Hiring a traditional thatched Kerala houseboat and exploring the backwaters is one of the top things to do in Kerala. However, there are a few important things you should know in order to go about it the right way and make the best decision.
Where to Hire a Houseboat
The majority of houseboats are hired from Alleppey, the gateway to the backwaters in between Kochi and Kollam. It's located about two hours south of Kochi. Most houseboat operators and around 1,000 houseboats are based there. From Alleppey, you'll be taken on an adventure through the various backwaters to places such as Kumarakom, Kottayam, and Alumkadavu (near Kollam). There's a wide range of destinations to choose from to suit all travel plans. Houseboats will usually slowly travel a distance of around 40-50 kilometers (25-30 miles) through the backwaters each day, so you'll get to see lots of different scenery.
Many resorts and luxury hotels have their own houseboats as well. They offer sunset cruises and overnight trips. Other hotels and homestays will be able to readily arrange a houseboat for you. That way, you can combine staying along the backwaters with a houseboat ride.
Take a look at relaxing Kumarakom hotels and resorts and top homestays in Alleppey on the Kerala Backwaters for inspiration.
Depending on your itinerary and the time of year, it may be a good idea to hire a houseboat somewhere else than Alleppey to avoid the increasing overcrowding of boats there. Otherwise, you're likely to find yourself surrounded by dozens of boats on standard routes during peak season, and possibly encounter rowdy domestic tourists who delight in playing loud music and getting drunk. Recommended alternative starting points are Kottayam, Kollam, Kasargod in northern Kerala, and Kozhikode (Calicut).
Kollam has grown in popularity as a backwater destination but it's yet to become touristy. Ashtamudi Lake is the focal point of houseboat trips in the Kollam area, with mangroves and migratory birds. Monroe Island is one of 15 islands on the lake, and it attracts tourists who want an authentic experience of local life away from the crowds. Routes cover the islands and pass through relatively unexplored waterways. You'll get to see plantations, Chinese fishing nets, rustic villages, a heritage palace, and diverse places of worship.
The unspoiled Kozhikode backwaters are situated near Kappad beach and Kadalundi Bird Sanctuary, about five hours north of Kochi. This historically important area is where Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama landed in the 15th century. Houseboat trip routes include Canolly Canal, Kallai River, and Ellathur village.
Houseboat tourism is still in its infancy in northern Kerala's Karasagod district, meaning idyllic and undisturbed waterways.
For the sake of convenience, some people might want to hire a houseboat in Kochi. It's possible but it won't offer the same experience as from Alleppey. You can do a backwater day trip from Kochi instead of staying overnight, or go out in a canoe or kayak. The boats leave from the main wharf area in Fort Kochi. Kochi-based Salmon Tours specializes in village backwater day tours in country boats, houseboats, and speedboats.
Alternatively, Breeze Backwater Homes is located on the backwaters between Kochi and Alleppey (about 40 minutes from Fort Kochi). This serene homestay with eco-friendly cottages offers reasonably priced overnight backwater trips in quality non-motorized houseboats.
How Long Are Houseboats Hired for?
You can hire a houseboat for as little as three hours or as long as a week! It's really up to you. However, you're interested in seeing a lot of the small canals, a three-hour trip may not be long enough. Day trips run from around midday until 6 p.m. Most people go for overnight hire, which includes a serene sleep out in the middle of nowhere, in a lake or other similarly peaceful spot. The houseboats then return by 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. the next day. Two-night houseboat hire is also popular. However, it can become boring for any length of time longer than this. 48 hours on a houseboat is definitely long enough to take in all the sights and re-charge your batteries. Such a trip will cover many of the top canals, interior villages, and remote peaceful waterways. Do note that the boats must be moored after sunset, to prevent disturbance to fishing activity.
What's the Best Route to Take?
Most people depart from Alleppey and do a round trip through the core backwater area. However, it's also possible to do one-way trips, such as from Alleppey to Kottayam (useful if you're going to or from Munnar or Periyar in Thekkady), and Alleppery to Kochi. Some of the best routes include:
- Alleppey-Kuttanad -- renowned for its paddy fields, it has an extensive network of narrow backwaters and is an excellent destination for experiencing village life around Thottappally, Nudmudy and Thakazhi. The Kuttanad district is referred to as the "rice bowl of Kerala" and farming is intriguingly done below sea leave in this area.
- Alleppey-Kumarakom -- many luxury resorts are located on the banks of Vembanad Lake in this area. It's also renowned for the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary and Pathiramanal Island. The canals are much wider and you'll cross the large expanse of the lake, plus sprawling reclaimed farming areas such as C Block, R Block, and H Block.
- Alleppey-Kollam -- this is a particularly long cruise, and is either a one-way day trip or overnight return. The route is really scenic with many narrow canals, farm fields, and secluded villages. It goes past Amritapuri Ashram of Amma the "Hugging Mother", and Alumkadavu where the houseboats are made.
- Payyanur and Kottapuram near Nileshwar in Karasagod district -- this route covers Valiyaparamba Island and the Kavvayi backwaters. Oyster Opera theme village, dedicated to oyster farming, lies along it.
How Much Does It Cost to Hire a Houseboat?
The cost of houseboat hire greatly depends on the size and quality of the boat, and the time of year (prices triple from late December to early January). Boats range from basic to ultra luxurious, with one to 10 bedrooms. Most boats have living rooms, dining rooms, modern amenities, air-conditioning, and attached bathrooms. Some have rooftop sun decks, spas and even swimming pools! A benefit of having an upper deck lounge area is that you'll be able to relax and enjoy the view in privacy away from the staff. Do keep in mind that boats with more than two bedrooms will be too big to cruise the narrow waterways though.
The minimum rate for overnight hire is around 5,000 rupees ($70) without air-conditioning. Most people pay around 10,000 rupees ($140) upwards to hire a deluxe air-conditioned houseboat for two. Rates easily go up to 18,000 rupees ($255) or more for a luxury houseboat. Large family sized houseboats, with multiple bedrooms and living rooms, are also available for hire. Prices start from around 20,000 rupees ($280) for one of these, for an overnight trip. The cost should include freshly cooked food, made by an onboard cook, and non-alcoholic drinks.
When Is the Best Time to Hire a Houseboat?
Peak season is from December to the end of January when the weather is cooler and dry, but it's possible to hire a houseboat all year round. Some people find that the monsoon season has special appeal and choose to combine their houseboat hire with an Ayurvedic treatment. Attractive monsoon discounts are offered as well. March to May gets very hot and humid, so if you hire a houseboat during this time, an air-conditioned one is definitely recommended.
Keep in mind that peak season does get busy. Don't be surprised to find the canals congested with houseboats!
What Are Some Reputable Kerala Houseboat Operators?
Unfortunately, the boom in backwater tourism and associated proliferation in houseboats is having a negative impact on the environment in Kerala. In particular, poor waste management practices are noticeably polluting the waterways around Alleppey and Kumarakom. In order to address this, the Kerala government has introduced a new houseboat classification system with Silver, Gold and Diamond ratings (to replace the older Silver Star, Gold Star and Green Palm categories). The ratings are based on factors including responsible waste management, disability-friendly features, use of eco-friendly materials, codes of conduct for guests and staff, quality of furnishings and fixtures, use of LED lamps, bio-gas stoves, smoke alarms, and first-aid kits.
There are so many houseboats for hire at Alleppey that it's not necessary to book in advance, apart from during the peak season. Instead head down to the jetty in the early morning (before 9 a.m.), inspect the boats there, and negotiate the best price. Then go back to your hotel, pack your belongings, and when you return to the boat it will be ready to depart.
During peak season, the availability of quality boats drops dramatically, and prices get hiked. As prices aren't properly regulated, they can fluctuate widely. To get an idea of prices and what's on offer (and also to book in advance if you wish), reputable companies that have a range of houseboats for hire include CGH Earth's luxury Spice Coast Cruises, Lakes and Lagoons, River and Country Cruises, and Ayana's Houseboats, Evergreen Tours, Angel Queen Houseboats, Eco Houseboats (owner Johnson also has a popular homestay in Alleppey).
For a luxurious boutique experience, try Xandari River Escapes.
Alternatives to Hiring a Houseboat
Budget or solo travelers may find it prohibitively expensive to hire a houseboat. There's no need to be disappointed though! There are other enjoyable ways of experiencing the backwaters. You can stay along the canals and watch the houseboats pass by, catch the public ferry along the backwaters and chat to the locals, or go on a canoe or motor boat trip down the small canals. Find out more in this guide to visiting the Kerala backwaters.