A guide to transportation in the United Arab Emirates

From the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, to almost endless deserts, palm-shaped islands and bustling spice markets, there’s no doubt that the United Arab Emirates, and specifically it’s glittering jewel, Dubai, is a must-visit for any self-respecting traveler. But, how do you get around? Whether you’re just stopping over for a few days or doing a longer stint, let’s break down everything you need to know about transportation in the United Arab Emirates. 

And, while you might want to spend most of your time in the cosmopolitan quarters of its major cities – Dubai and Abu Dhabi – it’s worth remembering that the UAE has more to offer than its most famous tenants. It actually includes seven different emirates you can visit: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain. 

Cross-country transportation

Flights

Now you’ve probably arrived in the UAE with one of its flagship international carriers, Emirates or Etihad, either on a short stopover or with time to spare to explore the country.

However, if you’re looking to fly between the domestic destinations, whizzing around by air won’t really be your transportation of choice. There are currently no domestic flights connecting the cities, so you’ll need to save those air miles for your onward international journey. 

Trains 

Like flights, you shouldn’t arrive in the UAE with romantic visions of rail journeys, clattering along the tracks with a glass of champagne in hand. The country only really started investing in its rail infrastructure in the 2000’s, with the construction of Etihad Rail. But this burgeoning network is all about carrying parcels and not people, as it focuses on freight and cargo. The closest you’ll get? The Dubai Metro. There’s more on that below… 

Private transfers – cars and minivans 

If you can’t shell out for a Maserati (luxury supercars being a favourite for cash-flush locals) to ferry you between the Emirati cities, then a private transfer is your next best shot. The UAE’s road network is top-notch and since the UAE is pretty small – the longest route of Abu Dhabi to Fujairah is only 250 km – getting anywhere by road is usually the best choice. 

You could of course rent a car but it’s much more convenient (and relatively affordable) to take a private transfer. Usually you can choose from a few options – from a standard minivan that can take about 9 passengers to a smaller car, which accommodates up to 4 people (depending on how much you’ve shopped of course!). 

Taking a private transfer is usually best for some of the less popular routes, like the trip between Dubai and Ras al-Khaimah. A hotspot for local visitors, this little-known UAE gem not only boasts over 62 km of pristine, white sand beaches, complete with all the water sports your heart desires, but also boasts the best hiking in the country, in the nearby Hajar mountains. 

Another treasure to add to the list? The ‘Garden City’, Al Ain. Just over 100 kilometers from Dubai, the city is a veritable oasis, filled to the brim with greenery and much more modest buildings, making it a tonic to the soaring skyscrapers of it’s more famous cousin. The perfect destination for foodies but also avid football fans, as the city is home to Al Ain FC, the most popular and awarded football team in the country. 

Popular routes:

From – To
Dubai to Abu Dhabi
Dubai to Al Ain
Dubai to Ras al-Khaimah
Dubai to Yas Island
Abu Dhabi to Yas Island

Taxis

Like private transfers, taxis are a really convenient and safe way to get around the UAE, particularly on shorter distances between cities and towns. 

Like, for instance, the journey from Abu Dhabi to Yas Island. Renowned for playing host to the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix each year, Yas Island is a large leisure island jam-packed with attractions including Ferrari World, Waterworld (listed as one of the world’s best) and a sprawling Warner Bros theme park. 

Buses 

Last, but definitely not least, of your cross-country options is the humble bus. Which, in the case of the UAE, is a not so humble air-conditioned, eminently comfortable ride! Expect reclining seats and all manner of comforts in these long-distance coaches.

Pro tip: You are not allowed to eat or even drink water on buses, so make sure to ‘fill up’ at the pit stop. 

Getting around in the UAE’s cities

Taxis

Definitely the easiest way to get around the UAE’s major cities, taxis are clean, safe and in steady supply. Available in all the large cities, you’ll find it easy to flag one down on the street or in the long taxi rank at the airports and, while you can pay by card, it’s usually best to pay in good ol’ hard cash. 

Like most international destinations, cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi support Uber as well as local ride-hailing outfit, Careem, which can be booked via their apps. 

Private transfers – cars and minivans

Like taxis, a private transfer is a really hassle-free way to get from point to point in the UAE’s major metropolises. Particularly useful for airport transfers to your hotel of choice, there’s nothing like arriving after a long international flight to find a smiling driver holding a card aloft bearing your name! 

Dubai roads

Like the inter-city transfers, you’ll usually find private transfers available in standard cars for 1 to 4 passengers, or larger minivans if you’re traveling in a group. 

Metro 

If you’re still yearning for rail travel, then the Dubai metro is your next best bet. And, because Dubai always does it bigger and better, the metro is recognized as the world’s third largest automated (driver-less) metro in the world! 

Sparkling clean and generally convenient, the network spans most of Dubai and so is an easy way to get around. More than that, it’s a brilliant way to get to and from the airport, either on the red line to downtown Dubai or the green line, which takes you to the Dubai Creek area and most of its hotels. 

The only thing to keep in mind? You can’t use cash but, instead, need to buy a NOL card. A prepaid card, the NOL is also the only form of payment on Dubai’s buses and water taxis so, if you’re keen on using public transportation while in the city, invest in a NOL. 

Buses

Like the inter-city coaches, local buses really do deliver in style. In the larger emirates, like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, you won’t just find state-of-the-art, sustainable buses, but you’ll even find swanky air-conditioned bus shelters; often a lovely respite from the country’s sweltering heat. 

Like the metro or trams in Dubai, you can only use the NOL card for transport on buses, with a similar concept of prepaid smart cards used in other centers like Abu Dhabi or Sharjah. 

Other forms of local transport

None of the above tickle your fancy? Well travelers to Dubai are really in luck. You can check out Dubai’s captivating skyline courtesy of water taxis, which seat up to 10 people; or hop onto the Dubai Ferry which runs not only within that emirate, but also to adjoining Sharjah.

Wanting something a little more rustic but still on the rolling waves? You can head out on an abra, a traditional wooden boat which charges just a few dirhams for the courtesy of taking you across the Dubai Creek.

Want to travel across the land and sea?

Get inspired with more stories by travelers, for travelers