If like us, you want to take full advantage of your time in a new place and see as much of the island as you can in one trip, it"s likely that you'll be considering a driver. Sri Lanka is around 25k sq miles of mostly flat land, with mountains in the south-central region, so getting around and covering a fair bit of the country should not be too much of a challenge.
We contemplated taking a train from the airport and using a driver on an ad hoc basis but the cost versus hassle-factor finally led to a decision to go with a driver for the complete trip. Plus, travelling with two children, having limited time and not being familiar with the roads cancelled out the rental car option for us but I came across a number of stories of people who enjoyed the freedom of exploring independently.
When researching, Google produced a mix bag of results including recommendations from visitors on sites like Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet, as well as web pages of individual drivers put together by generous clients. After speaking to friends, reading a number of forum threads, it was obvious that there was no clear market leader or agency to fall back on so there was an element of risk and lots of research involved.
I eventually opted for a one-man-band driver who had his own website, a bunch of recommendations and testimonials. Thankfully, after a few surprises, we had a fantastic holiday and a great driver but it wasn't straightforward.
Below are a few tips when booking a Sri Lankan driver:
1. Do your research.
Things may have changed since our trip so make sure you look at up-to-date and recent posts to get a general understanding of what is available. Consider social media for tracking down some of the people that left testimonials to qualify the recommendations. Make sure the driver can speak English at a level where he is able to respond to the barrage of questions coming from seats behind him!
2. Ask lots of questions.
One way to get a feel for your driver, before you commit, is to ask him questions about the fine details of the trip. There are different types of services; 'A tour' is when you leave the majority of the planning to the driver, down to the hotels you stay in and the places you visit. If you fancy being the tour manager and arranging the itinerary yourself (like we did) you will need to make it clear at the start that you only require him to drive you to places. Most 5* hotels offer driver accommodation for around LKR 100 (45 pence) which should be covered by the driver as part of the package but it is worth checking.
3. Discuss the right-sized vehicle before you leave.
I asked for a 'car with a driver' and was advised that we needed a 'van' for two adults and two children. I agreed to the upgrade for extra comfort. When we arrived we were greeted by a different driver, with a car. Subsequently we had to take a two hour detour to switch to the pre-agreed van that turned out to be a lovely new 12-seater mini-van.
4. Get what you paid for.
As mentioned earlier, we picked a driver based on his personal website and references. However, the driver that greeted us at the airport happened to be a freelance driver who was contracted to take over our trip. Fortunately, he turned out to be a polite, professional and kind man, who was a relatively safe driver on the mad roads of Sri Lanka.
5. Don't be afraid to change.
"If you are not happy with the driver, change him" - that was the advice from a mum we met during our travels. One of the dads told me worrying stories of how her driver would constantly take his hands off the wheel and appeared to be a struggling to drive in heavy traffic. Another woman changed her driver after day two as she felt there was no chemistry and found it difficult to communicate.
Driving in Sri Lanka was an experience, a hair-raising one and a major part of our trip. Would we have a driver again? Yes and we would probably book the same guy. Is it safe? Not technically. I had mixed feelings that ranged from the exhilaration of the anything-goes, wacky races approach to times of shear terror when we were dodging head-on trucks, wandering pedestrians and wild dogs that seemed to disappear under the van and reappear the other side none the wiser. A holiday is not a good holiday without taking yourself out of your comfort zone in my opinion - a little fear does no harm!
Our driver was K.A. Udayasiri aka Udaya. He doesn't have a website but can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org