Public transport in Sri Lanka is cheap, but the railway network is very limited and on most lines there are few trains. Buses run everywhere but can be very crowded and uncomfortable. So it is no surprise that many visitors choose to hire a driver and vehicle for some or all of their holiday. We can of course arrange this for you if you want, but many of our guests want the flexibility of making their own arrangements as they go along. So this post is to help you get the best out of hiring a vehicle and driver in Sri Lanka. The post is not about tuk-tuks (three wheelers) which many people use for short trips but cars and vans used either for tours or for longer one-way trips or day trips.
There are two price models, for one way trips and for round trips (day returns). One way trips cost about 60% more per km than round trips as the driver or hire company have to cover the costs of their return mileage to their home base. Expect to pay between 70 and 90 rupees per km for a one-way trip and 40-55 rupees per km for a day return. Plus any expressway tolls if applicable. Airport pickups (but not drop-offs) also require the driver to pay for parking at the airport and to pay to enter the Arrivals Hall to meet you, and this adds to the costs. A sightseeing day tour will cost more per km due to traffic problems and possibly parking charges as well as the driver acting as a guide as well as driver. These costs apply to standard types of vehicle and of course small cars cost less than large vans or semi-luxury cars. Costs for longer tours vary depending on total mileage and other factors, and are usually negotiable. Check what is and is not included in your price e.g. driver’s meals and accommodation.
If you are an independent traveller, arranging your own transport before you arrive and not just booking a package is perhaps the hardest decision you will have to make before you set off. Choosing accommodation is easy by contrast – you can see photos, read reviews, use website filters for the things that are important to you. Not so with private transport. For most people, provided it’s reliable and comfortable enough, the vehicle is less important than the driver. He (there may be a few she’s but we’ve yet to meet one) will be your companion for two weeks or more, but if you go with a company advertised on the internet you will not be able to choose the driver, merely the type of vehicle. If you are lucky you may have a trusted friend or contact who can recommend a one-man-operator to you or a particular driver you could request when booking with a company but if so, be absolutely sure your friend knows what you want and has recent knowledge. Driving is mostly a transient occupational choice. Guys may drive for a year or two then move on to an entirely different job, often working abroad. Above all, don’t ask for recommendations on travel forums – people will often suggest themselves under a different name, or their mates and relatives.
Many independent travellers rely on their accommodation to recommend and often arrange drivers. And that’s great if you have a basis to trust their recommendations – either you’ve stayed a few nights and got to know the owners/managers, or before coming you had a detailed e-mail or other online conversation with them, or you are staying there because of a recommendation from someone you trust who had a great experience. But if none of these applies, it is worth asking around among fellow guests as well before making a decision.
A few unscrupulous drivers will try to tell you, for instance, that they have heard the hotel you booked has been closed and they can take you somewhere better. These conmen are, thankfully, rare, and if someone tries that on you tell him firmly you will be looking for another driver if he doesn’t take you where you want to go. But almost every Sri Lankan driver will suggest places you should stop en route. They do this sometimes because they get commission from a restaurant, spice garden etc. but mostly because they genuinely want to help you and show you the country they are rightly proud of. However there are two factors you should consider:
First, time. If you are heading to your next hotel, and perhaps especially if you have just experienced the delights of long-haul air travel, do you really want to make unnecessary sightseeing stops on the way? The answer may well be Yes, but if it’s not, then explain this politely but firmly to the driver. Excuses such as feeling tired, not very well, having young children with you will all help convince him that his kindly meant suggestions shouldn’t be vigorously pursued. We always tell our guests who have hired their own driver that they should try to arrive before dark, partly because the views on the way up from Kandy are stunning and partly because the last half kilometre of road is unsurfaced and, if you don’t know it, much easier to negotiate in the daylight. We tell them to make sure their driver knows this. But still people arrive at 7pm or later, tired out from a long journey because their driver has shown them all kinds of distractions on the way. And the driver is upset and angry because he had such a problem with the last stretch of road in the dark. Not the best way to welcome people to Jungle Tide and we so wish people would take more notice of what we say than they do of their driver’s attempt to be helpful.
Second, few drivers know the really interesting places, at least outside of their own home area. So drivers will probably take you to a very predictable list of tourist sights en route (or near the route), especially temples and spice gardens. You may really want to see as many temples as you can, and/or you may be really interested in the cultivation and culinary and medicinal uses of spices. in which case, go for it! But if you would rather spend more of what remains of your day relaxing in a swimming pool or watching the birds and the views, or just drinking tea or your favourite tipple please don’t let your driver keep on making stops at places he genuinely believes you will want to see. It’s your holiday, and it’s vital that you keep that in mind.
One last point. The vast majority of drivers are Sinhalese and Buddhist. They see the history and politics of their country through those prisms. While most drivers will not choose to give you unrequested lessons in history or politics, be aware that if you ask them about these topics you will probably get a biased response. Just as you would probably not take a London cabbie’s opinions as gospel, nor should you take a Sri Lankan taxi driver’s! If you want to understand Sri Lanka as it is, or learn its history, do please ask your driver, but make sure you also ask other people who are not from the same cultural and religious background. You will get several different answers. What you make of them is up to you.