** Note: kept as reference but not updated anymore. The essential info from this article is now included in the article (and top question) on private travel **


In Sri Lanka, like in many other tourist areas, excursions (day trips or multiday) are a disputed area. Hotels/resorts generally offer good quality but at a relatively high price, while independent operators nearby (agencies, beach boys) generally are cheaper and might or might not offer good quality. Something similar applies to multi-day trips, where 'independent' freelance drivers compete with the more 'formal' Colombo-based operators with an international website and audience.

Booking a trip from your hotel

Feel free to compare both on price, BUT make sure it is a fair, like-for-like comparison. So for the independent operator make sure he complies with four points that can more or less be taken for granted with the hotel-arranged excursion:

  • 1) Driver/guide with an official tourist board license (which guarantees enough English and enough knowledge).
  • 2) A well-maintained car with air-conditioning
  • 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)

Also note that both kinds of tours tend to include 'tourist traps'' like spice gardens and mask factories. For a surcharge or extra tip you can usually agree to bypass these.

When you compare prices, do not forget to ask if entrance fees to the different sights are included or not. Some places charge quite steep entrance fees.

Booking a multi-day trip from abroad

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 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), no plan-B (someone to fall back on) if he falls ill or treats you badly, 'no guarantees'  (he might send an unqualified or less qualified stand-in if he has to cancel his own duty due to unforeseen circumstances, upto being overbooked). And about tourist traps: when booking through any operator you can insist in writing on no-tourist-traps, 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.

Note that hotel bookings should not necessarily be done by the driver or the operator. They can also be done through an independent website, or in case of a guesthouse directly with the property. Do note however that only the more expensive guesthouses, like all hotels, have a free 'drivers quarter' - so booking a cheap guesthouse would backfire into the passenger having to pay a 2nd room and meals for the driver. But now the topic briefly touches a quite different 'can of worms' around Lankan tourism, which is described in much more detail in another Top Question item. Refer to that for details.