Exploring the backwaters of Kerala on a houseboat cruise is truly a once in a lifetime experience (you can read about our three-day Kerala houseboat cruise here), but how you plan for this trip can make or break your experience.
We spent over two full days in two different cities trying to sort out our houseboat. The experience is a bit DIY, with the quality varying greatly. We looked at seven different boats and considered several others, and discovered that no boat / owner / tour operator is quite the same. That is why we put together these tips on how to book a houseboat in Kerala in order to make your cruise out on the backwaters the magical experience it can be.
Know your options
Regardless of your budget, there are a few things that should come standard in this experience. There are day cruises or overnights. We would definitely advise a two-night cruise. One night is too little, but we found three nights to be unnecessary.
Your boat should be a traditional kettuvallam, the ones with thatched roofs, and ideally it has an upper deck with at least one sofa. Several boats we saw only had chairs, but a backwater cruise is ultimately about relaxation. Having an upper deck gets you more space; privacy from the captain/crew and the higher perspective is perfect for snapping incredible pictures and watching villages go by from above.
- Three meals per day, plus an afternoon snack – make clear whether you want western style of Indian breakfasts
- Tea, coffee and water
- Welcome drinks
- Fruit basket
- Towels and soap
- A working fan in each bedroom
The boat won’t stock alcohol or soft drinks for you, so stock up on however much you’ll need. We brought snacks on board as well – but never got around to eating them since we were so incredibly well fed.
Start your trip in Alleppey (not Kollam)
Houseboats in Kerala are not regulated and therefore the quality of boats can vary widely. We looked at seven boats before choosing one, and while this is extreme, we suggest you look at least three houseboats before committing.
Travelers to Kerala might start off from Fort Cochin, and this quaint little town has plenty of tour operators offering days and overnights in the backwaters. However, with the huge difference in quality, you need to see the boat. If you have pre-booked, you have lost all your leverage to re-negotiate if you do not like your boat.
Some people (and guidebooks) suggest setting off from less popular Kollam for better luck than popular Alleppey, also known as Alappuzha.
To this, we say that there is a reason Kollam is less popular: it is a basic, unremarkable city with little to offer visitors (terrible hotel selection) and limited selection of houseboats. In addition, the tours offered that leave from Kollam tend to head to and around a lake and back, while tours from Alleppey, a 1.5 hour drive (or 8 hour water taxi ride) north has more flexible trips and over 350 boats to choose from in the off season alone.
Skip the water taxi option
When shopping around, at some point, there will be mention that there is a water taxi between Kollam and Alleppey. This is true – there is a 300 rupee ferry ($6) that leaves everyday between the towns, and you will see the same sights as on a houseboat cruise. However, the ferries are rust buckets, loud, smell of gas, packed to brim with commuters and there are no bathrooms. If you are a terribly strict budget this might be an option, but for everyone else, we advise you to opt for the infinitely more relaxing houseboat.
If you are in India during the off season, choosing a houseboat is much easier than high season. Simply take a tuk-tuk to the dock on the morning you would like to depart and start shopping for a boat. You can look at several, choose one and go back to your hotel and get your things. In that time they will go buy all supplies and get ready to welcome you abroad. There is no point planning a day in advance, because unless you get there that day around 9am, all the good boats are gone out on the backwaters until the next morning anyway. This way you can avoid being smooth-talked into reserving a boat you’ve never seen.
In the high season, we still recommend getting to the dock yourself and looking at the boats, but it might be best to do it one day in advance. Just make sure to show up before 9:30am so you have the chance to see many boats to book for the next day.
Golden Rule: you must step aboard the boat and approve it before setting sail.
Bargain your booty off!
Kerala tourism is well-developed and the houseboat operators are well aware of the top price that foreign and Indian tourists are willing to shell out, but they are also ready to bargain with you. This is India after all.
We paid 7,000 Rupees ($125) per night for a two-bedroom boat with all food and transportation costs included. This works out to just over $30 per person, all daily expenses included, though air-conditioning will double the price to $250 per night at least.
This means that in total for a two-night cruise, we paid 14,000 Rupees. But we were initially quoted 20,000 Rupees for the same exact experience, meaning we reduced the price by 30 per cent. If bargaining makes you uncomfortable and you have the budget, we are not saying that this is essential. However, the profits on these houseboat trips are extremely high for the owners of the boat and we prefer to cut the overall cost and then give the chef and captain an extra large tip at the end instead. Just haggle, stick to your price, take their card (oh, they all have business cards) and walk away. After a while, you will get your price.
Extra tip for the bug squeamish
You have chosen a well-maintained houseboat, so there should be no big issues, but when docked at night you are open to the elements. While we ate there were many bugs flying around the lights, even while we ate. If this will bother you, consider specifically requesting a houseboat with a downstairs patio enclosed in glass. We are not sure how many have that and what the price differential is, but saw quite a few float by, even in the low season.