10 things you must know BEFORE you travel to the UAE

The UAE, specifically Dubai, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world today. People from all over the world flock here throughout the year and Dubai Airport hosts more than 12 million tourists a year.

Although predominantly Islamic, the UAE is very different from most of its neighbours. There are a lot of misconceptions and fallacies that exist about this country. Here are 10 things that you must know BEFORE you travel to the UAE. I hope this answers most of the questions that you might have.

#1 It is NOT as conservative as many of you might think

Although malls usually have a dress code displayed right at the entrance, I have rarely seen people follow it. You will often find women (and men) in shorts and t-shirts or even short dresses. Yes, other emirates like Abu Dhabi and Sharjah are a lot more conservative than Dubai and while entering a holy place like the mosque, you’re definitely expected to cover your arms and legs fully. But feel free to wear whatever you feel like at the beach or while dining out / partying in Dubai.

#2 Public display of affection is frowned upon

Although holding hands is acceptable, do not get cosy in public places and kissing is not okay. You won't get arrested for it but if you make a lot of people uncomfortable, you might get a warning from the cops.

#3 Alcohol is expensive!

It is not very easily available (only hotels are allowed to serve) and emirates like Sharjah are completely dry. Although you do have licensed shops that sell alcohol in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, many do not let you buy unless you have a license yourself. For cheap alcohol, duty-free shops at the airport might be your best bet.

#4 Driving in the UAE

If you plan to rent a car and drive, be careful of the rowdy drivers in the fastest lane. Although the driving is a lot more organised here than many other parts of the world, at speeds of 140 kmph, you need to be a very confident and calm driver to be able to not get intimidated by constantly tailgating boisterous drivers out there. Stay in the slower lanes if not too comfortable, and do NOT drink and drive. There is a zero tolerance policy for drinking and driving. Alternatively, the city is well connected by the metro and taxis are easy to find.

Click here to book your car.

Suggested budget hotel stay in Dubai: Citymax Bur Dubai

#5 Do not worry about safety

Dubai is one of the safest cities in the world and the nightlife is amazing. Places are well connected with the metro as well as ample taxis, which are available through the night. Crime is not one of the things that should be of concern while travelling here. Having said that, no matter where you are in the world, it always helps to be aware of your surroundings and follow common sense.

 #6 Make bookings in advance

Book your visit to ‘At the Top’ Burj Khalifa in advance, especially if you plan to travel during the peak season (Nov – Mar). Last minute tickets at the counter are not only more expensive but might also be sold out.

#7 Beware of what materials you carry in your baggage

Any sort of drugs (weed, marijuana) is absolutely NOT ACCEPTABLE as is pornographic material, sex toys, etc. Read a complete list here.

#8 Tipping

Tipping, although a custom, is not mandatory. On an average, a 10-15% tip is considered good but unlike the US or Canada, nobody will come asking you why you didn’t tip if you don’t!

#9 Travelling during Ramadan

If you’re travelling during Ramadan (I would NOT recommend you to), you must know what to expect. You cannot eat or drink in public places during the daytime, until the prayers in the evening at sunset. Most restaurants are closed (or only deliver). Entertainment such as loud music, dancing, etc is prohibited throughout the month so clubs usually stay shut. Alcohol is served after the sunset prayers in most bars, but no music and parties happen. You’re also expected to be dressed conservatively during this period.

Read in detail about What to expect if you visit Dubai during Ramadan.

#10 Weather

Although the weather is warm throughout the year, May – September can get particularly hot. Luckily all malls and indoor places are air conditioned. December – January can have chilly evenings, so bring lightly warm clothing along.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask me in the below comments section.

Suggested read: How to experience 15 world records in 4 days

87 thoughts on “10 things you must know BEFORE you travel to the UAE”

  1. Great article, it’s very helpful information. Thanks for sharing this informative post.

  2. Dear Medha,

    Great to see your article. Dubai is the most wonderful place to visit, to explore the most amazing places that will be a part of your memory. But I have a question It will be a pleasure for me if you will reply to it. The Question is that in Deserty places temperature is very high and people who are wearing shots and half sleeves or sleeveless outfits than how can they bear the heat ?? What is your point of view?

    Thanks and Regards

  3. Thank you for posting a great article. I really loved the way you explained it here. keep posting this type of post. Information like this is needed to make people more aware of the world.

  4. If you have better plans for your honeymoon, have a blast or if you’re going to make it now, without a second thought opt to visit Dubai to enjoy your honeymoon which would be the best days of your life. Dining, diving, shopping, sight-seeing, fun and adventuring, desert, beach and much more at Dubai with your spouse would be a dream come true or more than an expected honeymoon for you.

  5. This is a great list! I like how you put emphasis on the occasion like the RAMADAN. It’s for the tourists to respect the culture in the area during those days.

  6. You have enlisted extremely useful tips. I really used to think that the Middle East got to be very conservative. Plus as you have mentioned the situation during Ramadan, I would surely plan my visit excluding that time period. My partner and I prefer renting a car and drive down places, so your driving tip is also very useful to us.

    1. If you rent a car, you’ll also have the flexibility to do some day trips, get out of the city and explore the beautiful coastline and mountains. That’d be a great idea!

  7. UAE is indeed a wonderful place to be, Dubai in particular has now became one of the best tourist destinations around the world. It is indeed a fabulous place. I have once visited Dubai with my family and it was such a delightful experience I would never forget. This blog is indeed useful for people planning to visit Dubai in recent times. Thanks to the author for sharing this.

  8. If you are planning to visit UAE for numerous reasons then you must be aware of certain things. There are a lot of fallacies and misconceptions found regarding the country, so try to know about the place before you travel.

  9. This was super informative! I have never been to this part of the world before, but you hear so much stuff around that it is hard to identify what is true and what is not. Thank you very much for all your suggestions. If I visit at some point I’ll make sure to book in advance and to avoid the Ramadan season!

  10. This is a great list! I like how you put emphasis on the occasion like the RAMADAN. It’s for the tourists to respect the culture in the area during those days.

    1. It’s always good to know before than be surprised or disappointed when you’re there!

  11. Very useful tips, will be handy for when I visit the UAE.  Luckily I don’t drink so don’t have to deal with the high price of alcohol.

  12. 140kmh for a national speed limit – wowsers! We only have 80-100kmh here in NZ, with just two stretches of roads at 110kmh and that’s only just been introduced. If it’s anything like the driving in Doha, then I’ll catch a cab, thanks! Great tips here though – so important to know all these things BEFORE arriving in Dubai too.

  13. These are useful tips for those who don’t know much about Dubai. I totally agree with you regarding dressing in Dubai. Dubai is like other foreign cities where we can walk in shorts, short skirts, frocks and wear swim dresses even on public beaches. It is really very safe even in midnight and there is no concern regarding theft or pick-pocketing. I admire the driving rules as it has created discipline among people. Also serving alcohol though expensive makes it a cosmopolitan city with broad outlook.

  14. Everything you mentioned are very useful! I’m surprised about the clothing. If ever I’m going to visit UAE, I want to try wearing their traditional outfits too.

    1. Feel free to try it out! In fact, when they take you to the desert camp after a desert safari, they have a tent where you can try the local outfits and take pictures 🙂

  15. This is very useful information for those who want to travel to Dubai! It is particularly interesting the fact about alcohol. I did not know that you can drink at all in the emirates, so it is a great surprise to me that you can do it, albeit only in several places. Great read!

    1. Iulia, you cannot drink in Sharjah, it is banned. The rest of the emirates are more open, although, in most places, you’ll only find it in restaurants that are a part of a hotel. Dubai has the most leniency on those rules.

  16. Nice post! I visited Dubai two years back and I can completely relate to this. I agree its completely safe and there isn’t much ado about the dress code except for some religious places. We pre-booked our tickets for all the activities and I’m glad we did that. There were long queues for buying tickets.

    1. Good you pre-booked, it’s a good idea to do that with the most popular and touristy places 🙂

  17. We visited Dubai for the first time last July and wow was it hot! I have lived in hot countries but Dubai was hotter!! I would go back but in December as I really want to visit the miracle gardens!

    1. Oh no July and August are the WORST months to visit the UAE. If you come back in December, you’ll love it. Miracle Gardens are nice, you might want to club your visit there with Global Village, that’s quite interesting as well.

  18. I agree with all the tips you have shared here. While many of us assume that UAE has strict dress codes for ladies, they are totally ok with western outfits. This will give every new traveller visiting UAE a fair idea of what to expect in the country.

    1. I guess there’re a lot of assumptions and myths about the country that need to be clarified 🙂

    1. The locals (Emiratis) are not a fan of being photographed unless you ask them for permission, so just try not to take their pictures unless they’ve consented to it.

  19. This list certainly made it easier to visit Dubai! You have answered a lot of my questions. I was not quite sure how to dress appropriately and it’s reassuring to know that it is lenient. Thanks also on the tips about tipping, safety, driving and most importantly, booking in advance! It’s frustrating not to go to a famous attraction because tickets are already sold out. Oh, and I have already crossed out the dates of Ramadan and summer!

    1. Cheers Jen, Dubai is one of the few BIG cities that I absolutely love, because of the great vibe, the nightlife, the variety of things to do and the cultural mix of people that you’ll come across here.

  20. Great tips. I have been really struggling with the idea of visiting Dubai. Though I have friends who live there for work and love it, it kind of reminds me of a Las Vegas of the Middle East.
    With that said, it may be a great starting point to get my feet wet with an Islamic Country.

  21. I have been to Dubai once, we went to the sand dune bashing and usual touristy spots. I am glad to read the essential information here which is very helpful for travelers. I appreciate that the rules are stricter there and you have shared important points, it’s important to respect the rules as you travel.

    1. It’s always important to know about the culture and what to expect when you go to a new country 🙂

  22. I visited Dubai last year and I can agree with everything here! Its definitely not as bad as some people might think and less strict than any other muslim city! I remember walking on the beach ( btw it was November and its sooooo hot) and I saw girls in bikinis, then I went to restaurant and had a cold beer ( although you right, you cant get them everywhere, it made me laugh when I went to one of American restaurants and ive got separate cocktail menu of … virgin cocktails 😀 like whats the point haha ) . It was an amazing city and I hope ill get to go back there one day to explore more!

    1. Haha yes, it is not easy for restaurants to get a liquor license here 🙂 Nevertheless, there are quite a few that do, just that you end up paying a LOT for it!

  23. I dont know why we havent been to UAE before even though we have gotten all the chances. Perhaps because of the wrong perception about the countries like Dubai being very conservative? But now I know it is not! I dont need to wear a headscarf as I first thought! And imagine the disappointement when arriving and everything is close for the Ramadan! I am glad I stumble upon your post before heading there because I feel somehow ready to visit UAE!

  24. Driving for any tourist is quite not recommended haha. People drive way too fast here and not much of the western respect in space, etc, so def would recommend taxi and public transport too! Would also recommend people to avoid Ramadan to travel to the UAE, can be not as enjoyable of an experience when you don’t live there to know how to go by it!

    1. Although it is quite organised (the driving) but you do have a LOT of impatient drivers who will tailgate you and that is NOT pleasant LOL. Yeah, Ramadan time is cheap to travel but the HEAT and all the rules to be followed are painful. No offense to anyone 😉

  25. I visited Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Dubai last year. I agree with you, UAE is not very conservative, but it is not liberal either. I was surprised to discover that alcohol is banned in Sharjah. I didn’t know that you cannot carry pornographic material.

    1. I never said its not conservative. Its not AS conservative as many other Islamic countries in the Middle East. Also, Dubai is a lot more progressive than other Emirates such as Sharjah and Abu Dhabi.

  26. Great read and very informational for first time travelers! I recently traveler to UAE for the firt time back in October of this past year year (2017) and it was amazing to experience their culture. I did think it was very conservative though – us as tourist we do not need to follow their religion rules but I noticed how conservative they were when I would engage in conversation with a local. As of clothing – anything not too reavealing is ok! 🙂 Safe travels! – Ella

    1. Thankfully as expats as well, we do not NEED to follow a lot of rules but just be respectful of them. I agree, its conservative as compared to many other cultures but also way more progressive than many other countries. It’s very interesting and intriguing to learn about people, their beliefs, their lifestyles from different parts of the world, isn’t it?

  27. This is great advice, especially because Dubai is not representative of the entire UAE. It’s always important to be respectful of a culture and understand what their customs are before you go. You’re right about making reservations in advance. It would be terrible not to get to visit the top if you’re only there on a once in a lifetime trip!

    1. Absolutely, Dubai is very progressive and open, as compared to the rest of the UAE. You’ve to be a lot more respectful of the culture in emirates like Sharjah and Abu Dhabi 🙂

  28. This was a very useful post, as I’ve never been to the UAE. I’ve heard about the public displays of affection, and it’s good to know it’s safe here! Thanks about the tip on travelling during Ramadan; this is something us foreigners wouldn’t be aware of!

    1. I’ve often seen people land up here during Ramadan (because everything is cheap at that time including flights and hotel stays) but they’re in a shock once they come here and realise they cannot eat or drink in public, no music and entertainment is allowed during that time, etc. and this just spoils the trip for them. Its better to be prepared with what to expect than be disappointed!

  29. I don’t have any immediate plans to travel to the UAE but I’ve always wanted to. Thanks for the practical tips that you shared. I didn’t know a few of these including tips and the safety!

  30. I visited the UAE in December and this is a good round-up of what people need to know before visiting. I love that it is one of the safest places in the world. What I do regret though is not visiting “At the Top” at Burj Khalifa, due to lack of time.

    1. Oh, that’s one of the first things people do in Dubai 🙂 Never mind, there’s always a next time!

  31. Glad you dispelled a few of those myths about UAE. It is possibly one of the most tolerant of all Islamic cities. I have lived a lifetime here and absolutely enjoyed it. Good tips about Ramazan for that is the one thing a lot of people are not aware. Cheers

  32. These tips help a lot, definitely will consider these when I visit. Thank you!!

  33. These are some really helpful tips. UAE is pretty much a mandatory stop-over on the way to Europe from Australia, so that’s how most Australians end up visiting it en-route. Have you been to other Middle Eastern countries, and if so, how do they compare in terms of conservatism?

    1. Thanks Kate. Yes, the UAE is definitely more open and less conservative than most of its neighbours – Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi. In the UAE, Dubai is the least conservative of all emirates.

  34. Although you mentioned that anyone is free to wear whatever they want at the beach or while out partying, I personally still feel uncomfortable wearing less conservative clothing and feel like I’m going to get in trouble anytime.

    As for accommodation (since you tackled public display of affection and this is somewhat related), did you have a partner when you travelled there? Where did you guys stay? I’ve heard that only married couples are allowed to stay in the same hotel room?

    1. I’ve never felt uncomfortable in a 2-piece at a beach or in a sexy dress at a party or dinner. I actually live here. Yes, it’s a bit hard for unmarried couples to find a good hotel to live in (together) because of the rules. However, not all hotels are strict about it. Usually, the strict hotels would specify this on their website. If you’re looking for a decent budget hotel, Citymax, Ramada and Grand Millenium are a few chains that don’t usually create an issue as long as you can produce your IDs and don’t cause any trouble 🙂

  35. These are some really great tips! I’d heard about the no PDA rule, but honestly thought everyone dressed conservatively in Dubai. I also never knew about travelling during Ramadan or the tipping tip, so many thanks!

    1. Dubai has a pretty cool party scene as well 🙂 And although they have the no PDA rule, it’s quite relaxed unless you get too cozy 🙂

  36. UAE is definitely on this list of places to go to, I’ve had a lot of friends who have been there and they same, that it’s not as conservative as you may think. It’s funny how some countries are perceived to be a certain but once you’re there you see it’s not like that.

    1. Dubai is less conservative than the other Emirates like Sharjah and Abu Dhabi. I guess these perceptions are because of the more conservative neighbours 🙂

  37. I’ve not been to an UAE state yet, though was considering Dubai for my 30th country as part of my 30 before 30. It was during Ramadan though, so after reading your post I’m quite glad I didn’t. I did go to Jordan during Ramadan though, but seems that country is a lot more relaxed x

    1. I traveled to Jordan during Ramadan a couple of years back and I also found it a little more relaxed in terms of food being served in more places openly. Here in Dubai, you will find (although limited) restaurants as well which will have a curtain to cover their dining space. Only popular tourist malls like Dubai Mall will have a few restaurants open during the day. Otherwise, hotels do provide room service and most restaurants allow only take away. It’s just not that much fun though 🙂

  38. Fantastic blog, covering somewhere that is on my list for this year. While I HOPE I already knew most of the cultural sensitivity stuff, I’m glad that you posted your tip to get tickets in advance. Would’ve hated getting there and not being able to go up the tower.

    1. Its mostly during peak season that the tickets are hard to get. At the counter, they charge you almost 4 times the price!

  39. It’s good to know UAE isn’t as conservative as it’s made out to be. My mum and step dad are heading to Dubai next week so I’ll be sure to pass these tips on to them. Thanks

    1. Haha, alcohol is an issue here. It is available only in hotels’ restaurants and it costs anything upwards of USD 10 for a glass of wine and beer too! Best idea to pick some up from the duty free 🙂

  40. What are the traffic/driving/parking rules or restrictions in Dubai ? How costly are the cabs ?

    1. Driving, although organised, can get a little tough with speeds going as high as 140 kmph on the highways & main roads, I’d recommend confident drivers only to rent cars and drive around. Ample speed cameras are there on the road and exceeding the speed limit (by more than 20 km/hr) can lead to hefty fines. However, there are (mostly) no parking issues, ample parking spaces on the streets as well as malls are available. Street parking is usually paid and malls usually free of charge (especially during weekends). Taxis are metered and would cost approx 2.3 dhs / km. The minimum fare is 12 dhs (up to 4 kms) from one point to the other within the city and starts from 25 dhs if taken from the airport. Hope that answers all your questions 🙂

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