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Travel Advisory:


10 Indian customs to know before visiting India

First, please dump the clichés.

FOR AGES, INDIA has been viewed as a symbol of the mystical and exotic East.

Dismissing India as a cliché runs the serious risk of placing India in a timeless zone outside of the real world, which is increasingly modern and complex.

India is a vast and rapidly developing country with twenty-eight different states and seven union territories. India hosts a great many languages, religions and cultures, which coexist and intermingle.

The real India is hardly the random (yet homogenous) assortment of the Taj Mahal, call centers, poor people and veiled women you might expect.

The India you'll actually encounter is a lot more diverse and complicated than that. Things are changing in India at a frenetic pace, especially in the big cities.

Hopefully, these tips will give you a better understanding of what to expect when you travel to India.



Temple Etiquette

Always take your shoes off before you enter a place of worship in India, and do not wear revealing clothes.

Travelers in India are often tempted to wear shorts, but it's crucial to keep your shoulders and the lower part of your body covered when visiting a site of religious importance.

As the land where four major religions originated, and many others arrived and never left, many Indian people take their religion very, very seriously.

If you are interested in exploring their religious sites - many of which can be of immense historical and archeological importance - please respect religious sentiments even if you are not a believer.



Prepare to be OVERWHEMED!!!

India carries the burden of three centuries of British imperialism, along with the weight of its own often reworked and redefined history.

The two make a very postmodern combination. The complications and contradictions of India's political realities will stun the first time foreign visitor.

You'll encounter huge, swanky shopping malls very close to massive slum settlements that reek of utmost poverty.
Many visitors who stay in India leave with a sense of accomplishment, after having survived the initial overpowering shock.
And rest assured: it is a shock to learn what it means to live in India (as over a billion of us do).



Public Displays of Affection

The beautiful lagoons of Kerala or the beauty of the Taj Mahal might make you want to sidle up to your partner and give them a quick hug and kiss, but think twice before doing that in public.

Even though you might catch young couple canoodling in public parks, it's best not to perform public displays of affection in India.



Sexuality and Women Travelers

White women traveling in India may feel very vulnerable and exposed to some of the Indian men that they might encounter.

Due to some cultural constructs, and also a great deal of curiosity, Indian men might have formed certain false notions of the sexual availability of the foreign woman.

I am not saying that every other Indian guy you meet will be a pervert, but street sexual harassment is a phenomenon that is unfortunately widespread in the country.

You might fall prey to this due to your increased conspicuousness. It's best to dress conservatively and keep yourself safe at all times.

Don't forget the basic safety rules you've learned in your own country, and also observe the way the local women dress and behave as an example.



Hands and Feet

There's a whole hierarchy of the body parts in Hinduism. The head is superior to the rest of the body, and the feet are lowest on the rung.

Feet are considered dirty in India, so take off your shoes before you step into someone's house. Don't step on anything important and if you do, immediately express your apologies.

It's a sign of deference to bend down and touch a respected elder's feet in India.

The left hand is customarily used for cleaning oneself after defecation, so Indian people never eat with their left hands. Also remember never to pass on anything - money or a gift - to an Indian with your left hand. The most conservative Indians might take offense.



Questions and Eyes

What might be considered intrusive in many Western cultures is only a matter of course in India. Also, people will generally be very curious about foreign visitors, and this can take the form of unabashed staring.

There's a lack of privacy among the teeming millions of India, and the concept of personal space as you know it might not exist.
Try not to take it too personally if people on the street seem to be staring at you all the time, and if Indian acquaintances and friends ask you questions that you think are none of their business.

Most of the time, it's just friendly curiosity, and if you smile at a staring stranger, many times you will get an amicable smile back. However, never sacrifice safety for the sake of politeness. This is especially true for women travelers.



You'll be Hounded

You might be seen as a rich foreigner thanks to the exchange rate, and many times you'll be followed around by beggars, beckoned into shops by over-eager store keepers, and hailed by expectant taxi drivers.

Make sure your local friends tell you what the standard rates are, because if you're looking to do some great shopping or have a comfortable public transport experience, you need to be in the know.



Indian Festivals

With so many religions and cultures, you will come across fairs, celebrations and merrymaking of all kinds.

Whether it is the shimmering lights of Diwali, the colors of Holi, the extravaganza of Durga Puja, Navaratri, Onam, Dusshera, Id Ul Fitr and Christmas, you'll encounter indigenous customs, amazing Indian cuisine and total festive abandonment.



We are Like This Only

English is widely used throughout the Indian subcontinent, and is the "co-official" language of the country. Indian English has a distinct flavor and inflection that differs as you travel around different parts of the country.

Official Indian English often uses many phrases that are passé in the West, so don't be surprised if you're doing some paper-work and someone asks you to "do the needful".



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Money and Financial Tips for India Travel

10 things for travelers to know when using a Credit Card in India.

Contrary to belief, India has a modern credit card payment system in place, accepting several of the major credit cards on the market. These cards can be used at restaurants, hotels, shops, supermarkets, and more, just as at home. Chances are you already own a credit card which will suffice when traveling, but tourists need to be armed with the most access to buying power and/or cash when traveling abroad.

I always carry a debit card (Visa), my regular credit card (Visa) and of course, my Skymiles American Express. What works best for each traveler is a personal choice. Below are some helpful tips to cover in preparation of an Indian adventure:

1. Carry a Visa or Master Card issued credit/debit card. Amex and Discover just don't have the coverage in India as the other two behemoths.

2. If you can't get a credit card because of a bad credit history then signs up for a pre-paid credit card. These are widely available through online offers but read the fine print before applying. Applicants send an opening payment, which becomes the "spending limit". At the end of the month a statement is sent, payment is due for any purchases, and the monies received will be credited back to your spending limit much like a regular credit card. This will not only help to improve a low credit score but ensure you have an alternative form of payment beyond cash.

3. At the very least bring a debit card to India. ATM's are sprawled across the country making cash withdrawals easy both in terms of access and not having to haggle on exchange rates. Your bank will automatically assign an exchange rate based on the open market. A service charge ($2-$5 on average) will be deducted from your bank account so withdraw the daily maximum amount to avoid multiple fees from multiple smaller withdrawals.

Tip: Avoid using debit cards at currency exchanges where additional fees may be incurred on top of ATM service charges.

4. Carry a back-up. Travelers with one card can be stuck should an issuing bank have to cancel accounts abruptly for security reasons. Bring a credit card and separate debit card with your trip's full budget needs available.

5. India's ATM PIN system is set to accept four (4) digits only at this time. International travelers will need to change PIN codes from anything more than a standard 4 digit code to prevent declined transactions.

6. Make photocopies of any credit/debit cards before traveling. This should include a front and back copy of each card. Block out the expiration date, personal photo and signature line. Leave a copy with friends, family or spouse and remember to bring a personal copy, which can be stored inside your luggage. If you ever lose a credit card or suspect your number has been stolen even though you hold the card, it can be canceled right away. The majority of problems with the cancellation of credit cards occur during travel internationally. Many travelers forget issuer names and numbers wasting valuable time when it could be at your fingertips.

Tip: Consider carrying credit card information in digital form while you travel. Some USB flash drives let you encrypt data, protecting your photocopied information from prying eyes. If you lose your credit card while abroad, simply decrypt the file on a computer. You'll be able to see a copy of your card and access important information.

7. If traveling with a partner or spouse, stay one step ahead with separate credit cards issued in separate names. Many couples have one account number issued with cards for each name. If one person loses their card, the other card by default is also canceled as they share the same account number. Request separate account numbers for individual cards from your issuing bank.

8. Inform your credit card issuing bank of your travel plans including dates of travel and destination. Some banks and credit unions cut off credit cards that are used 6 or more times in one day, to try and stop thieves from using stolen cards. Communicating with your bank beforehand can alleviate any reactivation hassles.

9. Be aware of conversion fees that many banks assess to convert charges in foreign currencies to dollars. Some banks do and some banks don't charge a fee, generally 1% of the purchase amount. If you carry several cards, check with the issuers to see which one offers the best deal on foreign currency conversion.

10. Avoid merchant currency conversions. Store owners will offer to convert purchases into your home currency but charge a fee as high as 7%, pocketing the difference without your knowledge. Have charges processed in the local currency to receive the best exchange rate as noted above in tip #3.

Bonus Tips:

11. If the magnetic swipe stripe doesn't work while paying at merchant establishments, don't keep swiping. Credit cards are blocked after 3 attempts. Avoid the hassle of having to call your bank, explain the situation and reinstate your card by asking the merchant to manually enter the card number. The option to manually issue a charge is usually located at bottom side of machine or by simply entering in the account number.



Coins and Small Bills: Why You Need Small Change in India

"Gird your loins" is the first thought that runs through my mind when suggesting travelers of India find, hoard and sparingly spend any coin they can rustle up. Maybe not the biblical reference, as much as the modern day definition of preparing for battle. Trust me on this, you will have to scavenge like never before to find enough change to last a multi-week journey through this country.

A walk of any market, in any city or village, will show you everyone else is already in on this tip. Locals carry coin and small bills. If you're using a car and driver service, your driver's car will be stocked with coins. As if by magic, when his stash runs low, you'll find it restocked one morning when you greet him. He fields situations daily where small bills fall from his hands like water. And you'll need these notes and coin for a variety of tips and small purchases like bottled water, soda or sundries. Here is what you'll need:

Bills (Bolded denominations are what you need most)

Available in Rs. 1000, 500, 100, 50, 20, 10 and 5.

Rs. 1000 are hard to break for everyday purchases so ask the front desk of your hotel to make change. Smaller bills are dispensed like the rarest object on Earth, so turn on your charm if you want the Rs. 10's and 20's.

Coins (All amounts are needed)

Available in Re. 1, Rs. 2, Rs. 5 and Rs. 10 (With rare exceptions, you will not see the 50 Paise).



50 Paise, Re. 1 and Rs. 2 coins comes in two styles and Rs. 5 coins comes in 4 styles as shown above.


How do you, the newbie tourist in India, find coin or small bills when many restaurants and shops round up to avoid giving exact change?

1. Frequent chai stalls, STD/ICO booths, and of course the local markets where you can more easily pay by Rs. 100 note and receive exact change.

2. If a merchant asks, "Do you have Rs. 2?" for your Rs. 22 soda, simply tell him no in order to receive the proper change. Small bills and some coin.

3. Stopping at temples? Ask the shoe attendant if he is willing to sell you some coin or exchange small bills for a larger.

4. Doormen at hotels deal with small tips as well as bathroom attendants. As above, ask to buy small amounts of their change.

5. Traveling by car/driver? Mention how hard finding change seems to be to your driver. If he doesn't offer, ask him if he could possibly find change overnight in exchange for a Rs. 50 note.

Keep your eyes open for other opportunities and don't be afraid to ask for exact change when merchants round up. Rs. 5 notes are rare, and typically beat up, so if you receive as change, ask to have swapped for a coin instead.



Avoid ripped currency



Ripped, torn or badly damaged currency is not accepted in India for payments of any kind. Merchants, taxi drivers, restaurants, and hotels will try to pass off ripped rupees to unsuspecting tourists. Be sure to check individual bills when change is received. If you're handed one of these sad bills, simply ask for a replacement while showing the rip. I have yet to run across a person unwilling to replace but unfortunately have unknowingly accepted bum money. Indian banks allow for ripped/torn currency notes to be exchanged for valid rupees. Keep your eye on your money or else someone else will profit.


 

India Security, Safety and Rules

India Customs: What Tourists Can Bring into the Country

A "tourist" is a passenger: Who is not normally a resident in India.

Who enters India for a stay of not more than six months in the course of any twelve months period for legitimate non-immigrant purposes, such as - touring, recreation, sports, health, family reasons, study, religious pilgrimage or business.

A tourist arriving in India shall be allowed clearance free of duty articles in his bona fide baggage to the extent mentioned below:

Cigarettes, Cigars and Tobacco Products

- Cigarettes up to 200 or cigars up to 50 or tobacco up to 250 gms.

Alcohol

- Alcoholic liquor or wines up to two liters

Personal Baggage

- Personal jewelry

- One camera with film rolls not exceeding 20

- One video camera/camcorder with accessories and with video cassette not exceeding 12

- One pair of binoculars

- One portable color television not exceeding 15 cm in size

- One music system, including compact disc player

- One portable typewriter

- One baby stroller

- One tent and other camping equipment

- One computer (laptop/notebook)

- One electronic diary

- One portable wireless receiving set (transistor radio)

- One cell phone

- Professional equipments, instruments and apparatus of appliances including professional audio/video equipments.

- Sports equipment such as one fishing outfit, one sporting firearm and fifty cartridges, one non-powered bicycles, one canoe or range less than 51 metres long, one pair of skids, two tennis rackets, one golf set (14 pieces with a dozen golf balls).



Foreign Currency

There is no limit on the amount of foreign currency, which can be brought into India. However, declaration of foreign exchange/currency is required to be made in the following cases:

1. Where the value of foreign currency notes exceeds $5,000 USD or equivalent.

2. Where the aggregate value of foreign exchange (in the form of currency notes, bank notes, traveler's checks, etc) exceeds $10,000 USD or equivalent.

Note:

- The free allowance shall not be pooled with the free allowance of any other passenger.

- The free allowance is not applicable to the following goods:

a. Firearms

b. Cartridges of firearms exceeding 50.

c. Gold or silver, in any form, other than ornaments.

- The goods over and above the free allowances shall be chargeable to customs duty @ 35% + an education cess of 3% i.e. to say the effective rate is 36.05%.

- Alcoholic drinks and tobacco products imported in excess of free allowance are chargeable to custom duty at the rates applicable to their commercial imports as per the Customs tariff Act.

- Import of Indian currency is prohibited.

- In case the value of one item exceeds the duty free allowance, the duty shall be calculated only on the excess of such amount.


 

Permits for Northeast India Tourists



Travel to the seven sister states of North East India by foreigners or Indians can be limited and requires the use of permits in some states. Ethnic issues as well as the sensitive nature and proximity to the borders of China, Bhutan, and Myanmar deems this necessary. A similar
permit is needed for travel along the eastern border of Himachal Pradesh and Tibet, however, with fewer limitations. Below is what tourists need to know by state updated as of April 12, 2012:

1. Arunachal Pradesh

"Government policy has opted for certain safety measures to allow for a gradual cultural interaction and influence in the state that is comparatively new in the field without hurting traditional values and degrading the state's pristine beauty".
- Arunachal Tourism

Indian tourists need an
Inner Line Permit. This is available from any Government of Arunachal Pradesh office.

Foreign tourists can visit in a group of two or more persons as against the earlier requirement of four or more persons. The stay permit for foreign visitors has also been extended to 30 days from the earlier permit of 10 days.

Foreign Tourists intending to visit Arunachal Pradesh require a Protected Area Permit. Foreign tourists will have to pay US$ 50 per head to Government of Arunachal Pradesh and
application for PAP should be applied through a local approved tour operator for maximum results. Read complete regulations here.

Foreigners can also obtain the Restricted Area Permit from the following locations:

a) All India Missions abroad

b) All Foreigners Regional Registration Officers (FRROs) at Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata

c) Chief Immigration Officers, Chennai

d) Home Ministry, Govt. of India

e) Home Commissioner, Govt. of Arunachal Pradesh, Itanagar


2. Assam

No entry permits are required for Indians or Foreigners


3. Manipur

Indian tourists visiting Manipur via Dimapur/Kohima require a
Manipur Inner Line Permit to pass through Nagaland, valid for 10 days. This is available from any Nagaland House, or Government of Nagaland office.

Foreign tourists as of January 1, 2011 no longer require a
Protected Area Permit (PAP). Under the previous rule tourists were required to travel in groups of four or more people, or as a married couple. Duration of stay was limited to 10 days, and only select areas could be visited including: Imphal, Loktak Lake, Moirang INA Memorial, Keibul Lamjao Deer Sanctuary, Waithou Lake, and Khongjom War Memorial.

The new rules only require foreigners to register themselves at the local Foreigners Registration Officer (FRO) of the district they visit within 24 hours of their arrival. Citizens of some specified countries would, however, continue to require an approval from the Home Ministry to visit these states. The ministry statement did not say which these countries were. This is a temporary change in effect for one year.

The PAP application process is included below for those tourists who may still be affected by the previous rules.

Apply for the PAP at least 4 weeks in advance of your visit. For best results, send your application to:

Delhi Manipur Bhawan
2, Sardar Patel Marg,
New Delhi, India

Ph: +91 11 6870101


There is an application fee of Rs. 10 unless you print the included form above. If an application is approved, a fee of Rs. 1500 will be imposed. Any extension of the period of the permit requires the payment of an additional fee to be decided by the State Government. Foreigners associated with Government projects will be given permit for full period of the work.


4. Meghalaya

No entry permits are required for Indians or Foreigners.


5. Mizoram

Indian tourists need an Inner Line Permit. The application is to be presented in person with two passport size photographs to any of the Liaison Officers posted in Mizoram Houses in selected cities and towns. However, tourists arriving by flight may obtain permit at Lengpui Airport, Aizawl.

Foreign tourists as of January 1, 2011, no longer require a Restricted Area Permit (RAP).

Foreigners must register themselves at the local Foreigners Registration Officer (FRO) of the district they visit within 24 hours of their arrival.


6. Nagaland

Indian tourists need an
Inner Line Permit. This is available from any Nagaland House, or Government of Nagaland office at a cost or Rs. 6 per applicant.

There is some confusion on the current status of RAP/PAP needs for foreign tourists as of February 2012. As of January 1, 2011 foreigners no longer require a
Restricted Area Permit (RAP)/Protected Area Permit (PAP) to enter Nagaland. Previously, tourists were required to travel in a minimum group of four people. They were allowed to visit all 11 district headquarters and specified places with this permit, valid for 10 days, with an option to extend for up to a month.

New rules introduced in January 2011 stated foreigners were only required to register themselves at the local Foreigners Registration Officer (FRO) of the district they visit within 24 hours of their arrival. Citizens of some specified countries would, however, continue to require an approval from the Home Ministry to visit these states. The ministry statement did not say which these countries were. This is a temporary change in effect for one year.

Application contact information is included below for those tourists who may still be affected by the previous rules. Call for up to date information.

For best results, apply for the permit at:

Nagaland House in Delhi
29, Aurangzeb Road,
New Delhi, India

Ph: +91 11 23012296



7. Tripura

No entry permits are required for Indians or Foreigners.

Admittedly we are a Do-It-Yourself traveler of India. But in this situation, a travel agency is your best option to cut through infamous Indian red tape while also getting around the minimum person guidelines for permitting. Be prepared to pay substantial service charges, which may come in the form of printed convenience charges, or under the table baksheesh without the use of approved travel agencies. Permits are typically available within 1-3 days unless otherwise stated.



How to Get an Inner Line Permit for Himachal Pradesh

When traveling along the restricted area of Himachal Pradesh, in North India, an area that hugs the India-Tibet border, foreigners are required to apply for an Inner Line Permit. Indian residents do not need to apply regardless of whether you are traveling with foreigners.


How to Get an Inner Line Permit

Tourists used to obtain the Inner Line Permit directly from the District Commissioner building located in the heart of Recong Peo on the main drag. Now you must go to the Himachal Tourism Office located at the far end of the parking lot of the DC building. Ask a local, they can guide you. The office is located on the second floor and clearly marked with a large blue sign. Open at 10 A.M. Monday-Friday.

Here is where it gets sticky. By 10:10 A.M. the Himachal office had not opened. Across the hallway I found a travel agency, the name forgotten. Through the glass I saw a signboard inside that read Inner Line Permits were issued starting at 11 A.M. daily. Wandering around the parking lot was an employee of the agency who offered to open up early to get the process started and explained that they were really the source for the Inner Line Permit, not the Himachal Tourism office.

You will need a copy of your passport and India Visa. If you don't have copies, you can find a photostat just across the street from the DC Building. The application process is straightforward. The travel agency will take your copies and application form, your passport and Rs. 150. You'll be asked to walk with a representative from

the agency over to the DC building into a smaller building located behind the main offices. Inside your application will be entered into a computer and your picture will be taken.

Now you're off to the DC building, up to the second floor where a lot of stamping takes place. Just when you think you're done, you're off to get the final signature from the District Magistrate. Unfortunately I had to wait for this part, and wait, and wait.

Total time to obtain the permit: 1 hour 35 minutes.

The permit is mandatory, without it you will be turned away. The check posts are at Spello, Chango and Losar heading South to North. Outside of Recong Peo, permits can be obtained from the offices of District Magistrates at Shimla, Kullu, and Keylong. And from the S.D.M. offices at Rampur, Nichar, Kalpa, Kaza and Keylong.


 

Hotels and Accommodations in India

Hotel Check-In Process in India:

5 Star


Most properties will have a doorman or bell boys stationed as you arrive at the front door. These employees run interference just like in the US. Expect your luggage to be unloaded, carted and moved into the lobby as you make your way toward the reception desk. Because there is more information gathering in India upon check-in, many hotels have individual desks manned almost exclusively by beautiful saree clad Indian women. Here they will request your Passport and Visa as well as any travel vouchers provided by your travel agency (if applicable).

Depending on what property group you're lodging with (Taj, Oberoi, Claridges, etc.), you may be offered a

beverage up front; Also, warm hand towels meant to clean the sand and dust of India off your hands and face. As you move around the country, you'll become familiar with the following questions asked of you during each check-in:

a) What date did you arrive in India?

b) What city are you arriving from?

c) What city are you departing to?

d) How many days in India are you staying?

e) Nationality

f) Port of entry

g) Name of contact in India

Once completed you are sent off to enjoy your room. The very best hotels have already sent your luggage up with a bellboy waiting to give a short-guided tour of the room and explain any features. If the receptionist asks to hold your passport to verify information, this is perfectly normal. Your passport will be returned to your room within the hour, however with some minor exceptions it can be until the following morning.

These properties have a plethora of staff so be sure to ask for any additional help if needed. Payment options are wide open here: credit cards, Cash, Traveler's Checks. TIP: If traveling under an agency where vouchers have been provided, show the voucher upon check in but explain you will retain until check out. This is to ensure services are rendered and allows the guest to address any issues during their stay that might otherwise be disregarded. The staff will object to this request until they realize your request is not negotiable.



3 Star

It's doubtful you'll be met by the traditional doorman here. A decent property will have one or two men designated to help with luggage as well as guide guests to their rooms. In-takes are handled at the standard front desk. Instead of the 5 star computers, expect a log book where the standard questions will either be asked or you'll be handed the log book directly. You'll still need to show your Passport and Visa here. The same person who brought in your luggage will be waiting until your check-in is complete at which time he'll lead you to your room.

As above, these properties typically have several support staff around that can help with additional needs

or requests. Payment options should be similar as above along with the TIP about travel vouchers.



Budget

Quite frankly these are some of my favorite properties. Although you won't be met at the front door on most occasions, these properties generally have a small stable of young Indian men that seem to come out the woodwork when needed. These are the true multi-hatted employees… they'll unload your luggage and haul to your room, bring tea and room service, which they probably just cooked. Check-in might be handled at a front desk while at other properties there is no office or desk to speak of. A request for your Passport + Visa is random. These same properties will not expect you to fill out the traveler log book either. Payment is cash, usually paid on check out but expects to pay up front if a really good rate is negotiated.


 

Transport Tips

Rail Travel Tips:

These rail travel tips will help you make the most of your train journeys in India and trains really are the way to see the country.

1) Sleep on the Trains

Taking overnight trains is one way to save time and money when you're traveling through India. It means you don't pay for accommodation and you don't waste the daytime on public transport when you could be out exploring.

I would recommend traveling AC 2 tier wherever possible-or first class wherever it's available. It usually means you're still paying less than if you were staying in a hotel and flying to your destination, so you can afford to spend a little more on the ticket. AC (Air Conditioned) 1st Class or AC 2 tier mean that mostly (depending on the train itself) you will get a lockable door and maximum four people in the berth, which means you've all got a bit of room to spread out.

Get a sleeper rather than a chair and a good way to find your berth is to let a Coolie help you from the platform to the train.

2) Foggy Delays

Fog can delay your train travel in the north during Dec-Jan especially. For instance, last time we traveled from Varanasi to Delhi overnight, instead of taking 8 hours, I think it took about 16 hours. This is part of life, you just have to factor it in as very likely, and think you have a bonus if it doesn't happen!

We wouldn't have minded except the other two people in the berth had the flu, and so did we by the time we got out of there!

3) Try Not to Look at the Bathroom

Even if you go first class in the train, you probably want to avoid looking too closely or touching too much in the bathroom. Get in and out as quickly as possible and try to keep your clothes from touching the floor. You've been warned.

4) Enjoy the Chai

I don't know if it's still done, it might depend on the particular train route, but if you get the opportunity to drink chai (Indian milk-based tea) from a little pottery cup, do it. It's one of the little treats of the Indian rail system. They're often sold by a Chai-wallah wandering up and down the train. The beautiful part is that the pottery is of course biodegradable, so when you're done, you can just throw the cup out the window without any guilt. Lately I've noticed plastic cups being used; hopefully this is not everywhere, because people will probably still throw them out the window without thinking twice!

5) Tip the Dinner-wallah

If you're American, you will probably do this anyway, but you MUST tip the guy who brings dinner for you on the overnight train first class compartment. When he tells you dinner is x rupees, don't assume his service in obtaining food is included in that price, as my friend Kara and I found out to our horror when we went to Udaipur. We had paid a relatively high price for our private first class compartment, but we hadn't expected someone to offer to obtain our dinner for us when the train did its scheduled stop. Being Australian, not American, we hadn't grown up with the custom of tipping, so we thought the ticket price must have included the dinner service. India is not usually a tipping country either, except it's becoming so I guess from raised expectations from traveling Americans.

In any case, we only realized we'd done something wrong when on the way back, no man came to offer us dinner and we went hungry on the 22 hour train journey. Nothing like learning the hard way! I've become a bit more of a tipper since then, just in case!

6) Secure Your Luggage

Use a chain and padlock to secure your luggage to the leg of the bottom berth when you put it under. I usually sleep with my money belt holding cash/cards and passport, then wrap my handbag with any other valuables (wallet, camera etc), in a pashmina or two and then use that as a pillow.

7) You May Get an Eyeful in the Morning

Don't look out the windows in the early morning after an overnight train journey (or don't look too close), unless you're prepared to see more than maybe you bargained for! In rural areas, it seems customary for many men to perform ablutions down by the railway line facing the train. It's not always what you want to see when you're having your first morning chai.



Car Travel Tips:

Car travel tips are tricky. We'll suggest you avoid driving altogether!

Do Not, We Repeat, Do Not, Drive Yourself.

Do not consider driving while you are there. It's a really bad idea. India is like the most difficult driving experience you could imagine, times 100. If you were to have an accident here, you may well be mobbed and beaten (I saw it happen on my last visit to Calcutta-it was my husband's first day in India and it was a bit of an eye-opener for him to see a taxi driver, who'd hit a beggar, dragged from his car and beaten!). If you damage anyone or any property, you would also face hideous legal issues. It's so not worth the risk and best left to an expert local.

Actually out of around ten trips I have personally witnessed two people get run over by cars. The other one was a pedestrian who stepped off a roundabout carelessly and got run down. So be careful!

Hire a Car with Driver Instead

You can hire a car with a driver quite reasonably for a half-day or a full day (exact prices depend on the city). This is for those times when you want more than a quick trip somewhere in a taxi. Oh, you can also negotiate a taxi driver to be an impromptu tour guide for you. My friend Kara and I did this in Bombay and it worked out really well. It would really depend on the driver though, and how well he spoke your language. If it's Summer or Monsoon, don't forget to ask for a car with air-conditioning, because it's not standard.

Other than that, autorickshaws work well for around the city, or rickshaws if you're not going far but just can't face walking any further.


 

Budget Travel Tips

Just because you're on a budget, doesn't mean you can't enjoy India. In fact these budget travel tips probably guarantee you get a good feel for the country.

1) Hotel Breakfasts

While accommodation at the bottom end of the market is way cheaper than the West, the same is not true for the luxury hotels, which are every bit as expensive as those around the rest of the world. Many hotels will have a set price for a buffet breakfast, which you can purchase even if you didn't stay, and if you like a full American breakfasts; this is one of your only ways to get it. They're expensive, but worth it when you just want food that's familiar and it means you can sleep cheap and eat rich.

2) Mix up Your Accommodation Standards

You can afford to live like royalty in India (at least for a day). Rather than taking mid-level accommodation every night, my friend Kara and I have often mixed up our accommodation levels, so we could have a little luxury.

So we stayed in the lowest budget accommodation for some nights (with exposed wiring hanging next to the shower nozzle, nothing like risking electrocution just to get clean!), and then in converted Palaces and Havelis (like the one pictured, which we stayed in Jaipur) for a few nights of luxury. Why not feel like a prince/ess every now and again?

3) Lavender

Ok, this is a godsend. You know the term, 'flea pit', well it can happen in India (you heard it first here!) And the day my friend Kara and I figured this out, we were very happy. Take a small bottle of 100% lavender oil with you and sprinkle it liberally across the pillows and the bottom bed sheet. This will help repel any bedbugs that may be around. I now do this no matter where I am, budget, mid-range or luxury. The other wonderful side effect of using lavender is that it has a calming effect, so it may help you sleep better too!

4) Malaria Tablets

These are available in India at much cheaper rates than where I live, something like 1/10 the price. So what I do is buy only 1 week's worth of malaria tablets from my doctor at home and then buy the rest when I get there. Again remember to ask for the active ingredient, not the brand name. This goes for other basic pharmaceuticals as well, like paracetamol etc.

Disclaimer: Someone told me recently that many medicines in India and other countries are not necessarily the real thing, that they may be fakes sold on the black-market. I'm not sure about that, but there's no way I could tell. I would never buy from anywhere but a proper pharmacy, no matter what country I was in. It's up to each individual to do what seems right, so please do whatever you think is right for you.

5) Sleep on the Trains

Taking overnight trains is one way to save time and money when you're traveling through India. It means you don't pay for accommodation and you don't waste the daytime on public transport when you could be out exploring. I would recommend traveling AC 2 tier wherever possible-or first class wherever it's available. It usually means you're still paying less than if you were staying in a hotel and flying to your destination, so you can afford to spend a little more on the ticket. AC (Air Conditioned) 1st Class or AC 2 tier mean that mostly (depending on the train itself) you will get a lockable door and maximum four people in the berth, which means you've all got a bit of room to spread out.

6) Monsoon Means Off-Season Bargains

There are bargains to be had in Monsoon, which coincides with northern hemisphere summer holidays. You can get some great deals if you want to stay in a palace or expensive hotel. Kara and I once got a great deal; it was 3 or 4 nights for the price of 2, staying in a old fort palace which had been turned into a hotel.

7) Don't Forget to Haggle

Haggling is expected in street markets and in most places except 'fixed price' shops. You can always ask a local what kind of price they'd pay for an autorickshaw trip, so that you know if you only pay a little more (you will pay more, consider it a foreigner-tax!), it's ok. But you should never have to pay double or triple the local price, so it pays to be aware of prices in advance if you can.

8) Drink Beer Not Wine

India is not a country, which produces wine well yet, though their fledgling industry is apparently improving, according to my friend Kara who lives in Delhi. India has extremely high import duties on wine, making it hideously expensive. In a hotel, you can pay more than USD 10 for a glass of extremely poor quality local wine and much more for something equally poor which is imported. If you're on a budget, steer clear of the wine-unless you want to spend an absolute fortune, you won't enjoy it anyway! Alternatives? Try local beers or local whiskey, much cheaper and better value for money too. Someone once told me that if you have dodgy local whisky you can risk your health, but I choose not to believe him or her!


 

Winter Travel Tips

These Winter Travel Tips will show you what to look out for in India's tourist high-season. Winter is the most popular time for visitors to India, anytime between late November and February, as the weather is most agreeable. Cool in the evenings and mornings, but still pleasant during the day, at least in the north. The south is closer to the equator and therefore the temperature doesn't vary as much with the seasons.

a) Fog

Fog can delay your train travel in the north during Dec-Jan especially. For instance, last time we traveled from Varanasi to Delhi overnight, instead of taking 8 hours, I think it took about 16 hours. This is part of life, you just have to factor it in as very likely, and think you have a bonus if it doesn't happen!

That's not to say that fog isn't fantastic in the right location. Francis and I took the picture on the right in our Winter 2006-07 trip. We're on the Ganges in Varanasi, where it's beautiful (and eerie) to do a sunrise boat trip. The only annoying factor is the hawkers who, like in every other tourist destination in India, feel that your journey cannot be complete without a really tacky souvenir and will come alongside your boat to shove things in your face.

b) Wedding Season

November to February is the major wedding season. Why does this matter? If you have a hotel room with a window over a road where a wedding procession passes, you can expect lots of loud singing, dancing and marching band-type instruments like tubas and trombones etc, drums of course, and into the wee hours. This can happen almost every night of the week, as Indian weddings are held on astrologically auspicious days in most cases, so it's not always a weekend. These processions move generally very slowly (and loudly) and are actually a really interesting cultural opportunity. Unless you want to sleep.

c) Pollution

Pollution in worse in northern cities such as Delhi, in the winter, so if you suffer from asthma or other chest complaints, it may be a bit more uncomfortable for you now. But things are definitely improving in this department over the last ten years, with the pollution levels decreasing significantly.

I have been to India in each of the three seasons, and I can definitely say winter is my clear favorite. I love being able to rug up in pashminas, and I even scored a fabulous beanie when I was in Darjeeling.


 

Summer Travel Tips

These Summer travel tips will keep you cool when nothing else will.

There are three seasons in India, Winter, Summer and Monsoon.

Summer can be pretty taxing if you're not used to it, very dry heat and about as hot as humans can stand. The best way I could describe it was that I often felt my eyeballs were roasting inside my head. It really was like opening an oven and sticking your head inside. The only thing that felt similar was summer in New Mexico, but I still think India was more extreme. Many people and animals die each summer through heat stress and anyone who can heads for the hills, and this is what I'd suggest, as well as wearing natural fibers like cotton, linen and viscose (which is plant-fiber, even though the name sounds synthetic, it's not).

Monsoon is pretty much like summer, except it pours with rain every afternoon. This means two things: it's much more humid than summer, and secondly, you can get good deals at some hotels, because it's the 'off season'.

Don't forget to ask for air-conditioning and a fan if both are available, they're not necessarily included. A fan will help the air-conditioned air circulate if the AC isn't very powerful. And if in the summer the AC gets overpowered, at least you'll still have a fan.

My friend Kara and I got a great deal staying at a beautiful former palace, now hotel in Rajasthan, for about half price, just because it was Monsoon. And it was gorgeous in the negative edge pool overlooking the vast plains, seeing the camels pulling carts of produce. Every afternoon, as I enjoyed a fresh lime soda, I watched for maybe two hours as a huge storm would wander lazily in our direction. Eventually, when the storm reached us, I took refuge in one of the awesome rooms, like the indoor playground, with antique swing sets and open walls, so you could still get the breeze and smell of the rain.

 

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