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Is Singapore a realistic vacation destination for Americans?

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Published: March 1, 2010 at 12:53 PM

So is Singapore (A) a far-flung, exotic location or is it (B) a reasonable tourist destination, within the reach of many visitors?

Before last week, I would have answered "A" without hesitation. Now, after having made the trip myself, I'm leaning "B".

Let me tell you about my trip to Singapore.

Singapore, from the river

The flight

First, getting there. I flew Singapore Airlines from Los Angeles via Tokyo, a round-trip ticket that cost me $1,350, including all taxes and fees. Sure, that's not a cheap ticket, but you should also know that Singapore Airlines is a frequent winner of "world's best airline" awards, and rightfully so.

Economy class on Singapore Airlines feels like first class on a U.S. domestic flight:

  • Movies, TV shows, music and video games on demand at your seat, at no extra charge
  • Frequent full meal service
  • Complimentary drinks, including wine, beer and mixed drinks
  • A pillow and blanket for every seat
  • For families with babies or toddlers, the airline provides bassinets, as well as baby food, bibs, wipes, diapers and bottle preparation

Here's the dinner I had on the inbound flight between Tokyo and Singapore (clockwise from upper left):

  • Chicken meatballs and salad
  • Cheesecake for dessert
  • Broth for the Japanese cold noodles
  • Water (I could have had wine and coffee in these two cups, but I drink as much water as I can on airplanes)
  • The noodles (with wasabi)
  • Panko-breaded shrimp with vegetables in curry sauce over rice
  • A rice cracker
  • Roll and butter

Singapore Airlines meal

That was one of three meals that I had on my trip from LA to Singapore (plus a "snack", which offered a choice among items such as a barbecue chicken bun, vegetarian wrap sandwich, a banana, a large bag of potato chips and a full-size Hershey bar). Same number of meals, but an entirely different selection, on the way back.

Another American, who sat next to me on the flight back, told me (not entirely joking), "I'll never be able to fly on a U.S. airline again after this."

Also on the way back I watched "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," "Up in the Air," "Couples Retreat" and in honor of the one-hour Japanese layover, "You Only Live Twice." Figure $10 a pop for the movies, plus the food, the drinks and lack of nickel-and-dime charging in general and that $1,350 ticket, while expensive, certainly delivers more value for the dollar than any other airline ticket I've ever bought.

The city

A former British colony, Singapore's been called "Asia for Beginners." I'd also call it the Orlando of the Far East - that is, if Orlando were larger, cleaner, with generally friendlier people, overall better service and a convenient public transportation system.

Singapore is an independent city-state located on its own island at the tip of Malaysia, in the southeast corner of Asia. Its essentially layout, as a port based on the Singapore River, will be familiar to any Londoner. (Singapore River = Thames, but with nightlife.) The river itself is the city's social and tourist hub. Walkways run the length of the river on either side, connecting the various quays (wharfs, to an American), which now house not shipping docks, but a variety of restaurants, nightclubs and shopping malls. Think of CityWalk or Downtown Disney, except located along a river that stretches for miles.

Clarke Quay in Singapore

In the early evenings, you'll find Singaporeans jogging along the pathways before returning later for dinner. (Located near the equator, Singapore's weather in February is much like Orlando's in summer - hot and humid. If you want to exercise outside, you do it in the evening. I can't imagine visiting in June or July.)

Food, more than anything else, defines Singaporean culture. The cuisine here, a blend of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian food, is simply delicious... and ubiquitous. I had to cry "uncle" and stop eating after a day - I was simply too full from the chicken rice, curries, satays and other temptations I was packing in. Given that it's in Singapore, I suspect that Universal Studios Singapore might challenge Epcot's title as the world's top theme park for foodies. The initial line-up? Dim sum, butter chicken, laksa (a loaded noodle soup), chicken rice, pad thai, yakatori, New York strip steak, oysters Rockefeller, bratwurst, turkey legs, fish and chips... and, yeah, hamburgers and pizza.

To work off that caloric consumption, and to fight jet lag, I suggest a walking tour of the city. I set off from my hotel east along the Singapore River to the harbor. I saw the point where Sir Thomas Raffles first landed in Singapore, establishing the British Colony.

Sir Thomas Raffles statue in Singapore

Then I made my way to the harbor, where stands the "Merlion" - the symbol of Singapore, which means "Lion Island." (As far as anyone can tell, there aren't any lions on the island and never have been, but an early settler thought he saw one, so, there's the name.)

The Merlion in Singapore Harbor

After a stop for water and a smoothie, I continued south into Chinatown, where I picked up a few souvenirs for the family.

Chinese New Year in Singapore
You'll find decorated trees such as this throughout the city during the Chinese New Year holiday.

Singapore's Chinatown

From there, I hopped a ride on the city's MRT subway to Vivo City, a massive western-style shopping mall at the southern tip of the island, from which you can catch a S$2 bus ride over to Resorts World Sentosa on Singapore's Sentosa Island.

Universal Studios Singapore isn't the only attraction on Sentosa. (Here's my write-up of my tour of Universal.) In addition to the adjacent casino, you'll find a marine theme park called "Underwater World" (think, well... you know), two golf courses, a nature preserve, a butterfly park, beaches, hotels and spas.

Like I said, the Orlando of the Far East. I must admit that I missed what many friends recommended as the best attraction in Singapore: Night Safari. This is the Singapore Zoo's attraction that some industry insiders say heavily influenced Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

I'm trying to make Singapore sound accessible to Americans who, like me, hadn't visited Asia before and might be put off by the thought. Your biggest expense will be the flight. I found western-style hotel rooms readily available during Chinese New Year (one of the busiest tourist seasons of the year) for S$150-200 a night (US$115-154) - relatively cheap for a major city in the high season. Restaurant prices were 10%-30% percent less than comparable prices in LA, once you figure in the exchange rate. (Western chain prices, though, were about the same as in the U.S. once you figure the exchange rate.) And the one-day ticket prices for Universal Studios will run between S$32-72 (US$25-55), with adults visiting on weekends paying the high end and seniors visiting during the week paying the lowest price.

That said, there certainly travel veterans out there who dismiss Singapore as too western, and too "easy" a location. Asia for Beginners, they sneer.

Well, beginners have to start somewhere, or else they'll never try anything new. Sure, Singapore's filled with western-style amenities. But it's still Singapore, located on the other side of the planet from the United States. You'll get a stamp in your passport, sit with people who speak other languages (in addition to Singapore's official English, mind you), and gain the confidence that you can take and enjoy a trip beyond your native nation's borders.

Would I go again? Heck, yeah. I want to see Night Safari and Universal Studios in full operation. I want to pace myself better with the food, and see some of the rainforest beyond the city center.

Of course, now that I've seen that Asia is an accessible vacation destination (with planning and saving ahead, of course), all those theme parks in Japan seem pretty enticing, too. And I hear there's a bunch of new roller coasters going up in China.... Maybe I'll just have to plan several more trips!

Readers' Opinions

From Joshua Counsil on March 1, 2010 at 1:55 PM
Very cool. So many places to see, so little... well, you know.

I've got a friend on exchange in Singapore. She loves it thus far. I told her to give me a full report on Universal when it opens.

From Anthony Murphy on March 1, 2010 at 3:12 PM
Sure, why not?

I think Asia is gearing up to try to take on Europe as a trip destination.

However, I think that it is alot more enticing for Americans who live near the West coast vs many, like me, who live closer to the East Coast. It would be a long flight!

Still your trip report for Universal Singapore looks very good!

One thing I noticed: The big park goers really seem to be in North America and Asia. Sorry to all your Europeans out there, but it just seems to be a strange pattern to me! Most of the big parks are in these continents!

From Manny Barron on March 1, 2010 at 3:13 PM
Singapore looks and sounds great. With the new Universal Studios park opening it has become a must visit destination for me. Some day....
From Daniel Smith on March 1, 2010 at 3:32 PM
Great report!! Having been to Singapore many times, I can report that the Night Safari is in fact absolutely fantastic and a must do! As for flights from the US, if you are after something more economical, Air China generally has return fares around $850 (incl. taxes) and Singapore Airlines also has direct flights from Los Angeles to Singapore (without the stop in Tokyo). However, as mentioned before, try flying from San Francisco and you'll get the New Economy Class, like nothing else you've seen! When I go to Singapore, I always have a few suits tailor-made. Very, very cheap and good quality (if you know where to look). For food, you have to try the Chilli Crab (world famous) and a Singapore Sling cocktail. Also try one of the discount hotel sites (like wotif.com) where I've had rooms at 5-star hotels for only $40 per night (sometimes!). I'll be back there in a couple of weeks! Can't wait!

Daniel.
Sydney, Australia.

From Robert Niles on March 1, 2010 at 3:39 PM
Thanks, Daniel.

My trip just happened to occur during Chinese New Year, but that does pump up the prices. Daniel's post shows that better deals can be made at other times of the year, and, as always, by shopping around.

The point about the west coast is a good one. But if you do live out here, why not take advantage? No need to get jealous about east coast access to Europe and the Caribbean when Asia and Hawaii are so accessible from this side of the US.

From Michael Owen on March 1, 2010 at 4:31 PM
it seems feasible to me that the Far East could be seen as a tourist destination for Americans, even if it is a trip that is seen as a 'once in a lifetime' one.

There seems to be a trend of tourists going East to some of the developing tourist resorts. Europeans are going to Middle Eastern destinations such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain in huge numbers and US travelers seem to be seeing the Far East as a good destination for a vacation.

From Anthony Murphy on March 1, 2010 at 4:32 PM
Exactly Robert! This might be a good choice for West Coasters.
From James Rao on March 1, 2010 at 5:09 PM
$1,350 * 5 + theme park tickets + Night Safari tickets (looks awesome!) + Singapore Zoo tickets + lodging + transportation + food = OODLES of $$. Even if the whole family eats Kashi bars for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I still think this trip won't happen until I am too old and too grandfatherly to enjoy it!

But, thanks for the breakdown anyway, Robert. I am glad you had such a swell time without us! ;p

From Anthony Murphy on March 1, 2010 at 8:58 PM
Just so you know James, the pricetag to go to Disneyland Paris would be more expensive. If you thought WDW was expensive, then DLP is outrageously expensive.

So my point is that it is extremely expensive to pretty much go anywhere outside of the US for us now!

From James Rao on March 2, 2010 at 3:48 AM
Alas, I figured as much... Tokyo DisneySea, here I DON'T come! *sigh*
From Kevin Barbee on March 3, 2010 at 9:01 AM
Robert, I agree! I've been living and working off and on in Asia for the past 11 years. It's always a disappointment getting on a US carrier after flying the Asian carriers--courtesy, cleanliness, value for the fare are the norm.

US Airlines are stuck in a cycle of despair and the passengers are held hostage.

From 15.203.233.75 on March 5, 2010 at 12:30 PM
I agree w/ Daniel - Night Safari is the real deal. And while it might be Asia lite experience-wise, it will not dissapoint. Truly an enjoyable city.
Heading there in a month & planning on a day @ Universal, so thx for the report.
From 75.131.80.205 on March 5, 2010 at 5:54 PM
Our land is the greatest for parks and have yet to make them all. When you have a family of 5 the cost can add up quick. One trip to Singapore a total four days, can equal up to a 2 week trip here. We travel in a 2006 Fleetwood Excursion/more parks less time. Two days for travel time can put alot of jet lag on you. Been to a few Austailian theme parks in 1993 and took 34 hours r/t not to mention airport lay overs. Good thing I had 17 days to play but even the parks there made me miss home parks even more.
If I have business there, I'll be sure to make it.
Greg

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