If you’ve ever tried to save some money on an international flight you’ve probably ended up flying through Dubai on Emirates. Emirates is often the cheapest airline, and with a 30kg baggage limit for economy class, it’s a no-brainer. Unfortunately if you’re trying to save money there is very little to do in Dubai airport and a long layover can be soul destroying; during one layover I was there for nearly 30 hours so I speak from experience! So what can you do if you have one day in Dubai and you don’t want to sit around the airport twiddling your thumbs? Get yourself a 48 hour visa and explore Dubai!
This is much easier said than done though and it does require a degree of planning. We left everything to the last minute and it cost us. But here is everything you need to know to make your layover in Dubai as easy, and as fun, as possible.
Applying for a visa for your one day in Dubai
The most important thing to note before looking into applying for your visa is that you need to apply through your airline, you can’t apply directly to the authorities in Dubai. If you are flying with Emirates (I can’t think why you’d put up with a layover in Dubai if you weren’t!) then you can link to their visa services page here.
There are a variety of visa options you can apply for but for a layover I would recommend applying for the 48 hour visa which only costs around $20. You can make your application through the ‘manage your booking’ page on the Emirates website after you have booked your flight. It’s managed by an external company but they work with Emirates and are very efficient.
What you will need to apply for your visa
For the application you will need to submit several documents along with a complete application form. Everything can be done online but you will need printing facilities to print your visa when it is complete.
The additional documents you will need to submit include (but may not be limited to):
- Copy of passport photo page and last page (picture size must be less than 200 KB).
- Colour passport photo (300px width by 369px height and 40 KB).
- Proof of residence if you reside in a different country to your country of origin.
Another important thing to note is that you need an address that you’re staying at in Dubai to complete your application. This can just be the airport hotel, but it is required. You can book your stay in the hotel through the booking.com link below. It is an affiliate link which doesn’t cost you anything to use but does give us a little bonus!
The application can take up to 4 working days to process so make sure you apply well in advance. We only applied 2 days before and had to pay an additional $25 fee for an expedited application. We received our visas while driving to the airport to leave South Africa!
What not to do when planning your one day in Dubai
There is a Emirates stopover service that is meant to assist in planning your layover. At least that’s what I assume they do. Part of the problem was leaving everything until the last second, but I have to say that I am thoroughly disappointed by the level of service from this section of Emirates.
The first problem is that they apparently only get back to you within 48 hours. In the modern world that amount of time is exorbitant to deal with a simple query. The second problem is that even after waiting 48 hours they never got in touch. They allegedly tried to phone me, but being on the move meant I didn’t have a working phone. Why they never tried to email me I will never know. So I don’t recommend using the Emirates stopover service, follow the steps above and you will be just fine!
What we did during our one day in Dubai
If you start googling what to do in Dubai you will have an amazing selection of tours and activities to book. Most of them will not fit into the few hours you have on your layover so make sure to check all the details. We were pretty exhausted from our holiday at home in South Africa (Scuba diving at the amazing Aliwal shoal, Zip-lining in the Karkloof and much more!) so we opted for a more relaxed visit. We also only had about 8 hours to spend out of the airport so we didn’t want to go on a far out adventure.
In our brief research we had found that the Dubai Mall had a lot on offer and it was right by the Burj Khalifa, so we could do some sight-seeing, have some fun exploring the world’s largest shopping mall, and find food and drink without a worry.
Getting out of the airport for your one day in Dubai
The cheapest and easiest way to get to central Dubai from the airport is on the metro. It cost 14AED for a return ticket and the ride took about 30 minutes to the stop nearest the Burj Khalifa. There is not a lot of sitting space on the train but it offers a great view over a lot of the famous landmarks around Dubai. Unfortunately it was exceptionally hazy when we visited so we couldn’t see too far but we still enjoyed the view.
You can buy tickets from machines at the metro entrance or from the information booth if you are worried about using a machine.
Taking in the Burj Khalifa
If you didn’t know it yet, the Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world, rising up 828m. You can get tickets to go up to the top but the day was so hazy that we didn’t think it would be worth it. From the metro station it was about a 20 minute walk along a pedestrian tunnel to get near the base of the tower. It’s well worth a visit as it is quite a magnificent building. Not having done much new sightseeing in the last few months it got us really excited and was the first thing that made us glad to having gone through the effort of applying for our visas.
There are dancing fountains around the base and several fascinating sculptures in the streets in the surrounding area. Dubai is exceptionally clean and we basically had the streets to ourselves to enjoy taking photos.
The Dubai Mall Aquarium and Underwater Zoo
When we finally got bored taking photos of the Burj Khalifa we made our way to the Dubai Mall. The place is huge and made us feel very out of place in our travel clothes! It’s very easy to get lost inside but there is an app you can download which will direct you through the place. Most of the shops only open around 11am so we decided to head to the Aquarium and Underwater Zoo.
Before I go any further you may be asking about the ethical implications of an aquarium in a shopping mall. We were too but from what we could research, and what we saw with our own eyes, everything is very legitimate and the animals are properly cared for. The Aquarium follows the strict guidelines of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. There is also no touching of the animals and the tanks look like they are kept in very good condition. We did a behind the scenes tour and the treatment and process of looking after the animals is transparent and professionally run.
The actual aquarium is magnificent, with a giant tank and underwater tunnel being the most prominent feature on display in the mall. If you just want to see the tank you don’t have to pay but the cheapest tickets are 55 AED, which give access to the aquarium and underwater zoo.
The tunnel offers an amazing view of the fish from all angles, some views were even better than when I’ve been scuba diving! The underwater zoo has a huge collection of marine animals, you can easily spend 2 hours wandering around the pathways. There are numerous photo spots where you are green-screened into fun scenarios. You can buy the printed photos at the end of the tour which is a fun souvenir.
Eating in Dubai Mall
There is a massive selection of restaurants and cafes to fulfill any culinary desires. We were not feeling very adventurous so we decided to go for hamburgers and the first restaurant we found happened to be a Wendy’s. Absolutely delicious but nothing unusual enough to write home about. In the afternoon we treated ourselves to tea and macarons at Laduree which was nothing short of heavenly.
Our energy was starting to lag a little so we decided we needed an adrenaline boost. We had seen there was a horror house, Hysteria, in the mall so we decided we’d check it out. We didn’t have very high hopes as horror houses can be a little cliche and boring but it sounded like fun.
We were pleasantly surprised. Or maybe not so pleasantly. It was terrifying! It was an incredible horror experience and I would recommend it to anybody who enjoys getting scares. Tickets were about 50 AED each.
I am a huge fan of VR gaming. When I heard that there was a VR Park at the Dubai Mall I knew I had to visit it even if I did nothing else. The VR Park is similar to any arcade and you can pay per game, around 35 AED, or pay 99 AED and have access to 7 pre-selected games. I took the 7 game deal to get the most out of the experience. The games were all good but they were all a little too short, they could have continued for several more minutes to really get the full experience. Of all the games the Dubai Drone Experience was the best. It even involved a rollercoaster!
The best games weren’t part of the deal so there were some that may offer a better experience. If you’re spending your one day in Dubai with smaller kids they will have a lot of fun at the VR Park.
What else you can do during your one day in Dubai
Theme parks in Dubai
There is no shortage of theme parks in Dubai, from Legoland to Bollywood Park. For an exciting adventure that the whole family can enjoy have a look at what is on offer.
With the marketing that Dubai shows, it is easy to forget that it is surrounded by desert. This is not a bad thing though as it means there is a whole new world to explore just outside of the city. Here is a list of the 15 best desert safaris by cntraveler.
Dubai is experiencing a boom in markets, from fresh produce to vintage pop-ups, there is a lot to explore.
Dubai may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of a beach holiday but there is no shortage of amazing places to enjoy the crystal clear water.
Don’t die of boredom in the airport
With so much on offer there is no reason to lose your mind in the Dubai airport. It does require a little bit of effort, but spending the day in Dubai is worth it. I have to warn you though, Dubai is exceptionally expensive, even if you are watching your budget, so keep that in mind if you visit.
Happy travels and blue skies!
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