I stayed: Carlton Downtown Hotel & Four Seasons Sheraton Sheikh Zayed (opted to live here for work reasons – both of these are pretty decent hotels, but again – not really the best location for tourists)
If you plan on spending most of the time cloistered inside the Palm, then your best bet would be the Atlantis Hotel – take note, it’s ridiculously expensive!! You can stay at the top VIP suite, where royalty and celebrities stay, if you’re willing to drop a cool $35,000 a night (with a minimum stay of 5 nights). Of course, you can always opt for the cheaper rooms (I heard the best time to go for good rates is during Ramadan). Just remember, the two important places you NEED to check out while here would be the Lost Chambers Aquarium and the Aquaventure Waterpark!!! Note that Atlantis guests are given unlimited free access to Aqueventure, but non-guests can enjoy this water park too ($74 for a day pass). Is it worth it? Yes yes yes!! The focal point of the park would be the Ziggurat, a pyramid structure that serves as the starting point for several thrill seeker rides, chief of which is the Lead of Faith – a 27.5 meters near-vertical drop WOOOOO!
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How can I get around Dubai?
So, for an up and coming city with meticulous urban planning, I expected a lot more in terms of their transport infrastructure. While their metro is state-of-the-art, it’s made immediately clear that this isn’t a city for commuters. The city boasts 2 metro lines (Green and Red) and a tram line, but they don’t exactly cover the whole city. So, if you’re planning to get around, the following would be your options:
Dubai is definitely a city for cars, and taxis abound wherever you go! If you’re coming from your hotel, just ask the concierge to flag one for you. Likewise, major tourist attractions should have taxi stands, making it extremely convenient to grab a cab. Having said that, during rush hours, it may get a tad difficult – so make sure to keep your options open. Cost-wise, a ~15mins taxi ride would cost you ~PHP 300. For someone used to Philippine prices, I find this rather pricey, but if you’re from the US/Australia/Canada, this would seem like chump change to you!
Uber / Careem
If you’ve got working internet connection and a smartphone, download either Uber or Careem. The wait time’s usually ~5 to 15 minutes, but at least you’re sure you can get a ride no matter where you are (within the Dubai city). Also, it’s always fun to guess what fancy car will drive up to you (typically it’s a white Lexus). Haha, it’s definitely a huge leg up from the White Vios that picks me up back in Manila! Note, Careem is the Middle East equivalent of Uber. Don’t think there’s much difference between the two, but I typically use Careem when I’m in the Middle East as they’re more entrenched, and tend to have better GPS systems (at least in Pakistan)
As mentioned, Dubai has two metro lines (Green and Red). Now most of the “newer” parts of the city are part of the red line (e.g. Burj Khalifa), while the Old Town can be accessed through the green line (e.g. Al Ghubalba, Al Ras). If you’re itching to go to the Palm, then you should check out the tram. Having said that, the tourist attraction you typically want to go to won’t be found immediately outside the metro station, so prepare to walk for ~5-15 minutes to reach your final destination
To be honest, I only used the bus once – and it was to head to Abu Dhabi (AED 50 round-trip vs AED 600 roundtrip if I took a cab). Now I’m sure you can catch a bus within the city as well, except I personally don’t know how that works… But, if like me, you’re considering taking a bus to Abu Dhabi, then just head to the Al Ghubalba bus station (it’s right in front of Carrefour – which you’ll see as soon as you step out of the Al Ghubalba metro station)
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What’s the currency used in the United Arab Emirates?
The currency used in Dubai (and across the United Arab Emirates) is the AED (also known as the Emirates dirham). The exchange rate is roughly AED 1 = PHP 15, during the time I was there (May 2017). Note that while most cabs accept credit card payments, some still don’t (or they tell me their credit card terminal isn’t working), so it’s still good to have ready money on hand. Likewise, if you’re headed to the souks for some shopping, they typically accept cash only. During my ~3 day stay, I withdrew ~AED 300, which was sufficient for my needs (although note that I typically used Careem/Uber if possible, paid for all my restaurant meals using my credit card, and did minimal shopping)
To withdraw, there are multiple ATMs in the airport. Once you’re past immigration, there are ATM machines in the baggage claim area. Likewise, once you exist the baggage claim area, there will also be international ATMs to your left (including HSBC)
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Is it safe to travel as a solo female?
I’ll be honest. As a solo female who regularly travel to different parts of the globe, I typically encounter this question, “Don’t you ever feel unsafe?” The simple answer is, “Not really, because I travel smart.” As much as possible, I travel during the day and I stick to populous area (which tourist attractions normally are). I try to use Uber/Careem/Grab as opposed to taxis, that way someone somewhere has a record of where I am, and who I got into a car with. At the same time, I try to blend in as much as possible by dressing decently and respecting existing customs and cultures. Crime rate in Dubai is low for good reason, because there are stiff consequences for those who disobey (and that includes foreigners)
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What to do in Dubai and Abu Dhabi?
Spend at least one day in Abu Dhabi! Amazing sites you should NOT miss are the Sheikh Zayed Mosque and the Emirates Palace. To find out more (including how to get to Abu Dhabi from Dubai), check out my blog: Abu Dhabi – a five step guide on how to make your trip worthwhile
Dubai Desert Safari
Are you looking for an dessert adventure? Do you want to experience dune bashing? Or maybe you want to beautify your Instagram feed with artistic shots of the desert? Now’s your chance!! Definitely try the Dubai Desert Safari tour – it was one of the highlights of my Dubai trip (heard the Abu Dhabi one is even better though!!). To find out what to expect from this tour and how to book it, check out my blog: Dubai Desert Safari – the best adventure you could ask for
Yellow Boat Tour
If desert adventures aren’t your thing, or maybe you’re seeking yet another adrenaline rush – why not check out the Yellow Boat Tour? This tour helped me gain a whole new perspective of Dubai – as the skipper expertly shared interesting tidbits about the city and its fascinating architecture as the boat sped through the open waters! As a bonus, I now have beautiful photos of me and Dubai’s iconic structures without other tourists cluttering the photo. If you’re interested to check out this tour, or want to learn how to book the tour, do check out my blog: Yellow Boat Tour – See Dubai from another perspective
Deira (Old Town)
I always enjoy getting to know the culture and history of the place I’m going to. In this case, I found that in the Old Town of Dubai (otherwise known as Deira). Check out the Dubai Museum, ride in an abra (boat), and explore the Spice and Gold Souks. Read about the Old Town more in my blog: Deira – exploring Dubai culture and history as a tourist
Check out the Jumeirah Mosque, then grab a cab to the beach (where you can chill / stroll along the beach, or go kite surfing if you’re so inclined)! If you’re lucky, you can get a beautiful shot of the Burj Al Arab from the beach as well. Afterwards, end your day with a sumptuous meal at SALT (famed for their burgers and their sweet sundae)
Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Fountain
Would this post be complete without the famous Burj Khalifa and Dubai Fountain? Drop by the Dubai Mall (reachable via the MRT) and stroll around (the mall is HUGE – I felt quite lost, and ended up spending most of my time eating hahaha! It was just so overwhelming)
While here, make sure to check the Dubai Fountain show times (see website as timings may change). To say the fountain show is amazing would be an understatement! Now I typically feel underwhelmed by fountain shows as you get a few spurts of water, some music – and then it’s done… But the Dubai Fountain was beautiful! I ended up watching it thrice (with different background music each time – Skyfall, Arabian music, and classical) in order to fully appreciate the extravaganza! For a glimpse of this wonderful extravaganza, check out my IG video
If you really want a good shot though, make sure you’re standing on the bridge ~20 minutes before the fountain show starts (basically the fountain show occurs every 30 mins… once a show ends and people start dispersing, you need to jockey to the right position ASAP)
After the show, wander around to get a nice nighttime shot of Burj Khalifa as well ❤
Others (to be visited when / if I go back again!)
- Atlantis: Experiential hotel + water amusement park (with an almost 90 degree slide WOOO)
- Wadi Wadi Waterpark
- Skydive Diving: Skydiving over the Palm
- Ferrari World: Amusement park with the fastest roller coaster in the world
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And that, my friends – concludes the Dubai and Abu Dhabi travels. Hope this blog post helps!
For my other Dubai and Abu Dhabi-related posts (including day trips)
- Dubai Desert Safari: Definitely an adventure to remember
- Yellow Boat tour: A chance to see Dubai from another perspective
- Deira (Old Town): Reacquainting myself with the history of Dubai
- Abu Dhabi side trip: Sheikh Zayed Mosque was just AMAZING