The trip budget. A core component to every travel planning exercise. If you wish to travel to the Land of the Thunder Dragons, then you naturally want to know: how much does it cost to travel to Bhutan? We use this blog post to break it all down for you, so that you can accurately put together your Bhutan budget. That done, you can get onto the more exciting stuff, like deciding where exactly in this marvellous country you wish to visit!
- ‘High value, low impact’ tourism
- Bhutan visa
- Bhutan visa fee
- How do I obtain a Bhutan visa?
- What’s included in the Bhutan visa fee?
- Traveller’s insurance
- Bhutan currency
- SIM cards
- Best time to visit Bhutan
‘High value, low impact’ tourism
We’re going to go out on a limb and say that you want to travel to Bhutan because you’ve heard about its pristine mountain environment and unique culture. Are we right? Well, one of the core reasons for the integrity of the nation’s natural and cultural heritage is that the Bhutanese have been very clever about how they implement tourism.
The Government of Bhutan has opted for a ‘high value, low impact’ tourism policy that limits the number of visitors that can enter the country at any given time. This policy has protected Bhutan against the worst effects of mass tourism, like trampled nature and disrupted ecosystems. Also, by keeping tourist numbers down, Bhutan has been able to retain its character and so remain the holiday mecca we all know it to be.
One of the key methods of implementing the policy of high value, low impact tourism is the daily visa every tourist must purchase while in Bhutan.
This isn’t your typical visa. Firstly, you must pay a fee per night spent in Bhutan. And secondly, the visa is comparatively expensive, but this is because it purchases you most of your daily needs within the country, like accommodation and food. But more on that in a moment.
A Bhutan visa is far from your typical visa.
Let’s first discuss the daily visa fee itself. Next we’ll discuss how to obtain a Bhutan visa. And then afterwards we’ll detail what services are covered by the daily visa fee.
Bhutan visa fee
Specifically, visitors to Bhutan are obliged to pay a daily fee just to be in Bhutan. This fee is $250 per person per night for peak seasons (March to May and September to November) and $200 per person per night for off-peak seasons.
Usually $40 of your visa fee goes to the Government, which uses it to fund welfare programmes that address basic education, healthcare and poverty alleviation. This is the part of the visa fee that most of us would recognise as being ‘normal’.
The remainder of the daily visa fee is money that works for you. What we mean by this is that it’s used to pay for things like your accommodation, food and a tour guide. This is done on your behalf, meaning your mandatory tour guide will pay for these things for you. Basically the Government provides you with services that tally up to remaining amount of your daily visa fee. This ensures a minimum daily spend of $210 (or thereabouts) per adult tourist per day in Bhutan.
We provide more detail on what’s covered by your Bhutan visa fee a little further below.
Exceptions to the tourist visa
Indian, Maldivian and Bangladeshi nationals are exempt from visa obligations when visiting Bhutan. Lucky sausages. Also, anyone invited into the country by a Bhutanese national is also exempt from the visa fee. For most of us, however, the visa fee is a simple fact of life that must be taken into account in our Bhutan budget.
How do I obtain a Bhutan visa?
Given that it’s more cost-effective to travel to Bhutan in a group (as discussed above), the easiest way to obtain a Bhutan visa is through a registered tour operator. Most tour operators offer packages for visiting Bhutan. Included in the package price will be your visa fee, and the company will obtain your visa on your behalf. If travelling independently, ask your travel agent to secure you a visa.
Note that you must obtain a Bhutan visa before entering the country. You’ll receive a visa clearance letter that you present at immigration when you land in the country.
You must obtain a visa before entering Bhutan.
What’s included in the Bhutan visa fee?
As already mentioned, the daily visa fee everyone tourist must purchase actually buys you all of the important services for your stay in Bhutan. Specifically, it covers the costs of:
- a tour guide
- a vehicle and driver
- entrance fees
Finally, your visa fee also contributes towards certain government welfare programmes.
Here are a few details about each of the above-mentioned services purchased through your visa …
A tour guide
Nobody is allowed to travel in Bhutan on their own – every visitor must be accompanied by a Bhutanese national serving as tour guide. This is another clever move on the part of the Bhutanese Government in ensuring all tourism benefits the local population. If you book a holiday in Bhutan with a tour operator, they’ll organise your tour guide. If you intend to travel in Bhutan independently, the Government will assign you one.
It’s worth noting that your tour guide will be with you throughout your stay in Bhutan. He or she will fetch you from your accommodation (usually a hotel) in the morning and return you there at night.
It’s rather delightful to realise that your visa fee actually covers your accommodation while in Bhutan. This makes the payment far more palatable, as accommodation is one of the biggest items in any holiday budget. Most often your accommodation in Bhutan is a hotel room in an establishment of at least three stars. Often, they’re fancy four-star hotels. Yay!
Your visa fee also covers your food while in Bhutan. Breakfast is usually eaten in the hotel. Lunch and dinner will be eaten out. Generally where you’ll be eating these two meals is decided for you by your tour guide. Once inside the eatery, you’ll usually be left alone to dine, with your tour guide probably disappearing into the kitchen. Once done, he or she will deal with the bill, and then you’ll be off together to the next destination.
A vehicle and driver
All of your road travel within Bhutan is covered by your Bhutan visa. This includes both a vehicle, driver and petrol (gas). A great perk of this is not having to worry about reading a foreign map and shouting at your friends over who is to blame when you land up in a cul de sac in a misty forest.
In order to obtain a Bhutan visa, you must submit your itinerary to the Government of Bhutan for approval. As mentioned, they will endeavour to provide you with services that cumulatively add up to the remaining portion of your daily visa fee (your minimum spend). Given that they know your itinerary in advance, they can factor in the places you wish to visit, including any admittance fees (to a museum or archery ground, for example). So usually you’ll find that you don’t need to pay any entrance fees, as your tour guide will pay for these on your behalf out of your daily visa fee.
Let’s now discuss some things not covered by your Bhutan visa …
Something you’ll need to sort out yourself is your travel insurance. Travel insurance is an absolute must whenever travelling outside your own country. If you travel with Follow Alice, it’s a compulsory purchase. Be sure to factor this important item into your Bhutan travel budget.
When taking out travel insurance, we advise choosing one that offers cover for all of the following:
- Delayed, cancelled or interrupted travel
- Medical insurance
- Lost or damaged luggage
We give a few details about each item below …
Delayed, cancelled or interrupted travel
Delayed travel covers things outside of your control like a traffic jam preventing you from reaching the airport on time, a mechanical issue with your plane, or severe weather preventing the plane from reaching its destination. Given bad weather is a part of the Himalaya vibe, this is an important aspect to cover. Delayed travel also covers missed connections that are out of your control.
Trip cancellation covers having to abort your trip beforehand for reasons such as injury, illness, severe weather, or a natural disaster or terrorist attack at your destination.
Trip interruption covers the costs involved when you have to abort your trip post departure, for any of the same reasons listed for trip cancellation. Both trip cancellation and trip interruption should also cover having to cancel or abort a trip as a consequence of illness or injury of a travel companion or family member.
Regular medical aids don’t cover medical expenses incurred outside of your own country. This is why medical insurance is a critical component of any traveller’s insurance. Proper medical insurance covers medical emergencies as well as medical evacuation. This means that should you fall ill or be injured, your insurance will pay for all hospitalisation and doctor fees as well as all transportation to and from hospital (including ambulance services) and to get you back home.
Lost or damaged luggage
The cover for lost or damaged luggage is important. Should your luggage go missing en route to Bhutan, you could use the insurance money to gather together what’s needed in Paro. You can then continue on with your trip without having to wear the same smelly pair of socks every day.
We recommend that you cover yourself to the tune of at least $200,000 for each of the above categories of insurance (save luggage). We at Follow Alice always take out travel insurance with our partner World Nomads. They offer comprehensive yet affordable insurance. Whichever travel insurance you choose, we’ll require you to send us the details of your policy before your arrival in Bhutan.
Note that many credit cards offer free, automatic travel insurance when you book your flights with them, so do look into this. The cover usually isn’t enough on its own, but it’s a useful extra. Also, pay special attention to exactly what is and isn’t covered by your credit card. This is to ensure your independent traveller’s insurance covers all gaps and shortfalls.
Tipping isn’t compulsory in Bhutan, though it is appreciated. We’re not talking about tipping your waiter, but rather your tour guide and driver. If you go trekking in Bhutan, then tipping your support staff is also an appreciated gesture. Around US$5 to $10 per individual per day is a good rule of thumb if you decide to budget for tipping.
As explained above, your tour guide will pay for most things during your stay in Bhutan. However, if your intended activities exceed the minimum daily spend, then you’ll need to fork out for those. Think adventure sports, for instance. You’ll have to enquire after such things once you’ve had your holiday itinerary approved and visa issued.
Note too that not all of your drinks will be covered either. While you’ll get drinks with your meals, if you head out in the evening for a round or two, that bill will be on you. Try not to get too sozzled while in Bhutan. however. The Bhutanese are known as a polite and gentle people, and drunken midnight shout-singing isn’t really their thing.
Also consider bringing along a little extra cash to buy souvenirs and other local items. The Bhutanese are renowned for their beautiful handwoven textiles, for instance, and you might wish to pad your luggage with a gorgeous silk wrap or stylish gho (long robe).
The currency in Bhutan is the Bhutanese Ngultrum (BTN). It’s set to trade at the same value as the Indian rupee. As of 2020, US$1 buys you around 75 BTN, and €1 buys you around 82.35 BTN.
The cost of a regular-sized cappuccino in a restaurant is around 112 BTN, a small Coke or Pepsi is 43 BTN and a small bottle of still water is 20 BTN.
As discussed above, you won’t need to carry too much cash on you. This is because most things will be paid for on your behalf out of your visa fee. But should you want to draw cash while in Bhutan, you’ll find ATMs in all of the major towns.
In Bhutan, the currency is the Bhutanese Ngultrum.
The cheapest way to stay connected while in Bhutan is to buy a local SIM card. You can purchase a special short validity tourist SIM card when you land in Paro for 200 BTN. Just note that you’ll need to fill in a form and the seller will want to photocopy your passport photo. Your tour guide will help you with this if you wish. You can also buy 1GB of data for as little as BTN150 (that’s less than $1 or €1).
Let’s now look at the best time of year to visit Bhutan …
Best time to visit Bhutan
You already know from our discussion of the Bhutan visa fee that Bhutan charges more for entry during its peak seasons than during its off-peak seasons. Peak seasons are spring and autumn, which are March to May and September to November respectively. Off-peak seasons are summer and winter, which are June to August and December to February respectively.
You can have a fantastic trip to Bhutan at any time of the year. But here are some details to help you understand why spring and autumn have been given a higher daily visa fee. Armed with this information, you can decide if the perks of either of the peak seasons warrants the higher visa fee based on your preferences.
Winter (December to February) in northern Bhutan can be very cold – even downright icy. Let’s not forget that Bhutan encompasses part of the eastern Himalayas! There can be heavy snowfall in winter, which can mean certain roads get blocked, certain places and trails are closed, and some activities (like river rafting) are a no-go.
Spring (March to May) is a fantastic time to visit Bhutan. The temperatures are gentler, snow melt gluts the rivers, and the countryside is covered in fresh greenery. Rhododendron, jacaranda, foxgloves, cosmos, Himalayan poppies, lilies and many other beautiful flowers emerge, painting the Bhutanese landscape with vivid colours.
Summer (June to August) isn’t a great time to visit Bhutan as the Indian monsoons bring rain and high humidity to much of the country. And if you’re wanting to hike in Bhutan, summer equals slippery trails.
Autumn (September to November) in Bhutan is a dream. The rains and humidity start to dissipate, and the temperatures are pleasant. It’s a perfect season for outdoor activities and exploration. And while the tshechu (religious festival) of each district vaies year by year, the Black-necked Crane Festival is on 12 November every year. To witness this special occasion and its festivities is a cultural highlight of a visit to Bhutan.
Around 50 species of migratory birds from northern Tibet and Mongolia also come to Bhutan in September and October to roost there for the winter. These birds include the black-necked crane, of course, as well as ducks, waders, birds of prey, thrushes, finches and buntings.