Getting started in Singapore: orienting yourself and saving money in the world’s most expensive city - Getting Around, Saving money, Singapore -

I recently traveled to Singapore to speak at the ITB Asia conference — a chance to talk about travel blogging and building an online community. Since that’s probably only interesting to a small percentage of you, I thought I’d write about saving yourself some time and money while in Singapore.

The BBC announced earlier in 2014 Singapore became the most expensive city in the world to live in. Your hotel is likely to be your biggest expense, but there are plenty of other ways to save money.

Staying on the cheap

As capsule hotels go, the Woke Home Capsule Hostel is hard to beat. Clean, shared lobbies and a private room for sleeping or watching TV means you don’t sacrifice much to get the great price. With beds that are potentially S$22 (about $17 USD) per person, it’s about as cheap as Singapore gets. It’s also in a great location — the Clarke Quay area and along the Riverside. This isn’t the most private of options, but for solo travelers comfortable with hostel-style conditions it’s great.

Personally, I like sleeping in the same bed as my wife, so we ended up at a proper hotel — the Fragrance Hotel Ruby. It’s under S$70 on Agoda, and a solid three-star sort of stay. I wasn’t thrilled by the size of the room, but it’s clean, about a 8–10 minute walk from the MRT, and close to plenty of food options (at least a dozen restaurants, by my count). The Fragrance Hotel Crystal is in a close-by area of town, and might be cheaper by a few bucks on Agoda.

Getting around — the subway

Singapore’s excellent MRT system makes getting around the urban areas easy. All stops feature English signage, and quite a few station names show the country’s colonial heritage. I found the system easier to use than Seoul’s — it’s definitely set up to be easier to navigate. For example:

  • Each station has an alphanumeric code, making it easier to find on the map.
  • The colored lines remain consistent throughout the map, and most signs match the color with the line’s name.
  • The circled number stands as a substitute for the terminal station — very helpful to ensure you’re headed the correct way on the correct line.
  • Exits are lettered (instead of numbered), and the signs for specific destinations are everywhere.
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So which part of Chinatown did you want to see? =)

Unless your stay is only for a day or two, you’ll be best served picking up a standard NETS Flashpay contactless card at most any station. (A ‘tourist’ card offers unlimited MRT and bus trips for S$10 a day, but you’d need to do some traveling to make it worth your while.) The card will cost S$12, but comes loaded with S$7 already on it. That’s enough for 4–6 rides, depending on how far you’re going. The card works on Singapore’s MRT and bus systems — either way, tap in and tap out when you get off the bus or subway.

While topping up minimums are S$10, bear in mind the card pay for things at 7–11’s among many other places. Before leaving the country, pick up your snacks and drinks and put it on your card — then save the card for your next trip to Singapore!

If only taking a few trips, you can of course pay per trip in cash at the customer service center. Frankly, the S$5 for the card is worth it for the convenience alone — you won’t need to queue every trip or carry around lots of small change.

Getting around — by bus

Between the MRT and traveling on foot, you may never need to catch a bus. If you do, however, the aforementioned NETS Flashpay card works for your bus rides as well. Just remember to tap in and tap out when getting on and off the bus — the card works by debiting the maximum possible fare when you step on, and then refunding the difference in fares when you get off There’s little need to push any buttons to make the bus stop, since it’ll stop at pretty much every bus stop.

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As for the classic ‘which bus goes to my destination…?’ question, look no further than your Google Maps app. The data in the Maps are excellent, and can readily route you anywhere through town. Maps are at every bus station in town as well.

SIM cards and getting connected

Singtel is the company you’ll see first — and is possibly the only company you’ll see at the airport. For smartphone users, their S$28 SIM card is probably the best option for most tourists. Employ the assistance of the staff at the Changi Airport to get set up — once the SIM card is in your phone, call *363 (star 3 6 3 call) to have their text-machine-robot get back to you with their menu. Respond with the number of your choice via text message to choose your data plan.

While Singtel’s options will work for most any kind of phone, your other option is StarHub. For s$32, their ‘Happy Tourist Pack’ is an excellent combination of data, text messages, and minutes for calls. Find their SIM cards at 7–11’s around the country.

Compared to other Asian countries, these SIM cards end up being on the expensive side. While wi-fi is readily available throughout most areas of the country, you may want to consider whether you’ll be needing the maps and data with all the offline maps available at bus stops and train stations.

Food and drink

If you’ve read anything about Singapore, you’ve likely read about the hawker food centers. These are everywhere, and they’re great — in essence, they’re covered, outdoor restaurants with multiple stalls and permanent chairs / tables. While not every single one is tourist-friendly (some stall menus are Chinese only, for example), there’s plenty of options to explore.

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In general, make your selections from the stall and pay, then find a drink at one of the center’s other stalls (most . You may not see many (or any) alcoholic options, but tea, coffee, juice, shakes, and water are typically available.

After over 6 1/2 years of being careful not to drink or use too much tap water, Singapore explicitly — and proudly! — reminds tourists that the tap water is drinkable. In other words, buy one bottle when you arrive and refill it whenever / whereever you can.

The nightlife

Unfortunately, the term ‘cheap nightlife’ just doesn’t really exist in Singapore. From expensive alcohol to cover charges, your best bet for keeping things on a budget is either to expand your budget or satisfy your drinking habit with a beverage from a convenience store. Personally, I twinged a bit at paying S$4 (about $3.20 USD) for the cheapest local 500ml can of beer at the 7–11 (anecdotally speaking, corner stores or mom-and-pop stores were noticeably cheaper for most things, although only 7–11’s seemed able to sell beers after midnight). Bars are even worse — a rum and coke at one place was S$15! — so it’s easy to blow through your budget.

With that said, you may find your nightlife need not include alcohol for lots of fun. Plenty of places are great for people-watching, while simply walking amongst the malls or shopping areas is fun as well. No one said you had to buy anything at the malls, of course.


Few would confuse Singapore with a cheap country like Vietnam, Cambodia, or Thailand. That being said, the infrastructure is excellent, the streets immaculate, and the locals aren’t trying to take advantage of you. There’s enough going on (though not a lot of weird places — the Haw Par Villa was the biggest exception)

Now, it’s time for some must see attractions in Singapore!

Have you been to Singapore? What did you do to save money?


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