Now that Dubai's glory days are over, it's a great time to visit.
That sentiment is true enough to guide your travel plans. In a city where $600 per night hotel rooms were once routine, a premium vacation now comes at a nice discount. But once you land in the emirate and start taking in the city there's a buzz that defies the economic downturn. World-class restaurants are full enough, but will still give you a table at late notice. Hotels abound, at much friendlier rates (a 5-star stay goes for $150-$400 per night). With fewer crowds, service staff are happy to see you, striking just the right deference toward a paying customer.
Here's what happened: over the past year, while Dubai's corporate giants downsized and the city stared down payments of roughly $100 billion in debt, a half-built city was largely completed. The over-construction of luxury hotels, swanky apartments, and all-age entertainment meant they all virtually went on sale. The result is that there is now, at last, a way to do a Dubai vacation on the cheap.
That's especially true in August, when a combination of desert summer heat and the holy month of Ramadan coincide. Travel in the Muslim world slows down, leaving surprising low rates. Just prepare to avoid eating, drinking, or smoking in public during daylight hours (just keep your consumption indoors - hotel restaurants and many eateries remain open, but draw curtains over the windows). On the other hand, Dubai during Ramadan can give you a great local experience, with lush nighttime tents and lavish buffets that open at sunset.
Choosing your hotel is, in some ways, the fun part – a multitude of luxury resorts, some with enough self-contained entertainment to fill a short vacation. The 5-star Monarch Hotel, which played host to Paris Hilton's Dubai visit last year, starts at $106 on Expedia. A beachside Westin starts at $162. At the bottom, a Holiday Inn Express in Dubai Internet City, at $36 per night (all prices on Expedia.com). Go to the hotels directly and you can get a rich package deal; the Atlantis Hotel, an entertainment mega-complex, offers deluxe rooms at $243 along with unlimited access to its Aquaventure water park and Lost Chambers aquarium. Otherwise Aquaventure and its competitor, Wild Wadi, cost $54 per adult, with a slight discount if you enter after 3 pm (Aquaventure is running sessions by dark, called 'Cool Summer Nights,' charging $40 for access from 7 pm to midnight. Available most Thursdays).
Some hotels jump their rates in September, when the weather cools and the social scene ramps up. But the Holiday Inn, Dubai Airport keeps it low at $34 per night. The centrally-located Novotel is a reasonable $112, while the superb Park Hyatt, with lush grounds and a top spa, runs at $200 per night. Taxis are cheap, and should cost under $20 to take you from the airport to any city destination. If you're looking for a short term rental, www.dubizzle.com serves as the city's local equivalent of Craigslist.
The one expense that's hard to beat is airfare; Dubai's Emirates Airlines, one of the world's most posh, tends to be the most pricey. But even their prices are looking good, at $530 round trip to Dubai from New York's JFK airport when you book online to travel in August. Other times it can be cheaper to fly Qatar Airways and connect in Doha, or fly Etihad and make the two hour drive from Abu Dhabi, Dubai's sister emirate and the capital of the UAE.
Once in Dubai, there are infinite ways to part with your money. If you're aiming to hold onto as much as you can and still have a great vacation, there are some cheap or free forms of entertainment. Foremost, beach access is free in certain public areas, namely the beach next to the iconic Burj Al Arab, and another stretch of sand near the Jumeirah Beach Residences. Otherwise, you can pay roughly $60 a head for beach access through most seaside hotels. If you're in Dubai for more several days, or travelling with a family, it could be worth picking up The Entertainer, a massive book of coupons available at most Dubai bookstores. For roughly $70, you can purchase the Family, Fine Dining, or Kids editions and easily make up your money's worth with two-for-one meals and entertainment discounts.
As for nightlife, Tuesday is ladies' night, when women can expect free drinks at most of the city's bars (beware that all of them shut down during Ramadan, replaced by tented cafes and buffets). Walking the malls can be entertaining, without spending a dirham. At the Dubai Mall, head-on views of the giant aquarium, the world's tallest building, and the world's largest dancing fountain are gratis. At the Mall of the Emirates you can gaze on the indoor ski slope at skiers whose every slip and fall is on display through the glass-plated panorama.
If you must shop, Dubai hosts two special seasons each year when malls host killer sales. The Dubai Shopping Festival, usually held between January and February, is a month-long discount season, when prices of clothing and accessories from major brands – generally marked up from what you'd find in the US – can get so low that you'd guess the city is one big outlet mall. A second stretch, the Dubai Summer Surprises, is less of a sale and more a range of activities, discounted or free, that can entertain you in the air conditioned indoors. This year's Summer Surprises run from June 17-August 7, with an events calendar at www.mydsf.ae.
If you're looking for the soul of the city, or just want to balance the glitz with the grit, head to the working class areas of Satwa and Karama. You'll find the best cheap eats at Al Mallah (Middle Eastern, +971 4 398 4723) and Ravi Restaurant (Indian, +971 4 331 5353). Curry restaurants line World Trade Center Road, near the President Hotel. Small shops and local tailors stud the neighborhood, and can have surprisingly lush fabrics. They'll custom design dresses or men's suits to your taste, or sell you a formal arabesque evening gown for as low as $60. Walk along Dubai Creek, the historic area that predates the glass and chrome towers of the past 10 years, or take an abra (water taxi) along the water.
A stroll through Bastakiya, the cultural heart of Dubai, and a haggle in the gold and spice souks will get you some good, cheap souvenirs. By night Deira lights up with dive bars and live music, and some of the best Iranian food in the city. The long history of Iranian traders in Dubai gravitates around the creek, its wooden boats crisscrossing the modest waterway between Dubai and Iran's southern coast. One of the best old eateries, Ostadi Khas, serves hearty kebabs for just over $10 a dish. For a fuller meal, especially during Ramadan, try the authentically Persian dinner buffet at Iran Zamin in the Emirates Concord Hotel (+971 4 223 0003).
If you want to get out of Dubai and see the region, there are two names to know in low-cost carriers: Air Arabia out of Sharjah, and FlyDubai out of Dubai's Terminal 2. With a good safety record, they skim prices by charging extra for seat requests, checked baggage, and sometimes spotty customer service (good luck with that lost suitcase). Still, they'll leave you satisfied with Dubai's reputation as a transit hub, and make it easy to make the most of your vacation time and dollars.