Forget Asia, the country of Indonesia in itself seems like its own separate continent. With up to 18,000 islands and divergent cultures rooted in millennia of history, every hop from one city to another feels like teleporting to a different side of the planet. And with kilometers of open sea separating many tourist stops outside Java Island, getting from point A to point B presents a formidable challenge.
In the list below, we'll try to untangle your transportation options to make your Indonesia itinerary an enjoyable one.
Indonesia Air Transportation: Fast & Surprisingly Inexpensive
Airlines have taken over from ships as Indonesia's most popular means of domestic transport: budget airlines and their rock-bottom fares have removed the last major argument against flying (the high prices), allowing popular low-cost carriers like Citilink, LionAir and AirAsia Indonesia to compete directly with ferries for the backpacker-budget set.
And if you've got some more leeway in your wallet, Indonesian flag-carrier Garuda Indonesia obliges you with the “world's best economy class”, with silverware, an awesome food menu, and onboard entertainment even for cattle class.
A recent upgrade effort has transformed Indonesia's airports, down to the smaller airports like those in Banyuwangi and Labuanbajo. Now, the flying experience in Indonesia doesn't feel so rickety.
Popular airports: International travelers can fly into one of Indonesia's top three international airports to get to the rest of the island nation. These are Soekarno Hatta Airport in Jakarta (IATA: CGK, ICAO: WIII); Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, East Java (IATA: SUB, ICAO: WARR), and Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali (IATA: DPS, ICAO: WADD).
The Bali airport also serves as Indonesia's main hub for flights east of Bali (from Lombok to as far away as Papua). The majority of flights to Labuanbajo, for instance, depart from Bali.
Indonesia's Trains: Riding the Java Express
If you fancy an Indonesia itinerary that focuses on the island of Java, you can travel through the island's main highlights solely by riding Java's extensive railway network.
Take Gambir Train Station near the Monas in Central Jakarta as your starting point (the comfortable Executive/Eksekutif class express trains leave from here; the less said about “Business” class, the better), taking on Java in stages. From Gambir you can ride straight to nearby Bandung (three hours), or Yogyakarta (a scenic six-to-eight hour ride that ranks among the most popular train trips on the menu).
At Yogyakarta you can change trains to head to either Malang (a popular jump-off point to Mount Bromo) or Surabaya, from which another change of train takes you all the way to Banyuwangi, a short ferry hop from Bali!
If you want a single ticket that covers the trip from Surabaya all the way to Bali, book the overnight train that departs from Surabaya Gubeng Station with Denpasar as your endpoint. The trip combines travel by rail to Banyuwangi with a bus and RORO ferry ride across the strait to Bali, terminating at the island capital Denpasar (Bali's main transportation hub).
Booking a train trip: The government rail line's website offers booking services, though English speakers will find the Indonesian-only interface difficult to navigate. Alternatively, you can visit Tiket.com's English-language train booking site, allowing you to book your train ticket online with only a small surcharge paid extra.
Traveling Indonesia by Bus: Wheels Across Islands
Cheaper than (most) airline flights and offering more departure times than the train, the bus remains Indonesia's most popular land transport option.
Many top tourist attractions can only be reached by bus from their respective travel hubs: to get to Mount Bromo, for instance, you'll need to take a bus either from Surabaya or Malang. To get to Tana Toraja, you'll need to ride a bus from Makassar.
Roll-on/Roll-off (RORO) ferries on both ends of Java Island ensure you can board a bus in Jakarta and get off on another island altogether, either at Sumatra to the west or Bali to the east. In Jakarta, Pulo Gadung and Kampung Rambutan bus terminals service routes from the capital to the rest of Java and as far away as Lombok. Travelers to and from Sumatra Island will likely use either Rawamangun or Kali Deres bus terminals instead.
Booking a bus trip: where you once could only book a bus trip at the station itself on the day of your departure, a few online outlets now allow you to book your trip wherever you have an Internet connection.
Bus travelers can choose from three classes: the non-airconditioned economy, and the air-conditioned executive and VIP/Luxury classes. We suggest you pay the tiny bit extra for VIP class's reclining seats, WiFi and onboard toilet; you'll thank us for it later!
Indonesia Ferry Transportation: Slow if by Sea
Long before the postwar era brought multilane highways and airports, Indonesian cities were connected mainly by passenger boats. Penny-pinching travelers still resort to booking cheap seats at Indonesia's government-run shipping line Pelni, whose routes tie together hundreds of seaside cities and towns across Indonesia's vast archipelago.
Economy class on Pelni is bereft of every luxury; you'll be crowded together on a single deck with thousands of other travelers and locals. Cabin classes offer better accommodations and food and offer a more pleasant experience overall.
Trips are scheduled far apart and go very slowly; you'll take days crossing the long distance from port to port, and if you miss a trip you'll have to wait a week for the next scheduled departure. The onboard food, too, does a disservice to the amazing Indonesian cuisine you'll find on land.