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Concise (but hopefully complete enough) guide to booking accommodation in Sri Lanka
Maintained by Tripadvisor Destination Experts
Classification – types of accommodation
You’ll hardly find self-serviced accommodation for short-term rent like apartments in Lanka, the low cost of food makes this not as popular as in more wealthy countries. However ‘room only’ bookings of hotels/guesthouses in places with lots of outside restaurants are the logical alternative. So the main types of accommodation for tourists are:
* Guesthouses. Generally these are on the lower end of the price and quality scale, and smaller than mainstream hotels. However a high-end guesthouse might still offer more, and cost more, than a low-end (1-2 star) hotel! Rooms are en-suite or for the cheapest options with shared bathrooms, this is the Lankan equivalent of a (youth) hostel.
* Hotels, anything from 1-star to hors-category in quality and price; boutique hotels and villas generally position themselves on the higher end of the scale. Note that the Lankan hotel star classification system is ‘lighter’ than the Western one, partly due to problems caused by the climate and the training level of the staff; generally a Lankan 4-star could be 2 or 3 stars in the West, and there is a similar difference for the other star levels.
Classification – how to book
Guesthouses can best be booked directly, though a few websites also offer help in this. There is no price penalty for booking directly. Same applies to many boutique and villa hotels.
Hotels (including another part of the boutique hotels and villa segment) are another ballgame altogether, the local market here works differently than in many other countries. Generally there are two types of rates: block rates (including rates for locals and sometimes special prices for SAARC or Chinese/Middle-East visitors) and rack rates which are 40-50% higher than the basic block rate at least. Though the odd hotel has such bad experiences with locals that local rates are set above tourist (block) rates, but that's not relevant for most tourists.
The rule of thumb is: a foreign visitor can ONLY get the rack rate when contacting the hotel/villa directly, unless he walks in during low season and is able to bargain for block rates threatening with hotels nearby. Or unless the (boutique) hotel or villa avoids local operators and solely deals with booking websites and direct bookings. This rule is part of a cartel agreement between all hotel owners and the local operators – the operators guarantee some minimum income and in turn get a ‘monopoly’ on dealing with the tourists on a good price level, due to the price penalty that the rack rate basically is.
However ‘operators’ still are a mixed bunch, and the tourist has the choice of a wide variety; often it is wise to use the ‘booking website’ option in all cases for comparing the offered prices at least. (Esp. with smaller operators and freelance drivers, the bad apples amongst these are reported to pay block rate to hotels but charge the tourist the full rack rate!) Some main categories:
* Home country operators, like Kuoni in Europe or the ones in e.g. India or China or Australia. They always use a local operator as agent, which means that for tours and short stays (up to 4-5 days) generally they are more expensive than other options unless it’s a fixed tour with pre-agreed block rates. For longer stays however, mainly on the beach, this is the option to consider as these are the ‘package deals’; for luxury beach places and/or places that want to focus on longstayers and not shortterm guests the price for at least a week can be 50% cheaper than the block rate for shorter stays!
* Local operators. Big names are e.g. Aitken Spence, Walkers Tours, Luxe Asia, Tangerine and Red Dot (which also has an UK office) but there is a plethora of midsize and smaller ones too. Freelance drivers usually link up with one of these smaller operators to book hotels and guesthouses for their guests if that is wanted. All have access to the various levels of block rates. Of the three types, these tend to be the best in flexibility - e.g. with cancelling or modifying a certain stay for which one has already paid a deposit; a local operator can use the money for another stay whilst an individually booked hotel would just keep the deposit as a no-show pay. Or by having access to triple rooms and other family rooms, many hotels have these but not all advertise them on the booking sites. And by being able to offer Half Board consistently, see the needs for this explained below. But even when one books BB rate through e.g. Agoda, some hotels allow upgrading-at-checkin to Half Board for the fair price difference. If e.g. with a local operator the difference between BB and HB is Rs 1,200 per person whilst a dinner buffet at the hotel is Rs 2,000/person, then the hotel allows upgrading to HB for Rs 2,400 per double room at check-in. But it's for _some_ hotels, not all allow this (so the others would simply charge you Rs 4,000 per double room per night extra, which means for them the local operator clearly has an edge over the booking website.)
* Booking websites. Both the well-known names (sometimes linked to from the TA hotel info) like booking.com, agoda.com and expedia, and more locally specialised names such as srilanka.com, lastminute.com, hostelworld.com, hostelbookers.com and go-lanka.com. These too should be able to offer block rates though generally only for Room Only and Bed-Breakfast options; slowly slowly this is changing, e.g. the Jetwing hotel chain now offers half board rates through the booking sites.
Hidden costs with accommodation
With the information given above, it should be possible to make the optimal booking making an apples-to-apples comparison between different parties (operators, hotels) instead of comparing apples with pears and making ill-informed decisions. However there is some other information which is helpful making the correct decision:
* Drivers accommodation. If you are on a tour with a car-and-driver, you’ll either need accommodation that supplies a free stay and food for the driver OR you will have to pay extra for this. (Or the operator promises to cover this 'risk' - opinions vary on whether this is a wise model as it signals that the operator has quite a good margin on the prices, good enough to afford this - which reflects badly on the price the tourists pay for the hotels with free drivers quarter.) The rule of thumb is that all accommodation outside Colombo/Lavinia (an accepted exception, drivers stay in their homes or with family and do not charge extra to the tourist for that) does have this free extra, except the lower-end guesthouses AND except for many boutique/villa like places. And currently except hotels in the Jaffna area, they need to catch up in this area but all are relatively new to the market. So if you still want to stay in such a place, add something like Rs 1,500-2,500 per night (for driver’s room and food) as extra hidden cost to your calculation. Also ask the driver whether there really is drivers accommodation; a few places always answer 'yes' on this question to the tourists but almost all drivers refuse to stay in their quarters because these places opted for worse than the shed mat-on-the-floor that an East-European labourer sometimes gets in the West before the police finds out and forbids it. And a recent trend has been 'drivers quarter not completely free', 'quarter free only for who books through an operator and NOT for those booking cheaper through the independent website' or even '(boutique) hotel supplies a drivers room at a low rate but again not free', and in the end for all these cases the tourist has to pay extra.
* Room basis. If the hotel is not All Inclusive-only, like some beach places and the odd inland hotel, you basically have to choose between Bed & Breakfast (BB) rate and the more complete options like Half Board. Note that in many areas (mostly inland but also many smaller beach resort towns, upto the size of Kalutara), there is simply hardly choice of tourist restaurants outside the hotels; then HB basis is considerably cheaper than having to add a-la-carte meals for you in the same place or the hotels nextdoor. Or to put it the other way round: the list of towns with a decent restaurant scene for outside eating is small and consists of. 1] Inland: Kandy, N'Eliya, Ella, Sigiriya and Tissa but the latter two on a smaller scale. 2] Coast: Negombo, Beruwala-Bentota, Hikkaduwa, Unuwatuna, Mirissa, Tangalle, Arugam Bay, Jaffna. For any other hotel book Half Board _or_ take the risk that upgrading-at-checkin is possible, see above.
* Room types. Some hotels offer a bewildering array of room types and at times extra options like included Ayurveda treatments. Sometimes these types/options are fully shown in the information supplied by the operator including websites and sometimes not; for instance a well-known Cultural Triangle hotel tends to remove the tea/coffee making facilities for rooms booked on the cheapest booking website rates, hoping the guests will not complain as they don’t have a local agent/driver defending their rights anyhow! And another popular Ayurveda hotel gives lower rates on Internet than trough the operator but with totally different, and much smaller, sets of included treatments with the low rate. And something similar with the driver's quarter included for agent bookings but excluded for the cheaper website bookings. Bottom line is not to trust cheap rates ‘undercutting’ what most others offer too quickly, but to keep on inquiring with the operator (booking website) offering them.
* Resort fees. A recent phenomenon on still small scale, copied from the USA: what you pay in all ways (direct booking, agent, independent booking website, home country agent) is not the full price. Locally an extra fee of something like USD 10-15/person/day needs to be added. Tricky hotels are doing this in order to look cheaper than they are, avoid them like the plague!
Special things to be aware of when booking 'direct'
The booking websites have helped making the market more transparant, but do have their quirks too. Just a few additional warnings, with in one case unfortunatelty the need for naming-and-shaming.
When booking using go-lanka.com, itself often quite a good site, first do try to contact the guesthouse/property directly and make sure they are still being represented by this booking site. TA experts have received quite a few complaints of travellers arriving at a property with a voucher (30% is prepaid and 70% must be paid to the property), and hearing that they're not booked at all because the property stopped using go-lanka.com quite some time back! But many other bookings with this site, for properties still being represented, are quite okay!
Then some broader warnings, based on a few hotels (and associated staff members) who really are into getting extra 'hidden' money. Or who simply treated those getting the rooms at lowest price as 2nd class guests, and dumped them as soon as they could sell the same room (again) for a higher price.
'Class' warning advice.
It might sound like 'kicking an open door' but unfortunately it's not. When booking direct, first make the booking (using credit card or other reclaimable payment method) as long as the price is good for you. Then, by e-mail ask the hotel to confirm your booking (at least giving your name and dates of stay). Keep their, presumably positive, response for possible usage when you arrive for check-in. The reason is that sometimes upon booking when the hotel is overbooked the people with the cheapest room rate simply get dumped, and the hotels by telling 'there never was a confirmed booking at all' avoid their responsibility to provide you with an equal or better room at a property nearby and also pay your cab to that place!
'Force an upgrade' warning. First the advice and then the rationale:
When using a booking website, always bring the booking voucher and show at check in. (Okay, common sense.) But if one is NOT travelling with a local driver/guide (but public transport or selfdrive), moreover bring on paper the Lankan contact number of the booking website like booking.com, agoda.com and expedia. For escalations, this MIGHT unfortunately be needed.
Rationale: what the nasty check-in staff does - mainly at some bigger hotels - is saying 'Good afternoon Mr. Erik' (or whatever name), then getting your voucher, and then telling 'Sorry our records do not show a booking for Mr. Erik. Your booking website made a mistake it seems. However we do have rooms available, but sorry to say that we cannot give at the rate that you prepaid to the website. Instead, you must pay rack rate. So up to you what to do, if you book with us feel free to reclaim the money paid to the booking website'.
The trick: as said above, rack rate is easily 40-50% above block rate. By doing this, the hotel (and their front office staff) earn a lot more money. And they won't try and help calling the booking website staff for you. Your driver/guide will do this (he knows the hotels doing this trick, after all how could the staff greet you with your proper name without having a booking?) and will get it sorted out so that you simply pay block rate with your voucher, and if you don't have a driver/guide be prepared to call the website rep (generally a Colombo office) yourself....
Another version of this is: 'Sorry our records do not show a booking for Mr. Erik. Your booking website made a mistake it seems. And we are fully booked, say byebye.' (After which hopefully they can suggest a hotel nearby.) The reason here, unfortunately, is that sometimes they managed to sell the room for a better price (rack rate) than they did to you and simply want to avoid all responsibility.
Again have the local Lankan number of the booking website at hand, they might be able to transfer the booking to another hotel and also this way you have some guarantee that your original hotel inches closer to a position on the blacklist of the booking website. Or at least force that hotel to pay the cab to that alternate hotel.
Or a third version: 'Yes sir on the booking site you agreed on price xxx, but the actual price is [xxx +20%]'. No matter whether you prepaid with the site or have to pay all now, the difference is in whether you need to get money back from the site in case of escalations. The next statement told is always 'Yes sir pay extra or cancel the booking, next hotel is 20 km away' (the latter with bad luck). Again, you need the Lankan contact number of the site and call them immediately. And just like with go-lanka.com, unfortunately at times it might be needed to e-mail the property you booked (after booking) and asking them whether your booking is also registered with them and to be exact with block-rate-price-xxx. So the warning to avoid '2nd class treatment' applies to most risks mentioned here.
Yet another complication with accomodation bookings is that prepayment of at least 40-50% is needed, this is a fair guarantee for the hotels against no-show tourists. Of course with home country operators this is safe, and guaranteed by insurances like UK ATOL. But for local operators it is more risky. Rules of thumb here: