Travel Information (India)

Traveling in India can be challenging. India is developing rapidly and has made tremendous strides in improving living conditions of it’s citizens. Yet, it suffers from high levels of poverty, pollution, poor infrastructure and very high population density. Once you learn to navigate some of these challenges, you’ll be rewarded with rich history, architectural wonders, warm welcomes and some amazing experiences.

Logistics:

Indian Visa: If you are a citizen of any of the countries listed in the link below, for the purposes of recreation, site-seeing and such, the Indian govt. allows electronic visa processing that doesn’t require physically sending out forms or passports to the consulate.You can only apply for e-visa a month in advance of the expected date of arrival. The application can be accessed here: https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/evisa/tvoa.html.

Currency: The currency in India is Indian Rupee (INR or Rs.). Roughly, 1 USD = ~65 INR. The exchange rates at large nationalized banks like the State bank of India (SBI) are often better than private entities like Thomas Cook. There is a Bank of India (BOI) currency exchange counter after baggage area at the IGI airport in Delhi. You’ll only need to exchange an equivalent of 100-200 USD for immediate use. There is an extensive network of ATMs across India and you can easily get more cash later with your debit / cash card from home. Almost all good hotels take credit cards.

Costs:

  • Maximum retail Price (MRP): India is perhaps the only country where packaged products are marked with a Maximum Retail Price (MRP). Many retailers choose to sell it for less than the listed MRP but they can not sell it for more. Always check the MRP before buying any packaged product.
  • You can easily have a good meal in a mid-range restaurant for less than Rs.500.
  • There are tons of hotels for every budget. Those that are reasonably clean and nice are anywhere upwards of Rs 4000 (~USD 60) a night. Anything less than that is likely to be somewhat shabby or dingy, no matter what the pictures look like online.
  • A cup of chai costs anywhere from Rs. 20 to 50. [Chai on the street is nothing like the spiced chai you are used to in the US. Regular street chai in India is rather sweet with little or no spice. If you want spicy chai, ask for Masala Chai.
  • Water: Packaged water bottles cost Rs.20-25 each. Most people have multi-stage water purification systems in their homes. It’s helpful to buy one of those water bottles with built-in filters like Lifestraw bottles.

Vegan / Vegetarian:

  • All vegetarian packaged products in India are required to have a green colored ‘V’ logo that clearly marks them as such.
  • As a tourist, it’s really hard to be a vegan in India and really easy to be a lacto-vegetarian. A lot of traditional Indian dishes contain some sort of milk / milk products.
  • Indian food in the restaurants is pretty tasty but tends to be high in saturated fats and sodium. Feel free to ask your server to skip butter/ghee/cheese.
  • Make sure you wash raw fruit vegetables thoroughly. Pesticides are used indiscriminately in farms across India.
  • Packaged products: I haven’t yet found any packaged cookies, snacks, juices or other drinks in India that don’t contain preservatives or artificial colors.

 

Transport:

  • Trains: India has the 4th largest train networks on the planet. There are usually 4-5 different seating / fare classes in mid-long distance trains. See this post for a description of different fare classes.
  • Train Tickets: All train tickets can be purchased by everyone regardless of their country of origin [See scam section below for ticketing related scams] at the main railway station or Online at https://www.irctc.co.in . IRCTC also has an app for your android or iphone with which you can buy general or reserved tickets for almost all trains and seating categories. You don’t need to carry physical tickets anymore; all you need is an electronic copy of the ticket on your phone.
  • Cleartrip: There’s another convenient website called Cleartrip for train reservations. Cleartrip interfaces with the IRCTC at the backend and allows using credit cards issued outside India.
  • Air travel: Domestic Air travel is relatively new to India. However, it is affordable and there are frequent connections to all major cities across India. Depending on your specific itinerary, you can get one-way economy tickets for ~ $100.
  • Uber: There’s Uber in major cities like Delhi and Chandigarh, but not in small towns. No matter where you are in big cities, there’s an Uber 5 minutes away. In addition to Uber, there’s a local version called Ola cabs. Ola can be slightly more expensive then Uber though.
  • Metro / Subway: In New Delhi, there’s a fantastic subway network. It’s fast and cheap (a bit crowded though). You can get an unlimited 1-day pass for Rs.150 (~2.5 USD).
  • Traveling in the night alone as a female: Please avoid taking a cab/uber by yourself in the night. If you must travel after dark by yourself, buy a pepper spray, try Autorickshaws (autos) that don’t have any doors, inform someone about where you are going and keep track of where exactly you are with Google Maps or any other GPS based navigation system on your phone.
  • Rental cars: While there are rental cars available in cities like Delhi, I’d strongly recommend against driving yourselves for reasons outlined below. Get a rental car with a driver instead.
  • Driving Etiquette: 
    • India follows the British-style driving system: left side driving and driver’s seat on the right.
    • No one follows any marked lanes and people often drive right in the middle of two lanes.
    • People honk.. A LOT. Honking isn’t necessarily a mark of rudeness. People honk just out of habit or for letting everyone know that they are nearby.
    • A lot of drivers don’t actually have driving licenses. Some get their licenses by paying money to someone who then knows someone who then somehow gets them an official license without any sort of testing.
    • Drivers jump red/stop lights quite often. On multiple occasions, I’ve had to stop my Uber driver from jumping red / stop lights.
    • A total of 5,01,423 accidents were reported with a total of 1,46,133 deaths across India in the year 2015. That’s an average of 57 accidents 17 deaths every hour! – Ministry of Road Transport and Highways: Report 2015


Places to see:

  • Historical / Temples / Architectural Interest:
    Click on the top left button on the map below to pull a list of some interesting places to visit. Further clicking on each place marker will open up a picture of the place along with some basic description.
     

Language:

  • There are an estimated 447 living languages in India at the moment.
  • Each state has multiple different languages and dialects.
  • Not everyone speaks or understands Hindi, especially in non-northern areas.
  • English is a de facto bridge language. Most signs, tickets, official documents etc. are in English.
  • Not everyone speaks or understands English, especially with a foreign accent.
  • Install Google Translate app on your phone and download Hindi and the official language of the region you are traveling to for offline use. I found the voice translations extremely useful in Beijing for directions.


Cell Phones / Connectivity:

  • India has some of the cheapest cell phone / data services on the planet.
  • Some of the major players are: Reliance Jio, Vodaphone, Airtel, Idea, and BSNL.
  • Getting a cell phone / data connection or new  sim card as a non-citizen is rather cumbersome. Regular Indian citizens have to provide identity documents (Voter ID / Passport / Aadhar card etc.) just to get a new sim card and the connection isn’t activated until the card holder’s details are verified.
  • If you are from the US, you’d be better off getting a Project Fi sim card from the Google Store. I use Project Fi for $20 / month unlimited calling / texting and service in 135 countries, including India for no extra charge. Unlimited International texting is free no matter where you are. If you want, you can just use it for international travels and deactivate the service at the click of a button when you are back. On a side note, Project Fi successfully penetrated the great Chinese firewall when I was in Beijing and Guangzhou.


Tourist Scams in India: 

If you are traveling within India without any Indian companion, following information might be useful:

  1. Curfew / Closure Scam: If a stranger or your taxi driver or someone at the hotel tells you that a particular place you were planning on visiting is closed today because of some religious event where foreigners are not allowed and they offer to take you elsewhere, they are trying to scam you! Politely but firmly refuse.
  2. Tourist Reservation center Scam: If are going to a train station for tickets, some random person in the station might stop you and ask for tickets, and might direct you to a “tourist reservation center” somewhere else. Please know that there is no special ticketing for foreigners in India. See Transport section for more information on ticketing.
  3. Begging Industry: Thanks to extreme poverty, it doesn’t take long to find a woman or a little child in shabby clothes begging for money or selling pens or flowers. They can be incredibly persistent. You might be tempted to spare some change; Please don’t. The money you’ll offer won’t actually go to these people and you’ll simply be feeding the exploitative criminal network that thrives by displacing these unfortunate people/kids from their villages, mutilating them in many cases and forcing them to beg on the roads. Remember Slumdog Millionaire?
  4. Fake Doctors: There are tons of fake “doctors” / quacks everywhere who won’t hesitate to dish out unknown pills or injections for little money. If you have food poisoning / Delhi belly, please visit a reputable hospital (Fortis, Apollo, AIIMS, PGI etc.).
  5. Fake Medicines: Counterfeit drugs are estimated to be ~12-23% of the Indian marketIf you can, please carry your own basic medicines from home.
  6. Pickpockets and Crowds: Beware of pickpockets in a crowded area.
  7. Differential Pricing:
    • You may notice differential pricing based on nationality for various tourist sites. Some of these sites charge non-Indians much more than Indian citizens. For instance, at Red Fort in New Delhi, non-Indians are charged Rs. 500 per person for entry compared to mere Rs. 35 for Indians. While this is unfair, our quasi-socialist structure subsidizes costs for it’s own poor citizens by charging more from more affluent foreigners. Similar pricing models exist in Peru.
    • As a foreigner, you’ll likely be quoted a much higher price than normal for private transport, clothes, souvenirs etc. It’s OK to bargain. Do a rough conversion in your head and remember that on average things tend to be much cheaper in India than the US (except electronics or other imported goods).

Racism: 

  • Racism is alive and well in India. Perhaps a colonial hangover, ‘whiteness’ is associated with power and privilege. There are tons of ads on the TV for “fairness” creams. There have been mob attacks on African students in India. It’s unfortunate and a little weird in context of India – a diverse country full of people of all shades and colors – but if you are a person of African heritage or ethnicity, please be extra cautious.

Stares:

  • If you look different, you’d most likely be stared at in India, no matter how you are dressed. A lot of Indians have never left the country and in many cases, it’s innocent curiosity. Nevertheless, the stares can be persistent and uncomfortable and there’s nothing you can do about it other than not letting it bother you too much – sort of my survival strategy in rural Montana!


Other Tips:

  • There is no tipping culture in India and it’s not rude at all to leave no tip.
  • Download Google Maps and local offline maps on your phone prior to arriving in India.
  • Bring a portable battery / phone charger.
  • Carry a roll of toilet paper with you or be prepared for a jet spray!
  • Feel free to bargain if you are shopping and negotiate transport costs for taxis. Depending on the context, sometimes you can buy stuff for less than 70% of the asking price.
  • If you are traveling by train, you can also use IRCTC for ordering (in advance) food / clean bedding to be delivered to your berth. If you are traveling by Shatabdi trains, you’ll be provided with food on the go for free.

India is a fantastic country, full of beautiful landscapes and warm, friendly people. It can be challenging but if you are cautious and use some common sense, you’ll have wonderful experiences.

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