Dubai is one of those places that is almost tricky to capture in words. Why? Because there is nowhere else quite like it. And what’s it like to travel to Dubai as a solo female?
An extravagant playground built out of the sands of a desert, in perhaps one of the most hostile environments on earth, Dubai was imagined into reality and seemingly overnight has become one of the most vibrant cities on earth.
Somewhat lovingly nicknamed “the sandpit,” Dubai is a place where innovation and tradition smash together and create something new. It’s a place that will shatter your preconceptions about the Middle East to pieces. I love it!
Image by Lauren Bath
For example, the first time I visited Dubai on a solo female travel trip was around 2013, and as I was crossing the street heading to a mall, a flashy Mercedes G-Class stopped in front of me with a cheetah in the front seat.
Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.
Welcome to Dubai and the United Arab Emirates, a land of juxtapositions, where tradition meets the future in wild and weird ways that are always changing. Every time I come to Dubai, something new seems to have popped up.
Bright and bold, what can you expect from a place with man-made islands and the flashiest hotels on earth, where you can watch women in burkas climb out from the driver’s seat of a Maserati and head out to the desert on the back of a camel.
But what’s it like for the modern western woman traveling solo? Like yours truly?
Can women even drive in Dubai? Do you need to cover up? Do you have to wear a burka? Where IS Dubai? Do you have to be married?
These are only some of the many questions that people ask me when I explain how much time I spend in this buzzy heart of the modern Middle East. The lack of knowledge can be somewhat overwhelming, but I’ve learned a lot from my time in Dubai, a place I have come to love, in a weird way.
I’ve gleaned quite a bit of knowledge from my experience with solo female travel to Dubai over the years to share with you below. Enjoy!
1. It’s awesome for solo female travelers
First things first, I love to travel to Dubai as a solo female. Dubai is much more liberal than the rest of the UAE.
A committed, lifelong solo female traveler, Dubai is a city where I’ve always felt very safe traveling on my own. In fact, it’s one of the best places to begin visiting as a solo female traveler, in my opinion. Packed with tourists and foreigners, it’s an excellent introduction to the Middle East.
Much more liberal and modern than its neighbors, Dubai is a place where I feel safe traveling solo. In Dubai, I tend to only talk to women first for help or questions, depending on where I am and what situation I’m in.
Dubai is also an exciting place because I see it having two sectors – the public space and the private space. In open areas (like malls or public beaches) you behave by the Sharia-inspired rules of Dubai. Be modest, act with dignity, no being drunk.
But in private spaces, like hotels and homes, things are super different. In hotels, you can drink and feel a lot freer, dress how you like, and follow a more lax set of rules.
It’s important to remember that. The rules here are very flexible and mobile and are changing. But when in doubt, err on the side of caution.
2. Dubai is perfect for layovers and stopovers
Being based in New Zealand at the very bottom of the South Pacific, when I want to travel overseas, I usually have to fly through Dubai. Because of this, Emirates has become my go-to airline through the Middle East.
Wanting to break up the back-to-back long haul flights (17 hours to Dubai from New Zealand + 8 hours to Europe or Africa or Asia from Dubai) I generally stop in this glamorous city for a night or two. I use it as an opportunity to relax and pamper myself in a town, unlike any other in the world.
Honestly, it’s the perfect place to relax and recoup when you’re traveling. You can usually find me hiding away in a luxury suite at a 5-star hotel or the spa, occasionally venturing out to take in a bit of the sites, like the top of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa.
3. Crime in Dubai is super low
Dubai has a very low crime rate, and I’ve personally experienced no fear or had problems on my trips to Dubai. I’ve never been harassed or even felt uncomfortable.
Dubai is the most liberal and “western” place I’ve been in the Middle East, as it’s a massive hub for foreigners, but it’s still a place steeped in tradition, and it’s important to respect that.
I imagine the main reason that Dubai is so safe is that they rule with an iron fist, and crime here is not usually a problem for visitors. You are always on CCTV (shivers), keep that in mind.
Things like drug trafficking can carry death penalties, so for god’s sake, be on your best behavior here.
4. Dubai is a cultural melting pot
Dubai is a very trendy and fascinating city for many reasons; one of the big ones being how international it is. Only about 10% of the population is local Emirati; the rest are foreigners here to play and work. And the locals are very well off, financially speaking.
You will see plenty of women covered from head to toe in burkas, but they’re usually visitors from more conservative places like Saudi Arabia.
Many big companies are based here with international offices and staff, and you’re much more likely to meet travelers and expats than locals.
But when you do get to meet locals, it’s a pretty unique experience too. If you’re a visitor, check out the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding for tours and activities to learn about the local people and culture respectfully.
Image by Lauren Bath
5. It’s mandatory to have insurance
I would hanker a guess that most people don’t know that it’s compulsory to have insurance to travel to Dubai.
I repeat, travel insurance is compulsory in Dubai.
But with many years of travel experience comes knowledge and foresight, and now I don’t take any chances. I can’t even imagine what a hospital stint would cost in the UAE.
I buy an annual policy – and after shopping around, Southern Cross Travel Insurance (SCTI) is now my go-to provider for all things insurance-related on all my travels around the world.
6. You don’t need to be married
No, you don’t need to be married to go to Dubai. Thank god, because that’s never been on my radar and I haven’t managed to trick a guy yet haha! Yes, solo female travel to Dubai is excellent.
However, while Dubai is undoubtedly the most “relaxed” spot I’ve been to in the Middle East about solo females, that doesn’t mean it’s on par with where we grow up in terms of freedoms and liberties, i.e. sleeping around, wearing what you want, and being your most wild and free feminine self.
Dubai still has laws that are not favorable to women, and while the enforcement of them is vague at best, it always pays to follow the rules outside your comfort zone.
Familiarize yourself with the different rules in Dubai.
The one that always has freaked me out has been the stories about female victims of sexual assault who have been detained after reporting an incident to police or seeking medical assistance.
But I also keep in mind in my own experience, this is super rare, and overall I’ve found Dubai a much safer and easier place to travel to than many other countries I’ve visited.
7. Yes, you can drive. But watch out!
Of course, women can drive in Dubai. If you stay in a flash hotel like I usually do, women will often climb out of the driver’s seat of a Ferrari on the regular.
Saudi Arabia is the only place I know of that forbids female drivers. However, they changed that law recently from what I understand.
One thing to keep in mind is that Dubai has a much higher rate of traffic accidents than in western places like Europe, likely due to the speeding. With so many supercars around, it’s not surprising, and I’ve found riding along in cars to be fine here. It’s not a comfortable place to get around without a car, which means you often shell out for Ubers, taxis, or shuttles.
Women who get taxis and Ubers should sit in the backseat. There are even women-only taxis and carriages on the subway.
8. You gotta play by their rules
The most significant risk when traveling in Dubai is not knowing or following the Sharia-inspired laws—this has landed a few dumb travelers in prison, with no way to get home.
Be on your best behavior and dress more modestly. The best piece of advice I got from local Emirati was to always behave with a G-rating in public.
For example, drinking alcohol is illegal in the UAE, but it’s allowed in hotels. There are strict laws in the UAE on personal conduct, particularly around sex and relationships that are very different from New Zealand.
It’s your job to familiarize yourself with Dubai’s rigid rules (like your destination’s travel pages), which forbid drinking wine, crude language, aggressive gestures, taking someone’s picture without asking, taking photos of government buildings, possessing certain prescription medications, kissing in public, homosexuality, and a long list of other behavioral restrictions.
To be honest, I don’t generally wear skimpy clothes in Dubai because for me it’s not comfortable. In Dubai, wearing sleeveless tops, showing your stomach or back, or wearing short skirts and shorts won’t get people on your side. I’m not here to have a feminist argument or try to change an entire culture.
You will definitely see western women wearing skimpy clothes (especially considering how hot Dubai is), don’t assume that just because they’re doing it, it’s acceptable. I’ve found that Emirati people find it rude, but they’re too polite to say anything.
All I can say is when I’m in Dubai, I play by their rules and put on my best behavior and dress modestly, but not as modest as when I’m in other Muslim countries that are much more conservative. I find it’s best not to parade my different sets of values here.
Also, be aware of Ramadan dates and potentially avoid staying in Dubai then. During Ramadan, the rules are much stricter and much more strictly enforced. Do your research.
What do you think? Would you travel to Dubai as a solo female traveler? Thoughts? Anything to add? Share!