Renting a car or motorbike can open up Bali for exploration – and can also leave you counting the minutes until you return it; there can be harrowing driving conditions on the islands at certain times and south Bali traffic is often awful. But it gives you the freedom to explore myriad back roads and lets you set your own schedule.
Most people don't rent a car for their entire visit but rather get one for a few days of meandering.
Bensin (petrol) is sold by the government-owned Pertamina company and costs a cheap (subsidised) 8000Rp per litre. Bali has scads of petrol stations. On Lombok there are stations in major towns. Motorbike fuel is often sold from roadside stands out of Absolut vodka bottles.
Very few agencies in Bali will allow you to take their rental cars or motorcycles to Lombok.
The most popular rental vehicle is a small 4WD – they're compact and well suited to exploring back roads. Automatic transmissions are unheard of.
Rental and travel agencies in tourist centres rent vehicles, though prices have gone up recently. A small 4WD starts at around 200,000Rp per day, with unlimited kilometres and very limited insurance. Extra days often cost less than the first day.
There's no reason to book rental cars in advance or with a tour package; doing so will almost certainly cost more than arranging it locally. Any place you stay can set you up with a car, as can the ever-present touts in the street.
Motorbikes are a popular way of getting around – locals ride pillion almost from birth. A family of five all riding cheerfully along on one motorbike is called a Bali minivan.
Rentals cost around 60,000Rp a day, less by the week. This should include minimal insurance for the motorcycle but not for any other person or property. Some have racks for surfboards.
Think carefully before renting a motorbike. It is dangerous and every year visitors go home with lasting damage – this is no place to learn to ride. Helmet use is mandatory.
Rental agencies and owners usually insist that the vehicle itself is insured, and minimal insurance should be included in the basic rental deal – often with an excess of as much as US$100 for a motorcycle and US$500 for a car (ie the customer pays the first US$100/500 of any claim).
Check to see what your own vehicle, health and travel insurance covers, especially if you are renting a motorbike.
Bali traffic can be horrendous in the south, up to Ubud, and as far as Padangbai to the east and Gilimanuk to the west. Finding your way around the main tourist sites can be a challenge because roads are only sometimes signposted, maps are unreliable and lots of streets are one-way, particularly in Ubud. Off the main routes, roads can be rough but they are usually surfaced.
Avoid driving at night or at dusk. Many bicycles, carts and vehicles do not have proper lights and street lighting is limited.
Visiting drivers commonly complain about crazy Balinese drivers, but often it's because the visitors don't understand the local conventions of road use. For instance, the constant use of horns doesn't mean 'Get the @£*&% out of my way!'; rather, it is a very Balinese way of saying 'Hi, I'm here'.
Some police will stop drivers on very slender pretexts. If a cop sees your front wheel half an inch over the faded line at a stop sign, if the chin-strap of your helmet isn't fastened, or if you don't observe one of the ever-changing and poorly signposted one-way traffic restrictions, you may be waved down.
The cop will ask to see your licence and the vehicle's registration papers, and they'll also tell you what a serious offence you've committed. Stay cool and don't argue. Don't offer a bribe. Eventually they'll suggest that you can pay them some amount of money to deal with the matter. If it's a very large amount, tell them politely that you don't have that much. These matters can be settled for something between 10,000Rp and 100,000Rp, although it will be more if you argue.
An excellent way to travel anywhere around Bali is by hired vehicle, allowing you to leave the driving and inherent frustrations to others. If you're part of a group, it can make sound economic sense as well. This is also possible on Lombok but less common.
It's easy to arrange a charter: just listen for one of the frequent offers of 'transport?' in the streets around the tourist centres. Approach a driver yourself or ask at your hotel, which is often a good method, because it increases accountability. Also consider the following:
The Bali Madara Toll Road avoids the worst of the traffic in and around Kuta. Some 12.7km in length, it runs from the bypass near Denpasar over the mangroves to a point near Nusa Dua with a branch to Ngurah Rai International Airport. It has good views of the threatened mangroves and Benoa Harbour as you sail along.
The toll for a motorbike/car is 4500/11,000Rp. It definitely saves time going south, especially to Nusa Dua. But going north you will get in the traffic-clogged intersection with the Jl Ngurah Rai Bypass.
If you plan to drive a car, you're supposed to have an International Driving Permit (IDP). You can obtain one from your national motoring organisation if you have a normal driving licence. Bring your home licence as well. Without an IDP, add 50,000Rp to any fine you'll have to pay if stopped by the police (although you'll have to pay this fine three times to exceed the cost and hassle of getting the mostly useless IDP).
If you have a motorcycle licence at home, get your IDP endorsed for motorcycles too; with this you will have no problems. Otherwise you have to get a local licence – something of an adventure.
Officially, there's a 2,000,000Rp fine for riding without a proper licence and your motorcycle can be impounded. Unofficially, you may be hit with a substantial 'on-the-spot' payment (50,000Rp seems average) and allowed to continue on your way. Also, if you have an accident without a licence your insurance company might refuse coverage.
To get a local motorcycle licence in Bali (valid for a year), go to the Polresta Denpasar Station (www.polrestadenpasar.org), which is northwest of Kerobokan on the way to Denpasar. Bring your passport, a photocopy of your passport (just the page with your photo on it) and a passport photo. Then take the following steps.
Sure it costs more than in the hall of chaos, but who can argue with the service?