I spent five weeks traveling around Sri Lanka just before the main tourist season started, still enjoying the bargain deals of the low season and seeing prices go up in the high season – this applies mainly to accommodation, however. I am breaking down all of my expenses in the country to give you an idea of what costs to expect when you budget for a trip to Sri Lanka.
Overall, it has been one of the cheapest countries I’ve been to and it is possible to travel the country on $20 – $30 per person a day (on a shoestring), or around $50 per person per day in nicer accommodations. Read on for the full breakdown of food, transportation, sightseeing, accommodation and other costs.
A visa is required to enter Sri Lanka. Luckily it is easy to apply for a Sri Lankan visa online. The cost of a visa for Europeans, North Americans and Australians is US$35. The visa is valid for 30 days, if you’re planning to stay longer, you’ll have to get an extension in Colombo, which is LKR3,600 /US$25 (make sure to have a passport photo on you for that).
This will be your biggest expense, but the value for money is usually very good.
The cheapest rates for a private double room I found was LKR1,500 (US$10.40), and in some of the beach towns I paid around LKR3,000-3,500 (US$21-25) for a double room (split between two people). Remember that this was in the off-season though.
In other places (not along the coast) LKR1,500 seemed to be the going rate for a basic double room, breakfast often included, and usually with free wifi.
As for higher end accommodation, I found some nice hotels with swimming pool and breakfast for LKR5,000-6,000(US$35-41), and really nice hotels, like the Cinnamon Hotels around the island, often offer special rates starting at LKR7,000 (US$49) during the low season (expect this to double in the high season).I didn’t sleep in dorms but a dorm bed was usually around LKR800 (US$5.50). It definitely pays off to check hotel booking websites like Booking.com for special deals in the places you’re planning to visit. Through Booking.com, I found a nice boutique hotel in Colombo for $50 a night (for two people), and a great deal for a gorgeous hotel in Polonnaruwa for $29 a night including breakfast.
Food & Drinks
Food can be dirt cheap, but it also can be pricey depending on if you’re willing to delve into the local cuisine or stick to western choices. A Sri Lankan dinner of kotthu, which is a favorite of the locals, costs around LKR165 – 200 (US$1.15 – 1.40), while a chicken curry in a beach town can cost you up to LKR900 (US$6.25). On average, expect to pay between LKR200 and 300 (US$1.40 – 2.10) for local food and LKR600 to 900 (US$4.15-6.25) for a dish in a tourist restaurant. Breakfast usually cost me LKR500 to 700 (US$3.45-4.85), including tea or coffee.
Speaking of coffee, if you are looking for good coffee, you’ll have to pay for it. The most expensive coffee I had was in Kandy at Natural Coffee, where I was charged LKR560 (US$3.90) for a cappuccino – more than I usually paid for an entire meal! There are some coffee shops in Colombo, and some cafes around the country that have a proper espresso machine, but they’re few and far between.
Generally, you can expect to pay around LKR270 (US$1.88) for an espresso and LKR350 – 400 (US$2.40-2.80) for a cafe latte or cappuccino. Of course there are also the cheap roadside coffee vendors or the guys that walk through the trains with a big thermos, selling a brown liquid for 10 rupees (US$0.07), but I wouldn’t call that coffee 😉If you prefer to stick to western food (why would you though, because Sri Lankan food is seriously addictive!), there are some western chains like Pizza Hut and KFC, and you can find sandwiches, burgers and pizza in the beach towns. Western meals are between LKR600 and 1000 (US$4.16 -7.00). You can splurge on fine dining in places – often, the nicer hotels have on-site restaurants, and there you pay upwards of LKR1,000 (US$7.00) for a dish. Snacks are super cheap – local chocolate is LKR50 – 100 ($US0.35-0.70), a bag of cashew nuts is LKR120 (US$0.85), peanuts are LKR50 (US$0.35), and little fried lentil balls or donuts are 10 rupees (US$0.07). A vegetarian roti (a dough triangle filled with vegetables – basically like a samosa, but not deep-fried) is 40 rupees (less than US$0.30) and big enough to serve as a full meal – cheapest lunch ever! A bottle of water (1.5 liters) is LKR60 – 70 (US$0.40-0.50), and since the tab water in Sri Lanka is not drinkable, you’ll have to budget for at least one bottle per day.Alcohol
A 625ml bottle of local Lion beer can be as cheap as LKR250 (US$1.75), but can cost you up to LKR600 (US$4.15) in nicer establishments. I usually paid LKR300 (US$2.10). Cocktails are more expensive – about LKR400 to 500 (US$2.80 – 3.50) along the beaches and LKR800 to 1000 (US$5.50 – 7.00) in the nicer bars of Colombo.
Transportation is some of the cheapest I’ve ever taken anywhere in the world – I still can’t believe that a 7-hour train ride cost me a mere LKR230 ($1.60) in 2nd class! While I wouldn’t opt for 3rd class (those are the cheapest tickets but the carts are often overcrowded), I think 2nd class is perfectly fine and there’s no need to pay for 1st class, which is about 1000 rupees per ride and essentially the ‘tourist cars’. I will share more about that when I write about my Sri Lankan train adventures which deserve a post o their own. I usually paid LKR190 (US$1.30) for a train ticket, the cheapest one was the 1 hour ride from Ella to Badulla which cost me 40 rupees (just under 30 cents).Long distance buses are a bit more expensive but still cheap by western standards – expect to pay around LKR80 (US$0.55) for a 1-hour ride. The most expensive ride was a 4-hour trip from Kandy to Polonnaruwa at 150 rupees ($1.05) Tuktuks range anywhere from 50 rupees to 600 rupees (or more, if you go really far in them), always negotiate before you get in.
The price they quote you is usually higher than what they’re supposed to charge you, so try to haggle. As a rule of thumb: anything up to 3 kilometers shouldn’t be more than 100 rupees, but the more touristy the area, the higher the prices the drivers charge.
Tourist attractions are the most expensive category: Sri Lanka offers its heritage sites and national parks at a steep price, unproportionally higher than anything else that’s sold at deflated tourist pieces. Tourists don’t pay double or tenfold what locals pay, they pay around 40 times the local price. An example: Sri Lankans pay LKR50 (US$0.35) to enter Yala National Park, foreigners pay more than 2000 rupees (US$14). The ancient cities in the north are LKR3,250 (US$22.50) each, and a half day safari in a National Park comes to US$40 with the vehicle, park entrance and a guide, but you’ll most likely get quoted a higher price. For our jeep in Yala we paid LKR4,000 (US$27.70) between four people and admission was around LKR2,500 (US$17.30) (it gets cheaper the more people are in a group). You can rent bikes for the day to get around the ancient cities which cost LKR200 to 300 US$1.40-2.10). Prices for other fun activities: A whale watching tour will cost you around LKR6,000 (US$41.75), a dive is around US$30, surf lessons are around US$40, cooking classes start at LKR3,000 (US$21).
Other expenses include things like laundry, toiletries and a local SIM card. Here are some examples so that you know what to expect:
- Laundry: LKR250-350 (US$1.75-2.45) per kilo
- Shampoo/ conditioner 100ml: LKR150 – 180 (US$1.05-1.25)
- Face wash 100ml: LKR150 (US$1.05)
- SIM card: LKR399 (US$2.75) for a 4GB data package
Local SIM card
Make sure to grab your free local SIM card right when you make your way through immigration at the airport. Dialog, one of the fastest 3G networks in the country, offers free SIM card at immigration – just ask for one and they’ll give it to you. I personally used mobitel and paid 399 rupees for a 4GB data package. If you add another 100 rupees for call time credit, that should last you a while (if you only use your phone to call guest houses etc).
Some notes on money and ATMs
There are ATMs everywhere, at least one in each town, no matter how small it is. And cash is king – it was rare that I was able to pay anything with a credit card, so prepare and make sure you’ll always have enough cash on you, especially when you visit national parks and UNESCO sites – the only place I was able to use my card at was Yala National Park. Seylan Bank has a maximum withdrawal of only 10,000 rupees, so if you pay fees for cash withdrawals abroad, make sure to avoid this one. Commercial Bank lets you take out at least up to 20,000 rupees, if not more. Sampath Bank lets you take out at least 30,000 rupees at once.
Most places automatically add a service charge to the bill, so double-check before you tip if they’re already including it.
Per day breakdown
As you can see, Sri Lanka is very affordable – not as cheap as India, but you can get by on an average $30 a day, if you stay in budget accommodation and don’t take expensive tours every day. A beach day with accommodation, two full meals, coffee, snacks and drinks at night in a beach town would cost me around $25, but on days when I visited one of the UNESCO sites, my daily expenses could easily add up to $50.
As usual, I used the TrailWallet app to track my expenses.