Sri Lanka is an amazing destination for travellers of all budgets. There are some stunning all-inclusive resorts and if you want, you don’t have to organise a thing by splashing some cash. Howver, travelling independently, from the moment you arrive at Colombo Airport and need to start thinking about the best way to tackle Sri Lanka, for an exciting independent vacation or an extended backpacking adventure, you may want to save some cash and try travelling Sri Lanka on a budget.
1.) Public Transport is the Best Way to Get From A to B, C and D
Spontaneity is so hard to achieve in many travel situations in this age of internet booking sites, but in Sri Lanka, you can still hop on a cheap long-distance bus. The bus from Ella to the coast took around four hours but cost less than £5. Theoretically, buses are scheduled but they actually leave when they are full. This can mean that every seat and every inch of the aisle is packed. The best thing about these buses is that most have a luggage space at the front, by the driver, or in the back.
An especially great route to bus hop is the road that runs along the south coast. From classy Galle to dreamy Tangalle, you will drift from beautiful beach to beautiful beach. Whether you jump off every twenty minutes to enjoy each town for a few nights or need to cover the whole lot in one fell swoop, the sea views are stunning.
Some of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful scenery can be spotted from the windows (and doors) of the trains that cross the country. A relic of the British empire, the system is slightly creaky and the trains are pretty slow. However, that just makes the views all the more enjoyable.
The train between Kandy and Ella (via Nuwara Eliya) is oft-reported as one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. Weaving through the green hills and valleys of tea country, we totally agree. We stumped up for the more expensive viewing coach. This is at the back of the train and is pulled along with the occupants facing backwards. At £10 it seemed like a good idea, but we would actually recommend the cheaper normal carriages! At just £5, you will get open windows and a chance to get that famous pic of the train curving around a bend. There is no buffet car, and no hawkers traverse the carriages so make sure you stock up on some cheap snacks before to climb aboard.
Check out The Man in Seat 61 for great advice on train travel within Sri Lanka, including how to book tickets in advance.
2.) Breakfast is the Most Surprising Meal of the Day
When booking a guesthouse check out the reviews and ensure your accommodation includes breakfast. Every morning you will be treated to mounds of fresh fruit, baked delights, local specialities and a few pots of tea. We scoffed down pancakes, hoppers, spongy idli and other exciting things that we never found out the name of!
So often, travelling on a budget means skipping the odd meal, or eating unhealthy but cheap carbs all day. These vitamin-packed, gut-busting morning feasts set you up for the day, especially handy if you are planning on a long walk. (Don’t forget to ask if you can take some with you too, that’s a free lunch)!
3.) Hiking Affords you Some Amazing Views, Even if you Can’t Afford Other Things
Sometimes, walking is a real strain. We have walked an hour in the baking sun to save £2 on a tuk tuk (silly really). But when travelling Sri Lanka on a budget, walking can bring great rewards.
In the mountain town of Ella, you can walk to two of the town’s best views in just one day. Most people start by walking up to Little Adam’s Peak. This is a very manageable walk for anyone with reasonable fitness and gives the hikers stunning views down the valley.
The Nine Arches Bridge pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. This Victorian brick bridge straddles a deep valley, held up by nine tall arches. It is an impressive sight and is a very popular spot for both train spotting and Instagram.
4.) There is Plenty of Time to Breathe
Do you ever return from a trip, especially a budget one, exhausted and in need of another holiday? Well, travelling Sri Lanka on a budget is a great antidote for that, at a slower pace.
If you are used to the hustle of Khao San Road, Thailand or the madness of HCMC, Vietnam, you might find Sri Lanka slightly tame. Outside Colombo, there aren’t many party spots. You will find low key backpacker bars in popular spots like Mirissa but these are few and far between. For example, in the coastal town of Galle, sunset isn’t taken in a cocktail bar with pumping house music, but on the sea wall with the sound of the waves.
The trains are slow, the buses that range across the mountains are slow and if you rush around Sri Lanka you will miss out on half the charm! In fact, trying to rush on a budget will leave you disappointed and frustrated. If it’s a possibility your bus won’t leave for two hours, having something organised for the afternoon will leave you sweaty and stressed! Take your time and let the slower pace of the trip entice you.
I am ashamed to say that we made the mistake of thinking Sri Lanka was going to be just like India, hectic, scammy and knackering. What fools?! We arrived on high alert, used to the touts and ne’er-do-wells that are all part of the budget travel experience. However, travelling Sri Lanka on a budget, standing at a bus station (looking thoroughly lost) we were approached by someone with an offer of genuine assistance. It took us a minute to realise that things were going to be different. In fact, the only negative experience we had was a taxi driver trying to convince us that our bus wasn’t running and we should take the taxi instead.
5.) Food and Drink is Cheap and Tasty
Sri Lankan cuisine is delicious, from the fiery curries in the north to the more delicate varieties in the south, there is plenty to get your chops around. You may be surprised at the lack of street food in Sri Lanka, especially if you have travelled elsewhere in Asia, which means you will need to pay more attention to where the bargains are to be found. Avoid restaurants right by tourist hubs as simple dishes here can be more expensive than expected.
If your guesthouse doesn’t do breakfast, keep your eyes peeled for somewhere that serves hoppers. This thin rice pancakes are shaped like bowls and can be served with or without an egg in. Either way, you’ll get a nice little section of dhal, curry and other delicious dips to mop up.
For lunch, curry and rice is an absolute must. If you opt for a vegetarian curry, you could fill up for under £1. Adding seafood or meat will bump up the price. Every establishment serves their own curry so you could end up experiencing a different flavour every day of your trip even whilst ordering the “same thing”.
For dinner, a plate of kottu roti is a filling and frugal option. Flatbread is thinly sliced, fried and served with noodles, sauce and a variety of vegetables.
For a special treat, you could splash out on a seafood feast by the beach. We picked a whole fish, some prawns and other seafood goodies. Fried and served fresh, this generous whack of protein cost less than £15 for the two of us.
The cheapest option when it comes to drinks is to bring a filter/UV water bottle, allowing you to fill up for free. This saves the planet a tiny bit and it saves you a tiny bit of money.
However, we all want a treat every now and then and water can become a little dull with dinner. Soft drinks are readily available (although diet varieties are noticeable absent) and don’t cost that much.
If you fancy an alcoholic beverage, beer is by far the most economical option in most places. In backpacker hotspots, you’ll also find some great bargains on cheap and cheerful cocktails. Marissa had some beachfront bars offering drinks at less than £2. Plus, happy hour lasted five full hours!
6.) You Can Still Indulge in Some Amazing Experiences
Travelling Sri Lanka on a budget doesn’t mean you have to skip absolutely everything. There are some activities that cost less than you might think, allowing you to splash a little cash in the right places.
Cheap Choice – Weligama Waves
Mirissa and Weligama have the most wonderful waves for first-time and improving surfers. Surfing classes, like those offered by Freedom Surf School, are a great way to try something new, get a little exercise and make a change from the average beach day. A beginner’s lesson will cost you 2600LKR (just under £10) and last an hour. You will be amazed at how far you can come in an hour. I managed a phenomenal 13 seconds standing whilst riding a wave…that’s got to be some sort of record, right?! Surfing is just one of the things to do in Mirissa that are great fun and great value.
Cheap Choice – High Tea at Nuwara Eliya Grand Hotel
Taking High Tea isn’t just for the upper crust in Sri Lanka. Sure, you’ll want to dress for the occasion, and The Grand Hotel’s smart waiters will make you feel like you’re living the high life. Three tiers of finger sandwiches, street snacks and tiny cakes, all served with a pot of tea. This can be taken in the elegant tea room or bright sun terrace. All this is just 1000LKR (£4.20) each.
Cheap Choice – A Pot of Pedro and Walk to Waterfalls in Nuwara Eliya
If you are looking for a cheaper alternative to the high tea at The Grand Hotel, never fear, you can still get a great cuppa in Nuwara Eliya. You will have to jump on a bus to reach the Lover’s Leap tea plantation but at 15LHK, this is a minor cost for this trip.
Pedro tea estate is a working factory, so not entirely picturesque but the tour is surprisingly informative and interesting. As most of the work is done in the cooler night hours, they have the time and space to teach visitors all about the tea making process from bush to export. The tour and a cup of tea will set you back just 200LKR (around £1).
From the cafe, you can take a walk into the tea fields, to observe the perfect picking techniques for yourself. If you walk a little further, you reach Lover’s Leap waterfall. It is possible to swim here or just grab some lovely pictures whilst enjoying the spray.
Cheap Choice – Temple of the Tooth
At 1500LKR, this may not seem like a cheap option but it is one of the most important religious sites in Sri Lanka. It is also considerably cheaper than some other big sites around the country. Inside this modest-looking former palace is the temple complex holding a relic of Buddha; his tooth inside a sacred golden casket. The inside of these building are sumptuous in places and three times a day, you could be lucky enough to catch the worship celebrations.
Cheap Choice – Peradeniya Botanical Gardens
Just west of Kandy is a splash of green with a distinct focus on edutainment. Wandering a botanical garden is both wonderfully relaxing, (especially after the traffic of Kandy) and interesting. Once kept for royalty, this is now for anyone that wants to splash the 1000LKR entrance fee. We think the fun suspension bridge and beguiling collection of orchids are the little additions that make a visit to these botanical gardens worth it.
Cheap Choice or Free Fun – Beach Days
Armed with a towel, a bottle of water and plenty of suntan cream, you can while away a very happy day atop the golden sands of Sri Lanka. It needn’t cost you a penny to spend a happy day at the beach, but if you do want to spend a little, you can buy a sunbed for the day. As a special birthday treat, we found a cafe on Mirissa beach that provided sunbeds for patrons.
Some Final Top Tips for Travelling Sri Lanka on a Budget:
- Cash is King. ATMs are readily available but you will be charged a little each time for using them.
- Haggling. Haggling can save you some precious cash throughout the length of your stay in Sri Lanka. Haggle hard, have fun doing it but do remember that the last few pennies mean a lot more to the person you are haggling with, than to you. So know when to quit.
- Pack Light. Choosing a smaller backpack will make your life easier when jumping on and off public transport, allows your bag to fit in the bus luggage spaces, and squeeze into your tuk-tuks!
Read all about our travels in Sri Lanka
A Couple of Things you Might Hate about Budget Travel in Sri Lanka
Not everything in Sri Lanka is a complete bargain. Some things could cost more than you are expecting. Let’s just get through this quickly:
- Sigiriya. The price of some major tourist sights can put a big dent in your holiday budget. The most famous, Sigiriya, is a whopping £25. Some budget travellers just observe it from afar. There is a great view from Pidurangala which is a tenth of the price.
- Yala National Park. Another hefty cost at $15 per person, plus $30 for a half-day Jeep hire. In a move that we don’t agree with, tourists don’t pay any less by joining forces so there are loads of huge gas-guzzling vehicles tearing around with just two people inside.
- Visa. A tourist visa costs £25.
- Accommodation. Getting a room is relatively expensive when compared to other South-East Asian countries. There are few dorm-type hostels outside of Colombo so look for great guesthouses. If you can, book a few months in advance to get a good deal.
- Temperature. Air conditioning can bump up the price of a room considerably. Happily, if you are planning to travel in high season, the mountains towns will be cool, and the coast is nice and breezy
Final Thoughts on Travelling Sri Lanka on a budget
Sri Lanka is a joy to explore. Friendly people, great food, interesting sights and plenty of room to breathe all make it a great option for budget travellers. Whether you are aiming for a totally spontaneous trip or a well planned and executed itinerary, there are budget options and great ways to save money. We are looking forward to returning, putting some more of these tips into practice and finding more reasons to love travelling Sri Lanka on a budget.