Adventure by Backwater: 5 Tips on How to Book Your Kerala Houseboat

There’s a reason the houseboats of Kerala are so attractive to tourists – it’s one of the most beautiful, serene trips you will ever take in your life. However I’ll admit, when initially researching this trip getting there seemed impossible. Let’s not have you in the same boat! Here are 5 tips to help you set sail through the magical backwaters of Alleppey.

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1. Know what you’re looking for in a houseboat. 

A quick “Kerala houseboat” Google search will bring up a plethora of sites where you can review all different types of boats. When browsing, make note of what you like and don’t like. Tie it back to what you would look for in a hotel room. Some questions you might want to ask yourself:

  • Do you need A/C or will a ceiling fan do the trick?
  • Do you want a second level viewing area or will one level work?
  • Does the entire boat need to be enclosed, i.e. glass panels or mosquito nets, or is it necessary for only certain areas like the bedroom and kitchen?
  • Is an open living area with a variety of seating options more your style or are you happy with a table and a couple of plush chairs?
  • Are you comfortable sharing the houseboat with others, or are you looking for something private?
  • Can you go completely off the grid or do you need electrical outlets, TV and/or radio to keep you company?
  • How many meals do you want per day? Is the basic three okay, or do you like to snack?

You might not know exactly what you want until you get to Kerala (shoot, we didn’t) and that’s okay. But it’s important to at least think about it beforehand, so when you hop on that first boat to take a look around, you’ll already have a starting point.

2. Don’t book in advance.

Being Miss Planner, for me this was the hardest rule to follow, because it breaks all my conventions. Unless you’re thinking about sailing over a major holiday like New Years or Christmas, there’s no reason to book a houseboat ahead of time. A couple of reasons:

  • It’s more expensive, since you have to pay agency fees on top of the price of the trip.
  • Things can look very, very different online. A “quaint two-bedroom” with a “natural breeze” can sound charming, but really mean small as hell with no fans or A/C.

The best thing to do is get to Alleppey Boathouse early in the morning (~8-8:30am), walk the dock, choose your top picks and go from there. If you’re feeling extra cautious, head down the day before you plan to sail and reserve something then.

3. Channel your inner Inspector Gadget.

Don’t reserve anything until you’ve walked the houseboat and are completely satisfied with what you’ve seen. Keep that initial list in mind and mentally check the boxes while you’re touring the space. When you find something you love, don’t forget to barter your little heart out!

4. Don’t look for the bare necessities, bring them!

Once that anchor is pulled up and you’ve drifted away from the dock, the opportunities to stop at a convenience store are slim to none. Some items to keep you happy:

  • Bug spray – Seriously, don’t mess with this one
  • Cash for tips – ~Rs.750  per day for three staff members
  • Books – Did someone say young adult fantasy?
  • Playing cards – You can’t go wrong with Gin Rummy!
  • Snacks – Having some extra junk food on hand never hurt anyone
  • Beer and soft drinks – It will be hard (and expensive) to find this after you embark
  • Camera – Capture the beauty at every moment you can

5. Prepare to have the most relaxing day(s) of your life. 

While you’re on the boat, there’s no wifi. There’s nothing but the endless stretch of canals in front of you and the infinite rows of rice fields beside you. Floating down the backwaters, you really get a glimpse into what life is like in Southern India. It’s bathing in the fresh water river, the women washing clothes alongside the angler’s casting their fishnets. It’s aquatic birds singing, dropping in and out of the mirror-like water. It’s the locals projecting chants of worship throughout their collective villages, echoing off the surface of the backwaters and drifting into your ears. It’s the sun rising over the numerous palm trees that line the waterways, early morning rays illuminating last night’s fishermen kayaking back to their houses.

It’s an experience you’ll never forget. I can’t tell you how much money to spend or how many nights to stay, what kind of houseboat to get or how many meals per day. What I will tell you is that you’ll unplug, reflect and truly remember what’s important in life.

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