Before Booking a Hotel in Bali

How to Choose the Best Accommodation in Bali

A swimming pool and hotel in Bali
Michael Runkel / Getty Images 

Before booking a hotel in Bali, there are a few caveats to consider — especially if shopping for accommodation online while still at home.

Traditional hotel or guesthouse? Homestay or Airbnb? A wide variety of choices cater to over 4 million guests arriving on the island year around. Hotels range from luxurious and seclusive to shanties that cost less than $10 per night.

Bali is a top destination in Asia. In fact, it’s the most visited of Indonesia’s estimated 922 inhabited islands. Don’t risk your dream vacation by getting stuck in a place you don’t enjoy.

The Best Place to Stay in Bali

There are a lot of places to stay in Bali, but certain areas tend to attract specific kinds of travelers and budgets.

That said, choosing one area doesn't mean you're stuck there! Bali's shared bemos are becoming a thing of the past; travelers use taxis, rideshare services, or tourist buses (Perama is a popular choice) to get between places.

Grab, a rideshare app similar to Uber and Lyft, is a popular option on the island. If you’re comfortable driving in lots of traffic, Bali is a great place to rent a motorbike (scooter).

Thanks to nearly five kilometers of wide beaches and close proximity to the airport, Kuta is where the action is — for better or worse. Most visitors spend at least a little time in South Bali before heading to quieter places farther afield.

Although not exhaustive, here are a few of the most popular places to stay in Bali:

  • Kuta Beach: Kuta attracts the most surfers and backpacking travelers, so there are plenty of noisy, budget accommodation choices around the epicenter of Poppies I and II. Parallel to the beach, Jalan Pantai (Beach Road) in Kuta is pretty well the main drag for Bali. Jalan Legian (the Kuta stretch) is a busy strip of nightclubs, restaurants, and shops. Life generally gets quieter as you move farther north from Kuta Beach.
  • North of Kuta Beach: Just above Kuta Beach, you’ll find Legian — slightly quieter aside from the sports bars filled with day-drinking Bali regulars. North of Legian is Seminyak where hotel and dining options are considerably more upscale compared to their neighbors in the south.
  • Ubud: Verdant Ubud is famous for attracting a yoga crowd, but it has its share of cafes, organic eateries, artisans, and culture to make up for the lack of a beach.
  • South of the Airport: Jimbaran and Uluwatu are famous for the world-class surfing. Rocky beaches and big waves keep many families away, but some great deals for boutique hotels and homestays can be found in the area.
  • Sanur: Sanur, on the west coast just opposite of Kuta and Denpasar, is home to the oldest luxury hotel on Bali. The strip tends to attract older, more "sophisticated" travelers than Kuta. The beach is laid back, but as with anywhere, a little nightlife can still be found.
  • The Northeast: Ahmed, on the northeast corner of the island, is quickly becoming a hotspot for diving. Many of the small hotels along the black-sand beach aren’t found online.

Should You Book Ahead or in Person?

The old conundrum of whether to book the duration of a stay or only the first few nights before arriving is a real challenge in Bali.

Although booking a hotel in Bali before arriving does wonders for peace of mind, you may pay for it in more ways than one. Finding out there’s a much better/quieter/friendlier hotel next door with discount rates is frustrating, especially when you’re already locked into a property booked from home. Finding out that there's a noisy construction project going on and your room is nonrefundable is even more frustrating!

Unfortunately, hotel photos can be doctored to make them look more appealing to people who are making reservations from thousands of miles away. Tweaking online reviews is common practice in Bali; don't believe everything you see or read.

Assuming you aren’t one of the many honeymooners heading to Bali each year and are willing to take a small gamble, you could book only the first night or two and then change hotels if necessary. Ask the front desk to extend if the place meets expectations. This is obviously a dangerous strategy during peak times. Confirm that you'll receive the original online price offered if you decide to extend — this is not always the case.

Traveling during peak season in Bali makes waiting to book your hotel a bit pricier, but you’ll still be able to find a room.

Tip: You’ll need the name and address of a hotel when exiting the airport. If not booking ahead, at least do enough research to know where to start. Never take the taxi driver’s recommendation for a hotel in Bali.

Not All Hotels Are Online

Not all hotels and guesthouses have an online listing. Don’t be discouraged by prices or lack of availability based on what you see from booking sites.

For every hotel you find available on the popular travel sites, there are probably three more independently owned budget hotels nearby that aren’t set up for online bookings.

What's more, not all rooms in each hotel are listed as available to booking sites. In fact, hotels may only open a handful of their many rooms to online bookings. Just because a booking site tells you a hotel is full doesn't always mean that no rooms are available.

Isn't ensuring they can be found online smart business for hotels in Bali? Yes, but some lack the knowhow; others don’t want to forfeit the 15 percent or so kept as commission by travel sites. Their great location could mean that they receive enough walk-in business and barely bother with online listings.

Reception May Ask You to Book Online

Inexplicably, Bali is one of the few places in Southeast Asia where hotel management sometimes prefers that you book your room online rather than in reception! Walk-in and online prices may differ greatly because of intense competition between hotels on travel sites.

Rather than matching the price for a room listed online, management will sometimes prefer to pay the commission and ask that walk-in guests sit down in reception — within a few steps of the front desk — to book their own rooms!

Tip: The price to extend your room may be significantly higher than what you reserved online. You’ll often be told to pay the walk-in price or fight Bali’s notoriously slow Wi-Fi to extend your stay online.

Reviews Aren't Always Honest

As is the case with pretty much all online reviews, be a little skeptical about what you read. Reviews get shamelessly gamed in Bali.

Guesthouses regularly delete bad reviews or engage online "influencers" to leave lots of positive reviews. Friends and family are in on the game, too. One way to tell is that these types of reviews are often so glowing they stand out from the others in an artificial way.

The oldest trick in the book? Leave a review on a competitor’s page about bedbugs. Although not a serious problem in Bali and probably just someone’s jab at the hotel, you should know how to check your room for bed bugs immediately after checking in.

Airbnb Works Well on Bali

Airbnb has exploded in popularity on Bali. The many expat residents who settled on Bali travel frequently or return to their home countries. Some of these residents choose to rent their homes and condos while gone. Others may simply rent an extra room while still living onsite.

If you’re having trouble finding a hotel in Bali, prefer to have a kitchen, or want to stay in a more residential area, consider looking for an Airbnb. Many Airbnb options are just outside of the tourist area. For more mobility, look for places within walking distance of KL's extensive rail network.

Noise Can Be an Issue

Noise problems come and go at hotels in Bali. If you stay in backpacker guesthouses in Kuta where parties run late, or near the southern end of Jalan Legian — the liveliest strip for nightlife — expect to hear the thump thump of electronic music all night.

But even strategically selecting where to stay in Bali can still mean dealing with noise. In the shoulder season months of March and April, hotels may be in a rush to finish renovations and construction projects before the busy season begins in summer. The early hours thump thump may come from a contractor’s hammer rather than a DJ's techno track.

Traffic is a serious issue around the island, and drivers are really inclined to use their horns. If given a choice, always ask for a room that doesn’t face the street. Paying the difference for a “garden view” room may be worth the difference. Aside from the annual Day of Silence, the drone of motorbikes never stops along major thoroughfares in Bali.

Choose Hotel Locations Carefully

Before committing to a hotel simply because a booking site listed it as “.04 miles to beach,” bring up Google Maps and plot the route as a pedestrian with legs rather than wings. You may even be able to do a Street View stroll from the address to the beach.

Many budget hotels in Bali are located down dark, narrow alleyways and inconvenient places to reach by walking. Sometimes easy beach access is blocked by upscale hotel properties that don't allow non-guests to cut through. Security is usually posted.

Although crime is fairly low in Bali, walking the unlit passages back to the hotel after sunset could be intimidating. Don’t simply rely on listed geographical distances that are often as the crow flies.

Not All Homestays Are Ideal

Family-run homestays are popular in Bali. Sometimes the word “homestay” is used interchangeably with “guesthouse” or "hostel" so breakfast may or may not be included. You can rest assured that booking a “homestay” does not mean that you’ll be in a high-rise hotel.

Although staying in a homestay should theoretically provide a better opportunity for a quaint, cultural experience, they aren’t always the most comfortable option. Many homestays are family run, so employees forced to “earn their keep” may be less enthusiastic about cleaning or responding to complaints. For obvious reasons, homestays are typically older properties with more problems. The language barrier may be an issue when English-speaking staff members aren't around.

Watch Out for Top Picks

Homestays and guesthouses who earned the coveted top-pick listing in popular guidebooks about Asia also sometimes suffer from a lack of energy. The so-called “Guidebook Effect” ensures that they’ll receive a steady stream of customers regardless of effort. An overworked staff becomes less cordial when business quadruples but salaries remain the same. Tipping is not a common practice in Indonesia.

Although choosing among the most popular hotels on the island seems like a sure bet, it depends on management. You’ll certainly have a tougher time negotiating for a room discount when staying at top picks.

Tip: When negotiating a room rate, offer to give up the free breakfast. Doing so is a concession and allows management to save face.

Test Wi-Fi Before Committing

If Wi-Fi is very important to you (e.g., you’ll be working or making a lot of internet calls while at the hotel), you’ll definitely want to verify that it works well before taking a room. Even large, upscale hotels are plagued by slow Wi-Fi connections, an all-too-familiar source of frustration for digital nomads in Bali.

Try asking reception for a room closer to the access point, although this might not make a difference at night and on rainy days when more guests turn to laptops and smartphones for entertainment.

Check for a Smoke Smell

Smoking indoors is common in Bali. Even if you booked a non-smoking room, a room may have been converted to “non smoking” just before you arrived. Sometimes smoke from communal areas in the hotel can enter rooms.

If you’re sensitive to cigarette smoke, check the room before committing. Moving to a room without the smell may not be an option if the smoke keeps coming from the lobby.

Not All Welcome Drinks Are the Same

Don’t get too excited if your booking description includes a welcome drink while checking in. Many a honeymooner has learned the hard way that “welcome drink” doesn’t always mean “cocktail.”

Sometimes the welcome drinks are sugary, purple concoctions more appreciated by the average 8-year-old. The same applies to the “one free drink at happy hour” vouchers given out. Even the welcome drinks that contain alcohol may be made with arak because it's the cheapest option.

Tip: Arak, a low-cost local moonshine, has been responsible for numerous deaths on Bali due to methanol poisoning — steer clear.

Rules Are Rules

Indonesia has a reputation as one of the friendliest places in Southeast Asia. The hotel staff are almost always overwhelming polite and attempt to accommodate needs.

Knowing how to say hello in Bahasa Indonesia correctly will certainly get you some smiles around the guesthouse. But you’ll also find that staff members value their jobs and rigidly adhere to hotel policies and protocol, more so than hotel staff in the West.

In this case, the customer isn’t always right — but the finance-controlling boss is always right. If breakfast ends at 10 a.m., don’t turn up at 10:10 a.m. and expect to receive anything more than a sweet smile and “I’m sorry.”

Use the Net

Not the internet, the mosquito net! Sleeping beneath a mosquito net isn't just a romantic notion; if your room has one, it’s there for a reason. Use it. Keep the net closed during the day or biters may become trapped on the inside.

Open-air bungalows and rooms with balconies are part of the charm on an exotic island with tropical weather, but Bali has a sizable mosquito population that gets hungry at night.

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