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Car & Motorcycle

  • Self-drive car hire is possible in Sri Lanka, though it is far more common to hire a car and driver. If you’re on a relatively short visit to Sri Lanka on a midrange budget, the costs of hiring a car and driver can be quite reasonable.
  • When planning your itinerary, you can count on covering about 35km/h in the Hill Country and 55km/h in most of the rest of the country.
  • Motorcycling is an alternative for intrepid travellers. Distances are relatively short and some of the roads are a motorcyclist’s delight; the trick is to stay off the main highways. The quieter Hill Country roads offer some glorious views, and secondary roads along the coast and the plains are reasonably quick. But you will have to make inquiries, as motorcycle rental is nowhere near as commonplace as it is in much of the rest of Asia.
  • Throughout Sri Lanka, Mw is an abbreviation for Mawatha, meaning ‘Avenue’.

Sri Lanka’s New Highways

Various new expressways are opening over the next few years. Most will be toll roads, with relatively cheap tolls.

Colombo–Katunayake Expressway Greatly reducing travel time between Bandaranaike International Airport and the city. From its start 4km northeast of Fort at Kelani Bridge, you can reach the airport in 30 minutes. Unfortunately, during the day the city streets remain as congested as ever between Fort and the entrance.

Outer Circular Expressway Completed in 2017, this belt road runs through the far eastern suburbs of Colombo. It links the Southern Expressway to the Katunayake Expressway, which means you can drive from the airport to Galle in well under three hours, a huge time saving.

Southern Expressway The first new expressway completed. It is 161km long and runs from Colombo’s southern suburb of Kottawa, near Maharagama, to Matara via an exit near Galle. Until linking roads are complete, it can take as long to get from Fort to the expressway entrance as it does from there to Galle – or even longer. Plans call for the road to eventually be extended to reach Hambantota.

Colombo–Kandy Expressway Approved in 2012, this road is expected to reduce travel time to close to an hour, but as yet there is no confirmed opening date.

Driving Licence

An International Driving Permit (IDP) can be used for driving in Sri Lanka; it’s pricey, valid for three months to one year and is sold by auto clubs in your home country. Note that many travellers never purchase an IDP and have no problems.

Hiring a Car & Driver

A car and a driver guarantee maximum flexibility in your travels, and while the driver deals with the chaotic roads, you can look out the window and – try to – relax.

You can find taxi drivers who will happily become your chauffeur for a day or more in all the main tourist centres. Guesthouses and hotels can connect you with a driver, which may be the best method. Travel agencies also offer various car and driver schemes, although these can cost considerably more.


Various formulas exist for setting costs, such as rates per kilometre plus a lunch and dinner allowance and separate fuel payments. The simplest way is to agree on a flat fee with no extras. Expect to pay Rs 8000 to 11,000 per day (US$60 is a good average), excluding fuel, or more for a newer air-con vehicle. Other considerations:

  • Most drivers will expect a tip of about 10%.
  • Meet the driver first as you may sense bad chemistry.
  • Consider hiring a driver for only two or three days at first to see if you fit.
  • You are the boss. It’s great to get recommendations from a driver, but don’t be bullied. Drivers are known to dissuade travellers from visiting temples and other sights where there are no commissions.
  • Unless the driver speaks absolutely no English, a guide in addition to the driver is unnecessary.

Drivers make a fair part of their income from commissions. Most hotels and guesthouses pay drivers a flat fee or a percentage, although others refuse to. This can lead to disputes between you and the driver over where you’re staying the night, as the driver will literally wish to steer you to where the money is. Some hotels have appalling accommodation for drivers; the smarter hotels and guesthouses know that keeping drivers happy is good for their business, and provide decent food and lodgings.

Recommended companies with drivers include the following (there are many more; the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum is a good source of driver recommendations):

Ancient Lanka

Let's Go Lanka

Self-Drive Hire

Colombo-based company Shineway Rent a Car offers self-drive car hire. You'll find other local firms as well as very small operations in tourist towns. You can usually hire a car for about US$30 per day with 100km of included kilometres. But it is still uncommon to see visitors driving themselves in Sri Lanka.

Motorbike rentals run about Rs 1500 per day across the country.

Road Conditions

Driving in Sri Lanka requires constant attention to the road. Country roads are often narrow and potholed, with constant pedestrian, bicycle and animal traffic to navigate. Note, however, that Sri Lanka’s massive road-building program is improving roads across the nation, especially in the North and East.

Punctures are a part of life here, so every village has a repair expert.

It’s dangerously acceptable for a bus, car or truck to overtake in the face of oncoming smaller road users. Three-wheelers, cyclists, and smaller cars and vans simply have to move over or risk getting hit. To announce they are overtaking, or want to overtake, drivers sound a shrill melody on their horns. If you’re walking or cycling along any kind of busy main road, be very alert.

Road Rules

  • Speed limit 50km/h in towns, 70km/h in rural areas and 100km/h on the new expressways.
  • Driving is on the left-hand side of the road, as in the UK and Australia.

Motorcycle Tours

Several companies offer guided motorcycle tours of Sri Lanka; Hoi An Motorbike Adventures is one reliable operator.