Singapore has a reputation for being a relatively expensive city for travelers, particularly within Southeast Asia. Backpackers who travel to the region are taken aback by how much pricier Singapore is compared to its neighbors such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia. Small wonder that travelers on a tight budget are wary of their funds dwindling when they hit Singapore.

Fret not! There are ways of making sure you go through Singapore without losing your shirt. You can definitely keep your visit to Singapore cheap and save money to spend on the rest of your trip. You’ll probably still spend more in Singapore than you would in the rest of the region, but if you follow these tips, then it won’t make such a huge dent on your finances. These tips are based on months of living here, as well as interactions with other travelers and locals.

Singapore skyline

1. Eat at food centres and kopitiams. Eating is probably one of the cheapest things you can do in Singapore. Thank goodness, because Singapore is possibly one of the best cities to eat. Best of all, you don’t need to eat at a fancy restaurant (or worse, a fastfood joint) for good food. Food centres, kopitiams, and food courts are all good and cheap options to eat. One meal at a food centre or kopitiam – including a drink – would probably set you back just S$4-S$6 ($3-$4.50). You can find a lot of food centres outside of the city centre or at the ground floor of most government housing buildings (or HDBs as they’re called), but there are also a few within the city, such as People’s Park and Maxwell Food Centre in Chinatown. If you want to “splurge” a bit, then eat at an airconditioned food court, where meals are approximately S$2 ($1.45) more expensive than at a food centre.

BONUS TIP: Although Lau Pa Sat is billed as a food centre, it is in fact run by one of the major food courts in Singapore, Kopitiam. Hence, food at Lau Pa Sat is sold at food court prices. (It’s still cheaper than eating at a sit-down restaurant, though.)

a Singapore kopitiam

2. Look out for museum Open House Days. Admission costs to museums in Singapore are about S$6-S$10 ($4.50-$7.25) each. However, if you’re lucky, you can reduce that cost to absolutely ZERO. Museums under the National Heritage Board occasionally have Open House Days, wherein you can enter any of the National Heritage Board museums for FREE on that particular day. Open House Days include Christmas Day, New Year, Chinese New Year, National Day (9 August), Hari Raya Puasa, and Deepavali. You can check the National Heritage Board website for details on these Open House Days. If you’re traveling to Singapore next month (May 2010), there is an Open House Day scheduled for 23 May 2010 in conjunction with International Museum Day. If you’re not traveling during any of the Open House Days, you can still save on admissions to the National Heritage Board museums by purchasing a 3-Day Museum Pass for S$20 ($14.50). Depending on how many museums you visit in those three days, you can save up to 50% of your usual costs.

BONUS TIP: Each individual museum also has its own special offer. You can get a joint ticket for both the Asian Civilisations Museum and Peranakan Museum for S$11 ($8), whereas buying each ticket individually would cost S$14 ($10). Entry into the Singapore Living Galleries at the National Museum of Singapore is free at 6-8pm daily, while entry to the Singapore Art Museum is free on Fridays at 6-9pm.

Singapore Art Museum

3. Know when and where to drink. Drinking is quite expensive in Singapore, especially compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors. The obvious tip is to look out for Happy Hour specials, which go by different names (such as sundown specials) in various bars and pubs. The general rule of thumb is to drink before 9pm. (For the truly dedicated drinker, you can start very early at Brewerkz, where you can enjoy a half-liter for only S$5 [$3.50] at 11am-3pm; in contrast, that same half-liter goes for S$14 [$10] at 8pm-11pm.) If you’re in Singapore on a Wednesday night, don’t miss out on free flow at Le Baroque or Insomnia in CHIJMES. For just S$20 ($14.50), you get unlimited amounts of beer, housepours, and house wine from 9pm until 11pm (for men at Insomnia), 11:30pm (for men and women at Le Baroque), or 12mn (for women at Insomnia).

BONUS TIP: For the truly cheap, you can always go drinking at one of my favorite hang-outs in Singapore: Read Bridge at Clarke Quay, a pedestrian bridge close to the major clubbing district of Singapore. People purchase cheap beers and drinks from the nearby convenience store (a half-liter can of Tiger Beer costs S$5.50 [$4]), then drink and hang out on the bridge. Perfect for cheap intoxication, as well as people-watching.

enjoying free flow at Le Baroque

4. Going clubbing? Check Facebook. Clubs in Singapore charge an entry fee that’s approximately S$20-S$30 ($14.50-$22), which usually includes a drink or two. If you’re looking for better, cheaper deals, one of the best ways to find out is through Facebook. You can “Like” Pages such as the Singapore Clubbing Guide, or join Groups such as SG Unighted or Singapore Expat Connection to find out about the coolest parties in town. Best of all, joining these groups also allows you to check out special deals and offers at these events, such as free entry, free flow drinks, or discounted prices for alcohol. Be aware, though, that Singapore clubs enforce a dress code of pants and closed shoes, so don’t go clubbing dressed in typical backpacker uniform of shorts and flip flops.

BONUS TIP: Wednesday night is Ladies’ Night in Singapore, which means many clubs let women in at no cover charge.

clubbing in Attica

5. Don’t get stuck using single-journey train and bus tickets. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and it largely depends on your travel style. In fact, this may be more useful for those staying in Singapore for three days or more. If you’re planning to go around the city using a lot of public transport, it may be more economical (and time-saving) to purchase either an EZLink card (a smart card that carries a consumable amount of cash for transport fares) or a Singapore Tourist Pass (also a smart card, but at a fixed cost that allows you unlimited trips on public transport). An EZLink card is S$15 ($11), which includes a non-refundable S$5 deposit and S$10 consumable for public transport. It also grants you discounted fares of up to S$0.35 ($0.25) per trip. The Singapore Tourist Pass comes in one-day, two-day, and three-day forms, costing S$8 ($6) per day plus an additional S$10 ($7.25) refundable deposit; a one-day pass costs S$18 ($13.25), a two-day pass costs S$26 ($19.25), and a three-day pass costs S$34 ($25.25). A typical trip on the MRT costs S$1.60 ($1.15). If you’re staying for only one or two days, you may be fine without purchasing either; get the Singapore Tourist Pass only if you think you’ll take more than five trips on public transport per day. If you’re staying for three or more days, then the EZLink card would be a better option.

BONUS TIP: The EZLink card and Singapore Tourist Pass are especially helpful if you take the bus more often, particularly because it may be difficult to keep track of how much a bus trip costs. This is because you need to pay the exact fare on buses, as they do NOT give out change.

a Singapore MRT station

6. Going to the zoo(s)? Check out the Park Hopper Specials. Three of the “must-see” attractions in Singapore are the Singapore Zoo, the Night Safari, and the Jurong Bird Park. Admission to the Singapore Zoo and Jurong Bird Park is S$18 ($13) each, while admission to the Night Safari is S$20 ($14.50). That’s a whopping total of S$56 ($40.50)! However, you can save up to S$11 ($8) on admission by availing of the Park Hopper Specials. You can get a 2-in-1 Special for S$32 ($23.25), saving you S$4 ($2.75) if you’re going to the Zoo and the Bird Park, or S$6 ($4.25) if you’re going to the Night Safari and either the Zoo or the Bird Park. Better yet, if you plan to see all three, then get the 3-in-1 Special for S$45 ($32.75), a savings of S$11 ($7.75). Best of all, you don’t need to see all three in one day (apart from the fact that it’s probably impossible). Tickets are valid for one month from the date of purchase.

BONUS TIP: Unless you tire very easily, or are otherwise disabled, you do NOT need to take the (unlimited) tram rides at the Singapore Zoo. This is an additional S$5 ($3.50) cost on top of the admission fees. I went to the Zoo with a friend and we were both very hungover, but we survived walking around the entire afternoon.

white tiger at Singapore Zoo

7. CouchSurf. Room rates are pretty high in Singapore, relative to costs around the rest of Southeast Asia. Hostels are still the cheapest option for budget travelers. A dorm bed at a Singapore hostel runs at an average of S$20 ($14.50) per night (usually inclusive of breakfast). An alternative to staying at a hostel is CouchSurfing. So what is CouchSurfing all about? From its website: “CouchSurfing members share hospitality with one another.” Simply put, instead of staying at a hostel, you can stay with a local or a resident of the city you’re visiting (in this case, Singapore) at no financial cost. This allows you to meet someone from that city, get to know them better, and perhaps get the opportunity to see another side of the city that you wouldn’t find in guidebooks. (Keep in mind that connecting with people is a HUGE part of the CouchSurfing spirit; you’re not simply looking for a place to dump your bags or maybe take a shower.) I have met many people whose first CouchSurfing experience was in Singapore, primarily because of the high costs. In doing so, not only have they saved cash, but they’ve also gained some interesting experiences and, hopefully, new friends.

BONUS TIP: Understandably, not everyone wants to CouchSurf. It is definitely a HUGE step as far as trust is concerned. Also, it may be a bit difficult to find a couch to “surf” to begin with. If you must check-in at a hostel, I recommend The InnCrowd Hostel Singapore. I stayed there during my trip as a tourist last year, and although it was under renovation at the time, I definitely enjoyed my stay there. A dorm bed costs S$20 ($14.50), and includes breakfast, a locker, and internet access. Best of all, The InnCrowd also has special rates and offers on trips within Singapore, such as discounted tickets to the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari, and they occasionally have special activities like a night motorbike tour of the city.

a typical CouchSurfing scene

All prices are accurate as of April 2010, and all conversions were accurate at the time of writing. Conversions were done through the Universal Currency Converter on 15 April 2010.