Planning for Sri Lanka
Getting ready for your own experience Ultimate planning guide on destinations, transportation, health, food and more
Sri Lanka is a backpacker’s paradise but not only! The island is just 432 km long and 224 km wide, it offers an incredible variety of touristic highlights. We loved to relax by the gorgeous beaches of the Indian Ocean, embrace the cultural relics of the early Buddhism as well as hike to the top of fantastic mountain landscapes surrounded by untouched nature and incredible wildlife. As funny as it can sound the island is a “variety shop” having always something to offer for everybody. Whether you want to surf, chill at the beach or escape on an adventure, the good news are: it’s possible with great weather conditions all year-round! This section will help you to identify the best spots when planning.
Sri Lanka is quite safe and there is low criminality, making it a good destination for individual travelers. However, and unfortunately, solo women travelers should be cautious due some previous incidents. Transport takes time but there is a dense and frequent network of trains and buses that bring you to every spot. Tuk-tuks drive you to the most deserted spots for little money. Prices in Sri Lanka are generally rather low from a European/American point of view.
Have a look at our planning guide to prepare your perfect trip! Destinations, travel advice and information – there is nothing more you need…
Knowing Your Travel Time Explore the country all year round
Sri Lanka is a year-round destination with different climate zones and plenty of sun. The weather is dependent on the region’s two monsoon seasons. Rain comes to the north and east coast from October to January. In contrast, its raining at the south and west coast from May to August. Take this into consideration when finding the right spot for a nice beach holiday. As elephants and other animals migrate, some national parks may be better for observation than others depending on the season. The same is valid for whale and dolphin watching excursions, where animals circle the island during the year.
Be prepared for rain in the mountain areas at any time of the year. Even though there is usually more rain during the “south west monsoon” from May to August. Therefore, pack your bags accordingly! You can find tips on the right backpacker’s gear in our TurtleJournal entry on travel preparation.
Setting Your Itinerary Discover what there is to see and map your destinations
Sri Lanka has an incredible amount of things and places to go. Small and big temples are spread all over the country, there is a multitude of national parks, various hot spots for surfers or whale-watchers and some paradise beaches are completely abandoned others are filled with party crowds. Therefore, your itinerary will be strongly dependent on your personal preferences. Believe us, it can be quite overwhelming to find the spots that really fit your interest.
Hence, we have created our TurtleMap Sri Lanka. It is a sight map featuring not only must-sees but also hidden gems that we saw ourselves or made research about. It is “living” and advancing as more travelers share their experiences. We hope, this will help to ease your planing or even to find nice spots around once you are already there.
Understanding Transportation To and Around Sri Lanka Travel by air, rail, bus, tuk-tuk or car
The most common way to arrive in Sri Lanka is usually by plane through Colombo airport and using ground transportation within the country. The latter is definitely an adventure: sometimes stunning, sometimes bringing you back in time, sometimes dangerous, sometimes just slow. The main way for commuting is by using buses, trains and tuk-tuks. However, also car transport and air taxis are available as more convenient, yet pricey options.
In our TurtleJournal entry about transportation in Sri Lanka, we show what airlines offer direct connections to the island and how you get around. We describe how to use public transport and provide links to bus and train schedules.
Finding a place to sleep Accommodation at hotels, guesthouses and home stays
Sri Lanka offers great conditions for private locals to make it through in hospitality industry, but in a very Sri Lankan way. The island hosts some of incredible hotels with stunning beach fronts or charming lodges remotely hidden on top of mountains. Although, what really rocks in Sri Lanka are the traditional home stays and guests houses. Whether you book in advance or only decide where to stay once you arrive on the island, the variety of choices and the budget range are incredible and wide.
This form of home stay not only gives travelers the chance of spending less money but also enjoying the amazing opportunity of experiencing local life. It starts with having a home made breakfast up to the real feel of living like a local. This means experiencing Sri Lankan habits, enjoying home made food or chats with families and being invited to participate in local celebrations. You can be a part of it!
Compared to Western places you do not necessarily need to book via Airbnb to enjoy this experience. Locals advertise their small guest houses on all kinds of platforms such as booking.com or trivago. Even though they usually list rather large hotels around the globe, in Sri Lanka mainly local home stays and guest houses can be found. Very often you will see the same properties listed on booking.com as well as Airbnb .
If you want to know more about finding a place to stay during your trips also have a look our recommendation of booking platforms.
Looking into your wallet Know the prices and how to get rid of your money
Prices – From budget to high-end
You can find flights from Europe for as little as €400. The prices in the country itself are also relatively low from an European/ American point of view. However, due to the growing influx of tourists also pricier and high-end options have been established. So depending on your pockets, you may travel on a budget and not spend more than €20 a day including accommodation or arrive with full pockets and easily spend several hundred euros. Find here some examples of local prices:
- Accomodation: Simple LKR2000 – 3500 (~€10 – 20), mid-class LKR 3500 – 9000 (~€20 – 50), luxury LKR9000 and more (>€50)
- Meals: Street food LKR 50 (~€0.3), rice & curry LKR150 – 350 (~€1-1.50), hotels/ tourist restaurants LKR 1000 – 3000 (~€5 – 15), high end LKR 3000 and more (>€15); tip is approx. 10%
- Transport: Bus/ train LKR1-2/km (<€0.01), tuk-tuk LKR40/km (~€0.2), car LKR70 – 80/km (~€0.4)
- Museums/ temples/ attractions: Small temples LKR 200 – 500, (~€1-2), main sights/attractions LKR2000 – 4000 (~€10 – 20); entry fees for locals are usually much lower
Likewise India and some other countries, foreigner admission fees are much higher in comparison with the ones for locals. Nevertheless, it is a fact to accept even if it seems unfair! Do not get tickets from random sellers as you may take the risk of not being admitted entry. It is also frequent that a fee may apply for cameras and video cameras.
Payment methods – cash is king
Forget about credit cards! Sri Lanka is a country of cash payments. Oh yes baby have your dollars in hand! No matter if you purchase bus tickets directly on board, pay the tuk-tuk driver, buy goods at a small grocery shop (as supermarkets are not too frequent outside of big cities) or settle your room at a private place, having bills of Sri Lankan Rupees is essential to get along. However, some larger places like supermarkets or international hotel chains might accept credit cards. Here, VISA seems to be the most accepted provider followed by MasterCard. With all other companies you might be less lucky!
Money Exchange – Getting the Best Rates
You are able to exchange foreign currencies into Sri Lankan Rupees at the airport and bigger tourist cities. However, it is most convenient to retrieve cash at one of the ATMs you may find it in almost every town. In general, this is also the best way to secure the best exchange rates. Some machine providers (e.g. HSBC Bank) offer free cash withdrawals. Others charge between 200 – 500 Rupees (approximately €1.30 – 1.50) for withdrawals with VISA and MasterCard. On top you will pay the fees of your bank or card provider. With traditional institutions these can be quite high (usually between €5 – 10 per transaction).
Therefore, we would highly recommend you to obtain an international (travel) credit card specifically provided for this or any future trips. Providers offer free cash withdrawals worldwide, low or no foreign currency usage fees, and really beneficial exchange rates. For Europeans we can highly recommend N26 Bank: their service is accessible online, worldwide for no cost at all. Hurray to freebies!!!
Staying safe and healthy Make sure to get vaccinations and insurances
Getting sick can spoil your entire holiday. Therefore, prepare to get around and make the most out of your holiday!
Check the vaccination records
Different climate environment, poor sanitation, low hygiene standards and frequent types of diseases make it necessary to prepar in terms of vaccines before trip starts. Most probably your doctor will tell you what you need most. Your government’s website or the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can give you an insight for what is needed. As some vaccines require several shots or a longer waiting period for your body to get immune, it is essential to tackle this topic earlier. While some types of vaccinations are absolutely compulsory others are more optional or only required for longer trips.
Ourselves, we made sure that all routine vaccines were up-to-date (measles-mumps-rubella, diphtheria-tetanus, polio) and got additional shots against typhoid as well as hepatitis A/B. After talking to our doctor, we did not get a rabies vaccination for our relative short trip but made sure to stay away from animals and especially street dogs.
Protect from mosquitoes and the strong sun
The amazing nature has a counterpart. Day and night you are followed by mosquitoes trying to stitch you. While these stitches can be extremely itchy and painful, the “bastards” can also lead to serious illnesses such as Dengue fever. Even though, Sri Lanka has been officially a Malaria-free country since 2016, it is highly recommended to use a good repellent in order to protect you against mosquito bites. The most proven substances include DEET as their main ingredient. There are some local pharmacies in Sri Lanka where you can purchase DEET-based repellents. However, from our experience their effects often remain limited and for us they did even lead to allergic reactions.
For shorter trips we would therefore advice to bring it from home. A bottle of 250 ml shall usually be sufficient for one person for two weeks. Hypochondriacs may bring more!
Also, do not underestimate the sun. Sri Lanka is quite close to the equator and strong sunscreen required.
Be prepared for the worst case
Check whether you have a travel insurance before you leave the country. The worst case can always happen and needing to pay yourself for doctors or hospital stays may sometimes cost you an apartment! Single or multi-trip insurances are usually available for comparably small contributions.
Acting like a local Know the laws, customs and traditions
Immigration and Visa
Like many places in the world, depending on your nationality and country agreements, you might need a visa to enter Sri Lanka. You can find info on our travel preparation section under “Documents” if that is the case for you personally. Most travelers may need an Electronic Travel Authorization before arrival, which can be obtained here. Current cost is $35.
If you plan to bring any special items also check Sri Lanka Customs official website in order to check for verify allowed quantities or prohibited items.
Language, Food and Culture
Sinhalese and Tamil are Sri Lankan’s first languages. However, due to colonization English is still an official languages so that most people will be able to communicate with you.
This is especially important when you want to taste the great variety of local food. Rice and curry is the main dish but also sea food and delicious sweets are part of the national cuisine. Read our article about food and dishes in Sri Lanka.
There are four main religions in Sri Lanka. Be respectful when visiting a religious site no matter if it is Buddhist, Hindu or Christian. For example, it is offensive to turn your back to the Buddha. Therefore, never take pictures with your back to the statue but rather facing him as this is legally persecuted.
Electricity and Mobile Networks
Sri Lanka electrical current runs on 230 V and 50 Hz. There are different power sockets in use. Most buildings use a power socket of type D or M. Newer buildings are equipped with the British plugs of type G. As you will most probably require an adapter, we advise you to bring it from abroad. Outside of the airport or some specialized shops in Colombo it will be hard to find.
Phone and internet reception is quite good. Even if you do not need to expect that locals or tuk-tuk drivers have a smartphone to communicate with you on What’s App. Roaming charges can be horrendous and you should check with your provider. Those coming from the UK are quite lucky once Three Mobile has a brilliant international program called “Feel at Home”. It permits use of your calling minutes and mobile data as if you were back home.