Sunday, June 9, 2013

I Want to Go to India! Any Advice????? Part 1 - Getting There

Jaipur, Rajasthan

When people want to go to India, I get a lot of questions for advice, because...well, I'm Indian, and I guess that goes with the territory.  If you've been thinking of a trip to India, I'm putting together a series of posts on how to plan a vacation there.  And if you haven't considered visiting India, you should go, at least once.  It's at once fascinating and mystical, yet at times frustrating and tragic - a living paradox that you won't find anywhere else.  I'll start off with a seemingly easy task, but one that can actually be quite the headache - how to get there.

Before You Start Dreaming of the Taj Mahal...

Remember that pretty much ALL visitors, unless you are a Nepalese citizen, require a visa to visit India.  If all you're after is a tourist visa, it's not a horrible process.  You can download an application from your local consulate's website (the Houston consulate's website can be accessed here), and an application can usually be processed the same day while you wait if you visit the consulate in person.  Or, you can send in your passport and application by mail and have them return it to you in a couple of weeks.  BEWARE:  you have to visit or mail your application to the consulate that has jurisdiction over your state.  In other words, if you live in Chicago, DON'T try to apply for a visa from the Houston consulate, or they'll just send it back.  Maybe.  If they feel like it that day.

Planning the Flight

India is a long ways away from the United States.  By air, it's nearly 7,500 flight miles from Chicago to Delhi, for example.  In other words, it's a LOOOOOONG flight, generally 17-24 hours depending on which city you're flying from, and which city in India you're trying to get to.  AA and Delta used to run nonstops to India from Chicago and Atlanta, respectively, but now, the only direct flights are on United from Newark to Delhi and Mumbai.  Otherwise, you're going to have to connect at one of the megahubs in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East.

Fares are generally in the $1,400-1,600 range from DFW, if you book direct with the airlines.  Go through a travel agent specializing in flights to India, and you can often do a little better than that (sorry, but I don't have any that I can recommend - the last time I used one was in 1996).  Fares can often be ridiculously cheap form Chicago or New York; it might be worth checking to see if you can find a cheap domestic fare to one of those cities first, and then piggyback a ticket to India on that.

Which Routing is Best for Me?

There's really not a "perfect" way to fly to India.  Unless you're going on business, or fancy yourself a regular Daddy Warbucks and can swing for a business class seat, you're going to be "enjoying" steerage for a good 20 hours or so.  Most people either connect through Europe - British Airways via London, Lufthansa via Frankfurt, KLM via Amsterdam, or Air France via Paris - or more recently, through Dubai on Emirates.  Now, Qatar Airways and Etihad also offer options via Doha and Abu Dhabi, respectively.  And yet another option is to fly west, and connect via Hong Kong (Cathay Pacific) or Singapore (Singapore Airlines).

Whether you fly east or west, flight time is roughly the same.  However, going west usually requires an all-day layover in someplace like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, etc., whereas a connection through Europe or the Middle East involves a layover of 2-4 hours (then again, I can think of worse places to be stuck for a day than Singapore).  If flying east, be aware that while the connection to India is usually pretty painless, the connection from India back to the U.S. can be a nightmare, for one major reason:  flights from India are often relegated to a remote stand, instead of an aerobridge, requiring a bus ride to the terminal, sometimes switching terminals, and then going back through security, often twice (or three times, in the case of Dubai).  Allow yourself AT LEAST 2 1/2 hours to connect on the return trip, and pack an extra helping of patience.

What About Jet Lag?

At 10 1/2 hours ahead of Dallas time during daylight savings, and 11 1/2 hours ahead during standard time, your body clock is literally flipped around while in India.  So yes, you're going to deal with jet lag.  If time allows, you might consider stopping for a day or two in either Europe or Asia to try and get acclimated.  Otherwise, expect to be discombobulated for the first day or two.  My best advice - do whatever you can to avoid sleeping during the day.  This is made more difficult by the fact that most flights to India arrive in the middle of the night, meaning a check-in to your hotel at 2 or 3 in the morning.  Keep yourself busy with activities, and load up on the chai to keep caffeinated.

Do I Have to Connect in Delhi or Mumbai?

Back in the day, all international flights had to land in either Mumbai or Delhi, so if your destination was elsewhere, you'd have to brave a domestic flight on Indian Airlines.  Today, most major cities are serviced by international carriers.  While I strongly recommend flying direct to your destination, if that's not an option either because of a large difference in fare or if the city you're trying to get to doesn't have international service, go with Delhi.  The new International Terminal 3 is a huge improvement over the old one, and allows transfers without the cumbersome process of taking a shuttle bus and fighting through the mass of humanity go get inside the other terminal. 

When Is the Best Time to Visit?

I'll detail best times to visit specific things in a future post, but my personal favorite time of year in India is November through February.  The weather is dry and cool, especially in the north, the crowds have diminished with the end of festival season (at least as much as crowds can diminish in India), and prices tend to be a little lower, except right around Christmas.  Avoid April through mid-June; school is out, so crowds are an even bigger problem than usual, and since this is summer season in India, the heat is downright intolerable pretty much everywhere.  Places like Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur can bake at 115 degrees during the day, with night providing little relief with lows barely dropping below 90.  Meanwhile, Mumbai and Chennai on the coast "enjoy" triple digit heat plus 70 percent humidity.  Monsoon season (June through September) can be an interesting time to visit.  The immediate west coast from Mumbai to Kerala can see heavy rain on a daily basis, but the rest of the country usually only sees major rains a few days a month, temperatures are cooler, and prices are lower since many people wrongly assume nothing is accessible.

In Part 2, I'll cover how best to get around from place to place within India.

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