India is a soulful, soul-stirring country, overflowing with cultural treasures, spiritual wonder, and natural beauty. A wondrous land of crowded megacities, Himalayan monasteries, and ancient fishing villages, India sweeps you up in a confounding and beautiful tide of humanity. Float along Kerala’s famous backwaters, take a camel ride through Rajasthan, or find peace at the holy Ganges. And whether you drink chai (tea) from the source in Munnar, or savor Marwari cuisine in Jaipur, the land of spices and its remarkable people will linger long in your memory.
Flying to and within India has become easier in recent years with new international routes and the emergence of several new low-cost Indian domestic airlines. Flying from Delhi to Mumbai, for example, is just about as easy as flying between two major cities in America. Domestic tickets can generally be purchased through traditional travel agents, airline websites, travel websites, and even at Indian airports if you’ve decided to make a last-minute trip.
Security in Indian airports, however, often requires considerable time. You’ll need to attach blank luggage tags (provided at the check-in counter) to all of your hand luggage (including purses). When you clear screening, these tags will be rubber-stamped and reverified by a police officer or airline staff member at the time of boarding. Passengers are routinely patted down at security, irrespective of whether the metal detector goes off. Women are frisked in a separate dressing-room-like box by female security guards, whereas men are checked out in the open. Because of these time-consuming procedures, it’s a good idea to check in at least two hours before a flight within India.
Flight time from New York is 14 hours to Delhi, 15 hours to Mumbai. Flight time from Chicago to Delhi is 14.5 hours.
India’s two major international gateways are Indira Gandhi International Airport (DEL) in New Delhi and Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (BOM) in Mumbai. Delhi is best for all the major tourist spots in the north, including Rajasthan. Mumbai is more convenient for Goa and Kerala. Both airports are reasonably close to the city centers and to the train stations if that’s your next mode of travel.
The airports in Delhi and Mumbai, which also accommodate domestic flights, are as comfortable as those in the United States or Europe, but with fewer shopping and dining options. In 2010 a new, ultramodern international terminal, T3, opened at the Delhi airport, which has vastly improved the experience for everyone passing through.
The best way to get to and from India’s major international airports is by taxi or auto-rickshaw (the latter if you’re feeling adventurous and don’t have that much luggage). Your hotel can also arrange for a private pickup at the airport, in which case the driver will be holding a sign with your name at the exit point. Hotel pickups are considerably more expensive than any other option and vary greatly in price (expect a charge of at least Rs. 1,000 in big cities).
If you are on a budget, you can also arrange a basic, usually non-air-conditioned taxi at the prepaid, government-approved stands beyond immigration and customs. In most cities, you’ll state your destination, pay in advance, and be given a voucher to give to your driver when he drops you off. He may need to take it from you when leaving the airport parking lot, to show to the parking attendant who will record the voucher number and your name in a log. If you want an air-conditioned car, you can book through one of the private taxi companies whose desks resemble those of car-rental companies. These are all reputable companies and they will either charge you a preset or a metered fair, depending on your destination. Luggage room is ample in taxis in Delhi, but many of the cars used in Mumbai are older and smaller, with less room. Taxi drivers might try to charge you an extra fee (around Rs. 10–Rs. 20) per bag, but again, this varies from city to city.
Transfers Between Terminals
If you need to transfer between terminals (for example, between domestic and international) you can use the airport-run terminal transfer bus for free, provided you have a ticket for a departing flight from the destination terminal.
Flights To India
International companies are constantly reevaluating their service to South Asia. Call the air carriers listed here to confirm their flights and schedules, or work with a travel agent who’s knowledgeable about the region. You can get to India, usually with a stop in Europe, on many international carriers. Those offering daily direct flights include United Airlines (Newark to Delhi or to Mumbai) and Air India (New York JFK to Mumbai and Delhi, and Chicago to Delhi).
Flights Within India
India’s domestic airline scene has boomed since the millennium, although the world economic downturn in 2008 has taken some of the wind out of future expansion plans. In addition to the so-called legacy carriers, Jet Airways and Air India, which both also fly internationally, there is a newer crop of carriers—including ones you’ve probably never heard of—each with its own quirks.
Jet Airways is often the most expensive carrier, but provides excellent service. Air India, the government carrier, can be a little stodgy and prices a bit high. Popular low-cost, no frills carriers include SpiceJet, IndiGo, and GoAir.
Bus travel isn’t the safest or most comfortable way to travel in India, especially at night. Service within cities, especially in Delhi, is crowded and dangerous for women, with men literally hanging outside the bus (if they can manage to grab hold while the bus is still moving). The situation is a bit better in Mumbai, but a lack of published bus schedules and routes makes the city bus experience best left to locals or those who have time to figure it out. If you decide on bus travel between cities, try to take the most luxurious privately run air-conditioned coaches, (often Volvo buses, which are associated with high quality in India), and have a local travel agent make the arrangements. Buses rarely if ever have restrooms on board, but they usually stop every 2–4 hours at restaurants or roadside cafés so that passengers can use the restrooms and drink a cup of tea. It’s a good idea to bring earplugs or earphones, as many play Bollywood movies or music at high volumes.
Travel by car in India isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you can get over India’s extremely different road philosophy, it can be an enjoyable, never boring way to see the country and get from one city to the next.
Roads in India may be wide and smooth in big cities, but they’re usually narrow and terribly maintained in the countryside. Traffic in major cities is so erratic and abundant that it is hard to pin down local rush hours. Roads are filled with countless cars at all times of the day and even late at night, especially around the airports (international flights tend to arrive in the wee morning hours). Always be ready for some kind of traffic jam or other road drama if traveling by car.
Traffic is multifarious: you’ll see slow-moving cyclists, bullock carts, cows, herds of goats, and even camels or elephants sharing the road with speeding, honking, quick-to-pass, ready-to-brake-for-animals vehicles of all shapes and sizes. Barring a few principal routes and highways built under the continuing modernization project, Indian roads are often dilapidated and become worse during monsoon season. Speed limits, set according to road conditions, are frequently ignored. Road signs, when they exist, are often just in Hindi or the local language.
Because of Britain’s historic influence in India, traffic circles are common in newer sections of cities. Older parts of cities are generally made up of extremely narrow, winding streets. Old Delhi’s streets tend to be one-way, although you won’t be able to tell which way that is unless you simply look at the traffic. Locals drive fast when they can and show little regard for pedestrians.
In rural areas two-way roads are often only one-lane wide, so vehicles frequently dodge oncoming traffic for hours on end. Some roads also serve as innovative extensions to farms, with grain laid out to dry on the pavement or sisal rope strung over the route so that vehicles tramp the grain or rope down. Driving is on the left-hand side of the road.
Rules of the Road
Hard copies of road regulations are difficult to come by in India, and many Indians either ignore or genuinely aren’t aware of road rules across the subcontinent. Take, for instance, speed limits. They aren’t always posted, and different states have different speed limits on their respective stretches of the national highways. Any speed less than 100 km (about 60 miles) per hour is probably legal. Locals drive faster than that if not stifled by gridlock, and punishment for speeding is spotty at best. On the off chance that you’re driving and you get stopped for speeding, you might have to pay a fine (which is often really just a bribe) depending on the officer’s mood.
There are also laws requiring the use of seat belts and laws against using your cell phone while driving. However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any local who wears a belt religiously or gets punished if he doesn’t. People do seem to be more aware of restrictions on cell-phone use, and talkers in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, especially foreigners, do get singled out by the cops—it’s best not to use your cell phone behind the wheel. The most serious offense—drunk driving—is taken very seriously (when enforced) and is punishable by jail time.
The website www.indiandrivingschools.com has a fairly comprehensive outline of basic Indian traffic regulations. Nevertheless, it’s not too much of a stretch to call Indian roads a free-for-all where traffic rules are theoretical at best.
Hiring a Car and Driver
Don’t rent a self-drive car. The rules and road conditions are probably like nothing you’ve ever experienced, so taking taxis or hiring a car and driver are the best choices. The good news: hiring a car and driver is affordable by Western standards, and even Indians use this option for weekend getaways. However, the price can add up for long trips, so be sure to establish terms, rates, and surcharges in advance. Drivers are usually paid by the company they work for, and every company has unique policies. It’s not uncommon for you to pay for the whole trip in advance, or to pay for half at the front end while settling the balance at the end of the trip. Rates generally include gasoline.
Shorter trips are usually priced by kilometer. Figure around Rs. 15 per km for a non-air-conditioned Ambassador—a hefty, roomy car designed by the British in the 1950s. Ambassadors, which sometimes come with air-conditioning, are not as universal as they used to be, and now the most economic rates often get you a Tata Indica, a small but also practical choice. Indicas are not quite as comfortable as the Ambassador, as these are lighter cars that get bounced about on pot-holed roads. In some locations a higher rate gets you a diesel Sumo jeep or an air-conditioned Cielo or Contessa; still more cash gets you a Toyota, a minivan, or, at some agencies, even a Mercedes-Benz or a BMW.
On longer trips one price usually covers a certain number of hours and kilometers; beyond that you pay extra. Expect to pay at least Rs. 1,000–Rs. 1,500 a day to have a driver at your disposal—more if you’re using an expensive hotel car. Add to this a “night halt charge” of Rs. 200 to Rs. 300 per night for overnight trips. Some companies also charge a driver’s fee for an eight-hour day.
Arrange a car and driver only through a reputable travel agency or licensed, government-approved operator or, for quite a bit more money, through your hotel. Be sure to discuss your itinerary upfront—what seems like a reasonable day’s drive on a map can often take much longer in reality. Roads in some areas—wildlife sanctuaries, for example—require a jeep; better to iron out all the details than to miss sights because you don’t have the right sort of vehicle. On long journeys, decide in advance where and when you’ll stop for tea or meal breaks. The daredevil road maneuvers that are the norm in India can be unsettling. Ask the driver to travel slowly, or have the operator inform the driver of your request.
TAXI AND AUTO-RICKSHAW TRAVEL
Probably the best way to get around an Indian city is by taxi or motorized auto-rickshaw. Auto-rickshaws, especially, are fast and cheap, although not as comfortable as an air-conditioned taxi.
Auto-rickshaws are practically everywhere and are easy to flag down. Taxis are also easy to hail on the street in Mumbai, but harder to find in Delhi. One drawback is that most drivers don’t speak much English. If your driver can’t understand your pronunciation of a landmark or hotel, pen and paper may do the trick. Bystanders are also often helpful in getting from point A to B.
Most important, find out in advance the approximate fare for the distance you will be going—someone at your hotel can give you a ballpark figure. This is crucial, because even if your taxi or rickshaw has a meter, the driver might not use it. In Delhi, it’s common for rickshaw drivers to quote outrageous fares and claim that the meter is “broken.” Don’t fight the system—just have an idea of a fair price before you get in, and expect that negotiation will usually be part of the game. A good rule of thumb is that no rickshaw ride should cost more than Rs. 150 (most are much less), and no taxi ride should cost more than Rs. 600, unless you are going really, really far away. In Mumbai, drivers are good about using the meter and rate conversion cards that are used to convert the rates on outdated meters to current, government-approved norms. Once you’re at your destination, the card shows how much you should pay based on the figure displayed on the meter. If you think you’re going to a place that may not have vehicles for the return journey (you will probably know for sure only when you reach your destination, unfortunately), then when you arrive, negotiate a waiting fare and a return fare with the driver.
Remember that there are prepaid taxi and auto-rickshaw counters at airports and train stations in major cities, as well as at some top tourist spots. You tell the clerk your destination and pay for it in advance. He may ask you how much luggage you have—paying an extra Rs. 10 is the norm for each large bag or suitcase. The clerk will give you a receipt, at which point you might have to stand in line for the taxi or rickshaw. The driver might also be standing next to you and escort you to his vehicle. Do not get waylaid by aggressive drivers who try to persuade you to come to them instead of going to the counter; they’ll certainly charge you more than the published rate. At your destination, do not pay the driver anything extra, even if he claims you gave the wrong destination to the counter clerk (unlikely) or gives other excuses.
Drivers in areas popular with tourists supplement their incomes by offering to find you a hotel or to take you shopping at the “best” stores, which means they’ll get a commission if you get a room or buy anything. The stores are usually very expensive, so if you don’t want this kind of detour, you must be very firm. Finally, taxis close to luxury hotels are notorious for swindling customers who hire them outside the hotel. Establish beforehand, with the help of the doorman, that the taxi driver will follow his meter or rate card, or negotiate the fare in the presence of the doorman. Or, better yet, walk a block or two away from the hotel’s entrance.
High-speed Internet access is available almost everywhere in India at Internet cafés and hotels, and connection speeds often approach what you’re used to at home. Upscale private cafés in major cities often offer Wi-Fi free to customers. Hotel service is generally more reliable, but it’s also usually more expensive—business-class hotels may charge as much as Rs. 1,000 or more a day. Rates at Internet cafés are very cheap (around Rs. 30–Rs. 50 for an hour), so it’s probably best to leave your computer at home unless you absolutely need it.
If you plan to bring a laptop to India, remember to never plug your computer into a socket before asking about surge protection—some hotels don’t have built-in current stabilizers, and extreme electrical fluctuations can damage your adapter.
Calling from a hotel is almost always the most expensive option; hotels usually add huge surcharges to all calls, particularly international ones. You can phone from public call offices (PCOs), roadside shops, or even the post office. Calling cards usually keep costs to a minimum, but only if you purchase them locally. And then there are cell phones, which are more prevalent than landlines in some areas; as expensive as cell-phone calls can be, they are still usually a much cheaper option than calling from your hotel.
Using landlines as well as cell phones in India can be frustrating—sometimes the connections are great, sometimes they’re lousy, and you’ll sometimes have to repeat yourself at least once because connections aren’t always clear.
A few peculiarities to keep in mind: Indian businesses usually have a series of phone numbers instead of just one, because networks can get congested. If a number reads “562/331701 through 331708,” for example, you can reach the establishment using any number between 331701 and 331708. Some of the numbers may be telefax numbers, so if you’re trying to send a fax and someone answers, ask them to put the fax machine on. Homes may also have two (or more) phone lines, although this is becoming less common with the near-universality of cell phones, especially among young urbanites.
There is no standard number of digits in landline phone numbers across the country. The norm, however, is 10 digits, which includes a city code of two or three digits. Cell-phone numbers are always 10 digits and start with the number 8 or 9. If the cell number is from another state, you’ll need to dial 0 first.
The country code for India is 91, after which you dial the city code, and then the phone number. Delhi’s city code is 11, and Mumbai’s is 22. Some city codes are three digits, such as the code for Amritsar, which is 183.
Calling Within India
If you’re calling long distance within India to any of the landline numbers listed in this book, dial a zero, then the city code, then the phone number. You only have to dial a zero before a 10-digit cell-phone number—there is no city code. When calling from a cell phone to another one in a different city, the call is considered long distance.
Aside from the quality of connections at times, the local telephone system is adequate for getting in touch when you need to. All phone numbers can be dialed directly from pretty much every public access phone, eliminating the need for an operator.
If you don’t have a cell phone, the easiest option is to make a call from one of the ubiquitous public call offices (PCOs), easily identifiable by their bright yellow signs. They’re not really offices so much as open-air booths, and they’re pretty much on every street corner in Indian cities and in small villages, too, as well as in airports and train stations. PCOs are equipped with ISD/STD capabilities, meaning you can make international and long-distance domestic calls in addition to local ones. (ISD stands for “international subscriber dialing,” STD for “subscriber trunk [direct distance] dialing.”) You’ll make a call from a regular telephone connected to a meter that keeps track of the call duration. Once you hang up, an attendant will give you a receipt with the meter reading and tell you how much you owe. Rates are on a per-minute basis, and there is no surcharge. At less than Rs. 10 per minute, domestic calls won’t break the bank. It’s much more expensive to call internationally, though, so inquire about current rates to different countries. Still, if you just want to call home quickly, calling from a PCO is convenient and usually hassle-free. Try to avoid making calls from hotels. They often come with huge surcharges, and it’s just as convenient to use the PCO down the street.
Directory assistance is spotty in India. The private company JustDial (www.justdial.com) is reliable and has numbers all over the country. Two national numbers—6999 and 9999—can be called for assistance from anywhere in India.
Calling Outside India
International calls can be subject to long delays, but most hotels, airports, train stations, post offices, and PCOs are connected to the ISD system. Simply dial 00, followed by the country code, the area code, and the number. If calling from a public phone stall, you’ll be handed a receipt with the number of minutes and an attendant will calculate how much you owe. Remember that hotels add an enormous surcharge to international calls and faxes; in addition, they sometimes charge a fee per call made on your calling card. Find out what the charges are before you dial. To avoid the surcharge, make your calls at a PCO. There are no reduced-rate calling hours for international calls. Some Internet cafés are set up to let you use an Internet-based calling service such as Skype. This allows very inexpensive international rates.
The country code for the United States is 1.
Using an AT&T access code to reach an operator can be helpful if you absolutely must use your own calling card from home or want to have charges billed to your personal account. However, it’s usually more trouble than it’s worth, and calling cards bought locally are guaranteed to be cheaper. Some hotels might not let you use the access number, and surcharges are always involved.
Calling cards for use within India are fairly common. The Indian cell phone service providers Reliance, and Vodafone sell international prepaid calling cards that you can use to call domestically, too. International rates are less than Rs. 10 per minute. The cards work on cell phones and landlines, including at PCOs, and can be bought at practically any stall or shop selling cell phone services. Remember that there might be a surcharge for connecting with these cards on hotel phones.
If you have an unlocked multiband phone (some countries use different frequencies from those used in the United States) and your service provider uses the world-standard GSM network (as do T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon), you can probably use your phone abroad. Roaming fees can be steep, however: 99¢ a minute is considered reasonable. And overseas you normally pay the toll charges for incoming calls. It’s almost always cheaper to send a text message than to make a call, since text messages have a very low set fee (often less than 5¢).
If you just want to make local calls, consider buying a new SIM card and a prepaid service plan in the destination. You’ll then have a local number and can make local calls at local rates.
Note that your home provider may have to unlock your phone for you to use a different SIM card. Cell phone technology is excellent in India, and whether you have your own phone or rent one, you’ll likely be connected wherever you go because of extensive network coverage all over the country—even in small towns.
If you’re based in Europe or another Asian country, your unlocked cell phone will probably work in India. Many American cell phones, especially smartphones, have international roaming capabilities, so inquire with your provider. It’s a good idea to confirm how much the provider charges per minute for international roaming, which can be unless you have a special plan.
If you are planning on staying several weeks, it may be worth your while (and the least hassle) to simply buy a prepaid local SIM card. In most cities, there are cell phone shops on just about every corner, and they often sell good-quality used phones as well as inexpensive new ones.
As an anti-terrorism measure, Indian cell-phone shops are required to have a proof of address for anyone buying a new SIM card or cell phone. Although not all shops are stringent about this, the law does mean that buying a card or phone for a short trip may be more trouble than it’s worth. If you do find a shop that’s willing to work with you, you’ll have to provide a copy of your passport, two passport-size photos, and your local address (normally that of your hotel) to register for a SIM card. You’ll usually be up and running with a phone number in less than 15 minutes. Some upscale hotels also offer phone rentals to their guests.
You will have to pay a certain number of rupees in advance to get talk time. Nonresidents do not have the option of “post-pay” plans. Rates are generally around Rs. 1 per minute, depending on who you are calling. When you’ve run out of minutes, you can easily recharge your phone at a cell phone service shop. Airtel and Vodafone are the country’s two largest cell phone service providers.
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
You’re allowed to bring goods of a certain value back home without having to pay any duty or import tax. There’s a limit on the amount of tobacco and liquor you can bring back duty-free, and some countries have separate limits for perfumes; for exact figures, check with your customs department. The values of duty-free goods are included in these amounts. When you shop abroad, save all your receipts, as customs inspectors may ask to see them as well as the items you purchased. If the total value of your goods is more than the duty-free limit, you’ll have to pay a tax (most often a flat percentage) on the value of everything beyond that limit.
The customs process at the international gateways isn’t difficult, although the line you have to wait in is likely to be long. If you’re entering India with dutiable or valuable articles, you must mention this when you stop at customs. Officials may ask you to fill out a Tourist Baggage Re-Export Form (TBRE), as such articles must be taken with you when you leave India. You’ll have to pay a duty on anything listed on the TBRE that you plan to leave in India. Depending on the attitude of the customs official, you may have to list your laptop computer, camera or video equipment, and cell phone on a TBRE form. It’s a good idea, though, not to go searching for forms or a customs official unless someone questions you.
Among other things, you may bring the following into India duty-free: personal effects (clothing and jewelry); a camera, a video camera, a laptop computer, a cell phone, 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250 grams of tobacco, up to two liters of alcohol, and gifts not exceeding a value of Rs. 8,000 (about US$175). You may not bring in illegal drugs, firearms, Indian currency (although a small amount is unlikely to cause any trouble, especially if you don’t declare it), pornographic material, gold or silver that’s not jewelry, counterfeit or pirated goods, or antiquities. Consult India’s Central Board of Excise and Customs website for complete details.
Rupees aren’t technically allowed out of India; you must exchange them before you depart, although you are unlikely to be questioned or searched for a few small bills you may have kept for a coffee in the airport. Foreign-exchange facilities are usually in the same airport halls as the check-in counters, but there’s no access to these facilities once you pass through immigration. Tourists cannot take out more foreign currency than they brought in. There is no limit on gold jewelry.
All animal products, souvenirs, and trophies are subject to the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. The export of ivory (unless you can prove it’s antique) and the skins of protected species aren’t allowed. Export of exotic birds, wildlife, orchids, and other flora and fauna is forbidden as well.
In general, items more than 100 years old cannot be exported without a permit from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which has offices in many cities, including Delhi and Mumbai. Reputable shops will provide you with the necessary permit or help you get it.
Indian culture definitely revolves around food, and there are plenty of restaurants serving international cuisine, fast food, and regional specialties, especially in big cities. There are numerous cafés and food stalls, especially in market areas—these are especially popular with locals looking for a small snack in between meals. If you choose to try out street food, be wary of hygiene issues—look for stalls popular with families and avoid shaved ice or anything containing cold water. India is also a haven for vegetarians, with plenty of pure-veg restaurants that don’t serve any meat, fish, poultry, or eggs. Even “non-veg” places usually have delicious meatless options.
Almost all restaurants in India are family-friendly, even many of the fancier ones in top hotels. If your child doesn’t like Indian food, it’s almost always possible to order things like sandwiches and pizzas.
American fast food is widely available in larger cities, most of which have branches of McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Domino’s Pizza. Nirula’s is a well-known fast-food chain in Delhi and other points in the north, and they serve Indian fast food, burgers, and ice cream. In villages and smaller towns across the subcontinent such eateries are nonexistent. In that case, an order of plain bread such as naan and lentils may be just the ticket.
Meals and Mealtimes
A regular Indian meal consists of some rice or bread, served with spiced vegetables, meat, and lentils. Accompaniments to the meal can include chaas (spiced buttermilk), lassi (a sweet or salty yogurt drink), pickle, papad (a deep-fried or dry roasted savory wafer made from lentil or rice), chutney, and raita (spiced yogurt). A sweet, usually very sugary and milk-based, is the last course. At the end of the meal, paan (a stimulating concoction of sugar and various spices wrapped in the leaves of the betel pepper plant), supari (plain betel nut), rock sugar, or aniseed may be served as a breath-freshener/digestive.
Although lots of Indians eat cornflakes or toast to start the day, traditional Indian breakfasts are often much heavier. They can consist of any of the following South Indian foods: idlis (steamed rice and lentil cakes) with chutney; rasam wada (deep-fried lentil fritters served with a hot, spicy watery lentil curry); dosas (a crisp pancake, made with a fermented ground-rice-and-lentil batter); upma (light semolina, also known as farina, with vegetables); or aloo poha (spicy potatoes mixed with rice flakes).
A good portion of the Indian population is vegetarian for religious reasons, and while milk is part of the typical vegetarian diet in India, eggs are not. Many people who eat meat don’t do so every day (and certainly not at every meal). Most Hindus consider the cow sacred and do not eat beef. Muslims (and many Hindus) do not touch pork. Some Hindus eat only chicken and seafood and stay away from red meat. Many Jains are not only vegetarian but also don’t eat any vegetable grown under the ground—one reason may be that plucking up the root destroys life in the soil. As you travel through India, expect to encounter folks who don’t eat meat on Tuesday (in honor of Hanuman, the monkey-god servant of Rama); much of India’s religious and ethical life, indeed, revolves around food.
Although South Indian restaurants often start serving lunch early, in North India people tend to eat lunch later in the afternoon than in the United States, sometimes around 2 or 3 pm. Restaurants in cities normally stay open until 11 pm or midnight, as Indians are known for starting dinner quite late (past 10 pm). In other areas, expect an earlier dinner in restaurants (finished by 9 pm) unless you’re staying in a luxury hotel. Coffee shops in urban luxury hotels are often open 24 hours.
Snacking is also popular, and common treats include samosas, white-bread sandwiches, jalebis (deep-fried bright yellow flour fritters soaked in sugar syrup), and the fudgelike milk sweets. Masala chai (spiced milk tea) and ginger tea are extremely popular and are often consumed four to five times a day. But as you go south, coffee becomes increasingly important and is served boiling hot, creamy, and foamy (sort of like a sugary latte).
Reservations and Dress
Most restaurants don’t require reservations, except for upscale establishments in big cities. We only mention reservations when they are essential or when they are not accepted. For popular, high-end restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive in India. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.)
Very few restaurants require formal attire. By and large India is very casual about dress codes. However, certain clubs do not allow anyone—even in daylight hours—to wear shorts or men to wear sandals.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
India produces many kinds of liquor, and exorbitant duties make imported spirits unaffordable to all but the wealthiest of its citizens. Its locally produced versions of international brands of rum, vodka, and gin are adequate but generally unmemorable. The sweet local red rum, Old Monk, is worth a try. Kingfisher beer is ubiquitous, refreshing, and bland. With every year more and more Indian wine is produced, and much of it is good, although not overly complex. Scotch whisky is by far the most popular kind of hard liquor in India: Director’s Special is a mild and reliable brand.
Alcohol at luxury hotels is vastly marked up. Consider buying your own liquor and having it in your room—you can always call room service for glasses and mixers. If you’re a woman traveling alone, drinking in your room is probably a better option in any case.
Indian customs may appear prudish toward drinking—but open a bottle and you may make some instant friends. According to proper Indian etiquette, alcohol is excluded from many occasions. When you visit someone’s house you may not be offered a drink even in the evening, and the strongest beverage you may get is tea. At some Hindu and virtually all Muslim weddings and at festival time, alcohol may not be served. Women are infrequent drinkers, at least in public. Don’t be surprised if you encounter quite a few male teetotalers.
Dry days—when alcohol isn’t available anywhere in the country—are observed on January 26, August 15, October 2, and on certain festival dates. Some states observe additional dry days, which are usually on or around election days; others prohibit everything but beer.
Blackouts lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to 12 hours are a part of everyday Indian life, particularly in summer when the load is high. But if you’re staying at a mid- to high-end hotel, there will, no doubt, be a generator that can restore electricity within seconds. Storms can play havoc with electricity, and low-voltage electricity and surges are problems. It’s always a good idea to have a flashlight or a small handheld fan if you plan on being in rural, rugged areas for any length of time.
The electrical current in India is 220 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC). There are two types of wall outlets in India: large, three-pronged ones used for large appliances such as refrigerators and air-conditioners, and smaller ones that take plugs with two round prongs, like those used in continental Europe.
Consider making a small investment in a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit. Most laptops and mobile phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts), so they require only an adapter. These days the same is true of small appliances such as hair dryers. Always check labels and manufacturer instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked “for shavers only” for high-wattage appliances such as hair-dryers.
Delhi’s 24-hour East West Medical Center has a referral list of doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and lawyers throughout India. Its staff can arrange treatment wherever you are in the country. It also provides air ambulances that can evacuate you from remote areas in the case of a medical emergency. Note: You must pay the center when you receive assistance—credit cards are accepted—and then apply for reimbursement by your insurance company later. It’s necessary to get in touch with East West first so that they can verify your policy details. This can take anywhere from a few hours to a day, depending on the day of the week and whether the details are in order; at that point East West will organize payment.
Contact Meera Rescue, based in Delhi with branches in Mumbai and Goa, if international evacuation is necessary. (Whatever happens, don’t go to a government hospital. In a grave emergency, contact your embassy.) Meera Rescue is a professional evacuation service recognized by international insurance companies; the company evacuates from anywhere in the country to hospitals in major cities and overseas if necessary; it’s open 24 hours. Like East West, you must pay Meera and be reimbursed by your insurance company.
No vaccination certificate or inoculations are required to enter India from the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom unless you’re coming via certain parts of sub-Saharan Africa, in which case you’ll need proof of vaccination against yellow fever. Without such proof, you could be quarantined on arrival in dismal government facilities.
Ultimately you must decide what vaccinations are right for you before you travel to India; it’s wise to consult your doctor at least three months before departure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintain a list of recommended vaccinations for the Indian subcontinent on their website; these include hepatitis A and typhoid fever.
In areas where malaria and dengue fever—both carried by mosquitoes—are prevalent, use mosquito nets, wear clothing that covers the body, apply repellent containing DEET, and use spray for flying insects in living and sleeping areas. When you arrive in India, consider purchasing repellents that plug into the wall and release a mosquito-repelling scent. These are effective in keeping rooms mosquito-free and can be found in most general stores. You may want to consider taking malaria prophylactics, as the disease exists in many regions of India. There’s no vaccine to combat malaria or dengue, and mosquitoes can pass on other infections, such as the Chikungunya virus, so preventing bites should always be your first line of defense.
While traveling in remote areas or in small towns, it’s a good idea to have a medical kit containing a pain reliever, diarrhea medication, moist towelettes, antibacterial skin ointment and skin cleanser, antacids, adhesive bandages, and any prescription medications.
The precautions you take for yourself in India are the same ones you should take for your child. Make sure they have all their vaccinations and consult a pediatrician about antimalaria medication. Bring a mosquito repellent spray from home that you know to be safe for children. And only give them bottled water to help guard against stomach problems that could spoil a short trip.
The most common types of illnesses are caused by contaminated food and water. If you have problems, mild cases of traveler’s diarrhea may respond to Imodium (known generically as loperamide) or Pepto-Bismol. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids; if you can’t keep fluids down, seek medical help. Infectious diseases can be airborne or passed via mosquitoes and ticks and through direct or indirect physical contact with animals or people. Some, including Norwalk-like viruses that affect your digestive tract, can be passed along through contaminated food. Speak with your physician and/or check the CDC or World Health Organization websites for health alerts, particularly if you’re pregnant, traveling with children, or have a chronic illness.
Specific Issues in India
The major health risk in India is traveler’s diarrhea, caused by eating contaminated fruit or vegetables or drinking contaminated water, so it’s important to watch what you eat. Avoid ice, uncooked food, and unpasteurized milk and milk products, and drink only bottled water or water that has been boiled for at least one minute. Avoid tap water, ice, and drinks to which tap water has been added. You may want to turn down offers of “filtered” water; it may have been filtered to take out particles but not purified to kill parasites. Water purified through an Aquaguard filter system, however, is generally safe (as long as the filter has been maintained correctly). You’ll be fine at most places catering to foreign tourists. When buying bottled water, make sure that the cap hasn’t been tampered with. Bottles are sometimes refilled with tap water. However, moves to encourage people to refill bottles with Aquagard water to help reduce the country’s mountain of plastic waste is blurring this issue. Many mid-range tourist hotels offer free or very cheap boiled or filtered water. Soft drinks, in bottles or cans, and packaged fruit juices are safe, readily available options. And always keep at least one bottle of water in your hotel room for brushing your teeth as well as for drinking.
If your stomach does get upset, try to drink plenty of purified water or tea—ginger tea (adrak chai) is a good folk remedy. In severe cases, rehydrate yourself with a salt-sugar solution—½ teaspoon salt (namak) and 4 tablespoons sugar (shakar or cheeni) per quart of water.
Avoid raw vegetables and fruit outside of fancy restaurants, even those that have been peeled, unless it was you who did the cutting and peeling. Make sure that all meats are thoroughly cooked. It’s not necessary to go vegetarian, and to do so would mean missing out on some delicious dishes. Just choose restaurants with care, and eat hot foods while they’re hot. A little bit of personal hygiene can also go a long way in preventing stomach upsets. Wash your hands before you eat anything, and carry moist towelettes or hand sanitizer. Locally popular, worn-looking restaurants often serve the safest food. Such restaurants often can’t afford refrigeration, so the cooks prepare food acquired that day—not always the case with the upscale places. Some hotel chefs buy in bulk and, thanks to temperamental electricity, a refrigerator may preserve more than just foodstuffs. That said, digestion problems often are due more to the richness and spice of Indian cuisine than to the lack of hygiene. Many hotel restaurants cook Indian dishes with quite a bit of oil. If you have a sensitive stomach, order carefully and don’t overdo things, especially in your first few days when your body is getting used to the new flavors. Fried foods from street vendors often look delicious, but inspect the oil: if it looks as old as the pot, it could be rancid.
Stomach issues are what tend to scare first-time visitors the most, and if you’re only going to be in India for a short time, it makes sense to take as many precautions as possible so sickness won’t cut into your vacation. However, if you’re going to be in India for a longer period, try to acclimate yourself to things like street food, filtered water, ice, and the wonderful abundance of fresh-squeezed juices, because avoiding every single thing that could possibly make you sick in India is not only impractical, but also limiting. Chances are that your body will simply adjust and become resistant to most stomach problems.
All Indian cities are heavily polluted, though serious efforts have been going on for years to reduce vehicle pollution. Mumbai and Delhi require their taxis to run on compressed natural gas (CNG), which has considerably reduced the smog. People with breathing problems, especially asthma, should carry the appropriate respiratory remedies. India’s heat can dehydrate you, and dust can irritate your throat, so drink plenty of liquids. Dehydration will make you weak and more susceptible to other health problems. Seek air-conditioned areas when possible, and plan your day so you’re visiting tourist sites in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is less strong.
If you travel into jungle areas during or right after the monsoon, you may fall victim to the disgusting but generally nondangerous plague of leeches, which lie in wait on damp land. Help protect yourself by covering your legs and carrying salt. Applying DEET and strong-smelling chemicals such as deodorant to your skin and pants will also help make your flesh less appealing. Don’t wear sandals. If a leech clings to your clothing or skin, dab it with a pinch of salt and it will fall off.
For bedbug bites, buy a bar of Dettol soap (available throughout India) and use it when you bathe to relieve itching and discomfort. If you’re staying in a dubious hotel, check under the mattress for bedbugs, cockroaches, and other unwanted critters. Use Flit, Finit, or one of the other readily available spray repellents on suspicious-looking furniture and in mosquito-infested rooms. Mosquito coils (kachua), which you must light, and Good Knight pellets, which are plugged into an outlet, are fairly effective at “smoking” mosquitoes away. On the road, treat scratches, cuts, and blisters immediately. If you’re trekking, save the bottle and cap from your first bottled water so you can refill it with water that you purify yourself.
Beware of overexposure even on overcast days. To avoid sunburn, use a sunscreen with a sun-protection factor of at least 30. To play it safe, wear a wide-brimmed hat.
You don’t necessarily need to lug a medicine cabinet with you to India—practically every over-the-counter medication and medical supply under the sun is available in the big cities should you need them. The pharmacies, or “chemists”—which are also abundant—will carry a wide variety of both recognizable name brands and Indian versions. If you’re not sure what you need to make yourself feel better, shopkeepers can usually make good recommendations.
Children in India
Bringing your kids to India may seem daunting, but most children love it. India is like a giant circus, with color, chaos, and a sideshow every minute. Kids are warmly welcomed everywhere except, perhaps, in the stuffiest of restaurants, and most Indians will bend over backward to help you with a child-related need. In fact, so much affection is lavished on children here—everyone wants to pick them up, pinch their cheeks, talk to them—that your little ones may even get overwhelmed.
There are a couple of things to remember: Many diseases are prevalent in India that no longer exist elsewhere, so check with your pediatrician first and make sure your child’s immunizations are current. It’s easiest to bring an infant (who cannot yet crawl, and who is still dependent on breast-feeding or formula) or children who are a bit older and can walk on their own.
Something you might find strange is the fact that no one really uses car seats in India; even educated women think nothing of holding infants in their arms while sitting in the front seat of a moving vehicle (or on the back of a motorbike). So if you plan on getting a car and driver, don’t expect to get a car seat—bring your own (don’t expect, either, that seat belts will always work).
HOURS OF OPERATION
Most banks are open weekdays 10–2 and Saturday 10–noon, and most ATMs are open around the clock. International airports and some top hotels have 24-hour currency-exchange facilities, and the major American Express branches have extended hours for check cashing. Post offices are generally open Monday–Saturday 10–5.
Gas stations are usually open daily 6 am–10 pm. In larger cities, some stay open 24 hours.
Most museums are closed on Monday. Site museums (adjoining archaeological monuments) are normally closed on Friday.
Pharmacies are usually open daily 9:30–8, though in cities there are some 24-hour establishments. In some places you can also buy medications from the 24-hour pharmacies at large hospitals. (Note that in India pharmacies are called “chemists.”)
Outside the major metropolitan areas, many shopkeepers close their establishments for lunch and an afternoon siesta. Some stores are closed Sunday.
Bars and nightclubs in the big cities are usually done by 2 am, although some local laws mandate much earlier closing times, sometimes as early as 11 pm.
India’s fixed date national holidays are January 26 (Republic Day), August 15 (Independence Day), October 2 (Gandhi’s birthday), and December 25 (Christmas). Endless festivals enliven—and shut down—different parts of the country throughout the year. Festivals often affect availability of travel connections or the time needed to reach the airport, so look into the holidays that are coming up as you plan your itinerary.
A trip to India can be as luxurious and expensive—or as bare-bones and cheap—as you want it to be. The economy has really spiked since 2000, along with domestic travel and international foot traffic, and as a result, room rates at fancy urban hotels are comparable to those in New York, London, or Paris. You’ll pay substantially more for everything in popular tourist spots and big cities compared with the rest of the country, although certain goods (including soda, cigarettes, chips) have a maximum retail price (MRP) printed on their packaging. It’s illegal to sell such products for more than the printed amount, although sometimes vendors try to charge foreigners more, assuming they are unaware of this price regulation.
If you’re willing to stay at modest hotels and eat where the locals do, you might find that the most expensive part of your trip turns out to be the international airfare ($1,000–$2,000, depending on when you go). It’s possible to find decent hotels for less than US$70 a night, and the cheapest run less than US$20 (sometimes a lot less). You could also conceivably eat every meal for less than US$2.
Many merchants, even in big cities, still only accept payment in cash. Always carry sufficient rupees as well as a credit card in your wallet. (Although it’s possible to cash traveler’s checks in big cities, it’s rarely convenient to do so.) Shopkeepers appreciate it when people pay with the exact amount, or as close to it as possible. In fact, they balk at giving change in general. The 1,000 rupee note should definitely not be used to pay for, say, something that costs Rs. 100, because merchants might not even have that much change on hand. It’s advisable to stick to denominations of Rs. 100 or less, and don’t flaunt Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes.
A cup of tea from a stall costs about Rs. 5–Rs. 10 (US9¢–US17¢), but in top hotels it can cost more than Rs. 80 (US$1.30). A 650-ml bottle of beer costs about Rs. 75 (US$1.25) in a shop, and upward of Rs. 250 (US$4.15) without taxes in a top hotel. A 6-km (4-mile) air-conditioned taxi ride in Delhi is supposed to cost about Rs. 73 (US$1.22), though it may cost more; taxi drivers often do not want to use their meters and try to charge higher prices for tourists.
Prices throughout this guide are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
ATMs and Banks
Your home bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you’ll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
PINs with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in many countries. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
There are only a few cash machines in smaller towns in India, but larger cities are dotted with ATMs. Look for ICICI, HDFC, Citibank, or HSBC ATMs, which generally accept foreign cards. Other ATMs might only accept Indian cards, especially in smaller towns. If you know you’ll be traveling to a rural area, it’s crucial to have enough cash on hand.
If you think you’ll need cash from your bank account or cash advances through your credit card, make sure that your bank and credit cards are programmed for ATM use in India before you leave home, and inform your bank that you’ll be using your cards in India. All ATMs function in English, and most have security guards.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you’re going abroad and don’t travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the issuing company might put a hold on your card due to unusual activity. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost, but you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you’ll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill.
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases, you’ll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Dynamic currency conversion programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don’t always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice.
Credit cards are widely accepted in large Indian cities, especially at the retail chain stores and the upscale restaurants. Smaller merchants and street stalls, however, are likely to take only cash. It’s a good idea to keep at least Rs. 1,000 (in small denominations) in your wallet at all times in the cities, along with your credit card, so you’ll always have both options. In rural India, don’t ever count on being able to pay with a credit card, and always have enough cash to see you through.
American Express is rarely accepted in India, Diners Club is not widely accepted, and Discover isn’t accepted at all.
Currency and Exchange
The units of Indian currency are the rupee and the (rare) paisa—100 paise equal one rupee. Paper money comes in denominations of 2 (also rare), 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500, and 1,000 rupees. Coins are worth 5, 10, 20, 25, and 50 paise (all rare), 1 rupee, 2 rupees, 5 rupees, and 10 rupees, but it’s unlikely that you’ll see anything less than 1 rupee. The price of big-ticket items, such as real estate or cars, is usually given in units of lakh or crore. A lakh is equal to 100,000, and a crore is equal to 100 lakh.
India has strict rules against importing or exporting its currency. The currency-exchange booths at the international airports are always open for arriving and departing overseas flights. When you change money, remember to get a certain amount in small denominations (in 10s is best) to pay taxi drivers and such. Reject torn, frayed, taped, or soiled bills, as many merchants, hotels, and restaurants won’t accept them, and it’s a hassle to find a bank to get them exchanged.
Always change money from an authorized moneychanger and ask for a receipt, known as an encashment slip. Some banks now charge a nominal fee for this slip, which you might need if you want to reconvert rupees into your own currency on departure from India. Don’t be lured by illegal street hawkers who offer you a higher exchange rate.
For the most favorable rates, change money at banks. Although ATM transaction fees may be higher abroad than at home, ATM rates are excellent because they’re based on wholesale rates offered only by major banks. India’s state-run banks can take a long time to cash traveler’s checks. If you must use them, save time and use an American Express office or the foreign-exchange service at your hotel. Rates will be slightly lower, but you’ll save irritation and time. Rates are also unfavorable in airports, at train and bus stations, and at restaurants, hotels, and stores.
Traveler’s Checks and Cards
Fewer establishments accept traveler’s checks these days than ever before. Nevertheless, they’re a cheap and secure way to carry extra money, particularly on trips to urban areas. Thomas Cook, Citibank (under the Visa brand), and American Express issue traveler’s checks in the United States, but Amex is better known and more widely accepted; you can also avoid hefty surcharges by cashing Amex checks at Amex offices. Whatever you do, keep track of all the serial numbers in case the checks are lost or stolen.
You can use traveler’s checks in India, but in most cases, it’s just not that convenient to cash them. Cash (both brought in and withdrawn from an ATM) and credit cards are better options. You can cash traveler’s checks only in big cities, and most merchants, whether urban or rural, don’t accept them. Lost or stolen checks can usually be replaced within 24 hours. To ensure a speedy refund, buy your own traveler’s checks—don’t let someone else pay for them, as the purchaser is the only one able to request a refund. Don’t leave traveler’s checks in your hotel room, and keep the counterfoil with the check numbers separate from the checks.
India is full of beautiful, colorful, over-the-top fashions, but your visit here probably shouldn’t include lots of fancy things from your own closet. Make it a point to buy Indian statement pieces during your travels if that’s your thing, keeping the original contents of your suitcase simple: shirts made of plain cotton or cotton-synthetic blends and a couple of pairs of comfortable pants—all of which can be washed easily and worn again throughout your trip. Avoiding completely synthetic fabrics that don’t breathe is key, since much of India is hot year-round, with temperatures topping 110 degrees or more in the summer months. Delicate fabrics just don’t respond well to vigorous Indian washing and powerful detergents, let alone profuse amounts of sweat. Dry cleaning is available across every city and in all major hotels, but even if you think it’s a safe bet, quality can vary significantly among dry cleaners, and they tend to use harsh chemicals.
Don’t worry about looking too casual—India is not a dressy society. If an upscale function or fancy dinner at a big-city restaurant is on the itinerary, men can often get away with just a formal shirt and pants. Women can wear a simple dress or a dressier blouse with pants and heels.
Bring sunglasses, a bottle of high-SPF sunblock (the amount of protection in sunblock sold in India is questionable) and two good pairs of footwear—sandals with rubber soles and lightweight walking shoes are smart options. Skip anything that’s difficult to maneuver in, such as hiking boots—unless you’ll be trekking in the north—since you’ll often be required to remove your shoes to enter religious sites.
It’s especially important is to dress modestly, particularly at sacred sites. In such places, long pants are appropriate for men; women are advised to stick to below-the-knee skirts, dresses, or neat pants. T-shirts are fine, but the male topless look should be left to wandering sadhus (Hindu ascetics). Women may want to avoid wearing tight tank tops or tops that are sheer or have plunging necklines, except in nightclubs and upscale restaurants, as even moderately revealing clothing can attract unwanted attention. Longer shorts are more socially acceptable than short shorts when not at the beach, except for children. You’ll attract stares if you wear a long Indian tunic as a dress or a midriff-baring sari blouse as a top. One-piece bathing suits are the norm for women at public pools frequented by Indians, but bikinis are common at beach resorts and large hotels that cater to a foreign clientele.
Things to keep handy at all times are toilet paper and moist towelettes or hand sanitizer, especially on long train trips. Few public restrooms provide toilet paper or a way to wash your hands thoroughly. In any case, there probably won’t be any hand towels, so a handkerchief for drying your hands is also useful. Consider also carrying a money pouch or belt, a basic first-aid kit, and a small flashlight. Good sanitary napkins are sold in India, but women should pack their own tampons unless they don’t mind using ones without applicators, which are generally the only kind available in India.
If you visit in monsoon season, bring a collapsible umbrella. Instead of bringing your own rain boots, buy a cheap pair once you arrive, or just don some flip-flops. Locals call rain boots gum shoes. In winter, bring a sweater or a light jacket for cool evenings.
If you have a young child, it’s probably not worth the bother of packing a stroller: sidewalks in Indian cities often have cracks or even holes, and in any case they don’t usually have enough space for them. Be extra careful in Delhi and Mumbai, as streets are crowded and cars unforgiving. Pack all necessary medications as well as rash creams, zinc oxide, sunscreen, diapers, and diaper wipes.
Although major brands of disposable diapers, as well as Nestlé instant baby cereals, are available in most cities, they can be hard to find. Powdered milk produced by such companies as Amul and Nestlé is readily available, as is sterilized (UHT) milk sold in sealed boxes. Use those products instead of looking for fresh milk, which needs to be boiled properly—in fact, it’s a wise precaution to boil UHT milk as well. If you run out of formula, Lactogen is a reliable Indian brand. Bottled mineral water and packaged snacks—potato chips, cookies, chocolate bars, fruit juices, and soft drinks—are sold throughout India. Though not nutritious, such snacks are often preferable to food that may be spicy or not entirely hygienic. If you’re heading out for a day of sightseeing, ask your hotel staff if they can pack a lunch for your child. A small hot pot or kettle can be useful for making instant soup or noodles, which are widely available throughout India.
If you’ll be taking any air-conditioned trains, bring a few pieces of warm clothing, as the cars get very cold. Leggings help protect against mosquitoes in the evening, hats shade faces from the sun, and rubber slippers or sandals are always practical. A few pairs of socks can come in handy. If you plan to travel by car bring a portable car seat. Choose accommodations that are air-conditioned or have rooms equipped with mosquito netting to protect your child from mosquito bites. Pack plenty of insect repellent as well as a 3-square-foot piece of soft cloth netting (available in fabric stores), which you can drape over a carriage or car seat to shield your child from insects. Pellet repellents that plug into the wall and release a mosquito-repelling scent are available in stores across India, and are effective in keeping a room mosquito-free. It’s a good idea to purchase such a gizmo on arrival (try Good Knight or ALLOUT).
When you need a restroom, ask for the “loo,” the washroom, or the toilet. Two types of toilets are available wherever you go in India. Traditional Indian toilets are holes in the ground—a squat variety with two steps in which to put your feet. There are also Western-style toilets, but the toilet seat, except in luxury hotels and better restaurants, may be messy. In many bathrooms you’ll see a faucet, a small hand-held showerhead, and/or a bucket with a plastic cup or other small vessel; Indians use these to rinse, bidet-style, after using the toilet. Sinks are either inside or right outside the bathroom. Outside of hotels, malls, and some restaurants, public restrooms are rarely clean, and ideally avoided. On long road journeys, finding any public restroom—let alone a clean one—is difficult. Always use the restroom before you set out and ration your fluid intake during a long journey. Be on the lookout for a decent hotel or opt for the outdoors. Luxury hotels and fancier restaurants usually have clean bathrooms.
Nicer hotels and restaurants provide toilet paper, but you can’t depend on this, as most Indians don’t use the stuff (they use their left hand and running water to clean themselves, which is why this hand is considered unclean). And often soap and paper towels are not available for washing up afterward. Keep toilet paper and towelettes with you at all times, which are readily available in pharmacies and grocery stores in large cities. Never throw anything other than a small amount of toilet paper in a toilet; India’s septic systems clog easily.
There are no generalizations that can be made regarding potential dangers for all tourists in India, but urban areas do have their particular crime patterns, and everyone is vulnerable in bad parts of town. For example, Delhi is known to be dangerous for women at night and has more crime in general than other big cities in India. Mumbai is safer for women, with fewer violent crimes taking place, although it’s important to be vigilant wherever you are.
Scams for targeting foreigners abound. One of the better-known, yet not that common, scams comes from the shoe shiners at Delhi’s Connaught Place, who furtively sling mud at your feet and then point out how badly your shoes need to be cleaned. Just be cautious everywhere you go, and know that in a country in which most tourists stand out—and that is filled with locals vying for their business—you’re always a potential target.
Theft in hotels is not common, but you should never leave money, traveler’s checks, passports, or jewelry in plain sight. If your hotel has a safe, definitely use it, but if there’s nothing to lock up valuables, you may wish to take them with you. Follow the lead of locals: avoid wandering around late at night, especially in smaller towns where shutters close early, and avoid road journeys after dark. As anywhere, never leave suitcases unattended in airports or train stations. The most visible police officers are traffic cops, clad in white and khaki; they can usually help out, even with a nontraffic problem (though taxis are in their jurisdiction). Otherwise, look for a regular police officer, in a khaki uniform.
Avoid strangers who offer their services as guides or moneychangers, and do not agree to be taken anywhere with anyone. In crowds, be alert for pickpockets—wear a money belt, and/or keep your purse close to your body and securely closed. If you travel by train, you may want to avoid accepting food or beverages from fellow passengers. There have been a few cases in which train travelers (usually Indians) are given food laced with sedatives and then robbed once the drug takes effect. It’s likely that you will be offered food on a train; Indians feel uncomfortable eating meals in front of another without sharing, but it’s safest to offer an excuse and refuse. In train stations, ignore touts who tell you that your hotel of choice is full or has closed; they hope to settle you into a place where they get a kickback for bringing in business. Do not agree to carry a parcel for anyone.
Women need to take extra precautions. If you’re alone, don’t travel late at night, especially in Delhi. Avoid seedy areas, touts volunteering their services, or over-friendly strangers and jostling crowds of men. Also, never get into a taxi or auto-rickshaw if a second man accompanies the driver. If you find yourself in a tricky situation—a taxi driver demanding a king’s ransom, a hawker plaguing you, a stranger following you—head straight for a police officer or at least threaten to do so, which often works just as well. Don’t hesitate to protest loudly if you’re harassed.
Overnight trains are safe for women traveling alone provided they take sleeper class or better, where you’ll be in an open compartment packed with other people. Just remember to chain your luggage to the loops provided below your sleeping berth (luggage chains and locks are available at every major train station). You may want to avoid first-class air-conditioned trains, because on those you’re locked in a room with three others—who may all be male. However, this is also the most comfortable compartment and chances are that your fellow travelers—irrespective of their gender—will be educated and respectful.
It’s easy to get upset by the number of beggars who beseech you for spare rupees, motioning from hand to mouth to indicate they have nothing to eat. Most disturbing are the children, as young as three years old, roaming in between cars on busy streets with no adult figure in sight. Sometimes, especially in big cities, such beggars are part of a ring and may not be as destitute as they look. If you give a beggar money, a dozen more may immediately spring up, and you may feel pressured to provide for all; it can also be difficult to get the first beggar, or the entire group, off your tail. Be firm and do not allow a beggar to follow you—a raised voice or mild threats usually work. If you’re not firm, expect to be followed by a pack for a while—they do not give up easily.
If you want to contribute, seek out an established charity that’s in a position to substantially help those in need. It also doesn’t hurt to pass out small trinkets or candy to child beggars if you really can’t stand the thought of ignoring them—but do it discreetly.
Hawkers and touts can also be a tremendous nuisance. If you’re not interested in what a hawker is offering, give him a firm, polite no and ignore him after that. If he persists, tell him to clear off and employ some mock anger or else he will follow you for blocks. Do not encourage touts at all.
As different countries have different worldviews, look at travel advisories from a range of governments to get more of a sense of what’s going on out there. And be sure to parse the language carefully. For example, a warning to “avoid all travel” carries more weight than one urging you to “avoid nonessential travel,” and both are much stronger than a plea to “exercise caution.” A U.S. government travel warning is more permanent (though not necessarily more serious) than a so-called public announcement, which carries an expiration date.
The U.S. Department of State’s website has more than just travel warnings and advisories. The consular information sheets issued for every country have general safety tips, entry requirements (though be sure to verify these with the country’s embassy), and other useful details. By registering on the site, you can have the DOS email you travel warnings as they are posted.
The U.S. Department of State generally does not list broad travel warnings for India because the majority of the country is safe for tourists. Still, there are a few unstable areas, and riots and other disturbances can arise quickly in otherwise-safe areas. It’s always a good idea to know where the closest consulate or embassy is.
Airport departure tax is Rs. 500 for non-Indians, and it’s included in the price of your ticket. The tax is the same no matter which country you fly to.
V.A.T., or Value-Added Tax, can be 1%, 4%, 12.5%, or nothing depending on the item purchased and the state where it was purchased. The V.A.T. is included in the listed price of items, except at restaurants and some hotels. For your hotel room, you will probably pay a service tax (around 12%), V.A.T. (12.5% and included in rates) and possibly even a luxury tax (10%). Rates differ from state to state.
It’s true that much of India runs on tips, but you can get a skewed understanding of the system if you stay only in top hotels, where wealthy tourists and businesspeople are the majority of the clientele. In those situations, hotel employees have come to appreciate modest tips. In smaller towns, however, tipping is less institutionalized and not expected in many instances. Always trust your instincts and reward good service accordingly wherever you are. Some guidelines:
Always tip in cash. You should leave up to 10% on any restaurant bill, 15% for exceptional service. At some large luxury hotel chains, such as Oberoi, tips to individuals are not encouraged, but they ask you to leave one tip at the end of your stay, which management then divides among staff. At other hotels, you won’t go wrong if you tip your room valet Rs. 20 per night. Bellboys and bell captains should be paid Rs. 10 per bag. For room service, tip 10% of the bill. Tip the concierge about Rs. 10 if he gets you a taxi, or consider a Rs. 100 tip at the end of your stay if he has helped you in several situations. Train-station porters should be paid Rs. 40 or more per bag, depending on the weight, plus Rs. 40 per 30 minutes waiting fees, if applicable. Set the rate before you let him take your bags (a sign may be posted with official rates). Taxi drivers don’t expect tips unless they go through a great deal of trouble to reach your destination; in such a case Rs. 10–Rs. 20 is fair. Some taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers may ask for Rs. 10 per piece of luggage over and above the meter charge. If you hire a car and driver, tip the driver about Rs. 50–Rs. 100 per day, depending on the distance traveled and about Rs. 50 for each lunch or dinner; also give him a larger amount at the end of the journey if you have been using him for many days. Tip local guides 10% of the price of the tour.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.