Thursday, June 13, 2013

I Want to Go to India! Any Advice????? Part 2 - Getting Around

Traffic on a typical street in India

This is part 2 in my series about travel advice if you're planning to go to India.   If you're new to this blog, I'd recommend reading Part 1 first, which discusses how to pick the right flight to get to India in the first place.  You can read it by clicking here.

First, a word about what to expect when you arrive at the airport.  Clearing immigration and customs is relatively simple; long gone are the days when customs intentionally targeted foreigners for bribes by assessing exorbitant, bogus customs duties on personal belongings.  If you do happen to get singled out (this usually happens by placing a large white "X" on the outside of your bags), stand firm if the officer tries to charge you a duty that you know is incorrect.  Usually, demanding a receipt before payment will get them to back off.  Also, do not exchange significant sums of money at the airport currency exchange booths; you will get ripped off on the exchange rate.  Use the ATM machines instead.  Your foreign ATM cards are accepted in India, though your bank may charge a foreign exchange fee.

I strongly encourage calling your hotel and asking them to send a car to pick you up - most decent hotels will offer this at a very reasonable charge - but if you haven't done so, the next best option is to book a cab through the "prepaid taxi window", which will be just past baggage claim.  After paying your fare (credit cards are usually accepted), you will be given a ticket that you take to the taxi stand outside, and go on your way.  As you step outside, though, brace yourself - you'll be faced with an enormous mass of humanity that can be unnerving if you're not expecting it.  If you booked a car through your hotel in advance, you'll see a sign with your name on it.  Just identify yourself to the driver, and he'll get your bags to your car.  Whatever you do, DO NOT allow anyone who isn't known to you to carry your bags (you will get multiple offers of "help").  It is a scam, where you will first be expected to pay a ridiculous "tip" (usually $10-20) to have your bags carted to a waiting taxi, who will then charge you a grossly inflated fare to take you where you're going (such as $25 for a ride that should cost you $5).  If you didn't arrange a car in advance and didn't get a prepaid taxi, you can get a taxi from one of the many touts waiting outside.  If you do so, however, it is essential that you negotiate the fare before getting in the cab.  Rates are normally 8-15 rupees per kilometer, so research how far you have to go before you set out, and negotiate accordingly.  Don't bother trying to get a driver to use their meter; it will either be rigged to run fast, or you will get what's referred to in Chennai as the "suthi suthi" treatment (literally translated "round and round" - you'll go the scenic route to your destination, with a bill to match).

Getting Around the City

If you're just trying to get around the city, your options are pretty simple - private car, taxi or auto rickshaw, or mass transit.  If you decide to keep a car, I offer this one piece of advice:


I'll elaborate on why this is a bad idea in a future post, but for now, just take my word for it.  Instead, pay the few extra bucks a day and hire a driver with your car.  A chauffeured vehicle generally runs between 800 and 1,500 rupees a day, and can be arranged either through your hotel or a travel agency that specializes in travel to India (hotels will charge a premium, naturally).  

If you're going to take a taxi or auto rickshaw, again, make sure to negotiate a fare BEFORE you get in.  Also, keep in mind that most drivers don't speak English, so write down the name and address of your destination so you can show it to them.  The hotel clerk can help you with this. 

Mass transit is by far the cheapest way of getting around.  However, you might want to think twice about riding the city bus, unless you're the adventurous type.  Why?  I'll let this picture do the talking.  I also strongly discourage using suburban commuter rail services, for the same reason; the municipal commuter train system in Mumbai is especially notorious.  Delhi actually has a good light rail system (the "Delhi Metro"), with similar systems under construction in other major cities.  

Getting Between Cities

How you travel between cities (or more correctly, between places you want to visit) is largely a function of where you're going to and where you're coming from.  Your choice comes down to air, rail, long-distance bus, or private vehicle.  

Today, almost all decent sized cities have scheduled commercial air service.  Domestic airfares are remarkably affordable; for example, a roundtrip economy class fare from Delhi to Hyderabad - roughly equivalent to a flight from Denver to Dallas - runs around $150.  My personal favorite airline is IndiGo, a low-cost carrier with flights throughout India and to surrounding countries, though there are a variety of low-cost and full-service carriers available.  Tickets can be booked online, and foreign credit cards are accepted. 

Riding the rails can be a fun way to experience India, if you have the time; in fact, there are very few things that truly give you the "Indian Experience" like a long-distance train journey.  Indian Railways has vastly improved itself in recent times; they trains now largely run on-time, and second and first class births are reasonably comfortable.  Plus, train travel is ridiculously cheap - second class A/C from Hyderabad to Chennai is just $25, with meals offered onboard for less than a dollar (bring $2 to add on a bottle of water and a cup of tea).  Indian Railways does have a website, but tickets cannot be purchased online with a foreign credit card.  You're better off either waiting until you get to India, or work through a travel agent specializing in India travel.  The trains run practically everywhere, so chances are, you can ride one to your destination, even ones that are out of the way, like a tiger reserve.

Long-distance bus service might not sound all that appetizing, especially if you clicked on the image of the city bus above, but they're actually not that bad.  Think Greyhound, except due to the poor state of India's highways, you won't be going anywhere particularly fast.  If you are going to try a long-distance bus, make sure to use a private bus company.  Avoid state-run bus companies, as these are usually no better than city buses.  Bus tickets are still purchased the old fashioned way - at the bus terminal, or you can ask your hotel to get them for you.

Lastly, you can rent a car and try an Indian road trip (but again - spend the few extra dollars a day and hire a car and driver, and don't try and drive yourself).  The big advantage to having your own car is the ability to see what you want on your own schedule, and you can go from point to point with a minimum of transfers or having to lug stuff around in the heat.  Plus, road trips in India are kind of fun, since you get an up-close view of the fascinating culture of the country, and there are really no limitations on where you can go, as long as a road goes there.  Cars work best if you're thinking about a "package tour" to visit several places, such as Delhi/Taj Mahal/Rajasthan, as the driver picks you up at the airport/hotel, takes you between places, and then takes you back to the airport/hotel to move on to your next adventure.  Package tours can be booked through a travel agent, or on India's version of Travelocity/Expedia/Orbitz - Yatra or Make My Trip.

A Note on Tipping

So now that you know how to get around the country, I'll leave you with a quick note on tipping, which seems to be a controversial subject no matter what the country.  In India, it is not customary to tip tax drivers, but pretty much anyone else (waiters, tour guides, personal drivers, etc.) will expect to be tipped.  So how much is appropriate?

- Waiters - except at "star hotels" (basically big Western-style hotels, like the Hilton, Taj, Novotel, etc.), where a tip of 10% is customary, there is no concept of "percentage tipping" in India.  If you're a table of 1 or 2 people, 30-40 rupees would be typical.  If you're 4-6 people, then make it 60-80.  If you have a very large group (my arbitrary cutoff is 10 or more), then 10% would be appropriate.  
- Tour Guides - depends on how much time they spend with you.  If it's a short tour, then 50 rupees should be enough.  If they stay with you the whole day, then a couple hundred should do.
- Bellhops - a rough guide is 10-20 rupees per bag.  Increase that to 50 rupees per bag at a star hotel.
- Personal Drivers - 50-100 rupees per day.

And this is really important - please do not intentionally overtip.  I hear some Americans say they want to do this intentionally, because of the low wages paid to service employees.  However, keep in mind that when you tip too much, the expectation then carries down to local patrons, too - and the local trying to enjoy dinner at his favorite restaurant can afford that American tip far less than you can.

In Part 3, I'll make my suggestions on what you should see on your trip to India.

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