With the aim to be as off-the-beaten-path as possible, we are jetting off to Sri Lanka for the holidays! I am restless with the travel bug – but really, when am I not? This time my family and I weighed up the pros and cons of a number of places before deciding upon Sri Lanka. Something in the mystery of the place and the magic of the culture drew us in. In preparing for my family’s adventure, I compiled this ‘how to get ready’ post that I hope other future adventurers to Sri Lanka, or Asia, or any country in the world really, might find useful. It’s broken down into seven weeks’ worth of three tasks per week – totally do-able!
7 Weeks Prior:
- Research Itinerary
- Pick Route
- Meet with a Travel Agent & Book Flights
First things first, research what sort of things you want to see and where you want to go. My favourite places to gather travel tips include the Lonely Planet guidebook, Instagram, Trip Advisor, blogs and by googling ‘bucket list country name‘. If I spot something that looks like it’s worth doing, I ‘star’ it in Google Maps. By the time I finished flipping through books, blogs and reviews, my Google Maps looked a little like this:
As is often the case, many things I find to do in a new country end up being in clusters. This is very helpful in picking a route. What is also helpful at this point is deciding how many nights you want to stay in each place depending on how much there is to do there. Most flights to Sri Lanka land in Colombo. From here, we plan to work our way south towards Galle and the coast and then up through the country to Trincomalee before returning to Colombo nineteen days later.
MEET WITH A TRAVEL AGENT & BOOK FLIGHTS
This isn’t necessary if you prefer to plan it all alone, but we found it useful specifically in terms of how we were paying for our flights and accommodation. Throughout the whole process I still maintained full control of our itinerary and what we wanted to do and see. The huge benefit to working with an agency – we chose Flight Centre – is that instead of having to book and pay for multiple individual hotels we were able to pay in one lump sum in exchange for a flight ticket and hotel vouchers. This procedure feels more secure if you’re heading to a place (or a continent!) you’ve never been before.
For reference, our hotels are costing us between $70 – $120 CAD per night for three people, often for really beautiful waterfront hotels with breakfast included. We did book one hotel without an agent because it was not available on the system that Flight Centre uses to book hotels. This is the Serein Hotel in Tangalle. We picked it based on Nerd Nomad’s raving review.
6 Weeks Prior:
- Apply for a Tourist Visa
- Get Travel Vaccinations
- Purchase Travel Insurance
APPLY FOR A TOURIST VISA
Unless you’re from Singapore, Seychelles or the Maldives, all visitors to Sri Lanka require a tourist visa. I spoke with the Honorary Consul of Sri Lanka in Vancouver (604.646.3566) who cheerfully answered all my visa questions. Apply for your Sri Lankan visa online, one per person. At the time this post was published, each visa costs $35 USD. Before you submit your application, you need to have booked your flight as your flight number and port of departure is required. You will also need a passport valid for six months beyond your expected arrival date. One point of clarification: your port of departure is the city from which you are flying in to Sri Lanka from. In our case, this will be Guangzhou, China, where we have a layover, even though our original departure city is Vancouver, Canada.
You’ll receive an email from the ETA confirming that they have received your application and then another email within forty-eight hours that your visa has been approved (ours only took about an hour or so!). You can check the status of your application on their website. Print off your visa as you’ll need it in hard-copy upon your arrival in Sri Lanka. If you forget to complete your visa online, sources say that you can also complete this upon arrival in Sri Lanka as a valid tourist visa is not required to board a flight to Sri Lanka. On another note, if you are laying over in China, as many flights to Sri Lanka do, you may need an additional visa. If your layover is less than twenty-four hours, you likely won’t need a visa.
GET TRAVEL VACCINATIONS
Wherever you’re travelling to, it’s a good idea to check in with your local travel clinic. My appointment was six weeks in advance of our trip, which is the latest you can receive some vaccinations. Bring along a list of any vaccinations you have had in your life to get advice on which ones you will need for your trip. Canadian provincial medical insurance does not cover travel vaccinations, but you may be eligible for a free flu shot, so it’s worth checking with your private medical coverage in case you can claim any reimbursement. The consultation was $40 CAD, on top of the cost of each vaccination received.
During the appointment, the doctor checked in on my general health, discussed what my planned activities were (some small hikes but no super long treks in the jungle, for example), where in the country we were headed and how long we would be abroad. She also went through some general advisories to be aware of including avoiding salads due to water contamination, eating hot, fully-cooked foods only and using bottled water to brush our teeth. I did not get the rabies shot but was advised to bring alcohol-based wipes in case of bites and scratches and then seek out the closest hospital!
I received the following vaccinations:
- Typhoid (pill – $65 CAD)
- Influenza (flu shot – free)
- Hepatitis A booster (shot – $65 CAD)
- Dukaral (protection against cholera & e-coli taken as a drink – $85 CAD)
- I also received a prescription for traveller’s diarrhea tablets, while the pharmacist suggested taking along some Pepto-Bismol
- And don’t forget the bug spray to keep those potentially infected mosquitoes at bay!
PURCHASE TRAVEL INSURANCE
Check with your medical provider or employer to see what your specific coverage entails. My work covers up to 180 days of emergency medical for international travel, meaning it does not cover things like lost luggage, trip cancellation or delays. Especially going to a country where I don’t speak the language, and on an airline that is familiar with delays, this sort of insurance is imperative. Our insurance bundle cost $120 CAD per person to cover trip cancellations, baggage loss, flight delays, flight accidents, trip accidents and unlimited medical assistance. Knock on wood we won’t need any of it!
5 Weeks Prior:
- Purchase Gear
- Keep Researching!
- Register with Government
I already own a lot of the items I intend to bring with me, but there are a few crucial things I bought for this trip. Remember that if you’re purchasing shoes for international travel, always buy them well in advance to break them in. You don’t want to start off your journey with blisters! Things I bought for Sri Lanka:
I went in for a fitting at Atmosphere and spent a few hours trying on lots of different types. I went for this size because 45 litres is pretty much the maximum carry-on size you can take, and this one was comparatively comfortable in the neck and hip area.
I picked up a set of six packing cubes, three for myself and my mum serving to keep our clothes separate from our electronics and toiletries.
In case my camera battery dies or fills up on the road, I want to be prepared so I can continue to snap photos even without an outlet nearby!
Sri Lanka requires a Type D plug which has three round prongs. I’ve picked up an adapter as well as a multi-output voltage converter to keep all our electronics charged and safe abroad.
5. A small Moleskin notebook
I carry one of these thin notebooks on any trips to capture all my adventures and expenses. It also works wonders for making you look like you’re busy rather than awkward and alone for hours at a cafe or on a train. This little guy was my best friend in France, and I expect the same in Sri Lanka.
6. Latest edition Lonely Planet
I swear by these books on my international trips, especially when wi-fi is unreliable and scarce. I love dog-earring the pages I need and using it for an on-the-go travel guide. Unfortunately the next edition comes out a week after we return, so we are relying on the January 2015 edition for this journey.
We set our itinerary when we booked our hotels, but then I spent a lot of my free time researching the details in between, such as where to find the best food, how to get from train stations to hotels and which beaches are the least crowded. It was at this point that I also read my entire Lonely Planet cover-to-cover and dog-eared the pages I felt would be useful for us to aim for while traveling. Some of my favourite blogs I read include: Tuula Vintage, Nerd Nomads and Adventures of Soph.
REGISTER WITH GOVERNMENT
The Government of Canada recommends registering with them any time you intend to take a trip abroad so that in the event of an emergency they have a better idea of where Canadians may be in the world. If you’re Canadian you can register your travels here. You will need to list an emergency contact as part of the registration process.
4 Weeks Prior:
- Let Bank Know
- Get Healthy
- Check Phone Plan
LET BANK KNOW
Any time you are venturing out of your country, or even out of province, consider letting your bank know where you’re heading. Making them aware that your credit card will be used by you for transactions in other parts of the world may prevent your finances from being frozen to safeguard your security! We were in fact called by the bank while we tried to purchase our flight tickets because they thought it was an unusual transaction for us to make – of course we approved it right away, but it’s great to know they’re on top of things like this. Not so great though if you’re out of the country and with little to no phone coverage. Letting your bank know in advance can alleviate little obstacles like this.
While health is something you should be focusing on every day, it is especially important when preparing for a big trip. Your body will be thrown out of its normal routine, and you’ll need to adapt and have higher energy levels than what you may be used to. Adrenaline will certainly help, but make sure you’re drinking lots of water, eating properly, fueling your body, staying active and sleeping well each night.
CHECK PHONE PLAN
Depending on where you’re heading, consider adding an international package to your cell phone to see you through your trip. For this trip, we decided not to bother as we’re expecting good wi-fi coverage at our lodgings. However, I did have a $10/day unlimited international texting and calling plus 200 MB of data from Bell while I was solo-travelling in Europe.
3 Weeks Prior:
- Proof of Funds
- Check the Cost of Things
- Share Itinerary
PROOF OF FUNDS
On the Sri Lankan visa site it states that you must have proof of sufficient funds to enter the country, along with your entry visa and proof of onward/exit flights. From what I have researched, having a credit card with you is proof enough, and we will also be carrying cash to pay for things like local transport and activities, so I suppose we will be able to show that as well. Our pre-paid hotel vouchers may help to demonstrate that we don’t need additional funds to pay for accommodation each night. If we are asked this question when we go, I’ll update this post and let you know how we handled it (update: we weren't asked)!
CHECK THE COST OF THINGS
Once you have your itinerary pretty much down pat – with some room for flexibility for the gems you find along the way – it’s a good idea to get a grasp on the cost of the things you want to do so that you can budget accordingly. I will share my detailed itinerary as I go throughout the trip, but in the meantime, here are some of the more well-known attractions we are aiming to visit during our time in Sri Lanka, and the rough, per-person costs associated with each (courtesy of Fire Dragon Guest House).
- Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy $10 USD
- Ancient City of Sigiriya $30 USD
- Ancient City of Polonnaruwa $25 USD
- Uda Walawe National Park $15 USD
- Dambulla Cave Temples $15 USD
I recommend going through all the things you plan to do, including train travel (from what I have seen between $0.50 and $15 USD per person, per train) and other travel, activities, food and entrance fees, and then doubling the amount just to be prepared.
Let your close friends and relatives know where you are going, the dates you intend to be away for, and what route you are planning on following. You don’t want to be venturing off into the world with no-one having the faintest idea of where you are! If you’ve listed your emergency contact with the Government of Canada registration, it’s a good idea to let this person know the details of your plans and to keep them updated as much as you can while you are abroad. Our travel agent also has our detailed itinerary, and will be checking in on us before departure and after we have returned.
2 Weeks Prior:
- Photocopy Passport & Documents
- Looking After the Home
- Convert Cash
PHOTOCOPY PASSPORT & DOCUMENTS
Just in case something happens to your documents while abroad, you’ll want to have copies of all your documentation available – either with a designated person staying behind who you can contact in an emergency, or stored securely in the cloud. This includes your passport (just the photo page is fine) as well as any forms of identification and monetary means (credit cards, etc.) that you are planning to bring. This is also a good time to make sure you have printed off your visa, your itinerary, any hotel documents you may need, flight information, proof of vaccinations (if your doctor deems necessary) and a copy of your medical insurance coverage.
LOOKING AFTER THE HOME
Don’t forget to take care of bills ( such as rent, credit card of all those travel purchases, etc.) before you head out! If you’re out of town for an extended period of time, either put a temporary pause on your mail or have a neighbour collect it for you. If you’ve got plants, or a pet, make sure they’re looked after too.
Now that you have put together your budget you have an idea of how much money you need to bring as cash and have available on your credit card. From my research, many places charge in USD so we will be bringing both US dollars as well as the Sri Lankan Rupee. Be aware of the current exchange rates before you go so you know how much to convert from your home currency to cover your expected costs. We also have a layover in China and intend to take the metro into Guangzhou for the evening, for which we will need Yuan. At the time of publishing this post, $1 CAD = 5.23 Yuan / $0.79 USD / 121.04 Rs.
1 Week Prior:
- Download Apps
- Prepare to Travel
Packing! The best part in my opinion is putting together all your gear and neatly folding it into your backpack (never to look like that again while abroad…of course). I bought a couple travel cubes on Amazon to keep our belongings somewhat organized on the go. For our trip, we are bringing a backpack each plus a smaller day-pack. We will be able to take our backpacks on as carry-on items, saving the need for extra luggage costs and the chance of losing our luggage! It also means less to lug around while traveling from place to place.
Here’s what is coming with me:
- DOCUMENTS: passport, ID, cash, credit card, money belt, travel insurance card, flight documents, hotel vouchers
- BOOKS & WRITING: Lonely Planet guide book, notebook, pen
- ELECTRONICS: iPhone, charger, converter plug, headphones, battery pack (I use the RAVpower battery box which hasn’t let me down in my three years of owning it), camera, case, charger, extra batteries, extra SD cards, voltage converter, tripod, watch, SD card reader for iPhone (buy this gadget aka the best thing ever here; I can take photos on my camera and instantly add them to my phone, no laptop required)
- SHOES: Nikes, Birkenstocks, flip flops
- CLOTHES: rain jacket, fleece sweater, t-shirts, dresses, shorts, sports bras, underwear, socks, long skirt
- BAGS: backpack, day-pack, Ziploc bags big and small, bin liners for monsoon conditions, sleeping sack (an old duvet cover mum sewed for me that I sleep in while I’m travelling to ward off homesickness), travel packing cubes
- TOOLS: string, flashlight, padlock
- BATHROOM: deodorant, shampoo, bodywash, toothpaste, toothbrush, hairbrush, hair-ties, bobby pins, lotion, contact lenses, glasses, sunglasses, chap-stick, toilet paper, tampons, hand-towel, q-tips, nail file, sink detergent, makeup wipes
- FOOD & DRINK: snacks (bring on the Lara Bars!), gum
- MEDICAL: Advil, Benadryl, Polysporin, alcohol-based wipes, hand sanitizer, bug spray, After Bite, sunscreen, Bandaids, Pepto-Bismol, diarrhea tablets
Here’s what I am leaving at home:
- Jewelry, or anything flashy and of high value – we are backpacking and taking trains on this trip, and need to be wary of our surroundings and belongings as is. No need to add to the stress of keeping an eye on special belongings!
- Hot tools for hair – leaving my straightener at home, yes sir. Not only will it likely explode with the foreign voltage, but I also don’t feel the need to look nice when I’m backpacking.
- Makeup – I’ll bring things like chap-stick and maybe some powder for the shiny days, but my regular go-to makeup kit is staying at home. Who needs it?!
Download some crucial travel apps before you go and set yourself up so you’re ready to jump in:
- Been – while not really a useful app during trips, this is my favourite app for keeping track of all the countries I have been to.
- Trail Wallet – hands down the best app I have ever used for keeping track of expenses while abroad. You can set trip dates, the various currencies you need to use, categories of purchases and even a daily budget.
- Spotify – download a bunch of your favourite tunes and then put them into a big ‘Travel’ playlist. Set the playlist as playable in offline mode and then you’ll have all your best songs ready to play even in the depths of the jungle.
- Lightroom – how I edit all my photos for both Instagram and my blog. I used custom-made presets, which are only available on desktop. I got around this small obstacle by applying one of each setting to a base photo on the desktop app and then copying the settings for use in the mobile app.
- Google Maps – log in on your phone and you’ll immediately have access to all those places you starred back in week 7. If you have wi-fi somewhere, download the directions to the next place they’ll work even if you enter into a no-coverage zone.
PREPARE TO TRAVEL
Alright, the countdown is on: everything is unplugged, dishes are cleaned, the garbage has been taken out, the last load of laundry is done and the beds are made, ready to collapse into upon returning. I can’t wait to share our tales of the road. Be sure to follow along here, and on Instagram @janameerman for daily updates of our whereabouts and mishaps. If you have any tips for trip preparation, please share them in the comments!