Like any other travel destination, there are a lot of different hotels to choose from when visiting Bhutan. Most travelers to Bhutan however do not actively participate in the selection of the hotels that they will use; not because they are not permitted but generally it is because they don’t know they can or assume they are not allowed.
If you are going somewhere on holiday, one of the first things that you do is to find hotels through a site like booking.com, expedia.com, or going directly with a hotel’s website. When you book a tour to Bhutan, you are purchasing an all-inclusive package deal and most people assume that they have no input on the actual hotels selected. While it is possible to simply sit back and let your tour operator select the hotels, you actually do have a say in the process if you want.
When you purchase the package to visit Bhutan, the tour operator is required to use a “3-star hotel” category at minimum. The tourism council of Bhutan is supposed to be monitoring the hotels used to ensure that guests are being placed into proper hotels (I say *supposed to* only because I don’t actually know if they do this because we never use anything lower than 3-star). The hotels selected by your tour operator is based on the availability of rooms and the tour operator’s preference. Tour operators have their favorite hotels they tend to use. Sometimes it is because the tour operator knows that guests really enjoy good server from a hotel, sometimes the tour operator gets a preferential price from a hotel, and sometimes there is just nothing else available.
With lots of reviews on Trip Advisor, we do sometimes get clients who want to know exactly which hotels they will be staying in and sometimes we get specific requests from the client. If the cost of the request fits within the standard daily tariff, then we always provide the guest exactly what they. However sometimes the cost can be out-of-line and we need to negotiate an increased price for the tour.
Remember that it is your trip, so feel free to find out exactly what hotel will be use and feel free to request a specific hotel that you want. If the tour operator doesn’t agree to your requests, then ask a different operator. Unfortunately, this can turn into a bit of a chicken and egg situation because the hotels selected won’t necessarily be booked until the money is sent and of course once the money is sent then it could be too late to force the tour operator. The earlier the booking is done, the easier it is to negotiate this type of arrangement.
When you get a quotation from a tour operator you will often see a hotel listed as “Hotel Lobesa or Similar”. Tour operators use the phrase “or similar” because sometimes we end up in a situation where our preferred hotel is just completely sold out. Again, if you book your tour early, it is more likely that you can get what you want or will know what you will get before you actually send the money.
3 Star Hotels
With a total of 112 3-star hotels available in Bhutan, this class of hotels far exceeds the number of all other categories. The high number of hotels in this category is the result of the all-inclusive tour package requiring 3-star minimum hotels. These 3-star hotels are available in nearly all of the regions in Bhutan except for the more remote places where there are just no hotels at all.
The quality of a 3-star hotel can vary a bit based on the location within Bhutan. Although all the hotels will be clean and will provide you with a private bathroom, bedsheets, and towels, hotels in the main areas such as Thimphu may appear to be *nicer* than hotels say in more remote places like Wangdue Phodrang, simply because they tend to get more guests and have more maintenance upgrades done frequently.
Most 3-star hotels in the country provide free internet for their guests and usually there will be televisions in the rooms. The hotels will always have a restaurant and at least some small bar service available. If I had to compare to hotels in North America, I would say that staying in a 3-star hotel is like staying in an Econolodge or Days Inn. The rooms will be clean but there is certainly not likely to be anything fancy.
4 Star Hotels
The 4-star hotels in Bhutan are quite a bit nicer in terms of “a fresh look”. The lobbies are generally impressive, the rooms are usually larger, and usually the hotel looks “newer”. The food is generally a better quality and the locations are usually more secluded.
The 4-star hotels usually have some basic spa facilities if you are looking for a massage or hot stone bath (usually this is an extra cost for the guests). Some of the 4-star hotels provide entertainment for their guests at the properties such masked dances or archery.
There will usually be an additional cost associated with staying in 4-star but staying in a 4-star property actually provides you with extremely good value for your money (this will a future article that I write).
Booking a package in a 4-star is more challenging than a 3-star and is sort of more like booking a package to any other location. When you book a 3-star package the price is automatically $250/day per person. If you ask 5 operators, you will get the same price from all of them (unless they are undercutting…again another topic for a different article). If you email 5 tour operators asking about 4-star hotels you are likely to get back at least 7 different prices.
The cost of the 4-star hotels vary dramatically between $80 to $350 per night with the obvious comment that the higher priced hotels will of course be considerably nicer properties. When we quote 4-star hotel, we have to indicate exactly which hotel we will provide for the price. If you are getting back some price with a description of “Dhensa or Similar”, then be very wary of the operator because you don’t want them switching you to a cheaper hotel; not all 4-star hotels are the same and the prices tend to match.
Do be careful when inquiring about 4-star hotel packages. Some tour operators do not include the cost of eating dinner at the 4-star hotel (since it is a much higher cost than the 3-star hotels) and you might find yourself being presented for a bill at the end of your meal or you might be offered dinner at some other cheaper restaurant. Ask the tour operator where you will be eating dinner. We have also seen tour operators keep the $250/day tariff and then inform the guests that they have to pay the 4-star hotel directly or charge the guests for the $250/day and then charge for the hotel as an extra.
5 Star Hotels
Sometimes you just want luxury and of course 5-star hotels are the way to go. These properties have some of the most secluded locations and generally, staying in one of these hotels will be considerably more relaxing than any of the other hotel classes.
The 5-star properties usually offer fine-dining experiences and properties may include swimming pools, fitness rooms, and some even provide free spa services. The properties are usually located far away from the main parts of the town and as a result are very quiet locations.
The cost of these hotels varies greatly and could be as cheap as $300 per night to over $1500 per night. Just like the 4-star hotels, any 5-star inquiry should always include exactly what hotels you will be provided and the price. The food is also a source of potential disagreement. Some hotels provide buffet, some provide set-menu and others provide al-la-cart dinning. If you are booking a 5-star hotel package, make sure to confirm with the tour operator what things you will be expected to pay for and what the operator is covering. You don’t want a surprise while you are there.
To help promote tourism to the more remote parts of Bhutan where there are less hotels, the Tourism Council has allowed for the concept of “Home Stays”. A home stay is like a Bed and Breakfast but you will also get to spend time with the hosting family as well.
There is usually no extra cost involved with including a home stay in your tour. We typically only include a homestay if the places that the guest are visiting doesn’t provide for any other alternative. However, if you wanted to, it is possible to use homestays throughout your entire journey.
The quality of the accommodation will vary of course depending on the house that you are staying in but the hosting family will provide service similar to a 3 star hotel but the experience of course will be quite different than staying in a hotel since you will get to interact with the family.