Private transport in Lanka (including day trips)


Next to the Public Transport described in another traveler article Public transport of course there is private transport. Not defined as ‘hire vehicle and selfdrive’, technically that exists but for a long list of reasons the regular TA forum contributors recommend against it; but defined as ‘hire a car driven by a local’. It can be individual cab rides combined with public transport, it can be the same driver (annex licensed tour guide) staying with you for the full roundtrip journey, it could even be public transport for all longer legs and then hiring a driver for the day for excursions. And of course trishaws (tuktuks) work also if distance is smallish and luggage is minimal, this is not elaborated deeper here. Do note that basically same guidelines apply for daytrips, further on a special section on this.

 

 The two hiring models

Either a driver has to return empty to starting point, or he is guaranteed to return there paid by you. This simple distinction causes two different hiring models to exist.

 A) The one-way hire

The price for this is about 60% above that of the other model, due to the empty return; price bandwidth is between LKR 70-80/km. Add Rs 5-10/km for a minivan. It is generally useless to try and prebook this, as the driver must be based along the route of this specific journey leg; all Internet-reachable operator companies are based around Colombo and in their quote would add the considerable transfer to your starting point. Add to the price any Expressway tools if applicable. Hence 'simply ask around' at your base for a next ride, and at airport upon arriving simply use the Airport Tour Desks. Further on some special criteria for day trip drivers, some of those could also be helpful for one-way cab hires.

With this asking around, one real life story below to show some risks of the local 'price fixing mafia'. No need to add any bottom line to it.

"If you arrange a price with a driver in town my advice would be to keep details such as price and exact departure time to yourself. A group of four of us ended up in a situation where our taxi was blocked in by another taxi as we tried to depart, as it was claimed the price was too low. After some negotiation between the guy in our group who had booked the taxi, the driver and the other driver blocking the road it was agreed that the price would increase by 1000 rupees. We also ended up with another local guy in vehicle who appeared to be there to keep an eye on our driver.

When we had a moment alone with the driver as the other guy had gone to the toilet he claimed that the manager from our hotel had called a rival taxi and informed them of the price we were to pay which led to us being blocked in. He also claimed that the extra 1000 rupees would be paid to the hotel manager. This is plausible as the manager had casually quizzed all of us about departure times and price - he had on many occasions offered to book us a taxi himself for a far greater price."

And another real life story, to show risks of a too-good-to-be-true price. Again no bottom line.

"Beware booking with someone who offers a cheap price. We did originally (7000 from Mirissa to the airport) but come the day I had the foresight to ask the hotel to ring to make sure he was still coming to pick us up. He denied that he had taken the booking and he was now in Galle  ( so how come we had his telephone number). The cheap price is based on the hope that in the meantime another booking comes in making the round trip viable but if you miss your flight as a result of a no show taxi it will cost an awful lot more."|

The example above does of course not prevent one from going with a cheap price for a 'pooled' taxi, this is even an increasingly popular model from places like Mirissa and Unawatuna to airport. But make sure the vehicle also goes, for same price and within the agreed departure time slot, if the operator can't find more takers at that time!

B) The roundtrip hire

(Price model is same for day excursions or multiday excursions from one base, but for the day excursions fewer requirements apply).

Price bandwidth is between LKR 40-50/km, translating into USD 50-60/day for an average route. Add Rs 5-10/km again for a minivan. BUT in order to recover their fixed costs, there are some additional criteria imposed in some way by all drivers/operators:

  • The hire is for a full roundtrip. So in the often-happening case that you and the driver part ways at a beach resort where you stay for a few more days, you still have to reimburse the driver for the remaining kms empty drive back to the starting point (e.g. airport). After all, roundtrip was the reason for him being able to offer you a lower price than for one-ways.
  • There is a minimum daily mileage, generally of 100-150 km. It could be per day or it could be cumulative. This is to discourage tourists from keeping the driver around for an ‘idle’ day (resting at a base, walking etc.) and paying him nothing, whilst his fixed cost like car hire/insurance and salary simply continue.
  • You are responsible for this nighttime accomodation and meals. If your hotel/guesthouse does not supply a drivers quarter, a tricky subject described as part of the accomodation sphere here,

Booking accomodation

then you need to budget around LKR 2,000-2,500 per night extra so that driver has a bed and meal nearby.

  • Note you are not responsible for his lunch, but here and for one-way hires there is a courtesy/grace model. If you eat in a touristy restaurant, the prices there allow the restaurant to give a free simple meal at the kitchen table to your driver. If you eat in a local rice and curry shop, or picknick with supermarket/bazaar foods, it’s courteous (but not obliged) to pay for the driver’s cheap lunch too.
  • And a final question often asked is about tipping. Both for (long) one-way transfers and roundtrips, a fair tip related to the local salary level, IF good service, is up to LKR 500/day per driver.

The break-even question for the roundtrip model

A main advantage of the roundtrip model is the lower cost per km. A main disadvantage is the minimum daily mileage. So below two sample, extreme, situations showing when to choose which model. One can simply do the maths oneself; distances can be obtained from sites like Google Maps or Thinknet.lk – the distances below however are heavily rounded-off ballparks just to make maths easier.

Case-1

Route: Airport-Dambulla-Kandy -Ella-Tissa-Mirissa- Airport. Stay durations are 3 nights Sigiriya, 2 nights Kandy, 2 nights Ella (possibly car does Kandy-Ella empty and you do train), 1 night Tissa and then 5 nights Mirissa. Distances are 150 km – 100 km – 150 km – 100 km - 100 km – 150 km. Roundtrip cost would be: 750 km ‘net’ including empty return to airport, 400 km due to 4 days-on-base with daily minimum makes 1150 km. @ LKR 50 this would  be LKR 57,500. As probably from Sigiriya, Kandy and Ella you are going to do longer tours around those areas the fare isn’t bad, in other words the minimum daily mileage does not hurt too much. Add to this LKR 12,000 for the last cab ride to airport including LKR 1,000 toll.

Case-2

Same route, but now  stay duration is 3 nights Sigiriya, 4 nights Kandy (trekking etc.), 3 nights Ella (more trekking), 2 nights Tissa and then 3 nights Mirissa. The roundtrip cost now would be 1550 km due to 8 idle days, and still assuming sending the driver back at Mirissa (and using cab for last day) is cheaper than keeping him with two more idle days. 1550 @ LKR 50 is LKR 77,500, add LKR 12,000 for last day makes LKR 89,500.

For this case now the one-way hire model. Distance is 600 km net as one can assume a train ride from Kandy to Ella. Cost is 600 @ LKR 75 makes LKR 45,000 (okay plus 1,000 Expressway toll) including the airport transfer at the end, considerably cheaper than the roundtrip model. BUT, any day outing from the base needs to be paid separately – these can be done by bus, tuktuk or car.

Bottom line of the comparison is that in order to benefit most from the roundtrip model, it is wise to avoid too longish stays ‘en route’ – except when you really would use the driver a lot during the stay, like in the Cultural Triangle. And to have longish (beach) stay at start or end of the tour. E.g. for the frequent idea of summer east coast beach stays this means doing the sights, Kandy area and/or further hill country and Cultural Triangle, all together during at least a 3-4 day transfer. And doing the other way round (often return), by train or Helitours flight not car.

And another helpful site which, next to containing an Excel spreadsheet with more precise maths for the above, also gives some more background on various types of drivers/guides:

 

Trip cost calculator

 

Whom to book?

Another thorny question is how to get a trusted and affordable driver for this roundtrip hire (see above for one-way hires). As often in tourism, quality guarantees come at a price – larger operators are safer (e.g. because they send a replacement driver in case of problems) and easier to reach, but as a rule of thumb expect to be charged extra for this higher service level.

The question how and whom to contact is left out here. Names of large operators are given on request in the TA forum, and recommendations for smaller operators and freelancers are best given by Personal Message from trusted regular posters in the forum (as the, huge, list and discussions about them would fill the forum with spamming and pollution.) But some general pros and cons for operators and freelancers are given below.

Do also note that the Airport Transport Desks can supply a roundtrip driver on-the-spot but generally not one that, for the same price, can double as licensed tour guide. Hence prebooking the transport (not necessarily the accomodation) for a roundtrip is recommended.m

A few pros and cons of freelance versus operator-assigned drivers.  Note that it concerns often the same persons, but the business model differs - and hence responsibility, either a relatively nameless driver or a name-holding company with a HQ which you can contact 7 days a week.

PRO (plus) of a freelance driver:

  • slightly cheaper

  • more feel-of-the-person before travel
  • more flexible. A good example of flexibility is for  avoiding the tourist traps if in turn you pay the driver some extra tip. Some of the operator-arranged tours even have carnets for the driver to get stamped at EACH and EVERY of these 'tourist traps'  like gem shops, spice gardens and batik farms. Not only the driver gets commission for the visit (and more so for the tourists actually buying something), also the Lankan operator - which trickles down into a lower price that the tourist pays to the Lankan and homecountry operator. But see below - with some negotiating these can be avoided with operators too.

CON (minus) of freelance, and hence plus points of the operators:

  • not so easy hotel bookings (he has to do it in between travelling, the operator has specialised staff at the office). This in case you want to book these at the same desk as the transport. That’s not essential but still generally advised, see the article on accomodation for the limitations of using Expedia/Agoda/Booking.com etc. for hotel bookings.

  • no plan-B (someone to fall back on) if he falls ill or treats you badly. And under ‘treating badly’ in rare cases even theft of your belongings from the car trunk has fallen; again with an operator you have far more guarantee for reprisals than with a freelancer who can disappear without-a-trace-for-the-tourist afterwards.

  • talking about guarantees: a freelancer might send an unqualified or less qualified stand-in if he has to cancel his own duty due to unforeseen circumstances, upto being overbooked. With an operator the tourist simply can claim an equally-qualified alternate driver.

  • More difficult to pay a deposit. The deposit _can_ be asked by both operators and freelancers, maybe 10-20% of the travel sum, to make sure the tourist arrives and them not making travel costs to the airport in vain. (Note that for accomodation prepayment of 50-100% is usually required.) But the  advice to tourists is never to pay this deposit by unconditional money transfer but solely by credit card, to protect against unreliable Lankans running away after receiving the deposit. And access to credit card payments tends to be easier for operators than for freelance drivers.

And about tourist traps: when booking through any operator you can insist in writing on no-tourist-traps (which might increase the price quote for the tour a bit), and use that to steer away your driver from the first one IF he ever dares to stop there! And if he persists call the operator and ask for a replacement driver on the spot.

 

Day trip booking

 These are a special instance of ‘roundtrip hires’ as the driver returns to his base, no question of driver accomodation or one-way surcharges. Here selection of a driver or operator generally happens on the spot, no need for a complex selection process from abroad. Best is to ask around for different offers, a bit similar to selecting drivers for one-way hires. Feel free to compare all on price, BUT make sure it is a fair, like-for-like comparison as your expectations are higher than for just a cab hire. The things you expect (and can more or less be taken for granted with a hotel-arranged excursion) are

 

  1. Driver/guide with an official tourist board license (which guarantees enough English and enough knowledge).
  2. A well-maintained car with air-conditioning (ask to see it in person before committing)
  3. Full insurance, including for transported passengers/tourists (basic Lankan car insurance is not sufficient for doing this, but makes the offer more cheap / cheapish!)
  4. A resident address not far from the hotel, in case of later disputes (this scares off beach boys that tend to disappear for a few days including their GSM number after a problem when you want money back).

 

When the independent operator meets these four criteria and then still is cheaper than the hotel, usually it is safe to go with him. (In the end the car/guide might work for the hotel also and will get the same fees in both cases, showing that the hotel quality stamp comes at a price)

 

 

Travel times

And a final note, it applies to both private transport models: newcomer tourists generally overestimate travel speed in Lanka and hence underestimate the time needed. Sites like Google Maps, which are great for travel distances, don't really help either as they use a totally unrealistic worldwide average travel speed of 70-80 km/h. In Lanka it is

  • 100 km/h on the few Expressway segments
  • 70 km/h on a few new roads through quite sparsely populated areas in the North and East, e.g. the Habarana-Trinco road, the main roads into the north from Vavuniya and the East coast road Trinco to Pottuvil
  • On all other long distance stretches, including the 'A' national Highways, 35-40 km/h

This explains the usual travel pattern of only covering 150 km on a normal day (3-4 hours of, tiring, travel).

And finally, like with all Traveler Articles: suggestions for improvements and fixes are very welcome, primarily through discussion in the forum!