10 Things That Surprised Me On My First Trip to the UAE

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When I booked my upcoming trip to the UAE, I asked my friend Denise of Magical Mystery Tours about her recent experience. It was not a country high on my list of destinations and frankly I was worried to be traveling there alone. If you’re traveling there for the first time, you might find her tips for visiting Dubai and Abu Dhabi helpful as well. 

Without more ado, here are Denise’s tips for traveling to Dubai and Abu Dhabi:

I got in on last year’s Emirates Christmas-day mistake fare last year and had tickets booked before I was even out of bed on Christmas morning. I couldn’t pass up $173 tickets from JFK to Abu Dhabi, though UAE hadn’t been on my radar and I had no idea what to expect. I spent months worrying–what should I wear? Would I feel out of place there? What should we do in while we were there?

More than any other trip I’ve taken, expectations going into this trip were totally off. Visiting Dubai and Abu Dhabi was incredible (and easier than most of my seemingly less adventurous trips in Europe and Asia)!

I’m a little embarrassed to admit some of my initial misconceptions, but given that I get more questions about this trip than any of my other recent travels, I’ll just lay it all out there and hope that at least someone else is wondering about the same things!

1. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are less than two hours apart!
I booked our flights from bed on Christmas morning in a frenzied panic. Flights for $173? Book now and sort out the details later! Prior to booking I had a general sense of Dubai…there was the Burj al Arab and the Burj Khalifa, though shortly after booking I realized I didn’t exactly know where Abu Dhabi was or what to do there. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was easy to get between the cities and check out both in the same trip!

Distance between abu dhabi and dubai

2. You don’t necessarily need to bring lots of long skirts
For all the ladies who haven’t been to the Middle East, you’re probably stumped about what to wear. Everything I Googled had different (unhelpful) advice. After a few purchases of $20 skirts and loose, flowy pants at Target, I figured I was good to go. Though once I was there, I felt like I was off the mark.

Definitely the most covered lady in the Burj al Arab in my Target attire

Definitely the most covered lady in the Burj al Arab in my Target attire

I’m by no means an expert on what’s appropriate or what you should wear in the UAE, though based on what others were wearing, I would pack differently next time. I wished I had some capri pants or some looser skirts that hit about mid-calf. I liked wearing a longer skirt since it was comfy, though something shorter would have been cooler.

These pants were comfy and cooler than most long pants, but definitely felt a bit frumpy

These pants were comfy and cooler than most long pants, but definitely felt a bit frumpy

You’ll want to leave home the short-shorts, but don’t totally rule out cute dresses if you’re planning on nights out in nice hotels–that’s what almost everyone else was wearing. And if you’re staying somewhere like a Hyatt, definitely bring along shorts for the gym and don’t think you’ll be out of place in a bikini at the pool.

3. Sheikh Zayed Mosque is AMAZING.
Shiekh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi was incredible. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and only finished in 2007, so there’s something extra special about seeing it while it’s new. Sheikh Zayed Mosque approach

Sheikh Zayed Mosque

Sheikh Zayed Mosque minaret

Sheikh Zayed Mosque (2)

Though do note, this is the one place where you do need a head-scarf. If you don’t have one handy, you can borrow one there, but I was happy to have a lightweight cotton scarf of my own. Also note, you also do need to take you shoes off, so consider having socks handy if that freaks you out.

Denise headscarf Sheikh Zayed Mosque

4. It’s not all that pricey.
Prior to our trip we had heard that bottles of water were $6 and everything was exorbitantly priced. Sure, I bet you can find a $6 bottle of water there, but I’m sure you can find that in NYC, too. The prices for food and attractions were similar to what you’d expect in any major city in the US.

Though you'll have no trouble getting a gold-topped cappucino if you are looking to spend a little extra

Though you’ll have no trouble getting a gold-topped cappucino if you are looking to spend a little extra

5. Everyone speaks English! (And don’t expect to interact with Emirati.)
When I first informed the husband that I had booked us tickets to Abu Dhabi, we started patting ourselves on the back that he had studied Arabic and can generally get around in the Middle East. Though once we were there, it was basically an irrelevant point.

Everyone we interacted with spoke excellent English and there were no language barrier issues at all. Along that note, at least for us, the Emirati kept to themselves and we didn’t interact with them at all.

6. Uber everywhere!
Again…not sure why this seemed so confusing, but we worried about how to get around. Were taxis safe? Would it be affordable? Uber to the rescue, and we had many delightful Indian and Pakistani Uber drivers who gave us fascinating insight on what it was like to live there. We didn’t do this personally, but you can even Uber between Dubai and Abu Dhabi for somewhere in the $100-$200 range.

7. Consider doing drinks, not tea at Burj al Arab.
If you’re a regular Boarding Area reader you’re probably wondering if you should do tea at the Burj al Arab. I spent way too much time agonizing over this. You can’t check out the Burj Al Arab unless you’re staying there or have restaurant reservations, so it’s tempting to book something.

Burj Al Arab from a distance

Of course, I wanted to check out the world’s first “7-star” hotel, but $400 for tea? Yikes! Luckily for us the concierge at the Grand Hyatt was able to get us in for evening drinks with a few hours notice. There was a minimum spend of somewhere around $80, though totally worth it! We got to check Burj al Arab off our bucket list, have some great cocktails, and snacks that we counted as dinner, and we didn’t spend $400 on tea.

Denise Cocktails in Burj Al Arab

8. You may be surprised by how much you DON’T know about the UAE.
The UAE is an up-and-coming country that a lot of us didn’t exactly learn about in school. It was interesting to be in a place where I quickly realized that I couldn’t even begin to piece together the history. I wish I had read up a bit more before I went, though we did enjoy checking out the Dubai Museum at the Al Fadihi Fort and learning about how the UAE came to be a country. It might be a little basic for those of you with a more solid understanding of the UAE, but was fascinating to me!

Dubai Museum exterior

9. You can hug a penguin!
I wanted to go to the Mall of Emirates to check it out Ski Dubai–not to ski, but when else can you see a ski slope in a mall in the middle of the desert? When we arrived, I was beyond excited to find out that there were penguins tours in addition to the ski slopes!

Ski Dubai

The penguins sessions do fill up early in the day and you get a timed ticket, but my enthusiasm to get a picture and pet a penguin made it totally worth it for us to go back another day. Unfortunately, I think the penguin did his best to look like a penguin statue when I posed with him (and he was pretty stinky…) though still, who would have thought Dubai was the place to meet a real, live penguin?

Just hanging out with a penguin

Just hanging out with a penguin

10. You can swim in the Persian Gulf (and it will be lovely!)

I think the pictures say it all!

Beach from the Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi

Toes in the abu dhabi sand
Abu Dhabi sunset park hyatt

Have you been to Dubai or Abu Dhabi? Anyone planning a trip there now? What were your expectations, and what surprised you when you were there?

Full Disclosure: I may receive affiliate credit from links in this post or on this site which will help fund my travels. Thank you for your support!

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Living for the little (and big things) that make life so fun, especially mistake deals and crazy last minute weekend mileage runs across the world. www.twitter.com/klatravel


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