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Our “Layover Lowdown” series features airports and destinations around the world where you’re likely to be stuck between flights, offering tips on navigating and spending time in the airport, as well as some things to do if you find yourself with time to explore the nearby city. TPG Contributor Lane Nieset guides us through the ever-changing Dubai International Airport (DXB).
Connecting the East and the West, the Dubai International Airport (DXB) offers flights to over 260 destinations on six continents. More than 79 million people already pass through these terminals each year, and Dubai’s penchant for growing larger and grander every day doesn’t stop at the airport gates. The second-largest emirate in the UAE plans on hitting the 100 million mark by 2020, just in time for the Dubai World Expo 2020, and Dubai’s second airport, Al Maktoum International at Dubai World Central (DWC), plans to become the world’s largest airport, with the capacity to serve up to 160 million passengers per year.
At the Airport
The airport is divided into three terminals, including the luxe new Emirates Terminal 3. An underground train connects the Emirates A380 hub to other gates, so it’s a quick trip across the terminal to your next flight. The terminal is also home to three Timeless Spas — in the Emirates first-class and business-class lounges, and at the on-site airport hotel (see below) — where you can pass the time with a massage or manicure. Settle into some meditation in one of the two indoor zen gardens in the terminal by gates B7 and B27, or if you’re Muslim, seek a spiritual escape at any of the dedicated prayer rooms scattered throughout the airport.
If you’re passing through Terminal 1 and want a quick nap but don’t want to check in to the hotel there (again, see below), you can rest up in one of the 10 Snooze Cubes by gate C22, which feature music and free Wi-Fi. Rates start at 75 AED ($21) per hour for a single cube, and require a two-hour minimum stay.
The airport also features free shower cubicles in Terminal 1 (between C18 and C22) and Terminal 3 (between B13 and B19, and between A1 and A24) in case you’d like to freshen up.
As for lounges, like most things in Dubai, there’s a bevy of first-class and business-class options, no matter which airline you’re flying. In Terminal 3, Emirates has a First Class Lounge with everything from a Cigar Bar and Le Clos Wine Cellar to a personal shopper that guides you through the lounge’s duty free boutique. If you’re flying business class on an airline that doesn’t have its own lounge, you can relax in the Dubai International Business Class Lounge in Terminal 1 Concourse C, which features shower stalls, a luggage area, work stations and a sleeping room.
There are more than 80 eateries at the Dubai airport, from fast food to more gourmet sit-down restaurants. If you’re just looking for a quick bite to eat, you can’t go wrong with Belgian chain and boulangerie Le Pain Quotidien, serving organic French fare to go in Terminal 3 Departures A Gates.
For something a bit more upscale but still speedy, try Caviar House & Prunier’s Seafood Bar in Terminal 3 Gate B 27 or the Moët & Chandon Champagne Bar Le Lounge in Terminal 3 Gate A. Terminal 3 Gates A and B are also home to the UK favorite Giraffe — a bistro with everything from burgers to BBQ baby rack ribs — as well as well as Jack’s Bar and Grill, a taste of Southern comfort (Terminal 3, A Gates) with special-edition Jack Daniel’s on tap.
Emirates Terminal 3 is home to almost any duty free shop you can think of, and the best part is that they’re open 24/7. Shop a selection of designer sunglasses, top-name luggage, and timepieces from brands like Breitling and Rolex. If you’re a wine lover, comb through the extensive collection of vintage, New World and fine wines at the Le Clos shop in Terminal 3.
Terminals 1 and 3 offer luggage storage for 20-25 AED ($5.50-$7) — depending on the size of your luggage — for up to 12 hours, and it’s open 24/7.
If you’re flying Emirates, you can skip the hassle of lugging your bags around and opt to have them delivered anywhere in the UAE. Head to the baggage counter at the Arrivals hall in Terminal 3 to arrange the delivery, which costs 200-250 AED ($55-68) for up to four bags.
Transport to the City Center
Dubai’s metro system is one of the easiest to use, with just two lines running throughout the city, mostly above ground. Hop on the red line from Terminals 1 and 3, which runs every 10 minutes starting at 5:50am (5:30am on Thursdays) until midnight (or 1am on Thursdays and Fridays). Depending on the distance and number of transfers, fares range from 1.80-5.80 AED (or $0.50-1.50), and stops at major tourist destinations like the Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall downtown and the Dubai Marina. From Union Square or Khalid Bin Al Waleed, travelers can connect over to the green line, which stops in spots in Deira and near the Dubai Creek.
Those who plan on spending time in the city can get a Nol card, which can be topped off with credit and includes discounts on standard fare. Like most things in Dubai, there’s a gold class that’s about double the price of a normal fare (3.60-11.60 AED or $1-3 per trip), for seats in the front cabin with views out of the driverless car’s window. If you have a card, the maximum amount you’ll spend in a day is 14 AED (about $4) on standard fares, since all travel after this is free.
Thanks to the streamlined transportation system, travelers can catch a bus heading to other parts of the city from the metro. Buses depart every 30 minutes from all three terminals (and also take the Nol card), heading to Deira (Bus 401) and the city (Bus 402). Fares are 3 AED ($0.82).
Taxi stands are at each terminal and fares start at around 20 AED (about $4.50). A ride from the airport to Dubai Marina typically costs around 100 AED ($27). Ladies can opt for a female-only taxi by hailing one of the pink cabs.
If You Have a Half Day
A tourist attraction worth seeing is the Burj Khalifa, a 2,716.5-foot tower that is considered (at the moment) the tallest building in the world. The tower climbs to more than 160 stories high, but visitors can only go up to the observation deck, At the Top, the highest observation deck in the world spanning the 124th to 148th floors showing off 360-degree views of the city. Those in a rush can purchase a fast-track timed ticket so they don’t have to wait in the regular line. Once you’re up to the observation deck, plan to spend around an hour taking in the sights.
If you happen to be visiting in the evening (and know your plans well in advance), make a reservation for At.mosphere, a restaurant and bar where you can sit and enjoy the view from the 122nd floor. To access the building, visitors enter through the ground floor of The Dubai Mall. One of the largest shopping malls in the UAE with over 1,000 shops, this place can easily take up a whole day. I recommend snagging a map so you can quickly find the attractions and shops you want to visit without wasting time, since you only have half a day.
If You Have a Whole Day
See a more authentic side of the city from the water on a creek cruise on a wooden dhow, or boat, through Old Dubai passing by landmarks like the Chamber of Commerce Building, as well as the souks, or markets. Dubai is known as the “City of Gold,” so head straight to the source at the nearby gold souk with shop after shop selling gold, diamonds and platinum at prices you can haggle with. Also on the Deira side of the city just next to the gold souk is the spice souk with rows of fresh spices flowing from bags lining the streets.
While the Burj Khalifa shows off sky-level views of the city, travelers can also get up above the city and really get a sense of perspective on a helicopter tour. Head to Palm Island and hop on a helicopter at Atlantis, The Palm, for a 15-minute ride past major sites like the Burj Al Arab, Burj Khalifa and The World Islands jutting out of the Persian Gulf.
If You Have the Night
The five-star, 349-room Dubai International Hotel is set inside Terminals 1 and 3 and is the perfect spot for a quick snooze or overnight stay. Room options range from deluxe to royal and presidential suites and guests have access to 15 restaurants and bars, two health clubs with pools, three business centers (open 24 hours) and the Timeless Spa if you need a refreshing massage or body treatment. Rates start at 700 AED ($191) per night.
Travelers heading into town have a number of hotels to choose from, including the world’s tallest hotel, the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel Dubai, located on Sheikh Zayed Road in the business district. The five-star hotel has more than 1,600 rooms spread across two towers, boasting panoramic views of the city thanks to the height factor and location near Downtown Dubai. Rooms at this Marriott Category 7 hotel start at 35,000 points or 1,050 AED ($286) per night.
For a truly luxurious stay in one of Dubai’s landmark properties, the all-suite, sail-shaped Burj Al Arab Jumeirah is the place. From the over-the-top lobby to the even more opulent suites with sweeping views of the water, this glamorous hotel offers everything guests need for a stay that’s typical of Dubai — gilded and slightly outrageous. A few personal touches I like are the VIP ways to arrive at the hotel — via helicopter or chauffeured Rolls-Royce — and the specially designed gold iPads available for guests at check-in. Rates start at 7,990 AED ($2,175) per night.
What are some of your favorite ways to pass the time at the Dubai International Airport?