In this post we will focus on how to travel to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), with an arrival in Lhasa. While you can get connecting flights from major cities in mainland China to Lhasa, or fly directly from Chengdu or a few other cities, we recommend going first to Xining, as an important step for acclimatizing.
Here’s what we recommend:
Step 1: Book a train or flight to Xining
Xining is not in the TAR, so you don’t need any special permit to book travel there. In terms of acclimatization, when your destination is Xining it doesn’t matter if you fly or take the train, so you can choose which is more convenient for you.
Note: If you book a flight all the way to Lhasa, you will have trouble when applying for the Chinese visa. Better to book a roundtrip from your home to a destination in mainland China, like Xining, Beijing, Chengdu or Xi’an, then book a separate flight or train to Lhasa. When you apply for the visa, you will show only the roundtrip flight to the city in mainland China.
- Use a travel agent of your choice specializing in China travel:
You can book your domestic flights and trains through our Tibetan partner agents but there is a hefty service fee imposed by the booking services they have to use (variable by ticket) as well as a much smaller fee by our partner agents (less than $10).
In this case, using our agents is not so much helpful to the local Tibetan economy because the agents only barely recover their costs for booking domestic flights and trains. However, it is super convenient to book through them, as they handle all the details and deliver your ticket to you. Also, they are happy to help as they want you to get your trains and planes to Tibet so you can come to Tibet.
- Use an online agency like Ctrip, eLong or China Highlights
We always prefer to support the local Tibetan economy rather than large Chinese services like this, but in the case of the domestic flights and trains there is no way we know of to support the Tibetans.
- Do it on your own
Here are some resources if you want to brave booking the train or flight on your own:
If you are worried about the process and don’t mind the service fees, just ask your Tibetan agent to do it for you. Otherwise, check the online agencies above for the best price and book through one of them. China Highlights has a good user interface. We don’t really recommend trying to get tickets on your own unless you have a high tolerance for hassle.
Step 2: Book the train from Xining to Lhasa
For this portion of the journey, you must have the Tibet travel permit, which you must obtain through a licensed Tibet travel agency. Depending on the airline, you can sometimes book a flight to Lhasa on your own, without your permit, but you need your original permit to actually board the flight. If you book through one of our partner Tibetan travel agencies, they will deliver your permit to your hotel in China a few days before the flight. For trains you can book on your own, and then you need a copy of your permit to board a train to Tibet. If you book through a Tibetan travel agency, they will deliver the copy to your via email for the train.
The booking options are the same as Step 1 above.
Even though there is a service fee for booking through a Tibetan owned agent, we would do this, just to have all the elements of the Tibet trip with one organization. But if you feel comfortable booking the train tickets online through Ctrip, eLong or China Highlights, go for it. (On the other hand, we strongly recommend getting your Tibet tour through a Tibetan-owned agency.)
Some important tips:
- Book your train travel over 30 days in advance, as tickets to Lhasa are in high demand, especially in summer but also in spring and fall. Tickets go on sale 30 days in advance so you must be prepared to buy them at that point, or to have all the necessary dates and information to your travel agent in advance of that date.
- Avoid travel on the hyper-busy Chinese holidays: https://www.officeholidays.com/countries/china/
- Except for the Chinese holidays, prices for domestic flights can fall as you get closer to departure date so it is not always the best deal to book far out.
- If you are flying, research your airline! None of the domestic Chinese airlines are great, but it’s good to get the best you can. (See this 2012 survey of the Worst airlines in the world)
- Always check the change or cancellation policies of any service or website you use.
- General Chinese train info:
- TripAdvisor for trains in China:
- China Highlights on how to buy a train ticket in China: https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/transportation/how-to-buy-train-ticket.htm
- The Land of Snows on train travel to Tibet: