The best time for travelling is November to mid April, when it's mainly dry on the south and west coasts (the main beach areas). The central highlands are pleasantly cool and relatively dry from January to April. However, December to March is also the height of the tourist season in Sri Lanka, so many visitors find the island quieter and much cheaper out of season. The best time for diving on the southwest coast is December to February, when the water is generally calm and clear.
On the west and south coasts, the rainy season is from the end of April to October. The heaviest rainfall is usually between May to mid June and October to November, with July, August and September being relatively drier, though still with low season prices. In recent years the seasons have been erratic! Rain varies from light and refreshing to prolonged downpours which can disrupt travel. However, it shouldn't rain all the time and a mix of sunshine, cloud and rain is the norm. Temperatures remain the same throughout the year.
In July/August Kandy hosts the island's most spectacular festival, the 10-day Esala Perahera, which is one of the most important religious festivals in Asia.
Sri Lanka must have more holidays than anywhere else in the world - about 72 including Sundays. All important Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian, as well as national festivals, are celebrated. Every full moon (Poya) day is also a Buddhist holiday. On these days all public places of entertainment are closed and no alcohol is sold. However, hotels make special arrangements for guests.
Some of the key festivals are:
Duruthu poya - a colourful festival in Colombo, held in January
Navam poya - Colombo's grandest parade, held in February
Esala Perahera - Sri Lanka's most spectacular festival, held in Kandy, which climaxes with dancers and drummers in colourful local costumes. It lasts 10 days in July/August, leading up to the full moon day (Esala Poya).
Sri Lanka standard time is 4 1/2 hours ahead of GMT in summer and 5 1/5 hours ahead of GMT in winter.
Note: flight, boat, train and bus timetables change constantly, and airlines come and go, so please do not rely solely on this information for your travel planning. Check with relevant companies, or a flight search engine like Skyscanner, first.
The approximate flying time from London to Colombo is 10 hours for direct flights, or 14 hours if flying via the Middle East.
The best options are Emirates-owned Sri Lankan Airlines, which flies from London Heathrow (sometimes via Male in the Maldives) and less frequently from Amsterdam, Zurich, Frankfurt, Rome, Milan and Paris, and British Airways, which flies from London Gatwick via Male.
All the other airlines stage through the Middle East, involving a change of flight. The most popular is Emirates Airlines via Dubai. Others operating this route are Kuwait Airways, Qatar Airways and Royal Jordanian.
From North America:
There are no direct flights. From the east coast go via London and the Middle East on Emirates or Singapore Airlines. From the west coast go via Hong Kong, Singapore or Bangkok. Thai Air, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific fly right through on these routes.
From Australia and New Zealand:
There are no direct flights, so you'll need to change in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or India.
From South India:
You can fly from Trivandrum (Kerala) with Sri Lankan Airlines. There are also flights from Delhi and Mumbai. Sri Lankan Airlines also operates the route between Colombo and Male (in the Maldives), which takes about 1 hour.
From the Airport:
Colombo Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB) is 34km from Colombo city centre. There's a train service and buses run from the airport to the city, but the easiest option is to get a taxi or arrange a transfer through your hotel.
There's a tax on passengers departing for international destinations. This is usually included in your airline ticket, but check this when you buy it.
CAR AND DRIVER
If you can afford it and have limited time, we would recommend hiring a car with a driver as the best way to see the country. It's cheaper than hiring a self-drive car and the drivers usually arrange their own accommodation and food. Be warned: self-driving might seem appealing, but the Sri Lankan drivers' way of over-taking each other at break-neck speed on the very narrow roads can be hair-raising, to say the least - and then there are the sheer cliff drops to consider… Driving is generally slow, but the distances aren't huge. Traffic drives on the left.
Enquire through Tailormade Tours; it will provide an air-conditioned private car and a qualified, English-speaking driver.
If money is no object and time is precious try the helicopter charter service, Deccan Aviation Sri Lanka. You can also take domestic flights around the country with SriLankan Airlines' air taxi service, which connects Colombo with Kandy, Dickwella, Koggala, Bentota, Trincomalee, Anuradhapura, Weerawila, Ampara, Sigiriya, Nuwara Eliya and Katukurunda, Trincomalee, Sigiriya, Kandy or with Cinnamon Air's air taxi service which also connects Colombo with Koggala, Batticaloa, Weerawila and Dickwella. These routes are served by small sea planes which use lakes and waterways as airstrips - an exciting way to arrive.
Travelling by bus is a cheap way to get around, but buses can be very overcrowded and uncomfortable.
Rail travel is generally slower and more expensive than buses, but is far more comfortable. We'd recommend doing a train journey at some stage as they can be super scenic. There are old-fashioned but reasonably efficient trains connecting Colombo to all the main resorts in the west and south. It's a slow but interesting journey, with the track running right along the beach at times. The Colombo-Kandy journey is a fabulous route that continues up to the hill country. See Seat61 for more details.
A large number of 3-wheelers (tuk-tuks) operate on the roads. Agree to a rate before starting your journey and make sure the driver has a clear idea of your destination.
Ensure that your passport is valid for at least 6 months beyond the date of your arrival. A visa valid for 30 days is issued on arrival at no cost for visitors from most nations, including European countries, the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
From January 2012, electronic travel authorisation will replace tourist visas for visitors from most countries (excluding Singapore and the Maldives). This must be obtained online prior to travel and is valid for 30 days.
Since malaria is a risk in most rural areas, it's advisable to take a course of anti-malaria drugs and take all possible measures to avoid being bitten.
Immunisation against polio, tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis A is also recommended.
In general, standards of hygiene in Sri Lanka are reasonable and visitors who follow a few basic rules should have a completely healthy stay. Don't drink tap water or ice made from it - bottled water is available at most hotels. Avoid dairy products made with unboiled milk and only eat well-cooked meat and fish, preferably served hot. Pork, salad and mayonnaise may carry increased risk. Vegetables should be cooked and fruit should be peeled.
Tipping is expected in Sri Lankan hotels, even when the service is included, and staff rely on it. Assuming you have enjoyed your stay, a tip of 500 Rupee (about US$5) per day seems a reasonable figure (in 2010). This is either put into a common tip box at reception, or if there isn't one, distributed among porters, waiting/bar staff and room boys (you might need some small notes). For carrying your bags to your room, 100 Rupee suffices. For chauffeurs and guides outside hotels, a reasonable figure might be 1000-2000 Rupee (US$5-10) per full day (in 2010), depending on how satisfied you were.
If you take photographs of Buddha statues never pose alongside them. This would be considered a sign of disrespect. And if you encounter a Buddhist monk distinguished by his yellow robe do not expect him to pose for pictures or attempt to shake hands with him.
Sri Lanka is a great place to travel with children - the Sri Lankan people love kids and they're welcome almost everywhere. Places to stay and eat cater for children as a matter of course.
There are lots of opportunities for seeing animals, in particular elephants - a great place to take children is the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage between Kandy and Colombo, although we've heard mixed reports about the treatment of the elephants lately. The turtle hatcheries on the south coast are also fun for children. And if it gets too hot on the coast you can always escape to the cooler hill country. All the places we recommend in Kandy and the hill country welcome children.