kerala backwaters

Last Updated on March 23, 2021 by Dani

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. There are a few things you should know before you book your houseboat in Kerala in order to avoid being disappointed.

backwaters kerala houseboatWe 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 the different options for houseboats in Kerala

Regardless of your budget, there are a few things that should come standard when you book a houseboat in Kerala. 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.

backwater houseboat sundeck

The following things should be included in the price when you book a houseboat in Kerala:

  • 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

kerala houseboat fruit basketThe 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 Kerala houseboat 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.

backwater houseboatsTo 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. This is why we recommend you travel to Alleppey to book your houseboat in Kerala.

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.

backwater cruise companies

Show up at the dock on the day you want to sail (Off season)

If you are in India during the off season, booking 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, bargain, bargain for your houseboat in Kerala

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.

backwater houseboat bedroomThis 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 the price you are willing to pay for your Kerala houseboat trip.

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.

india kerala backwatersWe hope these tips help you find the perfect houseboat for your backwaters cruise. This experience was the highlight of our five weeks in India and we wish the same for you!

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  1. Ah so glad you wrote this, because this sure would have saved us a lot of time and trouble on booking a house boat. My BIGGEST for anyway one doing this is make sure it has an UPPER DECK. Seriously that upper deck was the best thing ever. Spending the endless hours up there gazing at everything going by was just amazing.

    1. Thanks so much, Jaime – one of our taglines is actually ‘We make mistakes so that you don’t have to’ – if we can help that people don’t have to make the same mistakes we made, we feel like we’ve done our job 🙂

  2. These are fabulous tips and I will certainly put them to good use when I make it to India! It’s amazing how much work you guys put into this experience, so thank you for sharing everything you learned with us!

    1. Hi Steph – we definitely took this seriously! We had had so many little things go wrong and needed to have this work out, so we focused and found exactly what we wanted. If you follow these tips, you’ll have a great time too, for sure!

  3. Just as an alternative comment:
    Sept 2012 we did a ferry Kollam and Alleppey. It was great fun day trip. much cheaper option & saw as much as an expensive, noisy houseboat (which follow one another like ducks in a row!)
    I guess there are many different standards of ferry!

    1. Hi Don, it’s true that the ferry is an option, but for us what was so amazing was waking up out there, in total solitude, having that delicious Indian breakfast or stopping off in some of the waterside neighborhoods to play with the kids or just observe daily life. It wasn’t about the transport for us as much as the peace and quiet and separation for the hectic world outside.

  4. hi there..your blog is truly informative and I should really thank you for posting this.I am making a trip on coming November.Hope I would enjoy my trip just as you did!

  5. Hi, my wife and I are currently in Kerala, and we are interested in doing the boat tour from Alleppey. We were wondering if you still had the contact information or name of the service you went through. We are grateful for your informative and entertaining blog! Keep up the excellent work!
    Thank you,
    David and Raquel

    1. Hi David, to be honest, I don’t remember which company we booked with. I highly recommend just walking up to the boats and looking at a few to see which one you’re comfortable with. That’s how we did it and I am glad we checked out the boats before just booking one online – the quality varies greatly!

    2. Hi David.
      I read your comments on Globetrotter Girls and I’m interested how you got on. I plan on hiring a houseboat as well but I’m not sure of the bargaining at the docks idea as my time is very limited. Did you find a company and what were they like.

  6. Book your Alleppey Backwater Houseboat with Recognized Houseboat Company Only –
    01 Bedroom Houseboat Basic Tariff – 6500/-
    02 Bedroom Houseboat Tariff – 8000/-
    03 bedroom Houseboat – 12,500/-
    04 Bedroom houseboat tariff – 14500/-
    week ends & Public holidays – 25% Hike charges

  7. It is the first time I am reading about Globetrotter girls. I came across this article just by chance, and read it because I run a homestay “Varick Villa ” at Alleppey. I have started the homestay only recently, hence Dani’s tips about booking a houseboat in my neighborhood was very informative for me. I appreciate her ability to be able to give tips to local residents too about travel in their area!! Kudos to you Dani. I INVITE YOU to again visit Alappuzha and stay with us.
    I know this is an old article, so you may not get to read my comments; it is just that the article so effected me that I had to write my thoughts!!

  8. Thanks for this! We are venturing to Alleppey later this week to shop around for our boat and noted re the upper deck! Great advice and really grateful for articles like this.

    1. So happy to hear you’ll be touring the backwaters, Stefan!! You’ll love it 🙂 Let me know if you manage to find a decent houseboat and how you liked your trip!

  9. Hi Jess. Great article! I will be getting into Cochin Airport at 740 AM, and was wondering if it were too ambitious to try and get down to Alleppey that same morning and get on a boat? Or, should I just stay there for a day and try to get to the docks early the next morning?

    My time is some what limited, so I cannot waste too much.

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Z, it would be a shame to miss Cochin, because the old town is very nice, but if you’ve got limited time, it is possible to drive straight down to Alleppey. I would assume you can make it there by noon, and could find a boat within a couple of hours if everything goes well.

      1. Thanks, Dani. Hopefully I will get to see some of Cochin on my way out.

        Also, are there houseboat options for mixed groups? I am traveling alone, and asmuch as I like the peace and quiet, it would be nice to jump on one with a small group. I noticed yours was just you and one other person.

  10. Hi Dani, great post! I intended to book online until I read this post. My friend and I are visiting Kochi and Alleppy in Feb 2016. We want to spend a couple of days aboard an houseboat. Should I risk not pre-booking, given Feb is in the peak tourism season?

    1. Hi Felix, to be honest, I don’t think that all boats will be booked out, even though it’s peak season. But if you find a good deal online and you want to be sure you’ll have a boat when you get there, then go for it. I don’t know how much more they charge online but I can imagine that you can find better deals when you show up and shop around.

      1. I’ll do that. The prices are slightly more expensive, but it makes more sense to see the actual boat before committing to anything, like you said in the post. Thanks again!

  11. After reading comments i think i will book when i get there , I am traveling with wife and 2 year old daughter and my brother and sister in law and there 2 kids will 2 days on a houseboat be too much and is is best to book when we get there

  12. Hi, I am Kalyan. Planning to to visit Kerala with my family. I need your suggestion about the house boats. I mean What is the procedure. I am staying in Bangalore, so where do I need to get down in Kerala and how far is the place from its original location. What are the facilities and what are the packages you have. Please write to me.


  13. Hello, In which month did you take the houseboat? I am going on 20-Mar-2018 and wondering if AC is really needed for 33-35C or would fane be sufficient?

  14. Hello, In which month did you take the houseboat? I am going on 20-Mar-2018 and wondering if AC is really needed for 33-35C or would fan be sufficient?

    1. Hi, it depends on how heat-sensitive you are. I personally don’t need to sleep in an AC’d room, but I’ve traveled with people for whom it was absolutely necessary.

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