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When planning our two months of travel between Australia and Canada, we knew we wanted to spend a good chunk of that time in Indonesia. We had been to Bali twice and while we loved the cultural and spiritual richness of the island, we wanted to explore more of the many islands that make up Indonesia. We spent almost 4 weeks in Indonesia, split between Flores, Bali and the Gilis, and Java.
In planning this trip we had been seduced by the adventure, scenery and underwater life of Komodo National Park and cruising from the island of Flores to Lombok in Indonesia. But, we had also heard lots of terrible things about these boat trips – safety issues, poor organization, not enough food and party hard backpackers. Was this a trip that we could do with kids? Below I detail each day of the trip, the boat, which companies to use, what to expect, and what to take with you to get the most from this trip.
We really enjoyed our boat trip. We explored pristine waters, saw Komodo dragons in the wild and cruised past smoking active volcanoes. We had lots of unplugged time to just relax and watch the islands drift by and enjoy the sunset each evening.
I think the key to enjoying this trip is having reasonable expectations of what the trip is like. It is an adventurous way of getting between two islands in Indonesia while experiencing the sights and waters of Komodo National Park. Conditions are basic – bucket flush Western toilet, no shower, sleeping on mats on the deck. The trip we chose was 4 days/3 nights, although some companies do offer a 3 day/2 night option as well.
If you are looking for a little more comfort, there are lots of boats that do multi-day trips departing from Labuan Bajo, the gateway to Komodo National Park. Since the area is a renowned diving area, there are also lots of liveaboard options too. We have read really good things about Flores XP and Wicked Adventures. Check out this post for other options on how to see komodo dragons and visit Komodo National Park.
The boat trip left from Labuan Bajo, which is quickly becoming a little tourist town thanks to the many dive shops that are based there. After spending a few days driving the length of the island of Flores, it was surprising to see so many hotels and tourists on the dusty main street. Traversing the island of Flores was a huge highlight, so please read our guide to travelling Flores overland.
We had seen a photo of the boat we would be taking, but were still pleasantly surprised when we boarded (more info below on choosing boats). It was bigger than I expected and with only 14 passengers, there was lots of room. We were a mixed bag of passengers: 5 Spanish girls backpacking, a Spanish couple on their honeymoon, a Brit, a Swedish guy and our family of 5.
You don’t get a lot of information from the crew on these trips. Luckily I had read quite a few blog posts and knew what to expect. We didn’t always know where we were going or what we were doing at a particular stop. But that was part of the adventure. I hope this post is helpful in showing you this amazing part of Indonesia and also helpful for those planning to take one of these boat trips, especially if you are travelling with kids.
- 1 Flores to Lombok Boat Trip
- 2 Choosing a Boat – Flores (Komodo) to Lombok
- 3 Our Boat
- 4 Tips for Enjoying Your Trip
- 5 The Food
- 6 Should You Do This Trip with Kids?
Flores to Lombok Boat Trip
Day 1 – Labuan Bajo to Komodo Island
The first two days of the trip are spent exploring Komodo, before the long trip to Lombok. We were all excited to get on the boat and head into the beautiful blue waters and dry yellow islands of Komodo National Park. After a couple of hours, we had our first meal on board. I didn’t have high expectations of the food and had read that often there is barely enough food to go around. The food is typical Indonesian – rice or noodles, a sauce with tempe, and cooked vegetables. We had this meal for lunch and dinner the whole time we were on the boat. The kids did not love the food, so we topped them up with biscuits and instant noodles we had brought.
Our first stop was Kelor Island, a lovely small island for snorkeling. We were eager to get in the beautiful blue waters and see the underwater life. The snorkeling equipment wasn’t very good on the boat and while we saw a lot of fish, the coral wasn’t particularly colourful or healthy looking. We did see a few clownfish and a really interesting black and white fish I have never seen before.
Our second stop on day 1 turned out to be my favourite, Padar Island. On this uninhabited island you can trek up to the top of the mountain for panoramic views of the surrounding islands and blue waters. It was extremely hot hiking up, but the views were definitely worth all the work.
The last stop of the day was at Pink Beach, but unfortunately we got there just as the sun was setting. We went ashore and you can see the pink grains in the sand. There is supposed to be good snorkeling off Pink Beach as well. Our kids love to play in the sand so they happily settled in for some sand play.
Back on board we had dinner, watched the sunset and watched the amazing stars. With so little light pollution and a clear night, you could clearly see the Milky Way and the sky was filled with stars. As we went to bed, a number of boats doing similar trips were chained together on a mooring ball. We woke up at 11 pm to a loud bump sound and the crew shouting at another boat that was blasting music partying away and had tried to link to us, but had bumped us instead. Eventually our captain got really annoyed and we motored away to anchor somewhere else. A little exciting for our first night, but we slept well on our little mattress pads.
Day 2 – Komodo Island to Moyo Island
Note: You may have read the reports that the Indonesian government is planning to shut down Komodo Island for a year starting in January 2020 to work on conservation efforts. Not to worry, you can still see komodo dragons on Rinca Island and this park needs a much needed refocus.
We woke up this morning to see that our boat was anchored in front of Komodo Island and the crew was frantically yelling at each other. It didn’t take long to see the reason for this – our boat was aground on a coral reef. At this point, between this incident and the incident the night before, I was definitely wondering about our choice of boats. I was also well aware of the environmental degradation of the coral reefs in Indonesia from situations just like this. It broke my heart to see water around the boat grow murky and know the damage we were causing as the captain tried to get the boat free.
After we were free, the crew took us ashore at Komodo Island. Again I had read that most visitors were disappointed by the wildlife experience of seeing the Komodo dragons and the way the Park is run, so knew what to expect. This is the only area in the world where you can find Komodo dragons in the wild and you can choose to visit Komodo Island or Rinca Island. I had heard that the rangers and visitor experience was better at Rinca, but unfortunately our trip only included Komodo Island on the itinerary.
We did see one Komodo dragon, but it definitely was a lackluster experience and felt very manufactured. I certainly wouldn’t go all the way to Flores just to see the dragons, but luckily the islands offer so much more than just these fascinating animals. Komodo Island is a UNESCO Heritage Site, but we found it really poorly run and very expensive for what it was. There were no prices posted but we ended up paying 255,000 IDR ($25 AUD) per person including the kids.
Our group was assigned a few guides, one of which spoke good English. We could choose a short, medium or long hike over the island. The guide did provide some information about these giant lizards as he led us to a guard house, where surprise – there just happened to be a dragon. He then proceeded to get us each to pose with the dragon in the background, which made for a good photo opp. He kept telling us how lucky we were to see a dragon since it was mating season (June to August), but we couldn’t help feeling that this was very staged. We then headed out on our 1 hour long “medium hike” where the guide did not even attempt to spot any dragons or other wildlife. We then returned to where we started where we could buy some souvenirs, drinks and snacks from some locals on the beach. It certainly didn’t feel like a very authentic experience, but perhaps it would have been better if it wasn’t mating season when all the dragons are deep in the forest. You can read the Tripadvisor reviews for more of what to expect.
The next stop on our itinerary was swimming with the Manta rays at Manta Point. The way this works is that the boats spot the manta rays and then you jump in the water and try to spot them before they swim off. This occurs in open water in an area with strong current, so I would definitely recommend a life jacket for kids and less confident swimmers. The boat then motors to stay close or one of the crew operate a small boat close to the swimmers. The mantas are gorgeous and it was cool to see them, but again the experience was a bit chaotic and rushed. The crew did really want us to see them and worked hard to try to spot them and get us in the water in time.
Our kids are very confident and experienced snorkelers, but they didn’t love being in the deep, open water. Our boat did have snorkeling equipment, but it was in really poor condition and they didn’t have any kid-sized gear. Bring from home if you can, especially if you have younger kids.
Our next stop on day 2 was one of my favourites and the best snorkeling we did on the trip. We were supposed to go to Gili Laba, but for some reason we went to a snorkeling area instead where we saw incredible coral and fish. It wasn’t quite as amazing as what we had seen in Papua New Guinea, but it was really good. The kids also discovered the joy of jumping off the top deck into the water and Paul was able to get some great drone shots of the beautiful blue waters.
Just after lunch, we pulled up anchor and headed across the Nusa Tengarra channel to Moyo Island – an 18 hour travel time. The rest of the day was devoted to just hanging out on the boat and watching the islands go past.
Day 3 – Moyo Island to Bangsal (Lombok)
We awoke just as the boat was arriving at Moyo Island and already there were a couple of other boats anchored there. I started to feel really good about our choice of boats as I saw how small the other ones were, the party atmosphere on board and the fact that they had to swim to shore, whereas we had our small boat to get ashore.
Moyo Island is off the north coast of Sumbawa Island and is known for its pristine waters and waterfall. Our guide led us on a 15 minute walk through the jungle to a waterfall that you can climb. It looks really sketchy, but the rocks are really grippy. You can climb the waterfall and there is a small pool with a rope swing at the top. The kids of course really enjoyed this.
After this our next stop was a “Fisherman’s Village”, which turned out to be Medang Island, where all 5 members of our crew were from. This small island is very traditional and isolated and they are not used to seeing tourists. Our main purpose in going there was to get petrol, which the crew lugged through the narrow laneway and then transported with the small boat. However, if you are interested in traditional cultures, you will find it a fascinating place to visit.
They brought us ashore on a dirty beach littered with seaweed and plastic rubbish.
We then walked through the village and got to see how the locals live and meet some of the families of the crew. With prompting we learned more about the village from the crew member who spoke the best English. They made a big deal over our kids and we were invited to try the food they were preparing. This village is also renowned for boat building and we found out that our boat had actually been built there. We also got to see a boat being refitted and it was amazing to see how everything was done by hand with almost no tools or technology.
After days of lukewarm bottled water, the kids were hoping for a cold drink. However the island only has minimal electricity and they settled for a warm drink at the only store we found. It is experiences like this that have the biggest impact on me when we travel. I feel a mixture of awe that we get to experience a place that so few visitors see, but I am also reminded of the privilege we have being born in Canada. I sometimes get frustrated that the kids aren’t as reflective as I am when we travel, but I know deep down that they are taking it all in.
It took a long time to get the fuel aboard and we spent a long time just hanging out in the heat of the rubbish-filled beach watching the boat builders work. I know some of the other passengers were restless, but I found it an interesting stop. We then spent the rest of the day headed towards Bangsar harbour on Lombok.
Day 4 – Arrival in Lombok
We arrived early in Bangsar at 6 am and without much direction, packed up our things and headed off. Our destination was Gili Air, a short public ferry ride away.
Choosing a Boat – Flores (Komodo) to Lombok
You can do the trip from Lombok to Flores, or in reverse from Flores (Labuan Bajo) to Lombok, which is what we did. Since a lot of people book their boat trip in the Gilis or Lombok, there seemed to be a lot more people going in that direction. On our boat we only had 14 passengers, out of a capacity of 35, and I really appreciated those smaller numbers.
There are a few different companies running these boats, but generally the trips are 4 days, 3 nights and cost about $1.5 million IDR ($150 AUD) for deck class. Each company has 2-3 departures a week in each direction, so there is a lot of choice and competition. Since most people are booking through a travel counter, it is often hard to know what company you are actually booking with. You can try to book in advance online, but since these trips are targeted at backpackers, it is easier to just show up in the Gilis, Lombok or Labuan Bajo and book.
We had read that Perama and Wanua were the two main companies. Both had very mixed reviews and Perama had a boat sink a number of years ago – you can read about it in Adventurous Kate’s post.
We ended up booking with Hartini Adventures in Labuan Bajo, a company we had never heard of. We met the owner in town and he had a boat departing the next day. We liked booking directly with the company as we could find out more accurate information about the boat and trip and we were able to negotiate a better price for the kids ($1 million IDR/each kid). Questions to ask when selecting a boat:
- Do they have life jackets for every person on board?
- Do they have life rafts to accommodate all people on board?
- Do they have radio communication on board?
- Can I see a photo of the exact boat?
- Does the boat have a tender (smaller boat) for transporting people to shore?
- Does the crew speak English? (expect very minimal English)
- How many people are booked on the trip already?
- What is the program/stops? Is the Komodo National Park fee included (generally it isn’t and is an extra 250,000 IDR ($25 AUD)
Another thing to consider is the weather. These boats are sturdy wooden Indonesian fishing boats that have been converted. But the seas between Flores and Lombok can be quite rough especially during the rainy season from December to March and many people do not recommend the boat trips during this time of year. We did a quick check on the weather looking at wind speeds for the week we were going and felt comfortable with the weather report.
I had done a lot of research on this trip and knew what to expect, but I was still pleasantly surprised to see the boat we would be going on. It was larger than I expected, had a tender (small boat) to get ashore and seemed sturdy. We saw other boats on our trip that were much smaller and I was really glad that we had the boat we did. There was one time when we were in open water crossing between East Nusa Tengarra and West Nusa Tengarra and even though the weather wasn’t bad, we still had significant seas. I was very glad to be in a larger boat!
The main floor of our boat had 8 cabins, which you could pay extra for. At the front was a covered sitting area where we ate all of our meals and the front deck for lounging. There were two Western toilets with bucket flush at the rear that were kept clean (and had toilet paper!) and there was a small kitchen area where the food was prepared.
On the second floor was the captain’s bridge, another uncovered deck for lounging and the covered sleeping area for deck class passengers (us and 7 of the other passengers). Thin sleeping mats, a small pillow, and thin blanket were provided. It was nice to not have a full boat because we had lots of room. We slept fairly well and stayed dry and warm. This is also where we kept our bags.
Our kids were fine sleeping on the deck and luckily our fellow passengers weren’t the partying types. The cabin option might be a good one for families if you want more privacy.
Tips for Enjoying Your Trip
- Bring snacks – you will be served 3 simple Indo meals a day, but it is nice to have some crackers and biscuits
- Bring sea sickness tablets – our passage was fairly calm, but we had tablets if it got too bumpy
- Bring a towel and extra blanket/sleeping bag – it gets cold on the boat when moving at night
- Bring your own snorkel equipment – the ones on our boat were pretty terrible
- Bring lots of things to do – books, music – there is lots of down time
- Cell Reception – surprisingly we almost always had 3G and 4G service (XL Axiata SIM card)
- Charging station sometimes worked, sometimes didn’t
- Other things to bring – sunscreen and hat (sun is strong!), head lamp (reading at night), flexible attitude and patience
After reading lots of trip reports, I knew that the food was repetitive and basic. We had reasonable expectations (we only paid $100 AUD/person for the whole trip!) and brought some snacks. I had read about food running out, poor hygeine and the same food every meal. I thought our crew put in a lot of effort to vary the meals, although they were always made up of rice/noodles, tempeh (staple food in Indo), vegetables and fruit. There wasn’t much left after each meal, but we all felt like we got enough to eat. There was small pieces of fish one night that the crew had caught, but other then that, no meat, which suited us vegetarians.
There was always hot water for coffee and tea and lots of bottled drinking water. I would have loved to see them use the refillable drinking water jugs for environmental reasons as the plastic problem is evident everywhere you go in Indonesia.
Our kids did not love the food, but they survived. We did bring along instant noodles that they made a few times throughout the trip.
Should You Do This Trip with Kids?
Yes, I think this was a great trip to do with kids. However, it is not going to be for every family. Your kids should be used to budget travel and be comfortable sleeping and eating in basic conditions. You need to be comfortable with the idea that the boat is not going to be as safe as a boat in your country. While ours did have life jackets, a radio and life raft, we received no safety briefing and you definitely need to keep an eye on your kids.
There are long stretches of time on the boat with little to do and kids will get bored. We allowed them some ipad time, but also did lots of reading and card games. Our boys in particular liked the adventure of the trip and being on the boat. The food will be a challenge for picky eaters not used to Indonesian food and it is a good idea to come prepared with some snacks to fill them up. We got lucky in that our fellow passengers were friendly, but not party focused. We like to have fun, but I was glad that we didn’t have to contend with loud music at all hours of the day and lots of drinking.
This trip was a great way to get off the beaten path, unplug and relax and get from Flores to Lombok. We saw killer sunsets, amazing stars, gorgeous underwater life and traditional islands. There were certainly things that could have been better – more communication from the crew and better organization. But then it might not have been the adventure it was!
You might also like: Exploring Nusa Tenggara and Flores Overland
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