Kota Kinabalu

By | 16th January 2018

Should you rent a car in Kota Kinabalu?

Do you need a car in Kota Kinabalu > Should you rent a car in Kota Kinabalu Malaysia > Kota Kinabalu ( BKI ) Do you need a car in Kota Kinabalu? Is it worth hiring a car in Kota Kinabalu? Should you rent a car in Kota Kinabalu?

Kota Kinabalu Car hire summary

Overall drive rating

Based on a weighted score across all cost and quality factors. [Full notes - drive rating]


  • Price alone isn't the only factor in determining whether or not it's worth hiring a car in Kota Kinabalu but clearly it's an important one. See our "why" section for more figures.
  • Cost factors include - price of car hire (peak and off peak season), car hire extras, fuel, tolls and parking costs.
  • Quality factors include - scenic drives, road quality and upkeep, general safety and congestion levels.
  • A complete index of all 10 factors will be uploaded shortly.

Cheapest rate for one week

Based on cheapest economy car hire deal with no added extras. [full notes - basic costs]



  • This is the very lowest price we could find for a one week car rental period in Kota Kinabalu during the quiet season.
  • You will almost always end up paying more than this figure, but any extra costs or supplementary charges are usually determined by the renter, so we cannot easily compare like with like.
  • In many cases, rental companies will offer a cheap rental and then expect you to take out expensive insurance waivers. There are always ways to avoid this!

How much should I expect to pay in the peak season?

Based on cheapest deal during the summer holiday season. (Unless otherwise noted) [full notes - seasonal variations]



  • During the peak holiday season, public transport is often better value, as many train and bus fares are fixed throughout the year. See our "why not" section for more suggestions.
  • For most featured destinations, the peak season will be during the summer, typically July and August for northern hemisphere destinations. However, peak demand might occur at different times, for example in some ski resorts or winter sun destinations etc.

Free parking score

Based on the number of hotels which offer free parking. Total 220 - of which 70 have free parking. [full notes - parking]



  • Free hotel parking is very useful to have when you are hiring a car, and it's always worth checking ahead beforehand.
  • If free hotel parking is not available, you might want to consider renting a car for a single day, rather than for your whole trip.
  • The availability (or lack of) free hotel parking can be a really important factor in determining whether or not it's worth hiring a car in Kota Kinabalu, as it can be a significant extra daily cost which you won't usually be paying at home!
  • Parking costs play a very major part in our consideration of whether or not it's worth hiring a car in each destination.
  • By using public transport, walking or hiring a bicycle, you can avoid having to worry about parking charges altogether! See our "why not" section for more suggestions.

Kota Kinabalu public transport quick facts

Train score

Higher scores go to the systems which don't just take you to the most amazing places, but also to the ones which are easy to use, fast, reliable and frequent. A good train system on its own is usually enough to determine that you don't need to hire a car in many destinations.


  • [full notes trains]
  • Trains include all kinds of urban rail system from trams up to metro and suburban networks.
  • Trains also include mountain railways and cable cars.
  • Generally, places with a good rail network will automatically mean that you don't "need" to hire a car, but you can still might find that on balance you are better off by having one.

Water travel score

This is a general rating for all types of water travel, including scheduled ferries, sea / rivers cruises and excursions in Kota Kinabalu


  • [full notes - water score]
  • The water score looks at means of transport on water - it does not consider water based activities like surfing or kayaking.

Overall public transport score

This is a more practical rating based on bus and rail travel, and also including ferries and other boat services, where they are part of the public transport network.


  • [full notes - overall transit] buses | trams | metro | local & regional rail | national rail
  • Is public transport in Kota Kinabalu good value, or is it worth hiring a car just because it is cheaper overall?
  • Even if public transport is cheap and reliable, you might still feel that you should hire a car in Kota Kinabalu because it will still give you more flexibility to reach out-of-the-way places, especially in rural areas.

Walking and Cycling Overview

Active travel score

This overall rating considers walking and cycling in and around Kota Kinabalu. It includes factors such as the quality of the street environment, and whether you are likely to feel safe walking or cycling, together with the availability of bicycle hire and the ease of linking walking or cycling routes with public transport.


  • [full notes - active score] walking (city) | hiking | cycling (city /  country).
  • A high active travel score means that you might not need a car in Kota Kinabalu, because you can see everything you need to see using a combination of your own two feet and the public transport system.

Car rental in - Kota Kinabalu Need v worth & should!

Whether you have come here asking "do I need a car in Kota Kinabalu", "is it worth hiring a car in Kota Kinabalu", or whether or not you "should" hire a car here, these are all slight variations on a similar theme. Here we break each one down according to the criteria we use for each question. This is a weighted score based on the values above. These are explained further in the text which follows - [#why] [#whynot]. Do you need a car in Kota Kinabalu?

Do you need a car in Kota Kinabalu?

This is essentially based on whether or not public transport and other "non car" options are good enough to get around and beyond the city. For the lowest "need" score, the destination should have a combination of excellent all-round public transport, great opportunities for walking and cycling, together with poor value car hire or generally poor quality roads. 
  • In destinations where both public transport and car hire options are excellent, the verdict for "do I need a car in  Kota Kinabalu " will swing towards a strong no, because you can do absolutely fine without one).
Is it worth hiring a car in Kota Kinabalu?

Is it worth hiring a car in Kota Kinabalu?

Is car hire good value, especially during the peak season? How does this compare with transit fares? This question mainly looks at issues of cost and practicality.
  • In destinations where both public transport and car hire options are excellent, the verdict for "is it worth hiring a car in  Kota Kinabalu" will swing towards whichever option offers the lowest overall cost for a group of 2-4 people travelling together.
Should you rent a car in Kota Kinabalu?

Should you rent a car in Kota Kinabalu?

Weighing up the above questions, if you are here for the first time AND asking about hiring a car, is it a good idea?
  • The final "carometer" swing is much more opinion based, and it takes into account which options will give you the truly best travel experience (n our humble opinion of course). Where a destination offers an excellent score with or without a car, the swing will go towards whichever option we feel gives the most truly unforgettable experience.
  • Ultimately, it's your choice whether or not you rent a car here. We're trying to give you something that's sufficiently far enough away from a "maybe" to help you make that choice. Ultimately, people only come to us because they are uncertain, but we don't really know what each person's preferences are. Whether we say you should or you shouldn't rent a car in  Kota Kinabalu, you might also want to look up some of our other cities to see how  Kota Kinabalu compares with other destinations in  Malaysia or  Asia.
  • By using public transport, walking or hiring a bicycle, you can avoid having to worry about parking charges altogether! See our "why not" section for more suggestions.

What does everyone else do?

Do most people hire a car in Kota Kinabalu?

This is based on our observations of (a) car rental facilities and (b) what we think most people will do here. It's not an exact figure, just an estimate of how likely people are to get hold of a rental car here.
  • his is based on the percentage of people "in the market" who we think are likely to hire a car. This includes anyone arriving on holiday here who would usually hire a car on their travels, so it doesn't include people who don't usually drive (or don't drive), people staying with friends etc.


Visitors per year (million)

  • Cities with more visitors are more likely to have more complex airport car rental arrangements, and generally they will also have better public transport, but this is not always the case, especially in North America.


  • [full notes - do as everyone else does?]
  • You may wish to go with the flow, or you might prefer to avoid doing the most popular or obvious option. This will vary according to the range of choice available. This tends to be much higher in destinations which are closer to the middle of the car or no car scale.

Who is travelling?

Your group size and travel budget has a major impact on whether or not getting a rental car is good value compared to using public transport as your main means of getting around. Ultimately, these are all "worth" questions:

Is it worth renting a car in Kota Kinabalu if I am a solo / budget traveller?

Generally, hiring a car is not good value for solo travellers for multiple reasons, especially as most of the costs of renting apply to the car, not the occupants. With public transport, the reverse is usually true! However, there are always some places where you will need a car, simply because they are almost impossible to reach using public transport.

Is it worth renting a car in Kota Kinabalu for 2 people travelling together?

A rental car can be good value for couples or for friends travelling together, but since most cars come with at least four seats, it's often still better value to use public transport. However, if you prefer to keep yourselves to yourselves, then you might still want to rent.

Is it worth renting a car in Kota Kinabalu for families?

Families of groups of 3-4 people travelling together will always get the best value from a rental car. However, you may also be burdened with extra costs for car seat hire, and you well also prefer to use local trains and buses, if they are quicker than getting stuck in heavy traffic.

Where are you staying?

The place you are staying, together with the sort of places you want to see, will have a large impact on whether or not you "need" to rent a car:

Do you need a car in Kota Kinabalu if we are staying in the city centre / main resort area?

Most large towns or purpose built holiday resorts will have some kind of public transport, whereas parking provision will vary greatly from one place to the next. 

Do you need a car in Kota Kinabalu if we are staying on the edge of the urban area?

Typically you may be staying in an apartment or hmall house on the edge of a resort or urban area. These places usually have some level of public transport, but not as much as city / resort centres.

Do you need a car in Kota Kinabalu if we are staying in a rural area?

Rural proprties might include larger villas or apartments, but they can still be within a short walk of a bus stop or local railway station, and the opportunities for hiking and cycling might also be substantial, depending on the destination.

What is your attitude towards driving?

We can give you suggestions based on whatever we consider to be a "typical" visitor to Kota Kinabalu, but ultimately your decision is also going to be influenced by whether or not you ususally prefer to hire a car in the first place.

Should I hire a car in Kota Kinabalu if I prefer not to drive?

This is especially the case when there is only one main driver in the group, and it's based on the attitude of the driver rather than their passengers! The main driver may also simply prefer to use public transport, or they may prefer to take scenic train journeys where available.

Should we rent a car in Kota Kinabalu if we are easy either way?

This is more aimed at the typical visitor who isn't that bothered about how they get around, as long as it is the most convenient / best value option.

Should I rent a car in Kota Kinabalu if I prefer to drive?

For people who usually prefer the freedom and flexibility of having a hire car. Is it still best to rent a car in Kota Kinabalu, or are there good reasons not to?

There’s no need for a hire car if you just plan on staying in a resort and heading into the centre of Kota Kinabalu. Plenty of buses and taxis are availablein and around the city.

Do you need a car in Kota Kinabalu? Introduction

When someone asks "Do you need a car in Kota Kinabalu?", this often breaks down to two key questions:
  1. Can you actually get around using public transport, or is a car all but essential?
  2. Is it worth hiring a car in Kota Kinabalu? Is it good value for money, compared with non-car options?
Over the next few sections, we wil look at the pros and cons of driving in Kota Kinabalu as a tourist, and ultimately weigh these up, so we can answer the key question of Should you rent a car in Kota Kinabalu?
Why? Why not? Ratings Comments

Why should you rent a car in Kota Kinabalu?

What are the main reasons for hiring a car here? Do you just want to drive locally? Do you want to go further afield, or should you even look at taking a road trip? In terms of factors like the cost of the hire itself, fuel costs, road tolls and parking charges, is it worth hiring a car in Kota Kinabalu?
  • A car would certainly be useful for visiting places like the orang utan sanctuary at Sepilok. A car is useful for stopping of at on the way. However, this can also all be done by bus. Sepilok is on the same route as Mount Kinabalu National Park, but some distance further. Allow around 7-8 hours to get there. You may still prefer to let someone else drive. There are limited places of intrerest on the way.

Why not? Visiting Kota Kinabalu without a car

What is public transport like in Kota Kinabalu? What about local conditions for walking or cycling? Can you rely on public transport and maybe a few taxis for most or all of your trip? Are there some times of year when it's easier to get by without a car than others? When should you rent a car in Kota Kinabalu?

In & around Kota Kinabalu

  • For visiting Mount Kinabalu, or just the Kinabalu national park around it, then we certainly wouldn’t recommend a hire car, as it is just going to stay parked at the entrance. If you are in a group, but don’t want to go by bus, it might be cheaper to pay a taxi driver to take you each way.
  • Mount Kinabalu is one of the most technically accessible mountains in Asia, in that no special equipment is needed to go right up to the 4,096m summit. However, the rapid ascent from sea level can make visitors prone to altitude sickness. If you do choose to make this trip, you will have to go with organised guides, and the number of permits is limited to just a couple of busloads each day, so book well ahead. Either way, a hire car isn’t going to help your ascent!
  • To visit Poring Hot Spring, on the edge of Kinabalu National Park, take a bus via Ranau. Buses from Kota Kinabalu are typically every hour, taking around two hours, with an additional transfer from Ranau to Poring taking about half an hour, every 30 minutes.

Further afield

  • Generally, there are very few driving roads, once outside Kota Kinabalu.
  • For a really impressive train experience, take the train all the way to Tenom. Note that this is not the same as the tourist train, which only goes as far as Papar. However, this full excursion will need an overnight stay in Tenom, in order to see the most impressive parts of the line, which are where it runs through the jungle to the south of Beaufort. There is no road anywhere near the rail line, although there is a main road back to KK from Tenom. You could combine bus and train between KK and Tenom, although I cannot find a way to do this within the same day.
  • Go one better and combine the jungle train and white water rafting.

James says - a few trip notes:

I visited Borneo back in 1990, and I have to say that the state of Sabah is one of the few places I have visited that has a railway system, but that I didn’t manage to use. Granted, I was on a tour at the time, so I didn’t have a chance, and the system has also been cut back from Kota Kinabalu to Tanjung Aru.

North Borneo Railway

When I have the chance to go back again, there’s no doubt that I will go on this jungle railway, and I’m tempted by the option of going rafting at the same time! However, I don’t think the option to see the line in it’s full glory should be confused with the tourist line, which costs RM 345, and only goes as far as Papar. That price might include gourmet meals and free transfers if you are staying at the Sutera Harbour resort which promotes the line, but it misses out on the best of the line, which is the stretch below Beaufort, where it clings to the sides of the muddy river.

Now although you can’t do it in a day, a return trip on the whole stretch of the line is going to set you back a mere RM 15.10, so you could make the trip 23 times for the price of the luxury tourist train!

I’ve listed a few blogs which detail this line, although all were written around five years ago. Seat 61 has some excellent information on booking trains between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to book this trip online. Bearing in mind that it’s basically treated as a regional service, turning up on the day should be fine – but allow plenty of time to get to the station and buy your ticket, as there is only one option to cover the whole line each day.

(Rail) Links

  • North Borneo Railway photos and guide
  • Whitewater Rafting – using the railway
  • Tenom by rail – blog.
  • Sutera Harbour – for the tourist train.

Should you rent a car in Kota Kinabalu? Verdict – no


Our slider ratings range from 0 (it isn't even possible to hire a car, e.g. Hong Kong) through to 10 (you really must rent a car here, e.g. Phoenix, Tampa). However, most places are somewhere inbetween these extremes, and this is where it gets more interesting! Further ratings breakdowns, including a much more detailed public transport rating, are currently being added. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.


What is our final score for Kota Kinabalu on the Carornocar scale?

Remember, this isn't so much a rating of the road network, or a score for what we think of the buses or trains, but it's simply a scale showing the swing between whether or not we think a rental car is a good idea here.


Would you hire a car in Kota Kinabalu?

Have you driven in Kota Kinabalu? Do you agree with our advice on whether or not it's worth hiring a car in Kota Kinabalu}? Do you need a car in Kota Kinabalu? For some or all of the time? Tell us what you think using the comments section below:

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