Budget Roadtrip to Leh Ladakh- Itinerary and Tips

For me until a year ago, Ladakh was this ‘very expensive’ and ‘beyond easy reach’ kind of destination. It was one place I had wanted to visit for at least 2-3 years but the ‘myth’ of the expenses kept me away from it until I started earning. Last April, on pursuance of a good friend from college, we both booked non-refundable return flight tickets from Delhi to Srinagar for mid-June. The wheels had been set rolling, now we had to plan Ladakh and head for it. We both had one common thing in mind- We will make it a super budgeted trip. Our total per-head expenses came close to Rs. 17,000 (without flights) at the end of the trip. We were joined by another friend and that effectively took our accommodation costs for 10 days to less than Rs.2000 per head.

Budget Road Trip to Ladakh, Pangong Lake

A Typical 10-day Ladakh Itinerary covering the entire Srinagar-Leh-Manali circuit-
Day 1: Reach Srinagar
Day 2: Srinagar-Leh
Day 3: Acclimatisation Day (Local sightseeing- Hall of Fame, Magnetic Hill, Gurudwara Pathar Sahib, Rafting on Zanskar etc.)
Day 4: Leh-Khardung La-Nubra Valley
Day 5: Back to Leh
Day 6: Leh to Pangong Lake (via 3 Idiots School/Shey/Thikse Monastery)
Day 7: Back to Leh (via Hemis Monastery)
Day 8: Buffer Day in Leh (Very important because delays are very likely to happen. Use it for visiting Leh Palace, Shanti Stupa, shopping etc.)
Day 9,10: Leh to Manali

Some useful tips for a trip to Ladakh:

1. When to visit:
Best time to visit Leh is between June-September when the climate is not extremely cold. Winter trips are getting more and more common now though. The Srinagar-Leh and Manali-Leh routes open between mid-May to early-June depending on the amount of snowfall in the particular year. It is not possible to reach Leh by road in the winters although you can fly in to Leh and then visit the local sights including Pangong and Nubra Valley by road all through the year. (Remember, the weather in the Ladakh region is unpredictable at best. A super bright day could turn into a snowy one in minutes. Always have at least one or two buffer days during your trip to account for this).

2. Acclimatisation:
On arrival in Leh, spend the first two nights in the town itself. Spend the day walking around, visiting local sights, but not exerting yourself. Let your body get used to the high altitude and low oxygen levels so your trip doesn’t get ruined when you head to even higher altitudes of Khardungla and Pangong Lake. Here are some natural tips to help with acclimatization:
  • Drink enough water
  • Drink honey-ginger lemon tea
  • Keep yourself warm and entirely covered. Don’t walk around in slippers.
  • Avoid bathing the first day even if hot water is available
  • Keep chewing ginger
  • And if you really must, then start taking Diamox tablets twice a day 48 hours prior to reaching Leh and until you reach the highest altitude of your trip.

3. Inner Line Permits:
One needs to get permits for visiting any place beyond Leh in the Ladakh region. The permit is easy to get from the DC office or the tourist centre in front of the J&K Bank near the Main Market. You can get the permit by submitting a form and an address proof or you can ask your travel agent to get it for you. Watch this video for the entire procedure of getting the ILP:

4. Reaching Leh:
If you are going for Ladakh, go by road. NOT AIR. The road journey is what is so beautiful and you actually see the terrain change from green to brown. Also this helps in gradual acclimatization of the body to the high altitude. There are more chances of you falling sick if you directly land in Leh by flight.

There are two roads to reach Leh- Srinagar to Leh and Manali to Leh. Bothe the routes are beautiful and have their own unique sights enroute. Prefer taking the Srinagar-Leh highway (430 km) to reach Leh and while returning take the Leh-Manali highway (470 km). This is again due to acclimatization reasons. The Manali highway has one of the highest passes of the region and it’s better avoided on your first day of the trip. The Srinagar highway is a more gradual increase in altitude and is easier for acclimatization.

Bikes- It is the most preferred mode of transportation in the rough terrains. If you are travelling in your personal bikes, you are sorted. In case you are hiring bikes from either Srinagar or Manali, check the situation and status- as of 2017, bikes with non-Ladakh license plates were not allowed to enter Leh. It can get violent (Bikes have been burnt). There is an ongoing dispute and it’s better to stay updated in this regard before your trip and plan accordingly.

Car- If you are taking your personal private vehicle for the road trip, there is no problem at all.

Taxi- If you hire a commercial vehicle (car/tempo traveler), non Ladakhi license plates will not be allowed to enter Leh. There is an ongoing rift between the taxi unios of Leh and elsewhere. Although it is allowed to take a JK- Srinagar/Kargil vehicle- or a HP- Manali  vehicle- for dropping off in Leh. Also it is possible that while returning from Leh you can get good deals with the taxi drivers for shared-taxi rates because mostly they return empty.

During our trip, we reached the Tourist Information Centre (TIC) at Srinagar early in the morning and looked for taxis there. It is easy to find shared taxis going directly to Leh in one-day or with a stopover at Kargil for a night. The cost was fixed at Rs. 2100 per seat (June 2017) in a 7/8 seater vehicle like Innova, Qualis or Xylo. (Cost of hiring an entire vehicle ranges between Rs. 14700 to 17000)

Budget Roadtrip to Leh Ladakh, Taxi Booking from Srinagar to Leh

Try looking for a Leh vehicle (license plate JK 10) at either Dal Gate or near the TIC and you might be able to strike a cheaper deal with the driver. We tried looking for one, waited almost an hour, but due to the late start of the tourist season last June perhaps, we didn’t find any Leh vehicles that morning.

Bus- There are several J&K State Transport buses that run from Srinagar to Leh- the cost varies from Rs. 650 to Rs.1300 depending on the comfort level of the bus (Ordinary, Semi-Deluxe, Deluxe). The trouble here is the buses make the journey in two days with a compulsory nightstay in Kargil. If you are short on budget and have more time, take this option. We looked at the bus option first and found it was just the most basic bus that was running that time due to lack of enough travelers and we preferred to take the shared taxi option instead. (We later realized it was a great choice when we saw the condition of the road specially around Zojila pass and it also saved us a full day plus accommodation costs in Kargil for a night).

5. Accommodations:
For accommodation in Leh, you can directly reach there, visit 2-3 guesthouses/homestays around the main market and you will easily get rooms. Even in the peak tourist season. No need to book anything in advance. When we visited, we booked the first night’s stay in advance just for safety. We arrived in Leh a day early but still were able to get accommodation even at 11 in the night. We stayed at Khan Manzil Guest House for Rs. 500 per night for a double room with an extra bed. It was a steal deal!

Getting accommodation in Nubra Valley or Pangong is similar, but can get difficult if it’s high tourist season. We managed to get nice homestays at both the places on arrival there (gave us the flexibility of going to Pangong first as the road to Nubra Valley was closed due to sudden snowfall). If you would like to stay in the Swiss tents (highly recommended for the experience), it’s better to book it in advance though as the costs might increase depending on the footfall on the particular day.

At Nubra Valley we easily found a homestay- Sand Dune View Guest House- at just Rs. 1000 per night for a spacious double room with extra bed. (Food was extra) I highly recommend this place for the great owners, the wonderful food and the location of the property. Ask for Pashupati bhai- 9469387650.

Budget Roadtrip to Leh Ladakh, Homestay in Hunder, Nubra Valley
Outside our homestay in Hunder, Nubra Valley. June 2017

At Pangong, finding a decent homestay took quite sometime. We managed to get a room at Sasoma Homestay. It’s a nice cosy place run by a lady and her mother and came at Rs.300 per bed (Food extra).

You can pre-book accommodation at both the places from any travel agent in Leh once you reach Leh. Speak to Asif bhai- 9419519797. He is a superbly nice guy and helped us get the best rates for our internal transportation and motorbike hire too.

Of course if you are looking at staying in star hotels, prior booking would be preferred. Do note that there are no luxury stays available around Nubra Valley or Pangong Lake currently apart from the Swiss tents and a few homestays which come with all basic and important facilities for tourists. Leh has just a couple of luxury properties but most guesthouses are quite fancy.

6. Internal transportation in Ladakh:
Personal vehicle- If you are in your personal motorbike or car, you can easily drive it around any area. Just be careful as the roads are very dangerous at some places.

Hire a bike- Be it for a day’s sightseeing around Leh or for 4-5 days for your entire Ladakh travel, you can hire bikes locally in Leh. Costs vary depending on vehicle type and number of days. Speak at several agencies before finalizing a deal. (Make sure the dealer gives you a yellow slip with the vehicle. This slip needs to be produced for free entry at the checkpost while re-entering Leh or else you will have to pay the required fee).

Hire a taxi- If you are in a group of up to 6 people, you can hire a taxi or if you are in a group of up to 14 people, hire a tempo traveler. Both can be hired locally in Leh from any travel agent (Leh is overflowing with travel agents on every single street). The costs are fixed for different routes and destinations and you won’t be overcharged but yes, they can be negotiated for good deals.

Shared taxi- This is the most common and preferred way of travel if you are less than 5-6 people together. The cost of the vehicle hire is fixed and is divided equally among the number of people. You need to book it at a travel agency atleast a full day in advance. Usually you would see notices/flyers put up outside agencies looking for people to share a ride.

Bus- There are government buses that run from Leh to Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake on particular days of the week (Not a daily service). Our original plan was to take these buses but then we realized even though the shared taxi might cost a lot more, it would definitely be highly more comfortable and would give us the flexibility of stopping anywhere we liked. Those roads are rough, a bus journey is bound to take way longer than a smaller vehicle and would most probably exhaust you a lot more. If you would like to book the buses, head to the bus stand in Leh a day in advance and look at the timetable and status of the buses and book accordingly.

Budget Roadtrip to Leh Ladakh, Bike rental charges in Leh
Spotted this at one of the shops we hired bikes from, June 2017

7. The distances and timings:
Do not believe Google maps when it says you can cover the 400 km distance between Srinagar to Leh in 8 hours. Mentioned below are the approximate/rough timings it takes in a car to cover the distances assuming you don’t get stuck in any traffic jams and taking into account stoppages for meals and sightseeing on the way:

Srinagar to Leh can take anywhere between 10-14 hours depending on the driver and his expertise of driving on the roads.
Srinagar-Sonamarg: 2 hours
Sonamarg-Drass (Plus lunch): 3 hours
Drass-Kargil (With stopover at Kargil War Memorial): 2.5 hours
Kargil-Leh: 4.5-5 hours

The Leh-Manali route takes two whole days of comfortable driving with a nightstay in between. I can’t comment on it since I never took the route in either of my trips.

Leh-Nubra Valley: 4.5-6 hours
Leh-Khardung La: 2 hours
Khardung La-Diskit: 3 hours
Diskit-Hunder: 20 minutes
Hunder-Turtuk: 2 hours

Leh to Pangong Lake: 6-7 hours
Leh-Karu: 1 hour
Karu-Chang La: 1.5 hours
Chang La-Durbuk: 1 hour
Durbuk- Pangong Lake: 1.5 hours

Nubra Valley to Pangong (Shyok Route): 4-5 hours

Budget Roadtrip to Leh Ladakh, Indus Valley in Leh

8. The Shyok Route:
If you are travelling to Pangong and Nubra valley at the start of the tourist season in June, it is highly likely that you would be able to go directly from one location to the other via the Shyok river route without coming back to Leh in between. This was the route we took and although the road is hardly existent for about 60 kilometres and was definitely the most dangerous route I have ever been on, it saved an entire day of travel. My personal recommendation here would be to take this route only with an experienced local driver who knows the way. Avoid it if you are in your personal vehicle because for the 60 km stretch in between you wouldn’t see a single human being or shop anywhere and if your vehicle decides to break down, it is highly likely that you would be stuck there for hours waiting for help. (Mobile phones won’t work most likely). This route closes by the end of June when the ice starts melting and there are huge water crossings. Our driver said it is best to cross this route in the early morning hours even in June.

9. You need at least 7 days for Ladakh even if you are flying in:
I have seen travel agents offering Ladakh trips of just 4-5 day duration. Please do NOT go for these trips. Two reasons- One, you don’t get enough time for acclimatization (Believe me, that’s really really important). Two, when you are visiting such a far flung area, anything less than 7-8 days just doesn’t do justice to the place.

10. Be conscious of the environment:
I would personally put this as the most important tip in the entire post and something you ought to be aware of even before planning a trip to Ladakh. Ladakh is a cold desert. There is a lack of water in the region. Please do not waste water at any point during your trip to the region. Life for the locals is not easy especially in the far flung areas of Pangong and Nubra Valley. Tourism is their sole source of income in most places. Additionally, please do not dirty the area. Do not throw plastic bottles and other waste out of your vehicle or leave them lying near the lake or elsewhere. Commercialisation and heavy load on the limited natural resources has already ruined the place over the last decade. Let’s not deteriorate the place further and lose the beauty of the place.

Although these are very common and apply to any and every tourist place in the world, in the case of Ladakh where life for the locals is very difficult due to the terrain and lack of resources, we as tourists ought to be extra careful of these things.

In conclusion, this obviously is not a comprehensive guide to planning your trip to Ladakh. I have tried outlining the important things, ones which we came to realize during the trip. I will keep adding more points to it if I can think of anything important. Feel free to leave a comment with your questions or with more tips for travelers to the region.

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