Because I am a lady who enjoys the odd home comfort on her travels I take booking my accommodation very seriously.
On my recent trip to Sri Lanka, however, it quickly became apparent that the guesthouses we were staying in weren’t going to be merely a place to rest our heads, in some areas we had to rely on our guest house to be our restaurant, guide, driver and tourism office in one as these services simply weren’t available elsewhere.
Where is everybody? On the beach in Tangalle
Top tips for booking a good guesthouse in Sri Lanka
Focus on location
Yes, an obvious point but a very important one if, for example, you are staying in a beach resort where the roads are unlit at night and taxis are not readily available.
In Tangalle we stayed at a hotel at the far north end of Marakolliya Beach after reading about how serene this location is. It certainly was serene but basing ourselves somewhere this remote ended up really restricting what we could do. Other hotels further along the beach had restaurants we could dine at during the day but by night time there was no easy way to get into the main part of the resort. We ended up eating in the hotel restaurant every night for 4 nights, which was a bit monotonous for a 2-week trip.
Lagoon Paradise in Tangalle had a pool but no people
At least the beach bar did coconut mice
Consider dining options
It pays to read up on the food or restaurant offering at the property you are looking to stay in as it could be the only dining option. In Kandy, a fairly popular spot on the Sri Lanka tourist trail, there are surprisingly limited dining options for tourists in town. Most tourists dine at their guesthouses instead and luckily ours was run by Wasanthi, a tremendous cook who would rustle up a dinner of local curry and dessert for £3.50.
Tea at Green View Guesthouse Kandy
Ask about sightseeing options
We found the guesthouse owners on our trip to be the most reliable source of information on things to see and do in their region. We saw hardly any tour agencies on our trip (and those we did find were just in the beach resort of Unawatuna) so excursions are often booked via your guesthouse or with a driver directly.
At Ella our guesthouse manager was happy to answer any questions we had about what to pay for services (at one stage telling us we had been quoted too much and to go back and barter more) as well as arrange the trips we wanted, if necessary.
The recently opened Ella Rock House
Request transfers/drivers in advance
Your guesthouse may also be the best way to arrange a reliable driver. We did meet a frustrated taxi driver one day who says he hardly gets any business because the guesthouses always recommend their family and friends but we also saw this same man drop off customers to the wrong guesthouse!
Many drivers carry log books in their cars with reviews and recommendations from previous customers (so cute) but by booking through your guesthouse you can be sure at least that the driver knows where you are staying. Many guesthouses will offer free pick up from the local train or bus station – just ask when making your booking.
Do you want some mates?
Sri Lanka is not somewhere you go to party. Even in the popular beach resort of Unawatuna there are designated ‘party nights’ just twice a week (and this tends to extend to just one or two bars.) From our experience your guesthouse may be the most buzzing place in town (if you’ve booked it right!). Bear in mind the type of traveller you might want to socialise with on your trip when booking your place to stay.
Sunhil Garden Guesthouse, Coffee & More in Unawatuna is where we wished we had stayed
Read reviews carefully about service and staff
Staying in a guesthouse is a great way to get to know the locals and their way of life, as long as you like your host! Sleeping in someone’s home can be a very personal experience, make sure you feel comfortable with your surroundings and the people in them. The most expensive place we stayed at on our trip turned out to be mainly staffed by young men who stared at us every time we left the room. I wish I had read the reviews a bit more thoroughly before booking this one.
The Green View Guesthouse in Kandy was very homely
How To Get It Right
Having established that your choice of guesthouse is very important to what you see, do and feel in Sri Lanka, these are some pointers I have put together to help you find a good one.
Research – When doing your research bear in mind all the factors above and see if you can find evidence of your potential guesthouse scoring high on them. I found the Lonely Planet guide book was a good starting point when researching this trip but only a starter. Sri Lanka is developing and changing as a tourist destination everyday and we found a fair bit of the details in our book out of date – new hotels not listed, those listed no longer open, etc. Lonely Planet reviews are also infamous for pushing a price of a place up (many properties add ‘As listed in the Lonely Planet’ in their advertising) and tend to attract a certain type of crowd. I like to use a combination of research tools, including (dare I say it) TripAdvisor. I take many TripAdvisor reviews with a pinch of salt, often they reveal more about the person writing them than the actual property, but every now and then you find a gem of a review which tells you everything you wanted to know – including what to expect for dinner and how strong the toilet flush is! I also scour the Internet for blogs written by people with similar tastes as me to see where they stayed. For Sri Lanka this proved to be a little tough as there is not that much information out there at the moment (this post is an attempt to change that!).
Ridee Villa in Unawatuna was very highly rated on TripAdvisor – by an older crowd
Word of mouth – The best recommendations seem to come from other travellers. When meeting new people in your guesthouse asked where else they have been and if they can recommend anywhere for you to stay. People tend to have a good tip or two even if they didn’t get to experience it first hand themselves.
Ask to see the rooms – Of course, the best way to book a place is to see it for yourself first. Although technically travelling around Sri Lanka in peak season we found far more places with rooms available than there were people to stay in them. At Unawatuna we had booked the first couple of nights in advance but left our last few days flexible. This meant that when we decided to stay on we could visit guesthouses we liked the look of and ask to see the rooms in person. We found that places we had tried to book online were actually available and far cheaper if you booked them directly. For our last night we stayed somewhere nearer to the beach for a third of the price we had been paying prior.
You pay a premium for the classy decor at Ridee Villa
I’d love to return to Sri Lanka someday and already have a wish-list of places I would like to stay in if I’m able to do so. I hope this helps you find your perfect stay too.
Read next: Where to stay in Sri Lanka