Over the top and flashy or modest and strictly observant? Dubai is an odd mix of both. Just half a century ago, the emirate was a desert outpost; today, it’s a hub that draws tourists, expats and businesspeople.
The city’s modern marvels – including man-made islands, created to resemble the Earth’s continents; the world’s tallest skyscraper, which pierces the heavens; and high-end shopping malls, complete with ski fields and wave pools – are only part of the appeal. There’s also the stirring call to prayer five times a day, labyrinthine souks and that endless, undulating desert.
Even in cosmopolitan Dubai, though, it’s important to keep the country’s conservatism in mind. The rules are very different from those at home and it pays to learn and respect them. For the best travel experience, read this guide before you leave.
Qantas flies directly to Dubai. The flight takes about 14 hours from Australia’s East Coast and 11 hours from Perth.
Entering the United Arab Emirates
Australian passport holders are eligible for a free 30-day visa, received at Immigration on arrival in the United Arab Emirates. Visitors may extend the visa at a UAE immigration office for about $175. Immigration officials may refuse entry to Australians with a criminal record, regardless of when the crime was committed. Australians travelling to Dubai for business purposes must apply for a different visa.
Landing at Dubai International Airport
Dubai’s airport is just five kilometres north-east of the city’s downtown area. There are always official taxis at the airport taxi rank and the Dubai Metro runs every 10 minutes from Terminals 1 and 3, from early morning until midnight (except on Fridays, when the service starts at 1pm).
The UAE is a Muslim country and local laws and practices reflect that. The Australian government’s Smart Traveller website recommends visitors familiarise themselves with the laws prior to travelling to avoid penalties.
Some important things to know include:
- The importation of pork products, poppy seeds and pornographic material is illegal.
- There are restrictions on bringing some medications into the UAE. According to Smart Traveller, there have been instances of travellers being detained and deported for testing positive to HIV/AIDS or hepatitis and/or carrying medication to treat them.
- Inappropriate public behaviour, such as swearing or making obscene gestures, is a criminal act. Unwanted contact with women, such as touching, staring and rude comments, is considered harassment.
- It’s illegal to make derogatory remarks about other people, the UAE, local government and the royal families.
- Online behaviour must also adhere to the above rules: people who spread rumours, swear, gossip or insult others on social media could be subject to legal action. Posting photos of local events on social media can be considered a crime.
- Sex outside of marriage is illegal and de facto relationships and civil unions aren’t recognised. Couples checking in to hotels may be asked to prove they are married – it’s illegal to share a hotel room with a member of the opposite sex, who is not a spouse or close family member.
- Homosexual acts are illegal and could result in punishment.
- Public displays of affection, such as kissing, are socially unacceptable and have been known to result in arrest and conviction.
- There are strict laws regarding alcohol and drunkenness. Public inebriation is illegal and foreigners may be arrested on arrival in the country if they’ve become intoxicated on the plane.
- The legal drinking age is 21.
- It is illegal for Muslims to possess or consume alcohol, however non-Muslim guests can buy drinks at bars and at clubs in major hotels. Only non-Muslim residents with a licence to do so can buy alcohol from shops, however tourists can bring duty-free bottles from the airport to their hotel.
- There is a strict, zero-tolerance approach to illegal drugs. Some drugs that are sold over-the-counter or accessed by prescription in Australia are illegal in the UAE. Check banned-substance lists to make sure you’re not bringing anything illegal into Dubai and carry prescriptions for accepted medications. The penalties for possessing illegal drugs can be heavy fines and imprisonment.
- Electronic cigarettes are illegal.
- Taking photos that include strangers in the background and posting those shots on social media without consent can be illegal.
- Photography of government buildings, palaces and airports is prohibited.
- During Ramadan, you cannot eat, drink, smoke or chew gum in public between sunrise and sunset, whether you’re Muslim or not.
The language barrier
Dubai is a veritable melting pot with an enormous expat population. Hotels and shops are usually staffed with people who speak English so you won’t need a translator. However, knowing a few Arabic words and phrases could be helpful when you’re in the souks.
Make sure your basic vaccinations are up to date. Visit Travel Doctor for more information.
Smart Traveller advises that there have been cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) reported in the UAE. In addition, dust and sandstorms can exacerbate existing respiratory issues.
Taxis are plentiful in Dubai. The cars are cream-coloured and those driven by a woman have pink trim. You can also use rideshare apps, such as Uber.
The Dubai Metro has been expanded and now runs from the airport to every major neighbourhood in the city. In fact, it was recognised in 2011 by Guinness World Records as the longest fully automated metro network in the world. The Dubai Tram and public buses will take you anywhere the Metro can’t. Purchase a prepaid Nol Card from any metro station; it can be used for the metro, bus and tram.
The government’s Road and Transport Authority operates all public transport in Dubai. Routes, timetables and fare information are available on its website.
- At the time of writing, the Australian dollar is buying 2.8 Emirati dirhams (AED). Check a reliable currency conversion service for up-to-date exchange rates.
- Make sure your bank won’t hit you with extra fees when you use your credit card in Dubai. Your Australian bank and Emirati ATMs will both charge you for withdrawing money from your debit card, too, so it might be worth organising a travel card (most banks have one) with low or no fees to use while you’re away. In any case, inform your bank of your travel plans, lest overseas purchases are misconstrued as fraud and your card is cancelled.
- Credit and debit cards are accepted almost everywhere but carry cash for shopping in the souks or smaller stores.
- Tipping is not expected or required in Dubai but it is common. Many restaurants will add a service charge to your bill; if it hasn’t been added, 10 per cent should suffice. Small tips for taxi drivers and hotel bellhops are also appreciated.
- If you visit a local’s home, take off your shoes at the door and avoid showing the soles of your feet when you sit down.
- The left hand is considered less clean than the right: it’s thought the left should be used for hygiene purposes and the right for eating. Avoid handing anything, especially food, to someone using your left hand.
In winter, the climate is warm in Dubai; in summer, it’s roasting. Winter daytime temperatures range from the mid-20s to mid-30s. In the hotter months – between May and September – temperatures can reach the mid-40s. And at the height of summer, it’s been known to go beyond 50 degrees Celsius.
When to go
Plan your trip for the cooler months, between December and February.
Despite the long list of prohibitions, Dubai is a cosmopolitan city with some very fashion-forward inhabitants. Just remember that modesty is valued (for both men and women) so keep your shoulders and knees covered. On the beach, swimmers and shorts are acceptable but cover up if you’re leaving the waterside.
The water in Dubai often comes from desalination plants. It’s perfectly safe to drink but the taste might be unfamiliar.
Smart Traveller recommends all visitors take out comprehensive travel insurance to cover overseas medical costs, including medical evacuation.
Where to stay
Hotels near Jumeirah Beach Park give you the best of beach and city life. Deira and Bur Dubai are older parts of the city, where the souks and Heritage House museum are located. Though more frenetic, they give a sense of the city’s past.
Phone calls and mobile data
Before you land, disable data roaming on your phone and don’t answer incoming calls if you want to keep your monthly bill in check. If you need to keep in touch with people at home, invest in a prepaid travel SIM card or buy a prepaid Emirati SIM card. Local mobile carriers Etisalat and Du have prepaid SIM cards tailored for visitors to the UAE. Remember, this will only work if your phone is not locked to your Australian carrier.
The emergency number in the UAE is 999.
To call Australia, dial +61 followed by the phone number (include the area code but minus the zero). So to call a Sydney landline, you would dial +61 2 then the phone number. To call a mobile phone, use the same country code (+61) and dial the mobile number minus the first zero.
The UAE has a similar electricity frequency and voltage to Australia so all gadgets and chargers should work without a problem. You will need a universal adapter because there are various sockets in use.
Wi-fi is readily available in malls, cafés and restaurants throughout the city.
Handy apps and websites
The Australian Embassy in Dubai for emergencies.
Visit Dubai for tourist information.
Dubai Calendar for up-to-date information about happenings in the city.
Dubai Airports for flight information.
Travel Doctor for pre-travel health advice.
Roads & Transport Authority for public transport schedules and information
Smart Traveller for up-to-date safety information.