If Sri Lanka is not currently enjoying peak position at the tippy top of your travel bucket list, perhaps you’ve been living under a rock? For the past year or so, our Instagram feeds have been flooded with wanderlust inspiring snapshots – we dare you to follow hashtags like #srilankatravel and #srilankadaily without catching the travel bug, big time. In late 2018, Lonely Planet declared Sri Lanka the number one destination to visit in 2019. Improved infrastructure, alluring accommodation options and more accessible activities have made Sri Lanka the hottest ticket on the planet. But how do you get to Sri Lanka and how do you get around after landing?
Visas for Sri Lanka
Travellers heading to Sri Lanka need to obtain an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) before entering the country. The process is simple and can be done online at eta.gov.lk. You can also apply on arrival at the airport, but the processing fee will be slightly higher. You will receive a notification after your application has been received and you can check the status of your application on the same website. You will receive a second notification once the application has been approved.
When applied online, the fee for a 30-day tourist visa is USD $35. If you apply for the ETA on arrival, the fee is USD $50.
Once you arrive in Sri Lanka, present your passport and the ETA approval notice at immigration to obtain your visa.
Bandaranaike International Airport
Located just north of the capital city of Colombo, Bandaranaike International Airport is the main international airport in Sri Lanka. The airport is often referred to as Colombo International Airport. The airport has three terminals (one set to complete in 2019) and offers basic services, including lounges for first class and business class travellers. Terminal 1 is dedicated to international flights while terminal 3 caters to domestic flights. Once completed, terminal 2 will also work as an international terminal.
Flights to Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is easily accessible from most major hubs in Asia and there are direct flights available from a few European cities, too. Since late 2017, direct flights are also available between Colombo and Melbourne. As this literally entails travelling to the other side of the world, there are currently no direct flights between North or South America and Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s national carrier, SriLankan Airlines, offers direct flights to Colombo from destinations including Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Though the direct flights are mostly focused on Asia and the Middle East, SriLankan also offers direct flights to London and Melbourne.
SriLankan Airlines is a part of the Oneworld alliance and operates codeshare flights with carriers including Air Canada, Japan Airlines, Jetstar Asia Airways, Qantas and Qatar Airways.
Direct Flights to Sri Lanka
Singapore Airlines and its subsidiary Silk Air fly direct between Singapore and Colombo. The flight time is just under four hours.
From Hong Kong, direct flights are available from Cathay Pacific and its subsidiary, Cathay Dragon. The flight time between Hong Kong and Colombo is about 5 hours and 20 minutes.
Emirates and Flydubai (a low-cost carrier owned by the Dubai government) offer direct flight between Dubai and Colombo. The flight time is about 4 hours and 30 minutes.
Dutch national carrier KLM offers seasonal direct flights between Amsterdam and Colombo with flights running between October – March. The flight time is around 10 hours.
Getting Around Sri Lanka
Though Sri Lanka is a relatively petite nation – the island measures at around 440 kilometres from top to bottom – getting around can be somewhat tricky. To give an idea of the road and traffic conditions, the 120-kilometre car drive from Colombo to Galle Fort generally takes around 2.5 hours. However, a little planning beforehand goes along way and will make navigating the teardrop shaped nation that much easier.
Hands down the most scenic way to make your way across Sri Lanka is to travel by train. Sri Lanka’s beautiful train routes are considered to be some of the most picturesque on the planet and thanks to recent renovations, even more of the country is accessible by train, including Jaffna in the northern tip of the island. Perhaps the most famous route in Sri Lanka is the one running between Ella and Kandy which pierces through misty tea plantations and over dramatic bridges. All in all, train travel is a very accessible and affordable way to explore Sri Lanka – you can book a second class seat on a train running from Colombo to Galle for around LKR 180 (USD $1.2). Check out our full guide to train travel in Sri Lanka.
Buses are the main form of public transport in Sri Lanka. Bus connections are offered to all major tourist destinations and also to a variety of more remote spots which could be of interest to more intrepid travellers. However, road safety is not a top priority for most drivers and driving tends to be erratic to say the least. Taking the bus is cost effective and certainly an experience – but if you have any kind of budget and/or prioritise safety and comfort, we would advise against it. Buses vary in comfort with the government owed SLTBs or Sri Lanka Transport Busses generally being of the older, creaky variety. Private bus services vary from old vehicles to newer, air-conditioned mini busses and lager units.
By Private Car
To take most of the stress out of their time in Sri Lanka, many travellers opt for a private car and driver. You can hire a driver who will simply bring you from point A to B or opt for a diver/guide who’s accredited by the tourist board. You can see a list of accredited drivers here – they will be able to show you around the tourist sites and give you background information on the locations and Sri Lanka by large. You can book a driver through tour operators or directly with your villa or hotel. Due to erratic traffic conditions, it’s not advisable to drive your own car unless you’re a very experienced and confident driver.