Save your excuses

It is now possible to enjoy a weekend in Asia for less than $600, writes Winsor Dobbin.

The world of travel changed with the arrival in Australia of AirAsiaX, which has just started to fly out of Sydney. And soon it will change further with the arrival of Singapore Airlines offshoot Scoot.

It is now possible to fly to Kuala Lumpur for $400 return if you book early online and choose the right time to travel.

Budget airlines, or low-cost carriers as they prefer to be known, have changed the game completely - so I decided to do a trip on as little money as possible: budget hotels, street food, public transport.

The good news is that in a city such as Kuala Lumpur, you can still live in relative luxury on a pauper's purse.

For three days I went sightseeing, had a foot massage, ate brilliantly and slept comfortably - and still had change from $200.

You can live in relative luxury on a pauper's purse.

A premium taxi from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (or the neighbouring Low Cost Carrier Terminal) to a hotel such as the JW Marriott or Ritz Carlton normally costs about 150 ringgit ($47).

Take the SkyBus and you pay only nine ringgit. Or take a shuttle bus from the LCCT and the express train and you'll pay 12.50 ringgit. Both drop you off at Kuala Lumpur Sentral station.

Then take the monorail or light rail to your hotel. I was staying at the Tune Hotel Downtown, seven stops away on the monorail, so I splashed out 4.10 ringgit.

Normally I'd stay somewhere such as the luxurious and well-situated JW Marriott, where rooms start from 450 ringgit, a relative bargain for less than $150. You can find a room in KL for 20 ringgit, but not a room you'd want to stay in.

Instead, I'd opted for the budget chain Tune, which offers rooms online for between $10 and $50 depending on occupancy rates and the season.

Booking ahead, the cost was $40 a night - but the hotel was full and it was peak season. I met a fellow traveller from Melbourne who had booked well in advance and was paying about $17.

So what do you actually get for your money?

You get a central location. A bed (extremely comfortable with pillows, sheets and duvet) - and a bathroom with a power shower. You also get a bedside table, some hangers, a television and lighting. Want a towel, soap or shampoo? Pay extra. Want airconditioning? Pay extra. Want in-room wi-fi? Pay extra. If you want the television turned on? Pay extra.

The rooms are small but functional and there is 24-hour reception, a security guard, an on-site Subway store and a 24-hour 7-Eleven (with a Malaysian-style cafe on the way).

The Medan Tuanku monorail station and the Sultan Ismail light-rail station are both within five minutes' walk, with the Maju Junction shopping mall directly across the road.

Parking facilities? No. Baggage storage? Pay extra. Early check-in? Pay extra. But there are two computer terminals in the lobby that are free for guests to use.

In a way, this is refreshing. I've lost count of the times I've checked into a hotel at 11pm and checked out at 6am the next day without ever looking at the bar, pool, gym or business centre. Paying for stuff I'm not using, in other words. Dinner that night was at Restoran Hanifa, a typical Malaysian street-side kopitiam, or cafe, that offers "the best Muslim food served in town". I had tandoori chicken, vegetable biriyani, pickled cucumbers and pappadums for 7.50 ringgit, but a can of Pepsi took my bill to 9.50 ringgit. The chicken was a tad overcooked, but hey, I wasn't paying Rockpool prices.

Other memorable meals included a superb noodle dish, a Penang char kway teow ($2.80), at Mee Jawa in the Food Republic food hall at the upmarket Pavilion Mall, and a lunchtime buffet ($2.50) at one of the many open-air Malay cafes on sleepy Jalan Datuk Abdul Razak in the Kampung Baru district.

Street satays (50ยข a stick or less) are uniformly excellent, as are rotis, served with curried gravies.

Also check out the bustling Jalan Alor, literally "food street", for a wide range of Asian food styles, and the traditional Lot 10 Hutong basement offering street food from 25 different stalls. Perfect for sharing dishes such as fried hokkien mee, hakka-style beef noodles and Hainanese chicken rice.

Western chains such as McDonald's, Burger King, KFC and Subway all have lunchtime meal deals for between $2 and $3 and mall food halls, surprisingly, often have the greatest variety, as well as cleanliness and value.

Ironically, the worst meal of my trip came when I splashed out at the Mikan Japanese restaurant on a mixed sushi plate, tempura prawns and a couple of Asahi beers. The bill came to 116 ringgit - and it was one of the worst Japanese meals of my life.

In KL, it seems, budget is often best. It's a great walking city, too, with many attractions worth exploring: from the sparkling Petronas Towers, the world's tallest twin towers, to traditional mosques and markets, Chinatown and Little India. Contrasts abound, from the futuristic buildings of Cyberjaya to the derelict apartment blocks of Titiwangsa, with trees sprouting out.

The Central Market is the place to buy traditional artefacts, and the Be Tourist Information Centre conducts free heritage walks each morning at 10.30. Also, bustling markets are held each night on Jalan Petaling.

If you do want to catch public transport, a trip from one side of town to the other will be less than a dollar (and a new integrated transport card named MyRapid is being introduced).

Pampering, too, comes cheap, with a foot massage costing about $10 and a manicure slightly less.

There are plenty of choices along bustling Bukit Bintang, with Reborn offering good packages.

If you want to stay in touch, there is free wi-fi everywhere. Log in if you are near a Starbucks or McDonald's.

As for AirAsiaX, it's your typical low-budget carrier.

Baggage and hand baggage limits were rigorously enforced in Sydney, but not in Kuala Lumpur.

You pay extra for everything (you can pre-book meals, pillows/blankets etc) and the service trolley visits regularly with a range of reasonably priced snacks and drinks offerings.

The seats are a little cramped, but no more so than Jetstar, and your fellow flyers are not your travel-savvy Qantas crowd.

There was the woman wandering down the aisle as we taxied, the bloke who refused to use a seatbelt and others who kept pressing the service button every few minutes.

The staff are charming, however, and considering what you pay you are getting a bargain.

Trip notes

Getting there

AirAsiaX operates daily flights from Sydney Airport to Kuala Lumpur Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT). Fares start from $199 economy one way and from $509 premium,

Staying there

Tune Hotels,

More information;

The writer travelled with assistance from AirAsiaX and Tune Hotels.