Getting around in Sri Lanka: how to choose between private and public transport

Moving around in Sri Lanka is less complicated than you might think as visitors have quite a lot of options when it comes to transportation. But when it comes to choosing between private and public transport, things do tend to get a bit muddier.

When most people visit another country, one of the first things they want to know is just how robust their transportation options are.

For instance, many Europeans prefer to rent a car when visiting another country in Europe as car rental options are often inexpensive and allow them to reach regions outside of tourist areas without paying exorbitant fees on taxis which are frequently expensive for tourists.

When it comes to Sri Lanka, however, such a mindset might not actually be helpful or even convenient. So let us take a look at your options for moving around in the country.

Renting a car in Sri Lanka might not be the best idea

While car rental companies do exist in Sri Lanka, the process is more complicated than other countries.

For instance, to stay on the right side of the law, you would need to acquire an International Driving Permit from your home country which you would then take to the AA in Colombo in order to get a Sri Lankan recognition permit to drive in the country.

While many tourists rent a car without having those documents, it is far safer to have them as you will risk paying a lot of money in case you get in a car accident without them.

Even with all of that, car rental companies in Sri Lanka will almost never give you a new and attractive vehicle. The reason for this behavior is that they know exactly how bad the road conditions, traffic, and driving culture is in the country and a visitor who has no idea about these things is far more likely to get into an accident.

Everyone will tell you the same thing: avoid self-driving and try to rely on the (cheap) public transport!

If you are set on private transport, hire a car with a driver instead

The benefits of having your own vehicle hold true in Sri Lanka but if you just want to have peace of mind and not have to deal with chaotic driving in unknown roads, then you should seriously consider hiring a car with a local driver.

The process for this is quite easy. If you are staying in a hotel or a guesthouse, they will be glad to help you arrange for a driver. If not, you can also contact a travel agency but this method will cost considerably more.

If you go on websites like TripAdvisor, you will also find several drivers offering their services so you can hire them before you even set foot in Sri Lanka. Of course, you should not pay them before you meet up with them and you should negotiate the prices beforehand.

In case you take a taxi with a friendly driver, you can also ask to hire them for entire days. Many of them will be happy with that and the worst case scenario is that they will say no.

Keep in mind that you should always negotiate the prices. Make sure that your driver speaks decent English and you will also get a guide in the package as well. And if you tip them during the end of each day, expect high-quality service from them.

Consider tuk-tuks, taxis, and trains but try to avoid buses 

Buses in Sri Lanka are not only crowded, old, and not well-maintained, they are also known to be involved in frequent accidents due to erratic driving behaviours.

Instead, consider hiring a tuk-tuk or a taxi but make sure to talk about the price before getting in. Just be polite and follow standard procedures, such as asking a taxi driver to turn on their meter before getting on or agreeing on a set price beforehand.

As far as longer journeys go, trains are actually very convenient in Sri Lanka. Avoid third-class as it can get very crowded and incredibly hot. Instead, opt for 2nd class or even 1st class if you can fit it in your budget.

For train times, make sure to check the official Sri Lanka Railways website.

Getting around in Sri Lanka is not as hard as you think!

 As we have seen here, getting around is pretty simple, particularly if you pay attention to the local culture.