Luxury for less in this must-visit Asian destination

CNN  — 

Set in Singapore, this year’s box office hit “Crazy Rich Asians” may be part of the reason why the vibrant island city-state in Asia with a population of 5.5 million seems to have suddenly become a must-visit destination.

According to the Singapore Tourism Board, Singapore saw around 17.4 million visitors in 2017, and that number is projected to increase between one and four percent this year.

But a trip to the global financial center has the potential to cost big bucks, according to travel experts who are familiar with the destination. “I’ve traveled all over the world, and I think that Singapore is one of the most expensive places I’ve been in,” says Nikheel Advani, a Singaporean and the former hotel manager at Raffles Hotel, who lives on the island part-time and is a partner at Grace Bay Resorts, in Turks & Caicos.

Singapore has become a must-visit travel destination, but a trip to the vibrant island-city doesn't have to break the bank.

Dianna Upton, a Singapore expert at Travel Beyond, a luxury travel agency in Wayzata, Minnesota, agrees that it’s pricey, but both she and Advani say that a few insider tips can help travelers save money on an upscale vacation.

There are many reasons to take a vacation in Singapore and ways to enjoy it – even if you don’t have a lot of disposable income.

There’s the year-round tropical climate and a diversity of indoor and outdoor attractions, including scenic, sprawling gardens such as Gardens by the Bay. There’s Singapore’s rich arts scene, where National Gallery Singapore, which has the world’s largest public collection of local Singaporean and Southeast Asian art, can be found. There’s also The Southern Ridges, 10 kilometers of green for hiking, bird watching or just taking in nature.

The movie aside, 2019 happens to be Singapore’s bicentennial, giving travelers even more incentive to experience it while it celebrates 200 years since the founding of modern Singapore.

Following are tips from Advani and Upton on how to have a luxury vacation in Singapore for less:

Stay at a boutique hotel

Singapore has no shortage of brand-name properties, many of which are in the pricey and touristy Marina Bay area. However, Upton says that staying at a boutique or independently-owned hotel in a charming residential neighborhood such as Robertson Quay is far less expensive and provides a more local feel.

Boutique hotels -- booked through a travel agent -- sometimes offer the best rates.

Examples include M Social, where nightly rates can start as low as $122. The Philippe Starck-designed property is set on the Singapore River, and its Asian fusion restaurant, Beast & Butterflies, is one of the buzziest spots in town. Upton also recommends The Warehouse Hotel, a 37-room property situated in a late 19th-century building on the Singapore River; nightly rates start at around $190.

In addition, hotel rates are usually lower on weekends than weekdays when business travel is down, and properties often give discounts for reservations that are made three months or more in advance.

Use a travel agent to make hotel reservations

Advani says that a luxury travel agent such as one part of Signature Travel Network or the travel network Virtuoso can get travelers valuable savings on a hotel stay, particularly if they’re set on hanging their hat at a well-known property such as Marina Bay Sands or the historic Raffles Hotel (closed until summer 2019). “You’re going to get better prices than by booking direct and will get others perks as well,” he says.

Upton, for example, has access to hotel deals that aren’t available to the general public such as “pay for three nights and stay for four” specials at some properties. She’s also able to score her clients a guaranteed room upgrade at certain hotels, along with breakfast, $100 food and beverage or spa credit, a sizable welcome amenity such as a bottle of champagne and other perks.

Try an apartment rental

For large groups or families, Advani recommends renting an apartment through Airbnb or VRBO versus staying at a hotel. “You can find luxury apartments at fantastic prices,” he says.

Advani has rented an apartment with his family through Airbnb on his last two trips to Singapore and says that he saved more than 50 percent, compared to what a five-star hotel would have cost. On his last visit, for example, he rented a high-end two-bedroom apartment with prime city views on swanky Orchard Road for less than $500 a night.

Plus, an apartment allows you to save on some meals out and take advantage of a full-service kitchen.

Take to the streets for the best food

High-end restaurants serving every variety of cuisine abound in Singapore, but Upton and Advani say that the best food in town can be had at the country’s many hawker centers.

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Singapore clip 2
01:29 - Source: Roads & Kingdoms

These centers are essentially food halls with multiple stalls, and a meal costs around $5 — though, of course, the tab could run up a few dollars more if you wash it down with a cold beer or two. “Restaurants are expensive in Singapore and don’t necessarily reflect the local cuisine, which is a must for any visitor,” says Advani, further making the case for exploring the street-food scene.

Chili crab is a traditional seafood dish of Singapore and can be found for not a lot of money in one of the city's many hawker centers.

His favorite centers include the Chinatown Complex Food Centre, where Liao Fan serves up Michelin-starred chicken rice. The dish is a Singapore staple, and the line is long here, but it’s worth the wait. He also loves Newtown Food Centre for the traditional seafood dishes, such as chili crabs, and Tiong Bahru Food Centre for the dumplings.

Hit the bars but proceed with caution

Dining at a pricey restaurant may not be worth the expense, but tourists should check out a few of Singapore’s many stylish bars to get a flavor of the local nightlife. Advani suggests Jigger & Pony for the creative cocktails while Upton likes C’est La Vie at Marina Bay Sands. “You have great views and get to mingle with glamorous locals for the price of a drink,” she says.

But while a drink at most swanky bars costs between $10 and $20 on average, Advani says that alcohol pours tend to be small. “I always order a double pour, but that means I pay double prices,” he says.

However, some bars offer happy hour deals, and to save even more money, Advani suggests that travelers pick up a bottle of wine or their preferred spirit at a liquor store and enjoy a drink or two in their hotel room or apartment before heading out to a bar. “This way, you can stick to ordering one drink when you’re out,” he said. He usually goes to 1855 The Bottle Shop to pick his booze, which has several locations around town.

The city is safe and easy to get around.

Book a driver-guide

Yes, Singapore is expensive, but private driver-guides, who are both drivers and certified tour guides, are affordable compared to other countries. Ms. Upton’s guides, for example, cost $100 for a six to eight-hour day for two people. “A guide will educate you on Singaporean history, art and culture,” says Upton. “I definitely recommend springing for one for a day or two.”

For travelers who prefer to explore on their own, Advani and Upton say that taxis and Grab, the country’s equivalent to Uber, are inexpensive, ubiquitous and safe. “Singapore is one of the safest places in the world. You can walk around late by yourself and take in the city lights and water views,” says Upton. “You’ll get to see how photogenic the destination truly is.”

In short, “Crazy Rich Asians” may be the name of the movie that inspires a Singapore trip, but travelers don’t have to be crazy rich – and definitely not Asian for that matter – to take one there.