UAE on a Budget: One Week in the Oil Country as a Broke Backpacker

In 11th-grade geography class we learned about a global futuristic city catered to the rich and elite. Us 16-year-olds had never heard of this city set in the middle of a desert, but it quickly enchanted the room. Photos on the overhead projector showed tennis courts in the clouds, palm tree shaped islands, and underwater hotels. Eight years later, I had the opportunity to visit the United Arab Emirates.

I spent a week in UAE after I had spent five of the previous months backpacking around Europe.  I was in en route for Hong Kong, and when Dubai became an option for a long stopover, I knew I had to see what geography class made all the fuss about.  After booking the flight about seven weeks in advance, I began searching the internet for accommodation options.

As a hostel enthusiast, I was little shocked and disappointed when I realized…there is only one hostel in the U.A.E, the Dubai Youth Hostel, and realized I should have done more Dubai accommodation research.  After looking at the photos and reviews online, I decided to only spend one night here for $35.  I am glad I only booked one night because I would not recommend staying here.

After searching for my accommodation, I soon came to the realization that…this was not going to be a cheap week. It would be hard to do UAE on a budget. Having spent five of my previous months in Europe, and the next three months in Asia I was not in the position to start splurging.  I pulled out my credit card and sucked it up, booking hotels in Dubai and Abu Dhabi for the remaining nights at an average of $80/night. I know Dubai is expensive, but here is a good hotel option for a decent price. 

Trying to do UAE on a budget


Upon landed in Dubai I found that getting from point A to point B was not going to be very seamless. Dubai has a modern, and very new public transport system and, therefore, it is not fully developed.  Walking between destinations is simply not an option in this city.  The roadways are massive, and you will find yourself needing a bus or subway to get to most places.  However, as previously stated the transport system is in development still and without a car, a taxi is the only viable options to get many places without wasting the entire day.  

One of the easiest places to get to via public transport is the Dubai Mall, so I set sail to go shopping at the biggest mall in the world.  Feeling like a bum in my cargo pants and a sports bra while in Downtown Dubai, I made my way down to the ground level where the Dubai Fountain puts on an impressive show every 30 minutes.  Overlooking the fountain stands the world’s tallest building at 830 meters, The Burj Khalifa.  Which is one of the most instagrammable places in Dubai.

The crowds were dressed to the nines as they celebrated around the fountain that was packed so tight I could barely move.  The inside of the mall was so massive that I got lost about eight times.  Overwhelmed and exhausted from my laps around the shopping complex, I resorted back to my hotel empty handed.

Burj Khalifa while doing UAE on a budget
A building so tall, I couldn’t even fit it in my photo

The next day was beach day! I woke up and made my way to Jumeirah Beach for some fun in the sun.  I tried my best to avoid all cabs for the day, but despite my best efforts to only take buses, I was left with no choice than to hail a cab due to transport limitations.  I started the day at the Souk Madinat, an impressive complex with shops, restaurants, bars, and great views of the city.  Only resort guests were allowed to access the private beach from here, so I walked up the street past the Burj Al Arab and onto the public beach.  I spent the rest of the day people watching and imagining what it must be like inside the self-proclaimed 7-star hotel.  Because of the high cost of food, I was trying to eat most of my meals from the numerous supermarkets. Feeling luxurious today, I went back to the Souk and dined at one of the many restaurants overlooking the Gulf.

Seeing the Burj Al Arab while doing UAE on a budget

It took me about an hour in the city to realize I was not going to be able to act like a royal this time around.  Leaving a lot of activities for another time, I made my way to Abu Dhabi by bus.

Read More: {How to Experience Dubai to the Fullest}

Abu Dhabi

Transport wise, this city was not going to be any easier than Dubai.  I sucked it up again as I took a $8 cab ride to my hotel.  With no hostels in Abu Dhabi either, I decided to stay at the Hotel Ibis Abu Dhabi Gate, which turned out to be incredibly nice and modern.

The rest of the day was spent asking people how to get to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque where a few Abu Dhabi National Day Events take place, and then navigating the foreign bus networks.  I ended up walking up to the back of this grand piece of architecture around dusk.  Unbeknown to me I was at the back of the mosque, and couldn’t figure out why the place was completely deserted.  I continued to take photos in solitude and marveled at the white palace.

UAE on a budget
The back of the mosque

After twenty minutes of continuous photo ops, I noticed a group of teenagers walking up from somewhere unknown.  I decided to trace their footsteps and realized why I had been all alone at the caboose of the building. The back of the building was grand,  but once I realized there was a front side a whole new world unfolded.  Literally, I felt like I was in “Aladdin The Sequel.”  To say the Sheikh Zayed Mosque is grand is an understatement.  The massive outside truly glimmers, showcasing its pearly white infrastructure, like a building in the clouds.  I didn’t know where to go first but exploring the ins and outs of the mosque would surely take hours.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque: UAE on a budget
UAE on a budget at Sheikh Zayed Mosque

There were plenty of people around as night fell, and I decided to make my way inside.  You must cover yourself while in the mosque.  Don’t worry if you are a little underprepared, they provide black abayas as you enter!  Exploring the inside of the mosque will also take some time, it can accommodate up to 7000 worshipers at a time and features the world’s biggest carpet!  It does not cost a penny to get up close to the white palace, which makes it a great thing to do while backpacking through Abu Dhabi.

The Grand Sheikh Zayed Mosque: UAE on a budget
Inside the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
UAE on a budget: Covered up in Sheikh Zayed Mosque
All women must be covered.

My night was well spent at the grand mosque, yet it was time to resort back to the Ibis Hotel.  The next day was U.A.E’s National Day and local festivities were already underway.  I woke up early to make my way downtown to the sparkling waterfront. Hanging out downtown is an all-day affair as the area boast the world’s tallest flagpole, heritage village, and an impressive skyline. I was able to soak up the sun while checking out the day’s festivities and enjoying the fireworks over the marina.

Read More: {Teaching in the UAE}

Celebrating UAE Pride
UAE on a budget National Day

The day in Downtown Abu Dhabi had been enjoyable, cultural, and virtually free!  I  had a flight out to Hong Kong the next day, and once again had to resort back to my hotel. While taking off on the runway, I collected that both of these cities were exciting, majestic, and very safe for a solo female traveler.  However, this all came at a price point.  U.A.E. may not be on every backpackers route simply because it is far too expensive.  For one broke girl, I still found hidden gems and fantastic things to do all around me!

Abu Dhabi

About Natasha

Natasha is the co-founder of The World Pursuit. She is an expert in travel, budgeting, and finding unique experiences. She loves to be outside, hiking in the mountains, playing in the snow on her snowboard, and biking. She has been traveling for over 10 years experiencing unique cultures, new food, and meeting fantastic people. She strives to make travel planning and traveling easier for all. Her advice about international travel, outdoor sports, and African safari has been featured on Lonely Planet, Business Insider, and Reader’s Digest.

Learn more about Natasha Alden on The World Pursuit About Us Page.

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