How to book a trip to Bhutan

When we meet people in person and they find out that we operate tours to Bhutan, the most common response that we get is something along the lines of “Bhutan!  Wow, we’ve always wanted to go but just don’t know where to start!”.

In this article, I will describe the process that you should consider following to plan and make a trip to Bhutan. 

The post is quite long and mostly full of text; sorry but this is probably the only way that I can convey the information about how you should proceed.   Here is summary if you don’t have so much time:

  1. Use the price calculator to get an idea so that you are not surprised when the quotes come back.
  2. Make a list of the attractions that you are interested in.
  3. If you want to be involved with the hotel selection, list the hotels that you want.
  4. Find a few tour operators to contact and send the request.
  5. Work with the tour operator finalize the itinerary.
  6. Send money to the tour operator.
  7. Receive the visa.
  8. Take the trip.

Price

I’m not supposed to jump directly into the price, am I?  Chances are that you have heard that the cost of Bhutan is some insanely high amount and before we start with the actual process, let’s at least give you an idea of what it will cost.

When I first purchased life insurance, I visited a company who worked out how much insurance I needed and then when I asked the price, the reply was “How much is this insurance worth to you?  What do you want to pay?”.   They of course were trying to sell me a universal life policy instead of a term policy and were trying to test to see how much cash I was willing to part with.   I don’t want to be the same type of person giving you all the great details about visiting Bhutan just for you to discover that it is just too expensive for your budget.

A very typical trip to Bhutan is 5-nights and 6-days (about 80% of our basic cultural tours are of this duration) as this provides enough time for you to see the most common things in Paro, Thimphu and Punakha.  A trip of this duration will be either $1040 or $1290 per person depending which season.   The price includes all of your visa, all hotels, all food, a private guide and driver, and all entrance fees to museums.    The price above is the “minimum” price that all tour operators are required to charge for a trip of this duration.   Could it be more?  Yes, if you are a single person or a group of 2 then there will be some surcharges, or if you have requested a specific hotel then you can expect a higher price.

In terms of getting to Bhutan, the round-trip airfare from Bangkok is currently about $975 in economy class.  The airfare from your location to Bangkok would be an additional cost.  You have the option as well of transiting through Delhi or Kathmandu.  We strongly encourage you to spend at least one night in the transit city so expect a couple of hotel nights and food there as well.

If you want to calculate the minimum price of a trip, please use my Bhutan Minimum Trip Price Calculator.

Length of Trip

As you can see from the trip calculator, the price is going to be highly dependent on the number of nights that you stay in Bhutan so you will likely be trying to visit Bhutan as long as possible against the cost of the trip.

What is the absolute minimum number of days to see Bhutan?

Staying just one night in Bhutan is not going to be useful, because if your flight reaches late afternoon and your departing trip is early the next morning, you are probably not going to see anything except for the airport and hotel.  I guess if you were just visiting Bhutan and wanted to check off that you visited the country it could work, but there is more to Bhutan than just landing at the airport and then leaving the next day.

Could you manage to see things with 2 nights stay?  I suppose if your goal is only to visit Taksang and not much else, you could probably reach one day see a couple of things in Paro, rise early the next morning and quickly do the hike to Taksang. Then drive to Thimphu and see either Buddha Point or the National Chorten.  The third day would be heading back to the airport and unless your flight was in the late afternoon the third day is not helpful.   We actually had one guest stay for just two nights like this; they wanted to sample Red Panda beer as part of their trip, so we bought them a bottle of the beer and they drank it while climbing to Taksang!

Three nights would give at least a bit of a breather but to be honest 4 nights is the minimum that we recommend and we have organized a number of tour groups from Thailand doing this sort of basic itinerary but it does mean a lot of time in car especially if you include Punakha as part of the tour.   With a 4-night trip you should really only consider Paro and Thimphu, but Punakha could be squeezed in as a very long day trip. A 5-night itinerary will make things considerably more relaxed and enjoyable.

Pick the Destination and Activities

While any tour operator can take a request for a 6-day trip and give you an itinerary, it is probably a much better trip if you provide the tour operator with a list of activities that you are interested in and then let the tour operator can assemble an itinerary.  If the itinerary turns out to be too long or too short, then it can be adjusted.  If you leave the entire trip to the operator, they might send you to more monasteries whereas you might have preferred doing more hikes. Don’t be afraid to tell the tour operator what you want to see;  remember that this is your trip, you don’t have to take just what the tour operator thinks you might be interested in.

Activities

In Bhutan there are three primary things that you will see: nature, monasteries and dzongs.  The nature views (mostly mountains and valleys) are spectacular (providing it is cloudy). The dzongs and monasteries are quite interesting to visit when you first arrive because you have probably never experienced anything like this before. However if you are in Bhutan for 6 days and each day you are visiting a Dzong and a few Monasteries, you might wonder why you spent the money to stay in Bhutan for so many days just to see the same types things over and over again!  This is why you should spend some time first and read about the destinations so that you are seeing things that you will find more interesting.  One group who visited Bhutan through us, met us in person (sometimes it is possible to meet us before trip) and reviewed the proposed itinerary and told us to skip the Ta Dzong museum because they didn’t like museums…it was sort of a surprise to us because we had always included that museum as part of our tours.

Please check my page “Things to see in Bhutan”.  I’ve made the list from our itineraries but it is mostly a simple list at the moment.  Some of the activities have pages with a description and photos but this is a very slow and ongoing process that I will be working on over the next year.  However, if you take the name of the activity/destination and put it into Google, you will find lots of information, photos and reviews from places like Trip Advisor.

I suggest copying my list (I’ve provided the GoogleSheet) into your own GoogleSheets or Excel and adding a “Yes”, “No” or “Maybe” column. Then you can mail the list to the tour operator and tell them to give you a tour that hits each of these items. Then it is the tour operator’s job to figure out the order or if it is even practical to see the items in the trip duration requested.

Hotels

When you are booking trips to other destinations, the hotels are usually chosen and then booked directly by you.  When you are booking a trip to Bhutan, the tour operator has to do the actual booking, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t be involved in the choosing; after all it is your trip.

Tour operators have their own preferred hotels that tend to be used most often. The tour operator frequently with the 3-star hotels and receive a preferential rate and the tour operator will be trying to reduce costs as much as possible.  However, just because the tour operator has a preferred hotel doesn’t mean that you have to use that specific hotel.  You, as the traveler, have all the rights in to specify a particular hotel that you have researched.   If a tour operator refuses to use your hotel choice then you are allowed to move onto another operator   Keep in mind that some hotels and category of rooms are going to be more expensive than others and your tour operator might agree to book a different hotel but at an increased price of your tour (the minimum is just the minimum).  No tour operator is going to give you the $1500 per night 5-star hotel if all you are paying is the standard $250 per night.  The $250 per night only guarantees only that you get put in some 3-star hotel but not all 3-star hotels are the same quality. 

Also, be aware that if you request a certain hotel that the operator doesn’t work with on a regular basis, there could be some new cancelation policies or booking deposits that will be required.

We do have the occasional request from clients to be put into a specific hotels and if we think that the hotel is not kept up to date we will tell the clients. In the end however, we will book the clients into hotels if they specify.

When you are contacting a tour operator and you don’t specify a specific hotel then your tour operator will likely write “Any 3 star” or “Hotel X or similar” in the itinerary or they might not say anything at all.  Just remember that unless it says specifically which hotel, then you are not guaranteed of anything except that it will be a 3-star hotel.  When booking 4- or 5-star hotels, the prices vary dramatically so make sure, make sure that the itinerary says exactly which hotel is being booked.  You don’t want to be expecting the $200/night property but then end up getting the $80/night property; they might be still 4-star but location of the $80 hotel is likely to be less impressive.

Food

Tour operators in Bhutan always make it quite clear that all meals are included in your standard 3-star package.  What this means is that your dinner will be served in the hotel where you are staying for the night, breakfast will be in the hotel where you just stayed. Lunches are generally the choice of the guide/driver because they have to make the decisions depending on when the guest is ready to eat and the location of where they are at lunch time.

The actual food that you are going to get at any of the tourist restaurants can vary in quality, but you are guaranteed that the restaurant will be clean and will have been approved by the tourism council.  Most of the time you are going to find lunches configured as a buffet consisting of rice, a variety of vegetable curries, at least one meat (beef and/or chicken) and of course emma dasti.  The only exception to the buffet situation is during the low season months where there are hardly any tourists.  The restaurants will generally create a mini-buffet of the same items but the dishes containing the curries will be brought to your table.  It is unlikely that you will be taken to any restaurant where the menu is a-la-carte. The reason for the use of the buffet is to make the cost of the food predictable.  

I have personally been on multiple trips throughout Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka where they are always serving rice-based buffet style lunches and dinners. Sometimes it just gets to be too much of the same food and I start to crave something different like a pizza, pasta, a burger, or a steak.   If you get tired of the same food over and over you do have the option of going to another restaurant. How this situation is going to be handled will depend on your tour operator and their willingness to work with your food request.  Some tour operators may just tell you that if you want to eat at some place other than the hotel, you are welcome to go and pay for it yourself.   Sometimes if a guest wants something different (such as yak ribs) we will inform the guide to go along with the guests and cover the bill of the meal up to what the standard food would have cost letting the guests pay the difference…and sometimes we have covered the entire bill including the beer because they had come for a longer trip.

If you think that you might want to eat dinner at a different restaurant, let the guide know who will talk to the tour operator about how to handle the request.  You should let the guide know about your request well before the meal time so that the arrangements can be made.

Just like the hotels, remember that this is your trip and it is your money that is being spent for food.   I will eventually prepare a list of restaurant options that you could pick but this is going to take some time and is much further down the list. If you want some specific type of food then you would have to tell us and we can give you a list of restaurant.

Picking a Package

Every tour operator will have a collection of tours of different lengths.  If you are in a situation where you just don’t know where to start, pick one of the existing packages and see if it contains things that you want. If a tour operator doesn’t show a 5-night option on their website, don’t worry, they will create one for you.  If the package is close but doesn’t cover all of your desires, then just ask and it will be amended.

Transit Point

If you read through my article on “How to Reach Bhutan from Here”, you will find out that you need to pick an arrival city which is usually Bangkok, Delhi, Kathmandu or Kolkata.  Before contacting the tour operator, it is a helpful idea to at least think about which of these cities you will be transiting through because it can allow the operator to plan the itinerary based on typical arrival times in Bhutan. If you don’t know which of these cities to use, just tell the tour operator and they can maybe help you decide or just leave it open while you work on the Bhutan part of the tour.

Guide and Driver

This is one place that you generally don’t have much choice and you have to go with the tour operator’s decision.  All of the guides in Bhutan are licensed and go through a guide training course and therefore should knowledgeable and their ability to speak English will be good.   If there is a serious problem with the guide let your tour operator know as soon as possible and generally the guide will be switched out.

Some tour operators employ their own guides full time but most of the guides in Bhutan are operating freelance and are used by multiple tour operators as work becomes available.  We do have some repeat customers who request certain guides to be used if available.

The transportation is similar to the guides.  When there are just 1 or 2 guests, we tend to use small SUVs like the Sante Fe or Creta.  If the group size gets a little bit bigger, then a Toyota HiAce van is used.  If the group size exceeds the size of the van then we have to book a Coaster Bus. 

Picking a Bhutan Tour Operator

I’ll assume now that you have done your basic research either have selected the number of days, found an itinerary online that you like, or you have a list of:

  • Things you want to see or experience
  • Hotel requirements if you want to be involved with the choice
  • Any food desires
  • The transit city
  • The target number of days

Now you have to go through the most difficult part of the process…picking a tour operator (or several) to try and develop the final itinerary.

When tourism started in Bhutan, the tour operator business was seen as the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs. People saw tour operators as the super rich receiving huge incomes and soon everybody wanted to be a tour operator.  It didn’t matter if you had experience in the business or knew anything about travel, you just needed to apply for the license, and you became a tour operator.  The result was that many people, guides, drivers, hotel owners and ordinary people opened a business.   The result of this tour operator boom is that now there are more than 2300 tour operators in Bhutan! 

The good news from having a lot of tour operators is that you get a lot of choice.  But unlike most other business having a lot of suppliers doesn’t actually lower the price because of the regulations.  So, your job now is to select one of 2300 operators all offering exactly the same tours at exactly the same price!

Although there are more than 2300 operators, there are actually only about 300 to 400 operators that are active but trying to find them in the huge list is going to be a tough problem. If you hit an inactive operator you might not get a very quick response from them or you might get a response some some different operator all together because your request was forwarded to a friend who is active.

The good news is that regardless of the operator that you end up selecting, you are likely going to have a good trip! 

Here are some tips to try and find a tour operator:

  • Use Google.  You will definitely find the larger operators this way but don’t be surprised if your small 1- or 2- person short tour doesn’t get much of a response from all of the big operators.  I have seen requests for 2 people just go unanswered because the tour operator is handling hundreds of guests from foreign agents.
  • Look on TripAdvisor for people’s comments.  Trip advisor is not really geared for travel to Bhutan because the reviews are for things like “The National Library” but sometimes people will be talking about their tour operator as part of their review.
  • Check the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s list.  This is tricky because almost all tour operators are listed, and the list is huge!
  • Alternatively (or perhaps instead of) you can also use the member director of the Association of Bhutan Tour Operators (ABTO); this directory contains tour operators that are actually active.

When you do manage to narrow down to a few operators, there are a couple of things that you can do to decide if they should be on the list or off.  First, check the TCB’s website listed above and make sure the tour operator appears on their list; if they don’t then cross them off the list and carry on (see my comment below about using foreign agencies for the exception).

Next, look around their website and try to find them on social media.  If they are active on social media, there is a good chance that they will respond in a timelier fashion.  Some operators however don’t really do much on social media and that doesn’t mean they are inactive. Send a message and see if you get a reply.

Dealing with the Response

Great, you have written to several tour operators with your list of requests and are now getting back responses. Here is what to look for.

Did the operator read your request carefully enough and did they include all of your requests or at least explain why it might not be practical or possible?  Sometimes we get a request to visit something that would make the trip impossible or perhaps unenjoyable due to the driving distance.  If they did miss something, give them a direct email back and ask to include it.

Did you get a price surprise? By surprise, I mean something different than the minimum price from my calculator. It would be unusual if you requested a standard 3-star cultural tour and got a price higher than the minimum. It could happen if the hotels are completely sold out because it is a festival time or if you requested some overnight camping and if the price was high the operator would normally explain why.

The more surprising result should be when a price comes in LESSS THAN the minimum price.   The daily tariff contains a 10% markup that is set aside for a foreign agent and some tour operators will deduct the price by 10% to customer dealing with them directly.  While the tour operators are not really supposed to be giving direct clients the 10% discount, you are not likely to run into a trouble for purchasing a tour at this slightly discounted price.

What if the price is coming in at something way under the minimum price?  In the tourism industry in Bhutan, pricing below the minimum price is called “undercutting”, a practice which is completely illegal.  We have heard stories of tour operators offering prices of $160 per night but we think that these offers are given to travel agents in other countries in order to try and entice huge groups to visit.  It is not likely that you will find such “deals”, but if you are given something way under the minimum, stay away from those operators!  When we apply for a visa for a guest, TCB officials look into the account for deposits to ensure the minimum payment has been received.   If TCB determines that some form of undercutting is involved, they will reject the visa and probably cancel the license of the tour operator. 

We know that you want to save money on your travels but visiting Bhutan at a rate under the minimum tariff is causing trouble to the idea of High Value/Low Impact tourism.  Rather than accepting lower quality standards, why not insist that the tour operator provide you better services like a complimentary upgrades in hotels instead?

Making the Payment

Once you have finally agreed to a price and the tour itinerary it comes time to deal with actually getting the money to the tour operator.  While in some countries you may be able to get away with paying a deposit for booking and the remainder in cash when you arrive, this is not the case in Bhutan as the visa will not be issued until the payment has been deposited with the government.

Depending on the tour that was booked, the tour operator may ask you to make some initial deposit up front or pay the entire amount.  In our operations, we ask for a small deposit when the package is booked along with payment for airline tickets and the balance of the funds to be made about a month before travel (sometimes we need the deposits sooner).   When it comes to 5-star hotels, the hotels require that we pay in full before the booking is accepted so we must ask the clients for the full tour payment at the time of booking.

If you are from North America, you are likely expecting to be able to pull out your credit card and pay for the tour online.  There are only a few agents who have systems in place to accept credit card payments while most of the tour operators will require you to do a bank transfer.  We have investigated setting up credit card payments and are ready to do it, but we have actually had only one request so far and it would mean having to increase our prices to deal with the overhead of the merchant account and payment processing gateways.  However, if you really want to pay by credit card, ask us and we can make the arrangements but see my note about the handling of the money.

If you don’t know how to do a wire transfer, the easiest way is to just go into your bank (ugh… I know you want to do everything online, but many banks don’t allow customers to transfer money online like this), give them the invoice with the bank transfer information and they look after this for you with no effort on your part. I have seen charges for doing wire transfers between $0 and $50 depending on the bank.

In a world where things happen instantly, it is surprising that bank transfers are not so instant!  The time that it takes to move the money from your account to the tour operators account can be agonizing but is usually completed in about 3 to 4 business days.  I believe that the amounts and account information are verified by hand and usually there is an intermediary bank along the way which slows things down even a bit more.

Money Handling

When you use a wire transfer to send money to a tour operator in Bhutan (it must be the tour operator company name, not the name of the person!!!) the money is not actually deposited into their account.  The money is held at the bank until the tour operator comes in and confirms that it is from their guest and the bank will only deposit the money to a special government account from which the visas are issued.   This is good news because it means that the tour operator can’t run off with your money and even if the tour operator goes under, the tour payment is still held with the government and they would just assign the money to another operator; another reason to have paid the correct price and not some undercut amount!

There may be some other payment schemes as well but use them very cautiously.  For example, we have accepted cash while abroad and then wired the money ourselves and we have also accepted PayPal (again wiring the money on behalf of the client).  Using these types of arrangements is actually quite risky for the customer.  In the case of the transactions we’ve accepted, it has always been from people that we knew.

Foreign Travel Agents

Should you buy a Bhutan tour package from a local agent in the country where you live?  This has some advantages as you get to meet face-to-face with a person and the payment might be simple compared to dealing with a bank for the wire transfers.  If you are lucky, the person you are dealing with might have even visited Bhutan and can answer questions but a lot of smaller agents will be just selling prearranged tour packages.

Remember that even a huge travel agent chain abroad needs to have a tour operator in Bhutan doing the actual arrangements; there are a few people who are operators in Bhutan who happen to live in another country and these people will be able to better arrange tours but finding these people will be a challenge.

Use caution when dealing with agents in Nepal and India to book a Bhutan tour.  Not all agents are bad but there have been cases where guests have paid cash to an agent and was given a fake visa.  The guests found out that the visa was fake when they arrived in Bhutan and were then deported.

If this scares you about booking trips to India or Nepal, make sure to ask for a few references before money is sent.  But don’t just read the reviews online from guests claiming to have traveled, try to actually talk to somebody.  We have agents in Nepal and India who we always use when our guests are booking combined trips.

Online Travel Agents

How about the online travel portals, can you trust them?  There are a lot of travel booking platforms appearing online and they often provide trips to Bhutan by some local tour operator.  I am certain that these platforms are safe and if you book a trip to Bhutan it is not likely you will not be cheated.  However, these platforms are rather impersonal and often try to consolidate individuals into groups of travelers which is good if you don’t mind such arrangements, but the tours you will find on these platforms are not really flexible and you don’t get a chance to interact with the operator to tailor the trip to your plans other than the dates.  The only benefit of using such platforms is going to be ease of payment and perhaps being able to avoid surcharges by forming a slightly larger group but of course if you don’t want to share a room with somebody else, you might find yourself paying a supplement anyways.

The Actual Travel

About 30 days before the travel, the tour operator will apply for the visa and send you the visa copy once it has been approved.  We have tried applying early for the people who have send their money early but usually tourism doesn’t entertain issuing the visas earlier than 1 month before the arrival date.

The application takes just 1 or 2 days and once it is approved we send you the visa in the form of a PDF document that you need to carry with you.