Money and Costs
Bhutanese ngultrum (Nu)
Bargaining is not a Bhutanese tradition, and you won't get very far with your haggling skills here, except with trail-side vendors on the hike to Taktshang and in the local handicrafts section of the Thimphu Weekend Market. Almost all shops have fixed prices, and these are typically high compared to other countries in the region.
Tours are prepaid so you'll only need money for drinks, laundry, souvenirs and tips; for this, bring cash as ATMs are not always reliable.
The unit of currency is the ngultrum (Nu), which is pegged to the Indian rupee. The ngultrum is further divided into 100 chetrum. There are coins to the value of 25 and 50 chetrum and Nu 1, and notes of Nu 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1000. The Nu 1 coin depicts the eight auspicious symbols called Tashi Tagye, while each note depicts a different dzong.
Indian rupees may be used freely anywhere in Bhutan (don't be surprised if you get change in rupees). Officially 500 and 1000 Indian rupee notes are not accepted due to large amounts of counterfeit notes; however, in practice 500s are usually accepted. Ngultrums cannot be used in India.
It is OK with the Bhutanese if you bring a reasonable amount of Indian currency into Bhutan, though Indian regulations officially prohibit currency export. Unspent ngultrums can be changed into US dollars on departure from Paro airport.
Bank of Bhutan (BoB), Bhutan National Bank and Druk PNB Bank ATMs accept some foreign credit cards, but ATMs in Bhutan use the magnetic strip rather than digital chips, and some foreign banks do not permit withdrawals via this method. The government also periodically blocks international ATM transactions for short periods to combat fraud. It always pays to carry cash in case you have problems. ATM transactions are limited to Nu 10,000 or Nu 15,000.
Banks in Bhutan exchange US, Canadian and Australian dollars, UK pounds, euros, Japanese yen and some other Asian and Scandinavian currencies. Note that the exchange rate for US dollar bills of lower denominations than US$100 is much lower than for large bills.
If you plan to make a major purchase, for example textiles or art, consider bringing US dollars in cash. Most shops will accept this, and it can save you the hassle of exchanging a large quantity of money in advance and then attempting to change it back if you don't find the exact piece you were looking for.
Cards are accepted at major handicraft stores and some of the larger hotels in Thimphu and other towns, but you will often be charged a surcharge of up to 5% to cover the fees levied by the credit-card companies. PINs have to be four digits.
Tourist trips are fully prepaid, so you could in theory manage in Bhutan without any local money at all, though you'll probably want to change at least US$50 to US$100 to pay for laundry and drinks, plus whatever you need for souvenirs and tips.
The exchange counters at the airport, larger hotels and the banks in Thimphu and Phuentsholing can change major currencies, and some smaller currencies from Asia and Scandinavia. Indian rupees are used interchangeably with ngultrums and are not officially exchanged at banks.
If you are heading to central and eastern Bhutan, you will do better sticking to US dollars. The exchange rate for US-dollar bills in denominations less than US$100 is around 10% lower than for large bills. US-dollar bills that are pre-1993 are generally not accepted.
You may change your unused ngultrums back into US dollars on departure at Paro airport (including in the airport bookshop). Travellers departing overland didn't have this facility at the time of research. You may need to produce your original exchange receipts. Ngultrums are useless outside of Bhutan (except as a curiosity).
Bhutan has two major banks, the Bank of Bhutan (www.bob.bt) and the Bhutan National Bank (www.bnb.bt), each with branches throughout the country. Smaller banks with forex include T-Bank and Druk PNB, with branches in larger cities. In addition, you can change money at many hotels and some shops.
For those paying their own way, most hotels charge 10% Bhutan Sales Tax (BST) and a 10% service charge (or less commonly 5%). These taxes are included in the prices listed for hotels. Most restaurants will charge the same.
- Tour guides It is customary to tip your guide and driver at the end of an organised trip. Allow US$10 to US$15 per day for guides, and US$8 to US$10 per day for drivers.
- Hotels At your discretion, but hotel staff will appreciate a small tip for carrying your bags.
- Restaurants Restaurant bills include service tax and tipping is not common.
- Taxis It is not customary to tip taxi drivers.
Tipping on an Organised Tour
You will usually be accompanied throughout your visit to Bhutan by the same tour guide and often the same driver. While it is not official TCB policy, both your guide and driver will expect a tip at the end of the trip. Most people allow US$10 to US$15 per day for guides and US$8 to US$10 per day for drivers.
Many leaders on group tours take up a collection at the conclusion of the trip and hand it over in one packet. With a large group this can be a substantial amount and the practice has created high expectations on the part of Bhutanese guides. If arranging tips yourself, hand them over in individual envelopes the evening before you leave, as things get rushed and easily forgotten on the day of departure.
If you've been trekking, it's appropriate to give a smaller tip to your guide, cook and waiter. Horsemen also expect tips, but these can be minimal if they are the owners of the horses or yaks and are making money by hiring out their animals. The stakes go up, however, if they have been especially helpful with camp chores and on the trail.
Travellers cheques can be exchanged at larger banks, but these are increasingly falling out of favour with travellers. Banks charge a 1% commission to exchange travellers cheques. You should carry only well-known brands such as American Express. There is no replacement facility for lost travellers cheques in Bhutan.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
Fixed Daily Rate: US$250
- All tourists must pay US$250 per person per day (US$200 a day from December to February and June to August), with a US$40/30 surcharge per person for those in a group of one/two. This covers accommodation, transport in Bhutan, a guide, food and entry fees, and includes a US$65 royalty that goes to the government.
- Possible extra charges include hot-stone baths, cultural shows, horse riding, rafting, mountain bikes and tips.
- Children under 12 years are exempt from the royalty component (US$65).
Budget: Less than US$150
- Only Indian tourists and foreign residents are able to set their own travel budgets.
- Budget hotel: US$20–40
- Restaurant meal in Thimphu: US$7–15
Top end: US$500–1750
- Luxury hotel: US$250–1500 above the daily US$250 tariff