India is a very, very large country. Though I spent 4 weeks there, I cannot claim to know or understand it. However, there were things that I learned when there that I wish I knew before going. Some (like the first one) you will find obvious. Others may surprise you. I hope all will be of help when you travel to India.
Travel to India – Basic Tips
- Drink sterilized water. This is critical for traveling India. As a reader has pointed out to me (thanks Sonja), carrying a steripen so that you can purify your own water rather than create waste in the form of plastic bottles is a good idea. But, if you do go the bottle route, make sure that it has not been tampered with. Make sure that the cap is intact. Some bottles have a plastic covering. Check inside. The cap was not intact on one that I bought. I took it back to the stand and they replaced it with one that was – no questions. Imagine the profit margin on taking an empty water bottle and filling it from the tap then putting a plastic wrap on it. Watch all water you buy carefully.
- Patience. Not everything will work on your timetable in India but, in my experience, it all does work. Like the traffic, India operates on it's own inner logic.
- I.D. – keep your driver's license handy. There are times such as on the trains where you may be asked for I.D. With your passport tucked away, it's handy to have a driver's license available.
- Travel Agents – It seems that Internet cafes and the like will set themselves up as travel agents with no official status. They simply understand how Indian rail works, etc., apply their knowledge to get you what you need and add a surcharge to your purchases. In one case I was charged 60 rupees per train booking, in another 100 rupees. The problem is that they are booking you on their rail account. If you change your mind you don't get your money back. The upside is that the amount of money lost is rarely significant in western terms.
- For foreigners – At the Taj Mahal and other locations there are separate lines for foreigners. At most places there are different prices for foreigners even if there are not different lines.
- To be left Alone – If you want to be left alone (and this can be a challenge at train stations and the like in India) act deliberately. Even if you're simply looking around to figure things out, do it as if you're looking for your driver and annoyed that he is not yet there.
- To be left Alone (2)– If (as a woman) you are being annoyed by a man offering you a rickshaw or tour of the city, look to the ground and say that your brother does not allow you to speak to strange men. I can't believe that I resorted to this tactic but I did and it worked like a charm.
Travel to India – Accommodation
(These tips are based on my stays at good quality budget hotels)
- Reservations – You can book by phone or email. In my experience, phone was easier. They simply take the reservation without asking for a credit card. Larger, chain hotels would probably ask for a card.
- Ask for a pick up – this seemed to work 50% of the time. When booking your reservation, ask for a pick up from the train station if that's how you're arriving. This is a wonderful service, especially if you're arriving in the evening. The hotel pays for the pick-up. You give a tip.
- Check your room – Before you agree to stay, check your room and confirm the price. No window? Ask for another or a discount.
- Payment – all the middle and budget hotels I stayed at took cash only.
- Ear plugs – if you are a light sleeper ear plugs are a good idea. Buildings in India are made of material like marble that bounces sound around. Staff in the lobby and morning religious rituals nearby can be loud.
- Hot Water – in many budget hotels you need to turn on the boiler about 15 minutes before you want hot water.
- Power – The power is sometimes shut off between certain hours every day. In my experience, two hours in the morning and another two in the afternoon.
- Expensive Hotels – if on a budget, I enjoy these luxury hotels and their views for a meal or drinks.
Travel to India – Trains and other Transportation
- Book in advance – reserved seats in the better cars go quickly so it's better to book your trains at least a week in advance. Depending on the train, CC, 2AC, 1AC are best.
- Buying at the Station – major train stations have separate ticket lines for foreigners.
- Watch your change – My first ticket was bought for me by a local with me in the foreigners' line. He paid for a ticket of less than 100 rupees with a 500 note and got change for a 100. He held his ground and was insistent despite people pushing him from behind to move on. Eventually he got his change.
- Trains are punctual – Some trains in some stations only stop for two to four minutes. Plan to get to the station early in case you have difficulty finding your track and car.
- Finding your car – if you have a reserved seat you will be in a designated car. The larger stations have electronic signs showing exactly where your car will stop – which is helpful when you don't have long to get on the train. If there are no signs, look for an official and they can tell you.
- Sleeper Cars – there are usually two toilets at each end of the car and at least one is western style.
- Left Luggage – if you're traveling by train and want to stop in a city for the day, show your onward ticket and, for 10 rupees a day, you can leave your luggage in a secure area while you tour.
- Retiring Rooms – Some stations have rooms that you can rent as long as you have an onward ticket. The cost is low and the accommodation is very basic.
- TukTuk Auto Rickshaws – much cheaper than taxis they easily accommodate up to three people plus luggage.
- TukTuk buses – these typically run up and down main streets of smaller towns. You can jump on and jump off – in Rishikesh the cost is 5 rupees no matter how far you go.
Travel to India – Shopping
- Take your time – There are always many, many vendors for every product. If you're going to be in town for a few days, say so and take notes of the products, prices and places so that you can go back if you want. I always found that I saved money by taking my time.
- First time? – Shopkeepers will ask you if this is your first time in India. It seems like a simple, friendly query but, in fact, they are assessing what to charge you. You may want to skirt the question.
- Chai? – If you show interest, you will likely be offered chai to keep you around. It will be more difficult to say no.
- Shipping things home – there are many stores that specialize in shipping your purchases home. Make sure that you get a receipt for your shipment. Word amongst travelers is that the system works well though I didn't test it.
Travel to India – Bathrooms
- Toilet paper – If you want toilet paper, carry it with you at all times. There are no guarantees that it will be in any bathroom in India. But don't put paper in the toilet. Put it in the waste basket so that you don't bung up their system.
- The plastic jug – The jug beside the toilet is for hygiene but it is also useful for adding a bit more flush to the system when needed.
- Find a Toilet – Flush is an app that can be useful for finding toilets in India and elsewhere.