The train is one of the most popular modes of transport in Sri Lanka; the train route between Kandy and Ella, in particular, is phenomenal.
Besides the beautiful scenery, trains are a cheap way to travel around Sri Lanka and can take you to most of the major sites on this beautiful island.
Sri Lanka Railways receive generally good reviews. Their trains are clean, comfortable, and a nice way to travel like a local. When taking the train, you can sample some of the local treats sold by vendors while looking out to their beautiful countryside.
Where can I book my train tickets?
Because of all the advantages of travelling by train, reserved train tickets are in high demand. Fortunately, since the end of 2021, it has become easier to book tickets online.
Before 2021, you need to book train tickets at least 30 days in advance. Today it’s only four days in advance. However, the earlier you book the more certain you are of a ticket. If you book in the last five days, there is a possibility that the ticket cannot be processed or the carriage is fully booked.
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka Railways doesn’t make it easy to buy your ticket online.
We recommend the platforms BookAway and 12Go.Asia because they each offer good availability, great customer service, and the best prices. When booking with other agencies, you often have to pay high surcharges.
Can you also buy train tickets within 5 days of departure? Yes! Luckily you can often still buy (unreserved) train tickets on the same day you want to travel to the train station. However, just don’t expect to get a comfortable seat and if you’re unlucky, it can take 30-60 minutes of waiting in a queue.
Keep on reading to learn about the different train tickets sold in Sri Lanka.
The difference between reserved and unreserved seats
There are two kinds of seats available when taking the Sri Lanka Railways: reserved and unreserved.
What to expect when booking reserved seats
Reserved seats are available in 1st and 2nd class cabins. First-class cabins are air-conditioned. Second-class cabins are not, but we think the open windows of the 2nd class trains make the trip more exciting, and you can enjoy breathtaking views through them.
The sale of reserved train tickets opens 30 days prior to the travel date. Note that they sell out really fast, mostly because local agencies and travel agents get the train tickets before passengers do.
PRO TIP: Most travellers start their journey from Colombo or Negombo. We recommend staying here only one night and travelling directly the day after to your next destination (often Galle or Kandy). For this trip, you can already buy your tickets online to secure yourself a comfortable seat, without having to worry about the tickets when you are still recovering from your jetlag.
What to expect when booking reserved seats
Unreserved seats, on the other hand, are available only in 2nd and 3rd-class cabins.
Train tickets for unreserved seats are unlimited, amazingly cheap, and only available on the day of your trip.
A journey on an unreserved 2nd class seat can be as cheap as 90 Rs ($1.10), which makes unreserved cabins very popular among the locals who take advantage of their low prices.
Because they get so crowded, you will often have to stand for a large part of the journey, or even until you reach your destination.
When I took the train from Ella to Nuwara Elya, I personally enjoyed it a lot, taking an unreserved seat in the 3rd class. Travelling across Sri Lanka’s stunning landscapes through an open window or while hanging out on the train is all part of the Sri Lankan travel experience.
However, when I took the train from Colombo to Galle, the train was ridiculously crowded and I needed to stand the entire journey. If you are looking for a comfortable way of travelling, we don’t recommend these unreserved seats.
Train tickets for unreserved seats are unlimited, but the seats are not!
When you bought an unreserved seat, don’t be surprised when you arrive at your platform only to find a huge crowd of waiting passengers. Most of them will be locals who take the train every day and have already mastered the technique of hustling their way to an unreserved seat.
There’s a great chance you will be standing for most of your journey. Not only that, you might be standing in a very crowded train along with many other passengers who failed to get a seat. That’s not exactly the kind of experience you want to have when taking the train in Sri Lanka.
We think that booking unreserved seats can be fine for the scenic journey between Kandy and Ela, but if you are travelling from Colombo, you will be much better off buying reserved tickets.
Where to book your Sri Lanka train tickets online
The most straightforward way to get a seat on your preferred train is to book online several weeks before your trip.
The advantage is that you are sure of your ticket and don’t need to worry about it anymore once you arrive in Sri Lanka. On the other side, ticket prices tend to be 2-3x more expensive than the rates at the railway station.
When you prefer to arrange your tickets in advance, we recommend booking via BookAway. This platform offers reliable time schedules and they provide detailed info about the trip on their website.
However, there are some train schedules that are not available on BookAway. In that case, we suggest booking with 12Go.Asia.
Buying tickets at railway stations or at a local agency
If the train ticket is sold out online, there is a chance that you can still buy a reserved train ticket directly at train stations or at an agency.
Since these tickets sell out fast, be prepared to miss the chance of buying reserved seats.
Buying at the railway station on the day of arrival
For the best chances on reserved tickets, we recommend you head straight to a train station right on your first day in Sri Lanka. You can book any route at any train station, which means you can buy all your tickets at once. You can check out Sri Lanka Railways for train schedules and fares.
Again, buying reserved tickets at the train station requires a lot of luck and there’s a great chance that not all your desired routes will still be available. When all reserved tickets are sold out, you can still try to buy your reserved seats with a local agency.
Buying your train tickets at a local agency
Like online booking websites, agencies charge a higher price. The difference is that they give you a chance of securing good seats even a few days prior to your trip. They are quite easy to find once you arrive in Sri Lanka.
When booking with agencies, the nearer the date, the lower the chances. Sometimes it happens that something goes wrong with the reservation, though. In that case, they will give you a full refund if they don’t get your desired seats. Make sure to read the terms of the refund before you book.
Most hotels are also willing to help you find trusted local agencies, so don’t hesitate to ask for their help.