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International Travel Again: A Fulfilling Family Trip to Dubai

Before the Canadian travel advisory against non-essential travel was reinstated, my family was able to take a trip out to Dubai and the Maldives. It was a trip we had planned almost a year before, and our first international trip with the kids since the beginning of the pandemic.

Dubai might not be on everyone’s radar as a top family vacation spot, but it has now become one of my favourite international destinations to travel to with the kids.

It is extremely safe (with one of the lowest crime rates in the world), clean, and kid-friendly, with an endless list of activities and attractions for all ages, and fabulous weather at this time of year. We were lucky enough that our travel plans also coincided with the World Expo in Dubai which was definitely a sight to see. 

We spent a total of seven nights in Dubai and five nights in the Maldives. This post will cover our time in Dubai, with my review of our time at the St. Regis Maldives coming later in 2022, as a part of a larger series by the Prince of Travel team. 

The Destination

Located in the Middle East along the coastline of the Persian Gulf, Dubai is a city and emirate within the United Arab Emirates. It is an architectural spectacle, surrounded by the desert on one side, and beaches and oceans on the other. 

Between November and March, you’ll enjoy more comfortable temperatures from the mid-teens up to highs of 30˚C, although temperatures can soar above 40˚C in the summer months.

In early December, the weather was perfect – cool enough to walk comfortably around outdoors yet warm enough to enjoy the beach and water activities. This time of year also coincides with the best time to visit the Maldives, making it a great opportunity to hit up both destinations in one trip (what’s another four-hour flight when you’ve flown so far anyway?)

COVID-19 Situation

When we travelled, COVID-19 daily case counts in the UAE were in the 20s; however, by the time we left, they were starting to see a small spike in cases related to Omicron.

Entry wise, tourists from Canada must have a negative RT-PCR test result taken no more than 72 hours before departure, with a few exceptions, including for any children under the age of 12. Refer to Emirates’s website for the most up-to-date entry information.

In Dubai, we felt quite safe with the low case counts. Most people there were following masking and social distancing guidelines.

COVID-19 testing is widely available. We used First Response Healthcare, which has an “at home” service, where they will send a nurse to come to your hotel to do the test. Results were back within 12 hours, even though they quoted up to 24 hours. 

The Flights

The flight to Dubai from Canada is a minimum of 12 hours. Air Canada and Emirates offer direct flights to and from Toronto. If you’re flying from the west coast, there are no direct flights, so tack on another few hours at least.

We flew Toronto to Dubai, drove to Abu Dhabi to catch our flight to Malé, then flew back from Malé to Toronto with a layover in Dubai. 

We booked Toronto to Dubai on Air Canada business class by using the “Latitude Attitude” strategy, which cost 68,000 Aeroplan points and 13 eUpgrades credits per passenger. Since we needed to upgrade five passengers, we booked as soon as the calendar opened up at 356 days out, when “R” space (or eUpgrade space) was most likely to be available.

The business redemption was worth it as our flight departed at 10pm, so lie-flat beds on the Boeing 789 allowed us all to catch some z’s on the way there.

Our flight from Abu Dhabi to Malé was 12,500 Aeroplan points per passenger in economy class on Etihad Airways.

Coming back from the Maldives to Toronto, we booked Emirates in economy class through Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan program (before they ended their partnership with Emirates in mid-2021) for 42,500 Alaska miles per passenger. It was a good redemption compared to the 70,000 points Aeroplan was charging.

You may be wondering why we flew economy class coming back. For a more detailed discussion on this, check out my previous post on this topic.

Before the Miles & Points game, economy was all I flew, and realistically with a family of five, booking business class flights all the time is not always feasible, nor desirable. Flying economy helps to keep my kids grounded and not take finer things in life for granted.

If you’re going to fly economy on a long-haul flight, Emirates is a great option. Seats are as spacious as they get in economy class, with a seat pitch of 34 inches on their Airbus A380.

The flight attendants were great with the kids and they even came around to take a family photo for us on their instant camera.

The kids were given cute (and useful might I add) fanny packs and backpacks as their amenity kits.

The in-flight entertainment options and food service were good, and included complimentary wine or beer with meals. They even served a hot meal for our four-hour flight from the Maldives back to Dubai.

The Car Rental

Given how spread out Dubai is, a car rental made it a lot easier to move around with kids than taking public transportation and relying on taxis and Ubers. Dubai’s roads and highways are very similar to those in Canada, with good signage, so we found driving on our own to be quite easy and enjoyed the flexibility it afforded us. 

We initially booked a car rental with Hertz.ca, but we found out it was actually cheaper to book the Hertz booth on arrival. Booking online would have given us a rate of over 300 AED per day for a standard SUV, our preferred vehicle.

The agent onsite was able offer us 195 AED per day. Better yet, all the car rental kiosks are located together (right after you exit the baggage area), so you can shop around for the best deal. Of course, always have a backup booking just in case.

The Accommodations

In Dubai, there is no shortage of accommodation options, for small and big families alike. You can live it up if you prefer, or find very budget-friendly options without sacrificing too much in comfort and quality, as their hotel standards are much higher than here in North America.  

Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt all have large footprints in Dubai, making redemption stays possible. However, if you book early, you can score some pretty good rates and save the points.

If you have an American Express Platinum Card, take a look at the Fine Hotels & Resorts rates. There can be some good luxury options in the UAE, especially after you factor in the annual $200 credit. 

Having rented a car, we decided to hop around and check out a few different areas and hotels in Dubai.

City Walk Dubai

This neighbourhood features an open outdoor walking, shopping, and dining district. We stayed three nights here at La Ville Hotel & Suites CITY WALK, Dubai, Autograph Collection. Ricky has a detailed review of the hotel already.

With some help from my friend, Tiezheng from Vicarious Voyager, we were upgraded to a two-bedroom suite, which was a huge space featuring a full kitchen and sitting area.

The hotel has a nice rooftop pool which the kids enjoyed while my husband and I took in the skyline, including a view of the Burj Khalifa in the distance.

The hotel is conveniently located only 10 minutes by car from the Burj Khalifa, the Dubai Mall, and Jumeirah Beach; 15 minutes to Dubai’s Old Town, where you can stroll in a souk; and 20 minutes from the airport and the Palm.

Just outside the hotel is La La Land, a small establishment that features an outdoor arts & craft station that is open late into the evening.

The walkway outside the hotel is pedestrian-only, lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants. It’s a great area to roam around in the evening and grab an ice cream before calling it a night. Vendors with ride-on toys, selling balloons and other gizmos, also roam about. 

Just around the corner from the hotel is The Green Planet, which features an indoor rainforest exhibit, where birds and other creatures like sloths and lemurs are free to roam around. 

The Palm Jumeirah

Dubai’s famous palm-shaped artificial island is full of beaches and resorts. We stayed two nights at Atlantis Dubai.

After hearing mixed reviews about its sister hotel in the Bahamas, I was very pleasantly surprised. The food was expensive, but good. The accommodations were modern and clean.

The Lost Chambers Aquarium and Aquaventure Waterpark were massive but very well-maintained and were so much fun my kids wished we could stay longer. I’ll have a more detailed review of this hotel to come.

Aquaventure waterpark at Atlantis Dubai
The Lost Chambers Aquarium at Atlantis Dubai

Grand Hyatt Dubai

Last but not least, we stayed at the Grand Hyatt Dubai. It’s not in any particular area of interest, but because our departing flight was an early one, we opted for a hotel close to the airport. The Grand Hyatt is only a 10-minute drive away.

From a tourist standpoint, there isn’t much to do outside and around the hotel; however, once you arrive, you may not want to leave anyway.

The hotel lived up to its reputation for having outstanding service and amazing treatment of its Globalist members. As a Globalist, you receive free breakfast and lounge access for two adults and up to two children. During the pandemic, they offered a complimentary buffet dinner nightly at their Market Cafe in lieu of lounge access.

When we visited, their lounge had reopened for drinks, but they still honoured the complimentary dinner. For 575 AED ($192) plus taxes, we had free breakfast and dinner for the whole family (and they didn’t even charge my third child!)

Market Cafe at the Grand Hyatt Dubai, with the indoor garden behind it

I initially booked only a king room which could only accommodate three guests. I reached out to the hotel beforehand and kindly asked if an upgrade to a Two King Bed room would be possible (as I was advised this would accommodate my family of five, although the hotel website said it could only accommodate four), and they granted the request.

On arrival, however, our room was not ready for check-in and the agent asked if we would be OK with an upgrade to the Prince Suite!

The room was more traditional in decor, but it was an amazing suite, with an office space, dining table set for six, kitchenette, huge bathroom with a jacuzzi, and a spacious sitting area.

I actually found the suite too big, but my kids sure didn’t mind. It had one king bed, but the check-in agent had three rollaway beds brought up. We put all our beds together and had a big sleepover party. 

The hotel is like an oasis of its own, loaded with amenities. There are 13 restaurants on site, a bakery cafe, and an indoor gym, pool, spa and salon.

There is an indoor garden in the atrium with water, bridges, and a path that kids can meander through, which is conveniently located right by the restaurants for any restless kids.

Outdoors, there is a massive pool system with slides and a splash pad, a zero-entry toddler pool, a kids’ club with an outdoor play structure, tennis and pickle ball courts, and a jogging path. 

View from our suite of Grand Hyatt Dubai hotel grounds
The Kids’ Club at Grand Hyatt Dubai

Things to Do in Dubai

The list of things to do and see in Dubai is endless. Even driving around the city is a treat in itself, seeing architectural marvels like the Burj and the Dubai Frame.

Below, you’ll find some of the attractions we visited. Unlike North America, where malls and venues are only open till late afternoon or early evening, here in Dubai, you’ll find nothing closes before 10pm at the earliest. 

The Dubai Mall holds the record as the second largest shopping mall in the world. It has over 1,200 stores, 200 food and beverage venues, and enough attractions to fill 2–3 days of an itinerary.  

One of the most famous attractions here is the Burj Khalifa, which is the world’s tallest building at 828 metres tall. Be sure to purchase tickets at least a day in advance, as tickets do sell out. 

At The Top, Burj Khalifa

After the Burj, you can the visit the other attractions at the mall, including an aquarium, the skating rink, and Candylicious (one of the largest candy stores I’ve ever been to). Older kids may enjoy the virtual reality park and the e-karting complex.

Although we didn’t get to check it out, there’s also a Time Out Market for any foodies. 

Dubai Aquarium at the Dubai Mall

We returned to the Dubai Mall a second day to visit Kidzania, where we spent a good half day.

The huge two-story indoor complex features a replica of a town where kids aged 2–16 (although I would say the ideal age is 5–10) can take part in over 40 activities, in which they take on the role of different jobs and trades to learn about them.

Kids can even put together their own Happy Meals at Kidzania

As they complete tasks, kids earn kidZo’s (a play currency) which can then be redeemed for prizes. My kids had a lot of fun here and it was educational for them, too! 

In the evening, we caught the Dubai Fountain show just outside the mall, which comes on every 30 minutes in the evening.

Choose a restaurant on the Lower Ground level along the Dubai Mall Promenade; most of them offer outdoor seating (like Nando’s Chicken and Wifi Gourmet) and you can enjoy the show while you eat. If you go earlier in the day, there are activities you can do around the fountain, like renting out a swan paddle boats or kayaks

The Dubai Miracle Garden is another attraction that’s worth seeing. It’s a little further out from the downtown core, but is on the way to the Expo.

It’s one of the world’s largest natural flower gardens, where flowers are arranged into various displays and themes, like castles, ballerinas and even an Emirates plane. There’s even a huge area dedicated to the Smurfs, which was very nostalgic for me. 

One of the biggest highlights of Dubai was going to Expo 2020. Having never been to a World Expo before, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I half-expected my kids to be bored out of their minds and that we would be done within a few hours. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They loved it.

Each country had their their own pavilion, which featured something new and different; some were very educational and offered hands-on activities. There are shows throughout the day and food from all over the world that you can sample.

Inside the Germany Pavillion
Inside the Saudi Arabia Pavillion
Outside the Saudi Pavillion

There are a couple of large playgrounds for younger kids. We could have spent two to three days here easily. If you fly Emirates or Etihad, your boarding pass can be exchanged for a free ticket, and kids under 18 are free.

As a souvenir, and as an incentive for your child to explore more pavilions, you can purchase an Expo passport for 20 AED. For 20 AED, they can collect stamps at each country’s pavilion just as you would on a real passport. 

Also consider downloading the Expo app. It will let you access 10 fast passes per ticket that allow you to bypass the regular lineups.

How to Save a Buck or Two in Dubai

The cost of buying tickets for Dubai’s attractions can add up, and I found a few ways to save some money.

Websites like Klook.com, Groupon.ae and ctctourism.com offer discounts on many of the above attractions. I also ended up buying a tourist subscription to the Entertainer app, which gives you access to a lot of 2-for-1 coupons for attractions, food, and hotels, all for 200 AED ($67). We saved about five times this amount, so it was worth it.

Conclusion

Our week in Dubai flew by, leaving us wishing we could stay longer.

Despite the long flight, it has definitely become one of our favourite family destinations, because it has something to suit everyone’s interests – beaches, waterparks, shopping, theme parks, desert experiences, and historic and cultural attractions.

Right now, another big attraction is the World Expo 2020, which I would highly recommend everyone going to visit.

The next time we go back, we’ll be sure to spend a couple of nights in the desert, visit Old Dubai, the souks, and Ski Dubai. Perhaps we’ll even visit some another emirate like Abu Dhabi. If you have any additional suggestions, including good accommodation options or attractions you’ve been to with your family, please share them in the comments below.