Indonesia is a vast and inspiring country to travel in, one of the last bastions of truly remote travelling. Russ Brooks explains how to prepare a budget for a country where prices vary wildly depending on where you are
When I traveled to Indonesia, I made the mistake of not budgeting enough time or money as it’s a larger country with so many different places and diverse activities to take part in that took more time than I’d thought to explore. I had originally planned on spending a month, but immediately fell in love with the people, the geography, and especially the scuba diving. A trip though Indonesia will require different budgeting levels depending on where you go and the activities you wish to take part in. There are myriad activities to take part in; from scuba diving to jungle treks to batik and woodcarving courses. The amount and nature of your activities should drive your budget making decisions as these will be the most expensive parts of your visit to Indonesia. A little time spent planning the things you want to see and where they are will go a long way to keeping you on track and on budget.
[Note: There's a fair bit of overlap in this article with Brooks' previous post How Much Money Do I Need For Bali - as the info is relevant to both places, I thought it better to duplicate it here to save readers flipping between the two pages. If you are looking for budgeting info specifically about Bali, best read that article first].
That being said, preparing your budget for Indonesia will not be radically different than the rest of Southeast Asia as Indonesia is still largely a poor country and if you make the effort to step off the beaten track, it’s as cheap as anywhere in the world to travel. In general, outside of the popular tourist destinations, Indonesia is a very inexpensive country, and budget deals can be had in these places as well with a little searching. On average, for basic food and accommodation, I spent about as much per day in Indonesia as in the other countries of Southeast Asia, but it was the amount of travel as well as the activities that I wanted to participate in that drove my budget up.
Visas in Indonesia
Citizens of 64 countries arriving in Indonesia at anyone of 20 international airports or 23 seaports may apply for a Visa on Arrival (VOA) from the Indonesian Government. The cost of the VOA is $25USD – payable in US dollars cash or Indonesian rupiah cash (no credit cards accepted) – and is valid for 30 days. It is possible to extend your VOA one time for an additional 30 days at any one of the country’s immigration offices located in most major cities. Note that some offices take longer than others to process and you should apply for the extension with a least a week left on your current VOA. If you’re planning to stay longer,multiple entry tourist visas may be obtained outside of Indonesia and are valid for one year,however you can’t stay longer than 60 (sixty) days in Indonesia at any point so you must leave and return. The fee for a multiple entry visa is $100USD.
Indonesia Money – Rupiah and US Dollars
Indonesia’s currency is the rupiah and it’s roughly trading at about 9,000 to the USD and fluctuated around 1% during my time there. Coins exist but are not frequently used as many vendors will simply round to the nearest banknote, often in your favor, but occasionally not. Banknotes start at 1000 rupiah and go up from there: 2000 rupiah (a quarter), 5000 rupiah (a half-dollar), 10000 rupiah (a bit over a dollar) 20,000 (a dollar and a quarter) 50,000 (five and half dollars) and 100,000 (11 USD).
While I didn’t see many businesses openly advertising that they accepted US dollars, most will roughly know the exchange rate and will accept US dollars if needed, but don’t expect to get a good rate if you need to use USD in a pinch.
ATMs and Currency Exchange in Indonesia
Since most people arriving in Indonesia will be arriving by plane, obtaining rupiah on arrival at any airport is easy enough. There are ATMs and currency exchange booths at every international airport and is also available for exchange prior to flying in the airports in Singapore, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur and most other connecting airports. While the rate at airports is slightly (1-2%) lower than the published rate, it’s usually a good idea to change a bit before leaving the airport.
Most big cities will have myriad exchange booths and banks. In the tourist areas beware of the booths located down alleyways advertising extraordinary high rates in popular tourist areas as I heard more than one story of problems and travellers being shortchanged. In small communities and rural areas, exchanging foreign currency might be challenging, so be prepared before setting out.
Indonesia has four state owned banks, BNI, BRI, BTN, and Bank Mandiri. Most ATMs operate as kiosks or outside bank branches and therefore are available 24 hours. Once you leave larger cities and tourist areas, ATMs become more difficult to find, so be prepared before you head off the beaten path by visiting an ATM.
Many ATMs will have a sticker on the front denoting the denomination in which cash is provided, either 50,000 or 100,000 notes. While it means more bills, try and stick to the 50,000 notes as it will save you headaches in the future. The 100,000 rupiah note is often tough for many business and vendors to break in many places so think ahead and break them as often as possible at 7-11s or other larger businesses. Trying to break one in a rural area can be a challenge sending a food cart vendor scrambling around to borrow money from others to provide change. Having many small bills are they key to easy purchases in Indonesia.
Credit Cards in Indonesia
Credit cards are possible to use in most major cities and tourist areas, but are rarely accepted in rural areas or with budget accommodation operators. Wherever you are except for the most high-end establishments, expect to be charged a 2-3.5% premium to use your card as most businesses won’t pay the credit card’s fee. Visa and Mastercard are king in Indonesia and while it’s possible to use American Express in some places, it’s rare and the fee will be even higher.
Getting around in Indonesia
Indonesia is comprised of more than 17,000 islands with almost 1,000 of them inhabited. Mostly, there are two ways to get from island to island, either take one of the ferries that often run in between places or hop on one the many budget airline that fly hundreds of routes within the country.
There are almost 70 major airports in Indonesia so flying can often be the easiest way to get from island to island. It may also be the cheapest as well as there are many budget airlines and it’s possible to fly for as little as $25USD. You can check for flight times and prices on flight aggregators like Skyscanner.
However, one of the challenges to be aware of with flying in Indonesia is that it’s not possible to book a flight online unless you have an Indonesian credit card. Seek out local travel agents to book your flights or just show up the day of your flight and book at the airline’s ticket window. Make sure you give yourself enough time for this, but I took dozens of flights in Indonesia and never had difficulty getting a seat the day of the flight.
Ferries and Speedboats
The other option to get from island to island is by ship. Pelni is the national shipping company of Indonesia and operates twenty-five passenger ships that run a variety of routes between islands mostly on a bi-weekly schedule. They have different levels of services from air-con 2-person cabins to just space on the deck. Their website is out of date and I’ve been told schedules change constantly and can be difficult to obtain, but they are cheap and can be booked up to a week in advance, so plan ahead if you’d like to travel by Pelni ferry. Between the more common tourist destinations such as crossing from Java to Bali or Bali to Flores there are private companies running ferries and speedboats. Inquire with local travel agents to determine schedules and prices.
Once on each island there are a number of different modes of transport available. PT Kereta Api operates rail lines across most of Java and some of Sumatra. Java has trains connecting the capital city of Jakarta with other main cities such as Surabaya, Yogyakarta, and Bandung while Sumatra has a few lines centered around Medan in the north. Train travel is a great way to make your way across these islands. There are also local and public buses that run between major cities and points of interest. These range from high quality A/C buses in places like Java to rickety minibuses in West Papua. Often public buses aren’t always the cheapest or most efficient option for transport, so also look into tourist shuttles as well as car and motorbike rental. Most guesthouses will know the local transport options and are happy to help arrange these services.
International Flights To Indonesia
As with domestic flights, there are a number of different routes to enter Indonesia from abroad. There are many short flights to airports around Indonesia from Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore as well as hundreds of longer distance flights from Asia and Europe into Bali and Jakarta. Check Skyscanner to compare numerous airlines and find the best prices.
Accommodation in Indonesia
Rooms in Indonesia can be had at all price levels and there are a number of different types of accommodations. Check Agoda.com for a wide array of hotels in Indonesia that you can book online – prices range from budget guesthouses to luxury hotels. On the budget end, hostels with dorms aren’t that prevalent, but there are losmen or small budget hotels in all cities and in rural areas. Outside of major tourist hubs and big cities rooms can be found for as little as 40,000 rupiah (4USD) but don’t expect much at that price except a bed. I found that 75,000-100,000 (8-11USD) provided a nice, clean fan room in most places, often with a private bathroom. Sometimes it was possible to find rooms with more amenities at this price, but expect to spend a bit more for air-con, hot water, and a TV. Many places provide breakfast with the room as well. In the more popular tourist areas expect that price to double for accommodations on the low end and expect the gap to increase between services and value. At most places, depending on vacancy and season, bargaining for the room price was possible and I was often able to reduce the price. It is also quite common to ask to see the room before booking as well and can be a good way to judge what’s a fair price in a given place. There are a number of ways to book arrangements online, but often the cheaper places do not have websites and can be found by just walking around when you arrive in town.
Food in Indonesia
Traveling across Indonesia, I met few people who raved about the food as people often do after visiting Vietnam, Malaysia, and especially Thailand and I found it to be basic and healthy. Indonesian dishes such as nasi goring (fried rice), mie ayam (chicken noodle), mie goreng (fried noodle), gado-gado (vegetable salad served with a peanut sauce dressing), sate, and tempe (soy patty) are popular and available everywhere in the country. While street food is possible to find in mid to larger cities, warungs (small family restaurant/market) are the key to easing cheaply with dishes often starting as low as 10,000-15,000 rupiah ($1-$1.50USD) and it’s easy to eat well on $5-7USD a day. In the bigger cities and tourist areas there is cuisine from all around the world at every price level.
Beer And Cigarettes In Indonesia
Cigarettes are widely available in Indonesia and everyone smokes everywhere. Prices ranged slightly depending on what island I was on, but a pack of Marlboros often was 10-15,000 rupiah a pack with most costing 12,000 rupiah (1.35USD). Local Indonesian cigarettes could be bought cheaper, anywhere from 4-9,000 depending on the brand.
While finding a beer that was truly cold outside the tourist areas was challenging, and maddening at times, Bintang is the national beer and is sold everywhere. Liquor is highly taxed in Indonesia and it’s obvious in the prices. A small bottle or can of Bintang often went for 22-25,000 ($2.50USD) rupiah and a large bottle 35-37,000 rupiah ($4USD). Hard liquor is even more expensive with a mixed drink starting at 60,000 rupiah ($6.75USD) in most places with a bottle of Absolut costing in excess of 500,000 rupiah ($56USD) in a liquor store.
Tours & Activities
When it comes to booking tours and activities, prices vary widely. Do your research and seek out quotes from different operators to make sure the price you pay is fair. Travel agents will offer different prices for the same activities so seek out other travelers to gets their recommendations to make sure you book with a reputable vendor. Ask questions about what to expect as the difference in price might be the quality of transportation, how many people are on the tour or whether or not they provide food. There are trips to the major sites at all price levels and different levels of service.
There are so many different activities in Indonesia from taking a day-long trek in Bukit Lawang to see Orangutans ($25USD) or two dives at the USS Liberty in Tulamben, Bali ($60USD) or visiting the world famous Borobudur Temple ($13USD). With each of these activities I saw different prices and different levels of service as the accompanying good and bad stories in the bars afterwards.
The Internet in Indonesia
While not the fastest or most reliable in Southeast Asia, the internet is widely available in most areas of Indonesia. Rates in Indonesia at Internet cafes are extremely cheap, even in the more touristy areas. I’ve seen them as low as 200 rupiah/minute ($.02) in many places. Wifi is also very easy to find and many guesthouses, hotels and restaurants offer it for free to their customers. While I carried a laptop with me, during my time in Indonesia I never paid for internet usage and was surprised at how easy it was to find free wifi.
Mobile phones in Indonesia
Mobile phones are almost as ubiquitous as cigarettes in Indonesia and there’s rarely a small town or island that doesn’t have service. There are two predominate companies, Telkomsel and XL. Both are available as a prepaid service and finding sim cards is as simple as walking into 7-11, Circle K, or an Indomaret store. Prices for the sim card should be around 2,000 rupiah ($.20) and with fairly high voice and data use, 100,000 rupiah ($11USD) lasted me almost a month. You’ll also find many warungs in small villages sell “top-up” cards as well. If you have a smart phone and want to get data, you’ll need to inquire within a mobile phone store in a larger city to get the proper settings. During my travels I used both Telkomsel and XL and found the rates to be similar and while both worked well, Telkomsel had greater 3G coverage and worked more often in far-flung rural areas.
Daily Budget for Indonesia
Indonesia is a difficult place to nail down a daily budget as the country is so diverse and a budget that will work for traveling just through rural Sumatra may not work for one spent on the beaches in Bali. Also, your budget will depend on how much distance you’d like to cover as Indonesia is bigger than you’ll think and transportation costs can skew your budget.
Overall, $20-25 USD a day for a solo, bare budget backpacker is quite doable an will get you basic accommodations, 3 meals and a few beers or transport everyday, but will be stretched in the highly touristed areas or if you plan to move around frequently. Couples shouldn’t spend much more since most accommodations are guesthouses and losmens and therefore charge the same price if there are 1 or 2 occupants. Couples can get by on $30-35 USD a day.
If you increase those figures by half as much, you can travel quite comfortably and move about quite freely. Indonesia is slowly becoming more expensive as tourists discover more of Indonesia, but cheap food, transport, and accommodation are still widely available if you don’t mind basic accommodations, stick to your budget, and bargain respectfully for prices. In tourist areas, bargaining is more difficult and higher prices are quite common because hotels and vendors know there are people who will pay those prices without question, so walking around to find the best deal becomes even more necessary.
Lastly, also remember that Indonesia in most areas is very poor and doesn’t see many travellers, so know that the 10,000 or 20,000 rupiah you haggle for means much more to them than it probably does to you. I found that a smile and joke goes much further than a hard charging bargainer and especially in the homestays, the difference was being included in the family’s activities and lifestyle which was worth way more than the few dollars I could have saved by bearing down.