Booking a trip to Bhutan is not straightforward. When I was looking to arrange my visit I could find very little information online about the process. I had everything explained to me by my chosen tour operator but it still sounded dodgy – my bank even said so! It was against my better judgement that I sent a large payment against their warnings. Thankfully everything turned out fine in the end, but it seemed a big risk at the time. I hope this guide helps put your mind at rest and limits the anguish you face when arranging what will surely be the trip of a lifetime – I know I could have used something like this to put my mind at ease when I was booking!
Most of the information I gathered about arranging a trip to Bhutan was from the TripAdvisor forums but my exhaustive searches actually turned up very few results. For each post I found that reassured me, there was one directly afterwards that set me right back where I had started. As such, sending my first payment was something of a leap of faith.
Let me start by saying all trips to Bhutan must go through a government approved tour operator. You can find a full list of government endorsed operators here. I decided to use Bhutan Travelers. There is a non-negotiable daily rate of $250 during peak season and $200 during the off season. This kind of travel is called high-quality, low-impact tourism and is a method put in place to protect Bhutan’s cultural and natural integrity. These prices might sound expensive but almost every facet of your visit will be covered by this payment. This includes hotels, meals and travel. You will, however, be required to change some money at the airport for additional payments such as gratuities and any gifts you wish to take home with you.
Making payment for your trip to Bhutan can be bothersome. Money cannot be sent by card payment as in most online purchases as most Bhutanese companies do not yet have the equipment needed to handle them. Payment must instead be made via money/wire transfer to a Bhutanese government account held by Standard Chartered Bank in New York. This might sound suspicious when your tour operator explains it to you and it definitely set alarm bells ringing in my head. I discussed it with my bank and even they tried to discourage me from paying large sums in this way. You need not worry yourself like I did, however, as my payment went through without a hitch. Turns out sending money into Bhutan this way is a totally legitimate, if inconvenient, method of payment. Unfortunately, this kind of transfer does not come cheap and will incur charges from your bank – I paid £20 for the privilege through Nationwide.
Depending on how far in advance you book your trip, you might be required to send two payments – an early one to confirm flights with Drukair, Bhutan’s main carrier, and an additional one for your tour and accommodation costs. Just like paying, getting in to the country is not easy, either. Flights arrive at the nation’s only airport in Paro and your departure choices are limited to a small pool based out of India, Thailand or Nepal.
If you want to avoid being hit with two money/wire transfer charges then request to pay your sum in full. Be aware that very large sums sent via this method can occasionally be held up as your bank might flag them as being suspicious – this is common, according to my bank, when funds are sent to third world countries or lesser known destinations. Be assured that once your payment has been investigated fully it should go through without further problems.
Once all your payments have been received you’re almost set for an experience that promises to be like no other! Your tour operator will arrange your flights for you and email the tickets directly to your inbox – be sure to print them out before you set off as you aren’t guaranteed entry to the plane without them. Your visa and itinerary will also be finalised and – viola – you are finally ready for Bhutan! The only thing you need to do now is countdown the days before you go!
If these words haven’t put you off (they shouldn’t!) and you decide to undertake this arduous journey, I hope this guide comes in handy. I wish you good luck and hope you enjoy your stay in Bhutan!
If you have any further questions, please pop them in the comments below.