How UAE residents can travel the world – on the cheap

If you want to take more than one holiday a year, you need to become a frugal traveller. Here's a guide to travelling more without earning more.

Aanchal Sethi heads off a new adventure every three months, but keeps spending in check through good planning and informed frugality – though she is willing to part with some cash for the odd fridge magnet or snow globe. Anna Nielsen for The National
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Statistically, we’re travelling more than ever. According to UN’s World Tourism Organization, global tourist arrivals are up by 4 per cent, reaching a record 1.2 billion in 2015.

But ask anyone what prevents them from heading off on even more adventures and their answer will probably be money.

Now some savvy UAE globetrotters are proving that with careful budgeting and planning, residents can enjoy more than one getaway a year.

Aanchal Sethi, 34, from India, who works in advertising and lives in Dubai, travels every three months.

Over the past five years, she’s explored most of Europe, as well as parts of Asia and the United States, documenting her travels via her Instagram page. She recently returned from a three-week trip to Argentina.

She puts aside about 10 to 15 per cent of her monthly salary to indulge her passion, with a further 20 to 25 per cent dedicated to pure savings.

“I never go overboard and I compare everything to the price of a plane ticket,” she explains. “I ask myself what do I want to spend – Dh3,500 on a designer bag or Dh3,500 on return flights to New York City for an experience of a lifetime? For me, the choice is simple,” she explains.

Ms Sethi says she is always planning her next trip, spending her spare time trawling for flights and deals online.

Her top tip for spending less on air tickets is booking on Tuesdays as she claim it’s cheaper than any other day of the week.

“I use some amazing websites such as and that always have great deals,” she says.

Ms Sethi says there are plenty of ways to save during the trip, too. She researches the country or city online beforehand, scouring for free activities, such as free days at museums.

“In the south of Spain, for example, it is normal for bars to serve free tapas with your drink. I also love doing free city tours where guides work on gratuity – it’s a great way of getting to know a city from a different perspective,” she explains.

Dominika Durtan and Kai Chan have a similar philosophy for their holidays. Since moving to Dubai four years ago, the couple have visited more than 20 countries. In the last 12 months, they’ve had seven trips abroad plus numerous excursions within the UAE, documenting their travels on their blog Natural Born Vagabond.

“We travel as much as we can but not only to ‘tick off’ the big attractions. Seeing the Eiffel Tower or the Egyptian pyramids might be nice, but we prefer to experience a city or country in its daily routine,” says 36-year-old Ms Durtan, a designer from Poland.

The couple use their annual flight allowances to fund their travels and strive to make their adventures more affordable by booking through Airbnb. Mr Chan, 41, an economist and policy adviser from Canada, says that staying in a house or apartment is often much cheaper with many properties also including a kitchen and free Wi-Fi. Plus you get more for your money.

A four-star hotel in the Cuitat Vella area of Barcelona, for example, costs about Dh1,000 per night. Yet, for Dh700 you can book an entire apartment in the same area on Airbnb – which also includes a kitchen and terrace. If you’re looking for a private room only, the price drops to as low as Dh200.

“By staying in a place with a kitchen, we economise by cooking,” says Mr Chan, who adds if eating out, they pick restaurants inhabited by locals or eat street food.

The couple also cut costs by staying with friends and using public transport rather than taxis. “We are professional moochers – if you invite us to come and stay with you, you better mean it because we will show up and occupy your couch, a favour which we return to our friends,” says Mr Chan.

Ms Durtan says their accommodation options have ranged from 5-star hotels to hostels, motels and guesthouses.

“We’ve even slept in a car in the middle of the desert,” she adds. “Some of our more exotic lodgings have included a tree house, a train wagon converted into a hotel and a hut in the jungle,” she says.

Daniel Evans, 30, a sales manager from the UK living in Dubai, travels for leisure up to six times a year and says previous job roles in the travel industry equipped him with insider knowledge on how to save - information he shares on his travel blog The Modern Tourist.

His best bargain from Dubai, he says, was a Dh900 return trip to London with Wizz Air, a deal he secured by booking well in advance.

The only catch was a layover in Budapest. Another steal deal was a flight to Bangkok via Mumbai with Jet Airways for Dh1,110 each.

“I try to book 12 months ahead if I can. Most people cannot handle that so anything from three to six months before the trip tends to be good,” he advises. “It also helps to be flexible and creative – think of where you can have a short stop. Mix and match airlines, see what happens. If, for example, you’re travelling to London to see family, plan an exciting two-day trip somewhere in the middle.”

Mr Evans and his wife try to spend as little as possible on flights to maximise spending for hotels and eating out.

“We don’t cut corners on our holidays,” he says, adding that the couple save 10 to 15 per cent of their joint income every year for travel. “We set a budget and usually blast the whole thing – the beauty of not having children.”

He recommends underdeveloped tourism industries for securing the best low-cost options, such as locations in Eastern Europe.

“There are so many fantastic cities in that region that are perfect for five to eight-day trips and cost almost nothing,” he says. “Food and drink is also cheap, as you are earning a US dollar-based salary and converting it to euros.”

Those that want to increase their number of annual holidays should put away cash every week, even if just putting it into a simple jar at first, says Keren Bobker, a senior consultant with Holborn Assets in Dubai and a regular columnist for The National.

Other saving tips include cutting back on treats, such as pricey coffees, and using a credit card that rewards spending with points that can be redeemed for flights.

Another crucial aspect of travel planning that can be sometimes overlooked is getting the best exchange rate for your money. Ms Bobker recommends keeping an eye on rates so that you can change your money at the optimum time before your trip.

Those earning in dirhams can, for example, currently buy more pounds after Britain’s currency took a hit from the country’s decision to leave the European Union last week.

“We tend to get decent rates in the UAE, and in the majority of cases it is best not to change your money at foreign airports,” says Ms Bobker, who also warns that using a credit card abroad or in an ATM machine can be costly as rates are usually poor. “There is often an additional fee, so it’s best to check with your bank or credit card provider before you leave home to avoid any surprises.”

Top tips to become a more frugal and savvy traveller:

Apply for a credit card with travel benefits

Many credit cards offer travel benefits, rewarding spending with air miles or other incentives. Earlier this year Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank (ADIB) became the first bank to partner with the online accommodation provider, This agreement enables ADIB’s card customers to receive 4 per cent cashback every time they book hotel rooms through a custom-built website that offers the full portfolio. All of HSBC’s credit cards reward purchases with the bank’s Air Miles rewards and some also offer airport lounge access. Emirates NBD’s Skywards Infinite Credit Card rewards cardholders with Emirates Skywards miles as well as complimentary multi-trip travel insurance and lounge access. And ADCB’s Infinite Etihad Guest Above credit card offers 50,000 Etihad Guest miles as a welcome bonus.

Get smart when booking

Dubai resident Dannielle Noonan, 24, a British digital marketer who runs the travel blog While I’m Young and Skinny advises clearing your browsing history before searching for a flight. She’s among the many travellers who suspect that airlines and travel sites can use your search history against you – the more you look at a particular flight, the more the company will think you want it, driving the price up. She also recommends being flexible with dates, booking a minimum of seven weeks ahead. Other options include considering budget airlines over well-known carriers and taking longer journeys to get the best price. Those who book furthest in advance and factor stopovers into their trip often get the best deals. The journey may be longer, but it also offers more sightseeing opportunities.

Compare, compare, compare

Whether it’s checking for the best flight deals on websites such as Skyscanner, Momondo and Google Flights, or the best accommodation deals, compare the rates between sites. Sites offering a good selection of hostels and guesthouses include (particularly good for European destinations), (best for Asia) and (for hostel rooms). Logging into sites with your details often reveals more deals, and loyalty to certain sites can pay off, with some offering reward points too. Remember the booking platforms have different ways of charging, with some including taxes and others adding it in later. It’s also worth comparing the online deal directly with the hotel’s rates, as they may have offers on.

Consider alternative accommodation options

Instead of pricey hotels, Ms Noonan recommends guesthouses, homes away from home without the huge price tag, or private rooms in hostels. “They’re ideal if you just need somewhere to sleep and shower, and many hostel rooms are up to the same standard as three-star hotels. Just make sure you read reviews before booking,” she explains. “Travel blogger reviews tend to give the most honest accounts of their experience at a hotel.” Other cheap alternatives include staying with friends, booking a private home on Airbnb or a spare room in a local home using

Time your trip

Dubai-based travel blogger Daniel Evans says many savvy travellers book their holidays during a destination’s shoulder season – the travel season between peak and off-season. Travelling during this time often means you avoid the crowds as well as the peak season airfares. “A good example would be Italy in September,” he explains. “The weather is still beautiful but, because school has started, there are a lot of bargains.”

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