After all the planning and exploring, we sought to buy our flight tickets and find a decent hotel for our 6-day Singapore trip. Since we planned this trip quite late, we only had about 3 weeks before we were due to depart. Hence, buying flight tickets was a bit of a challenge. Most options were expensive, as we were booking less than 20 days in advance. Skyscanner, Kiwi, and Kayak were not helpful either. There are lots of low-cost airlines which have sprung up in the past 3-4 years. Some of them go through Thailand, some through Malaysia. But amazingly, there were all expensive as well. The only option that was reasonable was Jet Airways. We managed to buy our tickets from the official Jet Airways website. What we noticed was that if you travel in the mid-week, say Tuesday/Wednesday, then the tickets were significantly cheaper than the ones on Thursday/Friday and the weekends. Even Mondays were expensive. So, if you want low fares, then try to travel on a weekday in the middle of the week. Also, flights to Singapore out of Chennai were really cheap as compared to flights out of Mumbai or Delhi.
For our hotel, we selected Hotel 81 at Dickson Road. The hotel was not spectacular, and the bathrooms were really small as per multiple guest reviews. However, its location was for us the single biggest plus. It was within walking distance of 3 MRT stations. It was also close to Syed Alwi Road and Little India district. Food, shopping, and travel would be very convenient from Hotel 81 – Dickson. The price of the rooms at Hotel 81 was also very reasonable. Singapore can be an expensive destination in terms of accommodation costs. Most of the good hotels were quite expensive and the majority were above USD 100 a night. Hotel 81 has multiple hotels throughout Singapore and most of the locations were reasonably priced. We were going to book Hotel 81 through booking(.)com but noticed that MakeMyTrip had a promotion going on. They basically gave us some free credits for using their website. So, the hotel was booked from MakeMyTrip, with the free cancellation option. We did not opt for the breakfast option as it was quite expensive. In fact, most hotels in Singapore offer the breakfast option at quite expensive prices (above 10SGD per person). Unless you really need the breakfast at your hotel, save some money and go for the room-only option. You can always find a convenient store nearby and pick some stuff up there.
With flight tickets and a hotel reservation in hand, I had the two most important documents for my visa application ready. Singapore does require Indian passport holders to get a tourist visa. What I really like about the Singapore visa is that it is easy to get and very inexpensive. Most countries charge a high price for their tourist visas, but Singapore is just awesome. They only charge 30 SGD (INR 1500). What I did not like about the Singapore visa is their requirement of compulsorily going through an authorized travel agent. When we traveled in June 2018, the Singapore Consulate had stopped walk-ins, and required every applicant to pick a travel agent from their list of approved agents. The agents basically would fill out the online forms and submit documents on your behalf. I hate having to depend on someone else to do something as basic as submitting a bunch of documents for a tourist visa. I always do my own visa applications. But in this case, I had no choice.
The list of pre-approved agents had some big well-known travel companies on it. One of them, Kesari Tours, was easily accessible to me. So, I decided to submit my application through them. Little did I know of the troubles that were about to hit me. The larger travel companies have a bad rep when it comes to Singapore visa. I only found out about this after I had submitted my documents to Kesari. The larger companies get hundreds of applications every day and they are overloaded. So, they leave it really late to submit your documents to the consulate, because they have to clear the preceding backlog first. Larger organizations also work in a very slow-moving bureaucratic manner. They don’t give you proper answers when you inquire about your application. I faced a lot of unprofessional behaviour from the Kesari folks. They took my application, waited for a whole week, and then 8 days before departure, they attempted to submit my application. However, there was apparently some issue with the passport photograph. So, they called me and asked me to have new photographs taken and resubmitted immediately. They waited really late to point something out which they could have suggested right at the beginning. What made this whole episode so disappointing was the fact that I was in regular touch with Kesari in the days preceding this situation. Every time I called, they kept telling me that everything is great and they will receive the visa by so-and-so date. They never clearly answered whether they had submitted my application or not whenever I asked them. Getting worried as each day passed by, I started approaching them more proactively and somehow pushed them into initiating my application procedure. And when that happened, the passport photos became an issue. The whole experience was stressful and completely unnecessary. It took an email to the director of the company to finally get the people at Kesari to start responding. After the email, a senior staff member was assigned to us. Within a couple of days, he finished the whole process and sent us our visa approval as well. He then asked us to come to the Kesari office and pick up our passports.
When I went to collect my passports at Kesari, the junior rep to whom I had submitted my documents originally simply denied that the visa application was done. I showed him the message that his senior had sent us along with the visa approval. He was clearly annoyed by the fact that I had bypassed him and he refused to entertain us. I was forced to call his senior and inform him that I was at the office waiting to collect my passports like he had asked us to do. The senior member then spoke to the junior rep and I finally got my documents after some time. It was a big relief for me after a stressful experience, and I was happy to have come out of the Kesari office with my trip still intact. At one point, I almost considered canceling my trip with the way things were going. Do yourself a favor and find a smaller, more responsive agent to do your Singapore visa application if you are going there from India. Also, note that Singapore gives you an e-visa which you can print out online at any time anywhere in the world. You just need your passport number and the application number (your agent will give you that). Make sure your agent gets you a 2-year multiple entry visa.
Packing Items and Singapore Customs Rules
With all formalities complete, we were ready to fly out. While packing, we came across the fact that Singapore has some strict rules regarding items which can be brought into the country. One of them was medication. Singapore does not allow certain medicines to be brought in, and it lets in only certain quantities of common medicines. To know all about which medicines are ok and which are not, we used this amazing tool on Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority. It is a chat assistant and you can enter the active ingredient on your medication in the chat window. The bot will give you information about whether you can bring that particular medicine or whether you need a license. If a certain medicine needs a license, then you can get it online. The chat tool can be accessed here. The active ingredient used in your medicine is mentioned on the package or strip, and is usually a scientific name like “promethazine theoclate” or “proheptazine”.
Some other items to watch out for are cigarettes, tobacco, and alcohol. While we are not consumers of any of those items, people who do plan to bring any/all of those items should read up on the rules regarding importing them into Singapore. There are high duties and strict rules regarding alcohol and tobacco. You should inform yourself beforehand so that you do not experience any unpleasant surprises from the customs officers at Changi Airport.
Arrival into Singapore
Our flight to Singapore was a non-stop 5-hour affair. It was a pretty uneventful flight, and we reached Singapore on time at 6 pm. We were given a short immigration form to fill out on the flight. Upon arrival, we headed straight to immigration. Everything was fairly quick and easy. Baggage collection was also a breeze, and we must have been out in about 40 mins post landing. Changi Airport ranks consistently as one of the best and most efficient airports in the world. After our experience upon arrival, we can see why that is the case.
As we walked out into the arrival hall, we looked for a currency exchange. The arrival hall (we were at Terminal 3 north exit) has a Travelex and a UOB. We went at the UOB and got a decent exchange rate for converting a few INR to SGD. We had no Singapore dollars at all and got a few just to be able to buy a sim card, EZ-link cards, and some dinner. The airport rates are marginally worse than what you can get in the city. So, only exchange here if you must or exchange a small amount just to get to the city. The rest of your currency can be exchanged at better rates once you are in Little India, Chinatown, or any other popular currency exchange. You can also use one of the many ATM machines in the arrivals hall, though bank fees may apply to ATM transactions.
After finishing our currency exchange, the lady at the UOB counter asked us if we wanted a Starhub SIM for $12. We did not know Starhub and had read a lot online about Singtel. Hence, were a little bit hesitant to go for Starhub. I asked the lady what carrier she used, and she showed me her phone. It said Starhub. Seemed pretty convincing. There was a Travelex counter adjacent to the UOB, and they were selling Singtel. I inquired and it was $15. Singtel and Starhub were offering exactly the same package, same data, same minutes, etc. But one was $12 and the other was $15. So, we went with Starhub. We got 7 days of usage with 100 GB data, 500 local talktime, 100 local SMS, and 30 minutes of international calling. It was great and worked well throughout our trip. I had no complaints whatsoever. The lady at the UOB counter was kind enough to adjust the settings (APN) on my phone for the Starhub SIM to start working right away. Make sure you have a quad-band phone if you want to use the local Singapore SIM cards.
Next, we went to the MRT station within Changi Airport and got our EZ link cards. While we were going there, a lady from Hippo Tours offered a tourist attraction pass for a discounted price. It had a combo of sightseeing attraction tickets for a slightly discounted price. We had a look but chose not to buy it. The savings weren’t anything substantial and with these combo tickets, you sometimes have to go to separate counters and exchange them for paper tickets. We wanted to keep things simple and so, we simply moved on. We went down to the basement 2 to get to the station.
MRT is the metro or subway train system of Singapore. It is very economical and incredibly easy to use. You can either buy individual train tickets every time you use the train, or you can get what is called an EZ link card. There is also something called as a Singapore Tourist Pass. But unless you are in Singapore for only 1 or 2 days, it does not make sense to get the Tourist Pass card. The advantage of buying an EZ link card is that you will not have to stand in line every time to buy individual tickets. You will save time by simply tapping your card at the station entrance. The EZ link card cost us $12. This amount included $5 of “rental” and $7 worth of credit. The $5 rental is non-refundable. So, when you return your EZ link card, you only get the unused travel credit back. You can recharge your EZ link cards at the recharge machines located in every MRT station (minimum $10 recharge). So, if you exhaust your $7 credit, then you can always fill it up again.
With our phone up and running, our EZ link cards sorted, and our luggage with us, we were ready to finally head into the city. Our hotel was near Jalan Besar station on the blue line. So, we caught the train from the airport and changed to the blue line at Expo station. The entire journey was a good 40 mins ride. The train was not very busy when we went (late evening), and we had absolutely no issues taking our mid-sized bags in the spacious subway coaches. Hotel 81 Dickson was very close to Jalan Besar, about 2 minutes walking. Check-in was smooth. Our room did not have any windows or views. The bathroom was really weird. The wall of the bathroom facing the bed was basically an opaque glass. You could see the movements of the person inside the bathroom. For solo and couple travelers, that may be fine. But for a family, that could be an issue. I guess with low pricing, you do sacrifice a few things. We freshened up, dropped our bags, and headed out to dinner. It was already 8:30 pm and we wanted to eat something before the restaurants started to close down. There was a fantastic vegetarian restaurant near our hotel called Gokul. We walked there from our hotel. Review of the restaurant can be found here. Post dinner, we walked to Syed Alwi Road and made a quick dash to Mustafa Center to exchange some INRs for SGDs. That ended the first evening in Singapore.