Bhutan has one international airport, Paro, and two airlines, government-owned Druk Air, which has offices in Paro and Thimpu, Jakar and Gelephu, and a private airline Bhutan Airlines, a division of Tashi Air, with an office in Thimphu.
The Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines schedules change by season, but usually there are several flights per week from Kathmandu, New Delhi, Singapore and Bangkok, either direct or via Dhaka, Kolkata or Bagdogra, depending on the day of travel. Less frequently there are flights to Guhawati and Ahmedabad. Extra flights are put on during the Thimphu tsechu (dance festival) in October and the Paro tsechu in April.
At the time of research only Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines were operating international flights to Bhutan. There are only a few aircraft that can operate on a runway that is as short and high as Paro's. All landings and take-offs in Paro are by visual flight rules (VFR), which means that the pilot must be able to see the runway before landing, and see the surrounding hills before take-off. This means that no flights can be operated at night or in poor visibility, so when Paro valley is clouded in, flights are delayed, sometimes for days. When this happens your tour program will have to be changed and everything rebooked. The upside of such a delay is that you can probably add some spontaneity into your schedule in Bhutan and make a few modifications as you go.
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The flight from Kathmandu to Paro provides the most dramatic view of Himalayan scenery of any scheduled flight (snag a window seat on the left if you can). Look for the impressive Bodhnath stupa to the north as the plane takes off. Soon a continuous chain of peaks appears just off the left wing. The captain usually points out Everest (8850m; a black striated pyramid), Makalu (a grey chair-shaped peak) and Kanchenjunga (a huge massif), but if you have trekked in Nepal and are familiar with the mountains you can pick out many more. The elusive Shishapangma (8013m) is sometimes visible inside Tibet. Other recognisable peaks are Gauri Shankar (7185m), with its notched shape, Cho Oyu (8153m), Nuptse (7906m), with its long ridge, Lhotse (8501m) and Chhamlang (7319m).
When you pass Kanchenjunga, look for the dome-shaped peak on the western skyline. That is Jannu (7710m), which some French climbers have described as a 'peak of terror'; the Nepalis have renamed it Khumbakarna. Once past Kanchenjunga, the peaks are more distant. This is the Sikkim Himalaya; the major peaks, from west to east, are Chomoyummo (6829m), Pauhunri (7125m) and Shudu Tsenpa (7032m).
As the plane approaches Paro you may be able to spot the beautiful snow peak of Jhomolhari (7314m) and the grey ridge-shaped peak of Jichu Drakye (6989m). The plane then descends, often through clouds, banking steeply into the wooded valleys of Bhutan. Depending on the approach pattern that day, you may see Taktshang Goemba and Paro Dzong as you descend. Paro airport is often described as the scariest airstrip in the world but it's really not that bad.
It is possible to purchase Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines tickets online using a credit card. There are no discounts or student fares, except for citizens of Bhutan.
It's also possible to have your agent book your tickets and email you the e-ticket. In the event of a cancellation you are likely to get a refund quicker this way and your agent should get direct notifications if there are changes to the flight times. Your agent will also email you a scan of your visa clearance from the Department of Immigration and you may need to show a printout of this when you check-in. The Paro airport departure tax is included in the price of the ticket.
You may need to also buy a ticket to and from the place where you will connect to Druk Air. For most travellers this essentially means Delhi, Bangkok, Singapore or Kathmandu, depending on where you are travelling from and which city you'd rather transit through. Delhi, Singapore and Bangkok offer the most international connections, but Kathmandu will give you an extra taste of the Himalaya. Other connections via Kolkata or Dhaka are possible, but fewer discounted international air fares are available to these places.
Although Bhutan's airlines say they have interline agreements with other carriers, your ticket to Paro will be separate from your other international tickets. This means you cannot check your baggage all the way through to Paro via a connecting flight. You will need to reclaim your baggage and recheck it at the Druk Air counter. The only exception to this might be Thai Airways if your lay-over is less than eight hours.
When you depart from Bhutan, Druk Air claims it can check bags through to your final destination if you give them the flight details during check-in but be aware that this information is handwritten on the baggage tags. Call us travel cynics but we don't fully trust the system.
The significance of not being able to check through your luggage is that you may have to go through immigration at your transfer airport to pick up your luggage in order to check-in again. Depending on the country, this can create visa problems. Bangkok, Singapore and Kathmandu transit is relatively easy, requiring either no visa or free transit visas on the spot, but in Delhi you're likely to need to find a staff member to get your bag from the carousel and recheck it in for you as you can't exit the transit area without an Indian visa.