Our Globetrotters: Expat Life in the Middle East

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If you are looking to travel more as a family, but don’t want to quit your job and want to maintain your income, living as expats overseas is a great option.  Living in Malaysia and now Australia has allowed us to explore so much of these countries all while having the stability of a home base (and income coming in!).  Not only does it open up so many travel opportunities, but it really allows you to get to know a different country deeply.  We blog regularly about our life overseas in our Expat Life section of the blog.

Living as expats is one of the ways we suggest and recommend for families to travel more.  In our situations, these opportunities came to us but if you are interested in living overseas, you might have to seek them out.  Inquire if your employer has international opportunities or maybe even an exchange program.  Or maybe you are looking for an employment change and an expat position is a fresh start.

Moving overseas comes with a lot of challenges and when you have kids, it is a whole extra layer of things to consider.  However, the experience for the whole family is incredibly rich as every one learns about and adapts to a different culture and way of life.

This week on our TRAVEL MORE Case Study series we talk to Keri from Our Globetrotters and Family Travel Middle East about their expat life in the Middle East.  Keri is a British/Australian mum of three.  Leaving the corporate life of London behind she moved to the Middle East with her husband and family in 2012. She has since been fulfilling her travel writing dreams and using their hub location of Abu Dhabi to the fullest!

I actually met Keri earlier this year when she was visiting Melbourne and she is a wealth of knowledge on expat life in the Middle East, Middle East travel and using points to fund their travels.  So without further ado, here is Keri:

Expat Life in the Middle East – How it Started

It was travel that brought my husband and I together in the first place so its no wonder it continues to make up and important part of our lives now as a family.  He was posted in Afghanistan while I was working in London, then a change in job role saw him relocate to London so we could be closer together.

Although we are both originally from Australia – Perth and Melbourne – we went on to spend many happy years living and working in London.  We took advantage of cheap flights and weekend deals from the UK to Europe, and even the US to explore together.

We would also fly home at least once a year to Australia, using South East Asian and Middle East cities as stop overs. There was rarely a month went by when we weren’t on a plane or train for work or pleasure for about 5 years.   Children eventually came along whilst we were living in London and we thought our travel days would soon be gone, but if anything, it has spurred us on to travel more!

Since 2012 we have lived in the Middle East, calling Abu Dhabi, UAE our home and where we base ourselves with our three young children.  My husband’s work originally brought us out this way – we were on our way to moving back home to Australia – but we have fallen in love with the expat lifestyle and stayed on for many more years than originally planned.

We are very fortunate to live only minutes away from Abu Dhabi Airport (AUH), 45 minutes from Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC) and just over an hour from Dubai International Airport (DXB).  Between these three mega-transport hubs we have access to over 100 countries, an absolute Globetrotters dream!! Since moving to the UAE I have not returned to my full time corporate job and now do travel writing and social media work full time.

Family Life in Abu Dhabi

We have really fallen for expat life in the Middle East.  We are both warm-weather lovers so although the mid-summer temperatures are stifling, like many expats we disappear home over the hottest months. For the majority of the year though we live a really outdoorsy lifestyle surrounded by other families.  Bureaucracy can get to you at times but on the whole, once you are settled life here is pretty straightforward and everyday.  Our kids go to school, hubby works full time and I work from home.

Our children are slowly realising that they are not “from Abu Dhabi” and are proud to talk about their dual nationalities.

Grand Mosque

Inside the Grand Mosque

I love that their minds are so free of prejudices and that this is their normal. I hope we can continue to help them see things as broad minded, but the back of my mind I’m always very conscious of what is ‘normal’ in terms of social class, home help, the roles people play in society.   Regular home visits to Australia and international travel I think help keep them grounded and their concept as to what is ‘normal’ keeps evolving (as does my view of that too!).

Schooling for us is all through a British International School; local, state funded schools are only available to Emirati citizens. The majority of school aged children here are expats so there is a large variety of private schooling available for primary and secondary covering different curriculums, the most popular being British, American and Indian. Many schools also run IB for secondary students.

We have never experienced any other schooling with our kids so again, it feels ‘normal’ to us. Our kids are at an excellent school with first-rate facilities and excellent teachers. It’s a lot larger than my primary school back in Australia but other than the car parking before an after school, I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Expats in UAE

UAE National Day

Having Children in the UAE

While our first two children were born in London, our youngest was born in Abu Dhabi.  There are outstanding health care facilities in Abu Dhabi so we had no hesitations about giving birth here (and since we had our Master J a further two maternity hospitals have opened).

The only thing we didn’t plan for was the difficulty in getting him his British citizenship! Because I was also born as an expat child in New Zealand, we could not have two generations born outside of the UK.  The fact my husband was naturalised British he WAS able to confer his British citizenship. It does now leave our youngest son with a small dilemma in future that he now needs to live in either country to pass his citizenship on – not something we ever thought about when commencing the expat journey!

Note from Dawn: We actually had the exact same thing happen with our youngest being born in Malaysia.  Since Paul was born outside of Canada, I was the one to apply for Miles’ Canadian citizenship.  As a result he also will not be able to pass on Canadian citizenship if his child is not born in Canada.  

Travel in the Middle East

Living in the Middle East, of course has opened our eyes to what we can explore locally. I am more your traditional natural beauty person loving the rolling green hills, white sand and oceans of Australia. The Middle East and desert beauty is more stark and hidden but certainly we have grown to appreciate it.

There are really so many hidden gems in the region that are overlooked. People seem to know Dubai and little more, we really hope part of our “mission” here is to unlock some of those hidden gems so we started an online community for parents to exchange stories and ideas, and now have a website to go with it.

Legoland Dubai

Annual members at Legoland Dubai

We, of course, recommend people to get beyond Dubai! Whilst it is an action-packed city with so much to offer tourists, it so often leaves people with that marmite feeling of love it or hate it!   Dubai is good to use as a hub, but get beyond the cities.

For that pure, raw beauty of the region, Musandam Peninsular in Oman is a favourite – “the Norway of Arabia”!  For a walk through history and the great outdoors, get yourself to Jordan. I don’t know why we waited so many years for our first visit.  Jordan has been by far our favourite road trip from Amman down to Aqaba, then stopping at the Wadi Rum desert, the Lost City of Petra and floating in the Dead Sea – we thoroughly recommend all families to try visit Jordan at least once!

beach camping Abu Dhabi

Beach camping Abu Dhabi

Our travel plans have been a bit quieter this year but we do have plans to visit Beirut next month, followed by our annual trip home to Australia in our summer (Aussie winter) and next year flying to the USA again, possibly Egypt and possibly see Europe in the winter, the kids naturally have an obsession with wanting to experience snow!

Advice for Parents Looking at the Expat Life

I think children’s age has a fair bit to do with the ease with which we were able to make the overseas transition.  The children were far too young to have their own important friendships so breaking ties from the UK was easy for them, and for me starting my friendships through mums groups and school friends made for a much easier landing than had I had to put myself out there on my own – make no mistake making new friends is daunting but sharing a mutual love for a brand of diaper helps break down the barriers!

The fact that although we have moved to an Arabic-speaking country, English is widely spoken and the children are schooled in English we have not had huge cultural barriers to contend with – without this I think I would have really struggled to adjust.

There are A LOT of things to factor into an overseas move – the salary being but just one of those aspects.  With kids, quality of life is immense; what schooling will you need, access to health care, after school activities, public transportation, home help, housing.  We explore these points in a lot more detail in this post.

Expat life Middle East

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Whilst extensive regional and worldwide travel has been a huge upshot of being expats in the Middle East, it certainly wasn’t the primary consideration.  Any further move would factor all the points I’ve made above before travel as bonuses.

It really is a whole package that needs to be looked at through the eyes of every member of your family – including those that it would mean leaving behind.

That said though, be adventurous! You don’t know if you don’t give it a try at least once.

Expat Abu Dhabi

The local beach

Using Points to Travel

Ok on to what you really wanted to know which we was about how use mileage points to fund our travels!

One of the pros to living in an expat location is often you are based in an airline hub – there are many great cities for this now including Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Qatar, Singapore, Hong Kong to name but a few.

There can be pros and cons though to having access to such networks.  Great for accessibility, not so great on pricing and competition.  Whilst we do have access to budget airlines, particularly from Dubai there certainly not always to the most obvious of locations (though have opened up some fascinating new destination ideas particular in eastern Europe that we would never have considered!)

The first thing you should do at the first mention of moving to a new city is sign up for the local airline loyalty program. The secondly, as soon as paperwork permits, get a local bank card attached to your airlines loyalty program (yes we held off buying all our white goods and furniture until we got our first credit card – credit card sign on bonus points plus setting up a household =  huge points within the first 12 months).

How We Personally Use Points

Earning points, I can’t recommend enough to get a good credit card. We would easily earn as many points with our every day spending as we do with actually flying.  And try to remain loyal.  We often must split our love between our two major airlines (Etihad & Emirates) which at times can stunt point growth and moving to the next loyalty level.

Don’t be afraid to change credit cards too. Each year the banks negotiate new deals with the airlines and the rates at which you earn points may change, or the added bonuses like local restaurant or golf club discounts. Find those that fit your every day lifestyle as well as your travel needs. It does need a bit of regular work and research to really pay off.

My husband and I have a deal that all the points earned are for our enjoyment.  We know we need to fly home each year to see the grandparents, so I normally take this trip on my own with the kids and fly economy on the cheapest possible tickets that I can.  I’ve never been able to justify flying all the kids in business class when I look at their tiny legs, maybe when they’re teens I’ll reconsider!

Winter travel in Canada

But when it comes to hubby and I taking girl trips, boys ski weekends or romantic breaks together, that’s where the points come in to play!  We will use these to enjoy the flying solo experience and go business class. More often than not, because we are also high-ranking loyalty members, we also get upgraded.

We look at it as sacrificing a little on the big important long hauls to enjoy it a lot more down the track!!

Tips for Excelling at Using Points

People get daunted by the idea of using points, there are plenty out there who know far more of the technicalities than we do and really play the system, we just try not to let opportunities slip:

  • The vital thing I would say to anyone flying as a family is ALWAYS register ALL your family for the points scheme of whichever airline you are flying with. They are free to sign up for normally from 2 years old plus and might be part of a larger network like One World or Star Alliance so you can continue to earn points throughout the world.
  • At the very worst if you do have expiring points, look to spend them in the airlines “shop”.  Most good programs have charities they are attached to as well, where we have very small balances that can’t translate into flight or hotel bookings we look to donate them before they expiry.
  • To keep track of all your programs, there are apps (we have been recommended AwardWallet but ashamed to admit I still haven’t uploaded all our details!) I am still on a trusty old spreadsheet though which tracks every name, number and password.
  • Another website you should really look into to maximise points – particularly if you use your points to combine hotels and points – is Rocket Miles. If you upload your frequent flyer details into Rocket Miles, it tells you how many points you can use or gain when staying at a particular hotel. Remember finding ways to accelerate what you are earning can be just as important as what you are getting for free.

Points do take a bit of work to administer, but when I look at some of the amazing trips we have been able to take and enjoy for next to nothing thanks to points, it’s worth every minute of the admin pain!!

**For more info on using points check out this earlier case study on travel hacking.

Connect with Our Globetrotters

I hope Keri has given you a lot to think about in regards to being an expat, with some added bonus content on using points to travel.  Hop on over to her blogs Our Globetrotters and Family Travel Middle East for great info on expat life and traveling in the Middle East.  You can also follow her on Instagram – Our Globetrotters and Instagram – Family Travel Middle East.  If you are planning a family trip to the Middle East or even just looking for great layover ideas, check out her online community on Facebook.

TRAVEL MORE Case Studies

Don’t forget to read the other case studies in this series:

This is the 7th Case Study in this series on strategies families are using to travel more.  I would love to hear what works for your family and how you make your travels happen.  Leave me a message in the comments below. 

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Expat Life in the Middle East

Expats with kids in Abu Dhabi

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