I recently returned from a short trip to beautiful Sri Lanka. It was my first trip to South Asia and I had been looking forward to it for a long time. Due to work commitments back home, my trip could only last a maximum of 10 days, so I had to make best use of time if I wanted to explore as much of the island as possible.
I had been investigating trains, buses and so on, and was looking forward to experiencing travel like a local (especially the breathtaking views). But with limited time, trying to figure out where and when to catch a train or bus, as well as lengthy journey times, was going to substantially reduce the number of places I could see and things I could experience.
A friend recommended I hire a private driver for most of my trip. At first I was hesitant, mostly because I expected it would be an expensive means of transport, but it soon became clear it was the best method to travel from A to B and everywhere in between. So if like me you want to see as much as possible in a short space of time, then here are my five reasons why you should hire a driver when visiting Sri Lanka.
1. It’s a lot cheaper than you expect
My number one reservation about booking a private driver was due to the anticipated cost. However, I soon learned that a private driver can cost as little as 40 USD per day. While it is substantially more than the price of a train or bus, I was surprised at how little it cost, especially since $40 back home might buy you a 2 hour train ride. What’s more, the day rate included up to 100km travel per day and even included the cost of the drivers’ overnight accommodation.
2. You’ll see and experience much more
While I’d still love to take a train journey in Sri Lanka some time, having a private driver allowed me to explore many small towns and villages in the highlands and coastal areas, stop off at viewpoints, temples and so on and places that a train journey would never take me to. One of the highlights was driving on the Buttala road and coming across several elephants on the road. Simply amazing!
3. You don’t need to worry about being at a certain place at a certain time
One of the biggest reasons to hire a private driver is that you operate entirely on your own schedule. You don’t need to rush from one place to the next, or worry about missing a train or bus. Take your time to enjoy the experience of each place you visit and stay a little longer if you choose.
4. Your driver can also act as your private tour guide
I was travelling solo, and while I had done some research prior to the trip, what I knew barely scratched the surface. Thankfully my driver, Gayan, was a great sport and went above and beyond simply driving me from A to B. He would accompany me to tourist sites, stop at spots off the tourist trail, and generally provide informative and interesting information about every place we went. Of course, your driver can simply drive you and no more if that’s what you prefer, but having a local on hand to explain things can enhance your experience, especially if you’re travelling alone or as a couple.
5. You will be dropped off and picked up at your hotel door
After a full day exploring temples, hills, cultural sites and so on, the last thing you want to be doing is pounding the pavement trying to find your accommodation to rest your weary legs. Thankfully your driver will take you directly to the door - a huge relief when we discovered my hotel was several miles outside Kandy on top of what seemed like a mountain!
What’s more, your driver will always be on hand to pick you up whenever you need and at any time of day.
Do some research
Before arriving, do some research and take recommendations from friends if you possibly can. Shortlist some drivers and send them a message to get to know them and tell them about your trip so you can decide if they are well suited and if you’ll get along. Good humour (and English) helps since you’ll be spending a lot of time together.
Book places with drivers accommodation
Be aware that most smaller hotels and B&Bs don’t have accommodation for drivers. In these cases you’ll likely be charged an extra $10-$15 per night for your driver to find nearby accommodation. Generally most large hotels and chains have accommodation for drivers. It’s best to find out in advance so you can let your driver know before you arrive, rather than at the end of a long day driving you around.
Don’t feel obliged to visit places you don’t want to
I found that my driver suggested we stop off at a few places in between places on my itinerary that I hadn’t suggested. While some of these were really interesting (Ravana falls was a particular highlight), a few of them were places with “free” tours, such as spice gardens and gem stores, with the expectation to buy heavily marked up products. Given the amount of drivers hanging around outside these places, I imagine they probably earn a small commission for bringing tourists there, so don’t be under any pressure to agree to going, or to buying anything if you do go.
All in all, I highly recommend hiring a driver as a great way to explore Sri Lanka, if not for all of your trip (especially if it is a short one) then at least for part of it. You’ll see and experience a lot more than you would by train or by bus.
Ewan Duthie is the managing director at Web Integrations, a website design company in Aberdeen, UK.