Malaysia might be one of the most pleasant travel surprises I’ve come across.
It was the second country in my year of travelling throughout Asia as a digital nomad and it was always my intention throughout this year to go with the flow. Of course, I had some top countries in mind that I knew I wanted to get to, but when and how, I left up to fate.
So when I was searching for flights out of Guilin (China), Kuala Lumpur was one of the few destinations that didn’t require a long, expensive flight. So I thought to myself, “I guess Malaysia is my next stop!” And well, that stop turned into traveling throughout Malaysia for six weeks, because I just kept wanting to explore and enjoy it more.
I think because I traveled there with no expectations and just excitement for the unknown, my experience was similar to the feeling of going to an amusement park for the first time as a kid — Malaysia evoked a sense of childlike wonder and play.
Whether it was the energy of the locals, the diverse food, the street art, the beautiful nature, I was continuously pulled in by this country. Not to mention, it felt easy to stay there. Your money goes a long way, English is commonly spoken, and the infrastructure is very established.
I loved my time there so much that even after I’d left, I found my mind kept wandering back to my time in Penang or the Cameron Highlands. A few weeks ago, I again found myself in Asia with no set plans, and again there a cheap flight to KL showed up in my search. Well, you can guess what happened!
I was thrilled to find that things really haven’t changed a lot since the pandemic. Sure, accommodation prices have gone up a bit like they have everywhere, but they’re still super-affordable, and everything else like food, drink, and transport is still cheap and accessible even to those on a budget.
It seems that Malaysia is often overlooked by people traveling through the region, but after experiencing the many extraordinary layers of this country, I don’t understand why! One thing is for sure—anytime I talk about it with another traveler, we’re both in agreement on how great of a destination it is.
If you have the chance to go, or even find yourself in nearby Singapore with a few days to spare, then I’d highly recommend making the trip. Have no expectations and get ready to be blown away by this wonderful country.
What’s Included in This Post
This budget breakdown covers how much I spent on accommodation, transportation, activities, and food while I travelled around the country.
I’ve not included my flights into and out of Malaysia, since this is going to vary significantly based on where you’ll be arriving from.
The amounts in this guide are listed in U.S. dollars, simply because the vast majority of my readers are from the U.S. I also included some prices in Malaysian Ringgit (MYR or RM), as this is the local currency and what you will use day to day around the country.
Now let’s talk about expenses!
How to Save Money on Accommodation in Malaysia
As always with travel, it’s possible to cut your accommodation costs down to zero if you have the time and patience to seek out an offer.
Housesitting is a great option for free accommodation. This is where you’ll take care of somebody’s house while they’re away, and usually look after their pets, too. It’s best for long-term travellers or retirees as you can’t pick and choose dates and destinations, so you need to have a lot of flexibility as to where you go and at what time of year.
If you do have that freedom, it’s a wonderful way to cut down your travel expenses, soak up some home comforts, and live like a local for a while. I have friends who have housesat in castles before! For free! Trusted Housesitters is the best site for getting started with housesitting, as they have the highest number of listings.
The Cost of Accommodation in Malaysia
I’m suspecting, though, that for most of you, you’re not interested in the free accommodation and just want somewhere clean, safe, and affordable to rest your head each night. If that’s the case, there are several options available for you.
The first of these are hostels. In Malaysia, you’ll find hostels all over the country, from tiny islands to large cities and even in the national parks. They’re one of your best options for saving money.
And, of course, there are always hotels, which will usually come in at around $30-$70 a night for a decent, clean, mid-range property in a central location. I always use Booking, as they have the most accommodation options for the cheapest prices.
That being said, if hostels aren’t your jam, you can still find a number of amazing hotel and homestay options for a great price. You might be looking at anywhere from $50-$100 a night for these places, depending on their location in the city.
Here’s a list of my favourite accommodation options in Malaysia:
Kuala Lumpur — Star KLCC ($55 a night): Kuala Lumpur is one of those capital cities that’s more than just a stopover. I’d recommend spending at least 3 days before onwards travel through Malaysia; and there’s no better place to stay than Star KLCC. Right in the heart of the city, with amazing views and an easy walk to lovely KLCC park and the famous Petronas Towers, I really couldn’t have asked for a better location to explore KL from. My room was super clean and spacious, I loved having access to the pool to cool off after a long day walking around the city, and there was even a gym so I could try and work off some of those delicious curries I’d been eating!
George Town — Ren I Tang Heritage Inn ($58 a night): Penang, and specifically George Town has my heart. I stayed at Ren I Tang for a week and I don’t think I could have chosen a better short-term home. It’s in a lovely old building from the 1800s that’s been fully restored but kept so many of the original features, from timber floors to a rope pulley to take luggage up to the top levels! Each room is a little different, adding to the charm. The breakfast is great, with Western and several local options each day., Malay, and the location can’t be beat: right in the heart of Little India, only a couple of blocks from Love Lane and all the murals and street art that Penang is famous for.
Langkawi — The Smith House ($65 a night): For an affordable but luxurious island stay, look no further than The Smith House. The rooms are super-spacious, clean, well-decorated, and include a smart TV for chilling in the evening. I felt that I was staying in a hotel that is much more expensive than it is, with such lovely rooms and wonderful staff. They always made me feel right at home with their friendliness and assistance: whatever I wanted to do on the island, they could easily help arrange it. That’s assuming you can drag yourself away from the gorgeous, sunny rooftop pool, of course!
Cameron Highlands — Fathers Guesthouse ($31 a night): Located in a peaceful spot but with easy access to the small town of Tanah Rata, Fathers Guesthouse is the perfect place to stay during your time in the Cameron Highlands. After a day of meandering through the famous tea plantations, forests, and lavender farms, I loved returning to the friendly staff, clean room, and relaxed atmosphere here. I had a bit of a personal issue while I was there and wasn’t able to go out for dinner one evening: one of the lovely staff members offered to go out and pick something up for me instead! Now that’s good service!
Malacca — Old Town Guesthouse ($32 a night): While visiting the historical city of Malacca, I’d highly recommend staying at the Old Town Guesthouse. It’s nice and close to the major attractions in the city like Christ Church and the Jonker Street night market, with lively, colorful decor that makes the place really come alive, but it’s the friendliness of the owner that really made the difference for me. Chatty and happy to share his recommendations on the best food and attractions in Malacca and the rest of the country, he really helped me make the most of my time in this lovely part of Malaysia.
Ipoh — Ipoh Bali Hotel ($65 a night): I’m so glad I made a short stop in the quaint city of Ipoh. It’s a great place to visit on your way to or from the Cameron Highlands and it has a lot of the charm that I loved about George Town—only with less crowds! Staying at the cozy Ipoh Bali Hotel meant that all the best parts of town were just a short Grab/taxi ride away, although honestly my room was so lovely, it was tempting just to stay inside and chill instead! It was great to have breakfast included (you choose what you’d like the day before, and get a call in the morning when it’s ready), and I loved being able to have a bath for a change: most hotels in Malaysia are shower-only, but not this one!
The Cost of Transportation in Malaysia
I found transportation around Malaysia to be quite affordable. I mostly just used it between cities, since most of the accommodation I stayed in was close enough to the main attractions that I just walked wherever I needed to go. On the odd occasion when I needed to go further, though, Grab (the Southeast Asia Uber equivalent) really came in handy and again, didn’t cost much.
Buses —For long distance travel between cities, buses are the way to go. They leave very frequently from major bus stations and I found them to be pretty punctual and comfortable. There are over 100 bus companies to choose from in Malaysia; I can personally would recommend travelling with any of the below because of their good value and reputation. I mostly travelled with Plusliner and Transnasional and have no complaints!
A one-way bus ticket will cost you around $4-$11 (RM 15-RM 50) depending on the time and route. You can also book bus tickets and compare prices of companies on 12Go Asia, this was a super easy way for me to book intercity travel during my time in Malaysia
Motorbike — If you or a travel partner is comfortable, I’d recommend renting a scooter or motorbike for daily excursions, specifically in Penang, Langkawi and the Cameron Highlands. It’s a cheap, fun, and easy way to get around in places where local public transport isn’t as frequent or widespread. You’re looking at anywhere from $4-$8 a day (RM 20-RM 40), depending on the age and model of bike and how long you’re renting for. That doesn’t include gas which only costs around RM 10/$2 for a gallon.
Grab Taxi — I loved the convenience of Grab, specifically during my time in Kuala Lumpur. Grab isn’t in demand outside of major cities (this is when renting a motorbike comes in handy), but it’s a cheap and easy way to get around if you need to go a little further out or are short on time. I just looked through a bunch of my Grab receipts, and my cheapest one-way fare was 85 cents (RM 4) and my most expensive one was $5.50 (RM 25). Not bad at all!
Flight — When I was travelling to Langkawi, my ferry got cancelled due to rough seas, so I ended up taking a last minute flight with AirAsia. In general, I wouldn’t recommend travelling by plane for the most part just because buses are so easy and cheap, but if you have to, then definitely go with AirAsia. My flight ended up costing me $30 (RM 143).
Ferry — Since the pandemic, the ferry between Penang and Langkawi sadly no longer operates: you now need to travel from either Kuala Kedah or Kuala Perlis further up the coast. Getting there is a bit of a hassle, so most tourists now fly that route instead. If you did want to take the ferry, though, it leaves twice a day in both directions and costs RM27-34.50 ($6-7.50) each way .
The Cost of Food in Malaysia
Wow. What can I say about Malaysian food that will do it justice? I can easily say that out of all the places I’ve been, Malaysia has to be in my top three for food. The fusion of Indian, Chinese, and local Malay flavors result in a huge variety of dishes and specialties that will create a party in your belly.
When it comes to Malaysian food, it’s hard to go wrong, but these are some of my favorite dishes that you absolutely have to try while you’re there:
- Char kuay teow (stir-fry noodles)
- Nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk with a spicy chili sauce)
- Banana leaf (a banana leaf plate with rice and a variety of curries)
- Laksa (spicy noodle soup)
- Cendol (a dessert made with shaved ice, coconut milk, jelly and palm sugar)
Because of the delicious tastes and affordable costs, I pretty much always ate out during my travels in Malaysia. Penang and Kuala Lumpur are specifically foodie hotspots, with several street food markets and stalls and a near-endless range of great restaurants. Compared to many other countries, eating out is easy, delicious, and cheap!
The only real exception is alcohol: it’s only allowed to be sold to non-Muslims, and has the third-highest tax rate in the world. For that reason, you may find yourself drinking less booze than usual while you’re here! If you do want a beer to help wash down that spicy laksa, you’ll pay around $2 (RM 9-10) for a can of Tiger from a convenience store, or RM 15 in a restaurant.
You can expect to pay around $2-$6.50 (RM 10-RM30) for street food dishes like the ones I mentioned above. I’d recommend getting a couple of smaller dishes paired with a water or soft drink; it’ll only cost you around $6-7 for your meal. It doesn’t cost much more in small local restaurants either, especially away from the tourist areas.
Because a simple breakfast is included at most hostels, if I only ate at local restaurants and street food stands for lunch and dinner, I’d typically spend around $15 (RM 72) per day on food.
The other thing worth noting about Malaysia is that there’s an incredible coffee culture scene. I typically worked from a different coffee shop everyday, and found the coffee and food scene there to be both high-quality and reasonably priced.
A good latte will set you back around $3 (RM 15), so if you’re like me and have a huge affinity for cute cafes, then add on another $5 – $10 per day (RM 24 – RM 48). When you’re in Penang, you have to have a cup of coffee and a piece of cake at ChinaHouse. I can highly recommend the tiramisu!
The Cost of Activities and Entrance Fees in Malaysia
Of all the things I loved about travel in Malaysia, being able to have an amazing time without spending much on tourist activities was right near the top. My favorite memories mostly involve me exploring the myriad of street art, architecture, and stunning natural attractions, and of course, eating all the food.
George Town and Kuala Lumpur are shining stars for this. I got so much joy from simply spending my days on a treasure hunt for all the famous street murals in George Town, while in Kuala Lumpur, the exquisite temples and bustling street life of Chinatown and Little India left me energised every time I left my hotel!
Of all the places I went and things I did, seeing the Batu Caves (on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur) was absolutely one of the stand-out attractions. You might be familiar with the caves if you follow a lot of travel influencers, as it’s become a pretty popular spot. It’s not hard to understand why, given all of the colorful, rainbow-painted steps surrounded by gorgeous limestone cliffs. I’d never seen anything like it in my life.
This is one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India, and once you climb to the top and meander through the series of cave temples, you’ll definitely understand why. Just make sure you don’t have any exposed food, or else those pesky monkeys will be all over you.
Elsewhere in Malaysia, I still had an absolute blast. A friend recommended that I sign up for a cycling tour in Penang, and I wasn’t disappointed. This was a great way to see another side of the island up close and through the eyes of someone who has lived there his whole life.
Here’s a breakdown of some my favourite attractions in Malaysia and their respective costs:
- Batu Caves: FREE to enter. You can also take an inexpensive day tour to the caves, which makes getting there and back much easier.
- Petronas Towers: $21 (RM 98). Skip-the-line e-tickets are also available for a few dollars more.
- KL Forest Eco Park: $8.50 (RM 40)
- Parasailing (Langkawi): $44 (RM 210)
- Kek Lok Si Temple (Penang): FREE
- Boh Tea Plantations (Cameron Highlands): FREE
- Penang Hill: $6.50 (RM 30)
- Penang Countryside Cycling Tour: $31 (RM 145)
The Cost of Miscellaneous Expenses in Malaysia
A local SIM card: I don’t know about you, but one of my least favourite aspects of arriving in a new country is having to figure out how to get connected. Specifically: buying a local SIM card so that I have data to use while I’m in the country.
There’s locating a store that will sell you one, language barriers to deal with, various forms of ID you might need to bring, scams to navigate, and… well, it’s a headache.
This year, I started using Airalo, which sells local e-SIM cards for travellers. What that means is that you can buy your SIM card online before you arrive in Malaysia, and then as soon as you land in the country, you can switch on your data and start using it. It’s worked flawlessly for me and now I’ll never go back to physical SIM cards. You’ll pay $4.50 for 1 GB of data or $25 for 10 GB for Malaysia and can also top-up through the Airalo app.
(Ensure you have an e-SIM compatible phone before buying — all recent iPhones and many Androids are).
Travel insurance: If you’ve read any other posts on Never Ending Footsteps, you’ll know that I’m a great believer in travelling with travel insurance. I’ve seen far too many Go Fund Me campaigns from destitute backpackers that are unexpectedly stranded in a foreign country after a scooter accident/being attacked/breaking a leg with no way of getting home or paying for their healthcare. These costs can quickly land you with a six-figure bill to pay at the end of it.
In short, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.
Travel insurance will cover you if your flight is cancelled and you need to book a new one, if your luggage gets lost and you need to replace your belongings, if you suddenly get struck down by appendicitis and have to be hospitalised, or discover a family member has died and you need to get home immediately. If you fall seriously ill, your insurance will cover the costs to fly you home to receive medical treatment.
I use SafetyWing as my travel insurance provider, and recommend them for trips to Malaysia. Firstly, they’re one of the few companies out there who will actually cover you if you contract COVID-19. On top of that, they provide worldwide coverage, don’t require you to have a return ticket, and even allow you to buy coverage after you’ve left home. If you’re on a long-term trip, you can pay monthly instead of up-front, and can cancel at any time. Finally, they’re more affordable than the competition, and have a clear, easy-to-understand pricing structure, which is always appreciated.
With SafetyWing, you’ll pay $1.50 a day for travel insurance.
How Much Does it Cost to Travel in Malaysia?
It’s time to tally up all of my expenses to see my total travel costs!
- Accommodation: $51 per day for two people in double/twin rooms ($25.50 each)
- Transportation: $15 per day
- Food: $18 per day
- Activities/Entrance Fees: $10 per day
Average amount spent in Malaysia: $68.50 a day!