Travel time between tourist areas is much longer than one anticipates. This reflects a combination of poor roads (especially outside the main A designated highways), heavy traffic (watch out especially for the fast, frequent, ‘Monarch of the Road’ inter-city busses and the slow moving, stinky heavy goods and agricultural vehicles) plus the general lack of vehicle and pedestrian discipline and/or, outside Colombo, traffic lights. Even travelling with car and private driver, average travel times of only 30-40 kms per hour are common; exception are the two Expressways.
Because travel is tiring, and constant packing/unpacking a bore, base your holiday planning around travel centres. For example, Dambulla (or Kandalama if you’re prepared to spend money in one of the world’s most beautiful hotels) is the perfect centre for the so-called cultural triangle (Dambulla, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and even Anuradhapura) and Nuwara Eliya is good for both the high hill country and Horton Plains (World’s End). However generally Ohiya, Haputale and Ella are deemed to be better bases for the hills, as their climate is superior to Eliya and they have impressive vistas.
It’s hotter – and stickier – than you probably imagine (even in winter) which adds to the exhaustion of travel. It also means that you need to be careful in the sun (so you’re not among the bright red Westerners on the return flight). Because of the climate, bugs, insects and other creepy crawlies are not unusual. You can learn to happily co-habit rooms with ants and geckos – but mosquitos are an occasional menace. Prepare well against them, as in many areas diseases like Dengue Fever are transmitted by mosquitos and not all of these diseases have vaccinations possible.
Sri Lankans are charming, friendly and welcoming – and the country is well worth the effort of a visit. But beware approaches from people purporting to be from your hotel who offer local travel advice. Unscrupulous locals pick up westerners with promises of “elephant festivals” and the like, which prove to be non-existent and located far away from their hotel. Once stranded, the unlucky traveller will find themselves handing over money to get back to safety.
Changing Money – There are lots of Western Union Money transfer places where you can change any currency. They particularly dont ask for your passport at these places. The rates however is at the whim of the person sitting at the counter. You can negotiate a better rate. The best rate for any currency was at the counter in Negombo market near airport. Next to this ATM’s accepting Maestro/Cirrus cards are widespread in all bigger towns, but compare the cost with TC/cash as many Western banks add withdrawal fees.
Tipping: have plenty of very small notes at all times, tipping is normal and everyone expects to be tipped. Guide prices are: 20rupees loo attendants; 50rupees porters, etc; 500rupees a day for a driver (where it is part of a package holiday). Others at your discretion but you might feel pressurised to tip.
Traveller cheques – are a nightmare; many banks do not want to change; others take 20 minutes to check passport and personal details on many forms.use your credit cards more often..
Travelling inside Sri Lanka – There are various modes of travel that can be used like local buses, AC buses and private taxis. For buses the rates are fixed and you can travel around easily. For taxi, it is better to check around the town for a better travel agent. Hotels usually charge a lot more for the same distance. Use taxi services like Uber and Pick me, prices are much better and they give you better experience. Trains will offer you a magnificient view, but use the express and not the intercity one, even if it takes more time, it’s worthy.
Sight seeing: Places of interest are far off from each other and located all over the country. So it is better to book hotels likewise. It is advisable to book hotels near to the places of interest so that you can spend time enjoying the place. Dont miss Sigiriya and (if you are in season, December-May) Adam’s peak. Water sports facilities are also good and well maintained in Bentota
Children – will love the animals – highlights are the elephants bathing and riding, releasing turtles in the sea and firewalking in Kandy. Do not try second class trains. Sigiriya is difficult for some of the children.
Drivers & Guides Most roads were still not in good condition making self driving slow and treacherous. An abundance of three-wheelers (tuk tuks) and overloaded trucks trying to pass at every opportunity makes things especially dangerous. Outside the few new Expressways opening, improvements are slow in coming. Its best to leave any driving in the hands of experts.For short trips, hotels can arrange a car and driver between two points but for a longer stay its better to engage the services of a driver who will travel with you.
An ordinary driver may not speak much English but will get you from A to B. A driver/guide who speaks English or your own language is a better option as he can recommend places to see and give you basic information. If you need detailed information special driver/guides with an accreditation from the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau are also available but are more expensive. Drivers travel with you although they have separate accommodation provided by hotels and may eat separately depending on the restaurant. They will also handle payments for you of entrance fees and tips if you give them some money in advance for these purposes.
There are all sorts of ways to calculate the cost for their services but the best way is to give your suggested itinerary and ask for an all up package price that covers the driver’s fee, gas, meals, accommodation and mileage. If you suspect you might do lot of driving additional mileage fees can range from US $ .50 per kilometre so request unlimited mileage in your package price. A standard all-up cost with unlimited mileage for a driver/guide is US $60 per day. A deposit of 50% in case of accomodation being included in the package is also standard before you arrive in Sri Lanka.
Homestay tourism in Sri Lanka is getting more popular every year. Homeowners are realy friendly and you support the local economy.