The train journey between Kandy and Ella in Sri Lanka is considered one of the most breathtaking in the world. Even on grey, rainy days like the day we travelled, the views are still magical! This journey was the highlight of our time in Sri Lanka, and I’d definitely recommend adding it to your itinerary! Here’s your guide to booking your journey between Kandy and Ella.
Don’t forget to read my 10-day itinerary in Sri Lanka and my backpacker’s guide to Sri Lanka.
Journey Details for the Kandy to Ella Train Route
There are four daily trains between Kandy and Ella, and the journey takes between 6 and 7 hours. The most scenic part of the journey is between Hatton and Haputale stations. Tip – if you can’t get on the train at Kandy or Ella, try to get on at either.
The prices on the train line’s website are 50p for third-class tickets, £1 for second class and £2 for first-class – however, you will most likely have to pay a lot more than this! Tickets go on sale 30 days before travel. These aren’t sold online by the operator, so travel agencies go to the station, buy them all up, and resell them for a massive markup.
When booking your tickets on the Kandy to Ella train from outside the country, you’ll have to accept this inflated price. If you wait to buy them at the station, you could be left with no tickets or standing only (you do NOT want to do this journey in one of the unreserved standing carriages – see “Where should I Sit” below!). Your best bet is to shop around and find an agent selling them at the lowest price. You can also book your tickets here from $5 per person.
We travelled from Kandy to Ella in third class, reserved and bought our tickets through Visit Sri Lanka Tours for £8 per person (2023 Update: these have now increased to £21 per person). It’s a huge markup, but at the same time, it’s not exactly expensive for a 6-hour journey with a reserved seat. I tried belligerently refusing to pay so far over the odds and insisting we take our chances with tickets on the day, but Tim quickly told me to stop being so cheap! 🙂
Booking your tickets
Buying tickets in person
If you’re in Kandy or Ella, you can buy tickets directly at the station, this is the best option if possible. You can usually buy them from local travel agencies if you’re in other parts of Sri Lanka. Ask around at your accommodation or in a shop, and they will direct you to the nearest person selling tickets.
Haggle hard, and inspect your ticket to ensure you get the seat you promised.
Buying tickets online
Remember, the train company doesn’t run these websites, they are run by agencies that sell pre-bought tickets. So if seats sell out with one agency, they may still be available from others.
Tip: People will say to book the morning train if you want good pictures, so you will notice the majority of backpackers and tourists take the morning train. The later train is much quieter and the sunset light when coming into Ella was incredible. If you would rather have fewer tourists and a quieter carriage maybe opt for the later train if you have time.
Where Should I Sit?
There are five ticket options. Depending on your budget, how far in advance you book, how comfortable you want to be, and if you want to take good photos.
Tip: Sit on the right side from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, then switch to the left side (if possible) from Nuwara Eliya into Ella for the best views.
First-class observation car
This carriage attaches to the rear of the train with huge windows looking out over the scenic views. It doesn’t have air-con, but the windows open so it doesn’t get stuffy, and you can hang out to get some great photos. You will be travelling backwards on this carriage, so that might be something to consider if you get travel sick.
Seats here are always the first to book out, so if you want to sit in the observation carriage, book as soon as the tickets come on sale. We haven’t ridden on this carriage, but every travel blog recommended these as the best seats.
First-class air-conditioned car
As expected, these are the most comfortable carriages with leather seats and air conditioning. AC means that the windows do not open, unlike the other carriages. They will assign a seat with your ticket. An inspector man’s doors and usually, the walkways between lower carriages are closed off to keep people out.
One of my favourite things about travelling on this journey was hanging out the doors and the windows and taking amazing photographs, which you can’t do in first class. You might be a little removed from the experience if you travel on this carriage, but that’s just from reading reviews online.
Second Class / Third Class
Second and third-class carriages are not air-conditioned, so all the windows and doors are wide open for the entire journey. As you’d imagine, there is a difference in standard as you go down in ticket class. Seats are slightly less comfortable and less spacious as you move to third class. Generally, there will be less room to move around, and with standing tickets available here, the aisles may be crowded.
Second and third-class travel will be split into two carriages – reserved and unreserved.
Reserved vs Unreserved Seats
Reserved tickets must be booked in advance, and you will be assigned a seat in the carriage. There will be an inspector on the door who checks tickets, and nobody who doesn’t have a seat in the carriage will be allowed in. This will allow you much more room to put your stuff and make it more secure.
You can buy unreserved tickets at the station, sometimes on the day of travel. They will not assign you a seat on these carriages, so as a result, you may have to stand. There are always many unreserved tickets sold, so competition for seats is high. If you get a seat, the carriage will likely be packed with people, and you won’t have much space to put your stuff.
In our reserved carriage, we could move around, take pictures from different windows, and walk outside to hang out the doors and watch the views. On an unreserved carriage, you don’t have that freedom of movement. You’d be lucky if you got up to go to the bathroom and still had your seat when you returned (or had a seat in the first place)!
Here’s what you need to remember when you’re buying your tickets:
- Weekends are super busy with tourists and locals, travel on a weekday if possible
- Always buy reserved tickets
- Just because the class is higher doesn’t mean the experience will be better.
- Second class unreserved is far, far worse than third class reserved.
How Comfortable Is It?
I found the third class reserved from Kandy to Ella surprisingly comfortable! We were in a six-seater booth with two rows of three seats facing each other and a table between us. There were racks to hold our luggage above our heads and space by our feet to put our day bags. There was an inspector at the door of our carriage checking tickets, so nobody was standing in the carriage, and there was enough space to move around.
The trains that run this route are old, so don’t expect first-class carriages to be equivalent to first-class back home. Seat61.com has some photos of the interior and exterior of each of the carriages here, which might be helpful when deciding which tickets to buy.
Your comfort level will depend on how much you’re willing to spend and how early you buy the tickets. Under’ where should I sit, ‘ I describe the different classes of travel in more detail.
Food & Drink Onboard The Train
There is no on-board meal service in the third class. Street vendors get on when the train stops and offer hot food, snacks, and water. Since the train journey from Kandy to Ella can be over 7 hours with only three stops, I’d recommend bringing snacks and water on board.
Other Tips for the Kandy to Ella Train Journey
Be careful when sticking phones and cameras out the window. We saw a few fall from people’s hands and selfie sticks along the way. Be mindful of trees or branches on the tracks. It’s common for people to hang out of the open doors on this train,, but check the area before you do this because we saw a few near misses! This would be a good time to mention my one non-negotiable for any trip: having insurance.
If you’ve left it too late and can’t get a seat on the Kandy to Ella train, consider getting a tuk-tuk to Peradiniya station 6km away and buying a ticket there. This is the stop before Kandy, and sometimes trains run from here to Ella, but don’t stop at Kandy, so seats will be available.
Try not to end up with second or third-class unreserved tickets. It does affect the enjoyment of your trip if you’re standing for the whole thing. Even if you get a seat, it can be crowded in there, and that can be very uncomfortable in the heat.
If you have more time, I highly recommend stopping off at a town along the journey. This means you can experience this train journey twice and visit some of the lesser-known towns along the way. If you want to do the Kandy to Ella train route, I would recommend a 2-day stop off in Nuwara Eliya to break the journey.
If you like sleepy towns, hiking, and visiting the best tea plantations in Sri Lanka – you will love it. Known as the ”Little England” of Sri Lanka, expect crisp mountain air here, a welcome relief from the heat. If you are short on time, take a tuk-tuk tour of the main sights! Spend the day trekking to Ramboda Falls, stopping off at a local village along the way for lunch.
Stay at La Rose Homestay for an authentic homestay experience, with a view overlooking the entire town. The sunsets from here were breathtaking. The owner is so friendly, and provides unlimited cups of tea, which is always a plus! Make sure to check out my 10-day itinerary for Sri Lanka for more!
Once you arrive in Ella, you will have a huge range of places to stay and will be spoilt for choice. I loved staying with Mohomed & his family at Green Jangal. It’s simple and basic accommodation, but where we had the nicest breakfast in Sri Lanka – he even gave us giant avocados to take with us. For closer proximity to the town, stay at Tunnel Gap Homestay. Sudha and her family are so welcoming. They provide delicious food and a nice homestay experience here!
A note on renting scooters in Sri Lanka
If you rent a scooter in Sri Lanka, you must have the correct paperwork and wear a helmet at all times. The police in Sri Lanka are strong, and they give heavy fines for incorrect paperwork or no helmet. Most importantly, you must have insurance. It is the most important thing you need while travelling.
If you don’t want a scooter but still want the freedom of having wheels, rent a tuk-tuk. It’s a mode of transport we backpackers use a lot but rarely rent. I think it’s an entertaining and unique way of seeing Sri Lanka. Tuk Tuk Rental is one of the leading companies in Sri Lanka, and they will sort all the paperwork for you so you know you will not get stung with any fines for incorrect paperwork.
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