If you fly Emirates Airlines, you will empty out of the plane into the elegant, modern Terminal 3 at Dubai airport. It is large, efficient and very comfortable. You may have a little wait at immigration, less if you have a passport with a microchip and you are willing to register at the “smart gate”. It takes very little time and will mean you can enter the country swiftly on your return.
The efficiency you encounter at the airport should be a predictor of the whole Dubai experience; a little preparation will ensure this is the case.
1. Timing the Visit
There are summer and winter seasons in Dubai. Think about what you expect to do in Dubai, then plan your trip accordingly. October through to May is the best time in the UA. It is like a perfect summer most of the time, but the winter months of December to February can be unpredictable. If you are coming to Dubai primarily to sunbathe and swim, be aware that temperatures can range from 30C during the day down to 12C over night at this time of year. Some years the daytime temperature does not get above 24C. Particularly in January, it can be foggy, cloudy and cool even in the day, and it can rain.
Rain in Dubai is just like rain everywhere. The only difference is that it makes long-time desert dwellers happy. They like to get their 4X4s and head out into the desert. But, as a sun seeking holidaymaker, it could ruin your plans.
June, July, August and September are probably months to stay away unless you LOVE heat and humidity. It may only be 42C in the heat of the day, but it is 42C with attitude and humidity. And the humidity rises once the sun sets, so there really is no respite. The restaurants stop serving food outside; they know better. If you want to visit Dubai at this time of year, you will be spending most of your time in one air-conditioned environment or another.
2. Get Informed
Do some research before you head for Dubai. It may be a city in the news and have a buzz about it, but you need to be sure that the buzz is related to things you like to do.
I would characterize Dubai as the biggest shopping experience in one city. High, middle and low-end shops are represented and there is an Outlet Mall. So there is plenty available. In Satwa and Bur Dubai, there are fabric shops and lots of tailors if you want clothes made to measure. I am not sure who they are made to measure for as it never seems to be for me – I have had my disappointments and have given up trying.
It is also a good place to eat. The seafood is fresh. A lot of top chefs have established outlets here, and there are many glamorous restaurants. The food is generally delicious, but it is not the same as eating Italian in Italy or seafood in Rick Stein’s restaurant in the UK.
Lots of sports are available: swimming, sailing, jet skiing, ballooning, riding, golf and tennis. Some major tournaments are held here including the Rugby 7s. It is possible to hire any type of sports car or a 4×4. It is possible to book a chance to on a race track at Motor City, but you need to book well in advance. The best water parks in the world are here; you can scuba dive in Dubai Mall and ski in the Mall of the Emirates.
A tip about the aquarium in Dubai Mall is that if you go to level one and walk towards either H&M or Chilli’s restaurant, you will find you have accessed a little visited section of the aquarium where you can get right up close away from the crowds. There is an oxygen vent there, which makes it popular with the fish.
The beaches are beautiful and accessible through the hotels or the beach parks.
But if you want to walk though ancient streets and breathe in the historic beauty of the place, this is the wrong place. Old buildings in the desert were made of materials that encourage dissolving back into the environment.
3. Hotel: Expensive or not?
Think about how much time you want to spend in your hotel. The hotels on the beach often offer a lot of water activities. For example, Atlantis even has its own fantastic water park. So pick a hotel that offers the things you want to do.
If you want pampering, stay in a hotel that has the highest quality spa. From experience, the Madinat complex offers spa luxury and so much more. The Park Hyatt has an excellent spa as well, but no beach access. You are walking distance from a golf course, however.
If you want to be out and about all the time, do you need to stay in an expensive hotel? The Arabian Ranches Golf Club Hotel is, as the name suggests, right on a golf club and can be very inexpensive at certain times of year. It also has stables nearby and is not far from the Polo club. In addition, it is a short taxi ride from Motor City if you are interested in car racing. It is not luxurious, but it has a good hair salon and nail spa.
4. Dress for the Occasion
Dubai is a very liberal city, but it is in an Islamic country. The local people dress conservatively and in their traditional clothes most of the time, as do visitors from other Gulf countries. You are not expected to adhere to local traditions, but it is greatly appreciated if visitors show respect for the local people by dressing appropriately for the situation.
You can wear a bikini by the pool or on the beach, but do not walk through the hotel lobby clad only in a bikini. Bring some long flowing beach wear to put on over your swim wear for getting from your room to the pool, and get dressed or at least cover up again before heading to the hotel restaurant. The same applies to men. Of course it is fine to have a drink at a poolside bar in swim wear. It is really just a matter of being sensitive to others.
Many locals are aware that visitors have different traditions when it comes to appropriate dress and do not take offense. However, it is only polite to make an effort to dress for the situation.
Transparent clothing is not appropriate for restaurants or shopping malls, but it is not expected that you cover up totally. Short-sleeved shirts and shorts are acceptable in shopping malls. Really short skirts or shorts will generally not draw comments, but they are not considered appropriate for shopping malls.
These days most major malls and some hotel lobbies have gentle requests asking visitors to dress appropriately. Some restaurants do not admit men in sandals or jeans. Ask when you make a booking.
5. Be Culturally Aware
Think twice before you offer to shake hands with anyone. You may be trying to be polite, but this can cause embarrassment and offense. Traditional women, young or old, do not like being expected to shake hands with men. But it is equally true the other way around. Really, a smile and a simple nod will suffice. Despite this warning, you may see men shaking hands warmly, kissing each other or holding hands, but it is still rare to see Arab couples holding hands in public, though this is changing.
Yes, Dubai is a very liberal country, but there are limits. Swearing in public is against the law. The ‘F’ word is best avoided as are any references to religious entities. Religion and swearing combined can lead to a three month jail sentence if you are overheard. It does not matter that you are visitor – ignorance of the law is just ignorance and no defense.
6. Ramadan offers Travelers some Challenges
The holy month of Ramadan is a time of celebration in the Muslim world and Dubai is no different. However, it also offers challenges for visitors. Muslims do not eat from sunrise to sunset and visitors are encouraged to do the same once they leave the hotel. You may not be chastised, but you will be behaving inappropriately if you eat or even drink water in public during this time. There is very little food for sale even in the malls, and some businesses only open after 6 pm, and then stay open until midnight or later.
While the restaurants in hotels continue to serve food throughout the day – travelers are exempt from the Ramadan ban – there are often screens blocking the diners from view. Outdoor bars, such pool bars, do not operate. There can also be restrictions on when alcohol is served.
If you can adjust, the fun starts after sunset. The big hotels set up Ramadan tents where people gather with their friends and family to eat and smoke sheesha until late into the night, and the festive atmosphere is a delight.
7. Eat Outside your Comfort Zone
Unlike some countries where the risk to your health of eating the street food is extreme, the cheap food stalls and little restaurants are great places to eat. Try Ravi’s in Satwa. Sit out on the street in the cooler weather and feel like a local. Anyone can go to a posh restaurant, but it takes a real adventurer to branch out like this. The thali restaurants are always cheap but delicious. Give it a try.
Although it is hard to the point of nearly impossible to get Emirati food, there are plenty of Arab restaurants in hotels and other locations. If you like meat, these are a great choice. Equally, they will have exciting vegetable dishes.
Think of a well-known cuisine and you will be able to find it here. French, Thai, Japanese, Italian, and German are easily found in the hotels. Prices range greatly, so if you are on a budget, do check the price first.
8. Alcohol Consumption in Dubai
Alcohol is only served in restaurants in the hotels with the exception of a few restaurants. There are liquor outlets in Dubai, but to buy from them you need a liquor license.
The whole business of alcohol consumption needs to be approached with caution. For example, getting drunk in public can lead to bad decisions or drawing negative attention to yourself. It is to be avoided. In theory, even as a visitor, you ought to have an alcohol license.
Alcohol is quite expensive in restaurants, but it is possible to pick up five bottles of wine at the airport duty free shop. Or you could buy the equivalent in spirits or beer.
Outside of licensed restaurants, public consumption of alcohol is not allowed. Drinking and driving is against the law and there is zero tolerance.
9. Get Out of the Malls
It would be a shame to come to Dubai and only drift between the hotel and the mall. But, do not make yourself miserable by trying to walk places in Dubai. Distances are usually greater than you think and the sun often hotter than it looks when walking with no shade.
If you do not have much time, ask your taxi driver to give you a tour along the Dubai Creek. Take in the sights of the dhows that still trade between the UAE and other countries in the area. They are beautiful with their dark wood and vivid blues. Drive down Sheik Zayed road at night and take in the skyscape. Go to the Dubai Marina and walk along the waterfront there.
But most important of all, anyway you can, drive out into the desert until you come to the red sands, the color of the desert changes from white to an orangey-red depending on what the mineral content is. A trip to Al Ain is a great way to see this change. You did not come to the UAE to do what you usually do, so try something new. If you book a desert drive tour, you will get to have a short but exciting desert adventure in the red sand.
Some new things you might try have been suggested above, but others could be a visit with penguins, a trip to the top of the world’s tallest building, a ride on the world’s fastest roller coaster, or an over-night stay in the desert. Try a Ferrari simulator, or an aircraft simulator, or a real Ferrari. Eat camel milk chocolate.
10. Relax: It’s safe
It is almost unheard of for a visitor to Dubai to be pickpocketed or roughed up. The biggest risk is probably on the road. Most people will treat you courteously or ignore you. Both are fine, really.