Date posted: 5 October 2019
Updated: 16 April 2023
This post is where I put down information that I did not include in my other posts for the Kinmen-Penghu-Matsu (金门-澎湖-马祖) trip. I hope this will make a good starting reference for travellers intending to island-hop in the Taiwan Strait (台湾海峡) or even to Taiwan. If you are a Singapore passport holder, then all the more you should read this.
For me, I won't have to re-do all the homework again if I plan to revisit the islands next time. This post will be where I refresh my memory.
The most important considerations when planning a trip are the destination's pubic holidays and climate. These two factors normally determined the peak and off-peak travel seasons and hence the costs and ease of travelling.
1. The Holidays
I plan to travel to Taiwan towards the end of this year, probably in November or December. There is no upcoming major holidays during this period in Taiwan — Christmas Day is not a public holiday. This period is also the beginning of Taiwan's off-peak travel season till March next year.
Chinese New Year, either in late January or early February, is a period to avoid travelling in Chinese-dominated places as prices sky-rocket and most local shops and services may be closed for around two weeks. Travel options are usually limited unless in the bigger cities, like Taipei.
April to June is the peak travel period as seasonal flower blossoms bring travellers to Taiwan to see the sakura and other blossoms across the island. Penghu County usually holds its annual firework festival between April to June and Matsu's beautiful "blue tears" may appear from April through August.
All of Taiwan's public holidays fall within the period of 1st January to 10th October, making November and December the ultimate off-peak season.
Off-peak travel season is the time I will roam the Taiwan Strait.
Reference: Holidays & Observances in Taiwan 2023
2. The Climate
Towards the end of the year, the temperature in Taiwan will start to get cooler with lesser rainfalls, especially after the typhoon seasons in October. However, in the Taiwan Strait, the Northeast Monsoon may bring strong winds that can hamper activities on the sea, including causing ferry services to be halted. This is one of the primary reasons why this period is "off-peak" for travelling.
December to March is so-called the "winter" of Taiwan, but it does not snow in the lower altitudes. April to June is the spring season with the persistent "plum rain" taking place in May and June. Then, comes the hot summer weather that heats up Taiwan, preparing it for the onslaught of typhoons between July to October.
Logically, November would have been ideal for island hopping in the Taiwan Strait if not for the monsoon winds — travel plans do get disrupted when the ferries suddenly halted their services due to strong winds. This is definitely not a good thing for travellers with schedule constraints.
I will have to allocate more days for the trip since I will be travelling in the monsoon season. Planning a couple of "buffer" days is essential to prevent missing the home-bound flight in case I got "marooned" on the islands without ferry for a day or two.
Reference: Taiwan Climate
3. The Currency
Taiwan's currency is the New Taiwan Dollar, denoted as "TWD" or "NT$". The exchange rate is S$1 to NT$22.40 (1st Oct 2019). When on the trip, the faster way to do a mental conversion of the currency will be to simply divide any dollar value in NT$ by 22 to get the rough estimates in S$.
In November 2021, Taiwan currency rises against Singapore dollar to nearly NT$20 (more than 10% increase). It will be pretty expensive to travel in Taiwan at that rate.
On 15 April 2023, the market rate for SGD to TWD is S$1 to NT$23. However, local money exchange retailers are still offering at rates of around NT$22 or lower — due to rapid decline in Taiwan currency in recent months. In this case, it will be better to change currency from Singapore dollars to New Taiwan dollars at the airports in Taiwan.
4. The Cash
Credit cards are accepted in most restaurants and shops but bearing in mind that Taiwan is still a cash society, especially on the outlying islands. Many small businesses, food stalls, taxis, etc, don't accept credit cards. Furthermore, expenses and purchases made using credit cards will be subjected to dual conversion charges by the bank — from TWD to USD to SGD. Credit cards are convenient but the extra charges are also high.
Another quirk in Taiwan's banking system is that most international credit cards often get rejected even though they claimed to support Visa / Mastercard. Retailers with such experiences will often request foreigners to pay using cash instead.
Having an ATM card to withdraw cash from ATMs is an easy way to get cash in Taiwan currency. Most ATMs in Taiwan accept bank cards with PLUS and CIRRUS logos on it. Transaction charges are levied per cash withdrawal.
The POSB card, which I have, carries the Cirrus logo. Withdrawal charges are free if I withdraw money at any DBS Taiwan ATMs but cost S$7 per transaction at other ATMs. Some ATMs may levy their own fees, which will usually be shown during the withdrawal process. Carrying large amount of cash around may not be a good idea but withdrawing too often will result in high transaction charges. So, plan wisely and estimate cash needs before going to the ATMs.
There are no DBS Taiwan ATMs on the outlying islands. I will use other ATMs but will try to limit to maximum 2 withdrawals for the whole trip. This calls for some thorough budget planning.
Reference: Overseas Withdrawal Charges for POSB Cards
5. The Language
The spoken languages on the 3 islands are the Minnan (闽南) dialects and Mandarin. Hokchew is also spoken in the Matsu Islands. The written language is Traditional Chinese. Use of English is pretty limited. So, for travellers who cannot understand their spoken and written languages, it can be rather inconvenient.
I do speak the Hokkien dialect of Singapore, so I have not much issues understanding the local Minnan dialect although there are some differences in the way certain words are pronounced — I was in Kinmen 6 years back and interacted with some locals. And I can read Traditional Chinese (from watching Hong Kong dramas with Traditional Chinese subtitles since young). So, travelling in Taiwan and reading road signs are a breeze to me.
6. The Timezone
Taiwan time is GMT+8 hours, which is the same as Singapore, Malaysia and China.
However, sunrise and sunset in Taiwan is about 1 ~ 1.5 hour earlier than in Singapore, especially during the hotter months in the middle of the year. The timings are different through the year. So, despite being in the same timezone, it will be better to wake up an hour earlier — and sleep an hour earlier — to make use of daytime to travel around.
Reference: Taiwan Central Weather Bureau
7. The EasyCard
EasyCard is a stored value card in Taiwan — similar to EZ-Link card in Singapore — to pay for bus, taxi, train and ferry fares. The card can also be used to make payments for purchases at designated retailers and convenience stores. It is an essential card to have when travelling around Taiwan and in the outlying islands.
An EasyCard never expires. However, reactivation of the card is required if it has been inactive for more than 2 years. Simply top-up the card at any metro stations or participating convenience stores and it will be reactivated. Note that top-ups can only be done using cash.
8. The Visas
As a Singapore passport holder, I can have up to 15 days free visa to China (before the COVID-19 pandemic) and 30 days free visa to Taiwan. As usual, no extension is permitted when travelling on free visa. If a longer travel period is desired, apply for a tourist visa at respective embassies in Singapore before the trip.
Why do I mention China? Geographically, both Kinmen Islands and Matsu Islands are ultra close to China mainland than to Taiwan island. Thus, it is faster to travel to the islands via Xiamen (to Kinmen) or Fuzhou (to Matsu) of China.
9. The Customs Regulations
I will be buying sorghum wine (高粱酒) from one of the islands to bring home, so here are some references on customs regulations:
Don't worry, if exceeded the stated quota, just pay taxes for the amount that exceeded the quota. But take note of the quantity allowed for "personal consumption". Anything that is deemed as beyond "personal consumption" may be subjected to heavy taxes or fined without having an alcohol-import permit.
To find out more about what I am planning for my island-hopping trip (2019), see: