I often get emails from people who want to go to Tibet, but are frustrated with arranging their tour. They are convinced that arranging travel to Tibet is too difficult for them. If you use the wrong travel agency, it probably is difficult, but it doesn't have to be. Having lived in Tibet for nearly 10 years and having arranged around 450 custom tours across Tibet over the past 6 years, I can personally tell you that arranging travel to Tibet is not hard! In fact, by doing just a little bit of research, arranging travel to Tibet is very easy. With this post, I will tell you everything you need to do in order to arrange the perfect trip to Tibet.
1. The first thing that you need to do is research where in Tibet you want to go. Tibet, including the Amdo and Kham regions, is huge and covers roughly 25% of the land mass of China, which is the world's 4th largest country by area. There are dozens of amazing routes and itineraries to choose from. Since Tibet is so huge, it has many different types of geography to offer. I recommend picking up a copy of Lonely Planet's Tibet guidebook. This newly updated guidebook is the best option for researching the popular overland routes that begin in Lhasa. It has detailed information for getting from Lhasa to Mt. Everest Base Camp, the Nepal border or to western Tibet's Mt. Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. For information about the Amdo and Kham regions, I recommend getting Lonely Planet's China guidebook. The Qinghai, western Sichuan, northwest Yunnan and southwest Gansu chapters are loaded with useful information on the Amdo and Kham regions. Another excellent resource is Footprints Tibet Handbook. This guidebook covers all regions of Tibet.
2. After you have researched where you want to go to in Tibet, contact a reputable, Tibetan owned travel agency. It is important to use a good, reliable travel agency when traveling through rugged and remote Tibet. For budget travelers, it is very important to research which agency to use. The agency with the lowest price is usually not the best agency to use. Not all agencies care about their customers and some arrange itineraries that are dangerous and do not provide enough time to properly acclimatize to high elevation. Because travel permits and tours to Tibet can take several days to arrange, it is best to contact a travel agency at least 2 or 3 weeks before you plan to depart to Lhasa. For recommendations on which travel agency to use, feel free to contact me.
All foreign travelers to the Tibet Autonomous Region are required to be part of an organized tour that includes travel permits, a tour guide and a private vehicle with a driver (no vehicle is required if you are just staying in Lhasa). There are no exceptions to this. You will not be allowed to board a train or flight to Lhasa without showing your travel permits. These permits can only be issued by a travel agency. This is not a new regulation, but has been enforced off and on for the past 30 years. The Kham and Amdo areas, which cover 50% of the Tibetan Plateau, have no travel regulations, though the do close periodically due to protests and riots.
3. When you have decided on a travel route for Tibet and have found a good travel agency to use, then you (actually the agency) begin processing your tour. This can all be done through email. There is no need to physically go to a travel agency to arrange your tour of Tibet. As I stated above, begin contacting a Tibet based travel agency 2 or 3 weeks before you plan to arrive in Lhasa. In order for your travel permits to be processed, you will need to scan and email the agency you use a high-res image of both your passport and Chinese visa. These are needed in order to apply for your travel permits. The agency will arrange your permits and everything else for you. They will arrange a guide, a vehicle and a driver. Most agencies can also arrange train tickets and discounted air tickets to Lhasa.
4. Travel agencies require a deposit of anywhere between 20% and 50% before they will issue you your travel permit. Tour deposits can be sent using a bank transfer, Western Union or Pay Pal. The remaining balance of your tour will need to be paid once you arrive in Lhasa. Some agencies will require you to pay the entire tour balance before arriving in Lhasa. As long as the agency is reputable, I see no problem paying the entire tour balance before arriving in Lhasa.
5. If you plan to fly to Lhasa, you will need to give the agency you use the address of a hotel in mainland China where you plan to stay so they can mail you the original permit. The original permit is needed in order to board a flight to Lhasa. Most people fly to Lhasa from Chengdu. If you plan to take the train to Lhasa, a copy of the permit is all you need. The agency will email you the permit and you will need to print it out (both pages). The copy of your permit will need to be shown to officials before you can board the train to Lhasa.
Besides doing a little research and sending a few emails, there isn't much else to arranging a tour to Tibet. It is not difficult to do. In my years of experience arranging tours of Tibet, I have arranged many trips with just 4 or 5 fairly short emails. Bottom line: It's not that hard arranging travel to Tibet!
For more information on getting to Tibet or for recommendations on which travel agencies to use, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org