How to visit Abu Dhabi on a budget

Having lived in the shadow of Dubai for too long, Abu Dhabi has emerged as a popular tourist destination in recent years, especially when it comes to families.

Admittedly, the UAE capital isn’t much cheaper than its flashier neighbor – both cities ranked in the top 50 most expensive in Mercer’s Cost of Living 2023 survey. Additionally, hostels and other facilities catering to budget travelers are hard to come by.

With a little planning, however, you can make the most of what Abu Dhabi has to offer without breaking the bank. Several cultural and natural landmarks are free to visit, while deals and discounts are readily available across theme parks and beach clubs. Here, we reveal a handful of travel hacks to that will help you visit Abu Dhabi on a budget.

Daily costs

  • Three-star hotel per night: Dhs226–289
  • Public transport (bus): Dhs2 per trip
  • Karak chai (strong tea): Dhs2–5
  • Shawarma sandwich: Dhs7–11
  • Dinner for two: Dhs65–120
  • Desert safari: Dhs75–150
  • Average daily cost: Dhs485

1. Visit the city during shoulder season

With temperatures hovering over 40ºC (104ºF) every summer, it’s best to steer clear of Abu Dhabi between May and August. And while the temperate winter from November to February makes for leisurely days at its many beaches, it’s also high season, translating to price hikes across flights and accommodation.

It’s also worth noting that the city is at its priciest during the glitzy Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that draws devoted F1 fans from across the world. But shoulder season strikes a happy medium. The weather is manageable, hotel rates are more reasonable, and tourist crowds are easier to navigate from March to April and September to October.

A woman looking out at the sea in Abu Dhabi's downtown Corniche area
Take advantage of Etihad’s free stopover package on a long-haul flight to see Abu Dhabi for less © Stefan Tomic / Getty Images

2. Consider Abu Dhabi as a stopover destination

Abu Dhabi is ideally suited to a brief stopover on a long-haul flight due to its location, so look into Etihad Airways when researching flights. Yes, the country’s national airline isn’t the cheapest, but its stopover program is worthy of a closer look. The Free Stopover package, for example, includes a complimentary stay in a three-star hotel for up to two nights. Alternatively, opt for a budget airline like Wizz Air, Pegasus, or IndiGo. If they don’t operate where you’re based, simply book an Emirates flight into Dubai International Airport and utilize the airline’s free shuttle bus service to Abu Dhabi – just be sure to reserve a seat at least 48 hours in advance of your trip.

3. Book a hotel in the city center for easier access

Be warned: accommodation tends to be the most expensive aspect of any trip to Abu Dhabi. The CouchSurfing website has been repeatedly blocked and unblocked in recent years, and there’s barely a handful of hostels listed on Hostelworld and Your best bet is a budget hotel in Downtown Abu Dhabi. Not only do the hotels on Yas and Saadiyat islands tend to fall on the luxury spectrum, but they’re also further away – you’ll end up spending more on transportation. Instead, opt for a quality budget hotel such as the Strand Hotel, Top Stars Hotel, and Al Diar Mina Hotel, which are centrally located. Room rates start at Dhs200 per night during high season.

4. Opt for buses over taxis whenever possible

Unlike its hostel offerings, the public bus system in Abu Dhabi is a gift to the wallets of budget travelers. A single journey clocks in at a mere Dhs2, with the cost capped at Dhs5 per trip for passengers who need to change buses before reaching their destination. Elsewhere, the complimentary Experience Abu Dhabi Shuttle Bus operates eight routes that connect key locales across the emirate – Yas Island, Saadiyat Island and the city center included. If you want to splash out on a cab, hail a Hala taxi (or book one through the Careem app) as Uber rides tend to be more expensive.

Young woman traveler sitting near group of camels in the Wadi Rum desert
Use the Abu Dhabi Pass to get a discounted desert safari © Anastasiia Shavshyna / Getty Images

5. Buy the Abu Dhabi Pass for discounts and other perks  

Tailored to tourists, the Abu Dhabi Pass not only grants free and discounted access to the city’s leading attractions but also includes perks like buy-one-get-one-free offers at over 500 dining outlets and 10% off any hotel stay in the city. Starting at Dhs149, there are three iterations to choose from: Culture Pass, Essentials Pass and Prime Pass. Stick to the Culture Pass if you’ve already been on a desert safari – the definitive experience for first-timers.

6. Start at the cultural landmarks that are free to visit

Abu Dhabi ranks cultural endeavors high on its list of tourism efforts, especially if they encourage cross-cultural dialogue – it’s not just the Louvre outpost that draws art and design enthusiasts to the capital. Begin with the architecturally striking Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, where guided tours are also free. Another noteworthy landmark is the Abrahamic Family House. An interfaith complex famed for its trio of cubic buildings and message of tolerance, it’s also free to visit (provided you book your ticket in advance). Both 421 Arts Campus and Manarat Al Saadiyat, meanwhile, offer a glimpse into the city’s burgeoning art scene by way of exhibitions, talks, workshops and film screenings.

7. Download the VoiceMap app for self-guided tours

Another initiative by Abu Dhabi’s tourism board, the self-guided audio tours on VoiceMap are free and a great way to see the city without forking out for expensive tours. Simply download the app, browse the selection of walking tours, and start exploring Abu Dhabi at your own pace. Don’t forget to enable location access; you’ll be able to see nearby tours and hear audio at the right time and place that way. VoiceMap also works offline – download your tour(s) of interest in advance while connected to wi-fi.

8. Dine at the ubiquitous cafeterias across town

Despite Abu Dhabi’s reputation as an expensive city, it’s surprisingly easy to enjoy a cheap and cheerful meal – just walk to the nearest cafeteria. A dining concept unique to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, these no-frills eateries are staffed mostly by immigrants from the Indian state of Kerala, and their ability to whip up all manner of parotta (flatbread) sandwiches is nothing short of remarkable. Back home, they use this flaky flatbread to mop up curries, but in the UAE, they’ve used it to create the beloved Chips Oman sandwich. And at only Dhs5.50, it’s an absolute steal.

Sunbeds and umbrellas at the beach of a luxury hotel in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on a summer day.
A day pass can give you all the luxury amenities of a private beach without the steep cost of the hotel © bloodua / Getty Images

9. Explore the many pool passes on offer

With inclement weather essentially nonexistent in Abu Dhabi, pool and beach days always earn a spot on the average tourist’s itinerary. Corniche Beach should be the thrifty beachgoer’s first choice – there are dedicated areas for singles, groups and families, and entrance is only Dhs10  per adult. Don’t overlook the day passes offered by hotels and beach clubs, though. Many are fully redeemable, meaning you’ll get back the whole amount to spend on snacks and beverages. Access to a private beach is often a nice bonus, too. Both DayPass and Best Bites are reliable sources of updated listings.

10. Escape to the oasis city of Al Ain

Those looking to venture further afield or get a sense of life in the UAE before it struck oil can take the X90 bus to Al Ain for only Dhs25. A part of Abu Dhabi, this lush oasis in Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter) desert is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Al Ain has remained largely unchanged over the years, and many of its longstanding traditions are alive and well.

At Al Ain Oasis, for starters, the ancient falaj irrigation system still transports water from mountains to farms via a complex system of aqueducts, just like it has for millennia. The Al Ain Camel Market, an auction house of sorts, is a sensory overload courtesy of locals haggling over these friendly mammals for racing and breeding purposes. Bonus: both are free to visit.

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