The Real Guide to Sri Lanka : Why It’s Not a Budget Destination and How to Actually Prepare for it

Photo of The Real Guide to Sri Lanka : Why It’s Not a Budget Destination and How to Actually Prepare for it by Sushantika

Sri Lanka has become one of the most sought after destinations now that Indians can travel on a free Visa. Tagged as a budget-friendly destination, I recently found a lot of gaps in what is being shared online. So here are my learnings from a recent trip in January 2024 which sheds light into the reality of traveling to this mesmerizing country and how you can be better prepared. Scroll through for reality checks!

Visa applications:

There’s a misnomer about the Visa application for Indians.

While Sri Lanka isn’t currently charging for a Visa, it doesn’t mean you don’t need one. Here’s a few steps to carry out before you arrive at this gorgeous country:

Step 1 - Head to this link

Pre-requisites: Enter the details required as per the form. You will need to list a local address, so be sure to have pre-booked your hotel stay which can be used for this purpose.

You will also need to have return tickets booked for the Visa.

Step 2 - Fill up your online arrival card. As with any country, you need to record entry and exit. For Sri Lanka, you need to fill up this form and then watch out for an email in your inbox. Take a print out of the email to show at Immigration in Sri Lanka.

Pre-requisites: While they don’t insist on a physical copy, it’s good to have a set of print outs in case you’re unable to access your online documents. Sri Lanka’s Colombo airport didn’t have stable wi-fi and you might not be able to get a local sim card until you’re done with immigration

Do track the latest updates to the Visa formalities here


The Sri Lanka Rupee is about three times less than the Indian Rupee. However, the current economic crisis in the country makes it an expensive place. Basic necessities are expensive even for the locals. Making it a country you need to budget for properly, if you’re preparing to visit.

Pre-requisite: It’s essential you have cash on you as the entire country prefers cash transactions. Except for some larger shops, where you can use your card, cash is the way to go! I opted to exchange currency in India before arriving, just to cover my basic expenses before I can withdraw more as I go along. I felt this was a good approach. The rates can vary of course depending on where you go to exchange your notes. You can also carry USD on you for local currency exchange shops, but they don’t accept Indian Rupees as the locals would have to lose on commissions while they exchange.

Now for the main part, about every day travels in Sri Lanka and what you need to plan for if you have an Indian passport:

There are no free activities in Sri Lanka:

Unlike in India where entry tickets are not the norm, Sri Lanka can’t be explored without an entry ticket. The spaces are of course well maintained and you would be contributing to the local economy. However, you need to budget at least 1500 Sri Lanka Rupees (LKR) per activity. Depending on what all you’re planning to try, do keep this in mind. Whether it’s Buddhist temples, Botanical Gardens or anything in between, you need to buy an entry ticket.

The good news is members of the SAARC countries like India get special discounts. They rarely request you to show your passport for proof, but it’s worthwhile to carry it along with you should the authorities request for it.

Only machine made tea and coffee is available:

Craving a hot cuppa’? Well Sri Lanka maybe known for its tea, but apart from Nuwara Eliya and a few places in between, all you get is Nestea and Nescafe and all machine made. It’s about 200 LKR a cup and as far as machine coffee/tea goes, not the best. But it’s what everyone consumes. The other alternate being dip-tea which is once again just ok. Tender coconut is a refreshing option but also comes at 200 LKR a pop. It’s also not widely available.

There’s no street food:

Being a foodie, I always research local eats to try in a place I’m visiting. While the internet might lure you with “10 dishes to try” posts, Sri Lanka in reality has a very different culinary experience to offer. There are barely any hawkers or road side vendors. The cheapest eats available are tiny bakeries that offer local, bread-based delicacies. They are delicious and start at about 60 LKR per piece. However, they don’t replace a meal. The more common options are pretty restaurants and cafes that cater to European travelers and backpackers from the west. However, on an Indian budget, this means you need to set aside at least 3000 LKR per meal if you’d like to eat a fulfilling meal. The local cuisine is best to savor here. [Watch out for some great places I discovered on my future blog posts ]

Local meals are typically rice and curry options. The cuisine is predominantly non-vegetarian so you’ll have plenty of fish and chicken to choose from. A gentle request to vegetarian/ vegan travelers - when in a new place, please respect the local culture and cuisine. It’s never fair to complain about the lack of Indian food when you are in a foreign land. Be open to new things and you’ll leave with a richer experience.

It’s a relatively untouched country:

Sri Lanka has managed to retain the beauty and pristine landscapes. While this is an incredible aspect of why you need to visit, you also need to be prepared for medical emergencies. I myself had a medical emergency and found myself anxiously looking for pharmacies. So ensure you carry a first aid kit that can last you a week until you can reach a more populous area that has medical stores. Do get a travel insurance as well, it can never hurt.

Getting around is not as easy as hailing a Tuk Tuk:

In India we’re too spoilt with Tuk Tuks, Auto-Rickshaws and cabs. In Sri Lanka, you can use Pick Me. On this app, you can opt for Tuk Tuks and cabs. Uber does work as well in some larger towns.

Pre-requisites: Ensure you have a local sim for the Pick Me app as it does not work on International Roaming. You don’t receive OTPs on your Indian number even though the app lets you choose from a list of countries. You also need to pay in cash.

Whale Watching can be a huge scam:

Sri Lanka is blessed with great biodiversity. One of the main attractions is catching sightings of the majestic whales that show up along the coast of Mirissa. However, be wary when choosing a provider for Whale Watching. There are several operators who promise you sightings among other things, but here’s a list of things to consider when going Whale Watching:

1. Tickets cost upwards of 60 USD each and has to be paid in advance in cash. Many operators charge a higher fee for the top deck, but eventually everyone gets to sit everywhere so you might as well choose the lower deck at 10 USD fewer and make your way to the top deck.

2. Whales are wild creatures and thriver in a natural habitat. With Whale Watching becoming popular, the oceans are crowded with boats and this reduces chances of sightings. Previously sightings were at 90% probability. Now it’s down to 60% as per the locals. But you need to understand that this can’t be controlled as sightings are sometimes dependent on luck. You might get to watch dolphins, turtles and other sea creatures though and that’s equally magical.

3. The operators are supposed to provide breakfast, a motion sickness tablet, water bottle and wet towels. None of these things show up. You have to be on the boat at 630 AM and the experience can last up to five hours. You’re likely going to be on an empty stomach, with no water. It’s also advisable to eat less as you can get sick if you’re not used to being on the boat.

4. There are no facilities on the boat. While they do offer a toilet and a kitchen, it’s best you prepare for an experience with the bare minimum.

5. When choosing an operator, do try to go with an ethical operator - one that doesn’t keep the boat around animals, disturbs them, feeds them or litters the ocean. Your hotel should be able to help you out with one.

Cultural performances are not always by the government:

When in Kandy, you’re likely to catch a Kandian dance performance. This is a must-do if you enjoy learning about the local traditions of a country. However, there are government run performances and then there’s private options. Many hotels are now cashing in on the tourist attraction and selling tickets to performances at their hotels. There’s also no reserved seating where you can choose where you sit and it seems to be dependent on how influential your tour guide is. The hall gets very crowded, overwhelming and the stage tends to be far away unless you’re lucky to get front row seats (highly recommended btw!). It tends to be slightly chaotic in terms of being organized. But well worth the experience. Tickets at 2000 LKR each.

Train journeys in Sri Lanka:

If you’re keen to try the infamous train journeys between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya through tea estates, you must book your tickets at least three months in advance. You can buy a ticket at the train station on the day of your journey, but be aware that the train is likely to be quite delayed, crowded and filled with backpackers and their heavy baggage. There are first class, second class and third class tickets. First class typically ensures you get a seat that lets you enjoy the scenic route in peace with a dedicated seat. The other options tend to be more crowded. But it’s all in the fun of it.

This guide isn’t to deter you from traveling to Sri Lanka. It’s one of the most beautiful destinations I’ve been to. It has some of the kindest people I’ve ever met, they are so generous and happy to show you around their lovely country, feed you good food and share insights into local traditions.

The economic crisis has made life challenging for the locals, so it’s important to remember that despite the hardship, they’re still one of the most generous hosts you can have. And by visiting here, you are indirectly helping an economy and a people bounce back on their feet, while you’re having a great time.

Top props to the Indian government as well for the positive relations with Sri Lanka. Owing to this, locals love to meet Indians and immediately extend discounts on a lot of their products. It seems like Indian tourists are highly respected here.

I hope this guide helps you have a smooth trip and I’ve made enough mistakes so you don’t have to!

Follow me on Instagram for more updates on Sri Lanka.

Ready to travel for free? Earn credits and redeem them on Tripoto’s weekend getaways, hotel stays and vacation packages after the pandemic is over!

Find like-minded explorers, learn from expert travellers or become one yourself and help others on Tripoto’s Travel recommending Forum!