I freaking dig boat rides, y’all. If I had to pick between a boat and the strongest, cutest, comfiest donkey you’ve ever laid eyes on as my main forms of transportation, I’d choose the boat 84% of the time. Mostly for the donkey’s sake, but whatever.
So when I began researching the best way to travel from Bali to the Gili Islands, a set of 3 tiny, hammock-filled white sand wonders just off the coast of Lombok, I became slightly horrified at my options.
How to Travel from Bali to The Gili Islands
First off, you should know that there are really only three options, and zero of them are great. In my opinion, if you don’t have at least 2 nights to spend on the Gilis – specifically Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno or Gili Air – it’s probably better just to stay on Bali, simply for the sake of spending your vacation time wisely.
If you do choose to make the journey, and I do suggest it because the islands are beautiful, funky and relaxing, your options for getting there include:
Bali to The Gilis: Fast Boat Service
By far the shortest, easiest and most popular option, there are many, many fast boat companies that travel from Bali to the Gili Islands each day. Departure points from Bali include Amed, Padang Bai, Sanur, Benoa Marina and Serangan Harbor, and several fast boat companies include transportation to and from your resort as part of the ticket price.
But here’s the thing… boat safety in Indonesia, to put it nicely, is less than glorious. It also helps to know that the stretch of ocean you’ll be cruising across is the Lombok Strait, which at somewhere between 2,600 and 3,200 feet deep, is somewhere you definitely don’t want to sink.
When researching which fast boat to take, thinking things couldn’t possibly go that wrong in a 1 to 2 1/2 hour boat ride, I found an endless supply of horrifying TripAdvisor reviews that read like the Titanic of the 21st century, with tales of nearly sinking, water pouring in through the windows, thoughts of jumping ship into rough seas, crying, screaming, mass panic, a shortage of (or limited access to) lifejackets, no rescue boats, no communication with passengers, and several other tales of general awfulness. Not to mention the actual news stories of fast boats catching fire, exploding and sinking. Hooray!
My takeaway from all of this information, besides remembering to carry my snorkel equipment on my person at all times, was 1) to be flexible with our dates and travel only on days with calm, clear weather conditions, and 2) take the path of least resistance – where resistance is the amount of time things can go wrong – and depart from Amed, located only a 1 hour fast boat ride from the Gilis as opposed to a 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hour journey from other, more popular areas of Bali.
Amed may be a far car ride from south Bali, and you will have to spend a little cash to get there, but if you’re prone to bad cases of seasickness or day-ruining worry, it’s worth the journey. Plus, Amed is absolutely breathtaking and relaxing. Win win.
On our journey from Amed to Gili Air (with a quick drop-off on Gili Trawangan), we chose Pacha Express and had a great experience with calm seas, comfortable seating, and even a dolphin sighting! One thing to note, however: just because you book with a certain fast boat company doesn’t mean you’ll get that company, especially from Amed during slow season. Out of the 3 companies that offer fast boat service from this area of the island, typically only one goes out per day unless it gets fully booked, so it’s a luck-of-the-draw situation when it comes to boat preference.
On our return trip, feeling confident after our smooth journey on the way over and a forecast for calm seas, we chose to take the early morning fast boat from Gili Air to south Bali’s Serangan Harbor (with a quick pick-up on Gili Trawangan) with Marina Srikandi. While less comfortable and fairly hot, our 2 1/2 hour journey got us back to Bali safely and on time, and included a ride back to Legian.
Overall our experience was fine, and I advise anyone going this route to strongly consider weather conditions as a major factor of their journey. We made it safely with no issues, so I’d personally choose the fast boat route again if we decide to return.
Bali Fast Boat Tips:
- There’s no need to buy fast boat tickets before you arrive unless you’re traveling during peak season (mid December – January, typically). You’ll get much better prices than what’s listed online by asking around and haggling in person.
- Check the weather! Sites like Buoy Weather and Magic Seaweed offer fairly accurate estimates about what you can expect, wind and wave wise, on the day of your trip.
- If you don’t mind paying more for peace of mind, Gili Getaway and BlueWater Express seem to be the fast boat companies with the best reviews and safety ratings.
- Make sure they deliver on transportation to and from your accommodation if they promised it online or when you booked your ticket. When you check-in, you may receive a voucher as a receipt for this service. We had to argue with Marina Srikandi for this, but it worked.
- Give yourself an extra day to get back to Bali. Things go wrong, and boats may not show up, be overbooked, or cancelled altogether due to bad weather. Don’t leave the Gilis the same day you need to catch a flight back home; plan ahead, and give yourself extra time in case something goes wrong.
Bali to The Gilis: Flight + Taxi + Boat
If the idea of sketchy boat rides in rough waves is enough to make you seek alternate transportation methods, no worries! Simply strap yourself in for a quick 25 minute flight on the 5th most dangerous airline in the world, Lion Air, or the ever-so-slightly higher rated Wings Air or Garuda Indonesia.
Sure, chances are nothing will go wrong, but even after your flight, you sadly haven’t made much progress in getting to the Gilis. After landing in Lombok, you then have to take a 1 1/2+ hour cab ride to Bangsal Harbor, Teluk Nara or Teluk Kodek, where you’ll finally board the public ferry or hire a private boat charter for the final leg of your journey. And voila! Multiple hours later, you’ve arrived.
Also, keep in mind that this is the more expensive option, and Lion Air has strict regulations on baggage limits.
Bali to The Gilis: Ferry + Bus + Ferry
There are certain travelers who don’t mind moving at the speed of molasses to get to their next destination. I admire those people, and if that’s you, I highly suggest this route, which is questionably the safest, probably the cheapest, and absolutely the slowest.
First, get yourself to Padang Bai and buy a ticket for the public ferry from Bali to Lembar Harbor, Lombok. Currently, adult tickets are approximately 44,000 IDR. Ferries leave nearly every hour, and the journey takes somewhere between 4 to 5 hours, assuming you actually leave on time. But who gives a shit, right?! As we’ve established, you’re in no hurry. Plus, there are usually beds onboard if you’re willing to pay a little extra.
I suggest grabbing water, as well as a meal or two, at Padang Bai harbor before you depart, as there’s little in the way of good food once you step onboard. Also, while passengers have the option of bringing scooters aboard the ferry, I wouldn’t suggest leaving it unattended on Lombok while you go galavanting around the Gilis.
While you’ll be subjected to the same weather conditions as the passengers flying by on fast boats, the ferries are larger and have way less incidences of sheer terror.
Once on Lombok, you can arrange transportation on a shuttle bus, public bus, or taxi to Bangsal Harbor, where the public ferry (depending on the time of day) or a private boat charter is the only thing standing between you and the Gilis.
And that’s it, y’all. Also there’s apparently a helicopter company that will fly you to the Gili Islands, but I’ll leave that option for the people I’ll likely never be friends with.