Indonesia on a budget: The best ways to make the most of your money across the island nation

Indonesia on a budget: The best ways to make the most of your money across the island nation

For a trip to Indonesia, you can choose the simple beach-bumming lifestyle, or live the high life in five-star luxury hotels © fernanda photos / Shutterstock

You’ll be transformed into an instant millionaire the moment you touch down in Indonesia. With a million rupiah currently equal to around US$70, a little can go a long way in this country, and if you’re careful you can get by on less than a million rupiah a week.

You can choose the simple beach-bumming lifestyle, or live the high life with some of the most luxurious five-star hotels on the planet at low-season prices that are a fraction of the cost elsewhere. Here are our trips for visiting Indonesia on a budget.

Take your pick from 13,466 islands

Bali is substantially more expensive than neighboring Java, which is in turn slightly more expensive than Sumatra, but the sheer amount of competition vying for the tourist dollars means you can live for astoundingly little, even on Bali. Two people could potentially live the Bali dream on around $20 a day, including a private room, meals and scooter rental.

In general, as you go farther off the beaten track to other islands, the cost of living diminishes. Bear in mind though that at the extremes of the world’s greatest island nation – in the Alor archipelago, for example, or in the distant Maluku islands – prices are higher due to the transportation costs of getting goods (and vehicles and fuel) to remote regions.

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Choose the cheapest time to go

October to April is rainy season in Bali and central Indonesia, and the cheapest season to travel here. Unless you are going far off the beaten track – jungle trekking or volcano climbing, for example – this is often a lovely time to be in Indonesia. The rains are usually short and sharp, and interspersed with blissful sunny days. (Avoid Christmas school-holidays and New Year though.)

Read more: When to go to Indonesia

Find an inexpensive flight

Sign up to Jack’s Flight Club for prompt updates about cheap flights to Jakarta or Bali. Within Indonesia, national carrier Garuda Indonesia, Air Asia or Lion Air link all the other main islands. For a rough idea of flight prices, you can travel one-way between Jakarta and Bali from around $45, or from Bali to Labuan Bajo (access to Komodo) from around $35.

Book the best-value accommodation

You can book in advance, of course, but if every dollar counts, consider booking just the first night or two, because the best deals – in hostel-packed Kuta for example – are often found by asking around. With private rooms available from as low as $2 in some parts of Indonesia, dorms are rare.

It can often be more cost-effective to rent a long-term bungalow or villa through a site like Airbnb than to pay for a nightly hotel room. A good air-conditioned double room in Bali will cost $8 a night (breakfast included), but a self-catering bungalow in the central Ubud area with its own garden and kitchen might set you back less than $6 a night if you book a full month. 

Indonesia on a budget: The best ways to make the most of your money across the island nation

Indonesia's public transport is cheap but erratic, so most travelers opt to get around by other means © Pav-Pro Photography Ltd / Shutterstock

Get around on a budget

Public transport is cheap but erratic, so most travelers opt to rent a vehicle. To keep costs at a minimum, consider renting long-term. Scooters are cheap (often around $2 a day if you rent for a week or more), but for the sake of safety and security, consider upgrading to a car, which will set you back around $10 per day – especially affordable if traveling with friends. With petrol costing less than $0.50 per liter ($.13 per gallon), self-driving in Indonesia is inexpensive.

Driving in Indonesia – especially in Bali with its swarms of motorbikes – is not for the fainthearted, so if you prefer not to drive yourself, you can hire a car and driver for $20 to $30.

Read more: How to get around Indonesia (with less hassle)

Indonesia on a budget: The best ways to make the most of your money across the island nation

Before leaving home, download the ride-sharing apps Grab and Gojek © lechatnoir / Getty Images

Hail a cab for less

Bluebird Taxis has 23,000 vehicles throughout Indonesia, and, while convenient, they can be about twice the price of Grab, the Singapore-based company that acquired Uber in Asia.

Before leaving home, download the apps for Grab and Gojek, which claims to have 2 million motorbike-taxis across Southeast Asia. These delightfully democratic solutions mean you'll only pay local rates for transport, so no unnecessary haggling every time you need to take a car or motorbike taxi, and no need for complex multilingual conversations trying to confirm destinations or give directions.

Ferries, buses and trains are good ways to hang out with local people

Ferries connect some of the islands, and they're inexpensive, though erratic and time-consuming. Take the trip from Labuan Bajo to Bali, for example: the weekly ferry costs less than $20, but it's a 33-hour ride, compared with an hourlong flight!

On larger islands, long-distance buses connect all the main cities, but only on Java and parts of Sumatra can you count on getting around by rail. As a general rule, you can figure that a seat on a train will cost you about $1.50 for each hour of travel, and you can book through Kareta Api Indonesia. A bus ticket is usually slightly cheaper, and almost always faster than Indonesian trains.

Indonesia on a budget: The best ways to make the most of your money across the island nation

In Indonesia, you can count on finding hearty local food – cooked on the spot, with fresh and delicious ingredients – at spectacularly affordable prices © Elena Ermakova / Shutterstock

Eat local to eat cheap

While Indonesia lacks the culinary variety of much smaller Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, you can count on finding hearty local food at spectacularly affordable prices. Unless you are in a tourist center, you can usually find a single-plate meal – normally nasi goreng (fried rice) or mie goreng (fried noodles) – for less than $1. Because they are cooked on the spot, ingredients are usually fresh and frequently delicious.

The West Sumatran city of Padang has exported its fine gastronomic traditions, and you will find Masakan Padang (literally Padang-style cooking) eateries – typically a buffet where you're given a plate of rice and simply point to whatever extras you fancy – in virtually every town throughout the country. You can often grab a veritable feast for around $2; try to pick establishments that seem to have a constant turnaround of diners.

Read more: The 11 best things to do in Indonesia

Stay off the booze

The best way to keep costs low in Indonesia is simply to avoid alcohol. A bottle of Bintang, the standard local beer, is about $2, a bottle of ‘cheap’ wine starts at around $10 and a bottle of imported gin or whisky is likely to set you back $30 or more. Those are supermarket prices – the figures are likely to triple in a trendy bar. If you want to be able to party without breaking the bank, look out for the ubiquitous 2-for-1 sundowner happy-hour deals.

Embrace the haggling culture

Haggling is a way of life in Indonesia, and outside of big fixed-price malls and supermarkets, you will be expected to haggle for most things. Although many travelers are uncomfortable about bargaining for purchases, you’ll soon find that a smile, a joke and a couple of reliable stock phrases can transform a boring shopping trip into an opportunity to bond with local people. At its best haggling turns a mere business transaction into something far more human.

"Bukan harga bule" (not foreigner price) is good for a smile.

"Saya sudah bankrupt" (I’m already bankrupt) guarantees outright belly-laughs.

Remember, though, that your haggling should only be driven towards establishing a fair price that is good for both parties. Some travelers pride themselves on their tough haggling skills, believing that a street vendor will always be making a profit regardless. This is not always true: most store-holders will prefer to sell at a loss if it is the only way that they can feed their family that night.

Daily costs

  • Local coffee in a streetside warung: US$0.30
  • Cappuccino in a fancy café: US$2.50
  • A hearty plate of fried rice / noodles in a local eatery: US$1
  • The same meal in a tourist venue: US$4
  • Cocktail at a happy-hour beach bar: US$5
  • Beer in a hotel bar: US$3
  • Glass of house wine at a resort: US$6 (sometimes up to US$25!)
  • 1.5-liter bottle of water: US$0.25
  • Surfboard rental: US$3.50/session
  • 90-minute yoga class: US$10 (less if you get a package-price)

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