Malaysia should really be better known as a budget travel destination. Entire generations have cut their backpacking teeth in famously cheap countries such as Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, but Malaysia has a reputation as the expensive part of Southeast Asia.
The truth is rather different. Even compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors, the costs of travel in Malaysia are hardly exorbitant, and the slight increase in prices here compared to Thailand or Indonesia comes hand in hand with high standards of infrastructure, even in rural areas.
Malaysia represents fantastic value for money at almost all levels. Costs for food, lodging, fuel and internal transportation are very reasonable, and alcohol is one of the rare goods that will make a hefty dent in your wallet.
For Malaysian adventures without the price tag, here’s how to visit on a budget.
Budget airlines offer travel savings, but watch out for airport extras
While short hop flights have sustainability issues, they are currently the only means of crossing between Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia (Borneo), which are separated by hundreds of miles of sea. Budget carriers such as Air Asia, Malindo Air and Firefly offer cheap flights throughout Malaysia, as well as international hops to other hubs in Southeast Asia, but watch for hidden extras.
Fares are advertised with rock bottom prices on the internet – if you book well in advance, a domestic flight can cost as little as US$30 – but remember that these prices don’t include taxes or airport fees. This tends to be a bigger issue for international routes; airport fees for domestic flights tend to be fairly modest – for example, RM11 (US$2) for flights leaving from Kuala Lumpur.
Travel by bus when you can
If you’re staying in either Peninsular Malaysia or East Malaysia and don't plan to visit the other half of the country, you can get almost anywhere you need to go by bus. There are dozens of operators, which makes for competitive pricing and a good chance of getting a seat, even if you just show up at the station. English is widely spoken in Malaysia, and Bahasa Melayu (Malaysian) is written in the Roman alphabet, so there should be few issues with navigating timetables.
Get to Malaysia's islands by ferry
Sure, you can fly to Malaysia's tropical islands, but there’s still a little romance in taking a ferry to destinations such as Langkawi and Penang. And if the nostalgia of traveling by sea isn’t enough, it’s also cheaper and better for the planet. The ferry to Langkawi costs RM60 (US$14) – a fraction of the cost of arriving by air – while the old-fashioned car ferry to Penang costs just RM1.20 (US$0.30). In fact, Penang offers savings all-round as it's closer to the mainland and less oriented towards beach tourism.
Cheap transfers to and from the airport
If you fly into Kuala Lumpur, the fastest way into town is the zippy KLIA Ekspres, an air-conditioned train with onboard wi-fi that makes the run between Kuala Lumpur International Airport and KL Sentral station in just 30 minutes. A ticket will cost RM55 (US$13), a big saving on the cost by taxi. The cheapest option is the air-con Express Coach bus, which takes 45 minutes to an hour to reach the center of KL (sometimes longer, depending on traffic), and costs just RM10 (US$2.40).
In other cities, your choices may be limited to taxis (faster, more expensive) or buses (cheaper, but invariably slower, so there’s the inconvenience factor). Summoning a rideshare may get you a cheaper fare heading out to the airport.
Get around cheaply in town
Rates for a metered taxi ride in Malaysia are very reasonable, though drivers have a reputation for being reluctant to use the meter. However, even those prices are undercut by using Grab, the Southeast Asian do-everything app that also provides Malaysia's most popular rideshare service. With reliable internet access across Malaysia, Grab functions in all major cities, and plenty of smaller hubs.
Alternatively, stick to local buses and urban mass transit networks. Kuala Lumpur's LRT and MRT urban rail services are air-conditioned and can get you to most sights in the center for just a few ringgit – see their websites for route maps, prices and timings.
Visit Malaysia at the right time of year
The low season in Malaysia comes with a precipitous drop in travel costs, though sometimes also with a fair amount of rain. The trick is figuring out the low season for the part of the country you're visiting. Peninsular Malaysia sees a drop in visitor numbers from March to June, while Malaysian Borneo’s low season lasts from October through to March.
However, note that there are small spikes in tourism during Singapore’s school holidays beginning in May or June, and the Malaysian school breaks in March, May, August, and late November through early December. Some beach and island resorts shut down completely down during the rainy season; check things are open before heading to the coast in November and December and from March to May.
Explore on foot for free
There’s a lot to be said for just walking in historic areas such as Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur, Jonker Walk in Melaka, George Town in Penang and the city center of Kota Kinabal. A walk is a chance to admire historic architecture, sip coffee in Chinese-run kopitiam cafes, visit colorful temples, clan-houses and mosques, and drift around streets lined with nostalgic Malay shophouses. It's a great way to get a sense of the impressive diversity that is Malaysia’s most attractive asset.
Eat cheaply and be merry…
Malaysian food is cheap, plentiful and delicious. Dining out in Malaysia is not just fiscally prudent, it’s the best way to dive into the culture and history of a nation that stands at the crossroads of China, India, and dozens of Southeast Asian maritime kingdoms. If you eat at establishments targeting locals rather than tourists, you'll be hard-pressed to pay more than RM70 (about US$17) for three meals a day.
Go teetotal to save money in Malaysia
In this majority Muslim nation, the sale of alcohol has long been a political issue. Although non-Muslims are permitted to buy alcohol, high excise taxes are the price of being able to drink in Malaysia. With these taxes included, beer, wine, and spirits can cost as much as they do in the US and Western Europe. To keep your costs down, stick to juices, soft drinks, fresh coconut water, coffee or teh tarik (sweet tea with condensed milk).
Eat like a local at hawker stalls and kopitiam
Outside of some high-end places in cities such as Kuala Lumpur and George Town, restaurants in Malaysia are not particularly expensive. However, you’ll find much cheaper food, and often better gastronomic quality, if you eat at hawker centers and kopitiam (Malay-style cafes).
Government-licensed conglomerations of street food stalls can be found throughout Kuala Lumpur, Melaka, Penang, Kota Kinabalu, Kuching and other major (and minor) cities. They're particularly common at transport hubs and in shopping areas. Old school kopitiam serve small cheap eats as well as Malay-style coffee, and many specialize in a single dish; if in doubt, just order what everyone else is having.
Be a night market diner
Major international fast food chains can be found throughout Malaysia, and while they’re a little cheaper than back home, they’re more expensive than eating local Malaysian food. Instead, head to the nearest pasar malam, or night market, for an evening meal. These nighttime streetside hawker markets come with drink stands too, and family-friendly entertainment in the form of karaoke.
The point for most visitors though is the food, which is invariably cheap and delicious. The night market in Kota Bharu, way off the tourist track in Kelantan, is a standout example of the genre, but the better-known night markets in Kuala Lumpur and Penang are also justifiably famous.
Festivals offer some of Malaysia's best free entertainment
With multiple religions feeding into Malaysia's rich cultural melting pot, festivals kick off in Malaysia every month of the year, and they offer a fascinating window into the culture of the country. January is a particularly good month for celebrations – some years, the month sees both Chinese New Year (which can also occur in early February) and Thaipusam, an enormous Hindu celebration that is of utmost importance to Malaysia's largely Tamil Indian population.
August is another great festival month, with the George Town Festival celebrating Penang’s diversity, arts, and culture, and the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival bringing color to Chinese communities across Malaysia.
Daily costs in Malaysia
- Hostel room RM40–80 (US$9.50–20)
- Basic room for two RM60–200 (US$14–48)
- Vacation rentals RM150–300 (US$36–72)
- City bus or train ticket RM2–6 (US$0.45–2)
- Long-distance bus ticket RM40–140 (US$9.50–35)
- Noodles at a hawker stall RM5–30 (US$1.20–7.20)
- Bottle of beer at a bar or restaurant RM 6–20 (US$1.40–12)
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