India will change your life
Way back in 1990, 6 months travelling around India did indeed, re-adjust my outlook on life. And today in 2016, India remains this eternal experience of learning, amusement and wonder.
As I write this from the top side bunk of an express train, family life and food hawkers swirl below me: the view like a third-storey apartment balcony, watching the buzzing Indian street below. Meanwhile Wei, my GF, sleeps in the top bunk across from me, oblivious to the cacophony.
This is now my 4th time traveling India and having spent over a year in total across this vast land, it’s amazing how little has fundamentally changed for the foreigner travelling India (except for the widespread use of the internet and swarms of holidaying locals now packing many tourist sites; like what’s happened in China with the burgeoning middle class).
So, much of what I learned way back still applies to travelling India today.
The cheapest options are usually grotty. But amazingly, clean single rooms can still be found for 200+ Rupees ($US4) in 2016 !
However, as a couple we wanted an A/C double room – essential in summer with the current heatwave hitting 43 celsius – which came with private bathroom and wifi. This averaged $US 12 – 20 per night.
Wifi is widespread these days.
When you clarify the first price – bargain it down a bit, you’ll probably get 30-50% off in the low hot season. And always check that it includes any extras like service charges and local taxes.
Only pay 1 night in advance (or even better: pay when you check-out, if possible) so if the room is too noisy or a team of bedbugs ravages you, you can get out the next day without the extracted pain of wringing a refund from a recalcitrant manager.
ALSO: get a receipt or you could be paying for your room again when you check out as incompetent or devious staff may claim that you didn’t pay at check-in.
Despite claims by sites like Booking.com, online reservations don’t always save you money on cheap hotels (in fact, you can end up paying more). This practice is only worthwhile to avoid taxi touts insisting on taking you to their commission-paying hotels or lessen delays if you are arriving with a late night flight. Or if your arrival is amid the busy season with a festival in town or something. Then, book online.
– Trains –
Best way to travel long distances but still quite basic and crowded yet okay; fun.
Book in advance.
3 A/C class is the best value but like having massive family around you. 2 A/C for more space (only 2 berths each side) and more expensive options give more privacy. Sleeper is also good. Like 3 A/C seating/sleeping arrangements but with open windows and no A/C (which is fine out of hot season).
FORGET Second Class which is an unreserved scrum and fight for space (only for the machismo 20-somethings desperate to save cash and “experience the real – cough – India”. PS: Traveling this class of travel will wear you down very fast).
Unless you’re lucky or utilizing the foreigner booking office available at big cities DON’T BOTHER buying at ticket at the station yourself.
Why? Very timing consuming.
Also travel agents (ask your hotel for a recommendation) often have quota tickets they can access when the train is seemingly full. Generally, they buy the ticket online (which requires a Indian SIM and bank account to do the transaction) and you pay 100-200 rupees ($1.50-$3 per person) on top of the ticket price for this service.
This agent option saved us tons of time, hassle and got us tickets very last minute every time. (If you’re an extreme budget traveler with a 6 month visa, then maybe you will shun this advice or find a workaround to buy online yourself).
– Planes –
Good value for huge distances that would otherwise take days overland.
Recently, we flew from Leh to Varanasi (as the mountain road to Manali was still closed by snow). First check prices and options on skyscanner.net then go to an India carrier like JetAirways.com to possibly save more (as we did).
– Taxis & Auto-Rickshaws –
ALWAYS AGREE A PRICE BEFORE STARTING OUT !!!
Some cities like Agra – for Taj Mahal – now have Govt. regulated services with listed prices outside the Railway Station that proves a useful guide to fair pricing (having said that many drivers will still try for tips or detours to shops to get commission; be firm or you lose).
In other places get a general idea from a local but always expect to pay a bit more.
You won’t get local prices often, simple. Some prices for long distance taxis seem set in stone and you will get a meager reduction if you push, while others taxi prices in tourist areas are way inflated – so bargain.
– Buses –
In most cases train travel is preferable but not always possible. Buses range from old bangers with broken windows to deluxe AC and prices are pretty much set.
Every Express train we caught – except the Taj Express from Delhi – was delayed or arrived late. Anything from 1 – 4 hours each time. Even our sleeper bus from Jammu to Srinagar was delayed at a checkpoint for 6 hours resulting in a 20+ hour trip. Traffic chaos is the norm.
POINT BEING: Allow for delays across the country, don’t follow a tight schedule, watch your timing with international flights both getting to the airport – Delhi Airport Express Metro is awesome – and with possible long lines at Immigration and Customs.
FOOD & DRINK
Stick to drinking bottled water. Cleaning teeth with tap water is fine. We always ate street food and at local restaurants that were not looking so clean, and had no issues. But for novices: be prepared for diarrhea (I was surprised we didn’t get a dose actually, as it’s part of the course of travelling India).
TOUTS, SALESMEN & BEGGARS
Touts – annoying young men talking to you for sales or other money-extracting reasons are the bane of the world traveller. However, Indians are more polite and easy to shake off with a “No, thank you” and maybe a few answered questions for the persistent ones.
Still, it gets tiresome dozens of times across a day and sometimes being silly, humorous, curt or aggressive is the only answer to this plague. Largely, it’s very easy to deal with.
Beggars seem less than 20-odd years ago but that’s probably just me getting old and blaise. Yes, there’s lots but you can give according to mood and situation.
Don’t be too generous, otherwise a needy / greedy flock will materialize.
Likewise, don’t give to kids as it undermines the family if they are making more than their working parents. Worthy candidates include the aged, crippled, sick and Sadhus: Hindu holy men.
Mostly you have to say no, sorry, or ignore the pleas. (Face it: If Bill Gates can’t save the world, then no one can.)
BUYING EVERYDAY ITEMS
Simply, don’t waste your breath and time and your love of India trying to save 30 cents or whatever each day. Get to know that prices of stuff, like a bottle of water for example and return to honest shopkeepers.
But accept that you may pay more – and get ripped off at times. Some travelers get so fu*kin’ uptight about pennies that it ruins their outlook on India; instead of enjoying their travels they are more concerned with accountancy.
It happened to me recently. The money was counted out. But suddenly the transaction was declined. Later checked my online bank account and surely enough: Was charged 10,000 rupees ($US 150) that I didn’t receive.
Luckily, I had elected to get a receipt at the time of withdrawal. However, take a photo of the ATM withdrawal receipt immediately, otherwise the ink will disappear within days and you’ll be left with a blank slip !
NOTE: SBI – State Bank of India – ATMs proved very modern and reliable.
INDIA TRAVEL ADVICE – Last Word
Much more could be said but it’s the issues surrounding hotels, transport and touts that struck me most as areas of concern. Personal security, food safety, what cash to take, etc, are all Travel 101 topics and the same rules apply as traveling anywhere.
But I will leave you will this important idea that will overwhelmingly determine whether you love or hate India.
Many people focus too much on the negative.
The incessant street noise, the cow shit, the cheating touts and taxi drivers, the appalling traffic, the crushing poverty. Yes, it’s all there and more, and increasing …
But, it is only part of India.
Maybe just 15% is too-in-ya-face Vs the 85% pure wonderment.
Try to focus more on the genuine social interactions, the jaw-dropping monuments, the immense landscapes, the eclectic cultural offerings of an extraordinary country that seems – to me, to embody the whole world travel experience in one weird, intense, single-country trip.
Travelling India is an education, a circus, an all encompassing experience … Enjoy the show.