In a city like Dubai where everything is perfect and meticulous down to the smallest detail, the Machiavellian pricing mechanism of public transport is truly bewildering. The RTA (Road Transport Authority, the body that manages the city’s public transport) has divided Dubai into seven zones, numbered from 1 to 7 (first catch: zones number 3, 4 and 7 are practically in the middle of the desert, have no roads and are never taken into account).
There are three different types of journey on public transport: a journey within the same zone, a journey between two adjacent zones and a journey between two non-adjacent zones. Thus, there are three possible different prices for each public transport, increasing depending on how many zones are crossed.
To complicate matters further, journeys on public transport made by paying a single ticket are more expensive than the same journeys made using prepaid tickets via the Nol Card. To make things complicated beyond belief, different Nol Cards have different prices.
Finding one’s way around in this complete chaos is not easy, especially for those arriving in Dubai for the first time and who tend to be bewildered by the vast array of pricing options made available by the RTA for travelling on Dubai’s public transport: even buying a single ticket is not easy if one does not know in which zone one is and in which zone the destination is because the price varies, so let us try to shed some light by talking first of all about Nol Card.
The Nol Card is an electronic card that serves as a ticket for public transport in Dubai (the word ‘nol’ in Arabic simply means ‘fare’). A Nol Card is a card the size of a credit card that is valid as a travel ticket and must be swiped on the machines on public transport twice: when getting on and when getting off (in the case of the metro, this is easier, as it is needed to open the entrance turnstile and the exit turnstile).
Nol Cards work with Near Field Communication technology, so all you have to do is place them on the reader for a few seconds to have your journey validated. There are four different Nol Cards available: red, silver, gold and blue.
The red Nol Card is the equivalent of a single ticket, is practically only used by tourists and is valid for the metro and buses; it can be recharged to make a maximum of 10 journeys.
The silver Nol Card is a rechargeable card that can be loaded up to a maximum of 5000 dirhams: each time the cost of the trip is automatically calculated, it is valid on all public transport and can be recharged at ticket offices in metro stations or at RTA kiosks found practically everywhere in the city (simple and quick to use, they also have convenient instructions in English).
The Golden Nol Card allows its users access to the Gold Class of the metro and the Dubai Tram, i.e. the equivalent of first class; using this type of Nol Card means paying about twice as much for travel on public transport.
The last type is the blue Nol Card, a nominal photo card issued only after submission of a written and signed form. The advantage of using this type of card is that you are insured in case of theft or loss.
As mentioned earlier, Dubai is divided into seven zones numbered from 1 to 7. Travelling within the same zone has the lowest cost, travelling between two zones has an intermediate cost while travelling between three zones or more has a higher cost.
Zone 1 is very remote, practically consisting of Al Maktoum Airport.
Zone 2, on the other hand, contains several attractions for tourists and residents: Jebel Ali, Ibn Battuta Mall, Dubai Marina, Palm Jumeirah, Burj Al Arab and Mall of the Emirates;
Zone 6 includes the Burj Khalifa, the Dubai Mall, Sheikh Zayed Road, Jumeirah Beach Park, the World Trade Centre and the entire Bur Dubai area, while zone 7 is outside the city centre and is not taken into account.
Thus, travelling from Al Maktoum Airport to Dubai Marina involves crossing only one zone (one goes from zone 1 to zone 2), while to reach Dubai Mall one has to cross two, thus increasing the price of the ticket.
From Deira to Dubai Marina you also cross three zones (higher ticket price), while from Deira to Burj Khalifa you cross two (intermediate ticket price). Taking a bus or metro without leaving Deira, on the other hand, involves the least expense, because you do not cross any zones.
City Card allow you to save on public transport and / or on the entrances to the main tourist attractions.