UPDATED MAY 2016: Tibet is not a cheap place to travel to. However, traveling with a small group can drastically reduce the costs of an overland journey.
Budget Tibet Tour
For reputable and affordable travel agency recommendations for Tibet, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
As you probably know by now, all foreigners traveling to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) MUST be on an organized tour that includes travel permits, a tour guide, a private vehicle and a driver. There are no exceptions. Because foreigners have to be on an organized tour in order to go to the TAR, the costs are often times out of reach for budget travelers. Guide prices in the TAR are between $40 and $50 per day. Vehicle costs to Everest are between $1500 and $2500 while the vehicle cost alone to Kailash is usually between $3000 and $4000 (not including guide price, permit fees, entrance fees, taxes, etc). Since foreigners have to have a guide and private vehicle (it is NOT possible to travel using public transportation in the TAR), it is difficult to find ways of lowering the costs of a Tibet trip.
Tibet Budget Tour
In addition to the guide and vehicle costs, nearly every attraction in the Tibet Autonomous Region has an entrance fee. Things like temples, monasteries, lakes, glaciers and mountains all require an entrance ticket and some of these tickets are quite expensive. Over the course of a 8 or 12 day tour in Tibet, these entrance fees can really add up. If you take the standard route from Lhasa to Everest visiting the major sites along the way, you can expect to pay between $175 and $225 USD per person, just in entrance fees. Again, traveling on a budget in Tibet is really difficult. In the high season, tickets for the Potala Palace are $32 per person while a ticket to go inside of Jokhang Temple are $14 per person.
There are ways that you can lower the costs of traveling in Tibet, at least a little bit. If you are traveling by yourself, you will have to pay for the vehicle and guide fees all on your own, causing the price of a tour to be very high. However, by traveling with a small group of others, you can drastically reduce the costs of traveling in Tibet. Don’t get me wrong….even with a group the costs of traveling in Tibet are high for budget travelers, but you can split the cost of the guide, vehicle and driver between 6 and 10 people making the cost much more affordable. For example, if you are a solo traveler, the cost of a standard tour from Lhasa to Everest Base Camp and back to Lhasa in the high season usually will cost between $3000 and $4000 (not including air or train tickets to/from Lhasa). If you travel with a group, you can get the price per person down to around $1000 to $1200 USD per person, including entrance fees, guide fees, transportation costs in Tibet and hotels. Simply by traveling with a small group of people could save you thousands of dollars on Tibet travel.
Tibet Travel Agency Recommendations
There are a handful of really good, locally-owned, Tibetan travel agencies that specialize in trying to put foreigners in small groups in order to lower the costs of traveling in Tibet. These agencies understand that the costs of traveling in Tibet are high, especially for budget travelers. These agencies do the best they can to put travelers with a small group to make traveling in Tibet more affordable. If you plan on traveling to Tibet and are looking to join a small group to lower the costs, send me an email at: email@example.com and I will get back to you with some Tibetan owned agencies that I recommend.
Hotels and Restaurants in Tibet
There plenty of dorm style hotels in Tibet as well as well-priced standard hotel rooms. In Lhasa, many of these hotels are located in the Old Town, which is within walking distance of many of the main Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Tell the agency you are working with that you are interested in staying in budget accommodations for your tour. The current Tibet Lonely Planet guidebook lists many budget hotel options across Tibet. Most of the reputable travel agencies in Lhasa can get amazing corporate rates at 3 Star and even 4 Star hotels making these hotels the same price (or close to the same price) as budget dorm-style guesthouses.
There are many excellent restaurants in Lhasa, Gyantse and Shigatse that offer amazing Tibetan, Nepali and Western food. However, many of the popular restaurants in these towns can be a little expensive for budget travelers. There are dozens of little Tibetan restaurants all around the Old Town in Lhasa that serve inexpensive and good momos, bread and noodles. If you are looking to save a little money on food, tell your guide that you are looking for the non-touristy, Tibetan-style restaurants.
The Amdo and Kham Alternative
If the costs of traveling in Tibet are just too far out of reach for you, then I recommend traveling through the Amdo and Kham regions. These areas do not require an organized tour since they lie outside of the TAR.You can travel freely without a guide or private vehicle. You can use public buses to travel all through this amazing region! Amdo and Kham are found in the modern day provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan. Gansu and Yunnan. The Amdo and Kham areas have 60% of the total Tibetan population and they cover 50% of the landmass of the Tibetan Plateau. Many repeat travelers to Tibet agree that the Amdo and Kham areas are the best areas to see traditional Tibetan culture. Read the links of mine below for more information:
Summary of a Budget Tibet Tour
Again, if you have any questions about traveling in Tibet on a budget, feel free to contact me for advice at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Just keep in mind that Tibet is an expensive place and you won’t be able to travel there with just a couple hundred dollars. Joining a small group tour will drastically reduce your costs!