Pelni is the state run passenger and cargo shipping company of Indonesia.
Pelni (short for Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia) has long been a backbone of passenger travel in Indonesia, but has seen better years as much faster and more reliable air travel has taken off. However it remains a major supplier of cargo to the sprawling and isolated islands of the archipelago. President Jokowi has plans to revive and revitalize Pelni with modern cruise ships geared to foreign tourists, but for now it remains a vital if somewhat overlooked domestic link between regions. Pelni for a short time served Dili in East Timor after independence. During peak travel times, or during cataclysms such as volcanic eruptions, especially on Java island, highways and railways will be ridiculously backed up, and slow ferry may actually be faster than land travel. Of course, when in a rush, air transport is best.
Indonesia is all islands and consequently ferries have long been the most popular means of inter-island travel. PELNI giant ferries visit practically every inhabited island in Indonesia on lengthy journeys that can take two weeks from beginning to end. PELNI uses European-built boats, which are large enough to deal with rough seas, but they can still be uncomfortably overcrowded during peak seasons: ferries built for 3,000 have been known to board 7,000. This means that there are often not enough lifeboats in the event of a sinking and this poses a potential safety hazard.
Nevertheless, it can be a worthwhile experience, as foreigners are few and far between Indonesians will be quite curious and chatty. Speaking Indonesian will go a long way.
The company operates twenty-six ships; twenty-three of these are passenger ships, and well over 100 ports, many quite obscure. Pelni uses port names rather than city names, its common for multiple nearby ports to be serviced by different Pelni ships, these can be confusing not only to foreigners but also to Indonesians, bookings can be made over the internet or by phone/call center. Pelni has recently upgraded their customer support, and port terminal upgrades have begun in earnest in the last few years, some complete with cafes and air conditioning while others are simply a desolate dirt road. It is advised to book weeks ahead, especially during holidays, or from remote locations like Papua where the next ship may be in 2 weeks to a month, beware visa expiration in the mean time. Urban locations should have more frequent departures.
Cabin accommodation classes, all including meals and private lockers, are:
Prices vary by destination, dates, and ship, some longer routes may be cheaper than short routes. They generally run from 15-40 dollars per day, depending on class. One advantage of Pelni over rail or flying is that vehicles can often be brought on board in the hull, which allows driving from island to island, no matter how remote. Prices generally are cheaper to and from large urban areas, but as some ships have a name and are considered more upmarket, 1st class can certainly command prices upwards of 200 USD one way while the same route on another ship 1st class could be as low as 50 USD during a promo fare.
Ekonomi class (around USD10/day), which is a noisy, smoky, cramped free-for-all scrum; buy a rattan mat and get in early to stake out your spot — it's common for people to start rushing in as soon as the ferry arrives. Pickpocketing and theft may be concerns, although most people leave their personal belongings unattended.
In addition to PELNI's slow boats, ASDP runs fast ferries (Kapal Ferry Cepat, rather amusingly abbreviated KFC) on a number of popular routes. Both PELNI and ASDP tickets can be booked via travel agents.
In general, schedules are notional, creature comforts sparse and safety records poor. Try to check out what, if any, safety devices are on board and consider postponing your trip if the weather looks bad. As maintenance is poor and overloading is common, sinkings are all too common on ferries run by smaller companies, so try to stick to the larger ones if possible. Food on ferries varies from bad to inedible, and journey times can stretch well beyond the schedule, so bring along enough to tide you over even if the engine stalls and you end up drifting for an extra day.
You may get hassled by people onboard trying to extract extra money under some dubious excuse. Feel free to ignore them, although on the upside, it may be possible to bribe your way to a better class of accommodation.
Depending on the destination, Pelni ports can arrive in very remote places or urban centers, and transport to and from these places will vary. Oddly, remote places may have middle of the night arrival times, inquire ahead of time.
While passing by numerous islands, plenty of nature in the day, at night the moon and the stars. Watch Indonesian television or chat with knowledgeable people about your destination.