How to visit the Gili Islands on a budget

Gaining popularity with intrepid backpackers just a few decades ago, Lombok’s Gili Islands – Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air – have been a budget travel hotspot ever since. While midrange boutique hotels now dot beachfronts on all three islands, the budget-conscious traveler is still the mainstay of island tourism, especially through the low season months. All it takes is a little know-how to travel cheaply in the Gili Islands.

A Gili Islands budget trip is all about the beaches and reefs with the only major expense likely to be a scuba diving package. You’ll find no golf courses, theme parks or any motorized transportation. These islands have one of the most sociable backpacker scenes in Southeast Asia so it’s the perfect budget destination for solo travelers. The friendly locals are well used to westerners procrastinating over prices. Of course, there are numerous ways businesses will try to convince you to spend more than you really need to. Here are our budget travel tips for the Gili Islands to make every last rupiah stretch further.

Which Gili island is the most affordable?

Each of the three Gili Islands has developed its own distinctive character and vibe. Party island Gili Trawangan has by far the largest concentration of cheap eats and budget accommodation (as well as the finest dining and luxury resorts too). By contrast, diminutive Gili Meno is the low-key castaway island, more suited to couples. There is far less competition here for budget dining and homestays which is reflected in higher overall costs. While there are some no-frills homestays, boutique midrange places to stay are becoming the norm. A happy medium between these two is Gili Air, a less cosmopolitan and arguably more authentic version of Gili Trawangan. There is a distinct bohemian-style vibe here with a chilled-out bar scene.

A budget bungalow can be just as cheap as a dorm bed

There is little difference between nightly rates for a cheap homestay or bungalow resort versus a hostel. Both have their plus points: hostels in the Gili Islands generally have modern amenities like a pool, bar and indoor and outdoor social spaces. In family-run homestays, you’ll have the privacy of your own ensuite room and be exposed to a more authentic Gili Island experience.

Night market on Gili Trawangan, Indonesia
Gili Trawangan’s night market is a top spot for affordable food © Indah Pratiwi / Getty Images

Head inland for cheap eats

There is a wide variety of beachfront dining options for every conceivable palate, but walk a few meters inland to discover local restaurants at a fraction of the price. There are numerous small warungs (family-owned cafes) serving simple fried rice and noodles, satay and more for less than the price of a small beer. For a happy compromise between price and more familiar western options, the bustling night food market in Gili Trawangan is the go-to place.

Book the fast boat service from Bali in advance  

Planning a trip to Gili Islands will invariably mean arriving via Bali on one of the many fast boat services. With around a dozen operators, fares vary widely, from a low of about IDR 300,000 up to IDR 600,000 one way. They can fill up fast during the peak months of July and August when you can expect to pay at the higher end of the range. Most offer advance online bookings (check out Eka Jaya, Wahana and Gili Gili Fast Boat), and the fare includes a hotel pickup from most tourist areas across South Bali. Note that there is often an arbitrary extra charge if taking a surfboard to the Gili Islands. Always inform the boat company in advance to avoid a nasty surprise.

Score a big discount for long stays

Many a traveler has arrived on a short side trip from Bali and ended up staying a month or more. Pricing for long stays is very fluid and it’s not uncommon to negotiate a cheap homestay for just a third of the daily rate in low season for a month’s stay or more. However, even the best haggler will struggle to secure a sizable discount for peak season (July and August) or New Year.

Woman scuba diving off Gili Meno, Indonesia
Here for the diving? All the islands have access to the best sites © Wonderful Nature / Shutterstock

Scuba dive from any of the islands

The Gili Islands are among the cheapest diving destinations in Southeast Asia. A three-day PADI Open Water Course will set you back IDR 6,400,000, while a two-day PADI Advanced Open Water Course costs IDR 5,400,000. 

Which island is best and cheapest for scuba diving? In short, it doesn’t really matter. Most of the SSI- and PADI-accredited dive schools have a presence on all three islands and each dive company visits all the same dive sites in rotation. All dive resorts have their own accommodation and offer dive and stay packages, with good low-season deals to be had. 

Get around by pedal power

To get from A to B on the Gili Islands, you have a simple choice: on two feet, two wheels or four hooves. A cidomo (horse-drawn cart, the traditional form of transport on the Gili Islands) is the most expensive, with a round-island tour costing at least IDR 300,000, while bicycle rental is cheap and ubiquitous at around IDR 50,000 for the day. Be sure to carefully check the bike’s condition beforehand as you will be expected to pay for any damages. All three islands are mercifully free of cars and motorbikes.  

Spend the day on a different island

There are two main options for hopping between the three islands. The slow outrigger boat runs a roundtrip to all three islands twice a day, at set times in the morning and late afternoon. This makes a day trip to another island feasible. The fare is around IDR 30,000 and takes 40 minutes at most (Gili Trawangan – Gili Meno – Gili Air). The much faster public speedboat service is more convenient, running each hour but costing approximately three times as much. 

Travelers watching the sunset on Gili Trawangan
Share a sundowner with your new-found friends after a beach clean up © Mazur Travel / Shutterstock

Collect beach trash for a free beer

Earn a free cold beer while keeping Gili Trawangan beaches clean and pristine. Regular Friday beach cleans are organized by the Gili Eco Trust from 5pm to 6pm and all are welcome. You’ll help keep beaches free of trash and meet like-minded travelers too. The prize of a free cold beer for your efforts just in time for the sunset is sure to sweeten the deal.

Book activities at your accommodation

Let’s face it – the Gili Islands are not exactly a hotbed of culture and history (human settlement only began in the 1970s). Aside from yoga, crazy golf and horse riding, the attractions all lie on or beneath the water. Things to do in the Gili Islands on a budget include SUP, kayaking, kite surfing and snorkeling. While prices are based on seasonality, you’ll find the best deals at your hostel or mid-range resort as many have discounted group pricing arrangements.

Daily costs

  • Hostel room in a shared dorm: IDR 200,000
  • Budget hotel room for two: IDR 350,000
  • Bicycle rental: IDR 50,000 per day
  • Fried rice at a food cart: IDR 20,000
  • Beer at the bar 30,000
  • Cocktail at a sunset bar: IDR 60,000
  • Dinner for two on the beach:  IDR 200,000 to 400,000
  • Coffee: IDR 25,000
  • 60-minute massage: IDR 150,000
  • Snorkeling trip: IDR 170,000 (private charter boat: IDR 500,000)

Average daily cost: IDR 500,000 to IDR 800,000.

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