So the ideas given here are meant for those who are already feeling the pinch in the tour budget and still have the desire to experience the backwaters of Kerala.
First let us separate the two things - the backwaters and the houseboats. It is the houseboat component that is adding greatly to the cost and not the backwaters tour. There is a general perception that the backwaters tour is better experienced when doing it in a houseboat. To some extend this is true. That combination has a special charm.
But that doesn't mean that your shoestring tour of backwaters, sans houseboat, is any less exciting either. What are we going to miss in this? First of all houseboats give a more private like ambient. At the most you would be sharing a giant houseboat with a couple of more families. Specially cooked food, cozy interiors and the customized cruise plan are definite plus points of a houseboat tour. That together with a night stay in the middle of the remoteness is dramatic. This is what you miss when you are not going for a houseboat.
The biggest negative of houseboat is its prohibitively high tariff. Whether you hire a houseboat or go for other cheaper options, the backwaters scenery and the life around it you are going to experience is the same. In fact when you travel by the public ferry services to experience the backwaters, you can get a much closer look at the daily life of the local communities. For example you share a seat with someone going to the market two stops down; the curious school kids would like to know where are you from ; Or watch the arguments people make on the latest hot topic. In other words the public ferry is a happening place compared to the private taxi like environment of a houseboat.
We were looking at the shoestring options, right? The ticket cost is almost nothing compared to what you've to shell out on a houseboat, even if you consider the longest of the ferry services of all. They all operate in the same backwaters!
So you've an idea of what you are missing, and more importantly gaining, while using a public boat service to tour Backwaters of Kerala.
Let us see where you can possibly find ferry services. In general backwaters with extensive services are located in southern districts (Travancore - Cochin region) of Kerala. Kannur in north Kerala has some ferries still operational.
Two huge lakes - Ashtamudi and Vembanad - together with a number of rivers and canals forms the heartland of backwaters in south Kerala.
That is from Ernakulam downward to Kollam (Quilon). The largest network of waterways are probably in the Alleppy ( Alappuzha) district. A close second place would be shared by both Kollam and Kottayam districts.
A large number of the services are operated by the Kerala State Water Transport Department (KSWTD). Thanks to the construction of many roads and bridges, many long distance services are curtailed. Otherwise these were once the lifeline of commuter and cargo services in Kerala. On can imagine the importance, as this tiny state had ( still have) about 2000 kilometers of waterways. The developed network once connected Hosdurg in north Kerala to Kovalam in the southern periphery of Kerala. Now the usage of waterways have shrunk within and around the southern districts.
Like in case of bus stations , boats too in general operate from or between boat stations locally called as Boat Jetties. There would be numerous stops at scheduled points in each of the trips , just like a bus service.
Your options of catching a boat are high if you head to any of the major boat stations.
Ernakulam is a major boat station. Operations from here includes to Mattancherry, Fort Kochi, Vypeen Island and Willingdon Island . Also explore the possibility of ferry services to Kottayam and Alleppey. The boat Jetty is located at the end of Marine Drive which is a few kilometers from the bus station and railway stations.
See also: Top 3 Backwaters destinations of Kerala.