Dubai has never been a bargain destination, and although it’s possible to get by without spending huge amounts of money, unless you’re prepared to splash at least a certain amount of cash you’ll miss out on much of what the city has to offer. The biggest basic cost is accommodation. At the very bottom end of the scale it’s possible to find a double room for the night for around 250dh (£47/US$70), or sometimes even less. For more upmarket hotels you’re looking at 500dh and up (£95/US$140) per night, while you won’t usually get a bed in one of the city’s fancier five-stars for less than around 1000dh (£190/US$280) per night at the absolute minimum; room rates at the very best places can run into several thousands of dirhams.
Other costs are more fluid. Eating is very much a question of what you want to spend: you can eat well in the budget curry houses or shwarma cafés of Bur Dubai and Karama for as little as 15dh (£2.50/US$4) per head, although a meal (with drinks) in a more upmarket establishment is likely to set you back around 250dh (£47/US$70) per head, and the sky is the limit in the top restaurants. Tourist attractions are also likely to put a big dent in your wallet, especially if you’re travelling with children: the admission cost for a family of four to the Aquaventure water park, for example, is the best part of 1000dh (£100/US$280). On the plus side, transport costs are relatively modest, given the city’s inexpensive taxis and metro system.
Taxes and tipping
Room rates at most of the city’s more expensive hotels are subject to a ten percent service charge and an additional ten percent government tax; these taxes are sometimes included in quoted prices, and sometimes not. Check beforehand, or you may find your bill has suddenly inflated by twenty percent. You’ll also have to pay a further modest tourist tax (the “Tourism Dirham” as it’s officially known) on all overnight stays, ranging from 7dh to 20dh per night depending on the star-rating of your accommodation. The prices in most restaurants automatically include all relevant taxes and a ten percent service charge (though this isn’t necessarily passed on to the waiters themselves); whether you wish to leave an additional tip is entirely your decision.
Crime, safety and the law
Dubai is an exceptionally safe city – although a surprising number of tourists and expats manage to get themselves arrested for various breaches of local law (see Culture and etiquette) . Violent crime is virtually unknown, and even instances of petty theft, pickpocketing and the like are relatively uncommon. The only time you’re ever likely to be at risk is while driving or crossing the road. If you need to call the police in an emergency, dial t999. You can also contact the police’s Tourist Security Department toll-free 24hr on t800 423 if you have an enquiry or complaint which you think the police could help you with. For the latest information about safety issues it’s also worth having a look at the international government websites.
Illegal substances and prescription drugs
You should not on any account attempt to enter (or even transit through) Dubai while in possession of any form of illegal substance. The death penalty is imposed for drug trafficking, and there’s a mandatory four-year sentence for anyone caught in possession of drugs or other proscribed substances. It’s vital to note that this doesn’t just mean carrying drugs in a conventional sense, but also includes having an illegal substance in your bloodstream or urine, or being found in possession of even microscopic amounts of a banned substance, even if invisible to the naked eye. Previous visitors have been convicted on the basis of minute traces of cannabis and other substances found in the fluff of a pocket or suitcase lining, or even in chewing gum stuck to the sole of a shoe. Note that poppy seeds (even in bakery products) are also banned, since the authorities believe they can be used to grow narcotics.
Even more contentiously, Dubai’s hardline anti-drugs regime also extends to certain prescription drugs, including codeine and melatonin, which are also treated as illegal substances. If you’re on any form of prescription medicine you’re supposed to bring a doctor’s letter and the original prescription from home, and to bring no more than three months’ supply into the UAE. It’s also a good idea to keep any medicines in their original packaging and to carry them in your hand luggage. Lists of proscribed medicines are sometimes posted on various government and embassy websites – try searching online for "controlled medicines UAE".
As a general rule, the more respectably dressed and boring you look, the less likely you are to get stopped at customs. Wait to make your fashion statement until you’re safely inside the country.
UK-style sockets with three square pins are the norm (although you might occasionally encounter Indian-style round-pin sockets in budget hotels in Bur Dubai and Deira). The city’s current runs at 220–240 volts AC, meaning that UK appliances will work directly off the mains supply, although US appliances will probably require a transformer.
Nationals of the UK, Ireland and most other Western European countries, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are issued a free thirty-day visa on arrival. Always check visa requirements direct with your UAE embassy or consulate as this information is subject to change. You’ll need a passport that will be valid for at least six months after the date of entry. Having an Israeli stamp in your passport shouldn’t be a problem. This visa can be extended for a further thirty days at a cost of 620dh by visiting the Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs (DNRD), next to Bur Dubai Police Station, close to Al Jafiliya metro station (Sun–Wed 7.30am–7.30pm; t04 313 9999 or t800 5111, wdnrd.ae).
Customs regulations allow visitors to bring in up to four hundred cigarettes (or fifty cigars or 500g of tobacco), four litres of alcohol (or two 24-can cases of beer), and cash and travellers’ cheques up to a value of 40,000dh. Prohibited items include drugs, pornographic material, material offensive to Islamic teachings, non-Islamic religious propaganda and evangelical literature and goods of Israeli origin or bearing Israeli trademarks or logos.
Foreign embassies are mainly located in the UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi, although many countries also maintain consulates in Dubai.
Dubai is one of the world’s less-friendly gay and lesbian destinations. Homosexuality is illegal under UAE law, with punishments of up to ten years in prison – a useful summary of the present legal situation and recent prosecutions can be found at
wen.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_in_the_United_Arab_Emirates. Despite this, the city boasts a very clandestine gay scene, attracting both foreigners and Arabs from even less permissive cities around the Gulf, although you’ll need to hunt hard to find it without local contacts. Relevant websites are routinely censored within the UAE, so you’ll probably have to do your online research before you arrive. Useful resources include wfacebook.com/LGBTRightsUAE and wgaysdubai.com.
There are virtually no serious health risks in Dubai (unless you include the traffic). The city is well equipped with modern hospitals, while all four- and five-star hotels have English-speaking doctors on call 24hr. Tap water is safe to drink, while even the city’s cheapest curry houses and shwarma cafés maintain good standards of food hygiene. The only possible health concern is the heat. Summer temperatures regularly climb into the mid-forties, making sunburn, heatstroke and acute dehydration a real possibility, especially if combined with excessive alcohol consumption. Stay in the shade, and drink lots of water.
There are pharmacies all over the city, including a number run by the BinSina chain which are open 24hr (there's a list at wdha.gov.ae). These include branches on Mankhool Road just north of the Ramada hotel; on the Creek side of Baniyas Square (in the building on the east side of the Deira Tower); in southern Jumeirah at the turn-off to the Majlis Ghorfat um al Sheif; and opposite the Ibis Al Rigga hotel on Al Rigga Rd in Deira.
There are two main government hospitals and several private hospitals with emergency departments. You’ll need to pay for treatment, though costs should be recoverable through your travel insurance.
There aren’t many safety or health risks involved in a visit to Dubai, although it’s still strongly recommended that you take out some form of valid travel insurance before your trip. At its simplest, this offers some measure of protection against everyday mishaps like cancelled flights and mislaid baggage. More importantly, a valid insurance policy will cover your costs in the (admittedly unlikely) event that you fall ill in Dubai, since otherwise you’ll have to pay for all medical treatment. Most insurance policies routinely exclude various “adventure” activities. In Dubai this could mean things like off-road driving or tackling the black run at Ski Dubai. If in doubt, check with your insurer before you leave home.
Dubai is a very wired city, although getting online can sometimes prove trickier (and/or more expensive) than you'd expect. Wi-fi is available in pretty much every hotel in the city, usually in-room. It's generally free, although some places charge for it – often at extortionate rates. Check before you book. There are also loads of wi-fi hotspots around the city. Most cafés and restaurants claim to provide free wi-fi to customers, while there are also numerous wi-fi hotspots operated by the city’s two telecom companies, Etisalat (wetisalat.ae) and Du (wdu.ae). Both offer access at various places around the city, including most of the city’s malls, with several pay-as-you-go packages starting from 10dh for an hour’s one-off surf time. See the websites for full details of charges and hotspot locations. You can also get online on the Dubai Metro for 10dh/hr.
There are frustratingly few internet cafés in the city. The best area to look is Bur Dubai, which boasts a scattering of small places, mostly catering to the area’s Indian population. Aimei internet café (daily 8am–midnight; 3dh/hr) on 13c Sikka, the small road behind the Time Palace hotel, is one reliable option; they also have a second outlet on Al Musalla Rd. Elsewhere in Bur Dubai, options include the well-equipped Mi Café in the Al Ain Centre (daily 10am–10.30pm; 10dh/hr) on Al Mankhool Rd, and Futurespeed (daily 8am–11pm; 10dh/hr) in BurJuman (just inside the front entrance by the Dôme café). In Deira, there are a few places dotted along Al Rigga Rd including the well set-up Frina internet (daily 10am–10pm; 10dh/hr, right next to Al Rigga metro station.
Internet access in Dubai is also subject to a certain modest amount of censorship – although this is now significantly less heavy-handed than in former years, during which mainstream sites such as Flickr, Myspace and Facebook were blocked (as was the website of the UK’s Middlesex University thanks to its inadvertently suggestive name). There’s a blanket ban on anything remotely pornographic, plus gambling and dating sites, and pages considered religiously or culturally offensive, although news pages (even those critical of the government) are generally left unblocked. The use of Skype and other types of VOIP software is technically illegal, although you might find it available in internet cafés.
For unlimited Wi-Fi on the go whilst travelling Dubai, buy a Skyroam Solis, which works in 130+ countries at one flat daily rate, paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. You can connect up to five devices at once. Prices start from as little as €5 a day.
All larger hotels have a laundry service (usually expensive) while holiday apartments generally come with a washing machine as standard. There are no self-service launderettes in Dubai, though there are a few rather grubby places offering overnight laundry services dotted around the backstreets of Bur Dubai; you might prefer to wash your clothes yourself, however.
The best general city maps are the pocket-sized Dubai Mini Map (around 15dh) and the larger Dubai Map (around 45dh) published by Explorer and widely available from bookshops around the city. Both combine a handy overview map of the city along with more detailed coverage of individual areas, with user-friendly cartography and all relevant tourist attractions and other local landmarks clearly marked. They’re also updated on a regular basis, and make a laudable effort to keep pace with the city’s constantly changing road layouts and other ongoing developments. Explorer also publish marvellously detailed A–Z-style street atlases of both Dubai (125dh) and Abu Dhabi (95dh).
The UAE’s currency is the dirham (abbreviated “dh” or “AED”), subdivided into 100 fils. The dirham is pegged against the US dollar at the rate of US$1=3.6725dh; other exchange rates at the time of writing were £1=5.5dh, €1=4dh. Notes come in 5dh, 10dh, 20dh, 50dh, 100dh, 200dh, 500dh and 1000dh denominations; there are also 2dh, 1dh, 50 fils and 25 fils coins. The 5dh, 50dh and 500dh notes are all a confusingly similar shade of brown; take care not to hand over the wrong sort (easily done if, say, you’re getting out of a darkened cab at night) – a potentially very expensive mistake.
There are plenty of ATMs all over the city which accept foreign Visa and MasterCards. All the big shopping malls have at least a few ATMs, as do some large hotels. There are banks everywhere, almost all of which have ATMs. The most common are Mashreqbank, Commercial Bank of Dubai, National Bank of Dubai, National Bank of Abu Dhabi and Emirates Bank. All will also change foreign cash, and there are also plenty of moneychangers, including the reputable Al Ansari Exchange, which has branches all over the city (see walansariexchange.com/en/branches).
Opening hours and public holidays
Dubai runs on an Islamic rather than a Western schedule, meaning that the city operates according to a basic five-day working week running Sunday to Thursday, with Friday as the Islamic holy day (equivalent to the Christian Sunday). Some offices also open on Saturday, while others close at noon on Thursday. When people talk about the weekend in Dubai they mean Friday and Saturday (and perhaps Thursday afternoon/evening as well). The most important fact to note is that many tourist sites are closed on Friday morning (and the metro doesn't start running until 10am), while banks usually open Saturday to Wednesday 8am–1pm and Thursday 8am–noon (some also reopen in the afternoon from 4.30 to 6.30pm).
Shops in malls generally open daily from 10am to 10pm, and until midnight on Friday and Saturday (and sometimes Thursday as well); shops in souks follow a similar pattern, though many places close for a siesta between around 1pm and 4pm depending on the whim of the owner. Most restaurants open daily for lunch and dinner (although some more upmarket hotel restaurants open for dinner only). Pubs tend to open daily from around noon until 2am; bars from around 6pm until 2/3am.
The country code for the UAE is 971. The city code for Dubai is 04; Abu Dhabi is 02; Sharjah is 06; Al Ain is 03. To call abroad from the UAE, dial 00, followed by your country code and the number itself (minus its initial zero). To call Dubai from abroad, dial your international access code, then 9714, followed by the local subscriber number (minus the 04 city code). Local mobile numbers begin with 050, 055 or 056 followed by a seven-digit number. If you’ve got a 04 number that’s not working, try prefixing it instead with the various mobile phone prefixes – mobiles are so widely used now that many people don’t specify whether a number is a landline or a mobile.
If you’re going to be using the phone a lot while you’re in Dubai, it might be worth acquiring a local SIM card, which will give you cheap local and international calls. The city’s two telecoms operators are Etisalat (wetisalat.ae) and Du (wdu.ae). The cheapest options are currently the pay-as-you-go Du “Visitor Mobile Line” package (35dh, including 20min free calls) or the more expensive Etisalat’s Wasel package (55dh); see the websites for full details. Alternatively, you can pick up discounted SIM cards from phone shops around the city (particularly in Bur Dubai) for under 20dh. Either way, you’ll need to present your passport when buying a SIM card.
Dubai is a very photogenic city, although the often harsh desert light can play havoc with colour and contrast – for the best results head out between around 7am and 9am in the morning, or after 4pm.
It’s also worth noting that many upmarket hotels, restaurants and bars are extremely sniffy about people taking photographs of their establishments, particularly if other guests are likely to find their way into your shots – don’t be surprised if you’re asked to put your camera away. Outside of such establishments, things are more relaxed, although obviously it’s polite to ask before you take photographs of people, and you risk causing considerable offence (or worse) if you shove your lens in the face of local Emiratis – ladies in particular – without permission.
The two most convenient post offices for visitors are the Al Musalla Post Office (Sat–Thurs 7.30am–3pm) at Al Fahidi Roundabout, opposite the Arabian Tea House Café in Bur Dubai; and the Deira Post Office on Al Sabkha Road (Sat–Thurs 8am–8pm), near the intersection with Baniyas Road. Airmail letters to Europe, the US and Australia cost 5dh (postcards 3.50dh); airmail parcels cost 50dh to Europe and 80dh to the US and Australia for parcels weighing 500g to 1kg.
Dubai maintains a bizarrely inconsistent attitude to sexual matters. A couple kissing on the lips in public can potentially face jail, and homosexuality is also illegal. Yet despite this high-handed moral stance, prostitution is endemic throughout the city – you won’t get round many pubs or bars (particularly in the city centre) without seeing at least a few working girls perched at the bar in unusually short skirts and excessively bright lipstick. Prostitution is technically illegal, although arrests of male punters are virtually unheard of and the sex trade is tolerated by the city authorities, it is said, as part of the price to be paid in attracting expat professionals to the emirate, while it also reflects the city’s overwhelmingly male demographic. Dubai’s sex workers come from all over the globe, with a sliding scale of charges to match: Arab girls are the most expensive, followed by Westerners, with Asians and Africans at the bottom of the pile – a snapshot in miniature of the city’s traditional social and economic structure. The background of Dubai’s working girls is equally varied: many are simply visitors or residents looking to make a bit of extra cash; others are the victims of human trafficking, with girls responding to adverts for “housemaids” and suchlike being sold into the sex trade on arrival. The Dubai government is making efforts to eliminate this illegal trade, although the problem persists.
Smoking is banned in Dubai in the vast majority of indoor public places, including offices, malls, cafés and restaurants (although it’s permitted at most – but not all – outdoor venues). At the time of writing you could still smoke in bars and pubs, although there has also been talk of including these in the ban at a future date. You can still smoke in the majority of hotels, though many places now provide non-smoking rooms or non-smoking floors – and a few places have banned it completely. During Ramadan, never smoke in public places in daylight hours.
Dubai (and the rest of the UAE) runs on Gulf Standard Time. This is 4hr ahead of GMT, 3hr ahead of BST, 9hr ahead of North American Eastern Standard Time, 12hr ahead of North American Western Standard Time, 6hr behind Australian Eastern Standard Time, and 8hr behind New Zealand Standard Time. There is no daylight saving time in Dubai.
Given the importance of tourism to the Dubai economy, there’s a frustrating lack of on-the-ground visitor information – and not a single proper tourist office anywhere in the city. You could try ringing the head office of the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM; t04 282 1111, wvisitdubai.com/en) or visiting one of their erratically manned information desks at Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 in the airport (both 24hr), and at Deira City Centre, BurJuman, Wafi and Ibn Battuta malls (all daily 10am–10pm), although none is especially useful. Otherwise, the only real sources of local info are the city’s hotels and tour operators, although they can’t be counted on to give impartial or particularly informed advice.
The best local magazine is the lively Time Out Dubai (7dh; wtimeoutdubai.com), published weekly and available at bookshops all over the city, and carrying comprehensive listings about pretty much everything going on in Dubai. It’s particularly good for information about the constantly changing nightlife scene, including club, restaurant and bar promotions and new openings. The glossy What’s On (monthly; 10dh; wfacebook.com/WhatsOnDubai) is also worth a look, though the listings aren’t nearly as detailed.
Travellers with disabilities
Dubai has made considerable efforts to cater for visitors with disabilities, and ranks as probably the Middle East’s most accessible destination. Most of the city’s modern hotels now make at least some provision for guests with impaired mobility; many of the city’s four- and five-stars have specially adapted rooms, although there’s relatively little choice among three-star hotels and below. Quite a few of the city’s malls also have special facilities, including disabled parking spaces and specially equipped toilets. Inevitably, most of the city’s older heritage buildings are not accessible (although the Dubai Museum is).
Transportation is fairly well set up. The Dubai Metro incorporates facilities to assist visually and mobility-impaired visitors, including tactile guide paths, lifts and ramps, as well as wheelchair spaces in all compartments, while accessible taxis can be booked on t04 208 0808 (but best to give a couple of hours' notice). There are also dedicated facilities at the airport.
There are seven public holidays in Dubai: two have fixed dates, while the other five shift annually according to the Islamic calendar (falling around 11 days earlier from year to year).
New Year’s Day Jan 1.
Milad un Nabi (Birth of the Prophet Mohammed) Estimated dates: Jan 13, 2014; Jan 3, 2015; Dec 24, 2015; Dec 12, 2016.
Leilat al Meiraj (Ascent of the Prophet) Estimated dates: May 25, 2014; May 15, 2015; May 4, 2016; April 23, 2017.
Eid ul Fitr (the end of Ramadan) Estimated dates: July 28, 2014; July 17, 2015; July 5, 2016; June 25, 2017.
Eid al Adha (the Festival of the Sacrifice) Estimated dates: Oct 4, 2014; Sept 23, 2015; Sept 11, 2016; Sept 1, 2017.
Al Hijra (Islamic New Year) Estimated dates: Nov 5, 2013; Oct 25, 2014; Oct 14, 2015; Oct 2, 2016; Sept 21, 2017.
National Day Dec 2.