Trekking in the Everest Region is some of the most beautiful in the world, and getting there is an adventure of its own. Nearly every trek begins with a flight from Kathmandu to the Tenzing-Hillary airport in Lukla, a small single landing strip airport high in the Himalayan mountains. It is the sole vehicle approach to the Everest Base Camp trek, and many others in the region.
Lukla rests at 9400 feet elevation (2,860 m), and its airport is a hub of trekking and shipping activity throughout the year. Nearly every trekker and piece of equipment comes through this airport, and it has received a steady increase in traffic over the years.
The flight from Kathmandu to Lukla is pretty short, often only 30 to 45 minutes. In that time you’ll see first hand why overland travel in Nepal can be so difficult as you pass over one isolated mountain valley after another, watching the terraced landscape of Nepal’s interconnected mountain ranges pass below you.
Is the flight to Lukla Safe?
The Lukla airport has a reputation as the most dangerous in the world. However, To put things in perspective about 20 or 30 aircraft land in Lukla every day during the peak season and almost all of the 30,000 trekkers who visit the area annually fly into Lukla. While it’s more dangerous statistically than a typical commercial airport, it is still pretty safe. The last accident involving a passenger aircraft was in October 2008 and since this time the aviation officials and airlines have become more strict on the acceptable flight conditions and regulations for aircraft making the journey. This has greatly improved passenger safety, but the flight to Lukla can still be a nervous one.
When it comes to safety our focus is to get our customers on one of the first flights of the day. Once you book a trek and send us your passport details we will immediately book your flight so it’s important to send us this information quickly once you have made your deposit.
Due to the number of trekkings groups we run in the Everest region we get a good priority with the airlines for our guests. In general, our groups get on either the first or the second group of flight going out each day. We pick these flights because the weather tends to be much more stable and the visibility is better for landing first thing in the morning. Getting early flights is one on the key things we focus on to ensure our guests safety and try to minimize delays in their itineraries.
Planning for Delays at Lukla
Lukla’s landing strip is short and it runs to the edge of a large cliff face, making the approach very challenging. The airstrip has a single possible approach path through the windy valley it overlooks, and only very small aircraft and helicopters are able to make the journey. Due to its position and elevation, weather conditions and visibility can change rapidly. This make the flight a difficult one to schedule or predict. The airlines do not take chances with weather conditions, and will return a flight to Kathmandu anywhere along its journey rather than risk an unsafe landing if conditions have changed since takeoff.
Delays with Lukla flights are very common. These can happen any time of year, but are especially likely around monsoon season (late May to early Sept.). If your flight is delayed we will reschedule you on the next possible flight. As conditions can change so rapidly this may be very soon after your scheduled departure, or as much as a few days later – it is very difficult to predict. This can be pretty frustrating, but is simply part of the journey to the Everest region. We strongly recommend you add at least a day or two to the end of your trip to give yourself some flexibility in the case of any delays.
Extra days should always be scheduled at the end of the trip, this gives you flexibility with your trekking itinerary in case of any weather delays. Here are the suggested numbers of extra days based on the trekking season.
Sept. 10 to May 10: 2 extra days
May 10 to June 1: 3 extra days
Sept. 1 to Sept. 10: 3 extra days
June 1 to June 15: 4 extra days
Aug. 10 to Aug. 30: 4 extra days
These are a good guideline and in our experience are sufficient nearly all of the time but at the end of the day it’s up to the weather.
What About Luggage Delays at Lukla?
Its not common but it is possible that your luggage will be shifted to another flight or delayed by the airline. The important thing is to make sure you have all your valuables and anything that you might need on an urgent basis like a prescription medication in your carry on. Luggage delays or bags misplaced by the airline are out of our control but we will do our best to get your gear to you on the trail.
What About Helicopters to Lukla?
Helicopters have a little more flexibility in their approach to Lukla, and can often make the flight in weather or visibility too poor for a small plane. It is sometimes possible to shift your flight plan to a helicopter instead, though this can be expensive and is no guarantee of an on schedule departure. If you decide to take this route we will help you make arrangements with the helicopter company and refund you the cost of your plane ticket upon your return to Kathmandu. We work very closely with both airlines and helicopter companies to ensure our guests are able to make the most efficient trip whenever possible.
How Much Does the Lukla Helicopter Cost?
If you do opt for a helicopter you can expect to pay around $400 to $600 extra per person. Helicopter rates vary as a rule and increase when demand increases. That means the helicopter will be the most expensive when everyone needs one and the cheapest on nice sunny days when the flights are running normally. The rates given by our team in Kathmandu may not always match what is offered locally on the mountain. If you’re waiting on a flight back to Kathmandu it can be worth asking at the local office in Lukla as well. The extra seats on a flight are basically a wasted asset, so prices are always changing as they’re trying to fill every seat on every flight.
What are the options to get back to Kathmandu when the Lukla flights are canceled?
The best option is just to plan extra days on your trip and wait for clear weather, but if you’re stuck in Lukla you will probably find yourself looking into options as well.
Trekking from Jiri: If you want to avoid the flight to Lukla it is possible to make the approach to Everest Base Camp overland through Jiri. This path is the one originally used by Sir Edmund Hillary’s expedition, and was the only path until he oversaw the construction of the airport in 1964. This path involves a long bus ride from Kathmandu and adds about 5 days of fairly rugged trekking to the trip as you move through the rural and mountainous villages of rural Nepal on your approach by foot. You can see more about this option here.
Hike out to Salleri: It’s two long days of hiking from Lukla to reach Salleri from where it is possible to get a jeep to Kathmandu, a 10 to 14 hour ride on pretty rough roads.
Helicopter to Paphlu: If helicopters are limited in availability they may only be available to shuttle guests to Phaplu which is an airstrip lower in the valley close to Salleri. We can arrange the jeep from Phaplu to Kathmandu. Be prepared for a 10 to 14 hours journey on rough roads. If you have extra time in Nepal you might be better waiting an extra day at Lukla for the weather to clear.
Helicopter to Surkhe: Surkhe is just a small village below Lukla where helicopters sometimes land as the visibility is better. It’s about an hour hike up to Lukla from Surkhe.
Will Travel Insurance Cover Flight Delays to Lukla?
Some policies will cover “trip interruption” that is a result of a rescheduled or canceled flight and will reimburse you for missed international connections or extra travel expenses. Our Company can provide the required documents for your insurance company in case you need to make a claim. We suggest you call your insurance company and see exactly what they cover before you arrive in Nepal.