Budget Tour to the Himalayas: 7 tips to travel hill stations at low cost

Do you think travelling to hill stations to beat the summer heat needs a lot of money? If you are willing to take some trouble and mingle with the locals, it is possible to travel to the Himalayas and not burn a hole in your pocket. Here are some tips to travel hill stations at absolutely low costs.

Hill Stations are popular escapes from the scorching heat of the summer in the plains and plateaus that cover most of India. Particularly, in most parts of the Indo-Gangetic plains and the Deccan Plateau, the temperature becomes nearly unbearable in the months of April, May, and June. This is precisely why the British rulers set up a number of hill stations around India. You might not know the fact that India has the highest number of hill stations among all countries worldwide, scattered along the Himalayas, the Eastern and Western Ghats, the Nilgiris, the Vindhya and the Satpura, the Khasi-Garo-Jaintia range in Assam and Meghalaya, and many more. Of these, the ones in the Himalayas are colder places than others, thanks to their higher altitudes, and therefore attract a lot of visitors worldwide.

How much does a tour to the Himalayas cost?

The Himalayas offer bustling cities with an air of the bygone colonial times, like Shimla or Darjeeling, or remote hamlets where there is nothing but the serenity of nature, like Munsiyari or Takdah. The cost of travelling to these places greatly varies, depending on the number of people visiting, the duration of the stay, level of luxury, location of the tourist spot, seasonality, and several other factors. Again, costs vary for domestic and international travellers, like in every country of the world. Typically, Indians pay the lowest for travelling in India, following by non-Indian citizens from the SAARC countries. Non-SAARC foreigners need to shell out the most. Nevertheless, here are some thumb rules that will help you save money on your trip to the Himalayas. No matter whether you are visiting a populous town or a remote village, in Himachal or in Arunachal, you will surely find all or most of these rules help to plan and execute a budget tour like a pro.

Budget Tour to Himalayas: Things to understand

Life in the Himalayas or any mountain region is hard. The weather is rough, the paths are steep, and things are costly. Any luxury (or attempts to ease the difficulty of life) here comes with a price. The best way to travel to the Himalayas, without burning a hole in your pockets, is to travel like the local people. However, do understand beforehand that 'like the local people' includes the hardship aspect as well. If you are going to save some decent money in your Himalayan getaways, you should be able to forego luxury. And this includes hiking up the hills as well, which is often quite a physical exercise for the people from the plains. Now, the rules:

1. Avoid the tourist season.

Avoid the two tourist seasons in the Himalayas: the summer (April to June) and the autumn (September to November). Off-season rates for both transport and accommodation are unbelievably cheap, and half-prices are regular scenarios. With a little bargaining skill, you might get a decent hotel room at Rs. 500 that would have sold in Rs. 2000 in peak seasons. Indeed, the rains might mess up your itinerary, or the cold may be biting, and some routes may be closed for landslides or snow. However, touring the Himalayas in the offseason has its perks too. In the monsoons, the greenery in the hills is lusher, and the magic of mist particularly in the eastern Himalayas is priceless. The snow in the winter is something to enjoy as well. The tourists mostly get to see only one aspect of the hills; if you visit the Himalayas in the off-season, you will discover newer beauties of nature.

Moreover, there will be no crowd: if you are on a culture tour, you will have ample time and opportunity to mingle with the locals. Strolling to a shop or restaurant and chitchatting with the owner and the other locals is unthinkable in the peak season.

2. Do not stay near the tourist hub

In most hill stations, tourists often flock to a particular area (Shimla Mall, Nainital Lakeside, Darjeeling Chowrasta, MG Marg in Gangtok etc.). Staying near these city centres or tourist hubs is convenient, but costly. Look out for outskirts. You might have to pay a few extra hundreds for communication, but you will save thousands in accommodation.

3. Try public or shared transports

Walk. Take the bus. Take a shared cab. Learn a few phrases in the local language to hail and bargain with a local shared taxi. They are indeed overcrowded, but they are cheap. And whenever you feel cramped, pat your own back for enduring hardships like locals and saving money.

4. Avoid eating at restaurants

Try to avoid eating at restaurants. Usually, if my hotel does not offer free breakfast, I buy my food in the previous evening. Half a pound of bread and a couple of large bananas will cost within Rs. 25-30, and is more than what I need to fill myself in the morning. Carry a small electric kettle and tea bags. Tea bags can be as cheap as just 2-3 rupees per bag, so why pay your hotel twenty bucks for your morning tea? If black tea is not your staff, consider carrying your own sugar and milk powder too. Evening snacks at hotels may also incur significant cost so buy something beforehand and preserve. Given the cold temperature in most hill stations, you can simply leave any excess or stored food overnight in your hotel, without any need of refrigeration. Sometimes, you have to eat out though. Try to find the right eateries when you dine outside.

5. How to find the right eateries on a budget tour?

Everywhere, there are three kinds of eating joints. The high to mid-range fine-dining ones are out of the question since you are on a budget trip. Then there will be restaurants that particularly cater to your taste, offering specialized Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali, South Indian, and similar other cuisines. Most tourists go for these, but sticking to your comfort zone has its price too. The third lot, and arguably the cheapest ones, are where the locals eat. Find out the ones around colleges and universities. Ask a student passing by. They know where to have hearty meals without hurting your budget!

6. Share the load at homestays

Homestays are often the only lodging and dining options at remote villages in high altitudes. I personally do not bargain in such places, because the people up there already buy ingredients at premium prices. Sometimes, they have to drive hundreds of kilometres to come down to nearest towns and buy a truckload of ration for the week, so the fuel cost has to be recovered. However, if you still need a discounted price, offer some value instead. Join hands in cutting the vegetables. Offer to clean up after the meal. Babysit while your hostess cooks. If you are lodging there, share other workloads like watering the garden or doing the laundry. Even if you do not get a discount, you get some good memories with a few cool snaps for social media!

7. Learn and love the local language and culture

Everybody likes it when outsiders love and respect their language and culture. Many tourists visit temples and monasteries with a picnic mood and litter everywhere. I have seen a group of tourists even racially abusing locals only because the villagers cannot speak their language. On the other hand, the locals will greatly appreciate if you take the trouble of learning even a little about the language and culture of the place. I was trekking to Sandakphu during the Tibetan New Year (Losar). I only asked for some water in a village, but they were so overwhelmed at my poor attempts to speak Nepali that they invited me to lunch with them. I was not only welcomed with a khata (scarf) but was offered a full meal and a bowl of chang (Tibetan rice beer). Such incidents form unforgettable memories, in addition to the money saved for a meal.

Be a frugal, not a miser

To conclude, while frugality is praiseworthy, being a miser is not recommended. It is alright trying to save some money on your trip by not overspending, but saving money is not the ultimate motif while vacationing. You live only once, so do spend money to gather memories and experiences. Acknowledge the hard work people in the mountains have to do; your monetary contributions mean a lot to their economy. Ultimately, there is no point of being the richest in your grave!


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