Tips on traveling to Singapore

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lotusWe wouldn’t send you to a foreign country without tips! Here are some quick and useful tips to help you prep for your trip to Singapore.

GETTING THERE
Currently, there are no direct flights to Singapore. You have to transfer through a city like Tokyo or Manila, with a few hours to lay over. That being said, check your flight schedule, as your overall travel time will take you between 16 to 30 hours.

We recommend taking the flight through Tokyo (any airport) even if it is a little more expensive, because the airport will be cleaner, more organized, and have more facilities to accommodate your layover.

PACKING
As you saw in our blog about packing light, you don’t need to take a lot of stuff because the weather is pretty much always like Hawaii: hot and humid. However, you may want to take a tour of a mosque or temple, in which case you need to cover up. To be safe (if you’re a woman), in addition to your light, skimpy clothes, bring one pair of long pants or a long skirt, and a long (or 3/4 sleeve) blouse. Men, bring a pair of long pants for this as well.

When to go? The weather is always hot and humid, like it is here in Hawaii. However, be aware that summer is monsoon season. I don’t think that’s so bad, but I would definitely not recommend you go during September and October, at least not for a while. We smalllearned that during this time, Indonesia — the world’s largest supplier of palm oil — burns the oil palm trees and the smoke blows over to Singapore from there, causing extreme haze (as you could see in my photos). Singapore is usually beautiful with blue skies, but during this time, the skies are mostly gray and you can’t see the tall buildings. If you have asthma or allergies, forget it. If you can only go in September and October, bring a mask.

This year was the worst the haze has been due to El Nino and a delay in the rainy season; some say it is also due to Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo allowing his business friends to do more burning than usual. But, this is a travel post, not a political one, so I’ll stop there with my advice on when to visit Singapore.

EZlinkCURRENCY
We exchanged our currency for Singapore dollars right at the airport. I had about $300 in cash from my last trip there, and that lasted me the whole week because you can use credit cards. If you get stuck for cash, there are ATMs.

You can buy an EZ Link card at 7-Eleven, much like Japan’s Pasmo card, load it up with some money, and use it to easily get around on the bus and MRT. When you return it, you can get your money back (there may be a $1 processing fee).

We stayed at the Ibis on Bencoolen, which lends EZ Link cards for free (you give them a $10 deposit, which you get back when you return the card).

GETTING AROUND
You can definitely pay as you ride, but you may consider getting a tourist pass for the SMRT, available at the ticket offices. The subway and bus systems have English signs, so are fairly easy to use if you know how to navigate the service. When you use the EZ link card, you tap the card on the fare plate when you embark and when you disembark. Always remember to do both.

Taxis are really quick and reasonable in Singapore, though, so — especially if you are in a group of two or more — I’d say just do that for reasonable door-to-door service.

When heading to the airport, you can catch an airport shuttle (check with your hotel for details), but a taxi is only a few dollars more and gets you there fast. And to be honest, most of the taxi drivers we had were very chatty, so it’s a great way to learn about Singapore life.

And walking is not out of the question, if you like that. It’s just kind of hot in Singapore — just think about how it feels in summer in Hawaii.

HOTELS
We found that our friends who stayed at the Marina Bay Sands had a very convenient location. But you do pay the price for such places, upwards of $300 per night. If you don’t need the trappings of a luxury hotel, opt for a business hotel like the Ibis (no, they didn’t pay me to say that). They’re very clean, have free wifi, and usually close to a train station. Best of all, they’re very reasonable. Or you can stay at the YMCA on Orchard Road, but that is actually pricey because it is so convenient and kind of nice. No matter where you stay, though, I recommend you make a decision at least two months or more before you arrive, and book on a site like Booking.com or Agoda.com. We found that the prices on hotels creeped upwards as our trip got closer.

DITCH YOUR TOILETRIES
Most hotels in Asia provide toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, room slippers and all of your bath needs. As long as you’re not picky about your toiletries, you’ll have a little extra room in your luggage. You may have to ask the front desk for these freebies, though, as some hotels have gotten wise to, um, Chinese travelers like me.

BUT BRING YOUR OWN NAPKINS
Hawker stalls are great to visit, but many vendors don’t give you napkins. So bring your own. Or, beggars will often be selling kleenix packs at hawker centers if you need them. If you plan ahead, you might buy wet napkins at 7-Eleven, as they have 10-packs right at the register.

Just a side note, you don’t have to bus your own tables at hawker centers as they usually have staff who do it, and will do it better than you.

DSC07114EATING
Why do I do this blog, anyway?! Just bookmark my blog and go where I went. People will give you general directions, like, “Go to a hawker center, they are everywhere and all the food is great.” Most of the food in Singapore is delicious, but you really need to go to specific places and order specific things, as I’ve mentioned a few times in this blog series.

My friend Mark Chun arrived as I was leaving, and I gave him my specific recommendations. Instead, on his first day, he went to random hawker stalls and ordered things that Singapore is known for. He thought he was going to hate Singapore. The next day, he took my list and followed the instructions. He almost cried because the food was so good. He went back to Red House for a second night of crab. Follow this blog, my friends, I don’t do it for nothing.

OMIYAGE
As reader Vickie noted, packaged supermarket sauce mixes are easy to pack and give your friends a taste of Singapore. You will find sauce mixes in flat packets for chili crab, Hainan chicken rice, baku teh, curry and rendang, at the very least. You’ll find jars of kaya at any store, in a wide range of prices, which seem to be a hit with everyone. I’m also a big fan of cornflake mix (like the Indian version of Chex mix) and other snacks at Mustafa Center.

WIFI
If you are like us and need to tweet, Facebook, instagram, and blog, consider renting an international wifi device — you can get this at the airport at various counters, even the currency exchange, outside of baggage claim. People will tell you that “wifi is everywhere,” which is sort of true, but it’s mostly locked networks … so just carry your own. You can save on international roaming charges, too: Once you land, set your phone to “Airplane” mode, then turn on the wifi. This essentially makes your phone an iTouch, so you can’t make calls (you can send and receive text messages with other iPhones). If you take calls, you need to turn your phone off  “Airplane” mode, but this means you will incur international charges.

If your phone’s contract qualifies, try to get it unlocked before you leave Hawaii. If you can get it unlocked, even better! You can then purchase a Singtel Tourist SIM card at the airport and that is very reasonable.

LEAVING SINGAPORE
Changi Airport is the only airport in the world, I think, where people get special permits so they can take their wedding photos there. It is an amazing place with a movie theatre, gardens, playgrounds and more, so if you have a  long layover, there is no shortage of things to do (although the shopping and dining is pretty fabulous). We got there three hours before our flight, which is the maximum time you have prior to check in. After checking in, go through security and immigration, then you can catch the Sky Train to go between the three international terminals.

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Baku teh in Terminal 3.

If all you want to do is eat, there is a huge food court full of Singaporean food in Terminal 3. You have to pre-purchase a card there, then use it to order food. Any money left over on the card will be refunded to you.

DSC07554At this time of year, they have a contest called “Be a Changi Millionaire,” where you get chances to win prizes after spending more than $30 at their shops. You might also get a chance to win $1 million with an all-expenses paid trip back to Singapore. I won a cute SG50 bag. And now Doug and Edwina want to throttle me.

If you have more time, check out the various gardens; there’s a cactus garden in Terminal 1, a sunflower garden in Terminal 2, and a butterfly conservatory in Terminal 3, which we went to see. It’s a full-on hot house with tropical plants and a chrysalis hatching station, so you can see a variety of butterflies that you’ll never get to see at home. I’ll leave you with a few shots from that, but to see all my photos from this trip, click here.

Thanks for following along on this trip. Big thanks to Sean, Lena, Nadine, and especially to Cat, Doug and Edwina for the amazing adventure! Mahalo to @SingaporeanEats, Roger Lim, and of course my cousins Celia and Viv Lines for making this a very memorable vacation. I’ll be back!

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You can also while away your time watching the rainbow display on either side of the lobby in Terminal 1: