With four million tourists pouring into Bali every year, the Island of the Gods is no longer the secret getaway it once was. Longtime visitors often talk of how Bali used to be with a twinkle in their eye, and there is a strong movement pushing for Bali to slow down on foreigner-owned development.
But despite the influx of fellow foreigners, Bali is still an incredible place with world-class diving, surfing, hiking, and more. I truly don’t think I could ever tire of visiting, as there is always opportunity for adventure in their unique culture.
After multiple visits to Bali over the past four years, here are my top tips.
Before you Go
Suitcase vs. Backpack
I’m a strong advocate for packing your junk into a backpack rather than a rolling suitcase in general – but this is especially the case when traveling to Bali. Frequent rains mean that there are mud puddles and potholes everywhere. Though you might feel fly rolling your sleek suitcase through the hotel lobby, those brown skids you’ve left behind might say otherwise. Bali is hot and humid. If you pack light, the backpack shouldn’t be too heavy, anyways.
Do you need a visa or flight out?
Customs or ticketing agents will ask some travelers if they have a flight out of Bali or not. This hasn’t happened to me (I’ve booked my flight onward from in Bali), friends of mine have been rejected entry until they can prove that they have a confirmed flight out of the Island of the Gods.
Always check your visa status in advance. Most nationalities are granted a free visa-on-arrival, valid for 30 days.
Bring reef safe sunscreen and sun protection
Sunscreen is not only overpriced in Bali, but it’s also nearly impossible to find a sunscreen that is reef-safe (does not contain oxybenzone or other reef-killing chemicals). Popular brands like Sun Bum, Banana Boat, Coppertone, etc., all contain reef-killing chemicals. Pack a long sleeved rashguard to protect your skin and minimize your need for sunscreen. Some reef-safe brands include Stream2Sea, Green People, Raw Elements, and The Surf Butter Co.
You can use Uber/Lyft
I have a grudge against taxi drivers around the globe. If you’re looking for the seediest and most untrustworthy people in a country, they’re often found sitting at the wheel of a cab. Still, if you must take one, it’s best to hop in a Bluebird taxi (if they’re willing to turn their meter on). Or grab Uber.
Uber and Lyft are shunned in most tourist-heavy parts of Bali – where there currently is a battle going on between taxi drivers and Uber/Lyft drivers, where taxi drivers take pictures of Uber/Lyft drivers and post them in a Facebook group. Uber/Lyft drivers’ cars are often vandalized or worse, their safety is threatened.
If you do use Uber/Lyft, do it extremely discretely. Claim that you are getting picked up by a private driver from your hotel if anyone asks and keep your phone in your pocket. I always keep the business card of a private driver on hand to show curious bystanders. If you’re in a rush, don’t use Uber. They won’t pick you up if they’re afraid of being seen by a taxi driver and you’ll be dealing with cancellation drama. Sometimes they call in advance and ask where you’ll be going (to see if their time is worthwhile). It’s up to you whether you want to tell them.
Private drivers run about 500,000 IDR per day and are great if you have multiple people or want to go on a full day tour.
Buy a SIM card
If you have a smartphone that accepts SIM cards, it’s worth spending the few dollars it costs for a few gigs of data. Data is cheap and easy to get all throughout Bali. I like Telkomsel or XL. It’s a lifesaver for Google Maps and booking last-minute accommodation.
Avoid buying your SIM card at the airport if you can help it — it’s 4x the street price.
Squat toilets and bucket-wipe-downs are the norm
Unpopular opinion, but I find squat toilets to be more sanitary than hovering over a Western one covered in stranger drips. Not all toilets have toilet paper, so pack it in your clothing pockets and bag before you head out for the day. If you don’t see a flush, that bucket full of water with a scoop inside is used instead.
Avoid currency exchange stalls
The best place to get money will be out of an ATM. Pull out cash at an ATM in an established place like a popular shopping center or at the airport. Currency exchange booths often feature exchange rates that are too good to be true and the men managing them have better slight-of-hand skills than David Blaine.
Stay the hell away from Kuta
Why, oh why, does everyone ignore this advice? Kuta is a dump. Expect to be hassled, taunted, and scammed in Bali’s only truly terrible area. Go anywhere else but here. If you just need to get your party fix, do it for a night and get out.
Plastic is everywhere… thanks partially to tourists!
Indonesia has one of the worst trash problems in the world. With thousands of islands and no uniform way to manage the plastic that pours in and is used in the hospitality industry, it’s created a massive problem. From October to March, the beaches are carpeted in plastic. Be mindful of the plastic that you use. Bring your own water bottle and use sterilization pens, dine in when possible, and consider bringing your own container for takeaway meals and leftovers. Opting out of plastic might just be the biggest challenge travelers face in Bali, but it’s worth the extra effort.
Bartering vs. being a straight-up cheapskate
Prices in Bali are more like rough guidelines, and virtually everything from your meal to your ride to your hotel to that souvenir is negotiable. You can usually chip 30-50% off your tab by bartering – but spending an hour haggling over the equivalent of fifty cents makes you a penny-pinching Scrooge.
Watch for the monkeys
They’re cute, rambunctious, and look out! One’s about to take your #Tiffany’s necklace!
Plenty of tourists rave about how soft the monkey’s hands and feet are as they climb up your back – but they’re still (very) wild animals. Monkeys are conniving little opportunists, and will steal anything that looks appealing to them, zipper or Velcro closure be damned! When visiting places like the Uluwatu Temple or Monkey Forest in Ubud, wear simple clothing, minimal jewelry, and keep any valuables tucked deep inside your bag. Thankfully cameras don’t seem to be a big ticket item in the monkey world, but err on the side of caution and keep all belongings close to you.
Don’t make my mistake and bring a yellow camera bag – they can and will mistake it for a bushel of bananas. Shout out to my little sister who peaced out the second an alpha monkey climbed up my arm, bared his teeth, and tried to wrangle my bag away. A few minutes later, we saw a monkey sink his teeth into a tourist’s forehead as an attempt to get the tourist’s sunglasses.
Vegetarians: Happy Cow is your friend
Justine from Travel-Lush first introduced me to this amazing app, Happy Cow, on her round-up of vegetarian foods to try in Bali. Though most of Bali is vegetarian or vegan friendly, you’ll be able to find better-than-average vegetarian meals in just about every tourist town.
Drugs are illegal
Before you skip this one (psh, aren’t they illegal in every country?), realize that drugs are super-illegal in Indonesia. Trafficking, even as a foreigner, receives the death penalty and tourists caught with drugs might find themselves staying at Hotel Kerobokan, Bali’s most notorious prison. There are plenty of scams where cops pose as just your average, friendly, neighborhood dealer in hopes of trapping tourists for a bribe.
Visit the top attractions at sunrise
Some attractions, like the Tegalalang Rice Terraces, get flooded with tourists after 9 a.m. Instead, go to anywhere that might be busy at sunrise, before the fellow bule beat you there. Plus, it’s when your pictures will come out the best.
Drink more water than Bintang
The appeal of downing a $1 beer with every meal is strong, but remember that the humidity and heat are constant elements set out to dehydrate your foreign lump of meat. Combat this by chugging water frequently and after every strenuous activity.
Adventure within your limits
There is incredible trekking, surfing, and diving all around Bali – making it an adventurer’s paradise. Beginners at any of these sports need to watch for massive swells or severe weather coming through. I’ve written a Bali surf-spot guide that highlights where to surf and have a standing warning against diving with Penida Dive Resort. When in doubt, don’t go – or only go with a guide.
Booking a homestay or hotel
From basic stays to five star luxury, Bali offers virtually every type of accommodation that there is. I use Agoda and Booking.com to find cheap places in Bali. If you’re looking for luxury, VillaBali.com is helpful, too.
Know the standard prices
You should find things around this range:
Motorbike rental: ~50,000-70,000 IDR per day. More expensive on Nusa Lembongan or Nusa Penida
Homestay room: ~150,000 IDR per night, not including air conditioning
Beer: ~15,000-30,000 per Bintang
Basic meal: ~20,000 and up for nasi campur, nasi goreng, or gado gado
Don’t step on canang sari
Everywhere you go in Bali, you’ll be greeted with a daily offering on three platforms, sometimes placed multiple times per day. These offerings are gifts to the gods – both benevolent and demonic. Kicking or stepping on one isn’t a serious snafu that won’t have you cursed, but do you really want to take that risk?
Wear a helmet
Most tourist deaths in Southeast Asia are caused by motorbike accidents. Wearing a helmet and driving modestly just might save your coconut.
Avoid getting a Balinese kiss
Before you start frothing for one, a true Balinese kiss will leave you with more regret than a night out in Kuta ever could.
Motorbikes are the preferred method of transportation in Bali, and nearly every Balinese person over the age of five knows how to drive one. When walking through a crowded parking lot, watch out for sizzling hot exhaust pipes. Tourists often come home touting a Balinese kiss, or singe mark on the calf from brushing against a just-parked motorbike.