The closest airport to Manali is Kullu-Manali Airport (airport code: KUU) located in Bhuntar approximately 32 miles south of Manali.
Although Manali's nearest airport isn't excessively far, going overland from Bhuntar to Manali takes at least two hours or more because of the mountainous terrain. Road closures due to rock slides and snow are common from October to May.
High prices, flight unpredictability, and erratic airline schedules cause most travelers to opt for the bus to Manali rather than attempting to fly there.
Finding Flights to Manali, India
The small airport in Bhuntar/Kullu was once only serviced by sporadic flights from Kingfisher Airlines and Air India Regional. Alliance Air (Air India) operates flights to Kullu-Manali Airport, Manali's nearest airport.
Deccan Charters (Himalayan Bulls) offers sporadic flights to Manali from Chandigarh by helicopter.
Flights to Bhuntar Airport are subject to weather and volume; expect frequent cancellations. You'll need to book directly on the Air India website (https://www.airindia.com) or book tickets through a travel agent for charter helicopters or smaller carriers.
About the Bhuntar / Kullu-Manali Airport
The Bhuntar Airport, also known as the Kullu Airport or Kullu-Manali Airport, is very small and serves a low volume of passengers. The government has planned to upgrade the outpost for a long time.
Until the runway upgrades happen, only two planes may be parked on the runway at any time. The airport is surrounded by tall peaks and subject to winter weather, making the approach extremely challenging for pilots. Flash floods from the nearby River Beas also sometimes threaten the runway.
The Kullu-Manali Airport is set in a deep valley, making approaches by plane very challenging for pilots. Helicopters are easier for accessing the remote airport.
Getting From the Airport to Manali
The most comfortable option for making the mountainous trip to Manali is by private taxi; they handle the winding roads better than buses.
You can purchase fixed-rate taxis at a stand approximately 100 meters outside of the airport. Beware of rogue drivers claiming to be "official" in hopes of intercepting your business before you reach the official taxi stand.
Travelers on a budget or those who want to look around Kullu before heading out to Manali can easily grab public transportation from the airport to town. The town of Kullu is located only six miles from the airport. Once in Kullu, cheap public buses regularly make the bumpy trip to Manali. Plan for a slow, jarring, potentially crowded ride to Manali.
An Alternative Airport for Manali
Another airport option for accessing Manali is Chandigarh Airport (airport code: IXC) located in Chandigarh, the capital city of Punjab, India. The airport is around 193 miles (310 kilometers) south of Manali. Getting from Chandigarh to Manali takes between six and nine hours by taxi, depending on which route your driver takes.
With more reliable flights and better facilities, Chandigarh Airport is much larger and busier than Bhuntar Airport, however, travelers are still faced with an arduous overland journey to Manali after the flight.
Other Ways to Get to Manali
Being slightly difficult to reach makes the mountainous town of Manali that much more alluring!
Although flying in Himachal Pradesh can be a real hair-raising experience because of the weather, mountains, and high elevation, buses to Manali are an even greater test of nerves and patience. Take precautionary measures if you're prone to car sickness. Avomine (promethazine) is sold by local pharmacies for preventing motion sickness.
To Manali From Delhi: Volvo nightbuses make the 14-hour run from Delhi to Manali; expect a bumpy, winding trip through the mountains. People who suffer from motion sickness are inevitably miserable on the infamous bus route. Buses typically do not have on-board toilets, however, you're driver will take frequent breaks to calm his own nerves after plying the steep roads.
Sit on the right side of the bus for better views, but be prepared to see how close the tires regularly come to the edge of the steep drop-off!
To Manali From McLeod Ganj/Dharamsala: Travelers leaving McLeod Ganj, the home of the 14th Dalai Lama and Tibetans in exile, can get to Manali via a 9-hour tourist bus journey. Buses depart nightly at 8:30 p.m.
You can book tourist buses in India through travel agencies located everywhere or ask at your accommodation. Check with the travel offices first as the staff at your hotel reception may simply walk next door to the same travel office and tack a commission charge onto your ticket!
The is no train service from Delhi to Manali. The nearest rail stations are in Chandigarh and Ambala Cantonment in Haryana.
Arriving in Manali
Most tourists who arrive in Manali immediately get a tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) or begin walking north (uphill) through town to stay in the Old Town. Vashisht, across the river, is a popular option for backpackers.