Saudi Arabia is a country of mystery: it’s not easy to visit as a tourist as tourist visas are rarely approved, non-Muslims can’t visit the holy sites like Mecca and Medina, and most workers live on special compounds. My friends who have lived there have told me that’s a weird life – you stay mostly on the work compounds, you can’t really travel many places, and it’s often suggested you don’t wander the streets alone, especially as a woman.
So when Ceil write me explaining that she was a Jamaican woman teaching English in Saudi Arabia, I was instantly curious! “What would that be like?!” I wondered. Saudi Arabia is a lucrative place to teach but what is life in the country actually like? Is it worth it? Ceil gives us insight:
NomadicMatt: Tell us about yourself.
Ceil Tulloch: My name’s Ceil Tulloch and I’m 44 years old. I was born in Kingston, Jamaica and raised in New York City. I’ve been teaching ESL/EFL abroad for the past 11 years – first, in the Far East and more recently in the Middle East. Currently, I’m teaching at a university in north-western Saudi Arabia and have been in the Kingdom for a total of two years. I’m a global adventurer who has traveled to 41 countries, a travel blogger and also the author of the nonfiction book, Remembering Peter Tosh (2013).
What is life like as a foreigner in the country? Sum it up as best as possible!
First, it’s conservative and provincial. This is the first country that I’ve resided in where the genders are segregated so severely and there are numerous restrictions on mobility. Since I’m accustomed to interacting and socializing with males, plus coming and going as I please, it was initially difficult coming to terms with the policy of not associating with men who aren’t relatives in public, the separate entrances to public establishments for males and females, or being denied total access to a facility due to my being female.
Second, it’s quiet and secluded. Due to there being no social venues (amusement parks, clubs, movie theaters, bars, public swimming pools, etc.) in the Kingdom, socializing is confined to the compound. So, unless somebody decides to throw a party, or extend a dinner invitation, life’s very quiet here.
Third, it’s diverse. The expat population is approximately 20% of the total Saudi population; therefore, foreigners have the chance to meet people from the four corners of the earth right here. That’s pretty special.
Interesting. How did you end up teaching there??
Quite by accident. Although my master’s degree is in Education and my BA in English Literature, I never wanted to teach. While working as an admin at a firm in Manhattan, I saw an ad for becoming TESOL certified and decided to contact the Director of the Institute. He spoke so enthusiastically about his personal experiences of teaching ESL for a decade in South America, I decided to enroll in the course. The instructor was excellent and after I’d completed the program, I decided to go to South Korea and teach there for two years. I had so much fun I ended up staying for seven years.
The opportunity then arose to teach in Saudi Arabia – and I was curious about life in the Middle East – so I accepted the contract. Afterward, I worked in the Sultanate of Oman for two years. Now, I’m been back in Saudi Arabia for one final contract.
What kind of work do you do in the Kingdom?
Since relocating to the Middle East, I’ve been teaching students at the collegiate level in what’s called the Preparatory Year Program (PYP). The English language PYP is a prerequisite for students prior to them being able to study their major. Its aim is to provide students with the rudiments of the four English language skills that will enable them to express themselves in English at the Freshman level.
Is it easy to find work as a teacher in Saudi Arabia? What is the process like?
Understandably, retention is problematic here, so there are many teaching opportunities available in the Kingdom throughout the year – especially for males. The minimum credential required for native teachers here is a Bachelor’s degree. The preferred disciplines are: English, TESOL, or Applied Linguistics. Additionally, two or three references are usually required. If a candidate wants to teach at a secondary or an International school, a teaching license from his/her home country is mandatory. Applicants for university positions almost invariably need a Master’s degree or higher in one of the aforementioned subjects, plus a CELTA or TESL certificate with over 100 hours. Naturally, having prior teaching experience in the region is advantageous. Currently, the age limit for teachers here is 60 years old. The Kingdom doesn’t accept online degrees either.
Upon arrival into the Kingdom, the employer will request a notarized and authenticated copy of your university degrees, two color photos, and your passport in order to apply for your resident permit/work visa which is known as the iqama. It took me two months to get my iqama, but can take several months. Once an expat has an iqama, s/he is now able to conduct business transactions such as banking, getting phone service and internet, and mailing packages at the post office.
Due to the recent economic crisis and drop in oil prices, it’s becoming more challenging to find plum teaching positions here. In the past, I could pick and choose from several offers, but this last time, I only received one and the package offered wasn’t as lucrative as it was four years ago. My friends at other universities across the Kingdom have also shared similar experiences. They’re being offered less attractive packages and if they want to renew their contracts, are being asked to take a cut in salary.
Why did you take the job in Saudi Arabia?
To be quite frank, I wanted to do some more traveling in the Middle East and Africa. Saudi Arabia is the perfect location for me to achieve my goals because I can also save the most money here.
As a woman, how do you feel working and living in Saudi Arabia? It must be quite a different experience.
It’s been quite challenging being an expat here. As you already know, females aren’t allowed to drive or cycle in the Kingdom and many places such as parks, gyms, and eateries are off-limits to us. Plus, once I’m outdoors, I must wear the abaya – which is rather encumbering. So, being a very independent and liberal person, it took me a while to adjust to the Saudi lifestyle.
In terms of teaching here, it’s a bit frustrating because education isn’t really valued and most students aren’t interested in learning. They basically come to school because their monarch gives them a monthly stipend (approx. $265 USD) to attend an institution of higher learning. Additionally, due to the culture, fun learning activities with music and film that can be implemented in the classrooms in places such as South Korea are prohibited here. So, the teaching experience for me hasn’t been as rewarding as it was in other places.
What advice do you have for people who want to live and work in Saudi Arabia? Are there other jobs open to foreigners there – or is it mainly teaching positions?
I’d recommend that people who desire to come to the Kingdom do a bit of research on the culture to ensure that this is the right place for them. If they opt to come, they must remember that the only thing that matters here is Sharia law… To survive here, they’ll need to leave their Western moral sensibilities behind.
Other employment opportunities in the Kingdom are in the fields of Energy, Health, Construction and domestic work, but tend to be restricted by nationality. I’ve noticed that the male engineers at the oil companies such as Aramco are from the USA, the UK, and South Africa. The doctors and pharmacists are predominantly Egyptian, the nurses are females from the Philippines… The laborers/construction workers are primarily from India and Pakistan; while the housekeepers hail from Africa and Indonesia.
How does one get a job teaching if you aren’t in Saudi Arabia?
The best way to job hunt here is by networking. If you don’t have any contacts, the next best option is to use websites such as Dave’s ESL Cafe and Serious Teachers. They were very helpful when I was job hunting. Going through a recruiter is also an option since many institutions here seem to be leaning more towards the third-party method instead of the traditional direct-hire method. Once you’ve been offered a contract, you’ll have to return to your homeland in order to start the application process that I mentioned earlier.
I tend to prefer schools that are well established as opposed to start-ups. If I’m unfamiliar with the universities that I’m interested in working at, I’ll do a Google search of teachers’ reviews of those institutions to learn their experiences and opinions. The three things that matter most to me when considering a university offer are:
- The length of contract – I prefer one instead of two-year contracts because if it isn’t working for me, having a commitment for more than a year will be very painful.
- The promptness in paying salary – There have been many horror stories of institutions here not paying teachers on time or in full. So, I want to ensure that isn’t an issue at the university I elect to work.
- The standard of accommodation – I like to see photos of the compound / hotel where I’ll be residing. I’ve been lucky to have decent housing, but other teachers haven’t been as fortunate. Some live in decrepit spaces and have to share rooms.
Why do you think teaching is a good option for people looking to live abroad?
I believe that teaching overseas is an excellent way for people to immerse themselves in a new culture, plus hone their teaching and communication skills. Since there are numerous teaching positions around the globe, this is a wonderful employment opportunity for people who enjoy traveling and want to stay in a particular country for several months or years. Most teaching contracts offer generous vacation/leave days during the school year and summer break, which is ideal for teachers to indulge their wanderlust.
For someone looking to live and work in Saudi Arabia (in general, not specific to teaching), what are three pieces of advice you would give them?
- Bring as much Saudi currency (riyals) as possible with you to tide you over until you receive your first paycheck. Depending upon your arrival date and the employer’s policy regarding payment, an expat might have to wait a couple of months before receiving his/her first wages.
- Expats need to understand that contracts here aren’t as binding as they are back in the West. Sometimes benefits that are initially promised don’t materialize. For example, relocation allowances and bonuses.
- A positive attitude and sense of humor are essential for enjoying your experiences in Saudi Arabia.
If you want to read more about life in Saudi Arabia, check out Ceil’s travel blog.
Become the Next Success Story
One of my favorite parts about this job is hearing people’s travel stories. They inspire me, but more importantly, they also inspire you. I travel a certain way, but there are many ways to fund your trips and travel the world. I hope these stories show you that there is more than one way to travel and that it is within your grasp to reach your travel goals. Here are more examples of people who gave up living a typical life to explore the world:
We all come from different places, but we all have one thing in common: we all want to travel more.
One of the advantages of being a traveler from North America is that we have so many ways to travel hack. As you know, I’m a big, big fan of travel hacking (the art of collecting points and miles for free travel). It is way helps keep me in free flights, hotels, and other travel expenses. I earn over one million points a year and save many of thousands of dollars in travel expenses!
But, while North Americans have more travel hacking options than others, it’s not limited to just this reason. Today, I’m interviewing Keith Mason from PointHacks AU. Keith is the premier expert on travel hacking in Australia and New Zealand. In this interview, he shares his tips on how to collect points in miles in the lands down under!
Nomadic Matt: Tell us about yourself. How did you get started in travel hacking?
Keith Mason: I’m originally from the UK<, but now I live in Sydney. Around five years ago, when my first child was born, I wanted to visit family back in Europe and figured that there had to be a way to ensure I didn’t end up traveling in economy the whole way.
I researched the hell out of this one trip and ended up using points to get the three of us into premium economy or business class for a round-the-world itinerary, without paying more than we would have for economy.
In the process, I realized that a lot of the information out there for someone in Australia wanting to learn more about earning and using points was either buried in forums or more relevant to overseas travelers.
My day job was making and managing websites, so starting Point Hacks was a logical next step — and now it’s my full-time gig, which is astounding!
There are some great news sites out there, locally and globally, covering the latest routes, airline news, and speculation — so we don’t try to do that. Instead, we’ve created a vast amount of frequent flyer and rewards program guides to earning and using the key currencies for us (Qantas Points, Velocity Points, Asia Miles, KrisFlyer Miles). And while we have a focus on Australia and New Zealand, many of our guides will be relevant for folks outside Australia too.
In the U.S., we have a ton of travel hacking options. What’s the industry like in Australia and New Zealand?
I guess there are two ways to look that question: what are the opportunities when it comes to earning and using points effectively, and what’s the information on offer to help you do so like?
In terms of the opportunities, there are heaps. It’s a mature market. Qantas has half as many frequent flyer members as the total population of the country (how many of those are active, I don’t know!), a very advanced and profitable frequent flyer program, and a great and generally well-loved and well-known brand.
They have also done deals with almost every bank out there, so there a vast number of Qantas-branded credit cards. The competition between banks and retailers is generally good, so while there are only two local airlines and frequent flyer programs, consumers have a number of options to earn points.
On the redemption side, Qantas and Velocity are obviously the key players, and for the most part, burning points comes with a lot of carrier-imposed fees and surcharges. Using points for an economy flight to the US, for example, could add $500–700 in fees on what would otherwise be $1,200 cash fare.
That’s a common complaint, but it’s the first thing you realize and hopefully take into account when playing the points game here. It means it’s even more important to keep saving your points for premium cabins to get the most value from them — redeeming points for economy travel with either program is rarely great value.
There are a few outliers and hidden options to minimize fees, and this is one of the things we try to highlight on Point Hacks, when we can. For example, by using Qantas Points on American Airlines–operated flights to the US, taxes and fees are virtually nothing. Same applies for using Qantas Points on Fiji Airways to the US too.
That said, every Australian willing to look away from a Qantas-linked card has a heap of access to overseas frequent flyer programs from the various banks’ flexible points programs — Membership Rewards is a key player here. That puts Asia Miles and KrisFlyer firmly on the map for those earning points from credit card spending and bonuses.
In New Zealand, the market is quite different: the points earning and redemption opportunities seem to be a lot less lucrative, with Air New Zealand’s revenue-based program commanding a lot of consumer attention and brand loyalty.
What’s the #1 way to earn points where you are?
Like many places, it’s mostly about frequent flyer or bank rewards program credit cards. The credit reporting system here is not as transparent as in the US, so I think people need to be more wary about hitting many sign-up bonuses and constantly switching cards — it can impact their ability to get other forms of credit in future, which could be more important, for example, a mortgage or car loan.
But that said, the banks put a lot of good offers out there to convince customers to switch, so there is a lot of appeal to use card bonuses and applications to boost balances as fast as possible.
My focus is to try and help people choose the right card or card rewards program that will work for their preferences in the long term — and if a sign-up bonus is good too, then that’s even better. That seems more sustainable for everyone.
Otherwise the mix of points-earning opportunities — outside of flying, of course — is pretty diverse, with utilities, supermarkets, mortgages, bank accounts, cinema tickets, online shopping, and most other product segments all having a points-earning option.
I’ve noticed a lot of credit cards in your part of the world come with very high fees. Is that a hindrance to collecting a lot of points?
Generally the bonuses on offer are relative to the annual fee you’ll pay — though this is not always the case, as banks are trying to stimulate customers to switch a lot right now.
There are a handful with low fees ($0–100, say) that earn well, primarily American Express–issued cards. Otherwise, yes, you’re looking at fees north of $150 for the better points-earning cards, but if you’re a good customer, you can often get these annual fees waived or discounted.
It’s a small barrier to entry, but by no means a deal-breaker.
How can someone can get started?
Funny you should ask! I created a free email course to help people earn more points and understand the system better. There are around 10 emails that will get sent out over three weeks.
In short though, I’ve met a few ex-pats who have ended up staying in Australia and want to get cracking on building up their balances here, and there are a couple of levels of things to consider.
Given we all know the need to try and consolidate your attention on a key program to earn a large, usable points balance, the first decision is around how “all-in” with Qantas Frequent Flyer you are. If your (or your partner’s) job has you flying with Qantas a lot, or for some other reason you want to be loyal to Qantas, then that’s pretty much your decision — Qantas has almost no credit card program transfer partners here, with Qantas-branded and “direct earn” cards making up the bulk of the market.
Qantas is not a bad program — it’s easy enough to rack up a large number of points from retail purchases and credit card spending to offset their high points-redemption rates (when compared to Asia Miles, for example) — and Qantas Points are one of the best-value ways of redeeming for travel with Emirates, who have a key route network to and from Europe and the Middle East from Australia.
If you can afford to look away from being totally loyal to Qantas, then it’s usually worth doing so. KrisFlyer, as we know, has some great value redemptions on Singapore Airlines–operated flights, and Singapore Airlines has a massive presence here, while Asia Miles can offer some great redemption pricing to Asia, the US, and Europe too.
And finally, Virgin Australia’s Velocity program is slightly better priced, with generally better redemption availability for Australian domestic flights.
So in all, if you are earning the majority of your points in Australia from credit card spending, going for a flexible points program is usually the right way to go to get the most value.
Where do you see the future of travel hacking in your part of the world?
I hope we don’t move toward the US model! It seems US frequent flyer programs are forging a path toward revenue-based point-earning rates and redemption quickly, and we actually have it OK here by comparison if that fully materializes.
I also think that the relative simplicity in the Australian market is a good thing for consumers — there is some healthy tension and competition between Virgin and Qantas now — and this is relatively new, having grown over the last four years.
We aren’t at the point where we have a full roster of programs to choose from, so this actually makes life a lot easier in many ways: we have to look at how we maximize the opportunities from the programs we do have access to, instead of constantly hand-wringing about which program we should be using or splitting our hard-earned points across multiple programs.
For those earning from flying, it’s usually a choice between two carriers: Virgin or Qantas, which makes life pretty simple by comparison to many other markets.
As I mentioned before, both programs are very mature in their thinking and strategies in which they offer points earn opportunities, and the competition between them has generally kept redemption rates relatively steady. Qantas even reduced the cost of some economy redemptions earlier this year — I’m not sure I’ve seen that kind of move in many other markets.
So I feel like things are stable, and that’s a good thing.
When redeeming awards, how can consumers maximize their awards? Do you have three must-do tips?
I’m going to focus on Qantas Points for these, given that’s the currency most people have ready access to here. (We just wrote up our best uses of 100,000 Qantas Points here.)
The first key idea is to get your head around who Qantas’s best partners are, versus their Oneworld partners, who are higher priced. American Airlines, Emirates, Jetstar, and Fiji Airways are the key redemption partners where you can redeem your miles at a cheaper rate (the same rate as redeeming for Qantas flights). Given how few frequent flyer partners Emirates has, using Qantas Points for Emirates flights ends up being a great use for them.
Qantas also has a very good multi-sector round-the-world award chart, too. This is a great redemption to aim for, which can be used for up to 35,000 miles of travel in economy, premium, business or first class, with stopovers in up to five cities over a 12-month period.
Pricing seems high at 280,000 points in business class and 420,000 in first class, plus $1,000–1,550 in fuel surcharges and taxes per person. But this is only a little higher than a return redemption to Europe or New York from Australia, so it’s an easy way to add on a heap of additional flights and destinations. This works for any class of travel too, not just premium cabins.
Finally, don’t forget about Jetstar redemptions as a good use of Qantas Points. They are priced even more cheaply than Qantas’s own flights, given that they are a low-cost carrier, and they operate a “premium” cabin, StarClass, which is priced similarly to premium economy levels, in terms of points, on many international routes. Jetstar has a massive route network across Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan — and Qantas Points are one of the main ways to redeem for Jetstar flights, if cash prices for tickets are high.
Here in the US (and in Canada) you can multiply your points earned and “juice” your account via dining programs, gift cards, shopping online, and a ton of other bonuses. Do you have similar programs?
We sure do. I’d say we have as many as any other region. Qantas and Virgin’s Velocity program both offer the ability to earn points from dining, movies, wine, gift card purchases, and utility and phone bills — there’s probably a points-earn partner in almost every product category.
One of my favorite ways to pick up more points from everyday spending is by having the right credit card with bonus point categories to meet your spending habits. These are primarily American Express–issued cards, but Citi has an option too in the Citi Prestige Visa (which is a bit different here than the Prestige issued in the US).
We’ve run through some of the credit cards with bonus points for travel, bonus points for supermarket spending, bonus points for gas/fuel, bonus points for restaurants and cafés, and finally, one of my favorites, bonus points for overseas spending.
Supermarkets here have a lot of gift card partners, so you can then try and pick up three points per dollar in many, many other places too by being strategic about buying gift cards to use for other purchases.
Ok! Let’s end with some lightening round questions. First one, what’s your favorite airline?
It’s a tie between Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and, yes, Qantas, for me.
I’m not that mean! I’m not a fan of Jetstar’s economy product, but mostly because I’m not built to fit in their seats.
Window or aisle?
Favorite business class?
Qantas First Class Melbourne.
To stay up to date on the latest OZ and NZ travel hacks, follow Keith and his blog at PointHacks!
For more information on how to earn points and miles that you can use toward free travel, check out The Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking. This book shows you exactly how to take money out of the travel equation and frequent flier programs to get free flights and hotel rooms. The strategies in this book will get you out of your house faster, cheaper, and in comfort.
Click here to learn more and start reading it today!
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.