First off, let’s just say budget travel is my friend! Coincidentally, I found a Groupon deal to Dubai with Gate 1 Travel. It was during my winter break, so I already had time off work. SOLD! It seemed like a pretty good deal, and after my phenomenal travel experience to Greece with Contiki (probably my favorite), my friend and I figured why not give it a try. We’ve also heard some good things about their travel deals and reliability, so it seemed like a good investment. We went in February, and the weather was in the 80s throughout our stay and overall pretty comfortable. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Al Mina, which was convenient for the most part in terms of Ubering. I would recommend a stop by their restaurant for a meal and Caprihanas by the way :). The staff was pleasant and helpful, which I appreciated. The trip itself was a week including travel time, and we had four full days to explore. I think we did the best we could to make the most of our time. Most of our planned adventures were successful and a few...not so much, but what’s a travel experience without any fails turned life long memories and giggles, right?!
At the top of our list was going to the Dubai Miracle Garden. It’s definitely a playground for flower lovers with over 150 million flowers! The arrangements are gorgeous, and the flowers are simply beautiful. We got there pretty early to beat the crowd, and we spent quite a bit of time there, definitely more than we anticipated. Unfortunately, it’s not open year-round, so plan your stay between mid-November to mid-May if this is an experience you would like to try. Some of their arrangements change seasonally, but the hearts passage is their most featured attraction and obviously our favorite :). Clearly, we couldn’t get enough! It was where we started, made our way around and....stopped again before we left.
We went to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world! We splurged smidge, and our tickets included entrance to the highest observation deck, which is the highest outdoor viewing platform in the world as well. Our experience included learning about the history, architecture of the building, and views of the city from different levels. The highest deck view was a little foggy, but we could spot the Burj Al Arab (which turned into its own mini-adventure). We went to three observation decks and spent some time in the SKY lounge. We were able to spend as much time as we pleased on each deck and in the lounge. We were offered various snacks, beverages, and cocktails in the lounge, including some authentic cultural goodies. Overall, it was a fun experience, especially considering I learned about the Burj Khalifa in my world geography class as a college kid. I will definitely say the views were very different from the different decks, and my absolute favorite was from the highest floor. So I think we made a good choice!
We had dinner at a restaurant in the Dubai Mall, which is connected to the Burj Khalifa. We sat outside, and from there, we had a view of the Dubai fountains and watched the show. It turns out it’s the world’s most extensive choreographed fountain system. If you’ve seen one fountain show, you’ve seen them all :); however, lots of tourists were impressed! For about two seconds, I almost thought there was a celebrity sighting lol. In my opinion, it was similar to the fountain show at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, but again I haven’t been impressed by a fountain show since I was five at Sea World. I also found a place in the mall near the restaurant and got a henna tattoo. I’m sure it was overpriced because it was in a tourist area, but it was convenient. Originally I wanted a sleeve but quickly settled for my hand once I found out the price. It’s possible to negotiate, and I highly recommend it. What I wasn’t aware of was the drying time! It took quite a while, and I also had on white pants, which didn’t help, so keep this in mind when you are planning what to wear :).
Our original plan was to go to Burj al Arab for brunch or drinks. It’s such a lavish spot; you must make a reservation to enter the building, which you can make before or right before entering. We weren’t pressed to splurge on this experience after looking at the menu and opted against those drinks and food, so we went to Jumeirah Beach, soaked up some sun and views of the Burj al Arab from the outside lol. If I ever make my way back to Dubai, I’ll put this experience on my second must-do list. While at the beach, we stumbled across a bar near the Burj Al Arab, and the drinks were tasty. We also went to Shimmers, a Greek restaurant, for a meal and beverages, a part of a resort on the opposite side of the Burj Al Arab. The food was delicious, and the chic atmosphere was relaxing. Near the restaurant is where we discovered the fancy abra rides, which we were looking forward to courtesy of Insta; however, we found out quickly they were exclusive for guests staying at the resort, which was a major disappointment. I’d recommend pressing your luck. May the odds be in your favor :). The abras are really cute! We were still set on riding an abra, so at some point, we took an abra ride in the city; however, it just wasn’t the same. I wouldn’t recommend it if you have the Insta vision in mind. Once we crossed the water, we did find a cool shopping area to purchase kaftans and scarves. We both needed scarves for our day trip to Abu Dhabi to visit a mosque, so it worked out in our favor surprisingly.
We went on a half-day desert safari with our tour group and my, how that turned into an adventure! It was about an hour or so drive to the desert. We were picked up from our hotel in a 4x4 and made a few unexpected pit stops for gas and a tire change, which we found a tad humorous considering we weren’t anticipating them. At our first “real” stop, we had the option to drive a 4x4, which sounded like a fun time until we walked up and saw it was an open area. Lots of people were driving everywhere and in any direction they pleased. We quickly declined, but if you are an adventurous daredevil, I think it would be your speed. This stop was also our restroom stop, which turned interesting. Let’s just say all of the restrooms weren’t traditional American restrooms, and we weren’t given a warning or prepared. If you’ve been camping ladies, you’ll pack the right things. The dune bashing was fun; however, I wasn’t aware it was getting ready to begin, and I was not prepared for that either...surprise! We stopped for some photo ops and watched the sunset before heading to the Bedouin campsite. There, we had the option to go on a camel ride, try Arabic coffee and shisha, watch some traditional dancers, and indulged in a barbecue dinner. There were souvenir shops and a complimentary henna tattoo station. The experience lasted about six hours. Our driver was excellent, and interacting with him only enhanced our experience. He told good jokes, listened to Drake, and was knowledgeable of the history of Dubai. I would recommend this experience. We enjoyed him so much, and I wish I knew the name of the tour group. He was great!
The Dubai Frame has been called “the biggest frame on the planet”! When we went, it just opened and was one of Dubai’s newest attraction. Once you make it to the top, you can see old Dubai, and on the other, new Dubai on one side. It was pretty neat to take in the city from different perspectives and see how it has evolved. It was inexpensive and worth the quick visit. The glass bottom was cool too! I wouldn’t put it on your must-do list, but I would take advantage of the experience if there’s time. Now, there are ticket options that offer to go to the frame and the Burj Kalifa.
Gate 1 offered a day trip to the Arabian Jewel. We planned on going ourselves, so we decided to go with our tour group. The guide was very informative about the history of the city and the Ruling family. We already made friends with other people in our group going on other excursions so it was fun going with our group. We stopped at a few museums to learn more about Sheikh Zayed, which were very informative before we went to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the world's largest religious buildings. We stopped at Ferrari World too, but we didn’t have time to ride the world’s faster roller coaster. I’m still sad I missed out, but at this point, I may not have been able to handle it lol. We also wanted to go to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, but we didn’t have time. Overall, we were satisfied with our tour considering our time restraints. I would recommend an overnight stay in Abu Dhabi to be able to explore the city more. We also enjoyed our tour guide. She told good jokes too.
My Dubai Travel Tips and recommendations
1. Dress appropriately
I was a little nervous about dressing appropriately, but after going to Egypt, I figured I knew what I was doing. Outside of the Miracle Garden, I mostly packed jeans or pants and nonrevealing tops. I recommend having a denim jacket or something to cover your arms because everywhere we went, the AC was high if you get cold easily like me. I think it's ok to wear dresses in tourist areas. However, it was more convenient to stay somewhat covered up considering you still have to travel to get to these places, so keep this in mind. During this time of the year and being covered up, I wasn't uncomfortably hot at all, so it worked out. The mosque is extremely strict with their dress code! When they say no sheer...they mean no sheer even if you have a layer underneath. Just remember to be respectful of the culture! After all, you are the guest in their town.
2. Splurge on a luxury stay....at least one night
When we found the deal, it was such a good deal we couldn't pass it up. Even as a budget traveler, if I ever went back, I would recommend splurging for at least one night at a luxurious hotel for the experience considering the city is built on luxury. This thought didn't cross my mind until after the fact. To get the full Dubai experience, you probably shouldn't go on a budget traveler's trip there for that reason lol.
3. Take advantage of everything the city has to offer!
My inner 5-year-old was a little disappointed because I didn't go to any of the theme parks. there are so many! I love roller coasters, and they're indoors, which is nice instead of Disney on a summer day. This is also on trip #2 list lol.
Overall, the trip was a great combination of relaxation, sightseeing, and a mini cultural experience. We met some very fun individuals who only made the trip better. I enjoy making international friends, even if it's temporary! I will say I was expecting more of a cultural experience than I actually got which was a tad disappointing. I think it all depends on your expectations, but overall it was a great trip. - XO Amb