As a Canadian, I’m always going to root for the underdog. On a map of the world, Singapore looks like little more than Malaysia’s toenail, so I probably should have felt some solidarity for this little sovereign nation all along. Alas, I can’t honestly say that before we left on our trip (and Chris sent me a sternly worded email that I clearly deserved) that I realized Singapore was a bona fide independent country in its own right. I guess I can consider it divine justice for my ignorance every time someone on our travels insists that “Canada is pretty much part of the United States”. My apologies, Singapore, and also: I get it. You’re your own country, and a pretty kick ass one at that.
Maybe all you’ve heard about Singapore is that it’s got a ridiculous penchant for outlawing things, or that it’s a great place to shop and eat. These things are all true, but spend just a little time digging deeper here and you’ll realize this is a fascinating country that is so much bigger than the sum of its parts. As a former British colony that still retains strong ties to the west and a thriving expat community, it’s a perfect place to recharge your batteries and enjoy the comforts of home. But, walk through its neighborhoods, observe the faces of its citizens, and you’ll swiftly see that as one the more ethnically diverse and culturally vibrant countries in Asia, Singapore is a country ripe for exploration and discovery.
A lot of travelers mention skipping Singapore or just breezing through in a quick stop-over because of the country’s notoriously high costs. To help you out in planning your own visit to Singapore, we’ve put together this handy guide that should tell you everything you need to know, including a detailed breakdown of our daily budget. Spoiler alert: while not the cheapest destination in Asia, a visit to Singapore doesn’t have to break your budget.
Is there any smaller country with as many national languages as Singapore? As befits its melting pot status and position as a former British colony, the four official languages of the country are: Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and (breathe a huge sigh of relief), English. Thankfully for us, though English may have been one of the later languages to arrive on the scene, it is also the most popular and widely spoken—it’s the language used for instruction in school, all official signs will have English, and it is a point of pride for the Singapore government that most young Singaporeans can speak proper English (though amongst themselves, they will likely speak a local creole dialect called “Singlish”). You will still undoubtedly encounter the odd “Engrish” signage, even on professional ad campaigns, that may leave you scratching your head, but the goofs and gaffs here are far less egregious and generally examples of awkward or incorrect grammar more than overtly nonsensical word substitutions. From hawker centers to movie theaters, English is the lingua franca, and although some basic words from the other three languages will not go amiss (particularly if you are poking around in their respective ethnic neighborhoods), you can get by just fine only speaking the Queen’s tongue (that’s right folks, you join the queue—not the line—and take the lift—not the elevator—here!).
Food & Dining
Some may argue that Thailand or Hong Kong are Asia’s culinary capitals, but we find ourselves agreeing with those who suggest that it might just be tiny little Singapore whose food scene far outstrips its borders. One of the best things about eating in Singapore is that your tastebuds will never, ever be bored. On any given night of the week, you can choose from Indian, Chinese, Malay, Peranakan (a blend of Chinese & Malay) not to mention other local dishes whose flavors can’t be found outside the country. Additionally, as one of Asia’s economic epicenters, the thriving Western expat community means the dining scene really is international in scope and you won’t be hard pressed to find comfort foods from home or other neighboring Asian nations if that’s what you really desire. There is no finer example of how wonderful multicultural communities are than Singapore’s food scene, which definitively proves that diversity is delicious!
There are a wide array of eating establishments in Singapore, from high-end five-star eateries, to fast food chains and mall food courts. The one notable absence in Singapore’s food scene is the lack of street food, the holy grail of eating in Asia. In lieu of this, head to the country’s equivalent—the Hawker Center. These open-air food courts serve up some of the nation’s best food in hygienic surroundings at street food prices. What’s not to love about that? They are truly the one dining experience you must experience at least once during any visit to Singapore. To read more about them, check out our in-depth article here.
We ate so many amazing things while in Singapore, most of them entirely new to us. From popiah, to laksa, to char kway teow, it’s hard to think of any full-blown failures. (Ok, durian wasn’t great) We did a lot of good eating in Singapore, which you’d think would make it difficult to pick out the one must-eat dish from our visit. But it’s simple, really: chili crab. It’s the kind of dish we only dream about as travelers; just one bite and the world of food as you know it is forever changed. If all you manage to do on a trip to Singapore is try this dish, it will be a trip very well spent indeed.
One tip for dining out is that certain nicer restaurants will display prices on signs such as $8++. This means that service and tax ARE NOT included in the displayed price and will be added on to the final bill. If you see the word NETT, this means that all taxes and service charges are included. If you are eating at humbler establishments (such as a hawker stall), you can assume that the price posted is the final price. Tipping is not practiced in Singapore (though in fancier establishments, it will be automatically included in your bill).
Like any big city (because Singapore gets to be both its own country and its own major city), there is a wide range of lodging options on offer in Singapore. That said, Singapore isn’t known for being exactly the most budget-friendly Asian destination: a quick hostel search shows that a bed in a dorm goes for around $15-$25US per night, and most hotels are probably going to set you back at least $50US per night. If you really want to do Singapore on a basic budget, your best bet is likely going to be CouchSurfing—we have friends who did so successfully and you do have the added benefit of having someone who can help you navigate Singapore’s incredibly rich and multilayered culture. We were lucky and were able to stay with a friend for the duration of our stay and without a doubt, we learned far more about the ins & outs of Singapore than we ever would have if we had been staying in a hostel.
Given how small Singapore is, it’s not surprising it’s also very easy to get around. With high cleanliness standards and far more rigorous traffic laws, it’s a pleasure to get about on foot. Public transportation is also really convenient and easy to use—there are trains (MRT & LRT) that have great connectivity and rides are very cheap (ranging from S$0.80-S$2.20), particularly if you get a prepaid EZ-Link card, which gives you small discounts on each trip you take and is much easier than buying a ticket every time. You can also use this card if taking the public buses (and it is advisable you do so as the fares on the bus are distance based and so calculating your fare if paying cash will be complicated), which we did without any issue in order to reach a few of attractions that were not directly in the downtown core.
On one occasion we took a taxi, a very rare decision on our part as we normally stick to public transportation. Unlike other Asian cities, taxi drivers in Singapore seem to use the meter by default and to our knowledge, there are no common scams one need be on alert for. Flagfall is ~S$3 and S$.50 for each additional kilometer after the first one. Unless you are on a major time crunch, in most instances there is no reason to take a taxi as public transportation has excellent coverage and is so convenient to use.
For those travelers looking to rack up credit card points, Singapore is a welcome relief in the largely “cash-only” landscape that is Asia. Singaporeans love to shop and for such a small country, there are plenty of malls (many with western/international brands you may recognize from back home, even!) where all stores and restaurants will accept major credit cards. Many of the big attractions will also accept a card. One thing to note is that in smaller establishments or restaurants, even if a card is accepted, a 3% service charge might get tacked on, however, you will always be warned if this is the case.
This is still Asia, however, so you will still want to have some cash on hand, particularly for when you visit the hawker centers or if you plan to shop at markets. Moreover, if you are planning on doing some serious souvenir shopping, you can often negotiate a better discount if you are willing to pay in cash. You will also want cash for public transport fare (or topping up your EZ-LINK card) or on the off chance you need a taxi. The local currency is the Singapore dollar and it is generally denoted as S$ on prices, although in some instances a simple $ may be used. In such cases, assume the local currency, not U.S. We got all our cash from the many ATMs that are amply distributed about the city an never had access issues.
Fun fact: Singapore and Brunei both have their own currency, however the two can be used interchangeably! So if you take out extra cash but have an upcoming trip to another one of Asia’s tiniest nations, hold onto it!
(As for whether you should make time to visit Brunei, well, we’ll tackle that in a future post…)
Connectivity & Communication
To keep in touch with our friends while we were in town, we purchased a StarHub SIM card from the local 7-11 without any hassle; the entire process took less than 5 minutes and no special effort apart from popping the card into our phone was required.
It’s easy to stay logged on while in Singapore—nearly every coffee shop or restaurant will offer free WiFi with purchase and we wiled away several hours each day at our local Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf taking advantage of this. As you would expect of a country of Singapore’s advancement, the internet available is fast, reliable, and did not have any noticeable firewalls or censoring in place regarding social networking sites.
Singapore By the Numbers
Total Number of Days Spent in Singapore: 15
Average Daily Cost, per person: $33.83 USD
Projected Daily Budget, per person: Sticking with our overall trip budget of $50US/person, we managed to come in $16 (per person) under budget!
Cost of flight from Taipei, Taiwan: $126.20 USD per person ($252.41 US total)
Cost of 90*-day visa: Free! *However, in a shocking twist, U.S. citizens receive a generous 90-day visa upon arrival, whereas Canadians are only given 30 days!
Other Notable Expenses: We received a generous cash Christmas present from my parents while we were in Singapore, so we used that money to purchase some dive gear for our newest hobby. This amounted to 2 snorkels, 1 mask, and 2 dive computers. We have elected not to include these purchases in our daily budget as we are considering them Christmas presents from my parents (and highly specialized ones that other travelers would likely forgo), and we do not feel they are an accurate reflection of our spending patterns in Singapore.
Total Singapore costs per person: $633.71 USD
A Note On Daily Costs: In our daily costs, we have separated out the cost of our flight into the country. We did this because we believe that including the price of getting into or out of a country results in a figure that does not accurately reflect our actual day-to-day costs. Moreover, not everyone will choose to enter the country in the same way or from the same departure point as we did, so we include the price we paid separately for your edification. We believe our Food, Transportation, Attractions, and Miscellaneous Shopping costs are reasonable estimates that may be informative for other like minded travelers; however, we believe the cost of our transportation into any country is best considered a separate lump sum expenditure.
(Also, the Miscellaneous Shopping category is one that many travelers fail to include, which we believe is shortsighted and misleading. Although it is true that on an extended trip you are unlikely to spend money on extravagant souvenirs, other unexpected but necessary expenses will crop up such as replacing toiletries and other daily necessities, or purchasing gear and helpful items that you may have forgotten or find you require. Although these costs are rarely extreme, (though they sometimes are!) it would be an oversight not to include them in your long-term travel budget. At some point on the road you will find yourself buying shampoo and deodorant… we hope!)
Accommodation: Noticeably absent from our daily cost breakdown this time, Singapore is the first (and likely last) country on our travels where we managed to stay completely for free thanks to the hospitality of our friend, Chris. Sure we were sleeping on a mattress in his living room, but we also got to stay in an HDB (just like most of the country’s population) and witness a slice of local life you don’t see in any of the tourism brochures. And all that money we saved on lodging, we got to funnel into activities and food instead!
Food: Has a pie chart ever more accurately reflected our priorities than this one? Probably not. Food made up over half our budget in Singapore, and all I can say is that it was money well spent!
Of course, $17/person on food each day is actually pretty pricey, but we did have a few decadent blowouts that definitely inflated this figure: one day we spent out with Edna & Mike, we spent $53 on food (and booze) that day; our chili crab meal was $57 (and totally worth it); to say thank you to our friends Chris & Peiyan for hosting us, we treated them to a few meals… you see how it goes. I think if we had kept track of it and separated our food from alcohol costs, we’d see that a few indulgent meals aside, if we had cut out alcohol entirely during our stay in Singapore, this figure would be quite a bit smaller. Stick to the hawker centers and go full-blown teetotaler, I think you could probably get by on about $12US/day for food.
Transportation: Singapore isn’t very big (even from the downtown central district, you’re only about a 90-minute public bus ride from Malaysia) and has great public transport so getting around the city is quick, easy, and cheap. Most attractions you’ll want to see are all within the central downtown area, so it’s easy to just take the train twice a day—once into the area and then once out—and then use your own two feet to walk in between. Singapore is a great walking city (even if you are there during monsoon season), but the fact that it’s so compact means that even if you’re going to the outerreaches, it won’t be very expensive to do so. Also, as mentioned earlier, the public transport infrastructure is really solid and affordable so there’s no need to fuss over other methods for getting around.
(Note that for transportation costs, we would normally put a chunk of cash on our EZ-Link cards on one day and then go several days (~5) between top-ups.)
Attractions: Singapore has tons of top-shelf attractions but there’s no doubt you’ll pay for the privilege of enjoying them. However, this really is a case of getting what you pay for as, in all cases, everything we visited was done to the highest of standards and felt like a first-class experience.
All this to say that I actually feel like using a daily average somewhat fails to accurately capture the true cost of Singapore attractions—the reality of the situation is that you can soak up the charm and culture of the city for free simply by visiting and walking around its various neighborhoods. However, if you want to splash out to visit Gardens by the Bay or Universal Studios or anything of that ilk, none of these attractions will be as cheap as $8. In some cases you can save money buying ticket bundles, you should probably plan to spend $20 per attraction.
This figure plots our daily spending per person during our time in Singapore so you can get a better sense of how our daily average evolved. I know it’s basic math, but so often we encounter travelers who pick a daily budget and then refuse to spend a penny more than that, even though you will certainly have days when you are well under budget. We hope this helps illuminate our spending habits, and will serve as a reminder that you can have crazy splurge days and still do ok.
Highs & Lows
Best splurge: Chili crab! It was as expensive as our splurge sushi breakfast in Tokyo but 1000 times more rewarding and one of the best meals I have ever had. (Steph); My dive computer—we managed to successfully haggle a discount on it and it has proved invaluable on subsequent dive trips we have taken. I’ve been really happy with it, so no regrets on this purchase(Tony)
Worst splurge: Anything alcohol-related (with the exception of our visit to the Tiger distillery). Booze is so pricey in Singapore that even when we were drinking really amazing ciders or wines, it was just so painful to shell out that kind of money on ONE drink. However, the company on these occasions was priceless! (Steph + Tony)
Best surprise: After months in countries that were so ethnically homogenous (at least superficially speaking), it was so refreshing to be back in a country where so many different cultures are present and celebrated. I knew going in that Singapore was a melting pot, so I suppose the surprise was just how happy this made me (Steph); I was so impressed with the Hawker Centers, from how diverse the food offerings were, to how tasty it all ways, to how reasonable the prices were. Seriously, who knew food-court food could be so good? (Tony)
Worst surprise: I didn’t really find anything in Singapore all that off-putting, but I guess I didn’t personally think the country was as shiny & sparkling as it’s often promoted. We’ve DEFINITELY been to places that are far filthier so on the sliding scale of Asia, it’s not doing bad at all, but it didn’t feel different from Taiwan and was not anywhere close to the levels of Japan (Steph); How needlessly complicated getting our EZ-Link card was. Also, the non-refundable deposit on it is BS. (Tony)
Favorite meal: Chili crab. We ate so many good things in Singapore, but this was far and away the best. (Steph & Tony)
Least favorite meal: Rojak wasn’t great—it was just too shrimpy for me (Steph); Durian… I just don’t think it could ever be anything else. (Tony)
Best memories: Getting to see our good friends Chris & Peiyan after far too long; Spending our first Christmas as a couple on the road and trying out new holiday traditions; Meeting new friends Edna and Mike; Double-fisting drinks at the Tiger brewery; Eating all the things at the hawker centers, and of course: eating Chili Crab!
Hidden gem: For such a small country, there are actually tons of things to see and do in Singapore and it’s not really that hard to find yourself exploring a pocket of the city that most travelers overlook. Probably our biggest discovery was the Tiger brewery which wound up being a lot of fun, a hell of a good deal, and is strangely not visited or publicized by more people. We actually met many long-time Singapore residents who didn’t know you could tour the brewery OR if they did, they didn’t realize it featured the drinking free-for-all at the end. Definitely Singapore’s best kept secret.
Best Lessons Learned: As travelers, we tend to steer clear of touristy attractions and activities, but Singapore taught us that sometimes it’s really fun and rewarding to check out popular sights. We may not have learned much about Singapore’s interesting and rich cultural history by visiting the Jurong Bird Park or Gardens by the Bay, but we had a lot of fun and really enjoyed ourselves too. Sometimes this is enough of a reason to do something!
With respect to long-term learning, Singapore definitely reinforced for us that we are city people at our cores. We love the energy, convenience and diversity that big cities offer; they keep us motivated and we’re less likely to fall into slumps when there is so much activity swirling about us. Additionally, being in a city that is culturally and ethnically diverse is important to us too, especially when it comes to food. With so many different cuisines on offer, it’s a lot tougher to get bored of the “local” food.
Also: durian is the worst.
If we could do it all over again?
I don’t think it’s possible for us to have spent our time in Singapore any better than we did. We learned, saw, and ate so much, and we had a great time doing it! Moreover, because we were hosted by friends, whereas most travelers spend just a handful of days exploring Singapore, we were really able to delve into what the country is really about and we managed to pretty much see and do everything we wanted to. I think the only unanswered question after our time there is whether black pepper crab is better than chili crab. It seems impossible that black pepper could be better, but there’s only one way to find out. With such good friends based in Singapore, we’ll undoubtedly be back and will make it our mission to answer this question definitively upon our return.
The Bottom Line
Due to cost concerns, many long-term travelers choose to overlook Singapore or blast through on a whirlwind tour when planning their itineraries. Although it’s easy to assume that a country of its small size wouldn’t require much time to visit, we both felt that Singapore deserves of a spot on any itinerary for Asia. A wonderful blend of east-meets-west, Singapore features a fascinating merging of cultures with a rich history all of which makes it very rewarding to explore. It has a little something for everyone, with world-class tourist attractions, amazing architecture, more shopping than one could do in a lifetime, and some of the best food on the planet; no matter how long your visit, you’re unlikely to find yourself bored. If all you have heard about Singapore is that it’s a stickler for the rules, we think you’ll be pleasantly surprised… and when those rules involve prohibiting durian on the trains or peeing in elevators, I think we can all agree that maybe this penchant for law-making isn’t so bad. It is one of Asia’s pricier stops, but with an eye for perfection, Singapore certainly represents good value for your money (with the exception of alcohol!) and in many ways boasts western-level conveniences and luxury but at a fraction of the price you would pay back home. Although we strongly believe that Singapore rewards visitors with the time (and budget) to spend at least a week here, whether you come for a day or a month, the only mistake would be in not stopping by at all.
Number of Countries Visited: 6 (Japan, Hong Kong, China, Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore)
Total Number of Days on the Road: 146
Total Amount of Money Spent Since Departure: $15,146 USD
Cumulative Average Daily Cost (not including transport into each country or visa fees): $102.01 USD (for TWO people)
Total Costs to Date: $16,222 (previous legs of trip) + $1015 (money spent on the ground in Singapore + $252 (flight from Manila) = $17,489 USD (for TWO people)