My July Singapore trip was one of the most spur-of-the-moment trips I’ve taken (right after that random win for a free Shanghai trip), and since it was unplanned, my wallet was not ready either. A tricky situation to manage, specially with Singapore being a notoriously expensive destination. Still with a lot of DIY-ing, a heavy dose of OC research and planning, and discipline to match the wanderlust enthusiasm, I was able to accomplish Singapore-on-a-budget! How? Read on.
Rule of thumb with budget travelling for me is to pick my battles. I can’t scrimp the entire way lest I go home from the trip unhappy and unsatisfied. So I choose the points on the checklist where I try to save a buck, and then decide on the things where I can splurge and live a little.
- Budget hotel. This is by default on the Scrimp side of the equation. Our budget hotel was Fragrance Hotel Ruby in Geylang, and it did not disappoint. The room was clean and new, though very very tiny. There was no closet, just hangers fixed on the wall for your swaeters, so you basically live out of your suitcase (which should not be too big so it fits the shoe box of a room). Then again it is clean, the hotel staff are super helpful, and the building is just 10 minutes away from the MRT and the bus stop. In other words for a budget traveler it was perfect. (Full disclosure: Geylang is Singapore’s red light district. Although still safe, since my travel buddy and I were both girls we decided to just not hang out in the vicinity. Check the other Fragrance Hotel branches and maybe hostels for more options.)
- Budget airfare. We were not able to get these cheap since we booked our tickets only weeks before the trip. But if you are less spontaneous (and you should be, if only for your budget’s sake), there are a lot of options with seat sales available left and right. Even so, I suggest you be more discerning with these sales too. Most budget fares offer no free in-flight meals and check in luggage. The cheapest flights are in the most ungodly hours of the day and are well before or after a hotel’s check in time. Some of these airlines are likewise notorious for having delayed flights. Consider these add-ons and the opportunity cost of your time when you choose your airlines. You’d be surprised when PAL comes out as cheaper than CepPac.
3. Singapore Flyer. If you want to see Singapore in 30 minutes, then this is the ride for you. I’ve always preferred observation decks over bus tours, and the Singapore Flyer just trumped all the decks I’ve climbed (which are admittedly not that many haha). For one, it is one gigantic rotating wheel. At 541 feet, the Singapore Flyer claims to be the biggest and highest observation wheel in the world. Aboard one of the capsules you get a perfect view of the famous landmarks, from the Marina Bay Sands, Esplanade, Clark Quay, F1 Grand Prix venue, Sentosa, and many many more. You can buy the ticket online from their official website and get 10% off. But I took a gamble and asked our hotel if they had a discount voucher, which they did for 15%! So for only SGD28 I got to hitch a ride in this gravity-defying capsule, including a short passage into the museum-like Journey of Dreams. After your ride, you’ll be herded into the gift shop (I leave you to decide if the prices are worth it), then in the ground floor there is a food court and many other snack kiosks. Dig in. Because turning inside a giant wheel can make anyone hungry.
- Singapore River DIY Walk. This was easily my favorite part of the trip, which is why I was hyper disappointed when my travel buddy was too tired to finish the trail. I saw this DIY riverside walk tour in the Poor Traveler’s blog, and it was just a great way to go around the city for free. I know there are travelers who prefer guided tours because they get to hear the stories behind the landmarks and they are sure to not get lost. But apart from the cost of these tours, the guides limit your time to look around which is always a bummer. Also, Google, a good map and boots-made-for-walking are all you need and you’re set. If you get a bit lost, that’s part of the adventure! So we started the walk by feasting our eyes on Raffles Place, Fullerton Hotel and One Fullerton, just marveling at the beauty of the structures. A few steps on was the famed Merlion Park, where tourists and locals alike crowd around the Merlion for a picture, or just around the park to check out the spectacular view of the buildings from across the river. Cross the Anderson Bridge to the Esplanade. Sadly, our walk was cut short here. But you can go further and walk to the Esplanade Park, Asian Civilizations Museum, Supreme Court, Boat Quay and Clark Quay. All the beautiful sights and sounds are free. Tip: start your walk in the afternoon so you get the see the view before dark and at night when the lights come to life. Beautiful.
- Esplanade Theater. The theater outside Esplanade Mall holds free shows, and were lucky enough to be there on Big Band Sunday. We sat on the bleachers under the pink lights, the cool breeze from the river a break from Singapore’s trademark humidity, watching a full jazz band perform for free with the beautiful buildings across the river as background. Le sigh, happiness. My only regret is not being able to find that 1$ ice cream.
- Raffles Long Bar. This was definitely a splurge and something I suspected was a tourist trap. The Long Bar at the historic Raffles Hotel was the birthplace of the iconic Singapore Sling. That was enough to make us want a taste. Getting off a cab in front of Raffles Hotel felt like a time machine trip. The building was imposing in its height and grandeur but warm and inviting as well. Alas, only checked in guests are allowed to cross the lobby, so we were led instead around the perimeter to the entrance of the Long Bar. Inside it was the feel and look of old school, laid back swagger. I expected James Bond circa Pierce Brosnan to come waltzing in the door. The polished tables came with a full bag of boiled peanuts which you are encouraged to dig into throughout the night. Unlimited supply. You are likewise encouraged to throw the shells on the floor, and maybe step on them for added flair. This is an unexplained Long Bar tradition that I felt hesitant to do, but moving on. The waiters were very friendly though I’m sure they’ve heard “Singapore Sling” far too many times in their lifetimes already. There was a live band playing in the second floor to amp the experience, but we preferred the first floor seats so we can converse. As for the Sling itself, well I am not a fan of fruity drinks, but I think the SGD32 on the bill was charge for the entire experience as a whole. Happily trapped indeed.
- Universal Studios Singapore (USS). This was the sole purpose of this trip as campaigned by my travel buddy. Since this was the non negotiable attraction and since they offered a discount for online purchases, I decided to book the tickets online. Cheaper and more convenient since we did not have to line up for tickets anymore at the park. Our only mistake was coming there on the Muslim holiday. The line to Sentosa Express took one hour when the train ride was barely 15 minutes. Once inside the park and under the direct angry glare of the sun, I was reminded why I did not like amusement parks. Crowds and heat are not a good mix. But then USS had a lot of tricks and treats to convert a nonbeliever bah-humbug like me. See Marilyn Monroe waltzing around Hollywood, get your wacky pictures taken with the animals of Madagascar, catch Donkey Live! at Far Far Away, get splashed in Water World deep inside The Lost World, chill with the mummies at Ancient Egypt, meet Bumblebee at Sci-Fi City, and hang with Oscar the Grouch and other folks from Sesame Street in New York. So many places to visit and things to do in just one gigantic perimeter. It really is just a question of time and endurance. If you can bear the long lines, by all means there are so many rides for the taking. Another option is to watch the free shows. There is at least one in each section of the park. My favorite was easily WaterWorld. Cap off the day with the Hollywood Dream Parade (check the website for the schedule), and then feast your eyes on the many (expensive, gulp) merchandise. You might decide to get that SGD21 USS shirt. Better do it than lie awake back at home in regret (splurge side of the list).
- Sentosa. The plan was to spend the day at Universal Studios then the night at Sentosa. That was not a good plan. USS can zap the last of your energy. It’s just so hot and the park is so big, you’d want to be everywhere at once. What we did to compensate was to take the Sentosa Express and hop off Beach Station. Walk a little to the bus parking lot and line up for one of the free Sentosa buses. The point of the bus was to take you from one attraction of the island to the next, but being tired old ladies, we rode it to sight see and enjoy the green view while resting our feet. Back at Beach Station there is another free bus, this time to Vivo City, where the MRT is again at our disposal.
- Bugis Street. This is where staying on budget becomes tricky. See, Bugis Street is like the Greenhills/Divisoria of Singapore. A LOT of great and cheap finds, from clothes to bags, shoes, accessories, even knickknacks for pasalubong. Now since the cost of stuff, no matter how cheap, add up to quite a lot if you buy a lot. That’s just math. So choose if the visit to Bugis is on the splurge or scrimp side. Personally I allotted the remains of my local currency for this place, and promptly disposed it all in less than an hour. Now that’s an achievement.
- Orchard Road. If Bugis Street was a challenge to your budget, Orchard Road can be the place where you credit cards come to die. Or with a little (translate = a lot) of self control, Orchard Road is a great place to roam and get lost in the beautiful, expansive maze of malls and shops without needing to spend a dime. My first encounter with the place was at 10pm when everywhere was closed except for Emerald Hill, that alley of bars and restaurants for the night owl. It was a good time to walk the deserted street, watching the lights in the malls die out slowly save for their bright signs, before retreating to Ice Cold Beer bar for a cold bottle. We went back the next day in the middle of the shopping rush hour. Exciting times. There are a lot of malls in this area but as we were pressed for time, we were only able to visit the very high end Paragon, Tang’s department store, and the more budget friendly Lucky Plaza. In short summary, Paragon is where you buy something nice and fancy for you (think Singapore Sale), Tang’s is where you get something for your mom, and Lucky Plaza is where you get super discounted chocolates for your office floor. For more pasalubong options, hit China Town or Little India. But if you have cash to spend and credit to burn, Orchard Road welcomes you with open arms. Tip: If you buy something worth SGD100 or more, ask the shop if they are accredited for the Tax Refund. They give you a receipt and you claim the refund at the airport. Boom. That’s 7% off right there.
- Food courts. Everyone knows that apart from being the Fine City, SG is also a Food City. Hawker food courts are legendary in this country, and they are not hard to find. A local friend though said that the best ones are well kept secrets, but since it was a very short trip we were glad to explore the ones within easy reach — Mankasutra Gluttons Bay, and Food Republic. They did not disappoint. Mankasutra is just a stone’s throw from Esplanade mall, while Food Republic is in Vivo City Mall, a perfect stopover before you hit Sentosa Island. Always expect a crowd and thus know that it might take some time before you get a seat, specially with people hitting stall after stall to taste the offerings. The cold noodle salad at Mankasutra was a refreshing snack post walking tour, while hokkien mee at Food Republic was the best thing I had the entire trip. Food was definitely cheaper in Mankasutra, maybe because Food Republic was inside Vivo, but still your SGD20 will go a long way. Also, the serving sizes there are meant to fill you up so at the end of the day, every buck spent is well worth it.
- Getting around. I love walking. It’s a hobby I share with Elizabeth Bennet. Thus walking is my default mode of transportation at home and even more so when I travel. Walking lets you manage your pace, to stroll leisurely and absorb your stunning alien surroundings, or to stride fast if pressed for time. For longer distances of course, I concede to motor transportation, namely the MRT and the bus. The MRT system in Singapore is a thing to behold, and I would suggest you get your EZ Link card for only 12SGD (7SGD usable) as soon as you land at Changi Airport. Reload/top up as necessary. The EZ Link is accepted not only in the train but also in the buses, and in some cabs. Cab drivers are likewise friendly in SG, but they are quite expensive. So I always prefer the train or bus. Download the map ahead of time, or get the real paper one (and embarrass your local friends in the process, haha) and enjoy the adventure.
Breakdown of expenses (approx SGD1 : Php35)
Hotel, airfare and airport fees: PHP 20,270.00 (moral of the story: book early!)
Entrance fees (USS, SG Flyer): 3.400.12
Local transportation (MRT, cab, bus): 2,451.72
Food and drinks (inluding SG Sling): 3,524.50
Grand total damage: PHP 37,201.45
Not bad, if I say so myself 🙂