Were you thinking of hiring a houseboat in Kerala?
The quintessential way to see the backwaters, or so the Kerala tourist authority will tell you, is by houseboat – not surprising, as this is also by far the most expensive way to see them.
Although there are some positive reasons to splash out (hilarious pun) on an overpriced houseboat, there are a host of other cheaper, better value options.
Alleppey Houseboat rates have tripled in the last 5 years. Alleppey (Alapuzha), the most popular backwater destination, has been likened to a canal carpark during the peak season.
Although low season is a much more peaceful time to visit, even with low season discount it’s almost impossible to find a houseboat for two people for under 5000Rs ($95) per night with fan only.
But, there is more to this story than the price…
What you get on a houseboat in Alleppey
We are budget travellers. Even so, we don’t mind opening our wallets a little for truly worthwhile experiences. The houseboat experience is, in our opinion, not worth the money. What you get for your dollars is simply not great value, especially when you consider the more affordable and, frankly, better options and locations available. We’ll discuss those later on.
Still, if you have your heart set on the experience, here are 6 points to consider before the local touts separate you from bundles of rupees.
- Sleeping out on the canals is, of course, a highlight. The alternative is getting a home stay right next to the canal – much cheaper (Fan rooms under 1000Rs), but not quite the same as sleeping on a boat.
- If you are coming to the backwaters as a break from a hectic job/life then pottering about on a Kerala houseboat, relaxing, is a primary reason to be there. It’s a lot calmer than the public ferry, but there are more, equally peaceful, boat options too that we’ll look at below.
- Large house boats will only fit down large canals – the same canals plied by the local (and very cheap) ferries. Don’t expect to see much more than the “highways” of the backwaters.
- One night Boat trips will leave in the afternoon and park up around sunset. They will then journey back to port shortly after sunrise and drop you between 7.30am and 9.30am. If your boat only departs around 4pm and you like to sleep in, your 5,000 rupees is going to get you about 2 to 3 hours of sightseeing and no lie in. If you are an early riser, you’ll get more out of the experience.
- Taking a boat in a large group is much more economical. The price only increases slightly per extra guest. If you have a big enough group then the trip could be good value. Ensure the boat you have booked actually has enough beds for the amount of passengers.
- Food may be classed as included, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get the premium food they advertise. Here is a simple anecdote. Boat driver says “food is included with the trip, I can get you local tiger prawns”. Translation “A veg thali – worth about 75 rupees – is included. If you want prawns I’ll charge you an extra 1,500 rupees”. Ensure you negotiate precise inclusions in advance.
It should be noted that we decided against taking a houseboat after scrutinising the inclusions, interviewing people who had gone on them and watching them around the canals as we travelled on the ferries. The observations are based on that, not on a trip we took personally.
We are not saying that they may not be enjoyable to many travellers, just that we don’t believe you’ll get anywhere near the experience you’d expect given the price.
We did, however, visit the backwaters via 3 alternative modes of transport…
The Alternative Boats
1. The Public Ferries in Alleppey
From 7 to 40 rupees per hour depending on route. Fixed prices. In Alleppey the ferries leave from the central ferry terminal – all taxi drivers will know where it is.
The ferries are the genuine, local way of getting about. Although there are plenty of roads these days, ferries are often cheaper and generally more direct too. It’s not as peaceful, or comfortable but it is super cheap and sharing seats with locals, many of which will be happy to talk to you a little if they speak English, you feel the reality of local life.
For sightseeing, there is a “Government tourist ferry” which goes back and forth along a few of the largest canals, at a slightly higher price than the basic ferries. The two hour return trip cost 40 rupees (75 cents) per person each way. It goes fast and travels down the centre of major canals. So, you are viewing life in the backwaters at a distance.
For the price it is still pretty good. The ferry also operates as transport for locals but there is a top deck specially for sightseeing.
The Alleppey tourist (green) ferry runs about 5 trips per day from sunrise to sunset.
The times (posted in April 2014):
We also took one of the non-tourist ferries (the 11.45am – 1.5 hour – roundtrip ferry from Alleppey – destination unknown!). This cost 7 rupees (about 13 cents) per person each way. Not only was this a great local experience but it stopped at a lot of smaller jetties and visits some of the medium sized canals.
Ferries run all over the place, not just from Alleppey.
One way, long distance local ferries
There are a few long distance ferries. These take many hours and connect a long length of the backwaters. For example you could take an 8 hour ride from Alleppey to Kollam. However, we were informed that these trips were irregular at best in low season. They rarely leave on time and, if they don’t get enough paying customers, they likely won’t leave at all.
If you’ll be arriving in high season, then take a look at the official info and keep your fingers crossed. The website says daily departures at 9.30am but the board in the office told us 10.30am…
- Very cheap
- Set prices no matter what season you arrive in
- Get to mingle with and meet the locals going about their day to day
- See many of the same backwater routes as the more expensive boat options.
- No idea where you are going or what you are seeing. You could try hiring a cheap guide to come on the ferry with you for the day.
- Can only see the routes that the ferries traverse.
- No stops for lunch or drinks, though you can just jump off anywhere and hope that you’ll be able to get home again.
2. The Chakara
A Chakara (the local name we were told but cannot verify the spelling online) is a large, covered longboat filled with plush chairs. They vary in size from comfortably seating 6 people to maybe 20+ people.
Low Season price: from 300+ rupees ($5.50) per hour for 2 people. 600+ rupees per hour for 6 people. For peak season we heard they sometimes charge over 1000Rs per hour.
After taking a couple of the ferries, we decided that perhaps that wasn’t enough of the backwaters for us. Although the driver promised he would take us to the “small backwaters”, he didn’t. The route we followed was mostly a combination of where we travelled on the two public ferries the day before.
The main benefit of paying way more than the other options is comfort. The Chakara is a decadent choice. Normally, if your budget can support it, this could be a good thing. But there is a downside…
You are riding around, lounging in a lavish boat past labourers and people doing laundry in the canal. This made us feel very awkward. It felt somewhat like a human zoo rather than the organic experience of the ferry.
Feeling like a Maharajah lording over his subjects might be the ideal experience for some travellers, not for us.
- Personal boat.
- Personal driver who will give you some info about the area.
- Nice, comfortable seats. We even had a couple of loungers on our boat.
- Stops for local food and drink if requested
- Although cheaper than the houseboat, its still much more expensive than the other options.
- The plush boat makes you feel awkward whilst gawking at under-paid locals.
3. The Canoe
We found this the best balance of money to experience. Around 150Rs – 200Rs per hour, for two people, if hired directly, the Canoes are small and can go down all the tiny canals where the other boats don’t go. It’s a quiet, slow pace, you get to meet local people and see everyday life close up.
Remember to duck when you float under bridges.
The package we bought was 500Rs ($9.50) per person for private (non-air con) 40 min transfer from Kollam to Munroe Island and a 2.5 hour canoe ride. We visited the local chai (tea) shop, a coconut oil home workshop and enjoyed many sights of the backwaters – rice paddies, Tiger prawn farms and more.
Our trip to Munroe Island did not include a visit to a toddy shop (coconut hooch) or a lunch stop, but you could negotiate this as part of a package.
One option for 900Rs per person in Alleppey involves taking the ferry out to the small backwaters, then being fed breakfast, lunch and toddy (extra fee for toddy) whilst seeing the area by canoe. Quite a good price for a full day, though it will likely cost more in high season. Call: +91 9387 812427 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Private Canoe.
- Personal driver who will give you some info about the area.
- Visit the smallest backwater canals
- Good value
- Being poled around the canals gives you the real “Venice of India” experience.
- Bring an umbrella – most canoes have no cover. You are open to rain and sun. Saying that, the smaller canals normally have plenty of shade.
- Sitting on a wooden plank for a few hours
So, which Boat should you take Instead of a Houseboat?
We suggest the perfect combo is taking one or more of the public ferries, a cheap way to see and get a feel for life in the backwaters. Then get a canoe experience – a good value way to visit the tiny backwaters. Make sure you request to have a food/toddy shop visit on your canoe trip – more on that next…
Tell me more about the toddy shops
Well, I’m glad you asked. Toddy shops are the local drinking holes along the backwaters. These secretive little shacks are dotted around the place, prohibition style. Finding yourself inside a corrugated iron hut, you’ll be plied with the coconut hooch. This is freshly made stuff and is in no way standardised – it could be anything from 1% to, and we are sure this was an exaggeration, 30% alcohol.
Apparently, the later in the day you visit, the stronger it is likely to be. For our afternoon visit we’d estimate our coconut beverage had reached about 5%.
These dirty drinking holes are clearly serving up the local thirst quencher at bargain basement prices. As a tourist, however, they expect you to pay 150 rupees for a large bottle (up to a litre). Ask the price before you buy though – 150 is already a high price.
They even did us a bottle “take-away” to drink on our boat. The rapidly fermenting booze did require a hole in the cap to stop it exploding though – so it’s not a gift to take home.
Finding toddy shops by sight is not easy – they are nondescript. You’ll need to ask around if you want to find them without a guide/boatman.
What about food?
We enjoyed a banana leaf curry right next to the canal. A traditional South Indian lunch of rice, popadom and a selection of veg curries served up on a large green banana leaf. An unlimited meal for just 75 rupees. Seafood was also available at a much higher price.
Some boats will include food – ask when you book but assume you’ll be paying more booking in advance than if you just turn up. You may need to tell the driver you want a lunch stop though.
It’s no secret that some of these foods in India might not agree with your stomach – so please be careful and always have travel insurance in case you get sick. We recommend World Nomads as they’ve always had our back
The Alternative Kerala Backwater Locations
In Alleppey we found we spent more time taking photos of other people riding in tourist boats than we did of locals.
Alleppey is the most popular destination but the backwaters stretch a long way across Kerala. There are plenty of things to see and experience, no matter where you visit. If avoiding pushy touts and having a more personal, non-touristy experience is your aim, then consider one of the lesser visited destinations.
Also, to get better deals, avoid high season (Dec-Feb). Already high prices can almost double in peak season.
Here is a short list of other great locations to research for the Kerala Backwaters:
- Kollam / Munroe Island / Astamudi Lake
- Kottayam – Close to the Alleppey area
- Thiruvallam Lagoons and Akkulam-Veli Backwaters – Near Trivandrum
- Alumkadavu Backwaters – near Karunagappally
- Kumbalangi Backwaters – Near Kochi
- Canoli canal and Kallai backwaters – in the Kozhikode district
Here’s a few of OUR TOP Hotel Picks for Kerala
we even threw in a few houseboats if you’re really desperate to give them a try 😉
Whether you still decide to empty your bank account for a houseboat in Alleppey, or save the pennies and enjoy a better value option, the backwaters are a unique part of India.
The real experience is the relaxed pace. It’s quite a change from any major town or city in India.
Want to experience India but you’re not to certain about travelling independently? We recommend Intrepid travel, they have some great India itineraries and 3 styles of travelling – so there’s something for everyone.
Did you take a Kerala Houseboat? Did the experience justify the high price?