According to the All Ladakh Tour Operators Association (ALTOA) President Daleks Namgyal, Ladakh received nearly 3 lakh tourists in 2021. In 2022, Namgyal expects the number to rise to more than four lakhs. These figures aren’t surprising when you consider that Ladakh has emerged as one of India’s most popular hill destinations in recent years.
However, the tourist rush that Ladakh has been experiencing over the last few years has also led to budget travelers’ problems. The Trans-Himalayan region is now one of India’s most expensive travel destinations. Some of it is down to the COVID-19 pandemic, which slowed the region’s tourism industry in 2020. Another reason is that Ladakh’s tourism industry only operates at full tilt for 4 – 5 months each year (May – September). This means that the industry has little time to do business and earn profits, leading to high costs for food and transportation.
So, if you’re a budget traveler, you might be thinking that Ladakh isn’t the right destination for you to explore. However, this post will take you through some handy tips to help your dream budget Ladakh trip become a reality.
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1. Travel to Ladakh by road
If you can’t wait to set foot in Ladakh, you might be tempted to book flight tickets. However, the fact is that if you’re not booking your flight tickets to Leh well ahead of your trip, you’ll quite likely have to spend a small fortune. So, the better option is to take one of the roads leading to Ladakh. Sure, it’ll take way more time than a direct flight to Leh, but it’ll save you a lot of money and be a surreal experience.
You have two options: the Manali – Leh highway and the Srinagar – Leh highway (NH 1D). Both options are picturesque, but the approaches are from different locations. The former option will take you to Leh from the resort town of Manali in Himachal Pradesh. The 400+ km highway crosses four high-altitude mountain passes before culminating at Leh. On the other hand, the latter option, which also covers more than 400 km, will take you to Ladakh from the Kashmir side.
State-run buses operate on both routes, which are the best options in terms of affordability. If you’d prefer to spend a bit more for a higher degree of comfort, you can also book seats in a shared taxi. If you want to steer clear of symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS), we recommend taking the Srinagar – Leh highway. This route enters Ladakh and goes through it more slowly than the Manali – Leh highway.
2. Travel within Ladakh in public buses or share taxis
Once you enter Ladakh, you’ll want to visit various destinations across the Leh and Kargil districts, such as the Nubra, Suru, and Zanskar valleys and, of course, the Pangong and Tsomoriri lakes. Typically, most tourists reserve entire vehicles to visit these destinations. However, since you’ll be traveling on a budget, we recommend taking shared taxis or public buses.
While shared taxis are readily available from the headquarters of each district, public buses may be scarce depending on the remoteness of the locations you want to visit. For some locations, buses don’t even ply daily. So, you’ll have to be a bit smart about timing your trips to the most remote locations.
For instance, if you want to visit the Tsomoriri lake in the Changthang region, you can take a bus from Leh on the 10th, 20th, or 30th day of the month. The same buses make their return journeys to Leh on the next days, i.e., on the 11th, 20th, and 31st/1st.
3. Try to plan your visit either in April/May or late September
The days leading up to the peak tourist season (late April – early May) and the days immediately after (late September) make for good times to experience Ladakh on a budget. As the tourist footfall remains relatively low during these periods, you can get great discounts at hotels and even bargain with drivers to bring down the shared taxi rates.
However, if you plan your budget Ladakh trip during either of these periods, make sure that you pack plenty of warm clothes and layers. It’s important to remember that Ladakh is a cold mountain desert. Even across the late April, early May, and late September periods, the temperatures can dip to cold levels, especially at night.
You can even time your trip during the winter, but we recommend against doing it. Most hotels and restaurants stay closed in the winter, and the temperatures remain sub-zero throughout the day, making the entirety of Ladakh uncomfortable.