Guide on using transport in Sri Lanka
When making a round-trip through the island as we did, you will definitely spend a lot of your time with transport. The usual way arriving in Sri Lanka is usually by plane through Colombo airport and using ground transportation for domestic travels. The latter is definitely an adventure: sometimes stunning, sometimes bringing you back in time, sometimes dangerous, sometimes just slow. The principle modes of transport are bus, train and tuk-tuk. However, car transport and air taxis are also available as more convenient, yet pricey options.
International Connections to Sri Lanka
The main and only big international airport of Sri Lanka is Bandaranaike International Airport close to the capital Colombo.
It offers a vast network of connections throughout Asia. There is currently no direct flights to the USA. Regarding Australia, SriLankan Airlines features a direct connection to Melbourne. Furthermore, there is the following direct connections to Europe in 2018:
- Amsterdam (KLM): two seasonal connections per week
- Istanbul (Turkish Airlines): daily connection with intermediate stop in Malé
- Kiev (Ukraine International Airlines): two connections per week
- London (Sri Lankan): daily connections
- Vienna (Austrian Airlines): weekly seasonal connections
- Zurich (Swiss Air): two connections per week
Alternatively, amongst others, the following Asian carriers connect Colombo to the world through their local hubs:
Air Asia (Kuala Lumpur), Cathay Pacific (Hongkong), China Eastern Airlines (Shanghai), China Southern Airlines (Guangzhou), Singapore Airlines (Singapore), Emirates/ flydubai (Dubai), Etihad (Abu Dhabi), Qatar Airways (Doha), Mascat (Oman Air), Saudia (Jeddah, Riyadh)
The second international airport of Hambantota features only one direct connection with flydubai to Dubai (5 times per week). If you intend to travel the south/east coast this might be a good option for you.
National flights with Cinnamon Air
Domestic air travel in Sri Lanka is not common. However, Cinnamon Air offers a network of daily domestic flights to several smaller and larger cities (incl. Anuradhapura, Jaffna, Kandny, Sigiriya, Trincomalee). As these Air Taxi Services are intended for foreign tourists, one way-fares only start at approx. $180 (~€150). You can check their website here.
Intercity Bus Connections
Bus is the cheapest and most frequent option to travel the country. A dense network of bus lines connects the entire country. Even really small places have regular connections, more densely populated areas are connected in dense intervals. A trip of several hours is affordable for just a few euros. In larger cities there is also a number of local bus lines. However, bus travel is also the least comfortable option to travel. Be prepared to sit in overcrowded buses with no comfort, loud traditional music making any conversation impossible and mad drivers trying to break every speed record on the country’s narrow roads.
You can find a route map with all bus routes in Sri Lanka on the official website. There is also some bus schedules published online. However, the list is not complete at all as some schedules are managed de-centrally. Generally, it is easier to just ask for the times at a local bus station. The price is approximately LKR1-2/km (<€0.01). An exhaustive fare overview can be found online. Tickets are purchased directly on the bus.
Taking the Train
A train travel in Sri Lanka is bringing you back in time. Old railroads are the reason for slow and often uncomfortable journeys. There are three classes available. While some trains only offer third and second class coaches, long distance trains with a lot of international guests also have first class coaches, reaching the level of European regional trains. All classes are well-affordable with comparable prices to a bus ticket. Trains are a good alternative to buses, however the network is less dense and departures limited.
- Intercity and express services run between Colombo and Sri Lankas main cities (e.g. Kandy, Baticoloa). Accommodation comprises unreserved 3rd Class, reserved 2nd Class and Observation Saloon seats.
- Fast-passenger trains offer semi-express service between Colombo and other major outstations. Accommodation includes unreserved 2nd and 3rd Class seats, reserved 2nd and 3rd Class seats, reserved 1st Class Observation Saloon , and reserved 1st Class Sleeping Berths. Reserved 1st Class Air-conditioned service is offered only on some routes.
- There is also commuter trains around Colombo that only offer 3rd class coaches.
For some routes you can reserve a seat as of 30 days prior to departure. We highly recommend this if you want to travel on the famous train from Kandy to Ella during main season. Find here a list of all trains that have the option to reserve. You can search train times and prices on the e-service of Sri Lankan railways.
Hiring a Tuk-tuk or Car Driver
Tuk-tuks serve as taxis in Sri Lanka. They help mainly to commute within a city or to bring you from the next bus/ train stop to your final destination. Pay attention not to get ripped-off by the driver and agree on the price before departure, the usual fare is about LKR40/km (~€0.2).
You can also rent a tuk-tuk for several hours, a day or multiple days to help you explore an area or bring you to your next destination. However, with a maximum speed of 40 km/h on flat landscapes, tuk-tuks are a rather slow means of transport. Keep in mind that the tuk-tuk driver needs to go back alone if you leave the city and might charge more (approx 1.5 times the usual fare). Therefore, it is recommended to rent the driver for the day and let him wait for you when planning a one-day excursion, he will then usually charge you for the round trip only.
Car transport is rather rare and mostly organized by tourist operators or providers of accommodation. You will have a personal driver. It is by far the most expensive means of transport. You will only need it if you want to make a long-distance journey of several hundred kilometres a day. Prices may be about LKR70-80/km (~€0.4) but are highly dependent on the place and demand on the day as the offer of cars is more limited.
Renting a Car
Having a rental car for the entire trip is an option. You can pick up and return your car at Colombo airport. Be aware that this is not the cheapest option and Sri Lankans drive on the left side. Even if owning a car makes you independent and flexible, you might miss the authentic experience of local transport modes. It is not really relaxing and efficient to take a local train, bus or tuk-tuk but it is definitely part of the ultimate Sri Lanka experience.