Visiting Dubai: Negotiating the city

Part three of five installments

When visiting any new country, it is a good idea to get a sense of what you will find before you arrive. To that end, this installment deals with how to get around what you will find when you do.

Dubai is very long and narrow with the most densely populated area approximately five miles wide and 20 miles long. At the northern end of that stretch is Dubai International Airport (DXB), which is the most likely point of entry for visitors to the U.A.E. DXB is a very large airport, so visitors should expect fairly long walks, often including tram rides like the one below, from their arrival gates to customs and immigration, and then on to their waiting cars or public transportation.

The local currency is the United Arab Emirate dirham, which is abbreviated AED or Dhs. Visitors who arrived without a bit of the local currency on hand may want to obtain some before leaving the airport. There are many branches of The Dubai Exchange in the airport as well as in Metro stations and shopping malls where exchanges can be made and, importantly, Dubai is the only destination outside of the United States to which I have traveled where the currency change bureaus do not take significant advantage of those buying or selling foreign currency.

U.A.E. dirhams
The Dubai Exchange had posted rates for buying and selling U.S. dollars that were very close to the rates quoted by organizations like Fourex and were better than both the rate I got using my credit card and the rate I obtained when buying dirhams from my bank in the U.S.

For example, a credit card bill presented after one lunch expressed the transaction in both dirhams and dollars and gave me the choice of currency for the transaction. Dividing the dollars by the dirhams showed that I was being offered an exchange rate of 3.5 dirhams to the dollar when the Fourex exchange rate was 3.67 to the dollar. At that time, outlets of the Dubai Exchange were offering to buy dollars at 3.64 dirhams. My bank sold dirhams at 2.72 to the U.S. dollar.

The exchange rate notwithstanding, prices is Dubai can appear a bit daunting. For an approximate cost in U.S. dollars, dividing the price in dirhams by four (or 3.5 if you’re a math whiz) will put that AED 40 glass of wine or the AED 120 dinner into its proper perspective.

Once a visitor has cleared customs, collected their luggage, perhaps exchanged some currency and is ready to leave the airport, there are several options.

Visitors who arrive in Emirates’ First or Business class have access to the airline’s chauffeur drive service and can take a town car from DXB to their final destination anywhere in the U.A.E. Arriving visitors can also take the Dubai Metro, which extends from DXB to the Dubai Exchange at the opposite end of the city. A day pass is AED 22 as of this writing, or passengers can purchase a fare card from which the cost of each individual journey is deducted.

There are also shared shuttles available as well as private sedans, vans and SUVs and, of course, taxis. Taxi fares are per the meter, with a minimum fare of AED 12.

Metro sign indicating restricted cabin
One caveat for men when riding the Metro, buses or trams: certain cars and sections of cars are reserved for women and children only. Those areas are set off by pink lines and have signs that warn of fines of AED 100 for men found in the areas.

While I am hesitant to state anything as an absolute, my experience in Dubai was that virtually everyone speaks English. Certainly, the signs I saw were bilingual, in Arabic as well as English such as the one here, so there was no difficulty in determining their meaning.

Dubai’s emir Sheikh Mohammed studied English at the Bell Educational Trust's English Language School in the United Kingdom and the British influence is obvious. Signs in the city Metro train stations remind riders “Queue to the right” and to “Mind the gap.” HP Sauce, a popular condiment in the U.K., is readily available in many restaurants, and British retail icons Harvey Nichols and Fortnum & Mason’s both have branches in the Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates, the city’s two biggest malls.

Mosque with Burj Al Arab in the background
Most of the city’s tall buildings have been constructed in two or three clusters. One such cluster begins around the World Trade Centre and continues south along Sheikh Zayed Road until the area of Business Bay. From there, the city becomes a collection of low-slung buildings not more than two to three stories high, punctuated by spires of local mosques piercing the sky, until one nears the Mall of the Emirates. In that area, the buildings again reach skyward and continue to do so through the area of the Dubai Marina and Jumeriah Beach Resort.

But it may not be that way for long. Construction is underway all over the city with cranes dominating the skyline in many areas. A large canal is being constructed just south of Business Bay that, when completed, will connect Dubai Creek to the Persian Gulf.

Should you arrive in Dubai without appropriate attire, not to worry. If there is one thing that is abundant (other than heat), it is shopping. More on that in my next installment.

Visit my main page at for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photos by Carl Dombek
Click on photos to view larger images