Singapore is known to be tiny, modern, and insanely expensive—especially next to her Southeast Asian counterparts. While $50 USD is more than enough for travellers to live like a prince in nearby countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, the same amount is barely enough for a hotel room in Singapore.
Still, with street food even Gordon Ramsay raved about, impeccably safe streets, and a location that makes it ideal as a stopover hub, there's no reason to give this city-state a miss. Yes, it is possible for those travelling on a budget to enjoy Singapore, just as the locals do. Here's what you need to know.
Get better rates with an ez-link card
The ez-link (easy-link) card is a type of stored value card for public transit use, similar to the Oyster card in London. The cards have a first-time cost of $12, of which $7 can be used to pay for public transport, and $5 is non-refundable. Having an ez-link card eliminates the tiresome process of digging for enough change for a bus ticket or trying to calculate how much each train journey costs as you would when buying per-trip tickets. Most importantly, it offers better rates than cash payment, so the non-refundable $5 is easily set off. At the end of the day, you save yourself the hassle of figuring out transport costs, and you get a souvenir card that truly represents life in Singapore!
Enjoy hawker food
When choosing to dine in a coffee shop or a hawker centre, go where the locals go. There are many open-air establishments that are coffee shop style, but one look at the clientele—chockfull of foreigners with garish decorations—and you know it is a tourist trap. A meal in a hawker centre—inclusive of main, drink, and dessert—should always give you change back from $10. The eateries along the Chinatown shopping alley may seem authentic, but you will be hard pressed to find locals dining there. Makansutra Gluttons Bay offers great views and is near the Esplanade theatres, but the dishes there tend to be pricier as well. Instead, head to places where you see locals congregating. Chinatown Food Centre, Maxwell Food Centre, or any neighbourhood hawker centre will do nicely.
Come during a festive public holiday
During festivals such as Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival, and Thaipusam, there is so much more to see, hear, and eat. During Chinese New Year, for example, dancers and celebrities put up free performances for the public in areas like Chinatown. Street vendors also offer free samples of their festive goodies in a bid to rev sales up. It is a good chance to see Singapore is a less sterile, worker-bee state, as well as capitalize on all the free food and performances going around.
Free museum days
Museums under the National Heritage Board have free admission on public holidays, which makes even more sense to plan visits around festive periods. Alternatively, plan your museum visit around the periods of free or discounted admission to save money. Many museums are located in convenient areas that travellers would be probably passing by when sightseeing, such as the National Museum of Singapore, which is within walking distance from the popular Orchard Road/Dhoby Ghaut shopping stretch. In this case, why not just pop by for a quick and free look?
Choose your hotel wisely
There is no need to splurge and spend $300 a night on a fancy hotel, even though some offer incredible views and rooms. Room standards in Singapore are decent, so even a budget hotel or hostel is safe and clean. Opt for hotels in Little India, Tanjong Pajar, or Chinatown—the locations are easily accessible, there are a wide range of prices and room types to choose from, and it is fun checking out the nightlife in these areas. If you do not want to miss out on the island fun Sentosa can offer, just make a day trip there after stocking up on food and drink from nearby shopping mall Vivocity. Hotel and food prices on the upscale island can burn a hole in any backpacker's worn pocket.
A day in Singapore is not going to come as cheap as a day in a neighbouring country, but it is not going to be exorbitant either. There are bargains and great discounts to be had here and they are not hard to find—simply do as the locals do, and go where the locals go. Those who plan to spend their money wisely will wonder why anyone ever complained that the Lion City is expensive when it has so much to offer on the cheap.