To many travellers, it’s evident that the words Singapore and Budget do not sit…well…harmoniously beside each other.
It’s no secret that Singapore is a pricey place to go. In fact, in March this year, the city knocked Tokyo off the top spot in the EIU survey. At the time of writing, Singapore was officially the world’s most expensive place to live!
Despite the hefty costs, the city is an incredibly popular place to visit, and with good reason. It has a pleasing year-round climate and some of the world’s best shopping. It’s blessed with green spaces, yet maintains a skyline that would not be out of place in a sci-fi film. It’s ultra-modern, yet celebrates the traditional cultures that make up its population.
In many ways though, the city is preceded by its wealthy reputation. There’s a string of stereotypes it comes up against. Sterile and clinical. Over-commercialised. Lacking in Asian identity. These are worrying assumptions.
While I agree that the city is certainly costly, I also found that to see Singapore in only these lights would be to glass over its diversity. Singapore caters largely for a Western market, but it is also home to a largely multicultural population. It offers some of the best markets and street food I have experienced throughout my travels. It also has a growing nightlife, and is becoming increasingly popular for backpackers looking to broaden their experiences in South East Asia.
But how does one travel on a budget in a city so expensive? In 2013, I decided to put this question to the test. I’ll be honest, it was a challenge. In five days, we spent nearly as much as we did in five weeks in Thailand!
While the obvious conclusion would be that it’s impossible to visit Singapore without spending some serious moolah, there are ways in which you can make your budget last longer. While it might sound as though we spent a fortune, I should probably point out that most of our money was spent on accommodation. A night in one of Singapore’s hotels costs the equivalent of a week in a Thai B&B, so it’s not exactly a fair comparison!
While I wouldn’t say that it’s easy to visit Singapore on a budget, it’s not impossible if you’re careful and plan ahead. Here’s a few tips we picked up along the way:
Let’s not beat about the bush. Singapore’s hotels are expensive. At the cheapest, you’ll be looking at spending around £70 a night for a double room. Even that may very well be of showbox proportions and located somewhere within the city’s red light district. Yup, talking from experience here!
If you’re willing to bunk up with other people, then staying in a hostel might be the best option, where prices start at about £20 for a bed in a dorm. Hostels aren’t for everybody, but if it’s any reassurance, then Singapore’s hostels are known to be amongst the cleanest and best equipped in South East Asia.
There’s also a thriving Couch Surfing community in Singapore, populated by both local and expat Singaporeans. This can be a really great option as it gives you the chance to get to know more about life in the city through the eyes of a local. It’s also a great way to meet people if you’re travelling alone Of course, the idea of staying in a stranger’s home won’t appeal to all. If you’re considering Couch Surfing, then make sure you do your research and read plenty of reviews of your host before consenting. Follow the advice offered by the company’s website here.
Singapore’s taxis have to follow strict policies regarding what they charge their passengers. Heavy fees apply if they try to con you out of money, so make sure they’re using the meter! Still, taxis are not the most budget friendly option. If you do find yourself in a cab, be aware that passengers are responsible for paying all Electronic Road Pricing charges. You will also be charged a 10% administrative fee if you choose to pay by card.
Singapore has an excellent public transport system, and you can save yourself money by purchasing an EZ-Link Card for 15 dollars. These cards can be used on the LRT, MRT and buses. They’re brilliant because you only get charged for the distance travelled rather than a standard set-price ticket, which can fairly add up over time. Better still, they come loaded with 10 dollars of credit.
There is also a Tourist Pass which you can buy for the busses and trains. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you know for a fact that you will use it avidly. At 18 dollars for the cheapest pass, you’d have to use the metro more than five times in a day for it to be worthwhile.
Eating out in Singapore is, again, another area where it’s easy to lose money. This is difficult if you’re on a budget as there are surprisingly little facilities for buying/preparing your own food in the city centre. You’ll find the occasional 7/11, but unless you fancy a reheated toastie, you’ll be limited on options.
For restaurants around the city’s marina or shopping districts, you could easily spend ¢20+ on a main course. This is fine for a treat, but not exactly practical if you’re trying to make your money last. A much better option is to eat in the city’s hawker centres. These are large, cafeteria-like establishments used largely by local residents. Despite the extremely low costs, the quality of the food here is great. To this day, I still rave about the handmade Garlic Naan bread I had in Little India!
Another tip worth bearing in mind is that you don’t have to spend a fortune on bottled water in Singapore. The water here is perfectly safe to drink from the tap. There are refilling points throughout the city. Just buy yourself a bottle (or better still, bring your own!) and refill to your heart’s content!
Naturally, Singapore is a designer junkie’s paradise. Even if you don’t have the cash to spend, it’s worth checking out the malls on Orchard Road just for the experience and wonderful, wonderful air conditioning. There are also great supermarkets beneath the malls. Vivomart is super-handy for picking up food and toiletries without breaking the bank.
For souvenirs, don’t go looking in the overpriced stores at the airport or shopping malls. Head down to Little India and Chinatown, where the markets and gadget stores are just incredible. You’ll find all sorts of hand crafted and technological goodies there at a fraction of the cost. Perfect for the budget-conscious hoarders amongst us!
Singapore’s nightlife is becoming increasingly popular, but it’s still very expensive to drink here due to the strict alcohol tax laws. It’s also not a good idea to be caught intoxicated as a tourist. Singaporeans take their conduct laws seriously!
If you do fancy a drink, avoid doing so anywhere in the general marina area. We paid ¢37 for two pints of lager and just about cried when the bill came. To avoid this, try coming along a bit earlier and you might manage to wrangle some Early Bird offers. Alternatively, you could join in with the local young folk and grab a few drinks from the 7/11 at the end of Clarke Quay. The atmosphere is surprisingly great!
Attractions such as the Flyer, the Zoo, or Sentosa Island mean parting with some serious cash. It’s worth asking if your accommodation offer any discounts. Sometimes you can get as much as 20% off the entry price. Similarly, you will find the occasional online promotional deal, but keep in mind that these are often only available to permanent residents. If there’s an attraction you particularly want to go to, follow them in advance on social media for deals and competitions. A bit of preparation can work wonders when you’re working to a budget!
Out of all the attractions in Singapore, we opted for the zoo and night safari. It was the most we spent on any activity during our trip, but something we knew didn’t want to miss, and well worth the cost.
The great thing about Singapore is there’s plenty to see without having to pay a penny. The marina is great for people watching, particularly around the Merlion statue and outside the art gallery. The Gardens by the Bay, the city’s largest outdoor event space, is a piece of art in itself, with bizarre, futuristic sculptures dominating the skyline as dragonflies zip through the air. And of course, there are the Botanic Gardens, which are ever-expanding, very beautiful and better still, completely free!
And, most importantly…stick to the laws!
However unnecessary you might find Singapore’s laws to be (not flushing the loo, littering and chewing gum on public transport are all considered to be offences!), it’s important to be respectful and do your research before you visit. Chance it and you could end up with an on-the-spot fine, and that’s one expense you’ll seriously regret. And remember; you’re visiting another country. It’s a privilege to be there. Behave as they ask you too.