Bargain Basement Dubai

Food & Wine, Health & Safety, Hotels & Resorts, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Shopping & Style, Spa & Beauty, United Arab Emirates — By on December 18, 2006 at 10:39 am

In the last decade, Dubai has become a red-hot destination for ex-pats eager to make an overnight fortune and spend it just as quickly. Boasting the world’s only seven-star resort, the world’s largest indoor ski slope, the world’s highest number of shopping malls per capita and soon-to-be the world’s tallest building, Dubai doesn’t do anything half-assed-and it definitely doesn’t do anything cheap.

Of course, this was a critical piece of information that we learned only after Jen, Holly and I had accepted Dubai as a “free” stopover on the open-jaw airline ticket we just purchased. Until now, we’d prided ourselves on choosing destinations where our money would stretch the farthest, places where we could eat, sleep and entertain ourselves for about $20 to $30 per day. Seduced by the idea that we could get something for nothing (and the fact that we could add “Middle East” to our itinerary) we opted to spend a week in the United Arab Emirates. Little did we know, things were about to get expensive, and fast.

Better still was the fact that the flight was half empty, so the girls and I had plenty of room to stretch out, curl up our feet and watch the movies everyone else at home has already seen (and for the record, with the exception of Adrian Grenier, I thought the casting of Devil Wears Prada was perfect!).
After spending the entire overnight flight staring at our personal entertainment centers, Jen, Holly and I arrived in the Dubai Airport a little bleary eyed, but feeling particularly cool that we’d managed to finagle an extra city into our traveling itinerary.

But as we entered gleaming white marble customs hall filled with passengers sporting more Prada, Escada, Gucci and Valentino than the characters in the movie I’d just finished (not to mention in Vogue itself), I got the distinct impression that this “free” stopover might be a bit pricier than we’d bargained for.

That reality hit home once we tried to find an affordable place to stay. After checking dozens of hotel websites, emailing friends-of-friends who lived in town and inquiring about hostels only to find out they don’t exist in Dubai, one upscale hotel manager took pity on us and negotiated a deal with his pal across town. For the rock-bottom, bargain basement price of $133 per night, the girls and I could unpack our bags at the Empire Suites, a slightly seedy, down-n-dirty establishment that looked ripe for a Vegas style demolition. After spending between $6 and $15 apiece to shack up in South America and Africa, we could hardly fathom spending that kind of money just to catch some Zzzs. But rather than head back to the airport to switch our flights and admit defeat, we humbly accepted the “deeply discounted” room. It could have been worse: in Jumairah neighborhood some big spenders were shelling out $10,000 per night to stay at the oft-photographed and neon splashed Burj al Arab (the hotel that looks like a sailboat set adrift in the Persian Gulf).

It certainly sucked knowing that we’d be hemorrhaging almost an entire month’s lodging budget on six nights of sleep in Dubai, but our financial situation got vastly better from there. By talking to other travelers, getting advice from the aforementioned friends of friends and stealing a “Don’t Remove” copy of Time Out Dubai from some hotel lobby, we figured out all sorts of nifty ways to save cash and have fun in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Here’s our advice for Doing Dubai on the Cheap:

Eating Out: Much like Vegas, this place has no shortage of super swank restaurants designed to satisfy an international jet set with champagne wishes and caviar tastes. Unfortunately, as you know by know, we’re on a diet coke and tuna fish kind of budget. We found our food salvation by hitting up several of the ubiquitous schwarma, hummus and falafel stands across town. Not only did these delicious street eats fill us up for less than a buck, we never had to worry about reservations or a dress code.

Transport: The price of gas back at home may be stratospheric, but here in the Middle East, cab drivers pay about 50 percent less to fill up their tanks. Sure it’s unfair-we won’t even begin to go into the politics here-but cheaper petrol means cheaper cab rides. We rarely paid more than a few bucks each to get ourselves across town. And until Dubai gets a subway, cabs are really the only way to roll.

Drinks and Dancing: Expensive hotel rooms are big strike against Dubai but the city wins back mega points for its fantastic Ladies Nights held at lounges, clubs and bars across the city. Every single night of the week, the fairer sex can enjoy their choice of beer, top shelf cocktails and even champagne with strawberries. Now that’s what we’re talking about—free drinks without the burden of chatting up some random dudes (c’mon, you know you’ve done it or someone who has!)

Entertainment: Grab a copy of Time Out Dubai and you’ll find an incredible number of free events in the city, such as movie screenings under the stars and concerts featuring bands you’ve actually heard of. Most events happen around sunset, leaving you plenty of time to head out on the town (see Ladies Nights above).

Beauty: Forget Paris or Manhattan-if there was ever a town with a higher concentration of makeup counters and beauty bars, this is it. Locals explain that because Arab women often reveal just their face (and sometimes just their eyes), they are fanatic about having gorgeous skin and great cosmetics. Chanel, Estee Lauder and Dior may not come cheap, but you can have a field day sampling the goods at one of the 10 zillion department stores and makeup shops in town. Sure some of you may get sucked into purchasing $200 worth of anti-wrinkle cream like I did (hey, the desert is dry and I am 28 now), but if you can show restraint like Holly and Jen, you can sample expensive and buy cheap. You’ll find amazing deals on yummy smelling hair, nail and skin products at Boot Pharmacy, a London-based brand that has a few branches in Dubai. The girls took advantage of the buy two, get one free deal….making their bags heavier but their wallets only slightly lighter.

Health: Really want to make up for lost funds? Hit the very back of Boots (or any local pharmacy) and stock up on all the medications that you ordinarily need prescriptions and tons of cash to get. Retina A, a great Rx skin smoothing cream, normally costs about $60 with insurance but we snagged tubes for $8. Jen picked up some antibiotics to knock out a sinus infection for a few bucks. Antibacterial eye drops, Yazmin, Difflucan (if you’re a chick, you know what those last two are), nasal spray and malarial meds were all available over the counter-and at a serious discount, making Dubai a great stop for stocking up.

Lodging: Sure, the nightclub downstairs was a little too loud and the location a bit out of the way, but the Empire Suites really wasn’t all that bad. Book now-before it’s cleared to make room for yet another five-star hotel.

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  • William says:

    Hello, courageous women! I happened upon your website via this morning as I was searching for people who had mentioned world tickets. I plan to embark Dec 2007 from Atlanta. Right now, I’m saving up money. I’ve marked your site as a valuable resource. I may use Airtek.


  • Dellie says:

    You three look so beautiful. As does Dubai. It is a city made for you girls and I hope that one day you enjoy a return trip without the shoestring budget. Happy Holidays from the States!

  • Anonymous says:

    Hi, it’s your renter (Forever 17). Thanks for letting me stay in your blog for a week.

    I love traveling so I really like the idea of the blog, and enjoy reading the entries. =)


  • Taunted says:

    So you enjoyed the dusty city then?

    Thought you would, but you didn’t mention my favourite place, Madinat Jumeriah, so very, very romantic, watching the sun go down over the Burj.

    Heaven really can be a place on earth.

    But that’s before you see the squalour that the construction workers live in. Dubai, put simply, is a facade, like a huge movie set, with the front’s of buildings looking amazing, and the shit behind them smelling.

    I hate the place.

  • laradunston says:

    I’ve just discovered your fabulous blog! What a pity I hadn’t been reading it when you were in Dubai. And what a shame you didn’t read one of our Lonely Planet or DK travel guides to Dubai – there are scores of cheap hotels in Dubai, including a stylish Ibis that often goes for less than $90 a night. And, as you discovered, it’s a myth that Dubai is expensive – well, it doesn’t have to be, anyway. Let me know if you’re ever coming back. Cheers, Lara

  • kevin fitz says:

    Hello, this is a great idea you’ve created.. traveling the world and recording it. I just went to Dubai and Qatar for the holidays visiting family. The entire Middle East is a confusing place to me. So many western influences (all the wrong ones.. ie. fast food). But if you can look past the facade explained in a previous comment, then you can appreciate the majesty of it all. However, I’m not too sure I’m down with the whole working class thing where people work for crap pay, and risk life and limb to build multi-million luxury establishments for the filthy rich. Something aint right there.

    Have fun on the rest of your trip, if you have any of it left. Peace – Kevin Fitz

  • Dubai is incredible city of the Middle east and one of the most hot spot for the tourist around the world. If you haven’t make it to Dubai, then what are you waiting for? City has worlds tallest building..

  • Outstanding story over again! Thumbs up 🙂

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