How to travel Sri Lanka on a budget

Sri Lanka is an amazing country with beautiful beaches, cheap and delicious seafood, stunning tea fields, hiking for all fitness levels, and many other attractions. It is one of my most favorite countries, and if you are thinking of going, you most definitely should! Unfortunately for the budget backpacker, Sri Lanka has latched onto this beauty and as a result, charges for almost everything! Not just that, if you are not Sri Lankan, prepare to pay a crazy fee in comparison to the local price for attractions such as Sigiriya Rock, Cave Temples, and Pinniwala Elephant Orphanage. However, do not let this deter you! I managed to backpack around Sri Lanka for under $15AUD per day (1700 SRL Rupees). I’ll tell you how to travel Sri Lanka on a budget.

Budget travel in Sri Lanka
Tea Fields in Sri Lanka

(Actually, these tips on how to travel Sri Lanka on a budget can apply to many countries in Asia and elsewhere)

Accommodation – How to travel Sri Lanka on a budget:
  • Don’t book accommodation in advance. Look up a few options online and note down their price. Turn up to the hotel/hostel/ homestay and offer them a price you know to be at least 20% less than what was online. I tried this many times and always got rooms for about 20% less than advertised online. As a guide, I was able to book double rooms on the south coast for 1000-1300 rupees (about $8-$10 AUD).
  • You can definitely travel comfortably around Sri Lanka on a budget of $15AUD per day. However, it is much easier to do so if you are travelling in a group or as a couple, as aside from attraction fees, accommodation is the biggest killer! I found that hostel dorm rooms were often more expensive or a similar price to a double room! Especially along the coast. 
Food – How to travel Sri Lanka on a budget:
  • When choosing guest houses, hostels and hotels, make sure that they include a shared kitchen. Yes rice and curry is cheap (about 250 rupees) but cooking for yourself is still cheaper! You can save so much money by cooking say breakfast and lunch for yourself, and going out for dinner. Sri Lanka has very well stocked and cheap supermarkets with heaps of home comforts. It is too easy to cook your own meals!
  • The produce in Sri Lanka is amazing and fresh! Having a kitchen means you can cut your fruit etc. and keep things (beers) in the fridge! A huge tuna fish freshly caught will set you back 300 rupees (about $3AUD) if you take it home to cook it yourself! 
  • Invest in plastic containers and cutlery. If you are going on a day trip, or a hike, cook a nice meal and take it in your container. This saves you from having to spend money on an expensive meal at the only restaurant nearby.
  • Buy your own tea bags, coffee and milk powder. Every rupee saved here and there really counts, and it is so easy!
  • Try king coconuts, the orange ones (they shouldn’t be more than 60 rupees each, max). Apparently there are only 3 places in the world that grow them. Ask for the biggest one as they are usually all the same price.
Transport – How to travel Sri Lanka on a budget:
  • In Colombo, if you are taking a tuk tuk, insist that the driver turn on the meter. They will often refuse to use it for foreigners and try to use a set fee where you will be much worse off. 
  • If the tuk tuk driver won’t use the meter, ask what the price will be. Look up the distance that it should be on Google.maps, in kilometres. The rate should be no more than 50 rupees per km. 
  • Use uber! I think Uber is only available in Colombo, but this my have changed, so double check that! The rate for the cheapest uber car is the same rate per km as a tuk tuk! Uber drivers cannot rip you off :).
  • Avoid tuk tuks around town and to the neighbouring towns, and take the local bus when you can! 45 minute journeys usually cost no more than 50 rupees (about $0.40AUD) on a local bus! A 4 hour bus journey from Matara to Wellawaya (near Ella) cost 200 rupees. This is a tiny fraction of the cost of a tuk tuk. So cheap! 
  • The trains in Sri Lanka has class systems. 2nd and 3rd class trains do not have seat numbers, so you may buy a ticket for 2nd class but still not get a seat, and have to stand for some or the entire journey. This is the case for popular routes such as Kandy to Ella, or Colombo Fort to the South Beaches. However most of the time you will be fine getting a seat. 
  • You don’t need to travel first class in trains. They are muuuuch more expensive. However, if it’s a popular route and you want a guaranteed seat, you should book these 1st class tickets in advance as they do sell out.
  • If the train station you are at is one of the first stops of the journey, you are bound to get a seat. For example, if you take the train from Ella to Colombo, you will get a seat on the train. However, if you are going from Kandy to Colombo (further down the line from Ella), it is likely you will not get a seat
  • If you are travelling from the South Beaches to Ella, rather than from Kandy to Ella, your train trip from Ella to Kandy will be much less crowded and you will be pretty much guaranteed a seat of your choice! I think it’s better to travel from Ella through to Kandy rather than the other way around.
  • Get motion sickness? Don’t take the bus from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya or Ella!! I did a small portion and I don’t get sick… but this sure did test me! Bus drivers are crazy fast and the roads are the windiest I’ve been on!
Sri Lanka budget travel
Nine Arch Bridge,Ella
Mobile/internet -How to travel Sri Lanka on a budget:
  • Wifi is pretty poor in many hotels/hostels! Especially at the end of each month when they have ran out of data. You can buy cheap SIM cards at the airport. I bought airtel for 800 rupees (about $5 AUD) that had 5gb and 20mins calling credit. I wouldn’t recommend travelling through Sri Lanka without one, you will find it so handy! 
Attractions – How to travel Sri Lanka on a budget:
  • Have a good think about what you really want to see. Just because a destination or attraction is popular does not mean that you have to/should see it. You may not be interested in seeing and climbing a huge rock for $40, so maybe you should consider not going (I am talking about Sigiriya, and I know it is much more than just a rock)! The popular attractions in Sri Lanka are very expensive. I decided to give most of the popular, paid attractions a miss and focused on exploring the beaches, local towns, and the hill country/ tea fields.

There you have it! You are all set for your budget trip around Sri Lanka! I will keep adding to this list as I think of more. If you have any questions on how to travel Sri Lanka on a budget, feel free to ask!

How to travel cheap in Sri Lanka
Jungle Beach, Weligama

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