I did not budget well in Sri Lanka.
Coming straight from New York City was a bit of a rough transition. In comparison to NYC prices, everything looked like it was dirt cheap, even if it was unreasonably expensive in local terms. And even though the steady pay checks have stopped, I could conceivably have just been on an extended 3 week vacation. I think it may take me a few more weeks to fully wrap my head around the fact that very little money is coming in and very, very much money is gushing out.
My relationship with money is changing, but it’s taking me a while to construct a new framework for evaluation. My first day in Sri Lanka, I went to a recommended restaurant that had fancy 2500LKR (<$15) dishes, which is better than anything you can get in NYC. But that same night I got dinner with a hostel buddy for just 150LKR ($1) which quickly put things in proper perspective.
Still, am I supposed to think that $4 (600LKR) is expensive now? How far should I be willing to walk to avoid a 300LKR ($2) tuk tuk ride? And at what point does a high price tag (like the 4500LKR ($30) fee at Sigiriya) make the experience not worth it? I think I am reasonably able to answer these questions now for Sri Lanka, but they’ll all be slightly different for each country.
I splurged a little in Sri Lanka, but the finally tally is better than I thought! Thank goodness the country is relatively inexpensive. Im only $5.38 over my goal of $50 per day, but I’ll definitely have to be more mindful of my budget in the next locations to make sure that I can hit the $50/day average overall.
Accommodation averaged to a reasonable $15/day, though the types of places where I stayed varied considerably. The highest price that I paid was $27 for a beautiful air conditioned bedroom with a TV in Mirissa, whereas the cheapest place was $9 for a bed in a 4-bed dormitory at a hostel in Kandy.
I stayed in a single room for 8 nights in a row, which I concede is a little excessive – but definitely nice once in a while (and if it has a TV, it’s probably too nice). I definitely had the most fun in hostels: The Best Hostel in Kandy is where I met my fantastic traveling buddy from the Netherlands, HU Peritos had the most scrumptious meals outside of my favorite one at Matey Hut, and DriftBnB is ironically one of the most comfortable places I stayed (mostly owing to the absence of mosquitoes and despite a ceiling tile falling in the middle of the night).
Crazy good meals at HU Peritos: BBQ, and a proper Chilean feast (the owner is Chilean)
Even with my fancy dinner, food averaged out to a reasonable $6.40 per day. For the most part I tried to eat in local restaurants, which are always cheaper than the tourist places and luckily didn’t have any sanitation issues. The portions were often pretty big too (especially any sort of kottu, which is basically fried rice except with chopped rotti instead of rice), so I could take dishes home and eat them for a second meal.
The two western places I went to accounted for 25% of the food cost: the $27.18 dinner at the Gallery Cafe was 18.7%, and the $10.71 drinks at the Galle Face hotel were 7.3%. I’d say the latter was worth it because of the beautiful sunset, but the former not so much.
Snacks mainly consisted of fruits, as almost all the snacks available in grocery stores were cookies.
Transportation across Sri Lanka was both extremely easy and extremely cheap. The first time I got shuffled onto a bus in Colombo, I thought the fare collector asked for 200LKR ($1.33) and handed him a 1000LKR bill. To my surprise, I got 980LKR back in change. Turns out local bus rides are only between 10 – 25 LKR!
Even longer rides between cities don’t cost all that much, whether by bus or by train. My bus ride across the southern coast from Tissa to Mirissa was less than 250LKR ($1.66). Trains are a little more if you manage to reserve a seat, but even then first class is only around 600LKR ($4). and anyone can jump on a train with an unreserved ticket, which is only around 150LKR ($1). A little crowded, but low cost and low stress!
I managed to split longer car rides to Sigiriya and Worlds End with other travelers, which cut down on transportation costs considerably. The only times I paid more than $10 for transportation were for the taxi from the airport to Colombo ($18.79), the van from Ella to Tissa ($15.44), and the train from Colombo to Kandy ($13.79 – only this much because I prebooked a seat while abroad).
My experience costs were high because many tourist attractions had high fees, and I also splurged more than I had to. The most expensive place to visit was Sigiriya at $44.83 including the car, followed by Worlds End at $26.31 and the temple of the tooth/botanic garden in Kandy at a combined $20.81.
Some of my highest individual costs were guided experiences, the Safari at $80.07 and whale watching at $26.67. I could have easily gotten both at half the cost (if not a little bit less), but I splurged for the highest rated companies on TripAdvisor. The guides were knowledgeable, the trips were a little more comfortable, and I saw everything that I had set out to see. But I could have gotten almost the same at half the price, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that the additional cost was worth it.
The cheapest experience, my cooking class at Matey Hut for $13.42, was ironically my favorite! And one that I had stumbled upon by sheer luck. Similarly, it was fantastic to witness the procession in Tissamaharama, which was completely free and also a spontaneous addition. Goes to show that the highlighted experiences are not always the best, and it pays to keep an eye out and stay flexible!
Essentials includes things like lotion and contact solution that I had to replace while on the road. Since I’m just starting out with freshly packed toiletries, these purchases are still fairly small.
However, I had a whole host of minor health issues during my first few days in Sri Lanka, so I had to go see a doctor and buy prescription medicine, which totaled 36.13. It only costed 350LKR ($2.33) to see the doctor, and I was in and out right away! And 5 days of antibiotics only totaled around 400LKR ($2.66). So overall healthcare was super cheap, but I also inflated my expenses because I saw a second doctor and bought a lot of medicine that I didn’t actually need to use.
The category also includes water, and in my 3 weeks in Sri Lanka, I only purhcased 1 bottle of water for 80LKR (around $0.53)! For the first half I relied on water dispensers and boilers at the hostels. And once I learned to use my SteriPen, I simply filtered tap water instead. At $49, the cost of the SteriPen will take a while to recoup…but if I filtered 3L of water/day for the last 10 days, I’ve made up at least 80LKR x 30 = 2400LKR ($16) so far!
The treat category includes all nonfunctional expenditures or gifts, and only totals two items in Sri Lanka. The first is a massage at Thusare Talking Hands which cost $20.13 (this was my first day, so I also left a pretty generous 500LKR ($3.33) tip, before I learned that Sri Lanka generally doesn’t do tips). And the second is a coconut oil rub I bought at the airport for $7.87, since I couldn’t exchange my last 1480LKR.
Spread is the category for all of the bigger misc one-time expenditures. Miraculously the flight from NYC to Sri Lanka was only $342.40, with a $35 visa. The $9.91 SIM card with 9GB of data was the single best $10 I ever spent, and I’m forever ruined from traveling SIM card-less again.
The Charles schwab debit card refunds any ATM withdrawal fees, so it’s perfect for traveling abroad. But unfortunately because I didn’t sign up in time to get the card before I left, I had to use Wells Fargo for a withdrawal. For a $100 withdrawal, I got slapped with $7.87 in fees. I called to FedEx the debit card to me while I’m abroad, and it couldn’t come fast enough!