SRI LANKA : HOW TO TRAVEL SRI LANKA ON A BUDGET
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Why Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka isn’t as massive as its gigantic neighbour India, but it makes for an inexpensive 1-2 week trip in Asia.
I spent only 500 SGD in total for my 1 week trip in Sri Lanka. This is inclusive of my flights which is 300 SGD.
Sri Lanka is a country of many diverse sights. She is rich in historical and religious sites, has idyllic beaches to relax in and scenic hill country to explore, as well as some of the best national parks in the region for leopards and elephants.
Sri Lanka can be really costly because almost everything is pegged to US dollars. The cost of attractions, accommodation and transport can add up.
This post presents an overview of how to travel Sri Lanka on a tight budget. Although I have only covered a few areas of Sri Lanka for my 1 week trip, the general tips and ideas are universal.
Be a Singaporean. Just kidding. Visa is exempted for Singaporeans when we visit Sri Lanka. This 30 days visa-free exemption is only applicable to Singaporeans, Maldives and Seychelles. The immigration process is extremely quick in Sri Lanka, we cleared in less than 5 minutes!
2. Get a SIM-CARD
A sim card is really useful for calling and data! You can get a usable sim card with data for around 3.5 USD but it will go a long way in helping you on your trip!
It is important for you to check how the map how long the distance is between places you wish to visit. This is really helpful for negotiation.
Google maps are really helpful in terms of knowing where you are and pin-pointing important landmarks. It helps with navigation, such as getting to Ella Rock and prevents you from getting scammed by fake guides or walking to the bus station when the evil touts are saying that there are no more buses.
The network in Sri Lanka is quite extensive and good coverage in most of the areas you will visit as a tourist.
Getting a sim card is really easy. Numerous phone booths, Dialog, Mobitel, Etisalat and Airtel who are the four mobile operators, will greet you when you exit the baggage area.
I suggest going with Dialog Mobile as they are the market leader with the widest coverage and best in the country including in the rural areas. They also have the best network. Just get the one with the internet package. Topping up is really easy in Sri Lanka as you can just get any recharge card or ask someone in any shop to help you.
The base price for a tourist sim of around 1GB of data is 500 RS, which is only 3.25 USD. It should be more than enough for a week.
If Dialog is too expensive, just get a Mobitel one which is slightly cheaper. However, I heard from some other couchsurfers who experienced weird issues with Mobitel like not being able to access Instagram or facebook but others are fine.
We were rushing so we got an Air-tel. Air tel really isn’t that good because I couldn’t log in to couchsurfing for some reason. Also, the network coverage in some of the more rural areas wasn’t there and the internet slowed down to a crawl at many points. As there is not much difference in cost, just get Dialog.
3. Choose your sights and attractions wisely
Before going, it will be good to do some research on the exact sights and attractions you wish to see. The thing about Sri Lanka is that there are “tourist prices” which can be quite expensive for some of the more notable sights. The prices will add up and you might also get attraction fatigue from visiting too many cultural sights and temples.
An example will be going to Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura will require at least 100 USD! These are just the notable ancient cities to visit.
Therefore, pace yourself and choose your sights in order to manage your budget. These are just a rough list from this source. Prices are pretty updated for now.
|Tourists attraction||Entry Fees|
|Elephant Orphanage, Pinnawala||USD 20|
|Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy||USD 15|
|National Museum, Colombo||USD 5|
|National Museum, Kandy||USD 15|
|Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya||USD 15|
|Hakgala Botanical Garden, Nuwara Eliya||USD 8|
|Ancient City of Sigiriya||USD 30|
|Ancient City of Polonnaruwa||USD 25|
|Ancient City of Anuradhapura||USD 25|
|Nalanda Gedige||USD 5|
|Ritigala Buddhist monastery and mountain||USD 5|
|Medirigiriya Vatadage||USD 5|
|Sri Maha Bodhiya, Anuradhapura||USD 5|
|Isurumuniya, Anuradhapura||USD 5|
|Mihinthale, Anuradhapura||USD 10|
|Avukana Buddha statue, Kekirawa||USD 10|
|Dambulla Cave Temples||USD 10|
|Mulkirigala Rock Temple||USD 5|
|Yala National Park||USD 25|
|Udawalawa National Park||USD 15|
|Minneriya National Park||USD 15|
|Wasgamuwa National Park||USD 15|
|Sinharaja Rain Forest Reserve||USD 15|
|Bundala National Park||USD 20|
|Pigeon Island National Park, Nilaveli||USD 10|
|Hortain Plains National Park||USD 20|
|Moon Plains, Nuwara Eliya||USD 20|
Please note that although the prices are listed in USD, you pay in Sri Lankan rupees.
Another place to refer to will be tripadvisor list. However, some of the prices are not updated.
For a place to show the location as well as the prices, please refer to this website.
4. Do more hiking
In deciding the attractions, you could incorporate more treks and hikes in your trip rather than only doing temples and museums. The most notable treks in Sri Lanka are free, while those with really gimmicky sounding names usually cost some money.
In Ella, you can do Little Adam’s Peak and Ella rock for free. Just follow google map directions or my post on Ella.
You can also do Adam’s Peak, the highest and most religious peak in Sri Lanka, for free.
Although Sigiriya (30 USD) cost quite a substantial amount, you can opt to do Pidurangala (3.25 USD) which is the way cheaper sister of Sigiriya. Now that makes Pidurangala sound like a cheap whore. Just take it that Sigiriya is the dressed-up, pimped up, well-adorned lady while Pidurangala is the next-door girl. You still get impressive views of Sigiriya and the surroundings from Pidurangala and a nice open space to relax from the top.
Some love to visit “Arthur’s seat” and “World’s End”, but they all cost some money for entrance and extra logistical cost to get there. If you wish to pay money to tag yourself on some nice-sounding names and mediocre views, by all means, go ahead and support the industry.
5. Go with people
Although buses and trains are per individual costs, the main savings come from sharing accommodation, tuk-tuk rides or taxi rides.
Tuk-Tuk rides can cost much more than your buses and trains. It is quite ridiculous that a 2km tuk tuk ride will cost more than an 8h bus ride, but that is how it works in Sri Lanka. A tuk-tuk can share up to 4-5 people, but the cost of hiring the tuk-tuk gets mitigated by the number of people sharing. A 2 dollar ride can become just 50 cents.
For accommodation, dorm beds are not the most common. Guesthouses are way more common and it will be more cost efficient if you are travelling with a partner. The cost of a room can sometimes be cheaper than staying in a dorm if divided by 2 people.
Food portions in Sri Lanka are HUGE! They serve a lot of rice and rice and curry are usually refillable. I eat a lot and I almost never waste my food, but I struggled to finish my order of food most of the times. A single portion ordered is usually good enough to be shared between 2-3 people, unless you are one hungry gorilla.
6. Go in the off-season
Going in the off-season allows you to get better prices in accommodation and bargain harder with people.
Sri Lanka seasons are dominated by the monsoon seasons. There are 2 main monsoon seasons you will have to note.
South-West Monsoon (Yala Monsoon) : May – September. It rains a lot from April to June for the west + south-west + hill country. This affects most of the more popular areas.
North – East Monsoon (Maha Monsoon): October – February.
Therefore, the general rule of thumb for peak period is considered to be from December to April, while the east-coast is usually peak from April – September.
So, try to go in the shoulder seasons between the monsoons, like in September or May. It is still considered the off-season but the rainfall isn’t that heavy.
One common perception is that when it is the monsoon, it rains the whole day and you are forced to stay in. Often, it is not true. The rain comes in 1-2 hour timings, so it will not necessarily disrupt your travel (unless you are surfing, which you should just hop to the other coast).
There are a lot fewer crowds as well as cheaper prices all around for accommodation and transport. This makes it easier to bargain and negotiate for prices too.
On the other hand, you might wish to note that some roads might be closed due to rain or bus routes being less frequent and direct.
7. Take the local buses and trains
Local buses and trains are the most inexpensive way to get around. Taxis and tuk-tuks might be more comfortable, but they are usually at least 5-10 times for expensive for the distance. The downside is you might be squeezing with people or standing for half the journey, but you get the whole authentic local experience!
Buses from one city to the next can cost less than 1 USD, depending on the route. There are also air conditioned VIP buses which are essentially mini-vans which cost slightly more (maybe 3-4 dollars) on some routes.
For trains, the second class unreserved is usually sufficient. If you do not wish to risk standing on the trains, book the reserved seats. Unfortunately, the only way is to get the reserved seats is to go days before or ask someone to help you book it via Mobitel/Etisalat Phone Lines. You can check the official information here.
On my trip, I never managed to get a single reserved ticket. The trains and buses are full most of the time, even during the off-season! In fact, the only time I remember having an empty seat was when we were on the train from Ella – Hatton in the morning because most people take the reverse route.
You can check the train schedule easily via the official railway website. If you really need to check the exact prices, you can view it from this website. Seat61 has some good pictures of how the trains look like as well as some information.
If for some reasons (such as comfort etc) you intend to take a taxi, you could consider sharing taxis. This is an interesting website on sharing taxis in Sri Lanka. Taxis can be reasonably priced at times. For some reference pricing, please take a look at this website. Do note that it is only as a point of reference!
8. Negotiate/Bargain your way around
There is a strong culture of bargaining in Sri Lanka. As a general rule of thumb, some purchases are fixed, but for others, expect to always be overcharged and bargain for every purchase.
Bargaining is always a tricky concept. How much should I bargain? What should I bargain for? Am I pushing it too hard and creating an unhappy atmosphere?
I would admit that I get a thrill for bargaining a really good deal. It can be just over 30 cents USD, but you feel compelled to bargain, like a mini-game you always play with you talk to these NPCs. Little numbers do add up for someone on a budget.
There are no clear limits for bargaining. If you are okay with the price and the negotiation is negligible for you, just leave it. There are times where I bargained well and I saw a wry smile or a grudging nod of respect from the Sri Lankan adversary.
What you shouldn’t try to bargain for :
- Do not bargain for the public transport, trains and buses. Prices are really low to begin with and are fixed.
- Attraction prices are most of the times fixed also. If you are able to bargain, more often than not you are talking to a tout/scammer.
- Do not bargain at an established eatery that dishes out receipts or at a restaurant.
What you should bargain for :
A good benchmark for a tuk-tuk cost is 40 LKR per kilometre(km). That is around 25 cents USD per km.
- Use google map to check how far the distance is from your location to your destination to form a rough idea of the cost to begin with.
- Keep in mind that for certain places, you have to factor in the driver’s return. For example, if your hostel is 2km away, the driver is likely to quote you 150 LKR or 160 LKR instead of 80 LKR because of the return trip.
- Always make sure to ask the driver how much it costs before you enter the tuk-tuk.
- If the Tuk-tuk driver gives you a price way above the benchmark, you will know he is ripping you off and let the games begin. For example, if the place is just 2km away and he quotes you 300 LKR, I would immediately bargain the hell out of him.
- Some of the Tuk-Tuk drivers are really honest. Do keep in mind that like bargaining between 150 LKR and 100 LKR might be a thrilling proposition, but its like 30 cents USD only.
- Colombo has meter tuk-tuks, but meter tuk-tuks can be rigged too. Trust your own instincts and speak out if you see the meter going past the benchmark rates
- Lastly, make sure you have exact change. If you give bigger notes, once you have completed the journey, the driver might say they don’t have change (a legitimate excuse at times) which basically forces you to give the bigger note and makes all the previous haggling obsolete.
For more on tuk-tuks, you can refer to this article. Use the same logic for taxis except the benchmark rate is different. Taxis are more complicated as you have to factor in whether your journey is within the city, out of the city, which city the driver is from etc and I have never used any in Sri Lanka because they are too costly.
“What! You can actually bargain for accommodation?”
This is the first response from most people when I tell them that. Accommodation is usually known as a fixed price, but in Sri Lanka, you can negotiate for them, especially in off-season. Having said that, it might be distasteful to immediately bargain for a better rate so choose your battles and always approach it nicely.
- Always try to bargain for accommodation costs, especially during the off-season.
- Do not make your booking online first. Online booking results in some USD dollars being given to the online portal, like Airbnb, booking.com etc. Also, the charges are generally higher.
- There are many guest-houses available in most of the areas. Short-list the good ones and just drop by or give them a call the day before.
- Once you drop by, take a look at the rooms and toilets. There are usually 2 tiers of rooms. To strengthen your negotiation hand, always ask if there are other types of rooms or a more budget room to begin with. Once you have seen the lowest tier room, ask for the price.
- Note how many rooms are actually occupied. If the general feel of the place is that it is empty, more often than not you will be able to negotiate a good rate. The rooms will remain empty if you do not stay so they get no income anyway. Therefore, test their will to keep the prices.
- For accommodation, a private room can go for 5 USD to 10 USD ( even if listed is 30-40USD on booking.com). This is especially so during the off-season as you might be the only guests.
- I usually quote a low price such that they will go not possible, but it results in us being able to meet half-way which is my end goal. For example, the usual price is 20 USD, I’ll quote 5 USD and say that it’s off-season and I got this price somewhere else. We’ll end up at in the end at around 10 USD.
- If you are in a place with many other guesthouses around, they will usually ask you to stay and lower the prices if you do the “walk away and check other places” trick. Don’t do that for places you are not really interested in because it takes a lot of energy and can be quite distasteful if they give you the price you want and you don’t take it.
- The alternative will be to check out a hostel during the off-season. A dorm room might become a private room because there is nobody around.
- Always ask nicely, rather than demand for a discount. For example, “Would you be able to give me a better rate because it is off-season?” Or “I am on a tight budget and I am looking at X amount per night only”. Rather than “5 USD because it is off-season! ROAR)*#%#*&%#&(%”
9. Know your Scams
Sri Lanka is generally a safe country with really helpful and friendly people around. However, like most countries and especially so in developing countries in Asia, there are quite a few scams you need to know. More often than not, the scams happen in the capital or tourist cities.
During my 1 week trip, I did not encounter any scam except the guide scam.
There are a few important ones to me which one must know.
- The touts who offer to buy train tickets/bus tickets for you or have a really cheap price for attractions.
- Tuk Tuk scams such as the ceremony ones or bringing you on a tour. Knowing them allows you to identify the situations so you will know how to react.
- Tuk-tuk/Taxi drivers claiming there are no more buses or public transport to the place you wish to go.
- Guide scams are really annoying. There are people who offer to guide you to certain areas like Ella rock but instead lead you in the wrong direction. When you are lost, you might end up being robbed or end up having to pay them to lead you to the right way.
Here are some lists of notorious scams which you can refer to :
From my experience, the most important thing is to not give people the opportunity to scam you in the first place. This comes when you have knowledge of the area, clarify the prices and information first and use google maps.
Just to reiterate, just because you see such a long list of scams doesn’t mean that you will be fearing every stranger which approaches you. Most of the Sri Lankans I met are friendly and helpful, but like in all countries, there are a few black sheep.
10. Rely on Locals
Having a good trip relies a lot on luck and the locals. Sometimes, the best deals or short-cuts come from asking the locals.
Additionally, I have noticed that Sri Lankans are not as aggressive as in India, where at times the people might intrude on your personal space, nor are they as overly helpful like in Iran where you will feel immense guilt.
Upon talking to some locals as well as travelers, I noticed that Sri Lankan men are quite gentlemanly but possessive. This means that they will definitely go out of their way to help the ladies, which is a great plus point.
The bad side? Just don’t pass them your number, ever. I have heard stories of incessant calls and unrequited confessions, just from meeting a traveller and helping them 1 thing.
11. Consider not eating at guesthouses
Now, this might seem counter-intuitive. It would be hard to resist saying no when the guesthouse lady smiles and asks “Do you wish to have breakfast/dinner?”
For a budget conscious person, consider not eating at guesthouses. There are cheaper priced options outside. Guest houses also usually charge per pax whereas the regular meals outside are more than enough for 2 persons usually.
For example, a fried rice outside which cost 3 USD is sufficient for 2 people. The exact same portion in the guest house will be charged 3 USD per person.
One of the main reasons for this is the way local Sri Lankan food is cooked. There are many side dishes and they take an hour to prepare. The food is meant for a family. Eating at a guesthouse is akin to eating home-cooked food.
If you wish for really good local food, guesthouses are your best bet. It all depends on who is cooking.
Therefore, if you have more people like 4-5 people, eating at the guest house might be a worthwhile experience. Otherwise, just find an eatery outside and share your portions. You might not have an option if you arrive late or if the area you are staying at does not have any eateries around. We encountered this issue in some of the towns because most people tend to eat at home!
Couchsurfing allows you to save on accommodation costs on top of being able to meet and interact with locals.
The couchsurfing scene isn’t well established in Sri Lanka. Like in Iran, some of them use it as part of a way to get more publicity for their guesthouse or the earn some income. Others use it as a form of traveller tinder. Always look to clarify and talk to them to see if you wish to be hosted or meet up with them.
You will be able to find pockets of people who are willing to host, especially in the more touristic areas. We had a fantastic experience with Ruwan, our host in Colombo (or near Colombo).
Sri Lanka is a place often overlooked in many people’s holiday plans. It is a good place to visit if you are on a budget. For more, follow my other posts on Sri Lanka which follow my 1-week itinerary.