One of the main reasons why I wanted to transfer in Singapore overnight, besides seeing the city, was that I could take advantage of the free Singapore tour that is offered by Changi airport. This is provided to guests who are transiting in Singapore with a minimum 5.5 hour layover and maximum 24 hour layover. Since my inbound flight landed into SIN around noon on a Saturday and my onward flight to Denpasar left at 7AM the following morning, I thought this was worth doing just to be able to maximize the time I spent on the ground.
Trip Report Series
- Self-Connecting to an International Flight: Lessons Learned
- Review: Singapore Airlines Economy Class, San Francisco – Singapore (via Hong Kong)
- Review: Plaza Premium Lounge, Hong Kong Chep Lap Kok Airport
- Review: Free Singapore Stopover Tour from Changi Airport
- Review: Tigerair (now Scoot), Singapore to Denpasar, Bali
- Review: Premier Lounge, Bali Ngurah Rai International Airport
- Review: EVA Air Economy Class, Denpasar, Bali to Taipei
- Review: China Airlines Lounge, Taipei Taoyuan International Airport
- Review: China Airlines Business Class, Taipei to Seoul Incheon Airport
- Review: Korean Air KAL Prestige Lounge, Seoul Incheon Airport
I stumbled across this offer on the Singapore Airlines and Changi Airport website. I know that similar airports and airlines offer such programs (like Turkish Airlines in Istanbul, for example) which are generally free and provide a high-level tour of the city. For me, this would be a neat way to explore Singapore with a guide and not have to pay anything for it. Plus, since I was staying at the Crowne Plaza Singapore Hotel, the tour would provide round-trip transportation to and from SIN, which was perfect for me. The hotel was walking distance to the pick-up area for the tour.
Of course, I was going to just, “wing-it” and didn’t do much research beyond the information on the website. It said that a pre-reserved ticket wasn’t necessary, although Trip Advisor warned that this tour tended to book up. This was something I discovered, “after the fact,” so in hindsight, I was lucky to secure a spot.
What Types of Tours are Offered?
There are actually two tours that people can go on. One is the Heritage Tour, which is offered during the day and is available at four different time slots, lasting 2 and a half hours each. This one is more historical and tailored towards showing people the cultural neighborhoods of Singapore. The other is the City Sights Tour which is offered, but only at night, during two different slot times, also lasting 2 and a half hours each. The City Sights Tour is more modern and takes you around some of Singapore’s more touristy neighborhoods and cosmopolitan districts.
So, in summary, you can choose one of the six slot times throughout the day. The first four are the Heritage Tour, which take place at 9:00 AM, 11:30 AM, 2:30 PM and 3:30 PM. There is specific criteria that must be fulfilled in order to register for these tours, as listed below (i.e. you have to register by 8 AM in order to take the 9 AM tour, and your flight must be departing after 1:30 PM that day, etc). The second two tours are the City Sights Tours, which take place at 6:00 PM and 7:30 PM, with the specific criteria listed below as well.
How Do I Register?
I was under the impression that the tour is not available to sign up for ahead of time, so it really is based on a first-come, first serve basis. That being said, I knew that I had to identify where I could register at Changi airport, ahead of time, to make sure that I got my name on the list prior to clearing customs and collecting my luggage.
After my flight landed from Hong Kong on Singapore Airlines, I immediately went looking for the registration location in Terminal 3. It was located near the, “B” section of the Terminal, and I noticed that there was one gentleman (fortunately no line) and I managed to secure one of the last slots for the 2:30 tour. Even though I was eligible for one of the later tours (since my flight would be leaving the following morning) I had made plans for the evening to meet up with my cousin and some other friends in the city.
If you are self-connecting in Singapore, you are still eligible for the tour. You are also eligible to take the tour irrespective of the airline, carrier or alliance you are flying (i.e. you could be flying in on Cathay Pacific and flying out on Lion Air, and you’ll be able to register provided 1) that spaces are available and 2) that your transit time is greater than 5.5 hours, less than 24 hours and falls during a window in which you could capably take one of the tours. At registration, you’ll have to produce your passport, show your onward journey (a copy of your ticket is fine if you haven’t checked in yet and printed your boarding pass, or you could show it on your phone) and they’ll write down the flight info and confirmation code. I presume that if you’re traveling on standby, you are not eligible for the tour.
If you plan to clear customs, collect your luggage and stay overnight in Singapore, you are also still eligible for the tour. However, I recommend registering for the tour prior to clearing immigration in order to secure a slot. Otherwise, there is an area in Terminal 2 (the budget/ regional/low cost carrier terminal) in the non-sterile zone where you can presumably register, although I didn’t look too much into this option. I simply wanted to get my name on the list, then collect my things, check-in to my hotel, drop off my things and meet back for the tour to begin.
It is also important to know that the tour picks you up and returns you back to Changi airport. Therefore, you are technically not allowed to take the tour and disembark in downtown Singapore, although I don’t think you’ll be reprimanded by anyone if you choose not to come back. That being said, it is probably best practice to do so just out of consideration towards the tour guides. Then again, during our various visits, we were told that if we were not back to the bus within the allocated time period (20 mins at a park, for example) that the bus would not wait for us, so I’m not 100% sure how strict they are about this policy?
Finding the Tour
This was probably my one biggest complaint: since I was self-connecting in Singapore, compared to most of the other people on the bus who were likely on a single SQ ticket/itinerary who had an arranged pick-up and drop-off place that was easier to navigate, I had to find the location of the tour bus myself. It was supposedly in Terminal 2 at the location for where Coaches depart from. Although Singapore Changi airport is VERY easy to navigate and move between Terminals, the signage for the Free Tour was poorly marked and not very clear. I did not have the name of our tour guide, the bus number nor the exact pickup location. All I had on me was this janky sticker:
I walked over to the motor coach areas at Terminal 2 to arrive in time. I saw several motor coaches marked with, “Free Singapore Tours,” but nobody was inside them. I asked for help and was told to walk all the way down towards the end of the bay to find the coach. As anyone who has been to Singapore in July can attest, it was extremely humid and by the time I reached the bus, I was drenched in sweat. There was a lone driver who was in the coach, shirtless, cooling off and smoking a cigarette. When I showed my ticket for the tour, he told me to walk all the way back to bay 7 (I was at bay 46) and to, “wait outside” for the tour bus guide to appear.
I walked back and waited outside for a good 20 minutes, and I more or less gave up on the fact that I had arrived in the right place. I had arrived at 2:00 PM for the 2:30 tour (as I had been told by the gentleman in the terminal when I registered) and by 2:25, I was ready to throw in the towel. However, finally a large group of people appeared from the terminal led by a lady, and the same shirtless bus driver pulled into bay 7, near where I was sitting, just at that same time (he was fully dressed by now).
The tour guide, named Magdalene, ushered everyone on board and then asked, “where is the one gentleman who was not with me earlier?” I identified myself and then realized I was probably the one idiot who was not waiting inside the air-conditioned Terminal 2. Or, I was basically paying the price of admission for doing this on a self-connect basis. Either way, I was happy that it looked like it was going to work out, but I really think the Tour group needs to be more organized and clear about designated meet-up sites for those who are self-connecting.
Taking the Heritage Tour
When we finally boarded the bus, we departed from Changi airport and headed towards Singapore’s Central Business District (CBD).
The tour guide, Magdalene, was a native Singaporean, although she mentioned that her family’s heritage traces back to China. Immediately, I could tell that she was going to be an incredible tour guide. She was extremely organized, professional, friendly and had a slightly dry sense of humor, which I appreciated. She mentioned how the tour was going to take approximately 2 to 2.5 hours, depending on traffic, and that there would be only two stops where we would disembark the entire trip. The tour itself was not intended to be super comprehensive; rather, it was designed by Changi airport (in cooperation with the Singapore Tourism Board and Singapore Airlines) to give visitors a high-level introduction to Singapore with the intention of bringing them back to the country for a future visit.
I really appreciated this statement as it set appropriate expectations for the tour (especially given the fact that it was free).
The Heritage Tour (and the City Sights Tour) ordinarily makes six stops along the way, and passengers can disembark at two of them. The itinerary below depicts the six stopover points, which includes:
- The Colonial District (where Singapore’s Independence was declared)
- The Central Business District (the commercial downtown area)
- The Merlion Park (stopover point) which has Singapore’s national icon
- Little India
- Kampong Glam and the Malay Heritage Centre (stopover point)
On the way out, Magdalene started by giving us a history and overview of Singapore and how the country came into being. There were a lot of really cool tidbits that I did not know (and had not researched) and I was very impressed by her depth of knowledge on the country and the information that she provided.
One of the neat takeaways that she mentioned was how aggressive the leaders were about growth (population size) and how Singapore had intentionally set goals to achieve various metrics over the course of the next few decades. Given the fact that the country cannot grow horizontally in land area, it intends to use every resource it can to grow, “vertically” by building additional skyscrapers. She also noted that we should pay attention to the flora and fauna around us, drawing attention to the fact that the city places a huge emphasis on green space. In essence, creating a, “garden in the sky” was part of its mission.
She also talked about the demographics of the country and how much of a melting pot it is since it is located between Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, China and Australia. Few people own cars in Singapore because the government intentionally make it prohibitively expensive to own a vehicle. This helps cut down on traffic and encourages people to use public transportation.
The City Sights Tour
Since the country was preparing for its National Day in early August, there would be some adjustments made to the tour itinerary. We would not be able to visit the Merlion park due to congestion, but the did swap it out for a location that is ordinarily included on the City Sights Tour, which is the Gardens by the Bay. The tour itinerary for the City Sights Tour is below:
So, we were therefore able to get a little bit of a hybrid situation out of it.
First Stop: Gardens by the Bay
The Gardens by the Bay is a 101-hectare garden that rests in the heart of the downtown core of Singapore. You can see the enormous Marina Bay Sands hotel peeping up in the backdrop and the greenery is just stunning. It contains thousands of plant species and giant Supertrees that tower above visitors. You can come during the day or in the evening, where supposedly there are light shows and beautiful views of the downtown core.
After 20 minutes on the ground, we then boarded the bus and headed to the CBD, which we drove around. It was a Saturday, so downtown was fairly quiet, and then we proceeded onward to Chinatown, the Colonial District and Little India. All were really neat places.
Second Stop: Kampong Glam and Malay Heritage Centre
This area is the heart of Singapore’s Malay community and has a huge Arabi influence on its architecture. Walking up to the Sultan Mosque, I felt like I was in the Middle East. Everywhere you turn, you are surrounded by Arabic-oriented restaurants, Shisha bars, art galleries small shops selling incense, carpets and other textiles, and in general, a really diverse and eclectic mix of locals. I roamed in a few of the shops and did some souvenir shopping.
After this, we boarded the bus to make our way back to Changi airport. By this time, almost an hour and forty-five minutes had passed since we left Changi and the tour was coming to a conclusion.
As I discovered is commonplace in Singapore, feedback evaluation forms were handed out. Singapore seems to be big on self-improvement, and so I made sure to give Magdalene high marks as we made our way back to Changi.
I was really happy that I took the initiative to go on this tour. Even though it was extremely high-level and only allowed us to disembark at two stops, I did appreciate how we received a “bird’s eye” view of the city given the really short layover time that I had in the city. Besides, as a free tour, how often do you get to see the most of a city that can take you to most of the major sights without having to pay a dime?
I did make sure to give feedback on the meet-up location of the tour to ensure that it is better for future customers since I found it to be so confusing.
The tour drops you off at the departures level at Changi airport, so from there, you are free to split or proceed to your onward flight.
Other Sights in Singapore
Since I was staying for a few more hours, I did get to return back to the downtown area later that evening (after a swim at the lovely Crowne Plaza pool) to have drinks with my cousin and then dinner at Ce La Vie at the Marina Bay Sands.
I met my cousin at the Boat Quay area, which is accessible via the MRT and has a beautiful waterfront with lots of towering buildings. We could see the fireworks as they were preparing for National Day.
We had drinks and apps at Empress – a Cantonese restaurant – which had delicious drinks like Lychee Martinis, a great Happy Hour and some fantastic dumplings.
Afterwards, I went to the Marina Bay Sands hotel for dinner at Ce La Vie with some traveling friends from Dallas.
Truth be told, I expected this meal to be somewhat, “gimmicky” and overpriced, but because it was the MBS hotel, I decided it was worth doing, because, well, YOLO. The Ce La Vie concept is essentially one of those 360-degree vistas at skyscraper “skybars” and rooftops that can be found in three Southeast Asian cities (Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong) as well as Saint Tropez. Fine dining, yes, but also the, “see and be seen” type of venue. I’m normally not one for those type of locations, but when in Rome…
That being said, the views from the Skybar were pretty spectacular, but the food was also really delicious! I was impressed by the quality of my meal (although quantity, as expected, left something to be desired). It was pricey, though: around $125 for my entree, some appetizers and two glasses of wine. I can’t say I was shocked, though.
I took the MRT back home, tired after the journey and a lot of walking that day, and headed to bed.
Do the Free Singapore Tour
It is definitely worthwhile. It made me love Singapore and want to return. There have been a few negative reviews on Trip Advisor, but I truly enjoyed it a lot. Huge thanks to Magdalene for being an incredible tour guide. Learn more about it on the Changi Airport website.