In my first year at UCT, I quickly learnt that this wasn’t going to be an easy ride to the finish line. As a result, I promised myself that not only would I achieve my academic goals, but when I finished, I was going to take myself somewhere beautiful to congratulate myself for really getting that degree. Finally, after years of saving and months of planning/visualising/praying, it came to pass and I, along with my two friends/thesis partners went to Dubai, UAE, for a little girls trip. Since I planned this trip (i.e. we didn’t use a travel agent), I thought it would be helpful for others to learn from my mistakes and use this as a little bit of a guideline for their own travels. This is by no means an exhaustive list/planning document, just what I did/considered.
I had been to Dubai when I was around 11 years old and even though it has changed drastically since then, I always knew that I wanted to go back. Mostly because it has everything you want in one place. *Bonang voice* You want beach darling, there it is! You want snow darling, there it is! You want metropolitan city while peaceful desert darling, there it is! Dubai is truly the GOAT of giving the people what they want, so I thought it was easier to combine a variety of experiences in one destination. It’s also relatively affordable to travel there.
How did I set up my budget?
Since this would be the first time travelling to a “new” city (i.e. I don’t have family there) without a parent, I wanted to mitigate as much risk as possible. I thought travelling through STA Travel and Flight Centre, or even through Dubai Holidays would be cheaper and less stressful than having to plan and execute a trip on my own. However, after consulting with my mom about flight/visa cost and doing some preliminary Bookings.com hotel scouting, the quotes I kept receiving (excluding activities) just weren’t adding up. To my calculations, we could get hotels, flights and visas for about R12500-R13000 each, yet all of the above kept quoting me R17000-R23000 excluding visas. I just knew something wasn’t right and in hindsight, I’m glad I stuck to my gut. In summary, to help me set up my budget, I asked for quotes from travel agencies and Emirates Holidays, and I also did my own research to look at the costs of hotels for a week, flights from CPT (generally more expensive than flying from JHB), visas and some activities and that’s how I came up with a budget of around R16000. Excluding food, transport/transfers/spending money, this was a decent budget to cover flights, accommodation, visas and set activities (such as desert safari, dinner cruises, fountain lake ride, Wild Wadi, city tour, etc.).
How did we plan the itinerary?
Firstly, we chose a hotel that wasn’t too far from everything. Deira, Al Rigga and Downtown Dubai may not be the bougiest areas (i.e. they’re a bit far from Jumeirah) but they are quite central. Close to the creek, Bur Dubai, the souks/markets, Dubai Mall and the airport. We stayed at the Best Western Plus Pearl Creek in Deira and it gave us a Burj Khalifa view, breakfast included and it was close to the Gold Souk and right on the creek, making it convenient for our dinner cruise.
Now because we tried to mitigate risk and surprise costs by planning and paying for everything ahead, this worked to our favour and disadvantage. It was favourable because we at least knew that before we even set foot in Dubai, all of our major activities were paid for in full so we didn’t have to budget for that cost. However, our mistake was that we planned/paid for too many activities so when we learnt about other things to do, we were dipping into our pockets and scrambling for time to see it all. My advice would be to definitely plan and pay for the big/expensive attractions ahead (e.g. things like Wild Wadi, city tours and desert safaris) and then leave yourself a lot of time and free days so that you can juggle which days you want to what in between. So plan what activities are at your disposal/in the area but don’t commit to anything until you’re in Dubai, in case you change your mind.
While I definitely recommend researching activities to do on Groupon and The Entertainer, we booked our activities through GetYourGuide.com because they also partnered with Skywards (I also booked the hotels through Emirates and Bookings.com because you can get miles there too). If you intend to travel frequently and accruing miles/airline rewards can be beneficial to you, this is a good route to follow. GetYourGuide did offer a lot of specials and at the time, the value proposition was decent enough for us to book but we did learn that we could’ve done a lot of activities for cheaper through Groupon and The Entertainer. Essentially, when planning, we chose 4 or so activities that fit into our activities budget (part of the aforementioned R16k) and had to book for certain days specifically. For this, it made more sense for one person to make a booking for 3 people rather than everyone book individually because the days can get full and then it gets very awkward trying to cancel and rebook.
Things we underestimated…
Going to Dubai, we knew we had to convert money into USD and then convert that into AED (Dirhams) once we got there, but that also coincided with the rand being incredibly weak. While the ZAR/AED is about 4 to 1, having to go through a weak dollar kind of made it a bit worse. So if you’re about to travel (within the period you can buy forex) and you see the rand strengthen, go to the bank and order your currency using that rate. I didn’t know I could just call FNB and order my USD, so instead I waited until a few days before (while the rand reaaaally sucked) and had to order and still come back a day later to pay and collect. This whole story is important because we also underestimated how expensive living costs in Dubai were. Yes, we were fortunate enough to have saved and been able to afford to come to Dubai but we were still on student budgets, LOL. The first day, we learnt very quickly that eating out at restaurants and enjoying the shisha lifestyle was just unrealistic. Also if you drink alcohol, just embark on a period of sobriety in Dubai because it is ridiculously expensive. Uber also adds up.
My advice would be to eat from the small cafeterias and in the hotel, and give yourself one splurge restaurant evening if that’s what you desire (trying to eat the local food in Dubai isn’t reaaaally that important in my opinion so just eat what you can afford). Taxis tend to be cheaper than Ubering (however splitting amongst a group can be more sustainable – it’s also cashless) – but the metro/bus/boat may be the cheapest. If you’re comfortable driving on the left hand side of the car, it may be even better to just rent a car for the duration of your stay. But things in Dubai are generally just more expensive, even at Sephora and that was a huge shock for me! I might as well pay for makeup resellers in SA because its the same price. So definitely be aware of that (not even because of the exchange rate – things are just expensive).
Things I wish I knew/advice to future Dubai travellers
- Travel in their winter (November/December/January) and wait for flight specials. Dubai flights usually cost around R8500 at this time but using the Emirates special, we paid R6680 and received extra luggage. However plan yours days carefully because the sun will set early so you’ll lose daylight sooner.
- If you can squeeze in a day to Abu Dhabi, do it. Its about 2 hours away but most tourist packages have hotel transfers. I wish I got to see Sheikh Zayed Mosque and Ferrari World/Warner Bros World!
- Go to places like the Marina, JBR and La Mer – they’re beautiful.
- The Dubai Miracle Garden is stunning! But it’s also just flowers so consider that especially if you’re on a budget (it’s around R250 for entrance alone).
- Shop around for packages and activities! iVenture Card and GetYourGuide were super helpful but also check on Groupon.
- Eating out is overrated. Get your Shake Shack once or twice but beyond that, eat on a budget.
- Don’t go shopping on the first day unless you’re disciplined and budgeted for it.
- Respect the laws/cultures/religions of the country you’re in! Don’t think because you can get away with it in SA, you can do it overseas. Just don’t take the risk.
- Ladies Night at clubs is great because you get free entry AND free drinks! Take advantage of it but know that 1OAK requires heels lol.
- Don’t buy the first thing you see in a shop at a souk. The more stalls you see, the more you can gauge its true value and negotiate a better price. Negotiation is your best friend! Don’t feel pressured to buy because the sellers are persistent – that’s their job. Be firm in what your want/are willing to pay for or walk away. And don’t let strange men touch you lol.Whatever you budgeted for food/transport/shopping, double it. Just so you can enjoy your holiday stress-free.
Anyways, I hope this post has been helpful and feel free to ask me any questions! To see more from the Dubai trip, watch the vlogs on my YouTube channel here or search the #foyINdubai hashtag on Instagram and Twitter!