Making Sense of the Madness: Understanding Travel in India

Every old man on the bus was demanding “MOVE, you and your big ass backpacks are blocking the aisle!”.  Or at least what we assumed they were saying.  In reality, a half dozen agitated men plus another few women were all pointing at us and demanding something incomprehensible through broken teeth in a language which was probably one of India’s 22 official languages.  It seemed that everyone wanted us to move somewhere other than where we were standing in our hard won spots in the bus aisle.  The only thing between us and moving anywhere were the other 1.4 billion people standing in the aisle with us.  But they weren’t the problem, just us.  We had fought to get on this bus as it rattled past, barely slowing to allow the hordes of riders to enter.  One of us had to dive into the back door while the other sprinted towards the front entrance where there was a just enough of an open step to hold a body braced against the doorway.  It seemed that everyone in India was between the two of us as we rode the only bus with enough room, hoping it was going in the right direction.  Even the family of five sharing the single seat moped to our left looked quite a bit more comfortable.

It was obvious to everyone else on the bus.  We were in the way, and were too stupid to realize it.  This was a common theme as we traveled around the country, in search of wonders which would be worth the misery we were enduring to get there.

 

It is no secret that we had mixed feelings from our travels in India.  We recently posted our impressions and ideas about Finding Ways to Like India, where we detail the majestic, annoying and grotesque parts about travel in this country.  There is a lot of information which we wish we knew before traveling to India.  This next post explains the logistics and insights which we found useful during our visit.  Make sure to also check out the 15 Most Impressive Things to See in India.img_9277India is a very budget friendly travel destination.  Our forty days in the country cost around $2,800, roughly $70 per day for a couple ($35 per person).  This includes our flight from Nepal, all transport within the country, food, visas, accommodations, entertainment and attraction entry costs.  During our visit, the USD was trading for roughly 65 Indian rupees, so an easy conversion could be done by adding 50% to the price and moving the decimal (e.g. 100 rupees was just over $1.50).
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Negotiating

  • Most everything is negotiable, depending on how much energy you have.  We had the most practice negotiating with street vendors and rickshaw drivers, but also got reductions in various stores.  Items with listed prices, such as sit down restaurants, are typically fixed and non-negotiable (or at least less negotiable).  Government services such as trains, public buses and historical sites are also fixed.  Buses do not have prices listed so you do have to watch out for attempts to overcharge tourists.
  • To become familiar with prices for various goods or services, we would ask several vendors to get an idea of the average stated price.  Tourists are seen as easy money, so costs are almost always inflated, leaving more room for negotiation.  We typically saw prices offered at 1.5-2x value, although there were several blatant attempts to charge us 3-5x the local price.  We would always offer about 80% of what we were willing to pay, as it is customary to raise your offer at least a little.  Be quick to walk away if they aren’t being reasonable, which usually gets the negotiation back in your favor fast.  The most common opening line from a merchant is “where are you from?”.  While this sounds like a friendly intro, it is often used to set the price based on your home country.  We found that it is helpful to state that you live in Mumbai, for instance, which adds credibility to your knowledge of local prices.

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  • It is best not to use higher end hotels as landmarks when hiring a taxi or rickshaw.  The more money that the driver thinks you have, the more your stated rate will be.  Instead of giving an expensive hotel as a landmark, tell him to take you to the hostel next door.  We also found that those waiting at transport stations try to charge more than those found just outside of these convenient areas.  They claim “it’s a government imposed fixed price” (It’s NOT).  If you are willing to walk down the street a few blocks you’ll get a much more reasonable rate.
  • As a general observation, people in North India tried to overcharge us more often and by larger amounts than in South India.  We found that the south often operates on actual prices without the need for heavy negotiating (ex: hotels and markets, but you can still try).

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Accommodations

  • Prices range depending on amenities and location.  Comfortable mid-range private rooms with attached bath can typically be booked in person for 500-1000 rupees in the north and 600-1500 rupees in the south.  Air conditioning is the most expensive add on, typically pushing the cost up anywhere from a couple hundred to a thousand rupees.  We were comfortable without A/C everywhere in the north during our November visit, but coughed up the extra money in some of the southern cities which were much more humid.
  • We rarely booked our guesthouses in advance.  We researched what area we wanted and then walked around until we found a properly priced and hygienically appropriate room.  This strategy would save 30-50% when compared to rooms listed online.  Some smaller homestays and guesthouses do not advertise on the major hotel booking sites and they are typically priced more reasonably.

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  • Room standards are different than in Western countries.  Sheets and pillows are often stained, and beds typically do no have a top flat sheet.  We carry ultralight insect repellant silk travel sheets with inflatable pillows which we use as a barrier between us and the bedding.  You can see our selections in our full world trip packing list.
  • Availability of hot showers vary between instant heating, slow to heat gas heaters, or a hot water bucket shower.  Bathrooms are typically a wet bath set up without a separation from the toilet area.
  • It’s rare to have toilet paper or towel provided so bring your own.
  • You must be prepared to supply your passport and visa upon arrival.  Many hotels do not have a photocopier and request to keep the passport until they can get it copied.  We found it helpful to keep a few extras so we didn’t have to leave our passports with the hotel.

Foods

  • India is a mecca for food.  This is a reason to visit on its own, with regional cuisine ranging widely from state to state.  The majority of Indian food served in other countries is in the Punjab style from the northwest.  This area is famous with foreigners and Indian tourists alike for their “Dhabas” (Punjab style family restaurants).  We were blown away with the varieties, flavors and ingredients which was unique to this area compared to the rest of the country.
  • Local meals are anywhere from 50 to 250 rupees.  As with most countries, less fancy and less touristy means significantly less cost.  We found some of the most amazing food at hole in the wall spots frequented only with locals.
  • Restaurant hygiene tends to be questionable.  It is common for food to sit unprotected with nothing to keep flies off.  Serving may be done with bare hands, and dish washing is usually a dip in a bucket of water.  Hand washings options are limited for customers and restaurant workers alike.  These conditions may be uncomfortable for Western tourists at first, but something you quickly get used to.  This is where Delhi belly originates.

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  • Meat is often stored without refrigeration.  As with many tourists we met, we opted to eat no meat in India.  Many people and some of the major religions do not condone meat consumption, so there are delicious pure vegetarian restaurants everywhere.
  • Tea (referred to as chai, chai tea, or masala chai) is available everywhere.  It is boiled up by vendors on the streets, in restaurants, and served out of pots on buses and trains.  It may be made in a variety of fashions, with ingredients ranging from just tea, milk and sugar to ginger, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and pepper.  The northern areas often boil it all together and filter it into cups, while the south tends to make the tea stronger and separately and then mix it into boiling milk.  Drinking a cup with the locals is the quickest way to gain acceptance.  The price for a cup on the street is most often 10 rupees.
  • Water is mostly unsafe for foreigners.  We carry an ultralight water filter and used it to filter tap water throughout the country.  This saved a lot of money, but most importantly, kept us from using hundreds of plastic bottles.  There are few recycling programs in India and bottles will end up on the street, in the rivers or oceans, or being burned.  You can see our filter in our world trip packing list.
  • Cooking classes are widely available from local chefs and homeowners for minimal cost (as low as 1,000 rupees).  We joined a few of these and learned to cook all types of regional fare.
  • Walking food tours are a great way to get a guided introduction to some of the interesting street foods.

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Transport

  • Trains and buses between cities range in price based on comfort.  The cheapest options are local buses or second class (2S) trains without reserved seating.  These could cost as low as 20-100 rupees between cities.  Air conditioned reserved seat buses and trains will typically be anywhere between 250 and 1000 rupees, with costs higher in the south.
  • We spent many hours riding in local buses, which is a less than desirable experience.  The government sets these up as the cheapest possible option to help locals, and the price is subsidized by the sheer number of people that will cram onto the bus.  It is not uncommon for the aisle to be filled with 2x more people than are filling the seats, with more hanging from the open doors on the side.  They often do not come to a complete stop, instead requiring people to run to or jump from a moving bus when entering and exiting.  These buses seemed to be the only method of transport around many of the cities we visited in the south, although multiple options for reserved seat buses and trains were widely found in the north.  There is typically no timetable or schedule available as they depart when full.

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  • Charter bus transport can be arranged through any of the numerous travel agents in the country.  These are available in A/C, non-A/C, chair, semi-sleeper (reclining), and sleeper options.  You can take an overnight bus to cut down on hotel costs, but get a sleeper in the front of the bus for a less bumpy ride.  When booking a ticket, ensure that you have a confirmed seat assignment, know exactly where the bus will be parked and what company will be providing the transport.  Also make sure you get a receipt for your ticket and take a picture in case it goes missing.
  • Trains book out several days to weeks in advance, so advanced planning is typically necessary.  These tickets can be reserved online at irctc.co.in, although the system will often inexplicably not work.  Tickets also can be reliably purchased in person at the station without a fee, but you’ll need to fill out a reservation request form for the agent.  There are numerous class options available depending on the train.  Class codes can be confusing, but are best described on the official government railway site.  We have traveled on 3A (three tier A/C sleeper), CC (A/C chair) and SL (sleeper) classes, all of which were surprisingly comfortable and safe.  SL and 2S are the only ones available without A/C, and carry significantly cheaper rates.  2S are unreserved seat and are notoriously crowded, so we chose to avoid these tickets.
  • Bringing a pillow for the sleeper trains and buses is essential.

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  • For short trips, rickshaws / tuk-tuks are the go to method.  They are everywhere all of the time, so finding one is never a problem.  They are typically cheap to get around town at 70-150 rupees, but can get closer to 300 for further trips to airports located out of town.  These prices are always negotiable, but ensure that you restate and receive a confirmation of the agreed price before getting in the ride.  It is also prudent to have your location open on GPS (maps.me or similar) to confirm your direction and ensure that you are going to the right place.

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  • Metros and Uber are available in some of the larger cities.
  • We found downloaded movies, podcasts and books essential to pass the time for long trips.
  • Plane flights require a paper boarding pass which will get stamped each time you go through security.  They will not allow passage with an e-ticket, and will have to hold on to your paper copy when going through security.

Scams

There are constant attempts to take advantage of unwary tourists.  Most are harmless or easy to identify, but ensure that you pay attention during your visit.  We came across several during our trip, including:

  • Restaurants will bring additional dishes that you did not order (or did not realize you ordered) due to difficulty communicating.  This may be intentional or innocent.  Make sure you clearly indicate what you actually want.
  • Tuk-tuks may drive you to the wrong destination and then demand additional money to get you where you need to go.  This did not happen to us as we always watched our path on GPS but heard of other travelers getting conned into paying more to make transport deadlines.

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  • There are people that will find any way to take advantage of your situation.  It is not uncommon for random people to offer you cheap hotels while you are walking on the street with your packs.  They will quote a low price and mention all of the amenities which you are seeking.  Upon arrival, none of what you were told will actually be true.  The person is simply trying to refer you to some hotel in exchange for a fee.
  • Everyone in India is a professional guide.  Whether walking down the street or visiting temples, someone will offer guide services.  These are not legitimate and should be ignored.
  • We had someone claim that our purse would not be allowed in a temple and that we should leave it with them.  We clearly did not fall for this.
  • People will approach you on the street and feign interest in your home country, etc.  This almost always will turn into a reason to visit their shop or take their guide services.
  • Apparently, there are groups that deliberately misdirect tourists from their destination.  These could be claims that the hotel, restaurant, or attraction you are seeking is actually out of business.  Some even phone accomplices further up the street who reenforce the incorrect information to add legitimacy.  The directions given will typically lead you to their own shop, restaurant or hotel.

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Technology Travel Tips

  • We got our Indian e-visa approval online prior to arrival which allowed us to skip a huge line at immigration.  There is a separate line for e-visa approvals, and we were the only people there.
  • Credit cards are not widely accepted.  ATMs may run out of cash or have small limits so plan ahead.
  • Google and TripAdvisor and largely worthless in India for finding restaurants, shops, ATM’s etc.  Places listed are not there, while actual stores and restaurants cannot be found online.  Hours shown are merely a suggestion.
  • Be mindful of who is writing reviews for restaurants, attractions, etc.  After some extremely disappointing visits to various attractions, we started to notice the the bulk of positive online reviews were being submitted by people designated as a “local guide”.  We found the foreigner reviews to be the most accurate.
  • SIM cards are extremely cheap.  We set up an Airtel 4G data only prepaid account for 84 days with 1 gig daily for only 293 rupees.  You’ll need a passport and passport photo with the application.  Do not leave the city until your SIM is activated, usually 24-48 hours.  These shops are mostly independently run and others cannot help you if your card was set up through a different store.  Unfortunately we left town before our second card was activated.  The paperwork was never submitted and the money was pocketed by the employee.  The store information was inaccurate on Google and we were never able to contact them.  It’s more reliable to buy a SIM card from a corporate store in a major city or at the airport and NOT from a local franchise.

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Miscellaneous

  • There are many languages in India, which tends to vary state to state.  People from different states can typically not communicate with each other, so English is used as a common method of speaking.  Most people speak at least a few words of English, so communication for visitors is not extremely difficult.
  • Roads are busy and drivers typically don’t follow any discernible pattern.  There are few stop lights or signs and at times vehicles drive in both directions on either side, while people and livestock roam throughout the streets.  As best we can tell, drivers attempt to claim the right of way by being the first to honk their horn, whether it be at another car, pedestrian, or simply when approaching an intersection.  With few breaks in the traffic, crossing can be challenging.  It is essential to look both ways as vehicles may be coming from literally anywhere.  Holding out your hand in a stop signal, slapping windshields and playing chicken are all parts of getting across.

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  • Women do not show their knees in India.  Most dress falls to the ankles, and foreigners who wear bare legs will attract lots of unwanted attention.  Most men do not wear shorts either, but this will not turn as many heads.  This is also the case at beaches.
  • We have travel shirts and pants with secure pockets to deter pickpocketing, and a theft resistant purse with zipper clasps along with mesh and wire reinforcement.  You can see which items we carry in our world trip packing list.
  • Laundry facilities are limited and expensive when available.  There are buckets in almost every shower which can be used for hand washing.
  • Pharmacies are commonly found and carry a wide variety of cheap medications and toiletries which you may need during your trip.
  • We found it essential to carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer in our bags.
  • Alcohol is not widely available and limited to few stores due to religious beliefs.
  • You will have to make peace with human and animal suffering while traveling in India.  It is everywhere and unavoidable.  You can’t help everyone or everything unless you are Mother Teresa, who did most of her work in India.  If you don’t know much about her, there is an amazingly inspirational movie about her life on Netflix titled The Letters.

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  • India has lots of trash.  It is on the streets, in front of stores and at the beach.  Be prepared for this to make you really mad.

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Make sure you also take a look at previous posts from our adventures in Africa and Nepal.

Feeling like long term travel needs to be in your future?  Stop by our Trip Planning posts, where you can learn how to prepare for a lengthy trip, see how to never check your bags on planes, find out about travel security and make sense of travel insurance, amongst others.img_8397

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Nemorino says:

    A useful collection of tips!

    Like

  2. Lucas says:

    Love the write ups! Hope you guys are doing well.

    Like

    1. We are looking forward to a trip to Japan soon…

      Like

  3. Ellen Massey says:

    Megan, I enjoy reading your blogs. Thanks for sharing! What a wonderful adventure you guys are on.

    Like

    1. Thank you! Glad you are enjoying. We certainly are having a good time.

      Like

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