Should I use auto and bicycle rickshaws?
For travelling within a city, the auto rickshaws are a very cheap way to go, and bicycle rickshaws are even cheaper. One major drawback for auto rickshaws, however, is the the pollution - these little two-cycle engines spew enormous amounts of particulate pollution that often ends up right in your face, in addition to the toxic emissions of all the other vehicles on the road.
The air quality can be so awful that I would recommend bringing with you dust mask that are used at construction sites, or a good bandana to wrap around your face.
Should I take busses?
Avoid busses if you can, unless you're on a tight budget.
Should I use the train system?
Absolutely. You should take trains between cities at least a couple of times during your time in India. The Indian rail system is an amazing feat of organization, employing something like two million people, the largest single employer in the world.
Taking the train gives you quality time with the locals like no other venue. You can make some wonderful connections with the folks, gain valuable information that you can't get elsewhere, and open the door for some interesting opportunities and adventures.
What class should I travel on in trains?
The most 'luxurious' class is called 'air-con' or 'chair' class, and this can come in handy during long rides through the hot Indian climate. Most trains seems circa 1960 with windows that are yellowed.
But you should try first and or second class at least once to really get the feel of India. They have fans on the ceiling which actually work sometimes. But you can go between cars or try to get near a window if you want to cool yourself down with a blast of hot Indian air.
On all classes of trains, you can watch the train track go by through the bottom of the toilet, so watch wear you step if you're ever walking the line in India!
Note: Keep alert if you are getting off at a particular stop - sometimes trains can take off quite abruptly. Be prepared for your stop.
Is the India Railpass worth it?
Wasn't worth it for me, using trains intermittantly.
Should I fly directly to India from America, or should I stop off on the way?
Absolutely you should break up your trip. If you're flying westward, spend a few days in Hawaii, Tahiti, Hong Kong, Japan, whatever stopover city you air carrier stop at. If you're flying eastward, a few days in Europe is worth it.
The culture shock of India can be so intense that being burned out from 24 hours of flying is a recipe for a very unpleasant start of your India travels. I didn't stop on my way back from India, and living in California, that means 24 hours of almost non-stop air travel. Never will do that again, it was the longest day of my life.
How should I travel between cities?
For a few inter-city journeys take the train, just to get the experience of the Indian countryside, meeting the locals on the train. I made several good connections on the train. This can, however, get old very quickly, and if your money to time ratio is in favor of money, go for flights between cities. I found Indian Airlines reliable and on schedule, but others have differing opinions and experience. The pleasure of being in a clean, western style airport is sometimes alone is worth the trip!
Hotels and Sleeping Arrangements
How clean are the hotels?
The 5 and 4 star hotels are pretty much like any high quality western hotel, and many of them are western chains. But then the quality drops dramatically to 1/2 stars - anything considered 3 stars or less in India is basically a crap shoot. After a while, I started to rate hotels based on the number of insect and blood stains on the wall near the bed.
It's good to start your stay in India with a higher class hotel, just to break yourself in slowly. The four star hotel that I first stayed in, despite the mints on the pillow, had a slightly run-down quality that seems to be ubiquitous in India.
Should I bring sheets or blankets for sleeping?
Some hotels are so sleazy that the sheets are dirty, or there are no sheets at all, especially in cheap hotel and dormitory situations You may want to buy sheets when you're in India, they are very cheap. Unless you're staying in the higher elevations, blankets are not needed. Not worth carrying around unless you need them.
How should I plan my itinerary?
Pre-trip itineraries are significantly more costly than itineraries generated while in India. In every city there are a plethora of travel agents. Ask around for the best (and most scrupulous) agents.
Best plan, which worked for me: Plan an itinerary for the first few days in India, including tours and guides. Plan itineraries for the next three or four days, or when moving from one town or city to the next. Learn the ropes, get street smart, and do it yourself.
What kind of luggage should I bring?
Use a large soft duffle bag or backup.I bought an Eagle Creek "Expidition trunk with a large volume capacity which had both luggage inline rollers and backpack capabilities. Check out the "Wheeled Travel Packs" and Tanker Trunks at http://www.eaglecreek.com/catalog.htm. You can get soft trunks up to 9000 cubic inch capacity.
How should I carry my money around?
In a money belt or in a passport pouch that is carried around the neck. This way it is always in front of you, in your sight. I carried all my valuables in this pouch (rupees, dollars, passport, travelers checks, etc.) under my shirt at all times out and about. Any travel store has these passport pouches.
What kind of camera film should I bring?
I brought mostly ISO 100 35mm film and that was a mistake. India is so polluted in many areas that daylight is reduced significantly. There are also many small alleyways, streets and areas which do not get much sunlight. Consider bringing ISO 200 and ISO 400 film to handle reduced sun, shadowy and indoor shots.
What camera(s) should I bring?
To not miss opportunities, a 35 MM SLR camera, and a point and shoot camera carried in a waist pack for quick access. However, next time I go, it's going to be a digital camera.
What are some of the unusual items to bring along?
Two very important items are candy and pens for child beggars. Sandwich bags for various reasons, a sleeping bag pouch for dirty hotels, lots of Pepto-Bismol tablets. Also, see the Travel Item Checklist Section.
Should I use a guide?
Only in the first few weeks, or if you are doing a very special outing. Once you get a feel for getting around India, you can be your own guide, setting up an itinerary to your schedule and liking. At best, a guide may be helpful getting you into places that as a western tourist you would not normally have access to or even know about. I know one fellow who actually got into the Golden Temple in Varanasi, ordinarily strictly banned to non-Hindus, because of his guide.
Money Exchange and Scams
How should I handle adult beggars?
Give only to the most needy: the cripple (which are ubiquitous to the point of near overwhelm) and to the very old. Even then, in the big cities, some of the most need beggars are heroin addicts (particularly Bombay/Mumbai), hooked on 'brown sugar' from the nearby Golden Triangle of SE Asia.
The lack of a social security or welfare system in India leaves many extermely vulnerable.
How should I handle child beggars?
Candy for children in the cities. Children are often sent out to rake in money for their elders and are part of a larger beggar industry. Giving children candy breaks their whole act, they can't resist getting candy, and often forget about their duty to bring back the rupees. Children in villages invariably ask for pens, I guess there's no shortage of paper, but shortages of ink in Indian villages. Buy a package of Bic pen before you set off to India.
What are the classic beggar scams?
What are the expectations regarding tipping?
20 rupees is good for carrying bags, 50 in an upsale place. Lonely Planet a section on tipping. Many restaurant bills contain a service charge, which includes the tip, so check it out. Ordinarily, it's 10% for restaurants.
How do I deal with taxi drivers' fees?
Prenegotiate. Whatever they quote initially is too high. Most won't use a meter, and in many caes the meter is broken.
Just walk away if the price is too high -- it'll come down real fast. "friend, I don't want to buy your taxi, I just want to ride in it" is a good line. Maybe Rs 10 per kilomter... 15 in the city? Check Lonely Planet for more info.
Where should I buy souvenirs?
Ask around, avoid taxi driver situations, they're paid commission to bring you to places. Purchase souvenirs, especially heavier ones, in the last few days of your trip and purchase an extra suitcase.
Stay away from the most common areas, the tourists traps. Ask the locals, they always know the best places. Almost always avoid someone who has come up to you on the street. They are getting a commission by some souvenir shop.
One excellent way is to find a taxi driver that can be an informal guide. They can help you with shopping (while keeping the meter running, which is very cheap, relatively speaking).
Should I bargain with vendors?
Always! Be willing to walk away. In fact, try walking away, and notice how quickly the price comes down! Be firm, even though things seem incredibly cheap, you have to get into the mode of the local economy. Paying too much for items simply will make it more difficult for visitors who come after you.
How to best avoid being scammed?
If some tout asks you where are you from (and you will hear this question to teh point of nausea), tell them that you're from Australia..apparently the Aussies are considered less wealthy than their mates from the States, and Indians often can't tell the difference in accents.
How much money should I bring along?
Depends on your itinerary is - the quality of hotel you are willing to use, the kinds of restuarants you frequent, the modes of transportation, the amount of moving around you do. As time goes on, this becomes less and less of an issue, as you can use the ever increasing number of ATMs in larger cities.
In what form should I carry my money around?
Mostly cash, just a few travelers checks for emergency backup. For a two month trip, I kept around 500 USD with me, about 200 USD in travellers checks, and had part of that always on my person and the other part locked in my suitcase, including several hundred dollars worth of rupees, wishing to avoid bank lines as much as possible.
What forms of rupees should I exchange money for?
You will receive 'blocks' of money in various forms, and you must ask for 1, 5 and 10 rupee notes from the teller. The reason for this is to always have at hand small amounts of money for beggars. If you start handing out 100 rupee notes to beggars you will become the most popular person in town. They do talk to each other! Indian money is often extremely filthy, BTW, wash your hands after touching it.
When should I exchange my money?
Definitely take the time to exchange the money at the airport when you arrive. It will accustom you to how things work in India, standing in long lines, etc., and prepare you for stepping out into the real world of India, cash in hand.
Are ATMs available in India?
Yes, found and used them in Delhi, Bombay and Madras. Also found several American bank branches in these cities.
What is an encashment certificate?
It's a certificate that allows you to exchange your rupees back into local currency. When you leave India, you can change money back at the airport. They will ask to see your encashment certificates, so save them. If you don't have a certificate, you cannot change money back.
Health and Safety Issues
What do I do if I get sick?
Hotels will have doctors on call. The quality of heathcare is for the most part substandard relative to western care, and it is not unusual to be sent to SE Asia, such as Malaysia, for more serious problems. There are several hospital chains that are apparently reputable in Delhi and other large cities.
Note that there is very little regulation regarding prescription drugs in India, so if you want to self-prescribe, you can get just about anything over the counter in India.
Checkout the IAMAT Organization Web site for travelling medicinal issues.
What kind of shots should I get before going?
I received four shots, all at once, for the following diseases:
Polio (the childhood vaccine we all took weakens after a while)
I also took an oral vaccine for Typhoid
It is a good idea to check various websites to determine if there are any outbreaks of diseases in the areas to which you plan to travel
What about malaria?
I decided not to take malaria prevention medicine. The US medication has too many side-effects. If you really want to guard against malaria, wait till you get to India and get the European medicine. I took my chances and it was fine.
What are some strategies to avoid getting sick from restaurant food?
What about 'charas', 'ganja', hashish?
It's readily available, but don't buy it from a stranger on the street, it may be a scam to get you busted. I found that it was plentiful and cheap, particularly in Northern India, even though I wasn't looking for it. It can be purchased in stores in some locations. But be warned it is illegal, and possession can get you time, and you don't want to spend time in an Indian jail.
Should I drink the water?
No! The quality of water is substandard, and though you will ultimately drink the local water, in the form of tea or in your food, it's best to avoid as much as possible unless you've been there for several months. Even then it's dicey, IMO. With India's ever burgeoning population, water will be an ever increasing health issue as time goes on.
Is the bottled water safe?
Yes. Bisleri, and 'Yes', are two of the most comon brands of bottled water on the street. I had no problem with any of the brands I purchassed. But check the bottom of the bottle for holes and broken seals around the cap. They've been known to refill bottles with tap water.
I alway kept two bottles with me at all times, one open and its replacement. You will invariably find yourself in situation where you cannot purcahse water for some time, and discipline purchasing of bottled water is a health pre-requisite.
What other safety precautions should I take?
Use common sense. Despite it's overwhelming poverty, India is a relatively safe country. I never felt that I was in danger, but worked not to flout my western wealth. See the Safety/Security/Scams section in India Travel Tips
How much clothing should I bring along?
About one weeks worth. You can get your clothing laundered for a relatively inexpensive price, particularly in Bombay, and there is plenty of opportunity to purchase native dress - I ended up purchasing several 'kurta's, which is a traditional shirt in India that is popular in the west, popularized in the '60s.
Should I wear shorts?
I ended up not wearing shorts, wanting to blend in with the locals as much as possible. Despite the hot weather, very few Indians wear shorts. Besides your pasty white legs will stand out in a crowd and give new meaning to the term 'ugly American'.
How covered up should I be, so as to not offend the locals?
Bigger issue for women. The best policy to to try to blend in with the locals, which is not hard to do. Baring skin is mostly an issue in the the denser Muslim areas. See Lonely Planet for women.
How should I dress on the street?
Dress like the natives: short sleeves, long pants, and don't look like you are carrying around lots of money, dress as 'poorly' as you can. This is not so much for safety reasons as to limit you being a target for touts, scams and everyone else trying to sell you something. You're going to get that anyway, and it is definitely worth your while to minimize this awful inconvenience of travel through India.
How should I prepare for weather?
The driest weather seems to be October through January, and if you go through the non-monsoon season, which is the dead of 'winter' (India is slightly in the northern hemisphere), be prepared for weather that is much hotter and humid than you could ever imagine. Even if it rains, it doesn't cool down that much. Unless you're trekking in the Himalayas, a sweatshirt or windbreaker is about all you'll need for warmth. You will be uncomfortably hot much more than uncomfortably cold most of the time, except for the higher elevations. The exception is Bangalore, which has a mysterious and wonderfully mild climate, even though it is located in south central India. I found Bombay and Kochin to be akin to steam baths, even though it was November/December. Varanasi, in the Ganges river valley of Uttar Pradesh, can reach temperatures of 117 degrees Fahrenheit.
For the entire time of my travel, of two months or so, I could not detect the slightest hint of wind – it was totally still, even in the Himalayas. I suspect that it was a function of the time of year, or an unusual weather pattern.
Generally speaking, when is the best time to travel in India?
October through December. Time the travel from North India to South India accordingly.
How do I deal with the language?
What travel books should I bring along?
I brought both Lonely Planet and The Rough Guide. I found that they did not overlap that much, and by having both, I had a wider range of information than if I carried only one book. The Rough Guide has more low-end hotels and eateries listed, and surprisingly they often list different sets of attractions for the listed cities. If you can handle the weight of these two fat books, it's worth it.
What is the Internet scene in India?
(This is changing rapidly, and my information based on my late 1998 trip may be out of date). My experience is that all major city have numerous Internet cafes for email and general surfing. Rates may vary widely so check around, ask your fellow western traveler.
However, some cities have very little Internet connectivity; Varanasi comes to mind. As of 1998 there was only one national internet service provider, VNSL and its reputation left something to be desired. Internet connections in Varanasi, and in villages, are made via long distance phone calls, and so batch downloading and uploaded techniques are used to minimize connect-time and cost. Most internet cafes aren't really cafes, just computer farms, in sometimes very out of the way places. Cheap rent, I guess.