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Travel Hacks: Singapore on a Budget

14th June 2019

Visiting Singapore is like ordering a ‘medium’ curry at your local oriental restaurant and accidentally being served ‘hot’. The hustle and bustle of foreign accents and smells fill the air as you settle into the restaurant environment. The curry arrives and its aromatic spices ignite your senses as you begin to enjoy the flavours, still unaware of the heat explosion about to ripple across your tastebuds. Then, as if out of nowhere, the heat begins to build and suddenly you are sweating from your ears. The meal becomes a challenge that you need to overcome. Then, once you have finished, wiped your sweaty ears and washed away the heat with a beer or two, you look back on the meal with a sense of enjoyment, savouring the unique flavours that just set your tastebuds alight before driving home and hoping it doesn’t come back to haunt you in the morning...

Long story short Singapore is bloody hot, but it is, without doubt, a city that must be on everyone’s bucket list. Regardless of your budget, Singapore has something for everyone- you might just have to put up with some sweaty ears and a few thousand steps on your Fitbit to make it work.

China Town SingaporeExperience the hustle and bustle of China Town. 

When booking a holiday to Singapore you will often be warned of how expensive it is as a city. Sure, if you eat at tourist hot spots, stay in hotels, get cabs and splurge on high-end fashion at any of Singapore’s 103 malls it can be VERY expensive. However, if you step off the beaten track and seek experiences over things, Singapore can be a very affordable location.

I have been to Singapore twice, the first time was a girls trip with my best friend so no expense was spared... Well as much as two uni students can say ‘no expense spared’. We stayed in a pretty swanky hotel overlooking the Marina Bay area, took a $150 bike tour (it was epic and our guide was amazing, I would highly recommend), visited Universal Studios, dabbled in some shopping and dined at the more westernised restaurants. It was a great weekend, but overall the 3-night stay cost us around $1500 Singaporean Dollars (SGD) for everything excluding flights. I was definitely channelling my inner crazy rich Australian.

Gardens By the Bay SingaporeGet some steps and build up a sweat at Gardens by the Bay. 

This time I went with my boyfriend, and Singapore was stop #1 of a three-month backpacking journey. As you can imagine, I had categorically replaced the crazy rich Australian personality with that of a backpacker seeking out the cheapest beer. Over three nights we ate some incredible food, took in all of the sights, walked over 50,000 steps each and spent a total of $425 SGD excluding flights. Not bad, hey?

Now, I could give you a guide based on my first trip, but that isn’t really necessary. Just Google ‘must do Singapore’, do those things, eat wherever you want, visit the shops on Orchard Street and don’t check your bank account. Simple.

Instead, please find a guide on how you, the humble Aussie traveller, can prove everyone wrong by doing Singapore on a budget. If this crazy rich Australian can do it, anyone can.

Let’s start with the basics. Currently, the Aussie dollar is slightly weaker than its Singaporean counterpart, so one AUD hovers between 0.90 and 0.93 SGD depending on what’s happening in the economy. We've got plenty of information on how the AUD and SGD interact if you are keen to learn more. 

I loaded up my Travel Money Oz Currency Pass with about 60% of my total SGD budget and had the rest as cash. ATM’s are everywhere and cards are readily accepted, however, Hawker centres and markets will often only take cash.

Singapore dollar and currency pass

In the ultimate travel triumph, we ended up spending way less than we had originally budgeted. The $425 that we did spend was split up as follows:

Accommodation: $216
Transport: $26
Everything else: $180.50

Surviving Singapore on a budget is just a matter of doing a few little swaps.

Accommodation: Swap the fancy hotel for a budget version or homestay

Book your accommodation in advance, as you are more likely to secure a better deal. Whilst there are plenty of ritzy hotels to choose from, you can often find some more affordable gems scattered throughout the city. Now, don’t get me wrong, if you can afford to stay in a hotel, then do it, Singapore has some iconic accommodation (cough *Marina Bay Sands* cough). However, if you aren’t up to spending between $200 and $800 per night on a room, there are plenty of other options. 

I stayed with a friend at the Pinnacle at Duxton, a huge 5 building complex with a sky bridge to connect the buildings. Not everyone has this option, however it was a very affordable way to see the city. Airbnb is an option in Singapore, with many places listed on the site, however the Singaporean government is becoming increasingly stricter with Airbnb's, especially if they are in public housing, so book at your own risk. 

Pinnacle at Duxton

When looking for accommodation just make sure you have air-conditioning. I can’t stress this enough. Air-con will become your saviour. It’s also worth being close to an MRT station, which brings me to my next point.

Transport: Swap the cab for the subway

Cabs can be cheap if there are a few of you, however, they add up very quickly over time.

When we arrived at the airport we were lucky enough to be picked up by a friend who had two spare MRT cards. We then loaded $10 each onto our cards which was more than enough for the countless trips we took across the two days. The highest fare we had was $1.03 for over ten stops on our way to the airport on the last day. The MRT is super simple to use, air-conditioned and trains come roughly every 10 minutes, so it is both cheap and efficient.

There was one night where we chose to catch a ‘grab’ with some friends. Just like Uber in Australia, you can download the grab app and get it pretty much anywhere. Our 10-minute drive cost about $6 which was pretty cheap when split between the 4 of us.

Finally, the cheapest mode of transport in Singapore (and anywhere in the world for that matter) is walking. It’s hot, but a great way to see the streets and work off the extra carbs you will no doubt consume.

Food: Swap restaurants for hawker markets

Singapore has a world-renowned food scene, with over 39 Michelin star establishments as well as an array of food options, from Western dishes to unique oriental delights. A lot of these can come with a pretty hefty price tag though, with most starting at around the $20-$30 mark and going up from there. If you are after these meals, I would recommend visiting either Roberston or Clarke Quay. Both have a really good vibe at night but are known to be on the more expensive side.

You can, however, find meals for under $5 at local hawker centres. We ate there for lunch and dinner most days and were treated to plenty of deliciously cheap meals. Better yet, some of the Hawker Market stalls are so good that they have a Michelin star of their own. The most popular Hawker centres are Maxwell, Newton and Tiong Bahru. At all centres you will find unique dishes to challenge your pallet, like BBQ stingray, oyster omelette and any number of seafood amalgamations. Alternatively, you can ease yourself into the cuisine with satay sticks, noodle dishes and chicken and rice. You can also purchase plenty of snacks from 7/11.

Whilst there, we tried a fair bit. It’s better dining with a few people, as you can grab heaps of dishes and taste them all. If you get overwhelmed and don’t know which stall to choose, go for the one with the longest line. Chances are it has a long line for a reason.

A very unique local delicacy, found throughout Asia, is a durian. A melon sized spikey looking fruit known for its pungent odour and questionable taste. The smell is that bad that there are signs throughout the MRT banning it, putting it into the same basket as smoking on board. With that kind of rap I thought we had to try it, right? We opted for a 1SGD portion of durian ice cream. It was the size of a medicine cup and I was expecting to shell out more money afterwards towards a bigger serving as I love ice cream. I was wrong. Just as I was about to taste the ice cream, the shop owner laughed and said ‘ it tastes just like garlic, onion and cheese, you need to have a few bites to enjoy!’. Garlic, onion and cheese is correct, and whilst it may be a delicious combination, it certainly isn’t what you want your ice cream tasting like. Long story short, give durian a try if you enjoy burping up the questionable flavour of your ice cream hours after initial consumption.

It’s also worth mentioning that Singapore has a pretty gnarly alcohol tax. You can buy cheap beers from Hawker Centres (we found Maxwell has the cheapest for about $5 SGD), otherwise club lane has a few more affordable bars. Alternatively, grab some alcohol from duty-free before you leave the airport. 

Sights and activities: Swap the guide for a google search

You can very easily blow your whole budget on Singapore’s attractions. I would highly recommend splurging on a ticket to the Singapore Zoo at least once, as their enclosures and animals are world-class. Apart from that, you can really get by doing things your own way with a little help from google. Here are a few things I would recommend:

Tiong Bahru markets. Not only does Tiong Bahru boast one of the biggest Hawker markets, it is also home to a local market packed with seafood, fresh fruit and vegetables and random nicknacks. You can easily spend an hour or two wandering the markets before rewarding yourself with a bite to eat.

Orchard Road. Home to some pretty ritzy shops, huge malls and plenty of air-conditioned space. Escape the heat by walking the iconic malls on Orchard Road and dabbling in some window shopping. The Ion Mall is one of their newest and has a great food court with plenty of cheap eats. 

Gardens By the Bay. Obviously. The gardens are free to enter and have nightly light shows. You need to pay a small fee to enter the skybridge, cloud forest and flower dome.

Gardens By the Bay Singapore at night

Bayside walk. Catch the MRT and get off at city hall station. From here you can walk past some iconic local buildings before popping out by the water. Here you are greeted with views of Marina Bay Sands as you see the Merlion. You can follow the walk around the Bay, across the bridge and take respite from the heat in the Marina Bay Sands shopping centres air conditioning. 

Free walking tours. Run by locals, these are a great way to get to know the city if it is your first time. 

Botanical Gardens. If the Gardens by the Bay did not quench your insatiable desire to look at plants, be sure to pay a visit to the Botanical Gardens. They are, once again, world class. 

Singapore orchidsFamous Singapore Orchids. 

Jewel. Singapore’s newest attraction, Jewel, is a mall on steroids attached to the airport. Now, don’t be turned off by the thought of ‘just another mall’. Jewel is home to a huge indoor waterfall from the sky surrounded by lush greenery. It is surprisingly serene, and treats you to a bit of nature without having to deal with the sweat of Singapore’s humidity. Jewel is free to enter and can be accessed by MRT, however food and drink there is slightly more expensive.

Chinatown. Great to explore in the late afternoon, Chinatown pulses with a unique vibe created from the sprawling markets, mixed smells and genuinely happy locals. Here you will find plenty of souvenir shops, as well as a temple that holds one of Buddha’s teeth. Pay $1 to light some incense, say a prayer and sit in awe of the opulent gold interior of the temple. Just ensure your knees and shoulders are covered out of respect.

Buddha Tooth Temple

Singapore is an incredible city, well worth two or three days of your time. Many Australian’s take advantage of its location as a stopover on their way to destinations further afar. Regardless of whether it is a stopover or the destination, Singapore is a country that deserves to be explored as a destination in its own right.

Better yet, you can enjoy the city and its idiosyncrasies without blowing your budget. All you need is some Singaporean dollars, access to Google and a willingness to put up with a little bit of sweat.

For more travel advice, or to secure some Singaporean Dollars, be sure to visit the experts at your local Travel Money Oz.