Friday, October 25, 2013

So you're traveling to India...

Tips for Americans in India

A friend and former colleague of Tabitha's contacted her the other day for tips on traveling to India, since she was planning on attending a conference there.  This wasn't the first time we'd been asked a similar question, and fortunately, we had previously prepared a "guide" for our American friends and family who were attending our wedding in Tabitha's home country.

Rashtrapathi Bhavan, New Delhi (kinda like the White House, I think)
This is what we came up with.  First, a few disclaimers:
  • I've only been to India twice, for about a month cumulative time.
  • I was with a native Indian (my wife), who I have quizzed endlessly on differences between here and there, and who speaks two of the most common languages.
  • Unlike some other trips, we planned heavily for both.
  • Despite Tabitha's best efforts, I am largely still an ignorant American.
On our trips we made the most of our time, visiting Chennai, Delhi, Agra, Bangalore, and Kerala, and I'm sure we could spend another month at least before we had been to all of the "must see" places.

So here's our unofficial travel tips.  I've edited it somewhat to make it more general to India, and not just Chennai.

General stuff:
  • You get what you pay for! I will say this again, but the general idea here is that cost generally equals benefit in India.  I feel like if you're an American, you have probably learned the hard way that there is an optimum price point beyond which you're paying too much for too little.  Whether it's the "extended warranty" or the endless list of possible upgrades on that new car you're looking at, you've probably grown cynical of diminished returns.  While I'm not saying you can't find a way to waste your money in India, I am saying that point of diminished returns is much higher, especially when it comes to services (e.g. tour guides) and hotels.  Keep this in mind.
  • Consider getting an international SIM card online or an international plan from your phone company.  India has recently become very restrictive of distributing numbers/SIM cards, even to Indians, and having a phone can really save your day.
  • India is not a homogeneous culture.  At the time of this writing, there are 28 states and 8 territories in India.  I say, "at the time of this writing," because it seems like they're making more every day.
  • There are thousands of minor languages and dozens of major ones.  Because of the British influence, most people at least understand English (so don't think your comments or discussions are private!).  In tourist areas, almost everyone will speak English.
  • The Taj Mahal truly is a wonder of the world.  Unless you're making several trips to India, take the opportunity to see it. 
The Taj Mahal - Don't miss it!

Preparing for the Trip

  • Be safe, be smart.  Just like in the US, there are places that are not safe for, let's say "blog-reading people."  Poverty and crime are a problem, so always be aware of your surroundings and trust your instincts.  
  • Plan your day out in advance. Stay oriented. Know where you're going, how to get there, and how you're going to get back. If you have a phone, make sure you have the number of a cab company.  For the worst case, have the name and number of your hotel so they can send you a car.
  • Stay in tourist-friendly areas.
  • Check for travel advisories for the state and city you're heading to.
  • A note about beggars and street vendors: They’re everywhere in public. Don’t make eye contact, and don’t engage.  A polite “no thank you” or even shaking your head is engaging.  If you give anyone money, you will attract many more, instantly.
  • It’s better if women don’t go out alone.  This was true before the recent headline events involving both tourists and Indian women, and it's probably even more true now.
  • Clothing: Keep in mind that India, despite its Westernization, is still a conservative country, so it's best  to dress appropriately.  As a tourist, curious people will stare at you anyway, so my best advice is don't give them too much to stare at!
If you want to ride a horse on the beach, this is your man.  If you don't, he's still your man.  He really wants you to ride that horse.

How to get an Indian Visa:
Some of the police in India are a little more than just traffic cops.
  • List of vaccines
  • Note that most cities are not rural areas, so unless you are planning on visiting rural areas, you can avoid getting the rural vaccines. It is still a good idea to get the Typhoid vaccine though.
  • You will also need a prescription for an anti-malaria drug.  There are a few, so get the one that has the least side effects (seriously, read the side effects).  It make you sleepy, so I take it with dinner.
It's just like the US...  just a little different.
Credit cards and Money:
  • Most places take credit cards.  Make sure you’ve notified your CC company that you’ll be in India.
  • That said, you should still have local cash on hand.  If your hotel has a cashier they will probably exchange for you.  We were surprised that a local credit union in the US had worse rates than the 5* resort we were at in Kerala, but your mileage may vary.
  • Most consumer goods cost roughly the same in India, maybe a little cheaper.  Handmade things and services usually cost less.
  • A beer at a nice restaurant in India will cost about the same as a beer in a nice restaurant in the US.  A massage, on the other hand, would be much cheaper in India.
  • When we were there, roughly 1000 rupees = 20 USD.
This could be any mall in the US, but it's not!
  • Power in India is 220-240V.
  • Most of your small electronics will do this range, but your plug will be wrong.  You’d need an adapter in these cases.  Read the power brick to see – it should say something like 120-240V.
  • Most of your big electronics won’t do this range.  
  • If your device doesn’t do 240, then you’ll need a converter.
  • But any kind of converter you get will need to be rated to handle the current.  This means that using something that pulls a lot of juice, like a US hair dryer, won’t be worth the trouble.
In the lobby of the Taj New Delhi
Notes about hotels:
  • You get what you pay for! As I said before, this applies to almost everything in India, but the price difference between a barely adequate hotel and a 5* hotel can be as little as $20 per night.  Unlike the US, where affordable (i.e. not cheap, not luxury) hotels are pretty much all the same, so you might as well shop around or make a reservation "sight unseen" on a site like Hotwire, a relatively small amount of money makes a big difference in India.  I cannot emphasize enough: make a list of the best hotels in the area you're staying (Tripadvisor is great for this) and then look for a good deal on those.
  • You will probably get better rates over the phone (i.e. call the hotel in India)
  • They often have “specials” for early bird rentals, or extended stay (3+ days)
  • American hotel chains that are usually 3* are often 4 or 5* in India – check the ratings through a site like
  • The breakfasts at 5* hotels are great.  It’s worth trying to negotiate that into the price of your room.
  • Hotels can negotiate prices and amenities.
  • Many hotels will keep your room stocked with bottled water for free.
  • The best places (e.g. Taj hotels) will learn your patterns and even try to anticipate your schedules.  It's a little creepy at first, but then you may come to like it.
A small sample of  the breakfast buffet at the Lalit Ashok in Bangalore
Good hotel brands:
  • GRT Hotels and Resorts
  • The Residency Group
  • Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces
  • Hyatt Regency
  • Radisson Blu Hotels and Resorts
  • Courtyard by Marriott
  • Trident Hotels
  • Chola Group of Hotels
Rooftop dining in Bangalore
Airline Tickets:
  • For airline tickets, try to shop around for tickets before buying them.
  • Setting up a daily alert from Kayak or Expedia is a good idea and fare changes usually occur on Tuesday nights/ Wednesday mornings.
  • Sometimes travel agencies can get better deals.  Tabitha has used Travel Universe before.
  • Try if you need domestic tickets in India (i.e. you’re travelling around the country after you get there).  They have a US office to help people plan flights in India. 
Tour guides enrich your experience, run interference for you, and make sure you see the best stuff.  Our guide in Agra had a graduate degree in history and cost about $70 for the entire day, car and driver included. 
Tourist Attractions and Guides:
  • If you’re planning on doing any real touristy stuff beyond shopping, e.g. going to a historical place, it’s best to get a guide, especially if it’s half a day or more.
  • They’re not very expensive, they keep you from getting accosted at the tourist places, and they interface with all of the tickets and security people for you.
  • This is especially true if you are traveling to get there - it's better to have everything booked ahead of time and a nice person holding a sign with your name on it when you off the plane or train,  rather than getting accosted by "guides" looking for people who didn't plan.
  • If you’re going to the Taj Mahal especially, we used a good company: Travel Bureau India. We also used their services in Delhi and they were good.
Dining at a Greek restaurant on the 13th floor in Bangalore
Eat, eat and eat! :D
  • There are so many amazing restaurants in every major Indian city with a wide variety of cuisines. 
  • Again, like so many other things, you get what you pay for.
  • Remember not to eat street food (since the water they use to cook the food is of questionable quality) and no matter what, always ONLY drink bottled water. 
  • When in doubt, the better hotels and resorts usually have excellent restaurants.
Stick to beer!  Kingfisher is the most common brand.  Blue is my favorite.
Bars/ Pubs/Drinking:  
  • Most (anywhere nice/good) places will only serve 20ml of liquor in a mixed drink (less than a shot).  For this reason, we suggest sticking with beer and wine.  
  • Indian whiskey is also fairly decent; at least drinking it straight you see how much you’re getting.
  • Liquor stores aren’t like in the US.  They’re basically a desk that you walk up to.  They’re shady, so it’s best to avoid them.
Every bar I've been to gives you tasty snacks when you order a drink.

Shopping for Souvenirs:
  • If you go to enough shops in a city (or really in the entire country) you'll start to notice that most tourist-focused shops have the exact same sort of carvings, weavings, tapestries, etc.  If you have the time, therefore, it's good to price-compare.
  • When walking into any shop, expect more attention than you're accustomed to.
  • Like many countries, if you focus too much on any one piece, they'll assume you want to buy it.  
  • Trust your instincts when haggling.
  • If you can find them, handicraft shops with actual fixed prices exist.  In Chennai, Victoria Technical Institute ( VTI) is a state run store where most of the revenue from sales goes back to the local artisans. Prices here are labeled and non-negotiable.
An auto-rickshaw ("auto") seen from inside an auto

How to get around in the city: 
  • Traffic in India is insane.  Don't even think about driving.
  • Unless you love to bargain with local auto rickshaws, taxis are the easiest and most affordable way to travel.  Good hotels will have cars available too, but they'll be something like 2-5 times as expensive.
  • Cabs should have a meter, whereas the “autos” meter will probably turned off, and they’ll bargain with you for the price.  If you take an auto, you will always pay more than a local, sometimes a LOT more.
  • Your hotel should be able to call you a cab.
  • Many drivers will try to take you to shops to buy souvenirs, because they get a kickback from the shop owner. It is absolutely ok to forcefully say no.
  • If you like your driver, get his contact info (his phone number, not the company's) so you can use him again.
  • Avoid local buses and trains, as they will be extremely crowded.
A meter in an auto.  1,000 Internets to any American who can get a picture of one of these that's actually on!

So that's our list of tips for Americans in India.  How did we do?  What did we miss?  Add your comments below!

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