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We have been to Dubai and to us, it’s more facade than anything else. But it seems that others have a great time.
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I traveled to Dubai and Abu Dhabi over a longish weekend. This was a considerably easy trip to make despite the flight time; non-stop is a perfectly fine 14 hours from New York. The United Arab Emirates does not require a separate visa for US visitors. All you need is a current passport. Reciprocity is incredible and saves a ton of time.
I arrived to the UAE via Etihad, landing not in Dubai but at Abu Dhabi airport. It is a massive complex that is only partially completed. Over the next several years, it aims to be one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, on the planet, depending on who you ask. Despite the imposing size, it is easy to get around and signs were in English. It is clean and vast and space age.
Departing for home is probably the most amazing part. Abu Dhabi is one of the painfully few airports that have a dedicated US Customs and Border Protection facility. Once you arrive at the kiosk entrance, you will likely wait on a long line so arrive early. If they say they open at 9am, they do in theory but will truly open when they are good and ready. The quiet, somewhat familiar, angry man will check your ticket and passport. You will then be corralled into a room, where your passport is officially checked and your bags will get screened. They do allow for those who have Global Entry to get in a separate line and be the first to go through customs. After that, you’re permitted to go to your gate. But you cannot leave the glassed-in areas, otherwise you would have to go through customs again.
Upon arrival in the US, deplane just like any other domestic flight — no customs lines!
Getting from Abu Dhabi to Dubai
I rented a car from Abu Dhabi airport and planned to drive for the duration of the trip. This ended up being a great idea. The important thing to know about arriving and renting a car from AUH is this: not all car rental agencies are in the terminal of your arrival. Mine was not (looking at you, Avis). This is a common theme for travelers, but important to remember. As such, they come and pick you up outside baggage claim with a sign holding your name. I would urge you to confirm whether the agency is, in fact, in your arrival terminal. If you are unsure, get in touch with the onsite contacts to confirm how you are going to get from the airport to the car pick-up point.
It is roughly one and a half hours from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, and it’s a nice, comfortable ride. Local drivers really do follow the rules of the road. It is nothing like driving in the states, at least not in the NY/NJ area. Speed limits were generally adhered to, blinkers were used, it was the opposite of my comfort zone. (Editor’s Note: If you fly into AUH via Etihad, they provide a few shuttle buses to/from Dubai. You do have to book in advance on the Etihad site. If you are flying somewhere else, the bus ride is about $20 AED or about $6 USD)
Hitting the Road
Wow, this was fun. The road from Abu Dhabi to Dubai was an amazing, smooth, multi lane highway. Glorious. Signs were in plentiful and in English, and they matched up with the information on the iPhone GPS, which was perfect and worked seamlessly. Getting around was easy; the UAE is perhaps one of the best places to navigate and drive around that I have been in. The only caveat is that along the way, the signs for gas stations are not prominent – certainly not as prominent as we are used to in the US. They are rather small, off to the side of the road, and often had multiple symbols on them, none of which screamed gas station to me, so I had to rely on the little man symbol, hoping he meant something greater. He did. Be careful to search for and look for the gas station signs and follow them as occasionally the stations themselves are a bit offset from the road. I had the misfortune of seeing the exit ramp just after I passed it. Otherwise, renting a car was fantastic and gas was quite cheap (well under $2 a gallon).
Parking was plentiful and often free, save for some metered parking along the beach areas.
Uber is also available if that is more your speed. (Editor’s Note: If Uber takes a long time, the other big service in the Middle East is Careem – download the app.)
Dolla Dolla Bills, Y’all
Let’s be honest, dealing in cash in any country is a messy proposition if that’s how I’m going to pay for everything. So, I don’t. I made great use of the transaction fee-less credit cards I have. As always, when abroad and given the option on a credit card scanner, choose to pay in the local currency. (Editor’s Note: Never ever take the US Dollar option when paying via credit card or taking money from the ATM. You will pay a worse rate). When I did need cash to shop around the souk, I used an ATM to get it while avoiding additional charges.
The currency of the United Arab Emirates Dirham, which will be reflected on price tags as AED. Prices are no more or less than in the States, unless you are at a souk where you can bargain. Make sure you do the conversion before making a large purchase as it won’t necessarily be cheaper.
Otherwise, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are incredibly credit card friendly and you can find cash on almost any corner. Just consider the investment before you hit up this ATM.
There is a lot to discover about the local culture and the unknown may bring about fear. The thing is, there is nothing to worry about – at all. The UAE is one of the safest countries on the planet with a near zero crime rate. The chances of getting pickpocketed are slim to none. I did not see any morality police running aroun,d ticketing those in short shorts or tank tops. However, it is important to respect the culture of wherever you are visiting, so it’s always advised that you do not test the system. The UAE does have very specific preferences and do not honor some of the same liberties we enjoy, so if there is an area of concern make sure you investigate further. It’s hardly worth being in your own personal version of Locked Up Abroad over an unwed kiss.
Weekends are Friday and Saturday, with the work week starting on Sunday. Keep this in mind if you plan to enjoy some of the local activities where hours are subject to the day of the week. Also, be aware in the event of local holidays.
And of course, when entering any house of worship, dress appropriately. The larger mosques provide borrowed clothing to satisfy their rules. But it’s easier to go prepared and skip the clothes lines to head straight into the mosque.
Hotel Motel, Holiday Inn
You may have heard Dubai and Abu Dhabi have hotel delights unlike anywhere on the planet. You can find anything and everything and still more after that. Price points range from $100 a night to $50,000 or more. Finding something affordable shouldn’t be a problem. It will be up to you to decide if you want something more waterfront or prefer to be inland with a city view.
You will see all the familiar brands scattered about, and the services at the properties that I stayed at were nothing less than impeccable. It is clear they pride themselves on hospitality and quality. And interestingly, almost every single staff member I encountered in the hotels were expats from around the globe. It is truly a multinational place where I felt welcomed everywhere I went.
It is worth mentioning that some of the more fantastical properties, like the Burj Al Arab, don’t allow you to just drive in and check out the property and its Lobby of Magnificence. You need to have a reservation at the hotel or at one of the restaurants, and they check this at the gate.
The Emirates Palace Abu Dhabi is the exact opposite, offering free parking at their property. You are welcome to shop in their stores and check out the opulent lobby or buy some gold bars. The outside of the hotel is beautiful and offers grand views of Abu Dhabi from the front with the beach and Gulf out back.
What to Do
I found that there really was a lot to do in both locations that ran the gamut from cultural to retail to coastal.
The beach is not to be missed, as the temperatures soar no matter the time of day. The sand is beautiful and white, the water warm but refreshing. You can find public beaches or perhaps your hotel has a private beach like the Emirates Palace or the St. Regis Abu Dhabi.
The tallest building in the world is another must see. Whether you go to the Burj Khalifa for high tea or just to the observation deck, it’s worth the money. I could see for what I imagined to be hundreds of miles. They are building the Next Tallest Building in the World, so claim the bragging rights while you can.
The malls are a spectacle of sight and sound and are truly the most amazing monument to consumerism I have ever laid my eyes on. The Dubai Mall is open until all hours of the night, even 1am. You will find everything including hotels, diamonds, and cheeseburgers. The Mall of the Emirates has skiing and a five-star hotel along with restaurants that will please literally everyone. Both locations are obscene in their own way and a fun way to spend a few hours or a day.
Of course, you cannot visit Abu Dhabi without seeing the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The scale alone is impressive, but the detail and craftsman ship is second to none. Visit the world’s largest handmade carpet and intricate crystal chandeliers. Get a guided or personal recorded tour to walk around at your own pace.
The one other thing that is a can’t miss is the desert safari. Mercedes G6 over sand dunes, watching oryx at the watering hole. Ride some camels, watch a falcon grab dinner, and dine under the stars in the middle of the Arabian Desert. Just do it.
Other awesome things between both cities – camel races, Formula 1 races and race track, falcon hospitals, upcoming Guggenheim and Louvre museums, Ferrari World…not to mention the Dubai Parks compound that is in progress. Dubai Parks is tantamount to Disney World but is dedicated mostly to celebrating the movies, with Legoland, water parks and Bollywood all rolled into one. There are tons of rides and attractions.
You will truly find something for everyone in both fantastic cities.
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