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Getting Around Indonesia: Transportation Tips

It’s easy enough to do as most tourists visiting Indonesia do — land on Bali and spend your whole time exploring all the volcanic, coastal and cultural wonders the island has to offer. But if you’re keen to see more of the world’s largest archipelago, Indonesia’s vast transportation network — planes, trains, automobiles, and all manner of two- and four-wheeled local transport — makes it easy enough to venture around.

After arriving at Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali, you could hop an onward flight on one of Indonesia’s budget airlines to destinations like Sumatra or Flores. On the east side of Bali in Padangbai, public ferries make the short crossing (four to five hours) to Lombok, or you can hop a faster tourist ferry to go directly to the Gili Islands. Ferries also connect Bali to Java, where you can easily access the UNESCO attractions of Yogyakarta by train. And nearly everywhere you travel in Indonesia you’ll hear the zip of scooter engines, the preferred method of transport for most upwardly mobile Indonesians.

Flying to and Around Indonesia

If you’re arriving in Indonesia from North America or Europe, you’ll most likely land at the major international airports in either Jakarta or Bali. There are no nonstop flights to Indonesia from either continent, but major airlines such as KLM, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines and Thai Airways offer one- or two-hop connections with the option for stopovers in major Asian cities such as Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong.

Garuda Indonesia is the state-operated airline, offering connecting service to Indonesia from Amsterdam (as well as various countries in Asia) and also domestic flights within Indonesia. The country’s major cities and remote island locales are well connected via domestic air service from other carriers as well, including Lion Air and AirAsia.

While there are ferries between Indonesia’s main islands, flying is almost always the faster and more reliable way to cover distances of any note. But be aware that as firm as ticketed itineraries may seem, plane schedules — particularly on smaller airlines and to less-visited destinations — can be unreliable and infrequent.

You can buy tickets online, and you’ll also find ticket offices at many airports for purchasing your airfare in person. When flying the budget airlines in particular, it’s a smart idea to call ahead and reconfirm your reservation before departure, as it’s not uncommon for passengers to get bumped. Arriving a full two hours ahead of time at airports for domestic and international flights is another good way to protect yourself.


Renting a Car in Indonesia

In Bali, Java, Sumatra and many other spots in Indonesia, cars can be rented for around $10 per day — or even less if you bargain and are renting for several weeks at a time. Having your own wheels can be an appealing way to explore all that the particular island you’re on has to offer (note that most rental companies will not allow you to travel between islands with your rental car, even when there are car ferries).

Traffic circulates on the left side of the road, roads are of varying standards and traffic moves at the mercy of the thousands upon thousands of scooters that circulate through it like eddying rivers. If you’re not used to driving in developing countries, you’re far better off hiring a driver to shuttle you around.

If you do decide to rent a car, there are a few things to know. International Driving Permits are officially required in Indonesia, but most car rental companies will gladly rent to you with only your home state or country driving license as testament to your skills behind the wheel. That said, if you’re pulled over by the police (they often see foreigners coming and will wave you over for no clear reason), be prepared to be asked to pay a bribe to avoid being served with a much larger traffic infraction fine. These “spot checks” are a regular occurrence in Bali, where many foreigners drive cars and scooters, making them easy targets for extortion.

We recommend getting an International Driving Permit if you plan to spend more than a few weeks in Indonesia (to avoid police hassle); be sure to make a copy of both it and your main driver’s license in case they get lost.

Renting from a reputable company (Hertz, Avis, Rhino Car) or a local company like Bali Island Car Rental is important since you’ll want to have the right registration papers to present at police stops. Check before driving away that you have these papers and that they are up to date and match your car.

Seatbelts are always required for front-seat passengers, but you’d be wise to wear them at all times and in all cases in Indonesia. Failure to wear them in the front seat can result in a fine. Make sure all seatbelts are working in your rental car before leaving the lot. Check for a spare tire before leaving too, as road conditions can be dicey and flats are a real likelihood.

If you plan to travel between islands with your rental car (from Bali to Lombok by car ferry, for example), check with your rental company in advance to ensure that this is allowed.

Major rental companies will offer you collision damage waiver insurance, well worth paying for, and you should also check with your car insurance company at home or credit card company (if that’s how you’re paying for your rental) before arriving in Indonesia to know the details of your international coverage.


Indonesia by Train

Java and Sumatra are the places to see a bit of Indonesia via the national railway, called Kereta Api. While the rest of Indonesia isn’t serviced by trains at all, these islands are the exception to the rule. Affordable overnight trains operate between Jakarta and Yogyakarta, while a shorter route runs between Surabaya and Yogyakarta. On Sumatra, the railway lines are not as well connected as on Java, but they can get you between major destinations in the south and west, including Padang and Lampung, as well as around Aceh in the north.

Trains offer a couple of key advantages over buses on Java: Their schedules are more reliable, and the stations are more centrally located. You can buy a ticket on the spot at windows called lokets, with varying prices depending on your desired class of travel. For the most comfortable ride, it’s worth paying extra to book in the roomy and air-conditioned executive class, a step up from business and economy classes, neither of which is air-conditioned. Seat reservations are only mandatory in executive class and on a few trains that travel the greatest distances.

Resources: (Indonesian only)

Indonesia by Ferry

It’s no surprise that the world’s largest archipelago is serviced by a vast network of ferries that range from simple wooden boats with dubious safety standards and very little in the way of covered seating to 700-passenger steel ferries that cover enormous distances with various cabin options for passenger comfort onboard.

Ferries from Ketapang in east Java depart many times a day, 24 hours a day, to make the 30-minute crossing to Gilimanuk in western Bali (no need to book in advance — you can just arrive at the ferry port and buy a ticket for the next crossing). And from Bali’s Benoa Harbor it’s possible to get all over the archipelago on ferries that leave for such destinations as Gili Meno in Lombok, Surabaya on Java, Bima on Sumbawa, Maumere on Flores and Kupang in Timor.

The most reputable and reliable boats are those run by Pelni, the state-owned and -operated shipping company, with routes that travel across all of Indonesia with many ports of call (you can hop on and off where you want). These boats carry up to 5,000 passengers and have six classes of accommodation onboard, ranging from simple bench-style seating in the open-air top section of the boats to private cabins for the most comfort. It’s best to reserve in advance, especially during holiday times and religious periods (such as Ramadan), when boats run at maximum capacity.

If you’re traveling on other Indonesian ferries, be aware that safety standards and many other factors can vary widely. Gangplanks are often narrow and rickety, and people with mobility issues may have trouble boarding. Ferries are often oversold, so it’s normal to see passengers traveling long distances with no reserved seat on the open deck.

Car ferries also exist between many of the islands, and if you travel long distances this way you’ll most likely be sleeping in your car.

Resources: (Indonesian only)

Indonesia by Scooter

After a few days in Bali watching the locals zip merrily to and fro on two wheels, many tourists feel tempted to rent a scooter of their own for a little island tour. But far too many deaths are attributed each year to scooter accidents in Indonesia, with both locals and tourists as victims. If you’re still tempted, be sure to wear a helmet at all times. We recommend giving it a pass if you’ve never driven a scooter before; Indonesia’s frenetic roads are not the ideal place to learn.

All over Bali and elsewhere in Indonesia you’ll find scooters to rent both from recognizable storefronts and from enterprising locals looking to score a bit of cash on their own rides. Scooters usually rent for around $5 to $6 per day, and you’ll be asked to leave a passport or credit card as a down payment. You can usually bargain down the price if you’re renting the scooter for a week or more.


Buses, Bemos, Becaks and More

Indonesian buses usually leave relatively on time and are very cheap, with options for booking your tickets a day or more in advance. The island of Java offers the most comprehensive bus services from Jakarta to outlying destinations, but standards vary drastically across companies and destinations, and travel times can be painfully long.

For that reason, tourists with more than an absolute shoestring budget often choose either to hire their own car and driver or — in the more touristy areas on Bali, Lombok and Java — to travel by tourist minibus shuttles that operate for reasonable per-person rates between major points of interest.

On the jam-packed communal minibuses called bemos, which have benches rather than seats in most cases, be sure to ask the fare when you board to avoid a possible rip-off situation when it’s time to get off. Essential to locals for short-distance travel in busy metropolitan areas, bemos range far and wide — but with no real map system or website to figure them out, you’re best off asking another person waiting for a bemo to help you figure out how to get where you’re going.

Within cities and towns you’ll often see variations on the rickshaw too. The motorized version is called a bajaj and carries two passengers behind the driver. The bicycle-style rickshaw, called a becak, also has room for two passengers, with the driver pedaling behind them. You’ll want to negotiate the rate with your driver ahead of time to avoid any misunderstandings.

Resources: (Indonesian only)

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–written by Terry Ward

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