This KL layover guide covers everything you need to know about spending a layover in Kuala Lumpur — plus 9 alternative (and mostly free!) things to do with a few hours in Malaysia’s capital.
If you fly with AirAsia, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself transiting through Malaysia’s KLIA2 airport. Depending on how your flight times line up, you may be facing a short or long layover in Kuala Lumpur. Fail to plan ahead, and your KL layover can go downhill fast. As traveller Rhiannon put it after reading this article—“I’ll definitely be saving this for next time. Last time I had a layover in KL it ended up a wasted day as I got SO lost in the maze of malls I couldn’t get out!”
While KL certainly isn’t my favourite city in the world, it does have excellent food and some cool tourist attractions. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find there’s a whole host of interesting and unusual things to do on a layover in Kuala Lumpur.
The KLIA2 airport terminal is attached to a big shopping mall, gateway@klia2, which is replete with cinemas and a food court. You could easily while away your layover in Kuala Lumpur without ever going outside—but where’s the fun in that? The KLIA Ekspres train makes it easy and affordable to get to the city from the airport, and there are things you can see and do in KL in as little as 3 or 4 hours, including travel time. Here’s everything you need to know when planning a layover in Kuala Lumpur—plus 9 alternative (and mostly free!) things to do in the city.
Planning a layover in Kuala Lumpur
Follow these helpful tips to make your layover in Kuala Lumpur as smooth as possible.
Visa requirements for Malaysia
If you have a layover in Kuala Lumpur and you’re planning to leave the airport, you may need a visa. Please check here for a list of nationalities that currently require a visa for Malaysia. If in doubt, check with your nearest embassy or consulate.
Before you leave the airport…
Kuala Lumpur has two airport terminals—the original KLIA (sometimes called KLIA1), and the newer and shinier KLIA2. (You’re probably wondering what KLIA stands for—it’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Creative, I know.) The two terminals are located very close together, only about three minutes by train from door to door. Since you’ll probably be arriving at KLIA2 (the terminal for AirAsia, Jetstar, Tiger, Scoot and other budget airlines), I’m going to focus on KLIA2 only.
Withdrawing cash at KLIA2
Apart from the hawker food markets, KL isn’t really a cash economy anymore. (One important exception is if you’re checking into a hotel for the night. Check the accommodation section for more information about the Tourism Tax and room deposit.) Most cafes and businesses in KL accept credit card, but it’s still a good idea to have some cash on you. There are ATMs everywhere throughout the city, but for ease, I recommend withdrawing some Malaysian Ringgit (RM) before you leave the airport. I always use Maybank ATMs (they’re easy to spot because of their distinctive yellow colour) because they charge no ATM fee. (Check with your bank for conversion and transaction fees.) There’s a Maybank ATM right after passport control at KLIA2—you can see it through the glass on the right when you’re queueing.
Buying a sim card at KLIA2
You’ll find that free WIFI is available in almost every mall, cafe, hotel and transport hub across KL. But If you want to use Grab to get around or you have an unhealthy dependency on Google Maps like I do, it’s a good idea to pick up a cheap sim card before you leave the airport. There are plenty of mobile shops inside the KLIA2 terminal and the adjoining gateway@klia2 shopping mall. Be warned that the more obvious shops get swamped and often have long queues. I can’t endorse any particular company, so you’ll need to do your research ahead of time. KLIA2 has a guide on prepaid mobile services for tourists, and this site has some good tips for buying a sim in Malaysia.
Tourist information at KLIA2
If you need some human help, there is a tourist information desk just before you exit through the glass doors into the mall. Here, you can pick up a map, access public transport timetables, or ask any burning questions. I have personally approached staff at the desk on a number of occasions and always found them to be friendly and helpful.
Where to store luggage in Kuala Lumpur
If you have a layover in Kuala Lumpur, I suggest you travel as light as possible (especially if it’s hot and muggy which, let’s face it, it always is!). There are a few options for storing your luggage in Kuala Lumpur. KLIA2 airport has at least two left luggage facilities. Prices start from 18 RM per locker per day. Click here for detailed information about storing luggage at KLIA2. There are also lockers available at KL Sentral Station—some with fancy facial recognition technology. This post provides more details about leaving luggage at Sentral. As always, use common sense and never leave any cash or valuables in a locker.
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Getting from KLIA2 airport to Kuala Lumpur
KLIA2 airport is located a long way from the city—about 60km south of downtown Kuala Lumpur. The journey into town is pretty unremarkable. You won’t see much apart from palm tree plantations. There are a couple of options for getting into town from KLIA2, but the KLIA Ekspres train is by far the best way to go. Note that they really pump up the air conditioning on the train (and on most public transport in KL for that matter), so if you feel the cold, it’s a good idea to carry a light cardigan or scarf.
KLIA Ekspres rail
KLIA Ekspres trains link the airport with KL Sentral, the main transport hub in town. In my opinion, the train is the best way to go, especially if you only have a short layover in Kuala Lumpur and you want to get into the city as quickly as possible. At KLIA2, trains depart from inside the gateway@klia2 mall, so you don’t need to go outside at any point. Trains also stop at KLIA1, which is about three minutes from KLIA2 (make sure you get off at the right terminal on the way back).
There are two trains—an express service, which only makes a few stops, and a local service, which is more of a commuter train. Trains run regularly (every 15 to 20 minutes) between 5am and 1am, seven days a week. Google Maps is a bit off—the express train will get you to KL Sentral Station in roughly 35 minutes. Tickets cost 55 RM one-way (25 RM for a child), and you can save by buying a return ticket for 100 RM (45 RM for a child). If you’re really pinching pennies, you can save another 10% on top of that by purchasing your tickets online in advance. From the train terminus at Sentral Station, it’s super easy to connect to the user-friendly MRT, which can take you just about anywhere in KL.
Grab from KLIA2 airport to Kuala Lumpur
If you’re really on a time crunch or you want to go straight from the airport to somewhere specific that’s not on the MRT line, it might be an idea to jump in a Grab. (If you’re unfamiliar with Grab, it’s Southeast Asia’s answer to Uber.) Malaysia is the home of Grab, which might explain why KLIA2 is set up much better for Grab than other airports. (For example, you can nominate which door you’ll be exiting through to make coordinating the pick up easier.) According to my app, the 60km, 50-minute trip to KL Sentral costs 65 RM in a Grab (probably more during peak time). There is also an airport toll of between 3.5 and 4.5 RM that will be added onto your fare. You’ll need a local phone number to be able to use Grab in Malaysia.
Taxi from KLIA2 airport to Kuala Lumpur
Taxis in Malaysia carry a 50% midnight surcharge and a bunch of other fees. Drivers are also notorious for refusing to turn on their metres (although this might be different for airport taxis). Taxi Fare Finder puts the KLIA2-to-Sentral fare at 75 RM. I know many travellers prefer to use taxis instead of Grab, which undercuts its drivers—but I personally try to steer clear of taxis in Malaysia whenever possible.
Where to stay on a long layover in Kuala Lumpur
If your layover in Kuala Lumpur is actually a ‘stayover’ and you need accommodation for the night, here are a few hotels I have used at in the past and can personally recommend.
Accommodation near KLIA2 airport
If your flight gets in to Kuala Lumpur late at night, or if you have an early flight the next morning, you might want to stay close to the airport. Capsule Transit Hotel is located inside the terminal and has ‘sleeping pods’ you can rent by the hour. Another option is Orange Hotel Kota Warisan, a comfortable, no-frills hotel located 15 minutes’ drive from KLIA2.
Accommodation in Sentral
If you have a decent amount of time between flights and you want to stay in the city, Sentral is an ideal location. As the name suggests, it’s very central—close to cafes, shops and public transport, including the KLIA Ekspres airport train. Hotel Sentral isn’t anything special, but it’s budget-friendly and located just a few steps from the entrance to KL Sentral Station.
Good to know
In September 2017, Malaysia introduced a hotel tax for foreign tourists—a standard 10 RM per room per night flat fee. The tax isn’t typically included in advertised room rates, nor is it added on by third-party booking sites. Rather, you have to pay the tax directly to the hotel. Many hotels in Malaysia also require a cash deposit, usually between 50 RM and 100 RM, which is refundable upon checkout. In my experience, both the Tourism Tax and the deposit must be paid when you check in and can only be paid in cash. Do make sure you have enough Ringgit on you if you’re checking into a hotel for the night.
The best things to do on a layover in Kuala Lumpur
There’s a classic KL itinerary that most tourists on a layover in Kuala Lumpur like to take. It typically includes the Petronas Towers, the National Mosque and the Islamic Arts Museum, the old train station, Petaling Street, Central Market, Sri Mahamariamman temple, and maybe even KL Bird Park. I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with these activities—in fact, this is exactly the itinerary we followed on our first layover in Kuala Lumpur. I’d still recommend an itinerary like this for first time visitors who want to tick off the major KL tourist sights.
essential reading: a classic itinerary for 24 hours in Kuala Lumpur.
But if you’ve been to KL a few times and you’ve already seen the sights, or maybe you’re just after something a little more unusual or offbeat, I recommend trying these nine alternative things to do in Kuala Lumpur instead.
1. Experience Kuala Lumpur’s lesser-known religious sites
The blending of ethnicities, cultures, cuisines and religions is what makes KL (and the whole of Malaysia) so interesting and enjoyable. There is a plethora of Islamic, Buddhist, Christian and Hindu sites of worship in Kuala Lumpur, each one more extravagantly decorated and photogenic than the last. KL’s National Mosque and Sri Mahamariamman temple can get overcrowded—try some of the lesser-known spots instead, such as Thean Hou Temple, Church of the Holy Rosary and Jamek Mosque.
2. Hop between Kuala Lumpur’s best cafes
Kuala Lumpur is absolutely packed with chic cafes. From Melbourne-style brunch to Malaysia’s famous white coffee, there are literally hundreds of cafe eats and drinks to sample. KL’s Brickfields and Bukit Bintang neighbourhoods are known for their hip cafes and old-style coffee houses. My favourites include Leaf & Co., Merchant’s Lane, and Pulp by Papa Palheta.
3. Go urbexing
Think of KL, and you probably think of the uber-modern, bright and shiny Petronas Towers. But there is a gritty side to Kuala Lumpur as well. There are heritage blocks and abandoned buildings scattered throughout the inner city—provided you know where to look. The abandoned factory in Sentul West—a gorgeous red-brick number—and the old row houses at Jalan Raja Chulan are two of the most popular urbexing sites in KL. There’s no telling how long these buildings will stand before ‘progress’ finally gets its way. If photography and urban exploration is your thing, try joining a KL Instameet while you’re in town. The group often leads photo trips to some of the city’s coolest heritage and modernist buildings.
4. Try a Malaysian cooking class
I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a layover in Kuala Lumpur than by experiencing two of Malaysia’s greatest joys: A local wet market, and a generous spread of food. LaZat runs a daily cooking class beginning at 7am that includes a tour of a local market. After breakfast, participants are taken to the gorgeous LaZat House—a leafy property on the outskirts of KL—to learn how to prepare three signature Malaysian dishes.
5. Go green
If you’re on a long flight schedule, you might like to spend your layover in Kuala Lumpur getting some fresh air and Vitamin D. On first impressions, KL is the definition of a concrete jungle. But there is a surprising large number of green spaces in the city. KLCC Park, a massive 20-hectare parkland in the heart of KL, is the most famous of them all. Reminiscent of Taipei’s creative parks, A Place Where (APW) is one of the coolest civic spaces in the city. Housed in a repurposed printing factory, it includes co-working spaces, cafes and ‘pocket parks’—little slices of green space that are perfect for people watching. Platinum Sentral and D7 Sentul East both have tranquil gardens, and the Jalan P Ramlee ‘city forest’ is a little-known grove of birch trees right next door to the Petronas Towers.
Further afield, the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia is located 20km north of Sentral (close to Batu Caves) and is a lovely spot for bike riding and picnicking. Or you could go all out and do the canopy walk at KL Forest Eco Park, the the only patch of virgin tropical rain forest left in Kuala Lumpur.
6. Explore Kuala Lumpur’s character-filled inner suburbs
While most of Kuala Lumpur has succumbed to concrete and steel, there are still a few inner-city residential areas where memories of the ‘old KL’ are kept alive. Lucky Garden, Pudu and Kampung Baru are three neighbourhoods that have held onto their character. Those who stroll around these areas will be rewarded with beautiful heritage architecture, cheap local food, and a chance to observe the everyday pace of life in Malaysia’s biggest city.
7. Get crafty
If you want to get creative during your layover in Kuala Lumpur, try a batik and shibori workshop hosted by social enterprise The Batik Boutique and offered through Backstreet Academy. In a four-hour session, you’ll learn the basics of Japanese shibori dyeing or Malaysian wax-resist batik, while creating your own beautiful textiles to take home as a souvenir.
Keep reading: Malaysia’s incredible tradition of batik painting.
8. Discover Kuala Lumpur’s secret speakeasy bars
KL’s hawker night markets and Alor Food Street are among the best things to do in Kuala Lumpur after dark—but did you know that KL also has an excellent bar scene? There are several speakeasy bars in KL—including the popular PS150. If you’re on a late flight or your layover in Kuala Lumpur includes an overnight stay, this is a great way to spend an evening on the town.
9. Or, do nothing
I’m the first to admit that I’m sometimes too lazy to do too much of anything on a layover! A great way to spend a layover in Kuala Lumpur is by doing… nothing. Find a pool to sit by and kick back while you wait for your next flight. If this sounds more like you, this Airbnb listing in downtown KL might be just the ticket.
Travelling elsewhere in Malaysia? Check out my guides to Kuching and Penang, and my top photos of ipoh.
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Lead image by El Carito/Unsplash. Image 2 by Chuttersnap/Unsplash. Image 3 by Ishan/Unsplash. Changes made. All used here under Creative Commons.
Instagram images used with photographer’s permission.