Bali has long been a fixture on the Southeast Asia backpacker tour, but it has gotten exponentially more popular since I first landed on the island in the mid-1990s—and prices have risen with the crowds. To give us the scoop on what current prices are like for travelers, I turned to a guy who actually lives there and is is tapped into the scene: Stuart McDonald of the top Southeast Asia travel resource site, Travelfish.org. Take it away Stuart!
It’s a common lament that a holiday to Bali costs far more than it used to. Hell, with luxurious digs going for thousands of dollars a night, it can be downright expensive. But unless you’re set on a private pool villa with clifftop views, Bali needn’t be a complete budget bust. Here’s a rundown on what things cost and how to save. At current rates, one U.S. dollar equals around 9,000 rupiah.
Unlike other popular destinations in Southeast Asia, Bali doesn’t have an overly tourist-friendly public transport system. Sure, there are bemos and local buses, but while their pricing is often rock bottom, the routes, timings, and connections are dictated by local needs rather than those of tourists. Want to travel from the airport to Ubud by non-chartered bemo? That will be around four connections and at least as many hours. You may have to suck it up and find someone to share a taxi with.
Yes, Perama run a pretty good (and affordable) bus and boat service to some of the more popular spots but if you want to get off the beaten track, the best method is either hired motorbike (20,000 to 40,000 rupiah per day) or car (200,000 to 450,000 rupiah per day) — both prices vary somewhat on type of bike/car and period of hire.
Note you will need an international license to drive or ride legally in Indonesia. If you’re picked up without one, 50,000 rupiah on the spot is a pretty standard, umm, gratuity.
For onwards transport to Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Penida, Lombok, or the Gili Islands, remember ALL boat fares quoted by travel agents are negotiable.
Outside of the main tourist areas, a simple room in a homestay should be able to be found for around 50,000 to 70,000 per night (under US/Canadian/Australian $10). For that expect a very basic room with a fan and a (perhaps shared) cold water bathroom.
For a more comfortable standard, say air-con, hot water and a larger room, add about 100,000 rupiah to the above. Want a swimming pool? Add another 100,000.
In popular areas like Ubud, Kuta and Seminyak, expect to pay roughly double each of the above for something commensurite in standard and location.
Bear in mind that guesthouses in Bali often have a tremendous range of options available, often not clearly tied to a change in standard. For example the place we normally stay at in central Ubud which has a lovely swimming pool with paddy views has fan-cooled rooms for 300,000 and air-con for 600,000 rupiah — but the fan rooms are actually better appointed than (and almost the same size as) the air-con ones.
Food in Bali
Local restaurants and streetside cafes in Indonesia are called warungs and the food is both good and cheap. A simple noodle soup can go for as little as 5,000 rupiah, a simple rice and meat dish say 12,000 to 20,000 rupiah and a more solid, multi-dish meal 20,000 to 30,000 rupiah. This is even the case in tourist hotspots, while you can expect to pay five to ten times these costs in the tourist-orientated restaurant 50 metres down the road.
Where we currently live in Seminyak, I can get a simple noodle soup in the local warung for 5,000 rupiah. In the “tourist warung” 100 metres away it is 15,000 and in the tourist restaurant, 30,000 rupiah. Yes, six times the price for essentially the same meal (though the tourist restaurant dish will come with a carved tomato on the side).
Indonesian (and Balinese) food is very accessible and easy to order and it is often displayed in display cases so even without a word of the local language it is simple to point and pick — you may even discover something new.
If you’re on a budget, don’t drink alcohol! A small Bintang will cost anything from 12,000 to 30,000 rupiah, a large one 24,000 to 40,000. While these costs may still seem affordable compared to grabbing a swift beer in your home country, they’re disproportionally expensive compared to the cost of food and accommodation. Have a large Bintang with that rendang and you’ll more than double the cost of dinner.
Wine and imported spirits are extremely heavily taxed and, for those on a budget, best avoided. Expect a mixed drink or cocktail to cost 50,000 to 120,000 rupiah and a glass of imported wine slightly more. Local wine isn’t all that good (the Hatten rose if you must is alright) and the local spirit (arak) can be of very, very variable quality.
Western-style cafes are common and popular, offering everything from a latte to a decaf, double shot, vanilla soy milk flat white with a twist on ice. Prices vary tremendously, but our local in Seminyak kicks off at around 25,000 rupiah for a standard latte. Local coffee (Bali kopi) while admittedly an acquired taste, is a fraction of the cost: in a local warung, perhaps 3,000 to 5,000 rupiah. When you’re drinking three coffees a day, the savings accummulate quickly.
A wealth of activities can be tackled on Bali. Climb a volcano, go white-water rafting, bungy jump, learn to surf, go bird-watching or ricefield bike riding, snorkel or dive the waters, and visit cultural villages and temples. All of these are expensive compared to the day to day cost of travelling in Bali, so those on a tight budget should research to find the sometimes cheaper alternatives.
Learning to surf for example can be done through a proper school (costing up to $100 for three hours of one-on-one tuition) or approach one of the life savers lounging around (they’re almost all also surfers) and they’ll probably give you just as good a lesson for a few hours for 100,000 rupiah or so.
While some of the ricefield bike tours are an excellent experience, it’s often just as easy to hire a bicycle through your guesthouse or homestay and go exploring — and save yourself $40 in the process.
Some options, such as climbing a volcano, rafting or diving, are more set in their fees due to the need for guides and equipment, but there is a wide range of operators who can charge different prices for more or less the same trip: a day of rafting for example ranges from around $40 to $100+ for the same trip, on the same river, in the same type of boat. Most importantly, when you’re going from streetside travel agent to agent, bear in mind that ALL fees are negotiable and the agent will have a commission that they can discount off.
This is the easiest way to save money.
Surfers should skip Kuta and Legian and instead head to Balangan, Padang Padang, Bingin or Uluwatu (all on the Bukit) or Balian or Medewi in West Bali. Accommodation and food are cheaper — and the surf is far better for those who already know how to surf.
Those looking for mountain scenery and rice paddy views should leave Ubud to the traffic and yoga-mat wielding Eat Pray Lovers and instead head to Sidemen in East Bali or Munduk to the west.
Divers and snorkellers should pack their bags and head out to Candi Dasa, Amed or Pemuteran rather than basing themselves in Sanur or Nusa Dua.
Even by practicing all of the above, you’ll still be spending more than you would on neighbouring Java or Lombok, but you needn’t be spending so much that you’ll be cutting your time short.
Bali is a very special place and the more effort you put into it — without getting your wallet out — the better.