I’ve walked Reykjavik’s main shopping street many times before. There’s not a day that goes by when I visit the city that I don’t end up there somehow. The street, running through the center of the city and often closed off to cars, is lined with restaurants, hostels, cafés, and stores.
But on this, my third visit to Iceland and this city, something felt different. Reykjavik had changed. Though still a cute city filled with bustling cafés, colorful buildings, and a bohemian vibe, but looking up from my phone, I found myself standing in front of that change: a Dunkin’ Donuts, the North American coffee chain. In the year I had been gone, Dunkin’ — as well as Joe and the Juice, numerous burger shops, more Taco Bells, and Subways — had seemed to sprout up along this main drag and around the city.
The mass market had finally come to Iceland.
Though I have no solid proof, in my opinion, this is in response to the demands of the ever growing visitor numbers. Though crowds have been bursting at the seams for years, to me the chains reflect the growing crowds drawn in by Iceland’s rising fame and cheaper flights to the country thanks to budget airlines like WOW Air and Iceland Air’s seven-day free stopover.
And my Icelandic friends lamented the changes this brought to the country: clogged roads, increased accidents, environmental degradation, and higher prices. The city may be changing, and while there is another blog post on how tourism has changed things, today I want to discuss the thing that will affect you the most: the higher prices.
While Reykjavik has always been expensive, I found it a lot harder to stay on a budget this trip.
Nevertheless, some ways still exist, and today I want to share them:
Cook your own food – Eating out in Iceland is expensive and — like most capital cities — Reykjavik is especially expensive. This is a city where a donut can cost $5, a hamburger can cost $23, a dinner for two with wine can cost $100! While there are a few places I recommend (more on those later), it’s best to avoid eating out much as much as possible if you want to stick to a budget.
Groceries (basic pasta, eggs, skyr (an Icelandic cultured dairy product), rice, chicken, and some veggies) will cost 8,700 ISK ($76 USD) per week. Most hostels, Airbnbs, and even hotels have kitchens that allow you to cook your food. Additionally, many grocery and convenient stores have pre-made sandwiches and salads for around 400 ISK ($3.50 USD).
Drink on a budget – Reykjavik has some of the best nightlife in the world. It goes late into the night, with bars closing at 4 or 5am! Why? Because no one goes out until 1am! In a country where alcoholic drinks cost so much (around 1,200 ISK ($10.50 USD)), people sit at home and get sauced until the last possible second. Hit the happy hours at the bars or hostels and get beer for 600-700 ISK ($5.25-6.15 USD).
Even better than happy hour prices is to purchase your alcohol duty free when you arrive in the country or at the state stores called Vinbudin. You’ll save about 40% off the bar prices.
Couchsurf – Reykjavik has a very active Couchsurfing community. Getting involved with the community is a surefire way to get local insights, meet wonderful people, and save money with a free place to stay. The best way to lower your accommodation costs is to not have to pay for it!
Split an Airbnb home instead of using a hostel – If you’re visiting with friends, I would advise against getting dorm rooms. Hostel dorms cost 3,500-7,500 ISK ($30-65 USD) per person, but you can get entire homes or apartments on Airbnb from 11,500 ISK ($100 USD) per night. If you’re traveling in a group of three or more people, Airbnb is your most affordable choice.
Camp – If you don’t mind staying a bit out of the city center, you can camp at Reykjavik Campsite for 1,900 per night! It’s the cheapest paid option in the city.
Eat at the street stalls – Not into cooking? Stick to the street stalls serving pizza, sandwiches, kebabs, and Iceland’s famous hot dogs that line Ingólfstorg square around the main tourist information center and Lækjartorg (the square near the Grey Line office). You’ll find sandwiches and kebabs for around 1,000 ISK ($8.75 USD) while the hot dogs are 400 ($3.50). Everyone loves the famous Baejarins Beztu Pylsur hot dogs (President Clinton went there); they are worth eating if the line isn’t long.
Eat some soup – If you’re looking for a warm meal to fill your stomach, you can find a few Asian noodle places that offer hearty portions for around 1,000 ISK ($8.75 USD). My favorites are Noodle Station and Krua Thai, a Thai place that just opened up.
Take a free tour – Want to know the history of the city and Iceland but don’t want to pay for the museums? Don’t miss the free walking tour run by Free Walking Tour Reykjavik. It’s really informative and takes you around a lot of downtown. Some other free exhibits: Harpa Concert Hall and the oversized topographical map of Iceland in the City Hall.
Get the city pass -If you plan to see a lot of the sights in the city (and you should), the Reykjavik Pass gets you free entry into all the major attractions, 10% off most tours, and even 10% off a few restaurants. Though a small city, Reykjavik also has some tremendous museums and art galleries (to which the pass gets you discounts into). (I especially love the National Museum. It has an extremely detailed history of the country.) The 48-hour pass is $40 USD but easily pays for itself.
Rideshare outside the city – If you are looking to head out of the city (to visit the Blue Lagoon, Golden Circle, or anywhere else), expect to pay a lot of money for a tour. You could rent a car, but that’s still around $70 a day. The cheapest way to get out of the city and explore is to check for rides on hostel bulletin boards (even if you aren’t staying at one), Couchsurfing, or Samfredi, Iceland’s ridesharing site. They are filled with travelers looking — and giving — rides throughout the country! All you have to do is share costs!
Enjoy the outdoors – Reykjavik is filled with amazing things to see and do for free. If the weather is nice (or at least not terrible, like May-September), walk around. Enjoy the narrow streets and colorful houses, watch the ducks in the big lake in the center of town, hang out in a park, walk the waterfront, walk the long walking and biking path near the airport (it’s stunning and goes through some small beaches, parks, and a residential area, visit Nauthólsvík Beach and its hot spring, or visit the Grotta island lighthouse at the far end of town.
Not sure what to see or do while you are there? Here are some of my favorites:
Attractions: Reykjavík Botanical Gardens, Grotta, City Hall, Hallgrímskirkja, National Gallery of Iceland, National Museum of Iceland, The Penis Museum (yes, it’s a thing and it’s very weird), Reykjavík Art Museum, Árbæjarlaug and Laugardalslaug swimming pools.
Restaurants: Laudromat, Noodle House, Glo, Le Bistro, Grill Market ($$$), Food Cellar, and Krua Thai.
Coffee shops: Kaffihús Vesturbæjar, Rakjavik Roasters, Kaffitár, Kaffibarinn, Café Babalu, and the café in Mál og Menning (which is my favorite).
Bars: Lebowski Bar, Bar Ananas, Kiki, The Dubliner, and Hurra.
Overall, I would budget around $60 – 70 USD per day for the city if you’re paying for your accommodation (a shared Airbnb or hostel), cooking most of your meals, doing most of the free activities, getting the museum pass, and not drinking. If you want see more paid activities, have a few nicer meals and go out to the bars, look to spend between $80-100 USD per day. For those camping, Couchsurfing, cooking, doing the free activities, and minimizing paid experiences, you can get by for $30-40 per day.
Dubai is a big stopover destination for travelers flying Emirates Airlines as they transit around the world (or Etihad passengers if they decide to visit from Abu Dhabi). As explored the city, I was shocked at the cost of everything — from taxis to dinners to basic goods.
The rumors I heard were true: Dubai was expensive.
But like every destination (except maybe Bermuda), there are plenty of ways to save and visit on a budget if you look beneath the surface.
Today, I’m going to show you how to save money in Dubai as well as some of my favorite activities:
How to Save Money in Dubai
Dubai doesn’t have to bust your budget but it easily can if you aren’t careful! Like most cities with extremely high prices, many of the city’s residents have found tips and tricks on how to squeeze every last dirham possible.
Use Groupon – Groupon is huge in Dubai, and you can find tons of discounts, 2-for-1 specials, and deals on the website. If there is something you want to do, check there first as there is a high chance you’ll find a discount.
Get The Entertainer – The Entertainer, a magazine found in many countries (even in the Maldives!), offers discounts and specials on restaurants, hotels, and activities. There’s one for the UAE that all locals swear by. You’ll get 2-for-1 specials and discounts on attractions, restaurants, drinks, clubs, them parks, and hotels. You can pick up a copy when you arrive in Dubai at supermarkets and bookstores, or find an online version on their website (the app costs 445 AED or $121 USD). The hard copy costs 495 AED ($134 USD) but can quickly pay for itself.
Find a cheap brunch – I strongly advise attending brunch, as it’s a tradition among locals in Dubai and quite fun. Every Friday, locals flock to a midday buffet of unlimited drinks and food. As the day goes on, it often turns into debauchery that would make Nero proud. However, brunch is not a cheap affair, with some costing as much as 700 AED ($190 USD). Therefore, knowing where the deals are very important.
Tenth Street is only 295 AED ($80 USD) for unlimited food and drinks (which you can order multiples of at a time). Warehouse, Rock Bottom, and Waxy O’Conners are also cheap. For a good alcohol free brunch, try More or Beirut.
You can ask people on Couchsurfing too. There’s an active Dubai group on the site.
Attend a happy hour – The lifeblood of any drinker, happy hours are where you can go to save a buck: from McGettigan’s drink specials (29 AED ($8 USD) for selected house drinks) to Agency’s 100 AED ($27 USD) bottle of wines. Dubai is FULL of happy hours (and drink specials can be found in The Entertainer too). To see what current happy hours there are in Dubai, check out:
Moreover, check out the app Guzzler, which also lists the current best happy hours in the city.
Get pizza for lunch – Tucked into The Dubai Mall — near the entrance used to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa — is a place called Debonairs. It’s located right in the food court on the ground floor and has a pizza-and-drink lunch special for 15 AED ($4 USD). It’s one of the best bargains I found. The pizzas are small (you can upsize for 22 AED ($6 USD)) but filling enough for lunch.
Eat in old Dubai – Step away from the hotels, malls, and fancy souks meant to make you think you are in Aladdin and head into Old Dubai for cheap eats. Meals at restaurants in this area generally cost 20-30 AED ($5-8 USD). I really loved Al Usted, an Iranian restaurant near the Al Fahidi metro.
Take the metro – While the metro only really cuts through the middle of the city, it does go to the marina, airport, and Old Dubai. At 8 AED ($2 USD), it’s cheaper than any taxi. If you have to go somewhere away from the metro, take a taxi from the metro stop nearest your destination. You’ll save time and about 30 AED ($8 USD). Otherwise, most taxis are 40-60 AED ($11-16 USD) for anywhere in the center of town.
Know where the cheap accommodation is – Nice hotels in Dubai are fairly expensive ($150-200 USD per night). All the major hotel chains have locations there, so if you have hotel points, use them. Point redemptions are a bargain here. I used my SPG points for a night at the Sheraton for 10,000 points! (Read more on travel hacking.)
However, if you lack hotel points or simply don’t want to stay in one, there is a very active Couchsurfing community in the city. I would definitely recommend contacting residents before you visit and see if anyone has a room.
Very basic hotels can be found for $40-50 USD per night on Booking.com and on Airbnb the private rooms in the $35-45 USD range (if you’re new to Airbnb, get $35 off your first stay here).
There are also three hostels in town that cost $15-25 USD for six- to ten-bed dorm rooms. (I didn’t stay in any of them, but some Couchsurfers told me they weren’t great.)
Skip the booze – Outside the happy hours and all-you-can-eat brunches, drinking is expensive ($10 USD beers, $15 USD glasses of wine), so I would go easy on the drinking during your visit.
Where to Go in Dubai
Dubai doesn’t have a lot of traditional “things to do” — it’s not Paris, London, Hong Kong. But it does have enough attractions to fill a few days. My favorites include the following:
Burj Khalifa – The tallest building in the world lets you go up to the 128th floor for 100 AED ($27 USD). From there, you get panoramic views of the city and desert. When I went it was pretty hazy, but it still made for a beautiful contrast. I would highly recommend it (but don’t pay 500 AED ($136 USD) for the 148th floor. It’s not that much of a difference!). At night, the building is illuminated by a spectacular light show of fish, palm trees, and other scenes while the fountain below dances to music.
The Dubai Mall – This was one of my favorite malls simply for the cool aquarium, ice skating rink, movie theater, large bookstore (though it didn’t have my book), and all the little cafés that dot the mall. It’s worth a wander. You’ll see a lot of people just hanging out here, drinking coffee, reading a book, chatting, and escaping the heat.
Jumeirah Mosque – This beautiful mosque is one of two in the city you can actually visit. It’s small, consisting of one large room but there is a guided tour take place each day at 10am. It’s 20 AED ($5.50 USD), comes with a great breakfast spread, and is more cultural information on Islam than a tour, but if you don’t know much about Islam or the role it plays in the UAE, it’s pretty interesting.
The Palm Jumeirah – On this famous palm tree shaped island, you’ll find a large shopping walkway, the Atlantis resort, Aquaventure waterpark, and a host of fancy restaurants, bars, and clubs. It’s beautiful to walk around and explore during the day (at night, it’s pretty boring!)
The Marina – The marina area is surrounded by tall buildings and contains a beautiful boardwalk. You can see the fancy boats and get some stunning photographs of the harbor and skyline. Be sure to checkout Pier 7, which is seven floors of restaurants and bars on the water. I liked Asia Asia, with its gaudy Asian theme (it has 2-for-1 specials in The Entertainer too!).
Souk Madinat Jumeirah – This souk (market) is a modern building designed to look like something out of Aladdin, but it’s home to some incredible restaurants, like Agency, a modern wine bar with a huge selection of wines and yummy meat and cheese plates. There’s a beautiful inner courtyard pond in this complex, too.
Dubai Museum – A small museum in Old Dubai with not a lot of information but some really cool displays. It teaches you the history and culture of Dubai and life in the desert. At $1 USD admission, you can’t go wrong.
Old Dubai – This is Dubai as it used to be. Markets (like the famous gold market) pepper the area, small merchant shops line the streets, and you can get lost in a maze of alleyways! Take a boat across the river, wander aimlessly, visit the Dubai Museum, eat at some of the traditional restaurants (there’s also a lot of good Indian food here), explore the art district, and see Dubai as it is away from the glitz of the malls and high-rises.
Visit the desert – I didn’t get a chance to do this during my visit but everyone – from friends to travelers to locals – said this is one of the best things to do in Dubai. Take a day trip or spend a night out in the desert. It’s supposed to be beautiful.