The Real Deal: Fourteen nights' accommodations, transportation by plane and private and local bus, and the services of a guide, from $2,035 per person — including taxes.
When: Depart Sundays, Sept. 7, 21, 28, Oct. 12, 26, 2008; April 5, 12, 26, May 3, 10, 24, 31, June 7, 21, 28, 2009.
The fine print: The starting rate includes a local cash payment of $300 that is due on arrival. Taxes, entrance to Sagaramatha (Mount Everest) National Park, and airport-hotel transfers in Lhasa are included. Intrepid recommends allowing $200 per person for meals, as none are included. Mandatory travel insurance can be booked through Intrepid from $54; the cost varies based on trip length, time of year, and the traveler's age. Travelers must purchase a multi-entry visa for Nepal, which is $25 for 15 days or $40 for 30 days. Visas can be obtained at Katmandu's Tribhuvan Airport, but Intrepid advises applying for one prior to departure through Nepal's embassy to avoid long lines at the airport. Upon your arrival in Katmandu, Intrepid will arrange for a group Chinese visa, required for entrance into Tibet (the cost is $63 for US citizens). You're required to send a clear scanned copy of the front page of your passport to Intrepid at least 60 days prior to travel. Prices are per person; no additional fees for single travelers. Group size is 4 to 16 participants. When booking, refer to trip code FRE. Read these guidelines before you book any Real Deal.
Book by: No deadline; based on availability.
Contact: Intrepid Travel, 800/970-7299, intrepidtravel.com.
Why it's a deal: The $2,035 rate breaks down to about $145 per person per night and covers accommodations, a flight between Katmandu and Lhasa, ground transportation, the services of a group leader, and taxes. You'll benefit from the expertise of a tour leader and the small group size. Plus, you'll spend part of the trip staying at traditional monasteries, which will give you an authentic glimpse into the life of Tibetan monks and nuns — something that would be tough to arrange on your own. And Intrepid Travel takes care of travel arrangements for the entire two-week stay for you, which is convenient and ensures lower rates than you'd get if you booked independently.
Trip details: The Tibet Unplugged package includes a total of three nights in Katmandu, Nepal, and 11 nights in Tibet at various guesthouses and monasteries (the names of which Intrepid doesn't release in advance since they are subject to change).
An airport-hotel transfer is not included in Katmandu, so your best bet is to take a cab (250-500 rupees or $4-$8) to Hotel Marshyangdi where you'll meet your group leader and fellow travelers. At this time, you'll turn in your $300 local payment and $63 visa fee and complete the Tibet entry permit.
The 55-room hotel, your home for the next two nights, is located in the heart of Thamel, an area popular for its restaurants, shops, and nightlife. There are no scheduled activities, so you can stroll the narrow streets of the Nepalese capital at your own pace, stopping by the crowded markets and bazaars in the Old City, paying a visit to the palace of the goddess Kumari Devi at Durbar Square, or riding a bike to the ghats that line the holy Bagmati River.
You'll catch a short flight on Air China from Katmandu to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. You'll spend the next four days sightseeing on your own while getting acclimated to being more than 12,000 feet above sea level. Major attractions include Potala Palace — with its pavilions, stupas, and Buddhist artifacts — as well as Jokhang Temple and the surrounding Barkhor devotional circuit, which has a bazaar where you can haggle for prayer wheels, images of the Buddha, wood carvings, and carpets. Try to squeeze in a visit to the Dalai Lama's summer palace and check out the private zoo. In the evening, head to the Drepung or Sera monasteries for a debate session with the monks.
On the morning of day eight, you'll go on a scenic 10-hour drive to Gyantse, a small town in the Nyang-chu Valley southwest of Lhasa. There's an attention-grabbing hilltop fortress, Gyantse Dzong, that overlooks the town. You'll spend a night in the former wood-trading center packed with historic landmarks like the site of the 15th-century Pelkor Chode Monastery and the Gyantse Kumbum, a three-dimensional model of the Buddhist universe whose five stories represent the five steps to enlightenment.
Next is a two-hour drive to Shigatse, the seat of the Panchen Lama, the Dalai Lama's number two. Shigatse is home to the well-preserved ancient Tashilhunpo monastery, where you can encounter hundreds of devotees at any given time. Looking for an authentic souvenir? Browse the stalls at the busy Shigatse bazaar for yak wool and butter, antique jewelry, and fur hats.
The following morning, you'll travel for four hours by bus to Sakya, the base of the Sakya sect of Buddhism, where you'll spend a night before proceeding to the Rongphu Monastery. Perched at an altitude of over 16,000 feet, the early 20th-century monastery built by the Nyingma Lama has (not surprisingly) spectacular panoramic views. While staying at the monastery's simple guesthouse, you may even get a chance to join the nuns during their evening prayers. This part of the trip includes admission to nearby Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) National Park and a two-hour hike to the Everest base camp.
A four-hour drive then brings you to the village of Lao Tingri, where you can experience rural Tibetan life and take in views of imposing Mount Everest. Stay overnight before proceeding to Zhangmu on the border with Nepal. You can expect to notice the landscape and humidity levels change as you near the border — where the Tibetan plateau abruptly ends.
You'll cross into Dhulikhel, Nepal, at the foothills of the Panchkhal Valley, an old Newari settlement that resembles a Victorian town. Spend the night and then make your way back to Katmandu. You'll stay one more night at Hotel Marshyangdi before heading home.
Before you go, visit the tourism Web sites of Tibet and Nepal.
Getting there: This package doesn't include international airfare. Here's an idea of what you might pay for a round-trip flight to Katmandu, departing on Sept. 7 and returning on Sept. 21, 2008: $1,503 from New York City (Qatar Airways), $2,034 from Chicago (Qatar), $2,119 from Houston (multiple carriers), $2,148 from L.A. (Qatar), and $2,510 from Miami (multiple carriers). Prices are based on a recent search on Kayak.