Pre-organised tours; every experienced budget-backpacker would rather avoid them due to their high costs and restricted day-to-day itineraries. But what are you supposed to do in a country with a limited public transport system? Well, I’m afraid to tell you that a tour in Mongolia is exactly what you need, to see the best the country has to offer. Having said that, there is still a way you can keep costs down and avoid the minute by minute itineraries. Here goes….
Don’t Book a Tour in Mongolia Before You Arrive
First, STOP STOP STOP looking to pre-book your tour in Mongolia online before you get to there. I spent forever researching tours online, reading reviews and sending endless email inquiries. Either everything was coming out far too expensive than I had imagined or the reviews were just not that great. In the end I gave up and decided to just head into Ulaanbaatar (the capital) and hope to find a cheaper and more suitable tour once there. Bingo – tour company shops everywhere, selling tours at least half of the price than anything I had seen online. Don’t worry if you don’t have a tour scheduled before you arrive in Mongolia.
Choosing A Tour in Mongolia
Once in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, you will have tons of options to choose from. You will first need to decide if you want to explore North, East, South, West or Central. After you have chosen which direction you want to go, you will need to have an idea of how many days you want to go for. We chose a 13-day tour through the Gobi Desert, in the South, combined with Central Mongolia, which is the most popular option. When inquiring about a tour, be sure to ask what is available to suit your preferences.
Find Other Travellers To Join You
When you have decided where in Mongolia you would like to go, try to find other travellers that would like to take a similar route. This won’t be too difficult to do, as you will meet people in your hostel, use social media to connect with backpackers in your area or even bump into someone who is inquiring at the same tour shop. Luckily, we found 3 fellow travellers in our first few hours of arriving that wanted to take a similar tour as us.
Regardless if you are a group of 1, 2 or 6, the tour will cost the same because the driver, car and fuel make up most of the costs; so why not make new friends, share the memories and split the cost of the tour with fellow backpackers. Usually, you can have up to 6 people in your group, but you may be a little cramped and sweaty in the old Russian mini-van with no air-con, so maybe consider a group of 5. We found 5 in a group to be the perfect number.
Organised Tour vs Personalised Tour
With an organised tour, everything from the sleeping bags, cooking equipment, food, activities and your nights’ accommodation are included and pre-planned. You will be given a set itinerary and you will often sleep in luxury ger camps and have a guide to cook your meals for you. With this luxury, you will obviously pay more. This is the tour option that you will see advertised in all the tour shops. The cheapest tour we found like this cost $50 per day per person for a group of 5 people. With very hard bargaining skills you may get this down to $45.
This is the option we opted for. With this option you hire a driver, choose your route and choose how many days you would like to go for. However, you will need to fend for yourself, by cooking food and finding a place to stay for the night. This may seem daunting in a country where there is mass open land and no other soul insight most of the time, but your driver will help you.
Each night our driver took us to a family ger. Here we had the opportunity to interact with local nomadic families, sleep in their ger tents and fully immerse ourselves into the culture. As for food, we stocked up at a supermarket before leaving the city and cooked our own pasta and noodles. Every few days you may come across small settlements where you can refill your supplies at the village shop. This option cost us just $19 per day per person and covered the costs for the driver and petrol. On top this cost, we had to pay for our accommodation, food and activities. Accommodation costs roughly $4, entrance to national parks cost $2 and food costs averaged out to $3.
So, lets quickly recap: wait until you arrive in Ulaanbaatar before booking your tour in Mongolia. Find fellow travellers to split the cost and be spontaneous and just hire a driver. By following these steps, you can cut your tour costs; From $80 per day to $19 plus accommodation, food and activities (around $8-9 per day).
We hope this has helped you in finding a suitable tour for you. Good luck in finding your tour and let us know how you got on in the comment section below.
Want more details of the full tour itinerary? Head over to out backpacking Mongolia guide.