Lombok's most popular tourist destination, the Gili Islands (or just the Gilis) came to the attention of the wider world as a backpacker mecca in the 1980s and 1990s. This is still true to some extent, and the islands are still a fixture on the Banana Pancake Trail. But times are changing, and there is now an array of glamour options on the islands, especially so on Gili Trawangan. The islands are very relaxed and laid-back, with countless little beachside cafes, restaurants and bars serving a variety of tastes in local and international cuisine. Best of all, there are no cars or motorbikes to disturb the peace.
There are increasing numbers of westerners living on the Gilis, and operating businesses ranging from dive companies to resorts. There is a strong environmental focus as the reefs were damaged in the past. While previously most people came to dive, snorkel and party, now a wider spectrum of visitors including families and couples are enjoying the islands. The focus remains on the beach and in the sea. There are also many options to wine and dine, visit a spa or hang out and meet new friends.
Strictly speaking, the name "Gili Islands" is rather redundant as gili simply means "small island" in Sasak, but the name has stuck and is universally used and understood in Lombok.
There are also some other islands off Lombok called Gili Something, eg. Gili Nanggu and Gili Gede, but these are located to the southwest near Lembar, quite a distance from the "main" Gilis.
The Gilis are noticeably drier and hotter than Lombok, but evenings can still be cool and refreshing. The rainy season is roughly from November to April, but it rains much less than on Bali. The peak tourist seasons are July-August and December-January.
Alternatively, you can fly to Bali and connect onward with a domestic flight to the new international airport, 40km south of the old location at Mataram, which is a quick and cheap 25-30 min hop. The Bali-Lombok route is operated by Merpati Nusantara Airlines, Garuda, Wings (code shared with Lion Air), Trigana Air, Trans-Nusa and IAT (Indonesian Air Transport).
From elsewhere in Indonesia, Lombok International Airport is served by flights from Jakarta, and Surabaya provided by Garuda, Citilink, Lion Air and Merpati. Sumbawa is serviced by Trans Nusa Air Services. International flights are available from Singapore with Silk Air and from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia with AirAsia. Please see the main Lombok article for more details on the new international airport and connecting services to the Gili Islands
Fast boat services are the quickest and most direct way to travel to the Gili Islands from Bali. There are now numerous direct boat services from Bali to the Gilis, all of which continue onto the main island of Lombok, and a few of which also pass by Nusa Lembongan en-route. Established daily services depart from Benoa and Serangan Island in South Bali and from Padang Bai and Amed in East Bali. Benoa Harbour and Serangan are around 25 min by car, (dependent upon traffic) from the South Bali tourist hub. Padang Bai is a lot further by road.
You can contact the fast boat companies directly by phone or email, or book via one of the many local travel agents once you are in Bali. Alternatively, the only way to compare live seat availability and book e-tickets online is with Gilibookings, where you can view all routes, timetables and pricing for the most reliable (but by no way all) fast boat companies. Online prices range from $53 to $75 one way, $98 to $148 return. Locally you will often find much cheaper offers (such as Rp 275,000 (<$30) from Trawangan to Padang Bai, excluding further transfer, or Rp 350,000 from Ubud to Senggigi/Gilis. including transfer to Padang Bai), however the quality (and safety) of the boats used may vary wildly, so make sure you know what you're purchasing before booking. Also note that as of mid 2013, online bookings come with discount vouchers for places to eat, diving & activities etc on the islands that substantially offset the higher prices.
A small selection of fast boat companies with a proven track record:
If you are travelling from southern Bali resorts such as Kuta, Legian, Nusa Dua etc., the closest ports are Serangan or Benoa. However, you can depart from Padang Bai if you want a shorter crossing, which is around an hour from south Bali by road (so total travel time will be approximately the same). Also depart from Padang Bai if you are staying in or around Ubud. Amed is only suitable if you are staying in or around Amed, Tulamben, Candidasa or North Coast locations such as Lovina or Pemuteran.
No matter what port of departure you use, with the exception of those staying in Padang Bai or Amed, you will need to use a vehicle transfer for one portion of your journey. Take the weather into consideration when planning your voyage, shorter routes could reduce discomfort for those prone to motion sickness. Fast boat services from Amed and Padang Bai take around half as long to reach the Gilis as the routes from southern Bali. As stated previously, a shorter crossing amounts to extra road time in Bali, unless you are staying in Amed or Padang Bai already.
As of 2012, there are significant differences in prices between operators on all the Gili Fast Boat routes. There are also differences in the standard of the vessels, their operation, crew experience and certfication. The worst offenders for safety standards currently all operate out of Padang Bai. It is advisable to look at more than just price. As competition has increased, so has misinformation about availability of seats or operating schedules. Check the veracity of information directly with your chosen operator if told by a tour desk a vessel is "full" or "bankrupt - not operating" or has "spontaneously combusted." Ensure your ticket states the specific vessel requested. Stated trip times are often misleading and do not reflect the reality of the voyage nor previously achieved average crossing times.
By slow ferry (via Lombok)
If you're really on a budget, or just feel uncomfortable to pay more than usual price of Bali-Lombok flight just for crossing 60 km wide Lombok strait on a small speedboat, and have some patience and time to spare, you can use slow ferry from Padang Bai to Lembar on Lombok (see the main Lombok article), then continue 60 km by land to Bangsal harbour. Unless departing from Padang Bai well after midnight (to arrive to Lembar next morning) or early in the morning, you'll need to make a stopover somewhere at Lombok, otherwise you'll be too late in Bangsal to catch a public boat. For return trip, depart early and you're likely to be at you destination on the same evening. In do-it-yourself style (public bemos for all the land segments, knowing all the right prices) it will cost under Rp 100,000 per person; package version from the travel agency, including minivan/car transfers, will cost (February 2013) from Rp 160,000 and up.
Options to get from Lombok to the Gilis are:
A local agent, Mr. Jamuhur, that has a pickup service in Lombok for transfers to all of the Gilis can be contacted at: email@example.com or mobile: +62 (0)85339715403. For a quote just advise the number of passengers.
The easiest way to get to the Gilis from Lombok's airport or Senggigi is to walk to the nearest travel agent, taxi desk or tour and book a package.
The cheapest way is to take a bemo/taxi to Pemenang, walk or cidomo to Bangsal, and then take the Public boat (ferry) from there. However, this may involve long waits and dealing with particularly unpleasant hawkers, so some people figure it's not worth the hassle.
Another cheap option for those going from Senggigi is to book a package (shuttle car/van + boat to any of Gilis). Numerous travel agents on the main street of Senggigi offer this service for (January 2013) around Rp 75,000/pax - but some guesthouses can arrange this for as low as Rp 50,000, which is an excellent value if there are 1-2 of you. Beware, however, that some unscrupulous agents may try and cheat you - make sure the package includes the boat price (and that you won't have to pay extra no matter how many other passsengers, if any, will use the same service), what kind of the boat (should be a private boat, most likely from Teluk Nare, otherwise you're just paying extra for a shared taxi ride to Bangsal) will be used, and have the agent's/guesthouse's contacts and phone numbers handy to contact them if anything goes wrong.
If you want to travel at your own pace, you can charter a boat directly from Senggigi to take you across. Ask any travel agent or simply head to the beach behind the Santosa Hotel in central Senggigi or on the beach at Mangsit at the northern end of Senggigi. At Mangsit most of the charter boats are located between Qunci Villas and the Holiday Resort Lombok (ex Holiday Inn Resort). On either beach you're guaranteed to be solicited by boat operators and guides. The Senggigi article has more information on this. A charter of a regular outrigger (perahu) to any of the Gili Islands can cost as much Rp 500,000, but bargain hard. Some of these boats are pretty basic so make sure you check the safety equipment for yourself, especially if you cannot swim. The better guides at Mangsit beach will provide life vests of their own if the chartered boat does not have them. If there are three or less of you, it is much faster and infinitely more comfortable to arrange a speed boat pickup from Teluk Nare with one of the dive shops or your hotel on Gili Trawangan. A taxi to Teluk Nare from Senggigi will cost about Rp 60,000-75,000.
For organising your trip back to Bangsal, there is a public boat ticket office on each of the Gili Islands.
Note that the sea is calmest in the morning and all transport stops running in the late afternoon, and well before dark. During periods of southerly winds and in July and August especially, the swell can be a bit hairy and you are very likely to get wet on the crossing. It is advisable to place laptops, cameras and handphones in waterproof bags for the crossing.
There is no motorised transport on the islands. Your options are horse-drawn carts, known as cidomo's, or bicycles, which are are available for rent all over the islands. The price for tourists is Rp 20,000-50,000 per head, depending on the length of the journey. To go all the way around the islands could cost up to Rp 150,000. However, as the islands are only a few km in diameter, it's entirely possible to just walk instead.
Travelling between the islands requires either catching the infrequent scheduled Koperasi Island hopping boats, or chartering one to take you across. You can buy tickets from the ticket offices on each island from where the boats depart. Booking through a travel agent just costs more, and you still need to change the reservation to an actual ticket at the very same counter.
The distances between the islands may seem swimmable, but do not attempt it — the currents are fierce and several visitors have died trying. If you are a strong swimmer and absolutely determined to make the attempt, hire a local boat to follow close by as you swim, and start from the northernmost point of the island as the currents will swiftly pull you south.
There are no major sights on the islands, snorkelling and diving being the main draw. However, a few attractions are worth noting:
There is good diving around the islands, suitable for all levels, the islands being globally known as a proficient teaching center for beginners right up to instructor level. Technical diving courses are also available. An impressive array of marine life is present, such as green and hawksbill turtles, bumphead parrotfish, black-tip and white-tip reef sharks and more. There are also some great muckdiving sites for macro photographers, a Japanese wreck for deep diving and biorock artificial reefs which may interest environmental enthusiasts. Visibility is commonly in the 15-30m range. Due to the exposed position of the Gilis, currents can be quite strong and drift diving is the norm. Some of the dive sites have unfortunately been damaged over the years due to a combination of human and environmental causes, especially from an increase in water temperatures from El Niño in 1998 and unsustainable local fishing practices. Since 2000, fishing has been regulated around the islands, allowing the reefs and fish population to slowly regenerate.
Most dive shops on the Gili Islands are members of the Gili Eco Trust , a non-profit organisation which originated as a co-operation between influential members of the local community and the dive shops on Gili Trawangan. Set up in 2000 and initiated by the owners of Manta Dive, the Gili Eco Trust aims to protect coral reefs surrounding the islands and provide environmental education. There is a one time only reef tax of Rp 50,000 payable by all divers and dive students. This is collected by the dive operator and helps fund the work of the trust. If you are interested in learning more about the trust, or volunteering to help, ask for Delphine at the Big Bubble dive shop on Gili Trawangan.
Gili Trawangan has the most dive operators, but PADI and SSI licensed dive operators exist on all three islands. Equipment is kept in top shape, with excellent facilities and (mostly) western dive instructors. Dive guides tend to be a mix of local and western divemasters. Dive and course prices are fixed by agreement between the dive operators on each island, so there is nothing financial to be gained by shopping around between the operators. A good approach is to settle down on your chosen island, get to know the dive shops, and choose to dive with the one with which you feel most comfortable.
For those interested in learning to dive or advancing existing qualifications, several of the operators now offer both PADI and SSI options. Nitrox and other technical diving options are also offered by operators on Gili Trawangan especially.
Dive prices, PADI & SSI courses
All dive shops accept US dollars, Indonesian Rupiah and credit cards, except when the telephone lines are down (in this case, pay using internet banking).
There is now a dedicated freediving and apnea centre on Gili Trawangan, where you can attend courses and workshops. Owned and run by the British freedive record holder Mike Board. For more information see Gili Trawangan. Freediving is also offered on Gili Meno and Gili Air at Gili Air/Meno Divers.
You can rent masks and fins off the beach, or contact any of the numerous dive shops to arrange snorkelling at choice spots nearby. A daily snorkelling programme usually involves a 10AM departure and 4PM return, and includes three or four spots around the three islands and a 2 hr lunch break. The cost ranges from Rp 60,000 to 150,000 depending on the shop and your negotiating skills. The quoted price normally includes the mask and snorkel but Rp 10,000 (or more) may be charged for the fins. Lunch is typically not included.
It's possible to snorkel off some of the beaches, but pay attention to the currents, which can be strong even near the shore. Wear flippers even if you're a strong swimmer, or you'll spend most of your energy fighting the currents.
Although not renowned for its surfing reputation, the locals regularly surf off the south end of both Gili Trawnagan and Gili Air. Both are reef breaks, and on their day can be an outstanding wave.
There are a few companies based on Gili Trawangan that offer boat trips to the surrounding islands of Lombok, Sumbawa and to Komodo. Blue Water Cruises are based just north of the harbour and run trips around the 3 Gilis, to Lombok and Komodo.
Perama are based near the art market on the main beach road. They offer trips all around Indonesia as well as trips from Bali to the Gilis and Komodo.
One of the attractions of the islands is the ability to do nothing. With no cars on any of the islands and the lower tempo of Gili Air and Gili Meno, there are several bungalow-style accommodations with verandas that overlook gardens and/or the ocean. The styles of cafes and restaurants involves small open huts (called berugak) perfect for two to four people to claim for a good part of the day. The islands have beaches all the way around, however not all stretches are suitable for sunbathing or entering the water. Gili Meno has the nicest beaches of the three islands. All the islands have their best beaches on the east side with regard to snorkelling and accessibility, however these are also the busiest so you might be better off seeking a quieter location to relax. See individual Gili island pages for specific beach information.
You can walk around the islands in 90 minutes. Just follow the coastline, take sunscreen and avoid doing so during the middle of the day.
There are upwards of 10 ATMs on Gili Trawangan, there's one ATM booth (with 2 ATMs of the same bank) on Gili Air, but none so far on Gili Meno. Exchange rates offered by money changers are noticeably poorer than on the mainland. Credit cards are accepted by some of the more upmarket places and all dive shops, but there will usually be a 3% charge. Some will also arrange credit card cash advances, but with hefty fees in the order of 7-10%.
Shopping opportunities are very limited. There are plenty of kiosks offering tourist staples such as drinks, basic cosmetics, suntan lotion and such, but anything that might be required such as specific medication or items for children/baby's is best brought with you, or alternatively can easily be purchased on Lombok. All hotels and dive centers make regular trips to Lombok and are usually able to help out with any requests.
All the islands feature a myriad of restaurants and cafes concentrated on the beach fronts. The most activity is found on the east side of each island. There are an abundance of cafes and restaurants, both large and small, with the largest concentration on Gili Trawangan. As of late 2012, Gili Air has some new restaurants opening that offer western cuisine. Gili Meno remains limited to more basic food options like barbecued fish or pizza from a wood-fired oven.
Be careful with "fee and tax" especially in "luxury" restaurants, most will charge 21% tax and service, however it can be written in very small font at the bottom of the menu and be from 5 to 25% or more.
Gili Trawangan had a huge reputation in the late 90's as a backpacker party island. This has now developed into a nightlife for all tastes. There are bars playing live music, bars with DJ's, as well as quieter beach front places dotted around the islands. There is a varied choice of venues every night of the year.
Be careful to not leave drinks unattended, as spiking incidents have been known to occur. Be aware that there have been fatal cases (including as recent as new year 2012/13) involving locally distilled spirits when drunk in large quantities, due to non-standardised production methods. If you suspect that what you've been served is not what you ordered, take it back. Sticking to western owned and managed bars will reduce any risk.
Demand often outstrips supply, so prices tend to be noticeably higher than on Bali or Lombok. During the peak seasons (Jul-Aug, Dec-Jan), it pays to make advance reservations, as the best places are often fully booked. Arrive early for better chances of getting accommodation without a reservation. Late arrivals need to be prepared to spend a night on the beach (it's perfectly safe though).
There are plenty of largely identical backpacker guesthouses on the islands. The price ranges depending on the season and island. Figure on Rp 100,000+ for a basic room with fan only. Air conditioned rooms are more in the Rp 300,000-400,000+ range. Gili Trawangan especially, has a rapidly increasing range of high end luxury accommodation with prices up to US$500 per night for a large private villa.
Always try to negotiate for the best price, and be clear about whether or not the quoted price includes taxes and breakfast. Most of the larger hotels and dive centres on Gili Trawangan feature fresh water for showering, while other smaller homestays may use salt water. On Gili Air it is best to check with the Hotel you plan to stay at, and on Gili Meno its mostly salinated.
Little changes on the Gili Islands during the fasting month of Ramadan, as food is served during the day and bars stay open at night. However, many dive shops cut down the diving schedule to cater for fasting locals, and out of respect you should also refrain from blatantly eating, drinking or smoking in public.
As you would at home, lock doors at night and don't leave valuables out in the open.
Be very careful with locally produced alcohol, especially Arak. It can contain methanol and has caused cases of serious injury and even death (as recently as new year 2012/13) among tourists and locals alike. If you suspect that what you've been served is not what you ordered, take it back. Sticking to western owned and managed bars will reduce risk.
When out in the bars, use discretion: do not leave your drinks unattended, as drink spiking has been reported on occasion. This goes for both sexes.
Magic mushrooms are widely available and openly advertised, particularly on Gili Trawangan. Their psychological effects may be heavy for some individuals.
Various other drugs and intoxicants are readily available and sometimes flaunted (as is the case of mushrooms and 'power drinks' at parties), and you can expect to be offered everything from marijuana to methamphetamine. Keep in mind you are still in Indonesia, where drug usage and distribution penalties are extraordinarily harsh ranging from 20 years in a dilapidated prison to the death penalty. On Gili Trawangan, there have been a number of busts of high profile local characters resulting in serious prison sentences. On Gili Air, village leaders have been known to banish tourists from the island for drug usage and several signs posted around the island will remind you of their local laws.
Small but annoying jellyfish/stingers are common in the waters around the Gilis during certain moon cycles, with July and August getting the brunt, so wearing a full-length wetsuit or surf skin in the water is advisable. The stings can be quite painful, but they're harmless and usually go away within an hour. The welt from bad multiple stings may last a day. Not so harmless are the less common bluebottle jellyfish that can be recognised by their long bright blue tentacles and surface floating clear bubble. These stings are extremely painful and can cause respiratory problems. If stung, tentacles must immediately be removed using covered hands and the area rinsed in sea water. The affected area should then be immersed in hot water (as hot as can be tolerated) for at least 20 minutes.
There are large spiders roughly the size of a grown man's hand scattered about the islands; while not venomous, their bites can result in a painful wound. Thankfully, avoiding them is relatively easy, don't tread through brush and avoid climbing random trees.
There are no visible police on any of the islands, however there are undercover agents regularly on the islands. There are also local security guards that patrol the islands (mainly Gili Trawangan). Crime is largely limited to opportunistic petty theft, and all problems are usually settled by the local island councils; if you face larger problems or need to make a police report for insurance purposes, you will need to head over the mainland to do it.
[edit from 2012 May] There is as minimum of 5 police units on Gili Trawangan. So - don't do nothing restricted, be smart :)
All three islands have a small, simple clinic. For serious problems, visitors should get back to Lombok (or preferably Bali) as quickly as possible. The nearest hospital is in Mataram, Lombok.
Tap water is very salty and not potable. Bottled water is widely available and many cafes, dive shops, and stores will fill up bottles for Rp 3,000, reducing waste and costing less than a new bottle. The refill supplies can be a little erratic in availability at times; however, do not be concerned as drinking water is always available for sale on the Gili Islands.
There are many self-styled gigolos anxious to swoon foreign girls on Gili Trawangan and Gili Air. If you're female and on your own (even temporarily), you will be approached often. If you find yourself swept off your feet, condoms are available at most little stores.
Mosquito numbers very throughout the year. There is no Malaria on the Gilis, however there is in Lombok. There have been cases of dengue reported, mostly during the rainy season. Mosquito repellent, mosquito nets and long sleeves at dusk are wise precautions.
Please see main Lombok article for notes on malaria, dengue fever (DHF), methyl alcohol adulteration of traditional local drinks such as arak, and other tips for your health and safety whilst on the Gili Islands.
Supplies of fresh water vary from resort to resort and island to island.
Electricity supply comes from generators o each of the islands; therefore it's not uncommon for power to be off for hours at a time on a daily basis, and the same goes for water as most is directly fed by electric pumps. Many upmarket hotels, restaurants and dive shops have backup generators, and there are tentative plans for solar and wind power generation. It is worth checking with your chosen accommodation whether they have a backup generator. In a lot of cases, backup generators are saved for use at night.
Laundry can be arranged through most guesthouses, expect to pay by piece rather than by load. The cost can add up quick, you may want to consider hand-washing smaller items yourself, clothes dry very quickly in the equatorial sun, but very slowly during the humid rainy season.
Several hospitals are located on the nearby mainland in city of Mataram including the islands principal public hospital Rumah Sakit Umun and also the Risa Hospital in Cakranegara near Mataram mall.
Mobile phone towers ensure you're never out of touch. XL and Telkomsel's Simpati SIM card has the strongest and most reliable coverage on the Gili islands.
Internet cafes are quite widespread but connections are often very slow, prices can be Rp 300-400/minute). Free, slow Wi-Fi is often available to customers in restaurants and bars lining the beach on Gili Trawangan. Gili Divers and The Deck has got free Wi-Fi and this connection is very fast. Skype, book tickets or use internet banking without problems.
Many visitors chose to use a USB modem stick with a Telkomsel Flash SIM card  fitted to it. Reception is reasonable on all three Gili islands but 3G connections should not be anticipated. More likely a connection will fall back to the slower GRPS system. CDMA coverage is also available through the Telko Flexi network . USB modems and SIMs suitable for use on either the Telkomsel GSM/3G network, or the Flexi CDMA network are available from outlets on the Lombok maninland and in Bali.
There is no post office on the Gilis, but William's Bookshop, right behind the Art Market on Gili Trawangan, sells stamps and can mail out your postcards.