The six emirates that are the United Arab Emirates could not be more different from one another; each has a magic and mystery all its own. Glittering Dubai is an action-packed, futuristic powerhouse and Abu Dhabi, with its Louvre Abu Dhabi, is certainly the capital of culture. Sharjah has a charming Old Town and sleepy Umm Al Quwain offers a peek at life in the pre-oil days. Tiny Ajman has a pretty palm-lined beach and the best swimming and diving can be had in Fujairah, just over the beautiful Hajar Mountains.
EXPLORE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Centrally located just outside the old city, sleek Dubai Airport is one of the world’s best. Emirates Airline has its own, ultramodern terminal (3), while most other long-haul international flights land at Terminal 1. Abu Dhabi Airport is also very modern in design and international visitors will arrive into an unusual circular terminal (1). If you’re from one of the 49 countries eligible for an on-the-spot visa, the entry process is a breeze. If you don’t come from an eligible country, make sure you have your visa documents to hand. Be aware that the UEA has very strict narcotics laws, and some prescription drugs are banned. Check with your local UAE embassy before flying, as you may have to ask your doctor for documentation. There are almost always plenty of taxis at both airports. In Dubai, the fixed rate from the airport is AED 25, with a fare into Deira or Bur Dubai of around AED 50, or AED 75–100 to Jumeirah. Alternatively, Terminals 1 and 3 are both connected to the Dubai Metro. There are also various airport buses including the useful Sky Bus (Terhab) network, run by RTA, which runs 24 hours from all three airport terminals with departures every 30 minutes. This is useful if you arrive at night when the metro isn’t running. To get from Abu Dhabi airport, you’ll either have to catch a taxi (around AED 70–80 into the city center) or ride the 24-hour airport bus #A1, which runs regularly into the center (AED 4). It’s around a 30–40-minute drive into the city, depending on traffic.
Numerous cruise ships include Dubai in their itineraries, docking at the Dubai Cruise Terminal in Port Rashid, centrally located between Jumeirah and Bur Dubai.
The plush Dubai Ferry runs three times daily between Bur Dubai and Dubai Marina (75 minutes), and there are also various sightseeing round trips. Fares on all trips are AED 50. In the old city, Abras crisscross Dubai Creek, connecting Deira and Bur Dubai. The fare is AED 1 per person. You can also hire your own abra to cruise the creek for AED 120 per hour.
Dubai Buses, run by RTA, has an extensive bus network, although services tend to cover routes and areas of little interest to most visitors. Abu Dhabi buses (DoT) are more useful, with various routes crisscrossing Downtown. Fares are around AED 3–4 per journey. There are also regular bus services between the two cities, and to other major destinations across the country.
The UAE’s land borders with Saudi Arabia are open only to GCC nationals. There are five border crossings with Oman currently open, with visas issued on the spot to citizens of 49 different countries.
Driving in Dubai can be challenging, given the sometimes heavy traffic, labyrinthine road layouts, and often aggressive driving styles, but is feasible if you’re confident behind the wheel. Cars drive on the right, and speed limits are 60km/h on city streets, 80km/h on major city roads, and 100– 120km/h on highways. Do not drink and drive unless you want to spend the night (or longer) in jail. There are car rental desks at airports, hotels, and other locations. The international companies Avis, Budget, Europcar, and Hertz are all well represented.
Run by RTA, almost all public transport in Dubai, including the metro, tram, and city buses, is covered by the Nol ticketing system. You’ll need a ticket before you use any of these since none are sold on board any form of transport. The cheapest option is the reusable Nol Red Ticket (AED 2). To use this you need to pre-pay the correct fare for each journey you make. You can also use it to buy a one-day travel pass (AED 20), offering unlimited transport around the city. There are also three types of rechargeable Nol cards (Silver, Gold, and Blue) which can be pre-loaded with up to AED 500 of credit. Cards/tickets can be bought and topped up at any metro station and various other locations. Fares are identical across metro, tram, and bus networks, and offer superb value, costing between AED 3 and AED 7.5 (or double that in the more luxurious metro/tram Gold Class compartments).
Taxis are a great and affordable way of getting around in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Vehicles can be hailed anywhere on the street, and there are taxi ranks at most shopping malls – though during busy times it might be better to call ahead. All taxis use meters and cost around AED 1.5 per km plus flag fall. In Dubai, the flag fall is AED 5, with a minimum charge of AED 12 per ride. In Abu Dhabi, the flag fare is AED 3.50 (AED 4 at night; minimum fare AED 10dh from 10 pm to 6 am). Reputable companies are the Dubai Taxi Corporation and TransAD (for Abu Dhabi).
Opened in 2014, the superb Dubai Tram loops around the marina and continues up the coast for several miles, providing access to places the metro doesn’t reach. The system connects directly to the metro and also links to the Palm Monorail (see p85). Trams run Saturday to Thursday 6:30 am–1 am and Friday 9 am–1 am, with services every 8 minutes.
To phone the UAE from abroad, dial your international access code, the UAE country code 971, then 4 for Dubai or 2 for Abu Dhabi, followed by the local number. To dial a mobile from abroad, dial 971 50/55/56 followed by the mobile number. Within the UAE, dial 050/055/056 for mobiles, 04 to call Dubai from outside the emirate, and 02 to phone Abu Dhabi from another emirate. If you’re bringing your own mobile/cellphone from home, note that GSM phones (the type typically used in Europe) will work in Dubai, but make sure any international call bar is switched off.
North American CDMA phones will not work, so you’ll have to either bring a non-CDMA phone from home or purchase a handset locally. If you need a mobile, it’s generally easier (and cheaper) to get a local SIM card. The national telecommunications company Etisalat offers visitors a useful “Visitor Mobile Line” (AED 35, including 20 minutes of free local calls), which gives you a SIM card and allows you to make calls at local rates. The card is available at the Etisalat shops and other outlets. You’ll need to present your passport when buying a SIM card. There is WiFi access everywhere. Etisalat operates numerous WiFi “hotspots” in shopping malls, restaurants, coffee shops, and elsewhere. You can pay online with a credit card, with rates starting at around AED 10 per hour.
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
The duty-free allowance for each traveler is 400 cigarettes, 500g of tobacco, 50 cigars, and 4 liters of alcohol. It’s not possible to buy alcohol in shops in the UAE without a liquor license (only available to UAE residents), so buy duty-free at the airport if you want to have your own supply. In addition to the usual items (firearms, illegal drugs, and pornography), it is forbidden to bring in any banned movies, TV programs, and offensive publications, especially films and programs that may include scenes with passionate kissing, sex, nudity, or semi-nudity, or drugs use. Goods made in Israel (or bearing Israeli logos) are also forbidden. Check the Dubai Customs website for the most up-to-date information.
There’s a huge range of places to eat in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, from inexpensive local cafés to extravagant fine dining venues overseen by Michelin-starred chefs. There’s also a huge array of cuisines on offer. This is one of the best places to sample classic dishes from across the Middle East including traditional Arabian cuisine (or “Lebanese”, as it’s often described), along with Iranian, Moroccan, and Emirati specialties. Indian food is also popular, as is Italian and Chinese. Cheaper places are aimed largely at Asian ex-pats living in the city, which explains the huge number of Indian and Pakistani restaurants across the old city.
There are plenty of inexpensive cafés serving up Arabian food including shawarma kebabs in pitta bread plus other local dishes. More expensive places are largely found attached to hotels and come in every conceivable shape and form from opulent Arabian-themed venues to ultra-chic boltholes. Dining next to the sea is popular, and many places offer outdoor terraces – those with outdoor seating may also offer sheesha (waterpipes). Tipping is generally not expected but is appreciated if you’ve enjoyed your meal and service. A 10 percent service charge may be added to cover the tip, along with other taxes. These can add up to 25 percent of the basic cost of a meal and drinks, so check before if included. Children are generally well-catered for and welcome everywhere except at the very best fine-dining restaurants.
UAE power sockets generally accept the UK three-prong plug operating on 220/240 volts, although you may also see the European two round prong plug. It’s a good idea to bring an adaptor that works for both. Some hotels have adaptors you can borrow, or you can buy them in supermarkets.
No special vaccinations are needed for the UAE. The biggest danger to your health is the heat. Take precautions to avoid dehydration, sunburn, and sunstroke. Be careful, too, when crossing roads, and when driving. Tap water is safe to drink. At most, you may experience an upset tummy as your body adjusts to new bacteria. If you need urgent medical attention, call the Emergency Number. Standards are outstanding in both private and public hospitals, although the service is faster at emergency departments at private hospitals. Good hospitals for tourists include the American Hospital and Emirates Hospital in Dubai, and the Burjeel Hospital and Cleveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi. The UAE also has good dentists and consultations are reasonably priced. In an emergency, the best place to go is the British Dental Clinic (branches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi). There are numerous pharmacies, including many that open 24 hours (ask at your hotel for the nearest branch).
HOURS OF OPERATION
The UAE weekend is Friday and Saturday. Business hours aren’t fixed but, generally, shopping malls and DIRECTORY supermarkets are open daily 10 am–10 pm (sometimes later on Friday and Saturday). Shops in the streets open at approximately the same times but sometimes close for lunch from 1 to 4/5 pm. Government departments open around 7 am and close to the public around 3 pm. Private companies usually work 9 am–6 pm. Museum opening hours fluctuate wildly, and some smaller places close during the afternoon.
The UAE’s currency is the UAE dirham, written as AED (Arab Emirates Dirham) or as Dh. One dirham is divided into 100 fils. Notes are in denominations of AED 5, AED 10, AED 20, AED 50, AED 100, AED 200, AED 500 and AED 1000. Coins are available as 25 fils, 50 fils, and one dirham. The UAE dirham is pegged to the US dollar. Numerous international banks operate in the UAE, including HSBC, Citibank, and Standard Chartered Bank. Good local banks include National Bank of Abu Dhabi, Mashreq Bank and National Bank of Dubai. Globally linked ATMs are everywhere. American Express, Mastercard, and Visa are widely accepted and credit cards can be used almost anywhere. There are also numerous bureaux de change, including the leading Al Ansari Exchange, which has branches all over the city, including in many malls.
PASSPORTS AND VISAS
Free 30-day (90-day for some nationalities) visit visas are available on arrival to citizens from 47 countries. Passports must be valid for six months from the date of entry to the UAE. Visas for 30 days (but not for 90 days) can be extended by the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs at a cost of AED 620.
While petty crime is almost unheard of, be sensible – don’t leave valuables unattended, and don’t flash cash around. As a pedestrian be vigilant; drivers will not stop for you on a crossing, so cross only at lights where possible. If your taxi driver is driving too fast or recklessly, tell him to slow down (“shway shway”). If you’re driving and you have an accident, first get out of harm’s way, then call the police for instructions. Do not move the car unless instructed to do so by the police. Rainy weather makes driving hazardous simply because UAE residents aren’t used to driving in the rain – they won’t necessarily slow down. Decelerate or pull over in sand storms when visibility is poor. When you see oncoming drivers with their hazard lights on, it means conditions are even worse up ahead.
The UAE is an Islamic state and you can land in trouble for not respecting local religious customs and decency laws. Never drink alcohol and drive. In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, arrests have resulted from foreigners being too affectionate in public. If you get arrested, do not sign anything in Arabic immediately. Your consulate should be your first call – they can help facilitate contact with a local bilingual lawyer. In Sharjah, it’s illegal for women to travel in a vehicle with men other than their husbands. Women must dress modestly and not show their upper arms or back. Women traveling solo in the UAE shouldn’t experience any harassment if they follow local norms. Sit in the back seat of taxis and in the “women’s section” of buses. Dedicated women’s queues at banks and government departments indicate that women will get preferential service.
Do not attempt to bring medicinal drugs into the country. Bear in mind that even some prescription drugs, such as codeine, and anti-depressant and HRT medications, are banned. The UAE has a zero-tolerance policy on recreational drugs. Penalties and sentences are harsh. While the death penalty is an option, it’s rarely applied.
Homosexuality is illegal and punishable with harsh penalties, although rarely enforced. You will sometimes see men from Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent holding hands – this signifies friendship. You’ll also see Emirati men rub noses when they meet, in the same way, that close male friends kiss cheeks in Europe’s Mediterranean countries. When swimming, take warning signs about dangerous rips and strong undertows seriously. Despite the calm appearance of the water, Dubai’s beaches have very powerful undercurrents. In Dubai, if you leave something behind in a taxi, you’ll need to file a report at Dubai Taxi. For any other lost property, contact the Police Lost and Found. Casual irritations while visiting Dubai include the numerous touts in old city souks attempting to sell “copy watches”, “copy bags” and so on. Male visitors may also be approached by prostitutes in bars, especially in the older parts of the city.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.