Useful Information About Touring in India.

About India visas, changing money, hiring a car and driver, other ways of travelling around India, misleading hotel owners, Indian touts and beggars.

Currency in India - where to do change your money.

India's currency is the Rupee - certainly in the U.K. at the moment it is not generally possible to buy your rupees before travelling to India unless you get them at the departure airport. At the airport expect to be really ripped off (particularly at Heathrow) - you can only get Rupees at a fair exchange rate on arrival in India. Similarly if you have any rupees left at the end of your holiday and you want to change them back to your own currency you have to do this before getting into the departure lounge at the international airport. There are meant to be ATMs at the airports and also several money change booths around though their rates are not exactly brilliant. Once out of the airport in India there are quite a few ATMs scattered around in most towns and cities - these work quite well most of the time. However if you are travelling around a lot it might be worth using "swipe" ATMs (like the Bank of India's) rather than the type which actually swallows your card and may decide to not give it back for some reason.
We always carry plenty of currency with us when going to India - the idea is we book internal flights and hotels with a credit card and then try to have enough cash to cover meals, transportation and so on. Most hotels now have in-room safes available so you don't have to carry your cash hoard around with you from day to day. It is often possible to get a really good exchange rate if you ask around. For instance small jewelry shops are often happy to change say USD or Sterling for Rupees and will give you nearly the currency markets exchange rate i.e. way higher than tourist rates - and with no commission. For example at Heathrow during mid March when we last flew out to India they were offering 76rs to 1UKstg. Mumbai Airport was 79rs to 1Ukstg and a jewelry shop in Ahmedabad gave us 83rs to 1UKstg (currency market that day was 84rs to 1UKstg).

Applying for and getting Tourist Visas etc. for India.

Most people visiting or going on holiday to India will need a visa - if you are living in England this can now be done online via the VFS Global which handles visas for the Indian Embassy in London - the Indian visas seem to take around 7 days to be returned. With various other charges like postage the cost gets to around UKstg92 (handling and visa prices were almost doubled in January 2013). Also remember that standard size passport photos are not ok for Indian Visas. We did look at several of the many websites offering to get visas to India for you but these seem very expensive considering it really is straight forward to just do it yourself online - the VFS website does work ok.
Be aware that you cannot travel to India without a visa - there is no provision to purchase India visas on arrival. Any prices quoted are for guidance and were as per our most recent visit in 2013.

About Travelling to India and Moving Around it's various Towns and Cities.

Flying to India i.e. International Flights.

India is very well served by international airlines from Europe - flight times from London into Delhi and Mumbai are around 9 to 10 hours either way. Seat prices on offer on the web (especially on the actual airline websites) really do vary even from day to day at times so it's worth hunting around and looking over a period of time if possible before booking. Generally the nearer to the flight date the higher the prices - around 6 weeks before intending to travel seems good for price offers.

Flying - Internal Flights within India.

There are quite a few airlines operating within India - their ticket prices vary considerably at the moment although there is something of a price war starting to occur. Generally we have found that Indian Airways have the best prices and often have daily flights to most major cities and larger Towns - they also have an excellent baggage allowance (possibly up to 30kg). Several of India's Internal Airline Websites (which have online booking which works mostly) are Indian Airways  Jet Airways  Spicejet  and  Indigo Air.

Getting around India using the huge Indian Railways network - buying railway tickets.

India has an extensive railway network serving just about any major town and city in the country. Every railway station has a unique code and you need to know this code to use the Indian Railway website efficiently so the first thing to do is use their site to identify the short code for the stations you are interested in travelling between. RMR-F734 was India's first fully produced steam engine Then you can use their "trains between Stations" link to find the train times etc. The trains are numbered and so once you pick out your train make a note of it's number - also you need to know what type of seats (i.e. 2ac) are available on the train in question especially if you plan to book your tickets online. The online booking is achieved via IRCTC website - you have to create a user account to use this site and doing this has become quite involved. Basically you now have to prove who you are including sending a photo by email and then eventually you will be sent two passwords - one by email and the other by sms. Unfortunately at the moment the only mobile numbers they will send too are Indian numbers. You cannot get an Indian sim unless you are in India (see below)!. To get round this contact the email address given on your "emailed" part of your password and get them to send the second part by email. You will probably be required to email back a copy of part of your passport i.e. scan an image and save it as an .jpg file of your passport photo page.
Anyway once you are registered the site works well and you can purchase e-tickets. 2ac is a good way to travel - you can get quite a long way quite cheaply - therefore on a long journey it might be worthwhile booking the whole compartment (i.e. on 2ac this would be all four seats/bunks just to yourselves). The earlier you can book the better as some long distance trains get heavily booked up - especially on holiday times like Diwali. Note when using the Indian Railway websites mentioned above you can only actually book tickets during their opening hours - they close between 2300 and 0500hrs Indian time. The trains tend to run very slowly and often as not end up arriving late - sometimes up to 3 hours late for just a 250km journey. The engines are a little more modern than that shown on the photo above - this was actually India's first fully manufactured steam engine - built in 1895 - and ran on the Rajputana Malway Railway. It and much more can be seen at Delhi's National Railway Museum.

Buying Mobile Phones and Sims in India.

Getting a sim can only be done when in India and the days of just going into a phone shop or similar and immediately buying an Indian sim card are gone. Getting a sim now involves lots of paperwork, a permanent local address and even a photo and the whole thing takes around 6 days - not good if you are touring and maybe only staying in one place for 3 or 4 days. Much of what you want to do in the way of booking flights, hotels and so on now requires not only an email address but also wants a mobile phone number so the whole thing is a nuisance.

Travelling around in India on their Long Distance Buses.

There are many long distance bus and coach services operating between India's towns and cities including so-called tourist services which allow you to sleep on overnight trips. We never did actually use these however quite a few people we met who had travelled on them seemed to regret having done so despite the low fare cost. Many of the buses looked really scruffy although the more expensive (fares) coaches appeared to be somewhat better - however apparently there is very little room to sleep in any of them.

Hiring a Car and Driver in India both for day trips and one way drop-offs.

. A more expensive way than coach or train to get between locations is by hiring a car and driver to get you from A to B and prices really vary from State to State - for instance in Karnataka charges are typically 8Rs per kilometre whilst in Goa they will want around 14Rs/km. You can often negotiate not only the price but also that the journey involves a short diversion here and there to enable you to have a short visit to perhaps a temple or fort close by on the route so making the trip and expense more beneficial. Many hotels offer to arrange such journeys for you - decent hotels will just put a few hundred rupees extra onto the cost as an arrangement fee but some will try and rip you off badly with their add-ons and in any case the price will be subject to hotel taxes. However if you just ask the Hotel who they use for their hire-cars and get them to give you the phone number you can sort out the trip directly - usually for cash payment of course. This can save some 1000s of Rupees on longer trips (if the Hotel will not give you the contacts just ask local taxi drivers - they will know someone for sure). It is also best not to pay the driver the whole agreed amount before starting the journey - probably half is good enough and settle up on arrival.
Day trips and using a car and driver. This is a good way for several of you to have a nice day touring round more out of town places - as above you can easily sort this out directly with the driver. There is often a 250km minimum charge for such day trips though this can be negotiated as with most things in India. On a couple of occasions our driver did not go exactly where we wanted - we think it's worth only paying perhaps half the charges upfront and only settling once the trip has been satisfactorily completed. As with one-way drop offs you will often have to pay any road tolls and parking charges on top of the hire fee - tolls on roads seem to be getting more frequent but are still usually only 50 or 50 rupees.

Getting around and touring various sites etc. within India's towns and cities.

Local buses are everywhere but they are nearly always really full with passengers with some even sitting up on the roof - not a good way to get around and the local buses mostly look exceedingly grim.
Cycle Rickshaws. These quite fragile three wheelers are really vulnerable to all other traffic - we saw quite a few being knocked over by other vehicles or just turning on their sides because the drivers lost control. OK to try out in a quiet area just to say you have been on one but not a good idea where there is any motorised traffic around in our view.
A gang of tuk-tuks waiting for victims in Jodhpur Auto Rickshaws. These three wheelers have tiny engines and can be found everywhere - they are great fun to be in and certainly are the best and fastest way to get around many of India's highly traffic congested towns and cities and only cost maybe 70 or 80 rupees for a several km ride. Although officially in India they are called Auto Rickshaws they are very commonly referred to as Autos and often as not Tuk Tuks. You should always agree your price before getting into one. Two things to watch out for - don't be surprised if your driver stops off at a clothes or carpet or similar "factory" and tries to get you to go in - they get maybe 50 rupees for this. Just tell them to move on or you will get out without paying. A much more potentially costly issue is that once in your Tuk Tuk someone else gets in the front alongside the driver. This person will immediately say he does not want any money and he will probably say one of "I am just learning English, "I am a student", "I am not a paid guide" or similar. None of this will be correct - he does want money and he is probably a tout - the best thing is to threaten too or even get out of the Tuk Tuk and find another one unless he clears off.

Begging is widespread in India.

This is a difficult thing to ignore in India - you have got money and the beggars want a bit of it. Especially at the start of a holiday in India it seems really mean to not hand over 50 or so rupees which is probably nothing to us - however as your holiday proceeds you soon find this sometimes incessant begging gets really irritating. Often as not the beggars are actually being organised by touts. Just be in a tuk-tuk in for instance Jaipur when it stops at traffic lights - you are quickly spotted and soon dirty poorly clothed women clutching very grubby babies appear asking for money. Take a look over to where they came from and you will probably see the well-dressed tout who sent them out to you and of course he will grab most of any money collected by the beggar(s).
Many beggars do hang around the various sightseeing areas like Temples - in fact these people are fed by the temple so if you want to give any money (which we often did) then put it into the donations box rather than give it to the actual beggars.

Indian Touts are everywhere tourists want to go too in India.

These people are in our view the very worst of India and their annoying and sometimes incessant attention to you can really spoil parts of your day out - they are often aged around 18 to 30, casually but well dressed - and often seem to wear striped shirts. They operate and organise auto-rickshaws and taxis, hang around many of the more popular sightseeing locations where they organise "guides" and beggars, or they want to take you to various shops or markets etc. In fact they simply see you as a walking wallet or purse the contents of which they want to grab for themselves. They can be extremely persistent - even threatening at times - and you sometimes have to resort to being really rude or angry at them to get them clear off - not a nice thing to resort too in someone else's country.

Baksheesh in India - targeting overseas tourists since it does not work if tried out on Indian Nationals.

As a foreign tourist you soon find everybody you come across particularly at hotels in India wants to be tipped for doing hardly anything or probably nothing at all in return. Arrive at your hotel and you will probably have 2 or 3 bag boys who will grab your suitcases. These will be taken a few yards to the reception desk and then they will expect 40 or 50 rupees each. Once you have done your paperwork another lot will grab your cases to take them to your room - these will also want and expect a tip. If your hotel bill includes a "service charge" then there is no need to tip anyone unless they do something out of normal for you.

Beware of Baggage Boys at Indian Railway Stations.

These people can be a real menace although you may well need their help in carrying your luggage and finding your train platform let alone the right carriage in the chaos which is typically found at Indian Stations. The problem is that although the amount they should charge is published and displayed on all railway stations in India these guys - once they have got you to your seat - they will at times try and corner you in the compartment and be quite aggressive and rude whilst trying to get 100s more rupees off you. Just refuse and threaten too or if necessary find a policeman or railway official.

India and it's misleading Hotels.

Probably the best bet if you are pre-booking rooms before going on holiday to India is to assume that the photos of the rooms and facilities described are quite possibly going to be false or misleading. It soon can become quite obvious that before signing into a hotel you need to see the hotel room, check various things like hot water, lights, fan and/or air conditioners work, views are as advertised. Also there is, no particular noise issues like having the hotel's restaurant next door or above so early and late noise might be a problem and that the room is clean.
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