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I lived in Abu Dhabi for two years, and during that time I became somewhat of an expert in UAE budget travel.
Dan and I managed to pay down almost 60k of student loans when we taught in the UAE, but we still had tons of fun as well.
If you’re trying to visit this super expensive country on the cheap, this guide to budget travel in the UAE will help. It covers:
- 9 free things to do in the UAE
- 5 more cheap things to do in the UAE
- 4 extra tips to save money in Dubai and Abu Dhabi
- Budget accommodation in Abu Dhabi and Dubai
- And so much more!
Ready to dive in?
Keep reading to plan an awesome and affordable vacation in the UAE!
9 Free Things to Do in the UAE
Of course, this UAE budget travel guide begins with the top 9 free things to do in the UAE, including beaches, free drinks (yes, really), biking, window shopping, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, museums, and more.
1. Watch the indoor skiers at Ski Dubai
This is in pretty much every list of things to do in the UAE but that’s because it’s so unique.
Ski Dubai is an indoor ski slope in the Dubai Mall that’s hella expensive to visit but totally free to spectate at.
The mall has a giant glass wall where you can grab a seat and watch the kids throw snowballs and skiers fly down the slopes.
2. Explore the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi
No UAE budget travel guide is complete without mentioning the Grand Mosque.
Formally named the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (after Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who ruled the UAE for more than 30 years) the Grand Mosque is the largest mosque in the UAE and the 21st largest in the world.
Covered in intricate tiles and soaring turrets, you’ll feel like you stepped straight into the world of Alladin, Jasmine, and flying carpets.
Entrance to the mosque is free but make sure to dress appropriately. Men need to wear pants and sleeves and women will get a free abaya – a traditional full-body cover with a headscarf – to wear for their visit.
3. Drink for free at a ‘Ladies Night’
This is truly the best-kept secret in the UAE. Did you know that women can drink for free – no strings attached – any night of the week?
My friends and I did it for two years, and there’s nothing like sipping a free $30 mimosa on the water to help you forget that this is one of the most expensive countries in the world.
All Ladies Nights have their own rules and regulations but it always includes multiple free drinks. Use this list of Ladies Nights to save money on every night out during your trip (unless you’re a guy, in which case, tough luck on this round).
4. Bike around the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix track
For those of you who don’t know much about Formula One racing, it’s kind of like NASCAR from the future. There are different tracks around the world (the most famous of which is Monaco) and drivers race in each city once per year.
In Abu Dhabi, the Grand Prix race is held in November.
The rest of the time, the F1 track on Yas Island is used for various events, including open biking, running, and walking every Sunday and Tuesday. They even offer free bike rentals, so all you need to do is show up and hit the track!
Corniche beach in Abu Dhabi
5. Visit the Free Beaches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi
An unfortunate reality of life in the UAE is that many of the beaches are private and require entrance fees to visit. Luckily, there are still a few free spots to soak up the sun without parting with your hard-earned cash.
JBR Beach in Dubai is the best free beach in Dubai because it has a clean stretch of sand, calm water, and a lively boardwalk of restaurants and shops.
The best free beach in Abu Dhabi is called the ‘Corniche.’
It’s located right downtown, but that means that it’s not as pretty or nice as the more remote coastline in the country but it gets the job done.
It also doesn’t have much in the way of shops and restaurants, so if you go to the Corniche make sure to pack some food and drinks (and sunscreen) to get you through the day.
Souk Madinat Jumeirah
6. Go window shopping at the traditional Souks
Souk Madinat Jumeirah is an experience all its own.
It’s a super upscale market with beautiful art, lamps, scarves, and accessories on display. There are a few restaurants and places to smoke shisha and there’s a courtyard with a view of the famous sail-shaped Burj Al Arab building.
However, everything at Souk Madinat Jumeirah is expensive, so if you want to bargain-hunt and get some cheap souvenirs you should head to the Gold and Spice souks instead.
The Gold and Spice souks are next to each other so they’re easy to visit together. They’re also both much more traditional and casual than Souk Madinat Jumeirah. Spend a few hours wandering through the stalls where you’ll see many of the same items as Souk Madinat Jumeirah for a fraction of the price.
7. Catch a show at the Dubai Fountains
Just like Ski Dubai, the Dubai Fountains find their way onto almost every UAE budget travel guide.
Shows are every 30 minutes from 6 pm to 11 pm with a few variances (click here to see the full schedule) and of course, because the UAE does everything big, it’s billed as ‘the world’s largest performing fountain.’
You can also ogle the Burj Khalifa building – the tallest in the world at 2,716 feet – and try to find that perfect angle to fit it all in one shot.
8. Visit the failed (but still interesting ) Masdar City
When I taught in Abu Dhabi for two years I lived and worked in a neighborhood called Khalifa City A, which was next to Masdar City. And I visited Masdar City quite a few times during my stay because a small shop there served up the best burritos in the country!
But as a tourist looking for something more than a bite to eat, this is a strange hidden gem that’s definitely one of the best free things to do in the UAE.
Masdar City was built to be the first zero-carbon city in the world. It has a solar-powered parking lot for solar-powered cars, a wind tunnel to regulate the heat in the small walled city, and even a university.
It didn’t reach its goal of becoming a zero-carbon city but it’s still ‘one of the world’s most sustainable urban communities’ and has businesses, classrooms, restaurants, and permanent residences even though it does still feel a bit like a ghost town at times.
If you’re interested in green technology and sustainability, Masdar City is a must on your UAE budget itinerary.
9. Visit the Coin Museum or the Museum of the Poet Al Oqaili
Last up on this list of the best free things to do in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are two small niche museums.
The Coin Museum is located in the Bur Dubai neighborhood and boasts the ‘rare opportunity to see more than 470 pieces of rare coins dating back to different historical eras.’
The Museum of the Poet Al Oqaili id dedicated to the Audi poet Al Oqaili who lived and worked in Dubai in the house the museum is located in. Built as a traditional heritage house, the building is just as much as an attraction as the exhibits inside.
View of Dubai from the Burj Khalifa
5 More Cheap Things to do in the UAE
Next up on the UAE budget travel guide are five more cheap, but not completely free, things to do in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and beyond.
This will not only take you to top sites in the two major cities in the UAE but also on day trips to the desert, the city of Al Ain, and even a neighboring country in the Gulf!
Al Ain, UAE
1. Take a day trip to Al Ain
Al Ain is really ignored on the tourist circuit through the UAE but I strongly believe it’s worth a visit. But honestly, the best way to go is by renting a car.
Car rentals in Dubai are around $30+ per day, but the two best things to do in Al Ain are free, so this is a budget-friendly outing and a great way to get off the beaten track.
Al Ain is about two hours from Dubai and is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site called the Al Ain Oasis. In a city of sand, it’s nice to step into a 3,000-acre oasis of palm trees.
It’s watered by a traditional irrigation system and surrounded by working farms, which is also a nice glimpse into something besides the ultra-modern cityscape most of the rest of the UAE pushes to the forefront of their tourism.
After you visit, stop in the city for a quick dinner and then drive up Jebel Hafeet Mountain to watch the sunset. Jebel Hafeet is the tallest mountain in the UAE (which really isn’t saying much, it only reaches 4,098 feet) but has pretty views over the desert and into Oman.
Driving up is kind of like winding through a Martian landscape – if you want to see a lesser-visited side of the UAE, Jebel Hafeet is a great place to start.
2. Create your own DIY Desert Safari
Let’s go back to that car rental. Did you know you can save major money by creating your own DIY desert safari in the USe instead of going with a tour group?
The challenge is finding a place to visit the desert without needing to offroad, which is obviously not allowed in a rental car. But this guide to driving in the Liwa Desert has one destination, the Moreeb Area, which can be reached on a paved road with a 2WD car.
Bring a cooler full of drinks, some food, lots of sunscreen, and your walking shoes, and you can spend a day in the insanely gorgeous and kind of mid-life-crisis-inducing Empty Quarter, the largest contiguous sand desert in the world.
If you rent a car around 2 pm, you can do the Al Ain Oasis and Jebel Hafeet in the evening and the desert safari the next morning and return your car within the 24 hour period.
3. Eat at a North Korean Restaurant
Did you know there’s a North Korean restaurant in Dubai?
Well, kind of.
I ate here when I lived in the UAE and it was an interesting glimpse into a starkly veiled country. The waitresses are from North Korean and even put on traditional dance shows at night.
At the moment, it has a sign saying that it’s temporarily closed which could mean it’s definitely closed for good… but also maybe not.
But give it a quick Google search to check just in case, because the chance to try authentic North Korean doesn’t come easy.
4. Visit the Dubai Miracle Gardens
Besides the Liwa Desert, the Dubai Miracle Gardens are my favorite place in the UAE. They’ve crafted insane lifesize houses, tunnels, sculptures, and more completely out of flowers.
This place is an explosion of color and life in the dry, arid desert and the absolute best place for beautiful Instagram photos in the country.
Entrance is 50 aed / 13 usd (which is cheap in this country) and it’s so memorable and unique that I strongly recommend spending the money on it. You will definitely want to spend a couple of hours here at least.
Muscat at sunrise
5. Go to Muscat
The Phenomenal Globe blog wrote a great post about taking a bus from Dubai to Muscat for only $25 round-trip plus a $7 UAE exit fee. With their guide, you can add a whole new country to your UAE budget itinerary for crazy cheap.
The ride takes about six hours each way and is pretty boring, but then you’ll be in Muscat where you can quickly get started tackling this list of the top 20 things to do in the city.
4 Extra Tips to Save Money in the UAE
Yep, I got even more insider knowledge to share in this UAE budget travel guide and these four tips will help you save even more $$$ on your visit to the country.
1. Visit Luxury Pools for Less with Groupon
Groupon is still pretty big in the UAE even though it seems to have kinda died in the US.
When I lived in Abu Dhabi, Dan and I would use it all the time for discounted pool passes at the fancy hotels around the city.
Just make sure to read the fine print because many require you to make a reservation a day or two in advance.
2. Be Very Wary of the Traffic Cameras
If you rent a car, make sure to go the speed limit at all times because there are traffic cameras everywhere.
Dan and I paid hundreds of dollars in fines on speeding tickets because we were only informed we were racking them up by the rental company after we returned the car. Not a fun surprise.
3. Buy Souvenirs at the Gold and Spice Souks
I touched on this above, but I want to reiterate it.
If you want scarves, lamps, arts, or any other souvenirs to commemorate your time in Dubai, you’ll save tons of money by picking them up at the Gold and Spice souks in Deira instead of getting them at the overpriced Souk Madinat Jumeirah or Dubai Mall.
The Rotana Rewards program will help you enjoy the famous UAE brunches for cheap
4. Join the Rotana Rewards Program
This one is for expats and frequent travelers in the UAE. I strongly recommend joining the Rotana Rewards Exclusive program and taking advantage of their awesome deals.
Memberships costs are steep but if you use it often enough you’ll come out ahead. Plus, you’ll immediately start out with a 250 aed gift card to Rotana restaurants.
We enjoyed getting 50% off every meal in the Rotana restaurants (which are great and all over the country) and discounts on hotel stays as well.
Membership lasts for one year, and for a couple, it was definitely worth it!
Budget Accommodation in Abu Dhabi and Dubai
I’ll round out this article with cheap hotels in Abu Dhabi and Dubai to help you save even more money on your stay.
In Dubai, the cheapest hotels on Booking.com all have pretty terrible reviews, so I recommend skipping the hotels altogether and checking out the rentals on Airbnb instead, which has entire apartments for less than $30 per night.
There are plenty of other great options as well, so you’ll definitely find the best bang for your buck in Dubai on Airbnb instead of in traditional hotels.
In Abu Dhabi, the two cheapest hotels (with good reviews) are the Bin Majid Tower Hotel Apartments for $46 per night and the Hotel Centro Yas Island for $61 a night (which, yeah, isn’t that cheap, but they do have a pool and a great location).
Like Dubai, you’re better off booking your stay in Abu Dhabi on Airbnb, where you’ll find rooms (but not really entire apartments) for less than $30 per night.
This nice place has a super central location and is only $27 per night.
Plan Your Trip with This UAE Budget Travel Guide
The UAE is a unique travel destination and because it’s so small (about the size of South Carolina) I saw almost all of the country during my two-year stay.
Now, I’m sharing this guide to budget travel in the UAE to help you do the same.
Bookmark this to plan your trip and take advantage of the free things to do in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, check out the cheapest attractions, snag affordable stays, and more!
Ready to go?
Use Skyscanner to find the cheapest flights to Abu Dhabi and Dubai and explore accommodation like unique stays on Airbnb or the top-rated hotels on Booking.com to plan the perfect night, weekend, or long-term stay in the cities.
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I’ve been traveling full-time for three years, these are the resources that make it happen:
➤ I exclusively use Airbnb for savings and security on long-term stays in furnished apartments.
➤ I use Booking.com for short-term stays in hostels and hotels on weekend trips.
➤ Upwork allowed me to take the leap to travel full-time because they make it so easy to find freelance clients in any field.
➤ The Superstar Blogging Travel Writing Course launched my travel writing career and helped me become a contributor at sites like Cincinnati Refined and International Living, and even get published in the Boston Globe.