We toured India in March 2014. While I had visited the country once before on business, we decided to explore more of this fascinating country as tourists.
Before our trip, I had several people ask me “why are you going to India (for vacation)?” In response, I would say the following: We love to experience the variation that exists in our world. To us, vacations are not just about lying on the beach (which certainly we enjoy), but also about getting to experience cultures that are different from our own.
India is an amazing country with some of the most stunning sights in the world. Add to that the cultural and religious diversity, the history, and the landscape, and for us those were enough reasons to go. We were not disappointed.
I will say that India is a bit more of a challenging country to visit on your own than some other places. Below are a few tips that should help make your visit enjoyable.
Decide on a region to visit. There is a reason they call India the “subcontinent” – it’s big. While it’s possible to fly between major destinations all over the country, this eats up time and money and takes away from some of the cultural aspects gained while traveling through the countryside. We decided to concentrate mostly on the state of Rajasthan. It’s the most popular tourist region in India, and we figured it would be a good introduction to the country.
We flew in to New Delhi and out of Mumbai with Rajasthan being the main focus in between. Rajasthan (which is in the northwest part of the country) has a lot to offer and is home to many incredible 15th century forts (or Indian castles).
Determine your mode(s) of transportation. Traveling by train or bus certainly would be inexpensive, but there are a lot of hassles associated with train travel in particular – such as needing advance reservations (due to the volume of passengers traveling by train), navigating the details of the Indian train system website from the U.S., and then the logistics of getting from the train station to your hotel and to the various sights. Air travel is good in India. The local airlines and airports are efficient and good, with newer planes and on-schedule departures and arrivals. We took a few internal flights when needed.
Recommendation: Get a car and driver. Originally, I was going to hire a car and driver to get us from one location to the next, and then get another car and driver at the next stop. However, as it worked out, after a conversation with the company who drove us to Agra from New Delhi, we gave them our whole itinerary for the two weeks in Rajasthan and agreed on a price of $700, inclusive of the driver, comfortable van (there were four of us plus our luggage), gas, tolls, parking fees, etc. Quite a deal.
This meant we had our own personal chauffeur to navigate the Indian traffic and roads (quite an experience), take us to all the sights, recommend restaurants, etc. Visit www.kumarindiatours.com for more information. Splitting this cost by two couples meant our transportation for two weeks and about 1,600 kilometers or so (1,000 miles) was $350. We gave the driver about a 10% tip at the end of the trip.
Visit between November and March. We went at the end of March, and the weather was perfect. Even out in the Thar desert, the temperatures were just in the mid 80’s F. If you go later than this, you will end up being scorched in the desert or sweating in the oppressive humidity. The monsoon rains start in July or so.
Brace yourself for overwhelming poverty, chaos and crowds. The juxtaposition of incredible wealth next to destitute poverty is jarring. Although the economy of India is growing quite rapidly, there are millions of people living on next to nothing. Many towns look like they have been ‘bombed out’. There is rubble everywhere and numerous dilapidated or unfinished buildings. Some roads end all-of-a-sudden with no explanation/signage. You will see pigs going through piles of trash, cows, rickshaws, elephants, camels, and everything else you can imagine on or beside the roads.
The crowds I’m talking about are the locals. India has over one billion people and in the major cities the streets are teeming with seas of local folks buying, selling, wandering, eating, washing, urinating, sleeping and just living.
Learn to like (if you don’t already) Indian food. The Indian dishes (which we already loved) were great and there were typically two cuisine choices on the menus: Indian and Chinese. The Chinese dishes were good too. You might occasionally find pizza. Due to the variety of religions in India, you won’t find a lot of beef or pork.
Vegetarian dishes were very common and good. We did not have a problem with any food-related illnesses. Grocery stores are hard to come by, most locals buy their supplies from small markets. You can find little kiosks for snacks and drinks, but don’t expect to see a Safeway grocery store or Carrefour.
Dress conservatively but comfortably. The temperatures of our locations were in the 70’s and 80’s, I wore shorts most places, but in a few temples, long pants were appropriate. For women, capris and shoulder-covering tops are a good choice. Avoid calling too much attention to yourself.
Even tourist areas are non-touristy. Probably one of our biggest surprises was that even in cities with major tourist sites, the cities beyond the tourist attractions were just regular chaotic Indian towns.
While locals will want to take you to rug, jewelry and clothing shops, for the most part you’ll be hard pressed to find many “tourist traps” that often accompany major sights. We were surprised that Agra, the home of the world-renowned Taj Mahal, (except near the parking area for the Taj), was pretty much like any other Indian city, even with some dirt roads.
Take reasonable safety precautions. In our three weeks visit, we never felt in danger in any way, and felt very comfortable walking around even crowded streets and markets, including at night. However, be smart—don’t wear expensive jewelry, keep your wallet, money and phone protected. Be aware of your surroundings and keep track of your personal items just as you would in any populated area. I took a small laptop and iPad on the trip and when I didn’t have them with me, I just locked them up in my suitcase at the hotel. We did not have any problems.
Tipping is everything to the locals. Be prepared to tip small amounts for just about any type of courtesy or service. This is how many people make their living.