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Sri Lanka is a beautifully picturesque country, which makes travelling there an amazing experience. Journeys through the hill country are particularly rewarding, with breathtaking views of tea fields and greenery stretching as far as the eye can see. Fortunately, between trains and buses there’s a great public transport network to help you explore Sri Lanka’s stunning scenery with ease. Better still, both are extremely budget friendly ways of getting around the country. Despite the increase in tourism, finding reliable information about transport in Sri Lanka online can be tough. That’s why we’ve used our experience to create this guide to travelling Sri Lanka by public transport. If you’re looking for more general advice, check out our article 13 tips for travelling Sri Lanka as this article focuses purely on getting around the country!
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Train journeys in Sri Lanka are part of the experience. They offer extremely good value and are the cheapest mode of long distance transport in the country. Despite tickets being cheap, some journeys will reward you with spectacular views, especially in the hill country. The trip between Kandy and Ella is considered to be one of the most beautiful train rides in the world, and tickets are available from as little as 125 rupees. Find out everything you need to know before travelling by train in Sri Lanka below.
When travelling by train in Sri Lanka you’ll have the option of buying a ticket in either 1st, 2nd or 3rd class. Whichever you decide upon will influence the level of comfort for your journey. In our experience there was very little information at the stations about the differences between classes, so it’s important to have an understanding before arriving to buy tickets.
1st class –The main advantage of paying more for 1st class seats is that all tickets include a seat reservation. This means you’re able to enjoy the journey without the possibility of a carriage packed to the brim of standing passengers, as everyone in the carriage will have their own seat. On ‘Express-Daytime Trains’ between Colombo and Badulla 1st class carriages do have air conditioning, however on other routes this isn’t the case. Fortunately, air con isn’t necessary as carriages have fans and stay cool due to the windows being open.
Unfortunately, the majority of train services in Sri Lanka don’t actually offer a 1st class carriage. Where 1st class is available, seats often sell out in advance, especially in peak season, so it’s worth booking as far in advance as possible. Tickets are available from stations 30 days before departure as well as online via 3rd party agents. When booking through a 3rd party it’s likely you’ll be charged substantially more for a ticket, so unless you’re desperate to guarantee a 1st class seat we recommend waiting to book in person.
2nd class – While some seats can be reserved in 2nd class, some tickets are sold without a reserved seat. This means carriages can end up packed with standing passengers. Even if you have a seat this will affect your level of comfort to some degree. For those without a reserved seat, trying to get somewhere to sit becomes a free for all when the train pulls in. If you are able to book a reserved seat when buying your ticket we strongly recommend doing so, as if you end up without a seat you could be in for a long and uncomfortable ride. Seats in 2nd class aren’t as comfy as 1st class, but are more comfy than 3rd class.
3rd class – The cheapest option is to travel in a 3rd class carriage. Seat reservations are not possible on older brown carriages but are possible in 3rd class on the newer blue carriages. As with 2nd class, some tickets are sold without a reserved seat meaning that some passengers will have to fight it out to get one when the train arrives. The seats in these carriages are the least comfy of the lot, and in our experience were just benches rather than actual seats. That being said, having a seat in 3rd class is certainly better than standing or sitting on the floor in 2nd class, so don’t be put off if it’s the only place you can get a seat!
Schedules, Delays and Buying tickets
Planning your route is easy enough using the journey planner on the Sri Lanka railways website. They provide train times, as well as information about which classes are available on each service and the cost for each class. Despite running to a set schedule, the unfortunate reality is that often trains in Sri Lanka don’t run on time. If you don’t want any surprises, we recommend factoring in some extra journey time to account for potential delays.
For reserved seats, tickets are available at stations 30 days before the departure date. While there is the alternative of booking online through a 3rd party, you’ll end up paying a lot more for your ticket. We recommend avoiding booking this way unless having a guaranteed seat is really important to you.
You should always be fine to turn up to the station on the day and buy a ticket. Doing it this way you’ll most likely end up without a reserved seat, but you should never have a problem getting a ticket for the train!
Getting a seat
If you opt not to get a reserved seat or they were sold out then not all hope is lost. It’s still possible to get a seat; you just need to be ruthless. As soon as the trains pull in it becomes a free for all to get any available seat as quickly as possible. The locals know this better than anyone and some will even jump on the train before it’s finished pulling into the station just to get a head start. To stand any chance you’ll need to be fast on your feet. If you’re too slow you could spend hours standing or using your bag as a seat instead. For those travelling in a group the best thing to do is send one or more people ahead while the rest of you carry the bags onto the train. That way if there are any seats they can hold them for you while you get on with everyone’s stuff.
Slow vs fast
Sri Lanka’s trains aren’t renowned for their speed, and for good reason. Even the faster ‘express’ services won’t get you to your destination particularly quickly. Even so, if you want to save time then make sure you do get an express train. The slower trains can have much longer journey times and, in our experience, most of this extra time comes from waiting at stations longer. Considering that you may not get a seat, and that delays are likely, then in our opinion you should always opt for the express service. The only instance where you may want to opt for a slower train is if the express trains are only running later in the day. If you’re travelling through the hill country and that’s the case, then you may miss out on some incredible views after the sun sets. Other than that, we’d always recommend the express service.
Travelling with bags
You won’t encounter any problems travelling with large luggage on trains in Sri Lanka. Carriages have overhead storage if your bags will fit but if not keep it in the aisle and use it as a makeshift seat if you don’t have one.
The only budget friendly alternative to travelling by train is to travel by bus. Fares vary depending on your route but are still very reasonably priced. Despite Sri Lanka’s hot climate, buses don’t get too warm as the windows let in plenty of air to keep to a comfortable temperature – meaning you won’t need to pay extra for air conditioned buses! Find out all you need to know about bus travel in Sri Lanka below.
Buses don’t run to a schedule
Buses in Sri Lanka don’t run to a set schedule, but getting around is still relatively straightforward. To catch a bus you’ll need to either head to the nearest bus station or catch one by the side of the road – which is common in smaller towns like Mirissa. At stations buses frequently depart to a number of destinations so it’s unlikely you’ll be waiting too long although it’s common to wait until buses are full before leaving. Depending on where you’re heading you may need to make a change or two, so if you’re unsure just ask a local. They’ll always be more than happy to point you in the right direction!
Journey time is unpredictable
In our experience, bus journey times in Sri Lanka are largely unpredictable. You may spend hours covering a distance that you could cover in 30 minutes back home. Traffic plays a large factor in travel time, which means in some instances it may be quicker to take the train. If you’re in a rush and can’t decide whether it’s best to take the train or bus, then ask a local or at your accommodation and they’ll tell you which should be quicker.
Buses get packed
In similar fashion to trains, getting a seat on a bus can be troublesome. Fortunately, in our experience it generally proved easier to get a seat on a bus. If you catch a bus from a station rather than by the side of a road you have a better chance of getting a seat, although this isn’t always practical depending on where you’re coming from. The buses can get extremely packed and at one point Sam was hanging on outside of a bus, as there was no space inside. If it’s that packed, it’s probably just easier to wait for the next bus.
Travelling by road in Sri Lanka isn’t for the faint hearted, whether you’re in a car, tuk tuk or a bus. Drivers often overtake other vehicles seemingly pointlessly, whilst oncoming traffic rushes towards you. At times it might feel like your driver has a death wish as they race in and out of traffic. Fortunately they do seem to know what they’re doing, but we personally preferred not to look ahead on these journeys. Although looking elsewhere won’t make you any safer, at least you won’t have to watch as you hurtle towards another bus before quickly pulling back over to safety.
How to pay
When it comes to bus journeys, you won’t need to buy a ticket before boarding. Instead, once the bus has departed the conductor will come round in order for you to buy a ticket. We never found out fares in advance, but never ended up paying more than 200 rupees each including our bags.
Travelling with bags
With some buses getting so busy, travelling with bags can become an issue. Some buses refuse to take large luggage, as they have no storage space and it takes up space for others. You should be able to find a bus that will take luggage, but you may need to wait a little longer as most locals generally travel light.
The alternative to public transport in Sri Lanka is to take a taxi. Generally this is going to be a much quicker option, but will also cost more. Despite that, it can be worth it if you’re claustrophobic or in a rush to get somewhere. For example, we needed to leave early from Ella to get to Udawalawe National Park in time for our safari in the afternoon. If we travelled by bus we would have had to make a change, and due to the unpredictable timings we opted to take a taxi.
To keep costs down there are a number of facebook groups for travellers in Sri Lanka looking to share taxi rides for those going in the same direction. If you join one of these groups you can either post to see if anyone wants to share a ride with you or look out for others’ posts about what journeys they plan to take. Not only is it a great way to save a bit of cash but you might also make a new friend or two!
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