Heading to Abu Dhabi, Dubai or somewhere else in the UAE? Make sure you can access the local currency, the Emirati Dirham, by comparing travel money options before you leave. In this guide we'll outline the pros and cons of using prepaid travel cards, debit cards, credit cards and foreign cash when you're travelling in the UAE, and give you tips on avoiding bank fees and charges.
Accommodation, food and holiday activities can be expensive in the UAE. There are less than a handful of hostels, although value 2 and 3 star hotels are widely available in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Because the UAE is filled with many different nationalities, food from all over the world is available for cheap. As well as expensive theme park visits and sightseeing trips, there also ways for you to explore Abu Dhabi and Dubai for free.
Hostel dorm bed $20 per night
3 star hotel $70 - $200 per night
5 star hotel $200 - $600 per night
Chicken biryani at a cheap restaurant $5
Shawarma platter at mid priced restaurant $15
Dine at Hakkasan Abu Dhabi. Signature Peking Duck $350
Visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: free Relax on Corniche Beach: free
Visit the ferrari island theme park $100 per adult
Dubai sightseeing trip from Abu Dhabi $115 per person
*Prices are indicative and subject to change
Exchange rate history
The Australian dollar is worth between 2.5 and 3 Emirati dirhams. The dollar hit a low at the start of 2016 and has been growing in value since. Traveller's cheques and prepaid travel cards let you lock in an exchange rate when you buy/convert to a foreign currency if you think it's going to get more expensive to buy dirhams in the future.
Average annual exchange Australian Dollar to UAE Dirham
*Exchange rates are accurate as of 4 September 2017
There are two prepaid travel cards suited to spend in Emirati dirhams, you'll incur currency conversion fees with the rest and American Express acceptance is touch and go in the UAE. A debit card can be a cost effective way to withdraw money and make over the counter purchases, if you have the right one. Plus, you could consider a travel credit card for the fee waivers and travel perks.
In the tourist and expatriate centres of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Visa and Mastercard can be used more often than not. While many smaller businesses and taxis now take cards; you will need cash at some point on your travels. ATMs are widespread and you'll see some familiar names like Citi and HSBC.
A quick summary of travel money options for UAE
Travel money option
Debit cards for travel
No currency conversion, ATM withdrawals, account keeping fees
Widely accepted at UAE merchants and ATMs
Free withdrawals on Citi ATMs in the UAE with Citibank Plus
Citibank Plus Transaction Account is the only travel friendly debit account currently offered
Prepaid travel money cards
Allow you to load and spend in Dirham
No currency conversion fees for some cards
Let you make over the counter purchases and ATM withdrawals
International ATM withdrawal fees, card issue fees, initial load fees, reload fees may apply
Credit cards for travel
Features such as complimentary travel insurance and reward points earning
Security with chip and PIN
Contactless payment terminals are common
Cash advance fees
Higher spending limit
Can be costly with initial purchase charges
Not all merchants accept traveller's cheques
Greater payment flexibility
More difficult to manage expenses
Higher risk of theft
This table is a general summary of the travel money products in the market. Features and benefits can vary between cards.
How cards, cheques and cash work in the UAE
Using prepaid travel cards
The two travel cards which let you load and spend in Emirati dirham are the Commonwealth Bank Travel Card and the Qantas Cash. Both travel cards are Mastercard branded products. Mastercard and Visa cards can be easily used at many businesses throughout the UAE.
Both cards let you make over the counter purchases and ATM withdrawals. A quick look at the exchange rate shows CBA cardholders are about 18 dirhams (AUD$6), so you're better off converting AUD$1,000 to AED. Withdrawals cost more using the CBA card, you'll save about AUD$1 each time you use the Qantas Cash at the ATM.
You'll pay a $15 issue fee for the Commbank product, a spare is issued to use incase the main card is lost or stolen, a point of difference from Qantas Cash which is a single card account. Rewards are another point of difference. If you chase points, the Qantas Cash gives you 1.5 Qantas Points for every $1 spent in a foreign currency.
Tip: Order a travel card online so it has your name printed on the front.
Using debit cards
The Citibank Plus Transaction Account is the only travel friendly transaction account. You won't pay for currency conversion, international ATM withdrawals, there's no monthly account keeping fee and Citi let you make instant and free international money transfers between Citi accounts in Australia and the UAE. The Citibank Plus Visa Debit Card will enjoy wide acceptance at UAE merchants and ATMs.
Tip: You can use the Citibank Plus to withdraw for free from Citi ATMs in the UAE.
Using credit cards
Visa and Mastercard credit cards can be used without issue at businesses in the UAE. Some hotels in Abu Dhabi and Dubai require a credit card for deposits, so it might be good to carry one was a backup.
The Latitude 28° Global Platinum Mastercard from Latitude Financial Services (formerly GE Money) combines a unique set of features with low fees. Bankwest platinum credit cards come in different flavours, all platinum cards waive the currency conversion fee and you won't pay for international ATM withdrawals either. Bankwest provide complimentary insurance through their platinum cards. The Coles Rewards Mastercard may also be suited to take to the UAE, as Coles offers 2 flybuys points for overseas purchases. The Bankwest Platinum Qantas Mastercard gives you 0.75 Qantas Points per dollar spent.
Tip: Some users preload these products with their own money to use like a debit card. The cash advance fee applies regardless of whether the card has a positive balance and the Mastercard and Visa no liability guarantees do not apply if you're the victim of credit card fraud.
Using traveller's cheques
Traveller's cheques can be purchased through Thomas Cook. Commonwealth Bank, Australia Post, Westpac and ANZ provide American Express traveller's cheques. However, American Express do not sell cheques in Emirati dirhams. In this case ,it might be better to take a travel friendly debit or prepaid card for ATM withdrawals. Banks and exchange offices will charge a commission to cash traveller's cheques and you can get a better rate from the ATM.
Paying with cash in UAE
You can use your credit card, debit card or travel card in many places throughout the UAE. Smaller businesses such as cafeterias and cafes, some public transportation, street vendors and souks are all cash only. ATMs are widespread in the cities, you will have many chances to withdraw cash if you need it.
If you have Australian dollars you want to change when you arrive, avoid exchanging cash at your hotel or at the airport. You will get a better rate if you wait till you get into the city. Have a look in shopping centres for exchange offices.
Some of the banks you'll recognise in the UAE include Citi, HSBC and Barclays Bank. International banks will give you a higher ATM withdrawal limit than local banks. Try to select a withdrawal amount which will give you notes in a smaller denominations. These machines have a tendency to dispense large bills, which can be a problem to cash outside your hotel.
You'll be able to find ATMs in the international airports, you can make a withdrawal once you go through customs and before you get in a taxi.
Dean visited Abu Dhabi so he could attend the F1 Grand Prix. He spent about four nights in Abu Dhabi and two nights in Dubai before flying back home. He was at the Yas Marina circuit to watch the practice and qualifying laps and the race itself, Dean says at the end of each day there were performances from major artists such as Florence and the machine.
Dean says he travels frequently and he uses his Citibank Plus Visa as his main travel account. He doesn't pay the 3% conversion fee for currency conversion and he doesn't pay international ATM fees if he makes a withdrawal. He says there's no monthly fee to keep the card so he only brings it out on holiday. The Orange Everyday Visa Debit Card is the account day to day account he uses in Australia because he doesn't get charged any ATM fees when he uses it to get cash out at home. The HSBC Platinum Visa gave Dean complimentary insurance when he used it to purchase his airfare. He pays the card off at the end of each month too, so when possible he makes purchases with the card to earn Qantas Points and doesn't incur interest.
Where could you use your cards?
Dean says he could use his cards most places he visited. He made a withdrawal from an ATM when he landed but he says he used his credit card to pay for the taxi from the airport and for a deposit when he checked into the hotel. When he ventured into the city, he could use his Citibank Plus debit card all the time except for when he ate in a few of the smaller restaurants (he didn't ask if they took card but he thinks there's a good chance they do). He adds that a few of the taxis he took were cash only.
What about ATM withdrawals?
Dean only made two ATM withdrawals. The first time was in the airport and the second time was when he spotted a Citibank ATM in Abu Dhabi mall. He says there was no issue with ATM acceptance or availability. There was always an ATM around the corner, he says.
What's your recommendation for UAE travel money?
Dean says the Citibank Plus should be in the back pocket of everyone who travels internationally.
Do you have any tips?
Dean says there is a service charge of 10% at places like hotels and restaurants included in the bill, but he says it can't hurt to round taxis up to the nearest 5 dirhams either.
You can get a better rate of exchange if you withdraw cash from an ATM in the UAE using a low fee travel account. If you want some cash in your pocket when you land, these institutions can sell you dirhams.
Tip: These providers have locations at major Australian airports, you can order currency online and pick up dirhams before you get on the plane.
Why you'll need a combination of travel money options
The travel money products on this page work best when they're used together. Depending on the card, you could take advantage of interest-free days, complimentary insurance and an emergency line of credit with a credit card. However, as you can't use credit cards for ATM withdrawals, you'll need to consider a travel friendly debit card or prepaid card. Fees aside, spread your travel budget across a couple of different travel money types, this way, a lost or stolen card won't derail your trip.
If you have any questions about using travel money in the UAE, get in touch with us using the form below.
Jeremy Cabral is the chief operating officer and global head of publishing for Finder. He has written hundreds of comparisons covering everything from credit cards to travel money to Netflix TV shows. Jeremy has a Bachelor of Business (Marketing) from the University of Western Sydney.
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