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Emirates or Etihad? Where to Stopover: Dubai or Abu Dhabi

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Updated: 14th December 2021

It’s certainly no secret that the United Arab Emirates boasts some of the most luxurious hotels and experiences globally – an accolade that extends to UAE’s two most famous airlines, Emirates and Etihad. And while Abu Dhabi and Dubai are famous city-break destinations, they are also popular for their stopover options thanks to the extensive inter-continental routes offered by both airlines.

So, if you are looking for ways to fly from the United States to Asia or Europe to Australia, chances are you might be presented with the option to visit the UAE on your stopover. 

But which airline is better? What can you squeeze into a stopover in either city? How can you make the most of your time there? Well, I’ve tried and tested both options, so let’s look at whether you should do a UAE stopover with Emirates or Etihad and what to expect with both.

Dubai Stopover Guide
Taking a boat tour under the Burj Khalifa

Dubai with Emirates 

With their base in Dubai’s modern and swanky airport, Emirates has quickly become one of the most celebrated airlines globally.

Flying with Emirates

Emirates is, without a doubt, one of my favourite airlines in the world. Of course, their business and first-class suites are famous – especially when you throw in an upstairs cocktail bar on the A380s; however, their economy class is also great.

I flew Emirates between the UK and Australia, and both flights were great. Excellent cabin crew, spacious and modern planes, and the food and drink were top quality and kept on coming – there was certainly no scrimping on those little bottles of wine.

They also make it reasonably easy to book a stopover flight, whether you just want to make your own day trip by selecting a later flight option or opting for the official Emirates stopover package. With the latter, you’ll book and get your hotel, transfers, and optional tours all booked via Emirates at a discounted price after confirming your flight or via a travel agent.

How to spend your Dubai stopover

While I only had 12 hours in Dubai, I certainly crammed a lot into my visit, thanks to the excellent public transport and well-organised planning of such a modern city – and I spent a lot less money than I imagined.

It goes without saying that luxury in Dubai is easily achieved thanks to the array of high-end hotels and premium services, so it’s undoubtedly worth overnighting so you can also check in to one of the world’s best hotels. Plus, if designer shopping is your thing, you’ll be spoiled in the city!

For a bit more culture, venture to Od Dubai, where the Gold and Spice Souks are buzzing – the traditional wooden Abra boats crossing the river are a bargain. The Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, where little lanes and sandstone houses lead to markets, museums and cultural spaces, some dating back to before Dubai even knew what a sky-scraper was, was my favourite.

It wouldn’t be a visit to Dubai without marvelling at some of the most impressive modern buildings in the world. Whether it’s the Palm Jumeirah, the famous fanned-out artificial archipelago near Dubai Marina, or the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, you’ll spend a good part of your trip staring upwards in disbelief.

Grand Mosque Abu Dhabi Stopover
The Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi with Etihad 

Although not as popular with the Brits as Dubai, Abu Dhabi is well worth a layover for the Grand Mosque alone, and Etihad often offers lower prices than its neighbouring emirate airline. 

Flying with Etihad 

Unfortunately, my experience flying with Etihad was a far cry from the rave reviews I’ve heard from other travellers. While the onboard service and food were excellent, and the fleet is also very modern, it isn’t quite in the same league as Emirates, and often the prices reflect that.

My flight with Etihad was from London to Oman, with a stopover in Abu Dhabi. Sadly, the plane had a fault, so they put us in a hotel while delayed 12 hours, then my luggage didn’t arrive, and the customer service and communication throughout were lacking.

That said, they did come through with compensation and apologies after a long wait, and these things can happen with any airline, so it wouldn’t put me off from flying with them again. Thankfully, my return journey after exploring the mountain villages, beaches and wadis in Oman – one of my favourite countries I’ve ever visited – was smooth and without problems.

Like Emirates, Etihad offers an official stopover programme. I didn’t take advantage of this and just decided to make my own day stop there by choosing a morning arrival flight and evening departure.

Of course, this wouldn’t work if, for example, you are visiting the Abu Dhabi F1 – but it’s a great choice if you just want to enjoy a few of the most famous monuments. However, what is truly great about Etihad’s stopover programme is that eligible passengers can enjoy a free one- or two-night stay, making it even more attractive for the price!

Travel Writing Abu Dhabi
Reflections of the marble in water

How to spend your Abu Dhabi stopover 

I had one main reason to visit Abu Dhabi, and in fact, the whole reason I took the flight with Etihad: The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

This unforgettable bejewelled mosque opened to the public in 2007, and it truly is a sight to behold. Shimmering giant chandeliers hang above detailed rugs, the pristine white marble reflects in countless pools, and the whole complex will leave you speechless.

Abu Dhabi also serves up a good selection of historical and cultural monuments and museums, with the Miraj Islamic Centre being a must-visit. Islamic art pieces from around the world are housed here, while the sleek and modern building housing the Louvre Abu Dhabi will delight art lovers with its 9,200 square metres of galleries.

The impressive modern buildings found around the city, like the circular-shaped Aldar HQ, are contrasted by more traditionally designed and natural attractions such as Al Jahili Fort, a ninety-minute drive from the city. As with Dubai, you are well placed to experience the desert if you have a couple of days on your stopover.

Whether you want to admire the views from atop Jebel Hafit Mountain, spend the night camping out in the desert, or go dune bashing in a 4WD, it’s also easily done from the city.

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