"Gar firdaus bar-roo-e zameen ast, hameen ast, hameen ast, hameen ast!"
Khusro rightly calls Kashmir a heaven, and this firdaus (heaven) doesn't come easy on the pocket, for obvious reasons. But broke millennials bitten by the travel bug (like myself), find cheap deals and pocket friendly routes to heaven. I just returned from Kashmir after a week-long adventure, after living the famous Khusro quote in person, and without burning a hole in my pocket.
Here's how you can do it!
Arrival and Departure
Considering that you are travelling from Delhi, like I did, it is advisable to take an overnight Rajdhani from Delhi to Jammu. The train fare is Rs 2,000, and it is a highly comfortable journey. After you get down at Jammu, you can find buses/SUVs plying to Srinagar and Anantnag. The bus/SUV will cost you somewhere between Rs. 450 and 1000, depending on your choice of transport and bargaining skills.
I settled on Rs 1,100 to reach Pahalgam via Anantnag.
For my return, I booked a direct flight from Srinagar to Delhi. If you plan ahead you can get a great deal with fare as low as INR 3200.
Travel expense within the valley
The train/flight fare is your only major cost through your entire trip, once you've reached the valley, you will find public commute at dirt cheap prices. After I reached Pahalgam, I was advised by my hotel staff to take a cab to beautiful places nearby like Aru and Betaab for a whopping INR 2500. I spent that day exploring the local market and found out that local Sumos go to Aru for INR 30 only, and they don't tell tourists about it, kind of like a little tourist scam they do!
The locals, hotel owners and cab drivers will not tell you about the local taxis, they will insist on hiring a full cab (or ponies) at exorbitant prices. Never fall prey to this scam, research before you go.
From Pahalgam I went to the scenic Aru and Betaab Valley (where Imtiaz Ali's Highway was shot) and Baisaran, the rates were minimal (INR 30 - 50). And, I'll be honest, at a lot of places I didn't even have to pay those thirty rupees, some locals were so generous and helpful, they would offer me a lift more than often.
After spending four stunning days in Pahalgam, I came down to Srinagar, again in a local taxi for INR 180. Again, the cabbies will force you to book an expensive cab, simply say no to them.
Upon reaching Srinagar, I traveled within the city (old city, Jamia Masjid and Hazrat Bal) only using the local bus, buses are very congested, but it's so much fun and easy on the pocket. I spent an entire day in Dodhpathri, an off-beat location near Budgam, no local transport goes here, so I went along with a Kashmiri friend.
Every night during my trip I had slept in a different bed, at a different hotel. I stayed at a three star, a cozy homestay, a lavish houseboat, a decent Oyo, and at an exquisite place which was something close to being a resort!
This one time I got so lucky to be upgraded from a standard hotel, to their main three-starrer hotel room with a Lidder river view! Good things happen once in a while when you're lucky.
All of these hotels, houseboats and homestays were well within INR 1000 per night (some for INR 500 too), so if you are two people, it is further half of that! If you plan ahead, or travel in a slight off-season like I did in July, you'll find superb deals.
If you are in Srinagar for multiple days, you are advised to stay in a houseboat for one night and have a magical Shikara ride (INR 300, which includes the floating market and usual commute to the Ghat) early in the morning. And then check in at a homestay for the rest of your time to get to know the local culture and save some bucks!
Kashmiri food is a reason good enough in itself to travel to Kashmir. The Kashmiri Pulao, Kashmiri Wazwan, Kehwa and Nun Chai, their typical biryani and so many regular and dry fruits, all of these are just extravagant pieces of heaven in your mouth. And if you just look around for some time, you'll find the right restaurants, you'll find some amazing pure vegetarian restaurants too, because of the heavy influx of Hindu pilgrims here.
I did not spend more than INR 200 everyday on food, as the food would always be filling and in large quantity.
So, are you already planning a trip to the heavenly Kashmir valley any time soon? Let me know in the comments below!