The United Arab Emirates is not a backpacker-friendly country, and just 48 hours in Abu Dhabi can cost you a fortune. It was quite a challenge to stick to a budget, but I succeeded, mostly. Here are some tips and tricks I picked up during my second visit to Abu Dhabi, and how visiting during Ramadan affected my trip.
Don’t Go During Ramadan or on Fridays
Let me start off by saying that, for my second visit to Abu Dhabi, I was there on Friday and Saturday during the Ramadan festival. I could not have picked a worse time to visit! You think I would have learned my lesson after I visited Istanbul during Ramadan, as basically the entire city was shut down. It’s like Kuala Lumpur during Chinese New Year. Many of the museums and other attractions are closed or on a limited schedule.
If you can, try to plan your 48 hours in Abu Dhabi away from the Ramadan holiday. There are many Islamic traditions and regulations you will be expected to follow, most of which you won’t even know about unless you have a local to guide you.
Finding Good, Cheap Places to Eat
The biggest tradition that is upheld during Ramadan that you will be expected to follow is consuming no food or drink while the sun is up. Most restaurants are closed until the evening, and I was told I could get in trouble for consuming anything, even water, in public areas during the day. As soon as the sunsets, there is a huge boom through the city (about 7:05 p.m. while I was there) announcing sunset.
If you don’t feel like following the tradition and fasting all day, there are a couple options for foreigners. Supermarkets are open on a reduced schedule. You’re free to purchase food and bring it back to your accommodations, or perhaps sneak in a few bites and sips where no one can see you (although I can’t guarantee the latter is legit). Another option is to visit one of the many shopping malls in the city, such as the World Trade Center Mall or the Al Wahda Mall. Although nearly every restaurant throughout the mall will be closed, there will be a section of the food court with partitions blocking it from view. The area is clearly designated to non-Muslims and children – both of which are allowed to eat in daylight hours but not in public.
Of the two options, shopping in a supermarket is far cheaper. Most supermarkets have a great deli selection of all local foods. My personal favorite was the Lulu Hypermarket in the World Trade Center Mall (there’s also one on the bottom floor of the Al Wahda Mall). I was able to get a big entree, a side dish and a drink for less than $3.
Only One Option for Cheap Accommodations
I was amazed at the lengths that the UAE went in making cheap accommodations impossible to find. The Couchsurfing website is inaccessible in the country, and the one hostel in Abu Dhabi (which I stayed at the last time I was in the city) has shut down. Hotels in town are anything but cheap (think $50-$100 a night), with the cheapest option about $40 a night.
If you’re on a budget, Airbnb is the only way to go. Most options are the same price as the hotels, but there’s one host who basically runs a hostel network under the radar. It’s called Mr. Backpacker, and you can get a bed in a dorm room for as little as $15 a night. Obviously there are no mixed dorms, and I noticed that the women’s dorms were a couple dollars cheaper. The host has several properties with a range of rooms she rents out. But they’re actual apartments, so you’ll also get a kitchen, washing machine and shared bathroom with the room. It might not be luxury accommodations and the mattresses are a bit thin, but I think it’s still worth it if you want to stick to a budget.
Getting Around Town is Cheap
Thankfully, there’s one part of Abu Dhabi which is backpacker friendly. The bus system is very cheap. You’ll have to buy a bus card for about $1, after which each ride is 2 Emirati Dirham ($0.61). Make sure you get the temporary bus card rather than the more expensive permanent one. Oh, and be careful with what taxi you take from the airport. Some strange guy thought I would actually be crazy enough to pay him $100 for a ride into town. While they might not steal your money off a park bench, they’ll do it in other ways.
I was told that the bus system runs 24 hours, but after waiting an hour for a bus after midnight, I don’t think that’s actually the case. Then again, that might have just been due to Ramadan. Just like Cyprus and Ukraine, you can’t use Google Maps to get bus routes. Instead, download the 2GIS app. This works in many of the places that Google Maps doesn’t, and has come to my rescue several times in my travels!
Visiting the Grand Mosque
The Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is the third-largest mosque in the world, and has the largest single-piece carpet, the second-largest chandeliers…and various other records. During my first visit to Abu Dhabi, it was my favorite attraction, so I made sure to go back on my second visit.
Except that it wasn’t the same Grand Mosque. The mosque itself hadn’t really changed at all, but the outside was completely different. The parking lot is on the opposite side from the last time, and now there’s a massive underground visitor center and entrance which brings you right up to the front of the mosque from the back of the parking lot. The entrance fee is still free, and you can still take the A1 bus to get there, either from the city center or from the airport.
Rather than add a few hundred words here on the magnificence of the Grand Mosque, read my full article here.
Relaxing on the Beach
The UAE is located on the Persian Gulf. For some reason, I had the idea that there were no big waves on this landlocked sea. Thus, I was surprised in Dubai a couple years ago when I was told I couldn’t go into the water because there were potentially freak waves! In Abu Dhabi, it’s a little different as there are breakwaters and islands protecting the beaches. They certainly work as the water is almost completely calm.
As long as you follow the long list of regulations, you can go swimming in one of the numerous beaches in Abu Dhabi. Some are designated only for families or women, while others are open to anyone. There is also a schedule for when the beaches are open, but I had difficulty learning when that was. If you want to go to the fancy part of Corniche Beach, it’s 10 dirhams to get in ($3) and the hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Swimming in the Persian Gulf is really interesting as the salt content is high. Not as high as the Dead Sea, but it was nearly impossible for me to sink into the water as I floated on my back. It made it really easy to relax, but I felt very dehydrated when I got out of the water.
You’ve got to allocate some time at the beach during your 48 hours in Abu Dhabi. Just don’t spend too much time there, unless you’ve brought loads of sunscreen and several bottles of water. It gets really hot there and I don’t want you to get heat exhaustion.
There are so many other things to do in Abu Dhabi I didn’t get a chance to do in my 48 hours there, or even in the week I was there back in 2016. I’m just going to have to return again someday when half the city isn’t closed to enjoy even more of the city!
Following the Rules
I don’t think I learned a fraction of the rules I should have been following in the UAE. Some things I didn’t really have to worry about, like what to do with a partner when walking around town. Sometimes I really feel like I have to tread carefully in the UAE. I think that’s how a lot of people there feel, which is probably why the level of crime there is really quite low. I made quite a few observations about the UAE in my first visit, but I learned more this time around.
Use the Right VPN
As much as I’ve been wanting to purchase a VPN for my online work, I’m glad I didn’t have one when I went to the UAE. Some VPNs are illegal there, and aside from a jail sentence, the fine ranges from $150,000 to $500,000! If you’re headed to the UAE, read a guide on what VPNs are legal in the country.
Know the Rules of the Beach
At the entrance to all the beaches in Abu Dhabi is a large board full of regulations. You should definitely read this to see what is acceptable and what isn’t. Many people who get in trouble in Abu Dhabi violate the rules of the shore. Take the time to get acquainted on what you’re allowed to do and then play it safe.
Perhaps the biggest mistake that backpackers can make (myself included) is to wear inappropriate clothing around town. It’s forbidden to go to the Grand Mosque (or any mosque) with your shoulders or knees showing, but it’s also frowned upon to dress as such anywhere in town. If you have the UAE on your itinerary, pack a pair of loose pants that are comfortable in hot weather and a long-sleeved shirt. It’s not that you can’t wear shorts and a t-shirt in town, but when in Rome…
My Budget for 48 Hours in Abu Dhabi
I always like the challenge of sticking to a tight budget in an expensive city. As I arrived early on Friday morning and left late Saturday night, I only had to pay for one night of accommodations for $15, and they were kind enough to let me in early so I could take a shower and clean up after my flight. I also had a chance to do laundry there for free!
Between the two days, I managed to keep my food expenses down to under $15. This was assisted in part by a friend who invited me out to dinner on Friday night. The Ramadan buffet feasts are epic, but a little pricey. I definitely couldn’t have afforded it on my own, and I can’t thank her enough for the surprise.
My only other expense was for transportation. I made the mistake of getting the permanent bus card, and the bus from the airport into town is a couple extra dirham. Although I spent about $10 for my bus card, I still have some credit on it.
If you stick to the free attractions as I did, you can keep your budget down under $50 for 48 hours in Abu Dhabi, or perhaps $60 if you’re staying for two nights. Then again, if you want to add some of the paid attractions to your trip, the budget is going to go way up. Places like Yas Waterworld, Ferrari World, Warner Brothers World or the Abu Dhabi Louvre are up to $100 each. That’s not really part of a guide for backpackers. However, if you do end up going to any of those attractions, feel free to comment below and let me know what you think of them.
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- Follow in my Footsteps: The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is Too Damn Big, and the Burj Al Arab is Too Expensive
- How I Partook in the Arabian Culture at a Desert Safari
- Some of the Observations I Made About the UAE
- Things to Do in Abu Dhabi
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
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