Managing Srilanka trip with public transportation-Pros and Cons - eNidhi India Travel Blog

Managing Srilanka trip with public transportation-Pros and Cons

Wherever possible I try to manage our trips with public transportation. It saves lots of money and helps us get better feel of a destination. But till now I didn’t have that confidence w.r.t Srilanka. All 3 of my Srilanka trips were on a rented car/van. Because of this, local transport expense was the next major component of our Srilanka trip cost break-up, after flight ticket.[Details in this post] I couldn’t rely on managing entire trip on public transport due to following reasons
  • Language problem- not being able to converse efficiently with bus/train staff on our specific needs/queries. Hiring a car with local driver made it lot easier
  • Time- Most of my trips were pressed for time. Couldn’t afford to wait a lot for transport
  • Public transport details not available on Google maps- wasn’t easy to identify where to board, which bus number to board, where to get down etc.
  • Wanted to make full use of time—from midnight to midnight-arrive at 11 PM, start immediately to Sigiriya/Galle etc- relying on public transportation would have forced us to wait till morning hours
  • Perception that it is tough to manage with public transportation.
However during our last trip we did use public transportation a fair bit. Though we had rented a van, it had 100 kms per day usage limit and any additional kms would cost us lot of money (LKR 65 per km including tax)- so it was economical to use the buses/trains/auto where possible. For example, from Sigiriya to Dambola, a round trip distance of about 60 kms- using our van would have cost us around 5000 LKR (INR 2500) in per km charge + driver overtime charges. Using bus and auto, we could manage the trip for under 1000 LKR (240 LKR each way for 6 people by bus + 500 LKR for local auto hires-from bus stand to Dambolla rock temple n back)
Double Decker bus in Kandy
Similarly from Mount Lavinia to Galle we used train and bus- costing us about 3000 LKR for 6 people (850 LKR for train, 5 pax + 2200 LKR during return for bus). 200 kms/6 hours van hire would have cost us 15000 LKR.

Frequent buses/trains are available between most of the popular towns- Colombo-Galle-Matara, Colombo-Kandy-Nuwara Eliya, Colombo-Dambola, Dambola-Sigiriya etc.

Train network is also reasonable- not luxurious as in Europe but will get you to your destination super cheap. Railway stations have timing and other details in English, but announcements were made only in local language. A few trains we checked were on time. 
From Colombo airport to city:
Buses are available during day time and you can reach city from airport or airport from city for less than 1 USD and in about an hour. If you’re arriving in night hours, buses are still available but at lesser frequency.

Also I found metered autos in Colombo this time- which are very economical at LKR 50 per km. I also saw some autos with mobiles having Uber/Ola like app. This is a welcome change. If you can’t find a metered auto, agree on a rate before boarding. Have a sim card, calculate distance to destination,  bargain quoting about 50-60 LKR per km which is very reasonable price for auto. Most drivers will begin quoting around 200-300 LKR even for short distances like 1-2 kms, but if you are adamant and walk-away, they will usually agree for 50-75LKR per km, as that is still a profitable rate than losing a customer.
Next best thing to auto are Nano taxies- saw many of them in Srilanka.

How is the hygiene factor?
I found that railway station and buses fairly clean. Of course not hi-fi as in Europe but were relatively better than ones found in India. Of course you will be sharing transportation with other passengers in train and bus which has its own pros and cons. If you’re hyper sensitive to this then may be you should stick to your own private cab.

Self drive rental:
Cycles are available for rental in many towns, which you can use to travel locally. I saw many boards advertising cycle rental. Go for  walk and you should be able to locate a few. Ask your hotel for assistance if you can’t find one.

Bike and car rentals: Self drive bikes and car rentals are available in Srilanka, but I was told there’s a one day process to get your license by the authorities. Thus you might have to spend a full day just to get eligibility to drive. Even if you rent one, in case of any issues you may have tough time communicating with locals. I saw many displays advertising bikes on rent- some of these agencies may be ready to hand over the bike to you without legal process- but renting from them could put you in spot in case of police checks or accidents.

Srilankan drivers are largely law abiding and do not drive rash. They give priority to pedestrians crossing the road, stick to their lane and in general fairly disciplined. Most roads have a speed limit of 60 kmph while tolled highways have a speed limit of 100 kmph.  Highways are tolled- Colombo City to Airport on E03 would cost 450 LKR in toll for a mini van. But self-drive has some risk- if you’re stranded in a remote area or face an accident, getting help will be tough.
Cost advantage of using public transportation vs taxi/van hire (1 LKR = 0.45 INR, 160 LKR = 1 USD approx.)
Approx Taxi Hire Cost
Approx cost (Bus/Train/Auto)
Group of 6 people, 5 days, 700 -750 kms tour- Airport- Colombo-Sigiriya-Kandy-Nuwara Eliya-Ratnapura-Galle-Colombo-Airport
Approx 50000-60000 LKR for a Toyota Hiace
12000-20000 LKR
Group of 4, 3 days Colombo, Galle, Matara trip, 400-450 kms
16000-20000 LKR
(small car)
3000-4000 LKR
Managing with public transportation will save you as much as 50-75% as compared to hiring a dedicated cab. Of course it may take a bit more time and may involve more walking, bargaining with auto (tuk-tuk) for last mile ride but will save lots of money.
Mode of transport
Own taxi at disposal with Srilankan driver
Saves time
Less walking, bargaining, make use of night hours, driver can assist in translation /coordination
Luggage can be left in car while heading out
Limited kms per day + excess km charge, overtime charge, tax, driver stay & food expenses
Self Drive car
Same as above + no need to spend on driver over time, stay, meals etc
No one to assist/translate in case of break down,
Getting local license is 1 day process
Bus+ train + tuk tuk +
Saves money-50-75% compared to taxi
Experience local life more closely, interact with locals
Not easy to haul bags
More time
Plan should be done based on availability of transportation
Limited mobility during night time
However be advised on following limitations while traveling around Srilanka in public transportation
  • Time: Factor 50% more time than what it would take had you had your own taxi. Buses may not be too frequent and may stop at multiple places.
  • Can’t optimize early morning/late night time- you’ll have to plan most of your travel in day time
  • Possible strikes- when my family members went to Galle by train, they had to rely on bus for the return journey. But on that day (25th June) buses to Colombo were on strike, making return journey complicated
  • Some areas are not covered by public transportation- like Horton Plains National Park, Pidulagalala, some waterfalls, tea factories etc that are deep interior from main road etc. You will have to stick to main towns that have good connectivity.
  • Crowd- Buses and trains do tend to get crowded- you may have to travel standing, or be ready to travel squeezing in between large crowd.
  • Very Few AC buses- most buses in Srilanka are non AC. There’re few AC buses on prominent routes though.
  • Language problem- Having a proper conversation with locals might be a challenge. You may have to struggle a bit to communicate.
If you don’t have big bags to tag along and are comfortable walking a few kms at times when needed, most key places in Srilanka can be toured on public transportation. I’ve explored central and southern Srilanka so far. Need to explore North- like Jaffna. My next trip I will most probably try without renting a car.
Other things to note:
1. Book a hotel closer to main road/bus stand/train station to be able to walk around and not having to look for an auto/taxi for last mile connectivity.
2. Have a mobile with google maps handy- you can confirm if you’re heading in right direction, how far is your destination from where the bus has its last stop and other crucial information
3. Sometimes, if your destination is far away, break it and search for a bus to nearest town. For example if you're trying to reach Nuwara Eliya from Sigiriya, you may not get direct bus. You may have to take one bus to Dambulla, another to Kandy and then to Nuwara Eliya.


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