Kuala Lumpur was one of the last countries I visited in 2015. I went for two weeks to help at a hostel as a volunteer through Workaway. After my fast-paced travels through Europe in the summer, it’s been nice to slow down in SE Asia and take my time in cities. Somehow my two weeks in Kuala Lumpur still went by too fast.
It’s been a while since I wrote a post on how to visit a city on a budget. It almost seems redundant to do so for the dirt-cheap countries of SE Asia, not to mention practically every blogger has beaten me to it. Then again, Kuala Lumpur seems to be one of the most expensive cities in SE Asia, with the exception of Singapore (but I haven’t been there yet). So trips for budget travel here are actually really important.
Please note: This article was originally written after my two weeks in Kuala Lumpur at the end of 2015. I have updated it in 2019 to include information and changes I learned about after my most recent visit to the city this year.
If you fly into Kuala Lumpur, you will arrive at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). The cheapest way from KLIA to the city center is by Skybus or Star Star Tours. Skybus takes you to KL Sentral which is toward the southwest end of town (near the botanical gardens), while Star Tours takes you to Pudo Sentral (closer to the center of town). You can book in advance or purchase tickets on the 1st floor of the airport just before the exit. At the counter, the ticket was 11 (now 12) Malaysian ringgit (RM), which is about $3. If you really want to save fifteen minutes, you can also get the train for 55 RM ($19), but that’s not for the budget traveler.
Once you’re in the city, your cheapest conveyances are buses, trains, subway and light rails (trams). They will get you almost anywhere in the city. Most tickets are around 2 RM ($0.50). I was told by several people to never use a taxi for safety and budget reasons. I didn’t take one so I can’t confirm the validity of the advice, but I can still pass it along. I did have some friends in town using Uber which seemed workable, but not as cheap as the trams. The only problem is the public transportation stops around 11:30 p.m. Uber is your cheapest option after that. Update: In April 2018, Grab bought out Uber. The setup is the same but the prices are a bit higher it seems.
The train line runs along the western side of town. You probably won’t have to use it much within the city, unless you’re going to the Batu Caves. You can take the train to the Batu Caves from any of the stations within the city. The line is clearly labeled “Batu Caves.” For traveling around the rest of Malaysia, trains are an option but a little more expensive than buses (although faster and sometimes more comfortable).
If you don’t choose accommodations in the center of town, you’ll want to use the light rail system to stick to a budget when going to and from your hotel or hostel. If you want to see the Kuala Lumpur Twin Towers (Petronas Towers), take the light rail Red Line to the KLCC stop. You’ll arrive underground and then can follow the signs to come up inside the towers themselves. It’s a little confusing and you might have to ask for directions.
There are around 50 hostels in KL for the budget traveler. The cheapest is as little as $3 (the Natalia Guesthouse Pasar Seni). I stayed at the Original Backpackers Travellers Inn for a day and it wasn’t bad (but it’s now closed). You certainly got what you paid for. As a budget traveler, I’m [usually] fine with simple accommodations.
The rest of the time, I stayed at the Travel Hub Hostel which has some really nice studio-style rooms with loft beds. My stay there was free as I designed their website in exchange for my bed, which I set up through Workaway. Otherwise, the rooms are about $11 a night if you pay when you arrive, or you can click on the links on this page to use Agoda and find deals as low as $4 per night. Most of the hostels are located in the Old Town section of KL, southwest of the new towers, and are within walking distance of the Perdana Botanical Gardens, Chinatown, Little India and the city center. Some, like the Travel Hub, have rooftop bars with fantastic views of the towers in the city center.
Update: During my most recent trip to Kuala Lumpur, I stayed at the Dorms KL Hostel near the city center. For only $6 a night on Agoda, they’re a great budget option with tons of beds, really friendly staff, great facilities, a terrace bar and a streetside cafe selling delicious Malaysian-Indian food. The security is good, the cleaning is great; I’d highly recommend them if you’re traveling to Kuala Lumpur on a budget.
From the day I arrived in KL, I was sampling as many different types of local dishes as I could get…and stomach. Some of the street food seemed a little more “crude” than Thailand, and more than once I opted to eat in a cheap restaurant in lieu of at a food cart.
There is a pretty wide range of prices when it comes to restaurants and cafes in Kuala Lumpur. It’s possible to find a meal for as little as $2 (which is still more expensive than other nearby countries), but other restaurants have no qualms against charging you $20 for a similar meal. As a general rule, try to find establishments with simple seating and no waiters in tuxes.
On the first day, I had rendang ayam with teh tarik. Ayam means chicken, and rendang is a type of sweet curry common in the Malay region. Teh Tarik, the national drink of Malaysia, is tea made with condensed milk (similar to Thailand but with less sugar and a Lipton black tea flavor instead of the Thai black tea). The cost, including the tea, was $2.50!
The next meal I had was nasi lemak ayam, which is spicy fried chicken with sambal (spicy curry paste), rice, boiled or fried egg, cucumber, peanuts and dried anchovies. For the drink, I had iced cham, which is an interesting combination of tea and coffee; Malaysians know how to get the best of both worlds. Again, the meal came to about $2.50.
Other than Malaysian food, I had several other cuisines in town. One local took me to a Moroccan restaurant called Restoran Marakesh where I had lamb couscous. Another day, I ate lamb curry at Kader Restaurant in Little India. Can you tell I like lamb? Indian food was actually a common meal for me, especially when a big one could be purchased for less than 8 RM ($2). (On my second visit to Kuala Lumpur, nearly every meal I had was Indian cuisine, and only once was the bill over $5.) It’s hard to find a meal for more than $5 unless you go to the really fancy, tourist restaurants. Similar to Thailand, it’s fairly simple to just walk down the street and point to the street vendors’ food to order something. Chinatown is a perfect place for that.
My favorite cafe/restaurant turned out to be right around the corner from my hostel in Chinatown: The Palm Cafe. This Chinese cafe had a lot of their own dishes, but also served Malaysian, American and even Italian food. All of it was surprisingly good…even the Western food. The best part of the restaurant was that it was really cool inside and the internet was great (and free) which meant I spent a significant amount of time there working on my blog. When you visit, be sure to try the mango and honeydew melon smoothies. I can honestly say the honeydew one was the best smoothies I’ve ever had.
Update: During my trip in 2019, I found two more excellent restaurants which were definitely budget friendly. The first was TJ’s, serving Indian-Malaysian cuisine. Despite the owners insisting the food is Indian, the dishes all have a Malaysian twist. It’s not fine dining, but the meals are cheap and filling. The cafe is located just a street away from the famous Food Street and underneath the Dorms KL hostel where I stayed during my recent trip.
The second restaurant I would recommend from my recent visit (not that it could be called a restaurant) is Halab Gate. The Dorms KL hostel manager showed me this hole in the wall that serves shawarma…and only shawarma. There are different sizes, the smallest of which is only $1.25 and still big enough for a meal. As mentioned above, some of the street vendors can be a bit questionable, but others are some of the best places to eat in Kuala Lumpur on a budget.
Kuala Lumpur has plenty of attractions to keep you busy for weeks, but not all of them are budget friendly. In a magazine I write for, I recently published a list of free attractions in Kuala Lumpur. If you do happen to have a larger budget, check out this article on a two-day itinerary of Kuala Lumpur which includes some other paid activities in town.
By far, my favorite attraction in Kuala Lumpur is the Batu Caves. Not long ago, the locals built a large temple complex within the caves. This has since become the most famous Hindu shrine outside of India. Update: In 2018, the location was given a facelift with a rainbow-colored paint job. The best part is that the caves are free to enter, although there are a couple attractions and museums there which you can visit for a nominal fee. Read my full article on the Batu Caves for everything you need to know before you visit.
Of course, what’s nice about Kuala Lumpur is it’s centrally located in Malaysia. By bus, several other good cities are just a few hours away. Singapore is to the south, Penang to the north and Malacca only a couple hours away on the coast. Bus tickets can be as cheap as $10 one way, and $15 round trip.
Basically, Kuala Lumpur is not the kind of city you can visit in a day or two. Well, you could, but you’d be missing out on a whole lot. When you go, set aside at least a fortnight (14 days), take a couple tours to other cities in Malaysia and maybe even plan for some shopping. Oh, one more thing – bring sunscreen and your umbrella. In my two weeks there, it rained every day but one and the temperature never dropped below 77°F, even at night. After all, it’s only 3 degrees north of the equator.
A final note on Kuala Lumpur is on safety. This town had the highest number of locals I met who had been the victim of a crime. Between robberies and attacks, the city was not portrayed to be that safe. Nothing happened to me personally which made my stay more adventurous, but I also took special care that I didn’t carry anything on me that could be stolen when I walked around town. Just follow the usual safety rules, like not going through empty parking lots or dark alleys, keep your valuables secured or locked up at the hostel, etc. and you should be fine.
On my first visit to Kuala Lumpur, through utilizing Workaway and avoiding all the paid attractions, I managed to keep my budget for the two weeks down to about $100 ($50 each week). By delivering a few massages at the hostel and finishing a project to write articles for a new urban challenges app in Bangkok, I walked away from the country with more than I arrived with (the first time I did that in my first year of traveling).
If you want to stick to a tight budget in Kuala Lumpur, I believe you can manage for as little as $15 a day, finding a hostel for as little as $5 through Agoda and $10 for food, transport, etc. If you want to visit with a bit more comfort, you could still keep the daily budget down to $50, sleeping in a decent hotel, eating in restaurants and going to some of the paid attractions. Or you could utilize Workaway, Couchsurfing and other sites to get the budget down to $7 a day in a pinch.
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Planning to visit Kuala Lumpur or other cities in Malaysia? Here are some other articles you might like which will help you with your travels.
- Observing Chinese New Year in Kuala Lumpur
- The Real Reason I Don’t Want to Visit Kuala Lumpur Again
- The Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur Are Better Than They Look Online
- Thailand Transportation: The Cheapest Way to Get from Bangkok to Penang
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.