Penang is quite small and there are also many transport options.
This recently written site gives you some information to which I’ll add my opinions.
On foot: The attitude used to be that if you walked you’re too poor even to buy a bicycle. If you cycled, you’re too poor to buy a motorbike… You get the idea. The attitude is changing, but pedestrian facilities are poor, but being improved. I do have a blog series on walking in Penang for the non-suicidal which you could browse. So it’s practical and interesting to walk sometimes. But pedestrian crossings are ignored by all vehicles, so wait until there are none around to cross. A motorcyclist or driver could be smoking and texting and driving at the same time, so may not notice you. If there are traffic lights, most vehicles will stop on red – but some cars and particularly motorbikes will ignore them – so cross cautiously looking always to ensure nothing is moving towards you, particularly between cars for motorbikes that might zoom through. But be careful and don’t overdo walking during the middle of the day. preferably wear a hat, keep your walks to under 30 or 45 minutes at a time, drink plenty of beer – sorry, water – to keep yourself hydrated. If you feel overheated, quickly find a 7-11 convenience store or a bank, a mall etc. that has air-con and cool yourself down. And drink more water. Mild heat exhaustion can wipe you out for an afternoon – you might need to sleep. Worse and it could take days to recover.
Public Buses: Rapid Buses are slow. As a solo traveller you could use one if you have plenty of time. If you want the experience of riding one you could. Unless you board at the terminals mentioned in the above site, Komtar or the ferry terminal, you can wait a very long time for the bus to come. I am not anti-bus. I just think that buses should either have a timetable posted which they more or less stick to, or be so frequent that you don’t need a timetable as there is virtually no waiting time. If you do ride one: Beware of pickpockets.
Hop on – Hop off tourist bus: As run in many tourist cities around the world. So the concept would be familiar. The price if you are Malaysian is reasonable, and perhaps it’s worth using if you are a solo Malaysian traveller. Or even a Malaysian couple. But for foreigners the price is crazy. I see the buses often when I am out, and they are almost always almost empty. It’s a pity as if foreigners weren’t discriminated against they’d probably have many more passengers as it’s otherwise a useful service. Naturally I have never caught it.
Bicycle Rental: Personally, although I love cycling, I believe it’s too dangerous as the drivers are too erratic to risk cycling in Penang, except for the recently constructed cycle path from George Town to the airport. Thus I have never rented one. There are rental cycle stands in various places around Penang, where you can pick up or leave bicycles. Ask at your accommodation or look online for information if you wish. ( However, to use these bicycles involves installing an app on your phone which requires permissions to spy on your data and manage your phone calls etc., and if you read this company’s privacy and other policies on their website you’ll see how they are trying to amass personal data and share it. I would recommend against using this company if you have any concept of protecting yourself from identity theft, as all it takes is a slip up, a rogue employee, or of course, a hacker, etc. Renting a car or even possibly taking out a bank loan is less invasive. ) In the future this aforementioned path will be extended to Tanjung Bungah, on the north coast. Once completed this will be an option – just beware of heat exhaustion. Don’t overdo it. But I am looking forward to this path, and I’ll finally be able to bring out my bike. So the future looks good.
Car and motorbike rental: Both are possible but I know nothing about this.
Penang Airport: If you want the public bus turn left coming out of the terminal and walk a little to find it. To be honest I’ve never caught it as it’s not worth the trouble. The above site explained the taxi system. They are the white airport taxis. The price is reasonable. I used them for years until I was kidnapped. (It was kidnapping-lite, so we got away quite easily after a while. But since all of the “authorities ignored my emails with number plate and driver photos, including SPAD which is supposed to regulate taxis, I gave up.) Technically you can’t get picked up by ordinary taxis at the airport, but you can call Grab, which I’ll discuss later) and get them to pick you up. It’s safer and cheaper. Last time from the airport to Gurney Drive cost me RM23. White taxi is RM40+.
Train: There is no train on Penang island. To get to Butterworth station I always get the ferry across to Butterworth from the Penang ferry terminal and walk a few minutes to the station. When I checked earlier this year there were no longer any sleeper trains to KL. You can see another blog about my last train trip to KL.
Taxis: Apart from getting kidnapped by a white airport taxi I haven’t had any problems with taxis. Find out what the fare generally is from your accommodation, and then you’ll be able to ensure you don’t pay a driver too much more. Because yes, despite the sign on the side of the cars saying the meter must be used, it rarely will be. The taxi fleet is improving, but there are still many old cars in bad condition. Maybe the seat belt is unusable. The option below is better.
Grab taxi: This is an e-hailing service. Unless you are a solo traveller on a very tight budget, this is almost always the best option for getting around. Install the app on your Android or iPhone (but not Windows Phone) and you can pay cash, so no need to register a card. But you can register a card if you wish to use it. You get a price on your app as soon as you put in the route, and if you tap the button to book, then that is the price you pay. I usually tip a ringitt or two. Gurney Drive to George Town is usually RM6 (less than USD2) when I use it. The cars are much newer than taxis, the drivers are usually much friendlier than taxi drivers, and it’s much cheaper. Uber is also here, but you get a quote not a fixed price. However, from last week the government started regulating e-hailing services. I don’t know if that will raise prices or change what up until now has been very good. I mostly leave my car at home and walk or use Grab. (Full disclosure – I have no connection at all to Grab – I just think it’s great.)
Penang is not the best for pedestrians, cyclists, bus riders etc. But it’s better than it was 10 years ago (when I arrived) and improving in many ways.
Solo travellers: On a low budget you could use a bus for longer distances, and Grab for shorter distances that you can’t walk. To circle the island it’s probably better by bus. If you’re going to Butterworth use the ferry.
Couples, families and groups: Use Grab, but the ferry to get to Butterworth. But still, if you can walk safely and the distance is not too great, you’ll see a lot more. To circle the island you could get the price from Grab, consider the bus if you have time, or maybe a one day car rental would be a good idea. Some younger tourists rent motorcycles, which is risky, but no doubt, fun.
Note: I won’t really bother with many links as you can find the sites yourself easily enough. But if you want any other details feel free to ask and if I know I’ll tell you and update the site.