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Our Best Sri Lanka Budget Travel Tips

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First of all, Sri Lanka is an easy country for independent travel. Because it is compact you won’t have to plan long journeys. And because people are so friendly and helpful it is easy to move around, find the hotels, restaurants, the correct bus line etc. It is also relatively tourist scam free. Although not as cheap as some other countries in Asia, it is still possible to travel on a limited budget and enjoy most of the main sights and activities. So, just follow our Sri Lanka Budget Travel Tips and all will be fine.

Money

I guess it makes sense to start with money. Here are our tips:

  • Best option is to bring Euros, US Dollars or British Pounds and change for rupees (but not at the airport). Because these are strong currencies you’ll get the official rate without any added taxes or commissions. Most hotels are also happy to receive the payment in these currencies and give you back change in rupees;

  • If you need to use ATMs to get money (as we had to), please be aware that we always got an extra local tax of 300 rupees on top of all the taxes and bad rate that the bank already charges. Better try to withdraw the maximum you can so that most of these taxes dilute in the overall value. Also, from the widely available banks in Sri Lanka, only two accept foreign cards (Commercial Bank accepts both Visa and Mastercard, People Bank only Visa);
  • Paying with card is not commonly accepted, and if it is accepted they’ll probably ask you for a 4 or 5% surcharge.

As a note, when we traveled there (March 2016), 1€=160 rupees, 1usd=145 rupees.

Accommodation

Budget accommodation in Sri Lanka is, in general, good value. We stayed in several guesthouses and paid between 2000 and 5000 rupees for a double room with en-suite bathroom (some with AC, some not).

These are our Sri Lanka budget travel tips and impressions about accommodation:

  • Do your research the normal way (guidebooks, Tripadvisor, booking.com, etc.) but try to book directly with the guesthouse/hotel. We always got better prices by calling them directly, sometimes 40% less. Don’t bother to email them, you probably won’t get an answer in due time. Guidebooks often provide a phone number. If not, a search on Google should work;

  • The room prices in Sri Lanka vary a lot depending if there is AC (in average 1000 rupees more per night), great view, etc. If you don’t want any of these make sure that you clarify that when you book, as they normally try to give you the more expensive rooms. Please note that AC is not needed in most places in the hill area, and in other areas depends on the season and on you (we managed well only with fan);

  • It is not common but it happened to us one time that the guesthouse added the 10% service charge on top of the agreed room price. Make sure that when you book the given price is the final one;

  • Most guesthouses offer reasonably fast wi-fi for free, but not always in the room, only in public areas. Again, worth asking when you book;

  • Mosquito nets are useful, so use them. They were provided in all except one of the places we stayed;

  • Food in the guesthouses (even the cheaper ones), including breakfast is normally expensive. Because of that we never took rooms with included breakfast.

  • Outside big cities and touristy areas (Colombo, Kandy, beaches in the south coast) there are few places with options for solo travellers (dorm bed or single room). Solo travellers will need to get a double room, it is possible to negotiate a bit but almost impossible to get half the price of the room. Our suggestion is that solo travellers try to find a sleeping companion;

  • Ok, previous suggestion is totally optional, even if we think it is a good one. 🙂

  • If you travel in low season the prices are cheaper, and you can get good deals even in mid-range accommodations. We paid 2000 rupees per night for a room on a resort in Nilaveli Beach, 50m from the beach. We found places with 80% discount;

  • If you stay more than two nights in the same place you probably can get a discount, ask for it;

  • Try to find alternative towns to stay (in the hills Haputale is cheaper than Ella; in the beach Talalla is cheaper than Mirissa).

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A normal budget room in Sri Lanka

Food and Drinks

Food is quite good and tasty in Sri Lanka. You’ll probably eat plenty of rice and curry, served in small plates with different vegetables and an optional portion of meat or fish. Sri Lankan breakfast is also quite interesting but some people find it too heavy as it relies in a sort of noodles (called string hoppers) and some curry (normally from lentils). But it is filling and can help you skipping lunch. We always had very little for lunch, normally salted pastries with egg or vegetables that you can find everywhere on the streets and are cheap (20-40 rupees per pastry). There are plenty of fruit stalls where you can buy bananas, pineapples, papayas, etc., for a good price. We were always eating fruit.

There are a few types of restaurants:

  • Local restaurants: these are the real local restaurants. There are no menus in English, most of the staff won’t speak much English either. Sometimes there is no menu, just a dish of the day, and most of the time it is rice and curry. These places normally sell pastries as well. It is a hit and miss, food can range from very good to almost disgusting. But a meal for two persons can cost only 200 or 300 rupees (around 2€), and we had mostly good food experiences.

  • Tourist restaurants: you’ll see some signs in English and a menu full of spelling errors. Big variety of dishes (including some western food), but we found that most of the time the food was bland and not that great. Price for two persons should be between 600 and 1500 rupees;

  • Guesthouse and hotel restaurants: these can be quite like the local restaurant for tourists. Quality varies a lot, but always within acceptable level. Prices are normally a bit more expensive than in tourist restaurants. We always ended up paying more than 1000 rupees for two persons. But we had the best meal in Sri Lanka in the guesthouse we stayed in Mannar Island, a gorgeous prawn curry;

  • Fancy restaurants: found in main cities and touristy areas, these places will sell you overpriced Sri Lankan and Western food, at prices like in Europe or US. Unless you cannot resist the temptation of a cappuccino (that would cost you 400 rupees), avoid these;

These are our Sri Lanka budget travel tips and impressions about food and drinks:

  • Often menu prices do not include the 10% service tax. This is normally the case in tourist and hotel restaurants. The menus should state if the price includes the tax or not, but sometimes it is written in such a cryptic English that you’ll have to ask or wait for the bill. In local restaurants the price is always final, but since you won’t find a menu, you won’t know it anyway;

  • Meal portions are normally large, in particular for rice and curry, and breakfast. It is ok to share;

  • Beer is expensive. The minimum we paid was 300 rupees but can get to 500 rupees in a guesthouse or tourist restaurant. It is a 500 or 620ml bottle though. In local restaurants we never found beer. If you fancy a few beers it is worth buying from supermarket or wine store;

  • The only supermarket of western standards is Cargills Food Court. It is quite expensive, in particular for fruit. We only went there to buy sliced cheese. Buy all the rest from street stalls;

  • Negotiate prices when you buy from the street stalls. Although the difference between “tourist” and “local” prices are not as big as in other Asian countries, there is room for negotiation (probably around 10 to 20%). Do not negotiate in restaurants;

  • You’ll need plenty of water. We didn’t drink from the tap, I guess we are still not prepared for that (and most of the time does not smell or taste so well). If you stay more than one day in the same place it is worth buying 5 litre bottles, fill smaller bottles and keep the rest in the room. It is cheaper and a bit better for the environment;

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A traditional Sri Lankan breakfast: Roti, curry, chickpeas
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Ilze having pastries in local restaurant

Transportation

Buses, trains and tuk-tuks that’s what you’ll use to move around, and you’ll use them a lot.

Most buses are quite old (recycled from India), and not comfortable at all. Except for few routes like going to airport or Colombo-Kandy, you won’t get AC or option to reserve seats. They can get packed even at non-rush hours. Adding to that, drivers are maniacs, driving like if they are the kings of the road. They also like putting the music very, very loud (take earplugs). But you need to use them, so just relax, do your prayers if you believe in that, fasten your seatbelts (if there were any) and enjoy the ride and the landscapes. Buses are cheap and 100 rupees will take you for around 100km or 2h30 trip.

Trains are not much better. Also old, slow, with a tendency to get late all the time. There are 3 classes but first class (with AC) is only available in some routes and at certain times. 2nd class has fans (that sometimes work) and 3rd class doesn’t, that’s the main difference. Also 2nd class tends to get less crowded. Prices for 3rd class are similar to buses, for 2nd class a bit higher. First class is expensive, at least double of second class. You can check train schedules here.

Tuk-tuks are an efficient way to travel short distances (if there is no bus available), or do some tours. This is where your negotiation skills need to shine as they won’t give you a fair price just because of your good looks.

These are our Sri Lanka budget travel tips and impressions about transportation:

  • In theory, long distance buses and trains get packed on Poya (holidays) days, Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon when all locals go back to their villages. If possible avoid these times to travel. We got packed buses and trains most of the time;

  • Short distance buses tend to get filled in early morning and after school ends (around 1:30 to 2pm) which in some cases correspond to the last bus. We preferred to travel between 9am and noon;

  • If your bus starts its journey from the station you are getting in, get there a bit early (around 30min), particularly for long-distance buses. This will allow you to get a seat and a place to put your luggage (see next tip); If the bus comes from somewhere else, you have to be lucky to get a seating place;

  • Except for one long-distance bus between Trincomalee and Colombo, all the other buses we took had no dedicated space for large luggage. We always found space next to the driver but we always tried to arrive early (see previous tip). In the intercity bus Colombo to Airport we had to pay an extra seat that we occupied with our luggage. Not much you can do about it;

  • Front seats in all buses are reserved for clergy (monks). Unless you travel with your best orange robe, stay away from there;

  • Short-distance buses stop everywhere there is a person getting in or out, sometimes every 50m. It can be frustrating and a 60km trip can take almost 3h. If possible get long-distance buses to cover town to town as these stop less.

  • Tuk-tuks are the same everywhere. Always negotiate price, waiting time, etc. before starting your journey. We found that they don’t exaggerate so much in the initial price but there is always room for negotiation. If you agree on a cheap day trip with tuk-tuk you’ll probably find yourself expending a bit of time in souvenir shops.

  • Tuk-tuk drivers will always try to take you to a guesthouse when you arrive to town. There’s a trade-off here: if you have your own accommodation already agreed, your won’t have much margin to negotiate with the tuk-tuk. If you let him take you to his suggested guesthouse, you can get a cheaper price from the tuk-tuk, but no discount from the guesthouse (as they need to pay commission to the tuk-tuk driver). We always preferred to have our accommodation settled beforehand;

  • In Mannar Island we rented a scooter, which was cheap and an efficient way to travel around. We only did it because there’s not much traffic in there, but we won’t do it in most of the places we visited. Also, in theory you need an international driver license to drive a scooter, but you can normally convince them that your normal license is valid (if major info is in English), but be aware that if you have some accident or the police stops you, you might be in trouble.

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Bus station somewhere in Sri Lanka
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2nd Class Train from Colombo to Galle

Activities and Sightseeing

For such a small country there are heaps of places to visit and activities to do. You can visit beautiful temples, ancient ruins or historical towns. For activities there is wildlife watching, hiking and trekking of all kinds or water activities. There are many options and many different prices. Visiting some of the places, particularly those listed as Unesco World Heritage, can be quite expensive, and if it is high-season, quite packed with tourists.

These are our Sri Lanka budget travel tips and impressions about activities and sightseeing:

  • Be selective. You don’t need to tick all the boxes. Follow your main interests and then select just a few other places. For instance, we wanted to see wildlife, tea plantations and spend some time in beach, so we focused most of our time on those. We are not big history buffs, so we skipped a few of the major ruin sites and we chose temples that are not so touristy or expensive;

  • Try to find alternatives. As we said before, some of the main attractions are quite expensive (Anuradhapura is around 25usd, Sigiriya 30usd, Kandy Temple 10usd). On the other end there are hundreds of temples that are beautiful and you pay little or nothing. The same for activities (whale watching in Trinco cheaper than in Mirissa, Lipton’s Seat cheaper than World’s End, etc.);

  • When booking activities make sure that the price and conditions are well agreed. Does it include guide, parking fees (if applicable), how long, etc… We booked a jeep tour to Uda Walawe National Park and only when we got to the park we found out that the driver was not a guide so we had to get a park guide for extra money;

  • Choose your guides and activities wisely. If it is something you really want to see don’t always go for the cheaper, but choose the best you can afford. We are wildlife enthusiasts and it was important to have guides that could find the animals and speak good English. The same way if you’re into history and want a guide to visit a place, choose one that speaks good English (spend some time with him to check) and knows his stuff (some just tell you the basic that you can find in any guidebook).

  • Choose the right time to visit, particularly in those places that can get quite busy with tourists. By rule we always tried to visit historical sites early in the morning to avoid the heat and beat the crowds. We went to Dambulla Cave Temples and Sigiriya around 7am and had the places almost empty. Around 8:30am when we were almost done all the tourist buses arrived. In some places it is tempting to visit when celebrations occur (for instance 6:30pm puja in Temple of the Tooth, Kandy), but can also be frustrating, like going to a big stadium rock concert and being the shortest person in there;

  • Go off-the-beaten track. Challenge yourself a bit, visit places where few tourists go. You’ll find friendlier people, deserted beaches, and most of the time cheaper accommodation and food. We’ve been to Mannar Island and for 2 days were the only tourists and had a great time in there.

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Luis with a great guide
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Famous temples can get pretty packed with tourists, Kandy

Sri Lanka is a lovely country, safe, easy to travel and cheap, particularly if you follow these Sri Lanka budget travel tips. So go there, and if you have any questions feel free to contact us.

One response to “Our Best Sri Lanka Budget Travel Tips”

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