Sri Lanka is one of my favourite countries in the world, and one that instantly captured my heart.
After two decades of internal conflict, a tsunami that killed tens of thousands, and an economic crisis that saw the country run out of basics like fuel, tourism is finally starting to pick back up in this beautiful teardrop-shaped island off the south coast of India.
Now, visitors have the opportunity to fall deeply in love with the islands’s laid-back beaches, stunning train rides, delicious cuisine, and welcoming locals. Sri Lanka is a fantastic place to travel through, whether you’re a backpacker on a shoestring budget or a luxury traveller in search of excellent value.
My best friend is Sri Lankan, so I grew up hearing stories of her homeland and seeing photos of the most beautiful tropical beaches. I couldn’t wait to visit. As soon as I booked my flight into the country, I was therefore pestering her for travel tips and advice, then taking everything she recommended on board so that I could plan the perfect Sri Lanka itinerary.
And did Sri Lanka meet my already-sky-high expectations? Did it ever!
Without a doubt, Sri Lanka has some of the most incredible natural landscapes I’ve ever seen and some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. I built a deep bond with one family in particular, but that’s not unusual — every visitor to Sri Lanka seems to form a connection with the locals as they travel around. Whether it’s being invited to stay with a family in their home, being begged to play a spontaneous game of cricket, or being offered home-cooked food on yet another spectacular train journey, you’re going to feel so loved while you’re in this country.
And the fact that it’s inexpensive while offering great value for money? That’s just the cherry on the top.
I never felt like I was pushing my budget during my time in Sri Lanka and most things felt very affordable. Depending on where you’re flying in from, flights could be pricier due to the island’s location. But don’t let that scare you off, because once you land, you’ll find it to be one of the best-value budget destinations in Asia.
What’s Included in This Article
This budget breakdown covers how much I spent on accommodation, transportation, activities, and food while I travelled around the country.
I’ve not included my flights into and out of Sri Lanka as this is going to vary significantly based on where you’ll be arriving from.
The amounts in this guide are listed in U.S. dollars, simply because the vast majority of my readers are from the U.S. but I also included some prices in Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR), as this is the local currency that you’ll be using within the country.
Okay — let’s get started!
How I Spent Two Weeks in Sri Lanka
To give some context to my budget breakdowns, I always like to share how long I spent in the country and where I visited. In Sri Lanka, I spent two weeks travelling in the southwest of the country. This is the region that offers up the vast majority of tourist attractions, so you’ll likely be hitting up all of the spots that I did.
Most visitors to Sri Lanka choose to circle the southwestern parts of the island in a clockwise direction. I, however, recommend doing the exact opposite. When you travel counter-clockwise, you’ll see all of the epic parts of Sri Lanka, but the transportation will be way less crowded. In particular, on the famous train between Kandy and Ella, you’ll have a much easier time getting tickets if you’re travelling in the opposite direction to everybody else. Tickets on this route sell out every single day, so having less competition makes for a less stressful trip and a higher chance that you won’t have to miss out and take the bus instead.
Here’s how I spent two weeks in Sri Lanka:
- Day 1: Colombo (A quick in-and-out! I didn’t love Colombo and minimised my time there)
- Day 2: Galle (I love Galle! Spend your time here wandering through the beautiful fort)
- Day 3: Galle (More wanderings, interspersed with shopping, tea-drinking, and admiring the architecture)
- Day 4: Mirissa (A hub for backpackers, with epic beaches)
- Day 5: Mirissa (Take a surf class or kick back and relax on the sand)
- Day 6: Tangalle (Less overrun with tourists — this is another great beach)
- Day 7: Yalla National Park (Take a safari to see wild elephants and cheetahs!)
- Day 8: Yalla National Park (One safari is never enough, so venture out on another one!)
- Day 9: Ella (Hill country! One of my favourite parts of the country, surrounded by tea plantations)
- Day 10: Ella (Spend today hiking or touring a plantation)
- Day 11: Ella — train to Kandy (You must take this train while you’re in Sri Lanka!)
- Day 12: Kandy (Sri Lanka’s capital — worth a night to take a look around)
- Day 13: Sigiriya (Sri Lanka’s iconic rock fortress — a must-do!)
- Day 14: Sigirya – day trip to Dambulla (Take a day trip to Dambulla to see the cave temples)
- Day 15: Negombo (A beach town close to Colombo, but much nicer! Plus, the airport is right here)
- Day 16: Time to leave!
With that out of the way, let’s take a look now at how much you can expect all of this to cost.
The Cost of Accommodation in Sri Lanka
From my experience, the best accommodation options in Sri Lanka are Airbnbs or homestays, with the occasional splurge in a nice hotel. Sri Lanka has a reputation for outstanding hospitality and you’ll encounter this especially in smaller, family-run places.
When I stayed somewhere that was family-run, I always felt at ease—something that’s incredibly valuable as a female traveler. Not to mention, for only around $30 a night, you’re supporting a local family while getting a home-away-from home experience. On top of that, you still get your own clean, private room.
If you’re on a tight budget, housesitting is a great option for free accommodation. This is where you’ll take care of somebody’s house while they’re away, and usually look after their pets, too. It’s best for long-term travellers or retirees as you can’t pick and choose dates and destinations, so you need to have a lot of flexibility as to where you go and at what time of year.
If you do have that freedom, it’s a wonderful way to cut down your travel expenses, soak up some home comforts, and live like a local for a while. I have friends who have housesat in castles before! For free! Trusted Housesitters is the best site for getting started with housesitting, as they have the highest number of listings. There aren’t a lot of them in Sri Lanka in general, but it’s worth a look: opportunities definitely do still pop up!
If you feel like luxing it out a bit more at a fancy hotel, it’s fairly easy to find something that’s still within a reasonable budget. You can stay at some pretty decadent hotels or private villas for $75-125 per night.
Here’s a list of my favourite accommodation options in Sri Lanka. All prices are for two people staying in a double or twin room:
Colombo — OYO MotelVIP ($31 a night): To start off your time in Sri Lanka, spend a night or two in the capital at this comfortable, clean and welcoming motel. It couldn’t be better value for money. Not only is the location great for travelers (you’re close to the beach and some good restaurants), but each standard double room is equipped with air conditioning, a flat-screen TV, a fridge, and a very comfortable mattress. This place hits the mark by being both budget-friendly and high quality. There’s a shared lounge, kitchen and garden for you to enjoy, plus the couple that owns it will thoughtfully respond to your requests and help you plan anything you need help with!
Galle — Khalid’s Guest House ($85 a night): For the price, location, and quality—you can’t get much better than this charming guest house! It’s a beautifully furnished hotel in a restored heritage building situated right in the centre of the historical Galle Fort. So you can wake up and easily explore the walled remains of the old Portugese fortress and all the quaint corners. Even better, a delicious breakfast is included in your stay, an added bonus to the clean and comfortable rooms. The host and his staff are also incredibly hospitable and can help arrange any tours or transport that you need.
Mirissa — D Canal House ($77 a night): This is a little piece of paradise in Mirissa! It’s a quiet and calm hotel located about a 10-15 minute walk from the main strip, but this tranquil oasis is worth it. The rooms and interior design are beautiful and comfortable. And on the outside, you’re basically surrounded by a jungle. You’ll quickly settle into the peace and joy of waking up to the sounds of birds singing around the lush ecosystem around you, enjoying a fresh Sri Lankan breakfast on your private balcony and getting some good R&R in by the gorgeous swimming pool. Nevertheless, if you want to go to the beach or into town, a free tuk tuk service to the main road is included in your stay!
Tangalle — Amour at Turtle Beach ($32 a night): After Mirissa, I made my way further along the coast to Tangalle, which is a little less touristy and a lot less expensive. And while I was there? I stayed in one of the best-rated guesthouses in the entire country! My double room was clean and spacious, and I was only a short walk to the beach. But it’s the local host family that lives behind this home that makes this place memorable and special. They never hesitated to make me feel at home, whether it was driving me to a nearby attraction or welcoming me to a family birthday dinner.
Ella — Happy Horizon Homestay ($36 a night): If you plan on taking the famous train ride to Kandy (you know, the one where you see people leaning out of windows overlooking lush greenery), then Ella will definitely be a stop on your Sri Lanka trip. This small mountain town is the perfect place to chill out, and Happy Horizon Homestay the ideal accommodation to do it in, with clean, simple rooms and gorgeous mountain views from the balcony. The family hosts are also incredibly welcoming and accommodating, happy to help with anything from tuk-tuk rides, to laundry to suggestions on what to see. They also make a wonderful Sri Lankan breakfast! Book at least a few nights here—you won’t regret it.
Kandy — Riverview Kandy Room 2 ($19 a night): I decided to stay in an Airbnb during my time in Kandy, and I’m so glad I stayed in this one. The location is a little outside Kandy’s city centre, but not far enough to make it a problem for exploring the city: tuk-tuks are inexpensive and always available. When you’re waking up to peace and tranquility along the river, the extra few minutes it takes to get into the heart of the city will definitely feel like they’re worth it! Each room in this beautiful bungalow has its own private balcony for admiring that river view, and the host is incredibly friendly and will make you a delicious Sri Lankan breakfast during your stay. This place truly felt like a home away from home—it’s no wonder I stayed for a week!
Sigiriya — Nice View Lodge ($26 a night): Sigiriya is a small town most known for the ancient rock fortress that stands nearby. One look out your window and you’ll understand why Sigiriya means “Lions Rock”; it looks like something right out of “The Lion King”. You’ll likely only need a night in Sigiriya, but you should still stay somewhere memorable. Nice View Lodge is a well-maintained property only a few minutes from the famous rock, with a great terrace overlooking gorgeous rice fields and gardens. The warm, friendly family are happy to arrange anything you need, from scooter rental to onward transport, and cook up a mean breakfast each morning as well.
The Cost of Transportation in Sri Lanka
Transportation around Sri Lanka is easily accessible and very affordable. It’s also quite a small country, making it easy to get from place to place in a short amount of time. There’s really no need to fly domestically: there are limited options, and it just doesn’t make sense logistically. Besides, it’s a beautiful country that’s worth seeing through ground transportation.
Here are the most common forms of transportation in Sri Lanka:
Tuk-Tuk — Also known as auto rickshaws, tuk-tuks are a common and economical way of getting around the various towns and cities in Sri Lanka. They’re basically everywhere and take the place of taxis.
The most important thing to be wary of is tuk-tuk drivers that scam you into overpaying for a ride because you’re a tourist. Before going anywhere, talk to the locals that work at your accommodation about the average costs. Or better yet, ask if they have a reliable driver that they partner with to take you places, then negotiate a fair price before you get in. Even though all tuk-tuks should charge based on their meter, this isn’t always the case.
If you want to hire a tuk tuk driver to take you around for the day, then an honest price would be around $25 (8000 LKR). And an average one-way ride should cost you around $0.35 (100 LKR) per kilometer for short trips, with a cheaper per-km rate for longer journeys.
You can also download PickMe, Sri Lanka’s version of Uber, to book a taxi or tuk-tuk from your phone. This way, the cost is already calculated on the app, and there’s no need to negotiate. You can use PickMe in cities like Colombo or Kandy, but in smaller rural towns, you’ll have to hail on the street.
Train — A Sri Lankan train journey is like no other, especially the famous Kandy to Ella route. Taking this particular iconic train ride is more about the experience than getting from point A to point B, but since the rail system in Sri Lanka runs throughout the entire country, you’ll likely use it several times during your stay.
Trains in Sri Lanka have three classes. First class is air conditioned and has numbered, cushioned seating. Second class has cushioned seats and no air conditioning, but the windows are usually always open. Third class has benches and might fit three people per row as opposed to two, but it’s still not a bad option.
I took third class from Kandy to Ella and it surprisingly wasn’t that busy. I found it fun being able to freely get up, move around, and stand beside the doors watching the tea plantations go by…not something you can do on most trains these days!
Depending on which train you’re on and which class you’re in, you can expect to pay anything between $5 and $20 for your seat when booking online. You’ll probably save a small amount by doing it in person at a train station, but on this route in particular, you’ll want to book well in advance.
I ended up having to push my departure from Ella back by a day, just because I couldn’t get a seat on any train for the next three days when I enquired at the station on the afternoon I arrived. The journey is scheduled to take seven hours, but often takes anything up to ten.
As you can see, train travel is relatively affordable. At the end of the day, choose your ticket and class based on your comfort level and price range, and book well in advance for popular routes or if you want to be seated in first class.
Buses — There are some instances where taking the train isn’t possible, either because it just doesn’t go anywhere near your intended destination, or because you need to jump on a bus for the final part of your journey. These buses are just as affordable as the train, but tend to be a bit more crowded and definitely have less room for luggage.
I took the bus a few times in Sri Lanka and never had a bad experience! Added bonus: you’ll have plenty of opportunity to chat with your fellow passengers. Dave spent several hours immersed in a conversation with one man about the respective fortunes of the New Zealand and Sri Lankan cricket teams on a bus ride from Tangalle, which ended with an invitation to stay the night at his house instead of continuing on to Ella!
Short trips in the city only cost around 20c (70 LKR), while long journeys that take several hours still only set you back around $3-4 (950-1250 LKR).
The Cost of Food in Sri Lanka
Local Sri Lankan food isn’t just cheap, it’s incredibly flavorful and appetizing. I’m literally just licking my lips right now thinking about the food I ate in Sri Lanka.
Of course, you have classic rice and curry dishes, both vegetarian and meat-based, and you’ll find them pretty much everywhere. My favorite is probably kottu roti, which made using shredded pieces of roti bread mixed with spices, vegetables, seafood, and/or meat. It’s then all chopped up together, stir-fried, and tossed with hot sauce. You’ll quickly become familiar with this popular street food dish once you’re in Sri Lanka: the sound of intense metallic chopping will be heard from a mile away.
I was also pleasantly surprised by how good a typical Sri Lanka breakfast is, and looked forward to it every morning, especially when it was freshly prepared at a homestay. The star of this meal is the string hoppers, which resemble noodles made from rice flour. You take the hopper with your hand and dip it into side dishes of coconut or onion sambal, curry, and/or dahl. Sometimes breakfast will also include egg hoppers (a thin fried pancake with an egg in the middle) or sweet roti pancakes.
Seafood features heavily on the menu all around the coast, with fish or shrimp curries often appearing on the menu, along with devilled fish and rice, calamari, and, sometimes, grilled whole fish options as well. In the interior, you’re more likely to see chicken or vegetables instead; they’re probably the safer option anyway, as you can’t always guarantee how well refrigerated the seafood was on its journey to your restaurant!
Prices vary throughout the country, and you should expect to pay more in tourist-heavy locations like Galle Fort than elsewhere. As an example, though, here’s what you can expect to pay for various breakfast, lunch, and dinner options in a restaurant in Sri Lanka:
- Local breakfast of hoppers and a cup of tea or coffee: $4
- Western-style breakfast of avocado toast and coffee: $8
- Chicken kottu rotti: $3.50
- Devilled fish and rice: $5
- Grilled fish or calamari and fries: $7-10
- Seafood platter to share: $16-25
- Pizza: $11
- Burger: $5-7
- Large bottle of local beer: $3.25
- Large bottle of water: $0.50
Because breakfast is included with most accommodation, if you stick to street food and small restaurants that are popular with locals rather than tourists, you can easily go a day spending only around $10 (3000 LKR) for food. If you eat at Western-style cafes or restaurants and have a couple of drinks with your meals, you might spend closer to $30 (9500 LKR) per day.
I found a good mix between the two while I was there, and usually spent around $20 (6300 LKR) per day if I ate one local meal and one more Western-style meal.
The Cost of Activities and Entrance Fees in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has plenty to see and do, and I loved the variety of activities that were possible. From cooking classes to temples, hiking, surfing, or just lazing around on the beach—there’s a lot of fun and adventure to be had in this country, no matter what you’re into.
One of the more popular activities, and a personal highlight, was going to Sigiriya Rock. But instead of climbing the rock itself, I’d recommend hiking up nearby Pidurangala Rock instead. You get an epic view of Sigiriya Rock from the top, and it’s a fraction of the price!
I found that the interior of Sri Lanka was a great place to do hikes, cooking classes, and safaris, while the south is perfect for lazy beach days and water activities. I’m not much of a surfer, but I did indulge in a couple of surf lessons to learn the ropes a bit more. If surfing is your jam, then the southern beaches will be right up your alley.
One of my favorite experiences was doing a cooking class while I was in Kandy. My guide took me to the market first to pick up our ingredients, and then we cooked up about half a dozen Sri Lankan dishes from scratch. I love spending money on a cooking class: not only do you get to learn more about the traditions and food culture of a place, you also get to eat everything afterwards!
Here’s a breakdown of some popular attractions in Sri Lanka and their respective costs:
- Sigiriya Rock / Pidurangala Rock: $30 / $3
- Surf Lessons: $12-20 per hour
- Scuba Diving: $75 for two dives
- Whale watching in Mirissa: ($71)
- Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Kandy): $6.50
- Nine Arch Bridge (Ella): FREE
- Little Adam’s Peak (Ella): FREE
- Private safari with an experienced guide (Udawalawe National Park): $85
- Half-day safari at Yala National Park ($153)
The Cost of Miscellaneous Expenses in Sri Lanka
A local SIM card: I don’t know about you, but one of my least favourite aspects of arriving in a new country is having to figure out how to get connected. Specifically: buying a local SIM card so that I have data to use while I’m in the country.
There’s locating a store that will sell you one, language barriers to deal with, various forms of ID you might need to bring, scams to navigate, and… well, it’s a headache.
This year, I started using Airalo, which sells local e-SIM cards for travellers. What that means is that you can buy your SIM card online before you arrive in Sri Lanka, and then as soon as you land in the country, you can switch on your data and start using it. It’s worked flawlessly for me and now, I’ll never go back to physical SIM cards. You’ll pay $7 for 1 GB of data or $13 for 5 GB for Sri Lanka and can also top-up through the Airalo app.
Make sure you have an e-SIM compatible phone before purchasing — all recent iPhones and many Androids are.
Travel insurance: If you’ve read any other posts on Never Ending Footsteps, you’ll know that I’m a great believer in travelling with travel insurance. I’ve seen far too many GoFundMe campaigns from destitute backpackers that are unexpectedly stranded in a foreign country after a scooter accident/being attacked/breaking a leg with no way of getting home or paying for their healthcare. These costs can quickly land you with a six-figure bill to pay at the end of it.
In short, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.
Travel insurance will cover you if your flight is cancelled and you need to book a new one, if your luggage gets lost and you need to replace your belongings, if you suddenly get struck down by appendicitis and have to be hospitalised, or discover a family member has died and you need to get home immediately. If you fall seriously ill, your insurance will cover the costs to fly you home to receive medical treatment.
I use SafetyWing as my travel insurance provider, and recommend them for trips to Sri Lanka. Firstly, they’re one of the few companies out there who will actually cover you if you contract COVID-19. On top of that, they provide worldwide coverage, don’t require you to have a return ticket, and even allow you to buy coverage after you’ve left home. If you’re on a long-term trip, you can pay monthly instead of up-front, and can cancel at any time. Finally, they’re more affordable than the competition, and have a clear, easy-to-understand pricing structure, which is always appreciated.
With SafetyWing, you’ll pay $1.50 a day for travel insurance.
How Much Does it Cost to Travel in Sri Lanka?
It’s time to tally up all of my expenses to see my total travel costs!
- Accommodation: $44 per day for two people ($22 per person)
- Transportation: $7 per day
- Food: $21 per day
- Activities/Entrance Fees: $24 per day
Average amount spent in Sri Lanka: $74 a day!
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