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 1? Is it worth hiring a car in 1? Should you rent a car in 1? Should you rent a car in 1?

Kota Kinabalu Car hire summary

Overall drive rating

Based on a weighted score across all factors, including driving roads, hire and fuel costs, road safety etc. [Full notes - drive rating]


Cheapest rate for one week

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



  • 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.
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 "whynot" section for more suggestions.
Free parking score Based on the number of hotels which offer free parking.Total 220 - of which 70 have free parking. [full notes - parking]




  • During the peak holiday season, public transport is often better value, as many train and bus fares are fixed throughout the year. See our "whynot" section for more suggestions.

Kota Kinabalu public transport quick facts

"Top trumps" train score

Higher scores go to the systems which take you to the most amazing places.



  • [full notes - top trumps trains]
  • A good rail system doesn't mean you shouldn't hire a car, but it often means you have a decent range of options.

Overall public transport score

This is a more practical rating based on bus and rail travel.



  • [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?

Walking and Cycling Overview

Active travel score

This overall rating considers walking and cycling in and around Kota Kinabalu



Take to the waters!

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


Need, 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:

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.

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?

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?

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.

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? 

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