How to Travel From Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu

Sabah's iconic Mount Kinabalu
Sabah's iconic Mount Kinabalu | © Sharif Putra / Shutterstock
Millions of tourists visit Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur every month with only a small percentage making the trip to neighbouring Borneo. Here’s the fastest, most convenient and cheapest way to get from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.

Why you should visit Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu in Sabah is a gateway to the best of Borneo’s nature and wildlife. The city referred to as KK offers beaches, islands and easy access to Mount Kinabalu. Compared to Kuala Lumpur, Sabah’s atmosphere and ambience give a completely different Malaysian experience. We recommend Kinabalu Park (whether you’re climbing the mountain or not) and a day trip to Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park’s islands. Plan to spend a few days in East Malaysia since Kota Kinabalu is approximately 1,600 kilometres (almost 1,000 miles) east of KL.

Kota Kinabalu also known as KK has much to offer visitors © Augustine Bin Jumat / Shutterstock
Head out of the city and enjoy the majestic view of Mount Kinabalu © shahreen / Shutterstock

What you need to know

Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur are part of the same country, but immigration officers in KK will still stamp your passport in and out. This marks the date of entry into Sabah and doesn’t affect the status of the Malaysian visa. After you step off the plane, Kota Kinabalu will resemble more of a small town or large village compared to the sprawling metropolis of Kuala Lumpur. It takes less than 20 minutes to reach the centre from the airport depending on traffic. Sabah and West Malaysia have similar temperatures with different monsoon seasons. It might be dry in Kuala Lumpur but wet in Kota Kinabalu. The sun rises and sets one hour earlier in KK compared to Kuala Lumpur.

Tourists flying from Kuala Lumpur will get another stamp when entering Sabah © Sam Bedford

Forms of transportation

There’s only one way to travel from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu: by plane. It’s not possible or practical to take a ferry or boat. All visitors will need to fly into and out of Borneo. Options include flying directly into Kota Kinabalu or to another part of the island and travelling overland. Borneo lacks railways apart from a short stretch of scenic railway near Kota Kinabalu.

All flights from Kuala Lumpur will arrive at Kota Kinabalu International Airport © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Flying

Tourists can choose between three airlines to fly two and a half hours from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu. Prices and comfort vary between AirAsia, Malindo and Malaysia Airlines. We recommend Malindo, which offers spacious seats, in-flight entertainment and a generous baggage allowance. Depending on the time and popularity of the route, ticket prices tend to range between $20 USD and $60 USD one way. Pro tip: Double check whether your flight departs from KLIA or KLIA2 in Kuala Lumpur. Buses take passengers to both airports from the bus station below KL Sentral every 30 minutes. Expect the journey to take up to one hour, if not longer during congestion.

Malaysia Airlines, Air Asia and Malindo Air all have daily flights from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu © paullymac

Flying and driving

The second option involves flying to Sibu in southern Sarawak and travelling overland to Kota Kinabalu via Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah. Buses pass between one town or city and the next on a daily basis. If you’re backpacking and have more time, this makes a better option to see more of Borneo Island. Flights to Sibu from Kuala Lumpur usually cost less than $50 USD.