A desert safari is a must-do activity when visiting Dubai – getting out of the city and exploring the beauty of the desert is a top attraction! In Dubai there are literally hundreds of desert safari Companies to choose from, so how do you choose which is right for you? In life you generally get what you pay for, so it is important to know where the cheap companies save the money and how it will affect your precious holiday experience.
The main areas to consider are:
- Reputation and level of service
- The type of ‘desert safaris’
- What food is served?
- The camp quality and guest numbers
- Is it important to you to be environmentally responsible? (dune bashing destroys the environment)
- Are you interested in learning something about the place you are visiting?
- The price – how much does it cost?
I put this first as it is probably the most important element in choosing a desert safari which is right for you. Getting other’s recommendations is a great way to get impartial advice. A referral from a friend with similar tastes is always the most valuable. Also looking at what the destination itself recommends can help. Dubai Tourism has a comprehensive website: Visit Dubai with all sorts of tips and have a Desert Experience section. You can also look at TripAdvisor for honest traveler reviews, although sometimes you have to wade through the fake ones – feel free to write messages to people who have made reviews and ask them questions. Also, look for the awards the desert safari has won as this may give another indication to the standard. Another option is to ask your Hotel Concierge for some advice but make sure to ask if the hotel has a contracted supplier as they may not be permitted to give you an impartial recommendation.
The level of service from staff in Dubai can be hit and miss, but a good Safari Guide is the #1 factor which will make or break your experience. Ask your desert safari Company if they can 100% guarantee if your safari will be conducted by one of their staff. Some companies have no staff and rely on freelance Safari Guides. Whilst some freelancers are excellent, others are less desirable as they will not be representing the same company consistently. Other companies have some of their own staff and outsource with freelance Guides when they become busy. If this happens, they will also not be able to ensure the quality of your Safari Guide. The best service will come from a company that can guarantee that you will have a company trained Safari Guide. These Guides will have first aid training, product knowledge, safety training and customer service training.
With Desert Safaris you have the choice whether you want to participate in dune bashing or a wildlife drive. You also have a range of cars to choose from such as a standard 4×4 like a Land Cruiser, a classic car safari or a luxury desert safari in high end cars.
Dune Bashing or Wildlife Drive?
Are you fit and healthy? No history of back or neck problems? Don’t get motion sickness? Love roller-coasters and adventurous activities? Are you not travelling with children or older guests? If you answered YES to all of those questions then you would probably prefer dune bashing. These high impact adrenaline drives are not for the faint hearted and can be incredibly fun if you are not too concerned about the environmental impact (see below).
However, if you answered NO to any of these questions, then you would probably prefer a wildlife drive. These are more like African safaris where you gently cruise along tracks through the dunes and spot native animals to the area such as Arabian Oryx and Gazelles. The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve is a wildlife sanctuary and kept pristine through its strict policies on dune bashing. There is an abundance of flora and fauna to view and learn about. There are only two companies permitted to conduct wildlife safaris inside the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (our recommendation below Platinum Heritage conduct their safaris here) and drives are longer in nature- generally last over an hour.
Which Safari Car
Most desert safaris are conducted in well-known 4×4 SUVs like Land Cruisers, Prados and Ford Expeditions.
Everyone understands why a meal at a fast food restaurant is cheaper than a fine dining restaurant so check what food is served on your desert safari. Is the cuisine authentic to this region or should you expect a cheap BBQ or curry? Is the food prepared fresh or pre-cooked by a catering company? Is there enough to fill your adventurous appetite? You wouldn’t randomly select a restaurant and the same care and attention should be taken with your Desert Safari. The better the food and higher the quality, the higher the price of your desert safari.
Most international visitors are not aware that there are so many types of desert safari camps; you would be surprised by how many people can be packed into a place. The quality of the facilities also differs greatly.
Most of the budget desert safaris use shared camps with other operators. These camps are generally more focused on the budget market and can represent good value for money for those travelling on a shoestring budget. One drawback is that the company you book with probably has no control over the hygiene, food quality, entertainment or facilities as many companies will come to the same camp for dinner. If you have a problem, there is generally nothing your company can do.
Some desert safari Companies have their own camps but cater to large numbers of guests, sometimes as large as 500-600 guests per night. One of the major drawbacks is a very busy desert, long buffet lines, toilet queues and a lack of personalised service.
Small private camps (less than 100 guests) – there are not too many of these to choose from but these camps have a higher level of service, more customisation and a more intimate feel. These are best for couples, well-traveled guests, families and those celebrating special occasions.
The ultimate desert safari experience is a private set up in the desert. Here you will experience attentive service for you and your guest/s. However, beware of set-ups put together without bathroom facilities. Nothing can put the brakes on a romantic dinner like having to “go in the dunes”.
14 years ago, when I first arrived in Dubai I was very excited to experience a desert safari and dune bashing. I’m an adventurous sort so this was right up my alley. Until years later, with the right education, I realised that this activity was devastating to the environment, especially the animals that lived there. We think of the desert as an arid place, and don’t often consider the animals. The desert actually is teaming with life, 90% of the creatures living under the surface of the desert sand. Dune bashing destroys the natural vegetation, eliminating the food source of many animals above the ground, but literally buries the animals alive that are under the sand. Keeping your dune experience to set tracks eliminates this issue and you get to enjoy the desert plants and animals on your safari.
If the environment really does matter, Platinum Heritage is the only desert safari company that has a sustainable tourism policy. They have won many Sustainability awards for their efforts and the only company to win the Dubai Tourism Green Award. They have solar powered camps, give their guest stainless steel water bottles to reduce plastic waste of water bottles along with have a policy of no dune bashing on their safaris. Their animals, especially the camels are really well looked after.
What I could never understand about desert safaris is how they represented the culture and history of Dubai. Bellydancing and Tanura dancing are an integral part of a desert safari in Dubai. — I have seen some interesting things in my time, sumo wrestling in Japan, reindeer rides in Lapland, changing of the guards in London and Aboriginal dancing in Australia. What would be strange for me would be to watch an Aboriginal Dance in Japan, a reindeer ride in London or a sumo wrestling match in Lapland. Bellydancing and Tanura dancing in Dubai are equally confusing. Neither of these dances have any historical roots in the Emirati culture and act to only distort a guest’s view of the local history and culture. The food often isn’t even ‘Arabic’ and there wasn’t anything authentic about the desert camps. Dressing up in the traditional dress was as authentic as it got on most desert safaris.
I typically like to learn something about the culture of a place and you don’t get this on many tours in Dubai, let alone on many desert safaris which do this. Platinum Heritage have a Heritage Collection of Desert Safaris that explore the roots of Dubai and a specific tour: The Bedouin Culture Safari if you really want to learn more about how the early desert dwellers used to survive.
This is generally the first question everyone asks. However, like everything else in life, you get what you pay for. I have attached the summary below which may indicate why each safari is priced the way it is. Also note, many desert safaris will make you purchase many items and activities when you are there, rather than being all inclusive.
Shared camp, freelance Safari Guides, dune bashing and very cheap food. Often directly through the desert safari provider.
Price range: AED75-100.
The same service above but with a commission to a tour agency built into the price.
Price range: AED120-180.
Large private camp, freelance Safari Guides, dune bashing but marginally better food and facilities.
Price range: AED220-275.
Large private camp, mix of in-house and freelance Safari Guides, wildlife drive and higher quality food.
Price range: AED275-375.
Small private camp, only in-house highly trained Safari Guides, wildlife drive in specialised vehicles and quality Emirati food cooked onsite.
Price range: AED400-600.
Private set up
Private set-up, in-house and freelance Safari Guides, wildlife drive, no entertainment or bathroom facilities.
Private set-up, only in-house Safari Guides, wildlife drive in luxury SUV, includes entertainment and facilities and onsite chef for quality food.
Now that you are armed with all of the facts, you will know which experience to spend your valuable vacation time and money on. And just remember to put everything in perspective; due to a high level of competition, even the most expensive safaris are still cheaper than the average dinner in a 5-star hotel.