Some Notes on India
Ideas for India trips
1. Have friends (or at least friends of friends) to call and ideally visit
2. Get a cell phone, program it with friends' numbers (and your hotel etc)
3. STAY IN FIVE STAR hotels or with friends
4. If you find a great cab driver, keep using him
5. Try to get cabs early in the morning as the better (and English speakers tend to be there).
6. Bring energy bars, vitamins, and some other snacks - useful for days when you can't easily find a safe looking place to eat (or are on a long journey)
7. If possible avoid all "Cottage Industries Emporiums" and other related tourist traps - ideally have local friends show you where to shop for what, and even help you a bit with the bargaining (see #2 above for note on cell phone - do use it to get a Hindi speaker on the phone to talk to someone about prices, quality, directions etc)
8. Arrange for travel inside of India early in your stay - i.e. don't leave until the last minute complex tasks such as buying train tickets or arranging for long trips.
9. Investigate alternative options such as trains vs. buses vs. hired cars for long trips (such as a day trip to Agra, the train is a viable option, but better yet might be planning on sleeping the night in Agra)
10. Don't be reluctant to ask local friends for advice LONG prior to your trip - i.e. don't neglect to share with them before you commit to anything what you are looking at doing - in our case we might have saved some hassle had our hostess known of our plans.
11. Wherever possible call hotels ahead and/or talk with friends who have stayed there to determine whether or not what is listed as a "five star" truly is (we found at least one that was severely lacking heat - not good in the winter)
12. Bring layers - evenings, especially in Dec. can be cooler than you expect - layers are very helpful.
13. Where clothes with extra pockets and/or carry sealed bags - having space to important items such as wallets and passports which can be sealed are helpful in preventing theft - whether by monkeys or people.
14. Don't be afraid to say NO to touts, peddlers and beggars, but also don't be afraid to just keep on walking past, or to ignore them while they rattle the windows of your car. Spend your money where and when you choose.
15. Money changing fees and rates can vary considerably. If at all possible seek our your own bank (or the bank your business uses and change money there - fees typically will be waived and the rate far closer to international exchange rates than if you change money at your hotel or in a shop. We found one hotel offering a rate that was very low as well as charging a 3.5% fee - while another hotel offered a higher rate (a full .5 rupee better against the dollar) and which did not charge a fee. But both were beat by the bank my girlfriend works for, who exchanged money for us (they have retail operations in India) at a rate nearly that of the international exchanges and for no fee.
16. Realize that as a foreigner you will be paying higher rates than your friends who are Indian (whether they are natives or not) deal with this and accept it, but also don't worry too much on the small things - save the worry and effort for when it matters (big purchases for example) - small purchases of less than 1000 rupees are less critical. Keep in mind the exchange rate - on a dollar basis 10 rupees is about a quarter while 100 rupees is about $2.25. Tipping a cab driver you got you where you wanted to go, dealt with your changing mind and varying needs/schedule and didn't try to steer you to too many tourist only shops an extra 100 or even 200 rupees is Karma that will come back to you in spades. On the other hand, don't arbitrarily spend money if you don't have to (see #2 - use your cell phone and local friends, or your hotel in the worst case, for help avoiding problems)
17. Be sensible in what you do - from what and where you eat, to where you try to go when, to how you go, to where you shop. If it doesn't feel right, listen to your instincts and say no, back away, change plans etc.
18. For your first trip don't try to do too much, even on return trips, building in flexibility in your schedule and plans is crucial - India operates on "Indian Time" - so trains will be late, deliveries will occur hours, perhaps days late, even International Flights often can be delayed - roll with the punches and keep your plans flexible and adjustable. Build in contingencies into your planning - asking for a late checkout from your hotel for example can give you an afternoon's grace period when you need it most.
19. Whatever you forget at home or don't have time to deal with you can probably get in India. See #3 - Five Star Hotels get there on the basis of services they offer - when you realize what you have forgotten or that which you need - USE THE SERVICES of your hotel - get that adapter you didn't have time buy, or get a space toothbrush - whatever it is that you require. For critical things, such as water - don't skimp either - saving a few rupee is not worth your health.
20. Bring BIG suitcases, wherever possible with expansion capacities. That said, realize that you have a weight limit of about 32-33 kilos on your checked bags. If you need it, use the scale most 5 star hotels provide in your room to check the weight of your bags and adjust accordingly. Expect to be bringing back to the US more than you arrived with - so pack accordingly, leave extra room, pack items you will use up/leave behind, bring gifts etc.
21. We brought more money back with us than we planned (about $50 in rupees - approximately 2000 rupees). Spend it before you get to the airport (though leave some money in your pocket for services at the airport such as shrink wrapping your checked bags, tipping attendants in the bathroom etc. See if you can find a way to donate it (many hotels will offer you an envelope for this very purpose). Technically it is illegal to leave the country with rupees (I think - check this) so take steps to avoid it in large extremes.
22. You can use visa/mastercard/am ex in many shops (though typically this is a sign of higher prices, sometimes also higher quality) - but for every day tasks in India - transportation, snacks, tips, admission to tourist attractions you will need money. Tourists will pay more to get into many sights. If you can and have a great driver, bring him with you - in most cases he will suggest this and it offers you a very easy way to avoid "guides" who will try to get you to spend money - sometimes as much or more than the admission fee for their services - which are highly variable and while generally informative can also intrude on your contemplation of many monuments. Allow time for exploration of sites that may not from the guidebook sound like they will take very long - some of the coolest things I saw were in the odd corners of sites I had not initially planned on getting to.
23. Bring your camera and keep plenty of batteries charged and handy (or packed if your camera uses regular batteries). A digital camera means no need to buy film but don't neglect to have lots of memory available.
24. Be open to talking to people - especially families you are traveling with - say on a train, or to groups you encounter while out and about in the city. Avoid, generally speaking, individuals you approach you on the street and try to befriend you - more often than not it is a tout/scam of some form. Groups, on the otherhand, often (though not always) are what they appear. We spent a wonderful and highly enjoyable afternoon taken around by a group of college students on holiday who were hiking up to the same temple we were hiking to - great fun and at the cost of a few photos.
25. Bring business cards or alternatively consider getting receiving cards printed while you are in India (it can be done very cheaply at a multitude of places, especially in the Old City of Delhi). Very handy to hand to people in lieu of writing down your details.
26. Expect to get asked questions that are unlikely to be asked in America (such as "are you married" by someone you nearly just met, or "What are your qualifications?" - meaning what degree(s) do you have for whatever career you have.
27. Expect to pay for quality - from hotel rooms to pashmina to custom suits to food - high quality usually means higher prices. Though the converse is false, high prices do not always mean higher quality - indeed in many of the tourist trap type places cab drivers will and do take you, high prices are just high prices. Asking a question such as "is that your best price?" usually can in most stores get a discount, though while books talk about up to 20% or higher, 50% or higher not uncommonly according to them - in higher end shops this may not be the case (or we don't happen to be good negotiators, but we found discounts of more likely 6-12% more common in higher end shops - but found discounts of 75% (or more) not uncommon in other places.
28. Paying a little bit higher than might be expected can make someone's day at very minimal cost to you - paying a porter 100 rupees when 20-50 might do doesn't really cost that much and can have a huge impact on them.
29. Expect to see what appears like dire and horrible poverty, working conditions, and lives all around you in India. That said, don't ignore the looks on people's faces, the kids who are playing and the smiles even in apparent desperate situations. Remember that this is a different culture - but also realize that there are many complexities to the situation (and that in much of the country at least temperatures and climate are such that large, modern buildings are not always the "best" solution to the climate. You will see goats, cows, and pigs across the street from 5 star hotels (indeed shanties may be built right up to the walls)
30. Relax, have fun, and leave time to just sit someplace peaceful and rest. This can be difficult perhaps - but many temples, mosques, even tourist sites such as the Taj Mahal which might be full of pressures and touts as you enter and leave, can be peaceful and quiet once inside.
31. If you are up for it, get out of the tourist only shops and hit "real" Delhi (Indian) markets and shops. Haggle a bit, negotiate, listen, observe and ask questions. After you find great shops and great shopkeepers, don't be reluctant to ask for their suggestions for places to go for other (best typically related) products. Or for brands to look for or quality clues, perhaps even pricing help. Realize that similar looking products can have prices ranging from a few hundred rupees to over 300,000 rupees (from acrylic/wool shawls to intricate, hand embroidered 100% pashmina of the highest quality with workmanship that took over 2 years to complete.
32. Even when paying small amounts for items - look for the best quality you can find for that price - why not get it (and/or use this to get discounts) We found identically priced goods most of the time with quality of considerable variability - carved items with cracks, other items with chips etc.
33. Check bills carefully - look for complex conversions in hotel bills (but sometimes you might get a major break - depending on conversion rate etc - we got a hotel for $51 instead of $250 for reasons we don't quite understand, but are not complaining about in any case.