Exploring Sri Lanka is a thrilling and fascinating adventure, filled with excitement, fun, and enjoyment – but the process of planning a trip there can be quite the opposite! So I’m here to make your life a little bit easier with my Sri Lanka Travel Guide. Here’s the only travel guide you’ll need to plan your trip to Sri Lanka!
When I was organising our trip to Sri Lanka, it struck me how hard it was to find out all the information I needed. Bus and train timetables were impossible to track down, and I couldn’t find reliable accommodation recommendations or figure out what I needed to budget. Immediately after we left the country, I vowed to write a travel guide for Sri Lanka containing everything I learned while planning the trip and making our way around the country.
So here it is – the ultimate travel guide to Sri Lanka! Everything you need to know when planning your trip around Sri Lanka. Travel, eat and drink with the locals, and completely immerse yourself in Sri Lankan culture.
Preparing for your trip
The Best Time To Visit Sri Lanka
There are two monsoon seasons in Sri Lanka that affect different parts of the country. On the southwest coast, the monsoon season runs from May to September. On the east coast and north, it runs between October and February.
For the rest of the year, the weather is dry and sunny throughout the country, with temperatures reaching up to 30 degrees in coastal regions and 18 in the highlands.
We visited in September when the popular beach areas in the south and southwest were still being hit with monsoons. We stuck mainly to the highland areas where the weather was better and had sunshine for the whole trip. If you are a budget traveller, hitting places during off-peak or shoulder seasons is a fantastic way to reduce costs. Especially in Sri Lanka, you can find discounts on accommodation and Western restaurants for up to 50% off their regular price.
Packing For Your Trip
Check out my backpacker’s packing guide to see my favourite things to carry with me. I recommend packing cubes, a waterproof phone case, the bite pen, a travel towel and a sleeping bag liner from this list. Along with camera equipment, as there are great photo-taking opportunities here. Along with these, you should also pack the following on your trip to Sri Lanka:
- Modest Clothing: You’ll need to dress more conservatively in Sri Lanka than other backpacker destinations in SEA. Bring clothes that cover your shoulders and knees for days when you are sightseeing or travelling from place to place. My go-to outfit when we were travelling here was a light dress past my knees with a light shirt on top. It’s likely to be quite humid, so breathable fabrics are best.
- Sturdy Shoes: Sri Lanka has great hikes and climbs, so bring trainers. Any regular workout trainers will be fine – but they will get covered in dust or mud. So opt for dark colours.
- Bug Spray & SPF: It gets hot and sticky in Sri Lanka, and there can be quite a few mosquitos. Bring some high-strength DEET with you if you are prone to getting bit.
Organising Your Visa
Sri Lanka offers visitors from most countries a Visa On Arrival (VOA), giving you 30 days in the country. If you want to stay longer, you must extend your visa in Colombo.
How to apply: You can either wait until you enter the country to get a VOA or else apply online and skip the queues.
Fees: 50 USD if you apply online at the above link, or 60 USD if you get your VOA at the airport or port.
Limitations: You need to provide proof of onward travel to enter Sri Lanka – you will be asked to provide this at check-in or when boarding your flight.
Managing Your Money
The Sri Lankan currency is the Rupee (LKR), but you can pay for some things in USD, like entry fees to attractions. You can find money changers in Colombo and popular tourist areas. Like anywhere else in SE Asia, the usual scams can be found here, so be very careful when changing money.
ATMs are pretty accessible, although they won’t be everywhere, so it’s always good to have enough cash with you. We mainly carried Rupee and had around $100 each in cash for entry fees.
We’ve encountered so many scams on our travels that we never use money changers. Instead, use our Transferwise cards, which give us great rates worldwide.
Tip: Always look for the MRP (maximum retail price) when shopping. There will be a small black bar code somewhere on the item you want, and it will give you the maximum price of the item. You will be charged more for everything if you don’t know the price!
Responsible Travel in Sri Lanka
There are a few things to be careful of when travelling in Sri Lanka; the exploitation of children, animals, and wealthy tourists is rife there. As with many other countries in Asia, there are many animal parks and elephant parks that bill themselves as orphanages and are ethical when they are not. Pinnewala is the primary example of this, and I would avoid this park at all costs.
Minneriya National Park is not as bad as Pinnewala. Still, the number of people here often outnumbers the animals, and drivers tend to beep their horns and drive at the animals to get them closer to tourists. There have been many complaints from people who have been to this park, who were shaken and upset by how the animals were treated. Yala National Park seems to be ok if you would like to go to an animal park. Here is a guide to travelling responsibly in Sri Lanka
Getting Around in Sri Lanka
Arriving at Colombo Airport
To get from the Airport to your guesthouse, use the app Pick Me, Sri Lanka’s version of Uber. There will be taxis and buses available outside of arrivals, but these will cost quite a bit more, and you also have the stress of having to haggle for your fare. Download Pick Me before your flight, and you can get a fairly-priced taxi once you land. I like to use the ATM when I arrive and get my SIM card sorted ASAP!
We flew into Colombo Bandaranayake International Airport on the west coast of Sri Lanka. This is the most popular entry point for tourists as it’s easy to get to the beaches and the highlands from here.
There is storage at Colombo airport where you can leave your bag for 6-8 USD per day. You can store them at the ‘Left Luggage Counter’ on the departure outer porch. It’s open 24 hours. We do this a lot if we’re in a country for less than two weeks – it’s cheap and makes travelling around much easier. If you’re travelling by local bus and train, you’ll want to have as little stuff as possible, so I definitely recommend leaving things here if you can.
There are many ways to travel around Sri Lanka, depending on how much time and money you have.
Hire a driver
Many travellers we met hired a driver for their whole stay. This is the most expensive option, but it allows you to travel at your leisure. While it is undoubtedly more comfortable and convenient, public transport journeys were some of our trip’s best and most memorable parts. I would have hated to miss them! Your driver can also double as a travel guide while in Sri Lanka, as some companies offer this service. You can hire a driver through a tour company online or through your accommodation once you arrive in Sri Lanka.
Take the train
Travelling by train around Sri Lanka was the highlight of our trip. Although it takes longer than hiring a driver, I still would choose to take the train. Our favourite train ride was the famous journey between Kandy and Ella, which you can read about here.
There are three classes of train travel, and we mostly opted for third-class seats as they were the cheapest fare. One thing to be aware of is that there are two types of third-class tickets – unreserved and reserved. Unreserved 3rd class tickets can be bought at a train station on the day and are usually the last tickets available. These do not guarantee you a seat, and the carriages are generally packed full of people – there was even a band on the train we were on. Third-class reserved tickets guarantee an assigned seat in a carriage where no one can stand. When you’re on a train for 6 + hours, this will make a big difference!
I would highly recommend you book your tickets before you go so you don’t end up with third-class unreserved seats. We booked ours through 12Go.Asia.
To learn more about timetables, prices, and how to book trains in Sri Lanka, visit ‘The Man In Seat 61‘—the best site for information about train travel. Mark Smith, who started the website as a hobby, writes incredibly detailed and informative reviews of train journeys worldwide. We use it whenever we need to travel by train, a nd it was really helpful for our trips to Sri Lanka (and great for India, too!).
Hop on a local bus.
We took local buses instead for journeys that couldn’t be done by train. These are cheap (usually less than a dollar) and a great way to meet local people and catch a glimpse of daily life! There is a mix of public and private buses in Sri Lanka, so the price will vary. Some drivers will charge you for bags, while some will not. It is not uncommon for tourists to get an inflated price on these buses, so if you are unsure of the price, ask a local!
Catching a bus in Sri Lanka is a very interesting experience! Bus stops are often not marked with a sign so you have to ask around to find out where to stand. Many buses will pass you before the right one eventually comes along. If you ask when the next bus is due, you often get met with a blank stare and told to wait, and it will turn up. The experience is a lot of fun, though, and it will save you so much money. Tip: The buses don’t always come to a complete halt, so it’s best to be ready near the door when you’re about to get off!
For shorter journeys, take a taxi.
The Pick Me app is the Sri Lankan version of Uber and is excellent for getting around cities and towns cheaply. This app takes away the hassle of haggling with cab drivers. It gives you a set price for each fare, which you can pay by card in the app, or cash at the end of your trip.
Rent your own TukTuk
If you’ve travelled to South East Asia before, you’ll know Tuk Tuks are a common way to get around. However, have you ever rented one yourself? It’s a great and unique way to experience Sri Lanka! You can travel as and when you want and explore places you may not have found otherwise.
Driving in Sri Lanka can be tricky, and you will need a local permit to drive here. Renting from TukTuk Rental is the best and easiest way to do this, as they will sort all your permits required for Sri Lanka. You can hire from Colombo, or you can get your Tuk Tuk delivered to you for an added fee. Use my code ‘STEPHMYLIFETRAVEL’ for a discount on your rental!
Budgeting For Your Trip
Sri Lanka can be an incredibly cheap country to travel around. Lunch can be found for a dollar, a double room for under $10, while a local bus is only $0.50. However, some entry fees can kill your budget, costing up to $30 per person. For this reason, I wouldn’t just visit anything for the sake of it.
Daily Budget for Sri Lanka ($USD)
Accommodation: $10-15 per night for a basic double room en suite with breakfast. $40 for a nice hotel, $60+ for luxury.
Food: $10 per day per person for lunch, dinner and water. You can eat for $5-7 in cheaper areas for local food. You will pay approx $20 per person per day if you eat Western food.
Alcohol: A bottle of Lion beer costs $2, and wine or cocktails will set you back $4/5 per glass. Prices vary, but the way to find the cheapest alcohol is to drink where the locals drink or buy drinks from an off licence.
Transport: Travel by local bus or train for less than a dollar. We averaged around $4 per day for transport. To hire a driver for the day will set you back around $45 per day. Local tuk-tuks are around 50c to $1 per short trip.
Entry fees: You will find a complete list of entry fees to the different attractions here. Pick and choose whichever you can fit into your budget.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my ultimate travel guide to Sri Lanka! If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below. Don’t forget to check out my 10-day itinerary for Sri Lanka for more information on destinations and things to do!
Planning Your Itinerary
Now that my Sri Lanka Travel Guide has prepared you for your trip, it’s time to plan your itinerary. Your route through Sri Lanka will be based on the weather, the type of activities you enjoy, and your budget. Head to my Sri Lanka Itinerary post to plan your perfect trip!
And if you’re planning a trip to SEA, here are some other blog posts which might be helpful:
- StephMyLife Group Tour Schedule 2024
- The Best Travel Credit and Debit Cards for Backpackers
- Backpacker Visa Guide To South East Asia
- 6 Important lessons I learned from travelling as a couple
- 10 Simple Ways To Save Money For Travelling
- 20 Safety Tips for Solo Female Travelers
- The Best Solo Female Travel Destinations
- How To Be A Good Backpacker
- Essential Skin Care Products For Long Haul Flights
- The Cheapest Way To Fly From Europe To South East Asia