Okay, so no trip is ever going to be totally hassle-free (if you’ve ever experienced one that was then you are the exception rather than the rule), but there are steps you can take in order to ensure that your trip runs as smoothly as possible; that you don’t waste valuable sightseeing time, don’t get lost, don’t spend more money than necessary and don’t get ripped off or scammed.
I travelled around Sri Lanka during the 2020 coronavirus outbreak. Not by choice, obviously; I landed there just days before the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. When there was only one reported case in the country and before the FCO advised tourists not to travel there, or – in fact – anywhere.
Therefore, I travelled around Sri Lanka at possibly the most difficult time to ever travel around Sri Lanka.
Here are my top tips for getting around Sri Lanka hassle-free.
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1 | Pick up a local sim card
I cannot stress the importance of this one enough. It saved my bacon on more occasions than I care to count.
I’m on Vodafone at home, which has one of the best roaming agreements currently available for UK subscribers. Yet Vodafone wanted to charge me £6 per day for using my phone (on my UK number) in Sri Lanka. Admittedly, that £6 did allow me to use my UK minutes, texts and data allowance, but £6 per day over a three-week period (which is how long my Sri Lanka trip was meant to last) is £126!!!
If you travel only with your own country’s sim and don’t turn data roaming on, the only time you’ll be able to use your phone is when you’re connected to one of the WiFi networks in Sri Lanka (in your hotel or guest house or at a local cafe or restaurant – if they have Wifi. Many don’t).
Neither of these situations is ideal if you want to travel around Sri Lanka hassle-free.
You can pick yourself up a local sim card when you arrive at the airport. Your phone will need to be unlocked in order to accept the foreign sim, so you’ll need to have obtained your NUC (Network Unlocking Code)) from your network provider prior to travelling. Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to ensure your phone is unlocked beforehand, just make sure you bring your NUC with you.
The two largest networks in Sri Lanka are Dialog and Mobitel. I chose Mobitel simply because there was a queue at the Dialog booth.
The gentleman at the counter swapped the sim over for me, unlocked my phone and set me up with a Mobitel tourist pack, which I added 3000 LKR (£13.58) of credit to.
Good to know: You can check your balance at any time by dialling *100# from your phone and you can top up your Mobitel sim online by following this link.
2 | Download Uber and Pick Me apps
Before my trip to Warsaw last year, I’d never even used Uber before. It’s not available in my hometown, and I’m usually pretty happy to walk everywhere when I travel.
But I’m so pleased that I decided to give it a go in Warsaw, because Warsaw is massive and it made bar-hopping so much easier!
Well, Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo is also massive. And, as people usually only stay here for one or two nights at the start or end of their trips (I’d recommend the start), you probably won’t have a lot of time at your disposal for sightseeing.
I had planned to simply hail a tuk-tuk in order to get around the city, but the staff at my wonderful guest house advised me to book one on Uber as it’s much, much cheaper. And it was!
Using Uber also means that you don’t need to carry lots of small change around to pay the driver, as the fare is taken off your card, which is stored in the app. Once you book a driver, they’re there in minutes and you don’t have to explain where you’re going as they’ve got that information from your booking in the app. It was so easy to travel around Colombo in this way!
Good to know: Always use your location as the pick-up point rather than typing in the name of where you are, because tourist attractions often have a number of different entrances, which can confuse the driver and cause you to miss your pick-up (which did, in fact, happen to me).
Uber works great in Colombo, but certainly in Kandy and some of Sri Lanka’s smaller towns and cities, the local taxi booking company, Pick Me seems to be more prevalent. So, I’d advise you download that app as well. It works in the same way as Uber, but I did notice that it’s not quite as accurate with the fare estimation.
To give you an idea of prices, short hops of less than five kilometres across the city should cost less than 200 LKR (90 pence). A 16-kilometre journey out to a couple of hilltop temples in Kandy set me back just 600 LKR (£2.71).
3 | Book your train tickets before you travel
This is especially good advice if you want to do the infamous Kandy to Ella journey, as this route gets booked up very quickly. And if you cannot secure a seat, you’ll be enduring the 6-hour journey in a very crowded third class carriage, standing up, and with all your baggage either on your back or at your feet.
As it turned out, I never made it to the Hill Country on this particular trip (due to the rapid development of COVID-19 and the strict methods Sri Lanka employed in order to restrict the spread, I was forced to cut my trip short), but I did book all three of my tickets for the journey before I arrived in the country:
- Peradeniya Junction (Kandy) to Hatton (in order to get to Dalhousie to climb Adam’s Peak)
- Hatton to Nanu Oya (for Nurawa Eliya)
- Nanu Oya to Ella (this is meant to be the most scenic part of the journey).
What this meant is that all I had to do was turn up at the ticket counter, show my passport and reservation number(s) and collect my tickets. This is much easier than attempting to sort it all at the station on the day. I booked my tickets through Visit Sri Lanka Tours, around a month before I travelled. It’s also possible to book through 12GoAsia, but they do sell out pretty quickly on there.
4 | Get yourself a Starling card
You will be using ATMs to withdraw money while you’re in Sri Lanka because Sri Lankan rupees are a closed currency, which means that you cannot obtain any outside of the county; you’ll have to source them after you arrive. And, as money changing outlets are a lot harder to come by than ATMs, I’d advise withdrawing from an ATM.
However, most banks in the UK will charge an international withdrawal fee, on top of any fees that the machine itself charges you.
Most banks apart from Starling.
Starling won the Best British Bank and Best Current Account at the British Bank Awards 2020 and in my opinion that’s thoroughly well-deserved. My Starling card has become my most used card for every day spending at home because it sends me immediate alerts very time I’ve spent any money, and I can view and organise my transactions via the app.
When you withdraw money overseas, you still get these immediate alerts and they’re super useful there because they tell you how much you’ve withdrawn in both the local and your home currency.
Starling also don’t charge any fees for overseas transactions. So, if you pay for anything on your card, you’ll only be charged the price of what you’re buying.
Have a look at all the benefits of the Starling card here.
5 | Download the TripIt app
I love this little app and have been recommending it to people for years.
Essentially it’s an easy way of creating itineraries and sharing them with friends and family, but the thing I love most about it is that you can view these itineraries offline.
Need your hotel address to give to the taxi driver? No problem.
Need to review your check-in time while on the move? Also, no problem.
How it works is that you forward your bus, train, flight and accommodation reservations to firstname.lastname@example.org and the app organises these into a clever little itinerary. which looks something like this:
You’ll automatically have the full address, phone number, website/email address and check-in/check-out times for all accommodation you’ve booked, along with flight numbers and check-in/departure/arrival time for all flights. You can also manually add individual ‘plans’ to your itinerary, as well as amending details of existing pre-uploaded ones.
Any amendments you make to your itinerary can also be viewed by the person you’ve shared it with, when they click on your link. This was a really useful feature on my recent trip to Sri Lanka, because I had to make lots of last minute changes to my itinerary as a result of COVID-19, and it meant that my mum could keep up-to-date with these changes.
Good to know: The TripIt app itself is free and you get all of the above features included in the free version. However, while I was in Sri Lanka TripIt were offering subscribers free access to the Pro version. In this version you also receive mobile alerts about flight delays and cancellations. When so many flights were being cancelled at the time that I was due to leave Sri Lanka, it was reassuring to know that the app had got my back and that I didn’t have to keep checking flight schedules every half an hour, just to make sure mine was still running.
You can download the TripIt app here.
6 | Hang on to your small change for tips and temple donation boxes
Although you won’t need small change to pay your tuk-tuk drivers if you’re using the Uber and Pick Me apps, there are still occasions when you’ll need some smaller denomination notes and coins. So, when you’re given a 100 LKR note or smaller, I’d advise that you stash it somewhere easily accessible and away from your higher value currency.
The primary occasions you’ll need this small change are:
- To add to temple donation boxes. I visit temples for tourism purposes, not as a worshipper. I take multiple photographs while I’m there. As a sign of respect and appreciation for being allowed to do this, I always try to leave a few small coins or notes in the donation box – a gesture which is gratefully received (oftentimes expected) by those who work there.
- To leave a tip. Although tipping is not expected in Sri Lanka in the same way that it is in the US (or even largely in the UK, too), I still like to show my appreciation for fantastic service by leaving a small tip (and I mean small; I travel on a budget!) whenever I can.
- To buy fruit and snacks from street vendors. These people don’t keep a large float of cash so it’s unlikely they’ll be able to change a 1000 LKR note or higher when you’re only spending 100 LKR on a vegetable rotti or two.
7 | Be very wary about locals who insist that you are friends and that they simply want to help you
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that anyone who tries to help you wants something out of it themselves (because there are a lot of genuinely nice people in Sri Lanka), but I did find myself in a few situations where I felt under duress to spend money I had no desire to spend and equally could not afford to. My situation may not have been helped by the fact that I’m typically British and therefore too polite to risk offending anyone.
When I arrived in Kandy, I got a little bit lost on my way to my guesthouse (the sun was bright and I was struggling to follow the route on maps.me on my phone) and the same tuk-tuk driver appeared on two separate occasions offering me a ride. On the third occasion I succumbed to his offer, because he said he was going home my way anyway (that old chestnut) and I was walking around in circles in 35 degree heat with a huge pack on my back, which wasn’t getting any lighter.
During the short journey to my guest house he offered me a tour for 300LKR (£1.32), which would incorporate visits to a tea factory, spice garden and viewpoint. As it was getting on for mid-afternoon and I really didn’t have the energy to put any effort into sightseeing that day, I took him up on his offer. If I’d have actually been a bit more switched on at the time (I blame tiredness and a long day of travel), I’d have realised what I was getting myself in for.
If you’ve ever been to Bangkok, you may well have been taken in by the classic tuk-tuk driver scam where they offer you an incredibly cheap tour of the city, which seems to good to be true. Well, that’s because it is. What they don’t tell you is that the tour will include lots of mandatory stops at gem factories along the way – where you’re ‘expected’ to spend money and the driver takes a cut of the commission.
Well, a similar ‘scam’ is rife in Sri Lanka and I was kicking myself for not being privy to it. Of course, the tea factory and spice garden tours were free, but then there is an expectation that you’ll buy some of their products at the end. This would be fine in itself, but it’s not when you see the prices! I managed to scuttle out of the Pilimathalawa Tea Factory without buying anything (because the cheapest option was a 200g bag of tea for 3300 LKR (£14.52) and I didn’t have that much cash on me) but I did succumb to buying some over-priced natural mosquito repellent at the spice garden.
Again in Galle, just before the curfew was introduced, a gentleman stopped me outside of my hotel to inform me about the curfew and advise me that I should stock up on fruit and water at the local market before all the shops close. I really did think he was trying to help me in light of the situation, but then he ended up taking me to a spice market (yeah, I’m not gonna need any curry leaves or cinnamon sticks during lockdown!) before trying to extract a ridiculous amount of money from me for a few bananas, a passionfruit, a couple of apples and a bottle of water. So, I lost my patience, chucked a 100 LKR note in his hand and walked away with just a bottle of water – which had been costing me just 70 LKR up until then.
Lessen learnt! Make sure you don’t get tricked in the same way I did.
And those are my top seven tips for getting around Sri Lanka hassle-free!
Have you travelled Sri Lanka? Do you have any further tips you’d like to share? Or if Sri Lanka is on your wish list and there’s anything you’d like to know about travelling over there, drop your question in the comments below 🙂
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