I was speaking with a co worker a few weeks ago about her upcoming trip to Dubai and I gave her a few tips that had bettered my experience there in March. “Those are really good tips, thank you” she said. At that moment I realized that with all of the traveling I do I’ve learned some things that would be useful to other people traveling the same path. That being said, from today forward I will Create Good Karma by sharing my useful travel knowledge … or at least what I consider to be useful!
I was in India for the first time from October 25 to November 5, 2012. I went there with my 73 year old Aunt who has been to India a total of 14 times! Geez, talk about falling in love with a country!
#1 – Leave yourself 1 day of recovery for every 12 hours of travel time to get home.
This is the first one that comes to mind because I’ve been home less than 72 hours – and for the first 48 I was useless. The trip home encompassed 3 flights and 30 hours and by the time I was on the last flight my eyes were red and I was definitely a weary traveler even though I managed to get about 8 hours of sleep on the planes. My internal clock is still struggling a bit to calibrate. If you can afford the time off from work please be kind to yourself and give your body the rest and recovery it deserves from such a long trip. I travel to Europe frequently, it’s an 8 hour flight time for me. I can go to work within 24 hours but prefer to have a day off if possible. For a westerner I think India is more exhausting than a European country because it is just so different from the way we live at home. The air, food and environment are unlike what our western bodies are used to and in some ways I found a small battle going on. My sinuses were aggravated, the chaos was fun but became tiring and the food, although extremely tasty, kept my stomach on the defensive the entire time. Which brings me to point #2 …
#2 – Eat small portions
Aside from everything you hear about drinking bottled water, avoiding street food and only eating at reputable restaurants I found that any stomach aggravation I had was in direct proportion to the amount of food I ate – no matter if I ate in a 4 star restaurant or a local joint. Once I finally made the correlation I started to decrease the amount of food I ate during each sitting. If the food didn’t agree with me the effects were that much less than if I had eaten a full portion. I do have to say that India is one of the most flavorful countries I’ve ever experienced!
#3 – Buy train tickets 3 months in advance if possible, especially during tourist season.
Indian Railways is the website for all train travel in India. If you don’t have an Indian mobile phone number you will have to email them a copy of your passport along with your user ID so that they can forward you the mobile verification code. This process takes 24-48 hours. When it came to paying I tried several different credit cards and non of them worked so I was unable to purchase tickets from home. Since they have direct links to American Express and Citibank I may have been able to pay if I had access to either of those cards. I did, however, meet some travelers who had great success making and paying for their train reservations using ClearTrip. Just to be clear – you must register with Indian Railways at irctc.co.in before you can use ClearTrip to make reservations. There is no way around this. I also came across some NYers who, once in India, went to the train station about 3 days before their travel date and purchased tickets. They said the line was long and everything was a bit confusing but they do set aside a certain amount of tickets for foreign travelers. So, if you were unable to purchase your train tickets before you leave be sure to go to the train station asap and see if you are able to get your hands on some of the tickets specifically for foreign travelers. My aunt and I ended up hiring a car. For reference, we hired a standard car to take us from New Delhi to Jaipur and then to Udaipur 2 days later. The total was 14,900 rupees. We hired the car literally 4 hours before we left. Beggars can’t be choosers at that point. I am confident that if we had had some time we would have been able to get a better price. We used Rajasthan Four Wheel Drive as recommended by TripAdvisor and the owner, Anil, was very responsive and accommodating.
#4 – Use Make My Trip for domestic plane reservations – buying all tickets at once will give you a discount.
Note: If you are buying Indian domestic airline tickets stay on the Indian website, don’t go to the USA website when prompted. It wouldn’t let me buy Indian tickets from the USA website.
I found Make My Trip to be very easy to use. I was able to purchase all of my tickets – UDR, TRV, BOM, DEL using Make My Trip. Furthermore, most Indian airlines offer refunds (with a penalty of about $20) and you can cancel any flights right from the Make My Trip website. I did price out buying flights directly from the airlines and it was either the same or more expensive than using Make My Trip.
In hindsight I learned a few things – 1. Try to book all of your flights at once because you will get a greater discount. I used Make My Trip to book a few one way tickets while in India and the price was more expensive than if I had added it to my first itinerary. Even if you are not 100% sure it might be worth it to book the ticket earlier on and pay the $20 penalty if you don’t use it. If I had thought out my itinerary more carefully before we left I would have saved money. 2. Do not, under ANY circumstances, fly Air India. I was pretty shocked at how they do business. Even though my ticket clearly said non-stop from BOM to TRV they ended up combining flights and stopped off at COK in the middle. Really? Are we riding a bus? Furthermore they changed the time of the flight and there was no notification at all. Had I read this great article on About.com before I booked my plane tickets I would have known better. I flew Go Air and Jet Airways and they were both good. Go Air was more professional but had smaller seats – Jet Airways gave me a full lunch for a 2 hour flight, nice!
Another note on booking airline tickets. Unlike the USA India has completely separate locations for domestic and international flights – not just different terminals within the same airport structure. Please figure this in to your flight times when booking tickets. For example – in Mumbai it can take a solid hour or longer to get between the international and domestic terminals. This became a real problem for us when we came in to Mumbai on a domestic Jet Airways flight but our domestic Air India flight was leaving out of the International Terminal 2 hours later (I have no idea why a domestic flight was leaving from the International Terminal but that’s Air India for you). We had to hire a taxi and rush over to the other airport, it was a real pain in the butt and I thought we were going to miss our flight.
#5 – Buy a prepaid taxi when leaving the airport. Arranging a pick up with the hotel can be as much as 5x the price.
As luck would have it I started chatting with an Indian travel agent as I was waiting for my AMS to BOM flight. He told me about the prepaid taxi system which seems to me like the government’s way of trying to help travelers not get swindled by the vulture private taxi drivers waiting at the airport. It’s very simple and the workers are happy to help. Simply walk up to the Prepaid Taxi counter with the address of where you need to go and they will give you a price – you pay at the counter. In my case the agent was kind enough to walk us outside and get us a ‘ladies taxi’ for me and my aunt. Here are the different prices we paid for roughly the same distance at different times coming into/going out of Mumbai airport: Hotel PickUp – 1200 rps, Taxi Pirate – 800 rps (this is one time I got swindled coming out of the airport without paying for the prepaid taxi because I had no idea I needed to head all the way to the international terminal), Prepaid Taxi – 260 rps, CoolCab – 300 rps & private driver recommended by someone – 600 rps. As you can see the prices vary quite a bit but hands down the Prepaid Taxi is the best way to go.
#6 – Invest in a tour or two preferably with a local
India is big. Indian cities are big and can be very confusing . There are no street signs to speak of and there are twists and turns everywhere. Taking a tour from a local not only helps to make sense of everything, it puts the city in the palm of your hand where you get to peel back all of the layers and understand a new culture. By far the best tour I took was with with Dhruv Gupta in Old Delhi. It is a walking tour that costs $50 prepaid by PayPal and worth every single penny. I dare say that it was the best tour that I have ever been on. Dhruv goes a fabulous job of giving you an insiders look at the inner workings of Old Delhi and Chawri Bazaar. He offers fantastic surprises every step of the way. He will not take any tips and there are no commission arrangements with the businesses that we visited. You don’t spend a dime above the $50. The lunch/dinner at the end and meeting his wife Richa was such a beautiful experience. I wish every city had a Dhruv.
#7 – Take these items with you
Hindsight is 20/20. Some of these items I brought with me and some I didn’t but here is a starting list to make your trip more comfortable:
- 1 package of 80 baby wipes for every 7 days you will be there – yes, you will use them
- Antacid/Anti-gas – even if you are not prone to these conditions chances are the change in diet will get to you
- Reusable water bottle. A few of my hotels had 5 gallon water jugs. It was very handy to have my own water bottle to refill
- Hand sanitizer
- Inhaler – If you are prone to any kind of asthmatic attack it is likely you will succumb to the air pollution in big cities like Mumbai and Delhi, have your inhaler with you.
- Allergy/Sinus Medicine – For the same reason as the inhaler. I found that when I was in the big cities it was an assault on my sinuses. A little Advil Cold & Sinus (or whatever works for you) goes a long way
- Cough drops/Hard Candy – With all the dust and dirt in the air in the larger cities I found these were essential to quelling any would be coughing fits. Thankfully my aunt already knew this and came well prepared with 3 bags of cough drops to share.
- Doses of Vitamin C, Airborne or whatever works for you. My aunt got bronchitis while we were in India. For me, at the first sign of not feeling well I started on high doses of Vitamin C and managed to keep myself healthy.
- Toilet Paper – India isn’t big on toilet paper, it’s not a bad idea to have a travel roll to keep with you when you are out touring. I used baby wipes for this purpose.
- Probiotics – I did not bring any of these handy pills but I have heard that they can do wonders in keeping your stomach in check, they are on the list for the next trip.
#8 – Read a few articles about the art of haggling before you go
Given that my aunt has been to India 14 times I thought it would be a given that she would give me a professional lesson in haggling. To my surprise the woman does not haggle and I watched her pay the asking price time and time again. Although the asking price might seem like a good deal to an American I was fairly certain there was a good amount of negotiating room. After about day 3 I was recalling my trip to Egypt 10 years ago and I remember haggling at the markets there. I started to do some research in the hotel room. Needless to say after that I was really getting into the shopping spirit of India. I’m not a nickel and dime bargainer but I consistently got 30-60% off of the asking price. Here are some articles that helped: 7 rules to negotiate like an Indian Tips for Bargaining at Markets
#9 – “Where are you from? Lithuania”
I got this idea from reading an article on TheExpeditioner.com (see #8) and it worked like a charm! Part of the Indian culture is street sales and, while you can get great bargains there, it becomes tiresome when you are being accosted from every angle with people trying to get your attention to sell you something. Make no mistake, a gentleman selling a 50 cent item will follow you for blocks trying to make the sale and the word ‘no’ always means ‘maybe’ to them – I actual think they take it as a personal challenge when you say no. There are two things I found particularly effective when trying to dodge street salesmen:
#1 – Use Jenny Wight’s idea of saying you are from a lesser known country. It generally stops them in their tracks. The conversation would go something like this:
Indian: “Madam, madam, look in my shop. Silver. Good Price. Good Price.”
Me: “No, not interested.”
Indian: “Come. Come. Good Price.”
Indian: “Where are you from?”
Indian: Looks a bit bewildered. Me: Walk away 🙂
I promise you, if I had said “USA” I would be hearing all about what a great country it is and how his brother, uncle, cousin lives there – the salesman is trying to build all sorts of rapport hoping to break you down to enter the store and buy.
The other thing that seemed to work well was a hand gesture. Someone mentioned this to me and it seemed to work much better than ‘no.’ It is a sweeping gesture made with either your left or right hand as if you were shooing something away. I felt kind of weird doing it and wondered if it was disrespectful but no one seemed particularly put off and, again, it worked much better than just saying ‘no.’
#10 – Do some clothes shopping at Fab India and/or Westside
I didn’t have a chance to get in to a Fab India but my tour guide in Mumbai took me to Westside and I’m really glad she did. I hear that both stores are very similar. I would say that Westside reminded me of Macy’s here in the states except the prices on clothes were about 70% less. Westside was an upscale, hassle free experience and I enjoyed shopping through their variety of skirts and kurtas. Although I won’t be dressing Indian style on the streets of DC anytime soon I did pick up a few things that I will be wearing on an upcoming beach vacation! Note: Fab India does have an online store but the prices are more in line with US pricing. Prepare for those prices to be quite a bit less when you’re in India.
UPDATE: January 29, 2013
I have two co workers that are leaving for India this week and they were asking me for some information so I wanted to add these ideas:
Here’s some other info I hope will help:
I have Marriott platinum status and it paid off big time at this hotel. I received a nice welcome dish of smoked salmon delivered to the room, I was given a room on the concierge level with access to the business lounge with food and drinks & a free breakfast buffet in the morning. I do believe that these benefits extend to gold members as well.
In Mumbai I did a day tour with Hemali. Her company is Bravo Bombay. She spent about 8 hours with me showing me everything. It cost me I think $150 or $180 for the day but it was well worth it. I was picked up at the hotel by a driver and they drove me to Hemali’s house in the center of Mumbai and she jumped in the car and we were off. She will 100% customize the tour for you.
In New Delhi I stayed at www.Bloomrooms.com I thought the value was great. The rooms were clean and the beds were comfortable. The hotel reminds me of Ikea. It’s very basic but good.
The company I used to drive us from Delhi to Jaipur to Udaipur was www.rajasthancarservices.com
The owner is Saiyad Jamil firstname.lastname@example.org also email@example.com
The BEST tour I did was in New Delhi with Dhruv Gupta. If you are spending anytime at all in Delhi you must do this tour – this really gives you a feel for ‘old india.’ He does a great job of peeling back the layers to help you understand the culture. It was magnificent!!!
The place we stayed in Jaipur was www.deviniketan.com firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g304555-d1157909-Reviews-Devi_Niketan-Jaipur_Rajasthan.html It was a comfortable place to stay at a very good price. It is a large ‘Haveli’ which is basically a big house turned into a bed and breakfast. The owner was very nice. He called a doctor for my aunt and then drove me to the ‘chemist’ to get her prescriptions.
It is an old, historic place. I think there is a Marriott in Jaipur but it isn’t near the city center – this place is. If I were to go back (which I wouldn’t … Jaipur did nothing for me) I might stay at the Marriott or equivalent. India is such a dirty place to begin with it’s nice to have someplace that is a little more plush to come back to.