I found the cheapest (and least painful) way to go on a summer holiday – don't book one

This year, here's why I’ll be choosing pennies in the pocket instead of paying the price of overtourism, soaring demand and staff on strike

Dubai's art district Alserkal Avenue is always popular, though visiting in summer is a much quieter affair. Photo: Rana Begum / Alserkal
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Be honest, have you booked a summer holiday this year without cries of “how much?!” reverberating off the walls?

We’re approaching my annual squawk-into-the-abyss time as scouring flight-comparison websites meets late-night “travel deals for cheapskates” googling sessions. I usually end up facing a choice between overpaying for flights, hotels, meals, things to do et al for a normal break, or making uncivilised sacrifices such as indirect flights with four changes, taking only the clothes on my back and a 28-hour layover in Bangkok just to get to Rome – and save Dh700.

Even roping in AI chatbots to help ends with responses like: “Two weeks on the Med? I have found a trip for two for Dh25,000, sir. Oh, why didn’t you say you only wanted to fly cattle class, sleep on the floor and eat instant noodles? That’ll be Dh35,000.”

With an eye on saving for retirement that doesn't involve living on cat food, I often settle for the budget route. I opt to fold my almost two-metre gangly frame into a low-cost carrier's tiny fuselage like a tinned sardine, where my only source of entertainment is playing “Caption this!” to myself using the in-flight safety cards and their cartoon passengers as inspiration for memes. Just me?

But not this year. This year I’m reliving the best and cheapest summer holidays I know: by not going on one.

No queues, no delays, no worries

When we were kids, we never went abroad. Instead, as our mother worked, my brother and I would spend our summers roaming the neighbourhood looking for rocks to throw at bigger rocks.

Occasionally, we’d find a cricket ball or a Coke can that had been squashed by cars and whip them at each other, trying to dodge them like Neo from the Matrix, though often taking hits to the head. And it was bliss. They were proper summers.

No queues, no selfie sticks, no lost baggage, no delays, no worries. Now, as a grown-up, this time of the year is blighted by creating, or suffering, holiday envy online, trawling past pictures on Insta-sham, of headstands at sunset with captions like: “Putting lime in the coconut.” Witty.

For those who don't think a livestock market makes for holiday inspiration, then avoid most destinations. Summer holidays aren’t the same in a post-Covid world. They're often just chaos. The lockdowns that led to revenge travel and the aftermath of the cost of living crises have created a perfect storm of unenjoyable environs.

While travelling through Abu Dhabi and Dubai's airports may be like walking through dreamland, most of the ones on the other side (unless they're Singapore or Doha) are not. Soon after the travel industry regained altitude after Covid, I twice made the mistake of taking a summer holiday only to be plagued by strikes, staff shortages and an IT system meltdown that caused havoc at border security as passports were checked manually. The same problems returned last month.

Gatwick Airport in London (the city that tops the Eid Al Adha destination wish list of travellers in the UAE, according to Skycanner), suffered almighty delays as a result of a technical failure last year, while locals in Athens (in second) have called for Airbnb to be banned as a result of housing shortages.

Manchester (in fifth) reportedly has the UK's worst airport. Its Terminal 3 ranks an impressive zero out of 10 in a report by Bounce, a luggage storage company, which analysed customer happiness data. The UK's second worst terminal? Manchester's Terminal 1. Good luck to all those flying to my home city.

Even if I did manage to fly to Europe without issue, there's a good chance I'd be in a country that wished me and all the other tourists hadn't come. Amsterdam increasingly wants to shake off “the wrong kind of tourists”, as do swathes of Spain; Venice and Mount Fuji charge a fee; and residents of Hallstatt in Austria have protested against visitors flocking there after it was said to have inspired parts of Frozen. Even remote destinations such as Antarctica are facing overtourism.

'It's like you live on holiday'

The sheer number of people travelling is overwhelming the system while soaring demand is still pushing prices higher. And who can blame the bean counters in accounting departments across the travel industry for wanting to capitalise on it? Of course they're charging more after the sector was almost obliterated.

But I shan't be paying it. Instead I'm staying put and enjoying the absolute bliss that awaits in the UAE's quietest months. School traffic is gone, freeing up roads to take a leisurely drive down town. There are out-of-offices that put otherwise pressing projects on the back burner. And every year, for a few short months, my apartment gains a free sauna – in winter, we call it the balcony.

When friends and family break away from the cold, damp darkness of the UK to go on holiday, they'll frequently head to a beach seeking sun and a refreshing dip in the sea. When they visit here, many of them mutter a variation of the phrase: “It's like you live on holiday.” So why go anywhere else?

Not that I'll be in any rush to hit the Corniche beach in the depths of August; instead I'll be capitalising on the excellent – and quieter – indoor activities. Binging on blockbusters in the cinema, drinking delicious Arabic coffee, slowing down amid the galleries and quaint cafes in Alserkal Avenue or poking my nose into books at the House of Wisdom or Mohammed bin Rashid Library.

I can also dip my toes back into the areas that are typically busy with tourists during the cooler months, such as Dubai Marina and the Dubai Fountain, and enjoy the sights at a slower pace.

Should the itch to do holiday-style things become too severe, I can scratch it with a staycation for a knock-down price at one of the plethora of UAE properties that run summer deals. Many restaurants preparing to open on the other side of summer run soft launches during the quieter season, often resulting in cheaper menus and a chance to beat the crowds.

And when my brother comes out, we'll head to the always-brilliant indoor Dubai Sports World for a spot of ten-pin bowling, tennis or cricket. He may even keep his head out of the way this time while I'll be smugly adding to the retirement pot.

Updated: June 07, 2024, 6:02 PM