How to Book Train Tickets in Sri Lanka
Taking the train is one of the most popular modes of transportation in Sri Lanka. Especially the train route between Kandy and Ella is phenomenal.
Besides the beautiful scenery, trains are a very cheap way to travel around Sri Lanka and can take you to most major places in this beautiful island country.
Sri Lanka Railways also receive generally good reviews. Their trains are clean, comfortable, and a very 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 these advantages of traveling by train, reserved train tickets are in high demand and unfortunately, Sri Lanka Railways doesn’t make it easy to buy your ticket online.
Are there alternative options? Yes! Luckily you can often still buy (unreserved) train tickets on the same day you want to travel to the train station. However, don’t expect to get a comfortable seat when you buy the tickets on the same day!
Keep on reading to learn about the different train tickets sold in Sri Lanka.
The difference between reserved and unreserved seats
What you can expect when booking reserved seats
There are two kinds of seats available when taking the Sri Lanka Railways: reserved and unreserved.
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, as you can enjoy the breathtaking views through the open windows.
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 to stay here only one night and travel 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 of a comfortable seat, wihtout having to worry about the tickets when you are sitll recovering from your jetlag.
What you can 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, insanely 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 ($0.50), what makes unreserved cabins very popular among the locals who take advantage of their cheap prices.
Because they get so crowded, you will often have to stand a large part or even the entire trip until you reach your destination.
When I took the train from Ella to Nuwara Elya, I personally enjoyed it a lot to take an unreserved seat on a 3th class. Travelling across Sri Lanka’s stunning landscapes with open window or while hanging out of the train is all part of the Sri Lankan travel experience.
However, when I took the train from Colombo to Galle, the rain was insanely crowded and I needed to stand the entire journey. If you 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 huge part 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 of buying reserved tickets.
Where to book your Sri Lanka train tickets online
The most hassle-free way to get a seat on your preferred train is to book online a month before your trip. However, booking your train ticket online is only possible when you buy it at least 30 days in advance.
The advantage is that you are secured 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 to 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. We also like that they don’t add a booking fee.
However, there are some train schedules that are not available on BookAway. In that case, we suggest booking with 12go.Asia. Although they will add a little service charge, they still provide good service.
Buying tickets at the railway stations or at a local agency
If you are up for some adventure or missed that 1-month deadline, it’s often no problem to buy your reserved train tickets directly at train stations or agency.
As we mentioned earlier, these tickets sell out fast, so 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 to head straight to a train station on your very first day in Sri Lanka. You can book any route at any train station, what 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, 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.
Visit Sri Lanka Tours is among the country’s most recommended travel agencies. You can also book with them when you missed the 30-day deadline, but haven’t yet 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 to give a full refund if they don’t get your desired seats.
Make sure to read the terms of refund before you book.
Most hotels are also very willing to help you find trusted local agencies, so don’t hesitate to ask for their help.