Before your trip, make sure you read up on the essential information for India travel.
Crime and personal safety
In spite of the crushing poverty and the yawning gulf between rich and poor, India is, on the whole, a safe country in which to travel. As a tourist, however, you are an obvious target for the tiny number of thieves (who may include some of your fellow travellers), and stand to face serious problems if you do lose your passport and money or bank cards. Common sense, therefore, suggests a few precautions.
Beware of crowded locations, such as packed buses or trains, in which it is easy for pickpockets to operate – slashing pockets or bags with razor blades is not unheard of in certain locations, and itching powder is sometimes used to distract the unwary. Don’t leave valuables unattended on the beach when you go for a swim; backpacks in dormitory accommodation are also obvious targets, as is luggage on the roof of buses. Even monkeys rate a mention here, since it’s not unknown for them to steal things from hotel rooms with open windows, or even to snatch bags from unsuspecting shoulders.
Budget travellers would do well to carry a padlock, as these are usually used to secure the doors of cheap hotel rooms and it’s reassuring to know you have the only key. You can also use them to lock your bag to seats or racks in trains, for which a length of chain also comes in handy. Don’t put valuables in your luggage but keep them with you at all times. If your baggage is on the roof of a bus, make sure it is well secured. On trains and buses, the prime time for theft is just before you leave, so keep a particular eye on your gear then, beware of deliberate diversions, and don’t put your belongings next to open windows. Remember that routes popular with tourists tend to be popular with thieves too. Druggings leading to theft and worse are rare but not unheard of, so you are best advised to politely refuse food and drink from fellow passengers or passing strangers, unless you are completely confident it’s the family picnic you are sharing or have seen the food purchased from a vendor.
However, don’t get paranoid; the best way of enjoying the country is to stay relaxed but with your wits about you. Crime levels in India are a long way below those of Western countries and violent crime against tourists is almost unheard of. Virtually none of the people who approach you on the street intend any harm: most want to sell you something (though this is not always made apparent immediately), some want to practise their English, others to chat you up, while more than a few just want to add your address to their book or have a snap taken with you. Anyone offering wonderful-sounding moneymaking schemes, however, is almost certain to be a con artist.
If you do feel threatened, it’s worth looking for help. Tourism police are found sitting in clearly marked booths in the main railway stations, especially in big tourist centres, where they will also have a booth in the main bus station. In addition, they may have a marked booth outside major tourist sites.
Be wary of credit-card fraud; a credit card can be used to make duplicate forms by which your account is then billed for fictitious transactions, so don’t let shops or restaurants take your card away to process – insist they do it in front of you or follow them to the point of transaction.
It’s not a bad idea to keep US$200 or so separately from the rest of your money, along with your insurance policy number and phone number for claims, and a photocopy of the pages in your passport containing personal data and your Indian visa. This will cover you in case you do lose all your valuables.
If the worst happens and you get robbed, the first thing to do is report the theft as soon as possible to the local police. They are very unlikely to recover your belongings but you need a report from them in order to claim on your travel insurance. Dress smartly and expect an uphill battle – city cops in particular tend to be jaded from too many insurance scams.
Losing your passport is a real hassle, but does not necessarily mean the end of your trip. First, report the loss immediately to the police, who will issue you with the all-important “complaint form” that you need to be able to travel around and check into hotels, as well as claim back any expenses incurred in replacing your passport from your insurer. The next thing to do is telephone your nearest embassy or consulate in India. Normally, passports have to be applied for and collected in person, but if you are stranded, it is usually possible to arrange to receive the necessary forms in the post. However, you still have to go to the embassy or consulate to pick up your new passport. Emergency passports are the cheapest form of replacement, but are normally only valid for the few days of your return flight. If you’re not sure when you’re leaving India, you’ll have to obtain a more costly full passport; these can only be issued by high commissions, embassies and larger consulates, although they can be arranged through consulates in Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai or Panjim (Goa), and in the case of the UK, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad.
LGBT travellers in India
Homosexuality is not generally open or accepted in India, and in 2013 was once again made illegal, following a decision by the conservative Modi government to reverse a 2009 declaration by the High Court that the Victorian ban on gay sex between consenting adults was unconstitutional. As of 2016, following various protests, the matter was under review by the court again. Prejudice is still ingrained, however, especially in conservative areas such as Rajasthan.
For lesbians, making contacts is difficult; even the Indian women’s movement does not readily promote lesbianism as an issue that needs confronting. The only public faces of a hidden scene are the few organizations in major cities (see below). For gay men, homosexuality is no longer solely the preserve of the alternative scene of actors and artists, and is increasingly accepted by the upper classes, though Mumbai remains much more a centre for gay life than Delhi, let alone traditionalist Rajasthan. Despite the legal uncertainties, however, gay pride events and clubs are becoming more common in many cities; in recent years Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and some smaller cities have all hosted prides.
One transgender group of people you may come across are hijras, who were officially recognized as third gender by the Supreme Court in 2014. Many hijras are born with genitals that are neither fully male nor female, but some are male-to-female transsexual. They live in their own “families” and have a niche in Indian society, but not an easy one. At weddings, their presence is supposed to bring good luck, and they are usually given baksheesh for putting in a brief appearance. Generally, however, they have a low social status, face widespread discrimination, and many make a living by begging or prostitution.
Gay and lesbian contacts and resources
Chennai Dost Useful website aimed at the LGBT community in Chennai.
Galva-108 Interesting website set up by gay and lesbian Vaishnavas and Hindus.
Gay Bombay Comprehensive online resource for the LGBT community in Mumbai.
Gay Delhi Weekly social meetings and other events for gay men in Delhi.
Humsafar Trust Set up to promote safe sex among gay men, with lots of links and up-to-date information.
Indian Dost LGBT networking and info.
Outright Action International Latest news on the human rights situation for LGBT people worldwide, including regular bulletins on India.
Purple Dragon (662 238 3227) Thai-based tour operator offering various gay-friendly tours of India and other Asian countries.
Trikone Organization campaigning for LGBT rights in South Asia.
Women in India
India is not a country that provides huge obstacles to women travellers. In the days of the Raj. many upper-class women travelled through India alone, as did the female flower children of the hippie era. Plenty of women travel solo today, but few get through their trip without any hassle, so it’s good to be prepared.
Indian streets are often dominated by male groups – something that may take a bit of getting used to, particularly if you find yourself subjected to incessant staring, whistling and name calling. This can usually be stopped by ignoring the gaze and quickly moving on, or by firmly telling the offender to stop looking at you. Most of your fellow travellers on trains and buses will be men, who may start up most unwelcome conversations about sex, divorce and the freedom of relationships in the West. These cannot often be avoided, but demonstrating too much enthusiasm to discuss such topics can lure men into thinking that you are easy about sex, and the situation could become threatening. At its worst in larger cities, all this can become very tiring. You can get round it to a certain extent by joining women in public places, and you’ll notice an immense difference if you join up with a male travelling companion. In this case, expect Indian men to approach him (assumed, of course, to be your husband – an assumption it is sometimes advantageous to go along with) and talk to him about you quite happily as if you were not there. Beware, however, if you are (or look) of Indian origin with a non-Indian male companion: this may well cause you harassment, as you might be seen to have brought shame on your family by adopting the loose morals of the West.
In addition to staring and suggestive comments and looks, sexual harassment, or “Eve teasing” as it is bizarrely known, is likely to be a nuisance, but not generally a threat. Expect to get groped in crowds and to have men “accidentally” squeeze past you at any opportunity. It tends to be worse in cities than in small towns and villages but being followed can be a real problem wherever you are.
In addition to staring and suggestive comments and looks, sexual harassment, or “Eve teasing” as it is bizarrely known, is likely to be a nuisance, but not generally a threat. It’s not unlikely that you will get groped in crowds and not unusual to have men “accidentally” squeeze past you at any opportunity. It tends to be worse in cities than in small towns and villages, but being followed can be a real problem wherever you are.
In time you’ll learn to gauge a situation – sometimes wandering around on your own may attract so much unwanted attention that you may prefer to stay in one place until you’ve recharged your batteries or your male fan club has moved on. It’s always best to dress modestly – a salwar kameez is perfect, as is any baggy clothing – and, with the exception of one or two cosmopolitan areas of Mumbai, refrain from smoking or drinking in public.
If a loud, firm “no” fails to have the desired effect, returning an unwanted touch with a punch or slap is perfectly in order (Indian women often become aggressive when offended), and does serve to vent a little frustration. It should also attract attention and urge someone to help you, or at least deal with the offending man – a man transgressing social norms is always out of line and any passer-by will want to let him know it.
Going to watch a Bollywood movie at the cinema is a fun and essential part of your trip to India but, at cheap cinemas especially, such an occasion is rarely without hassle. If you do go to the cinema, it’s best to go to an upmarket theatre, or at least to go with a group of people and sit in the balcony area, where it’s a bit more expensive but the crowd is much more sedate.
Violent sexual assaults on tourists are extremely rare but the number of reported cases of rape is slowly rising, and you should always take precautions: avoid quiet, dimly lit streets and alleys at night, as well as remote rural locations; if you find a trustworthy rickshaw/taxi driver in the day keep him for the night journey; and try to get someone to accompany you to your hotel whenever possible. While Indian women are still quite timid about reporting rape – it is considered as much a disgrace to the victim as to the perpetrator – Western victims should always report it to the police. Letting other tourists, or locals, know of any incident in the hope that pressure from the community may uncover the offender and see him brought to justice is also likely to be effective.
The practicalities of travel take on a new dimension for lone women travellers. In hotels watch out for “peep-holes” in your door (and in common bathrooms), and be sure to cover your window when changing and when sleeping. Often, though, you can turn your gender to your advantage. For example, on inter-city buses the driver and conductor will often take you under their wing, and there will be countless other instances of kindness wherever you travel. You’ll be more welcome in some private houses than a group of Western males, and may find yourself learning the finer points of Indian cooking around the family’s clay stove. Women frequently get preference at bus and railway stations where they can join a separate “ladies’ queue”, and use ladies’ waiting rooms. On overnight trains the enclosed ladies’ compartments are peaceful havens (unless filled with noisy children); you could also try to share a berth section with a family where you are usually drawn into the security of the group and are less exposed to lustful gazes. In hotels watch out for “peep-holes” in your door (and in the common bathrooms), and be sure to cover your window when changing and when sleeping.
Lastly, bring your own supply of tampons, which are not widely available outside main cities.
Travelling with children in India
Travelling with kids can be both challenging and rewarding. Indians are very tolerant of children so you can take them almost anywhere without restriction, and they always help break the ice with strangers. Most children will enjoy the vibrancy of just being in India, with festivals and temples likely to exert a special appeal. Similarly, you can’t go far wrong taking them to beaches and wildlife sanctuaries, although not all Indian zoos are very happy places; the one in Mysuru is an honourable exception. There are, however, relatively few attractions aimed especially at kids beyond a rash of rather cheesy family theme parks that have popped up in recent years, especially in areas popular with new Indian middle-class holidaymakers, such as the coast south of Chennai. On the other hand, the more modern museums are increasingly introducing interactive displays aimed at the young that are both educational and fun.
As for the difficulties of travel, the main problem with children, especially small ones, is their extra vulnerability. Even more than their parents, they need protection from the sun, unsafe drinking water, heat and unfamiliar food. All that chilli in particular may be a problem, even with older kids, if they’re not used to it. Remember too, that diarrhoea, perhaps just a nuisance to you, could be dangerous for a child: rehydration salts are vital if your child goes down with it. Make sure too, if possible, that your child is aware of the dangers of rabies; keep children away from animals and consider a rabies jab.
For babies, nappies (diapers) are available in most large towns at similar prices to the West, but it’s worth taking an additional pack in case of emergencies, and bringing sachets of Calpol or similar, which aren’t readily available in India. And if your baby is on powdered milk, it might be an idea to bring some of that: you can certainly get it in India, but it may not taste the same. Dried baby food could also be worth taking – any café or chaiwala should be able to supply you with boiled water.
For touring, hiking or walking, child-carrier backpacks are ideal; some even come with mosquito nets these days. As for luggage, bring as little as possible so you can manage the kids more easily. If your child is small enough, a fold-up buggy is also well worth packing, even if you no longer use a buggy at home, as kids tire so easily in the heat. If you want to cut down on long train or bus journeys by flying, remember that children under 2 travel for ten percent of the adult fare, and under-12s for half price.
Travellers with disabilities
Disability is common in India; many conditions that would be curable in the West, such as cataracts, are permanent disabilities here because people can’t afford the treatment. Those with disabilities are unlikely to receive the best treatment available, and the choice is usually between staying at home to be looked after by your family and going out on the street to beg for alms.
For travellers with a disability, this has its advantages and disadvantages. Disability doesn’t get the same embarrassed reaction from Indian people that it does from some able-bodied Westerners. On the other hand, you’ll be lucky to see a state-of-the-art wheelchair or a disabled loo, and the streets are full of all sorts of obstacles that would be hard for a blind or wheelchair-bound tourist to negotiate independently. Kerbs are often high, pavements uneven and littered, and ramps nonexistent. There are potholes all over the place and open sewers. Some of the more expensive hotels have ramps for the movement of luggage and equipment, but if that makes them accessible to wheelchairs, it is by accident rather than design. Nonetheless, the 1995 Persons with Disabilities Act specifies access for all to public buildings, and is sometimes enforced. A visit to Delhi by Professor Stephen Hawking in 2001 resulted in the appearance of ramps at several Delhi tourist sights including the Red Fort, Qutub Minar and Jantar Mantar, and most major Indian airports and metro systems have also been made a lot more accessible for chair users.
If you walk with difficulty, you will find India’s many street obstacles and steep stairs hard going. Another factor that can be a problem is the constant barrage of people proffering things (hard to wave aside if you are, for instance, on crutches), and all that queueing, not to mention heat, will take it out of you if you have a condition that makes you tire quickly. A light, folding camp-stool is one thing that could be invaluable if you have limited walking or standing power.
Then again, Indian people are likely to be very helpful if, for example, you need their help getting on and off buses or up stairs. Taxis and rickshaws are easily affordable and very adaptable; if you rent one for a day, the driver is certain to help you on and off, and perhaps even around the sites you visit. If you employ a guide, they may also be prepared to help you with steps and obstacles.
If complete independence is out of the question, going with an able-bodied companion might be on the cards. There are some specialist operators for tourists with limited mobility – Enable Holidays offer a good “Golden Triangle” tour, for example – and some mainstream package-tour operators try to cater for travellers with disabilities but you should always contact any operator and discuss your exact needs with them before making a booking. You should also make sure you are covered by any insurance policy you take out.
For more information about disability issues in India, check the government website disabilityaffairs.gov.in.
Drug laws in India
India is a centre for the production of cannabis and to a lesser extent opium, and derivatives of these drugs are widely available. Charas (hashish) is produced all along the Himalayas, while ganja (marijuana) is the more common form in the south. The use of cannabis is frowned upon by respectable Indians – if you see anyone in a movie smoking a chillum, you can be sure it’s the baddie. Sadhus, on the other hand, are allowed to smoke it legally as part of their religious devotion to Shiva, who is said to have originally discovered its narcotic properties.
Bhang (a preparation made from marijuana leaves, which it is claimed sometimes contains added hallucinogenic ingredients such as datura) is legal and widely available in bhang shops: it is used to make sweets and drinks such as the notoriously potent bhang lassis which have waylaid many an unwary traveller. Bhang shops also frequently sell ganja, low-quality charas and opium (chandu), mainly from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Opium derivatives morphine and heroin are widespread too, with addiction an increasing problem among the urban poor. “Brown sugar” that you may be offered on the street is number-three heroin; Punjab has become notorious for its heroin problem, the drugs smuggled across the border from Pakistan. Use of other illegal drugs such as LSD, ecstasy and cocaine is largely confined to tourists in party locations such as Goa.
All of these drugs except bhang are strictly controlled under Indian law. Anyone arrested with less than five grams of cannabis, which they are able to prove is for their own use, is liable to a six-month maximum, but cases can take years to come to trial (two is normal, and eight not unheard of). Police raids and searches are particularly common in the Kullu and Parvati valleys (and on vehicles leaving them, especially at harvest time) and the beach areas of Goa. “Paying a fine now” may be possible on arrest (though it will probably mean all the money you have), but once you are booked in at the station, your chances are slim; a minority of the population languishing in Indian jails are foreigners on drugs charges.
Money and costs
For Western visitors, India is still one of the world’s less expensive countries. A little foreign currency can go a long way, and you can be confident of getting good value for your money, whether you’re setting out to keep your budget to a minimum or to enjoy the opportunities that spending a bit more will make possible.
What you spend obviously depends on where you go, where you stay, how you get around, what you eat and what you buy. Outside the tourist resorts of Kerala and Goa, you can still survive on a budget of as little as ₹1000 (£10/US$15) per day, if you eat in local dhabas, stay in the cheapest hotels and don’t travel too much. In reality, most backpackers nowadays tend to spend at least double that. On ₹2500 (£25/US$37.50) per day you’ll be able to afford comfortable mid-range hotels, and meals in smarter restaurants, regular rickshaw or taxi rides and entrance fees to monuments. Spend over ₹6000 (£60/US$90) per day and you can stay in smart hotels, eat in the top restaurants, travel first class on trains and afford chauffeur-driven cars. Although it is possible to travel very comfortably in India, it’s also possible to spend a great deal of money, if you want to experience the very best the country has to offer, and there are plenty of hotels now charging US$500 per night, sometimes even more.
Budget accommodation is still very good value, however. Cheap double rooms start from around ₹400 (£4/US$6) per night, while a no-frills vegetarian meal in an ordinary restaurant will typically cost no more than ₹100. Long-distance transport can work out to be phenomenally good value if you stick to state buses and standard non-a/c classes on trains, but soon starts to add up if you opt for air-conditioned carriages on the super-fast inter-city services. The 200km trip from Delhi to Agra, for example, can cost anywhere from ₹73 (£0.73/US$1.10) in second-class unreserved up to ₹1203 (£12/US$18) in AC first-class.
Where you are also makes a difference: Mumbai is notoriously pricey, especially for accommodation, and Delhi is also substantially more expensive than most parts of the country. Upscale visitor accommodation in Kerala costs almost as much as it does in Europe, although fierce competition tends to keep prices at the lower end of the budget spectrum down in the tourist towns of Rajasthan. Out in the sticks, on the other hand, and particularly away from your fellow tourists, you will often find things incredibly cheap, though your choice will obviously be more limited.
Don’t make any rigid assumptions at the outset of a long trip that your money will last for a certain number of weeks or months. On any one day it may be possible to spend very little, but cumulatively you won’t be doing yourself any favours if you don’t make sure you keep yourself well rested and properly fed. As a foreigner in India, you will find yourself penalized by double-tier entry prices to museums and historic sites as well as in upmarket hotels and airfares, both of which are levied at a higher rate and in dollars.
Some independent travellers tend to indulge in wild and highly competitive penny-pinching, which Indian people find rather pathetic – they have a fair idea of what you can earn at home. Bargain where appropriate, but don’t begrudge a few rupees to someone who is after all far worse off than you. Even if you get a bad deal on every rickshaw journey you make, it will only add a minuscule fraction to the cost of your trip. Remember what great value you are getting in most cases and that luxury items or services at home can be affordable here. At the same time, don’t pay well over the odds for something if you know what the going rate is. Thoughtless extravagance can, particularly in remote areas that see a disproportionate number of tourists, contribute to inflation, putting even basic goods and services beyond the reach of local people.
India’s unit of currency is the rupee, usually abbreviated ₹ and divided into a hundred paise. Almost all money is paper, with notes of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1000 rupees. Coins in circulation are 1, 2, 5 and 10 rupees, the latter two gradually replacing the paper versions, plus (rarely seen) 50 paise. Note that it’s technically illegal to take rupees in or out of India (although they are widely available at overseas forexes), so you might want to wait until you arrive before changing money.
Banknotes, especially lower denominations, can get into a terrible state. Don’t accept torn banknotes, since no one else will be prepared to take them and you’ll be left saddled with the things, though you can change them at the Reserve Bank of India and large branches of other big banks. Don’t pass them on to beggars; they can’t use them either, so it amounts to an insult.
Large denominations can also be a problem, as change is usually in short supply. Many Indian people cannot afford to keep much lying around, and you shouldn’t necessarily expect shopkeepers or rickshaw-wallahs to have it (and they may – as may you – try to hold onto it if they do). Larger notes can be changed for smaller denominations at hotels and other suitable establishments.
ATMs, cards and travellers’ cheques
The easiest way to access your money in India is with plastic, though it’s a good idea to also have some backup in the form of cash. You will find ATMs at main banks in all major towns, cities and tourist areas, though your card issuer may well add a foreign transaction fee, and the Indian bank will also levy a small charge, generally around Rs25.
Your card issuer, and sometimes the ATM itself, imposes limits on the amount you may withdraw in a day – typically ₹10,000–20,000.
Credit cards are accepted for payment at major hotels, top restaurants, some shops and airline offices, but virtually nowhere else. American Express, MasterCard and Visa are the likeliest to be accepted. Beware of people making extra copies of the receipt, in order to fraudulently bill you later; always insist that the transaction is made before your eyes.
Visa, American Express and some other financial institutions offer prepaid cards that you can load up with credit before you leave home and use in ATMs like a debit card – effectively replacing the increasingly defunct travellers’ cheques.
One big downside of relying on plastic as your main access to cash, of course, is that cards can easily get lost or stolen, so take along a couple of alternatives if you can, keep an emergency stash of cash just in case, and make a note of your home bank’s telephone number and website addresses for emergencies.
US dollars are the easiest currency to convert, with euros and pounds sterling not far behind. Major hard currencies can be changed easily in tourist areas and big cities, less so elsewhere. If you enter the country with more than US$10,000 or the equivalent, you are supposed to fill in a currency declaration form.
Changing money in regular banks, especially government-run banks such as the State Bank of India (SBI), can be a time-consuming business, involving lots of form-filling and queueing at different counters, so it’s best to change substantial amounts at any one time. You’ll have no such problems, however, with private companies such as Thomas Cook, American Express or forex agents. Major cities and main tourist centres usually have several licensed currency exchange bureaux; rates usually aren’t as good as at a bank but transactions are generally a lot quicker and there’s less paperwork to complete.
Outside banking hours (Mon–Fri 10am– 2/4pm, Sat 10am–noon), large hotels may change money, probably at a lower rate, and exchange bureaux have longer opening hours. Banks in the arrivals halls at most major airports stay open 24 hours.
Wherever you change money, hold on to exchange receipts (“encashment certificates”); they will be required if you want to change back any excess rupees when you leave the country and to buy air tickets and reserve train berths with rupees at special counters for foreigners. The State Bank of India now charges for tax clearance forms.
Tipping and baksheesh
As a well-off visitor you’ll be expected to be liberal with your tips. Low-paid workers in hotels and restaurants often accept lower pay than they should in the expectation of generous tips during the tourist season. Ten percent, or a simple rounding up, should be regarded as acceptable if you’ve received good service – more if the staff have really gone out of their way to be helpful. Taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers will not expect tips unless you’ve made unplanned diversions or stops. What to tip your driver at the end of long tours, however, is a trickier issue, especially if you’ve been forking out ₹150–200 for their daily allowance, as well as paying for meals. The simple answer is to give what you think they deserve, and what you can afford. Drivers working for tour operators, even more than hotel staff and waiters, depend on tips to get through the off-season (many are paid only ₹200–300 per day because their bosses know that foreign customers tend to tip well).
Alms giving (baksheesh) is common throughout India; people with disabilities and mutilations often congregate in city centres and popular resorts, where they survive from begging. In such cases a few coins up to ₹10–20 should be sufficient. Kids demanding money, pens, sweets or the like are a different case: yielding to any request only encourages them to pester others.
Standard shop opening hours in India are Monday to Saturday 9.30am to 6pm, with Sunday openings increasingly common. Most big stores, at any rate, keep those hours, while smaller shops vary from town to town, region to region, and one to another, but usually keep longer hours. Government tourist offices are open Monday to Friday 9.30am to 5pm, Saturday 9.30am to 1pm, closed on the second Saturday of the month; state-run tourist offices are likely to be open Monday to Friday 10am to 5pm.
Duty free allowance
Anyone over 17 can bring in one US quart (0.95 litre – but nobody’s going to quibble about the other 5ml) of spirits, or a bottle of wine and 250ml spirits; plus 200 cigarettes, or 50 cigars, or 250g tobacco. You may be required to register anything valuable on a tourist baggage re-export form to make sure you can take it home with you, and to fill in a currency declaration form if carrying more than US$10,000 or equivalent.
Generally 220V 50Hz AC, though direct current supplies also exist, so check before plugging in. Most sockets are triple round-pin (accepting European-size double round-pin plugs). British, Irish and Australasian plugs will need an adaptor, preferably universal; American and Canadian appliances will need a transformer too, unless multivoltage. Power cuts and voltage variations are very common; voltage stabilizers should be used to run sensitive appliances such as laptops.
It’s imperative that you take out proper travel insurance before setting off for India. A typical travel insurance policy usually provides cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Most of them exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in India this can mean scuba diving, whitewater rafting, windsurfing and trekking with ropes, though probably not jeep safaris. Many policies can be chopped and changed to exclude coverage you don’t need – for example, sickness and accident benefits can often be excluded or included at will. If you do take medical coverage, ascertain whether benefits will be paid as treatment proceeds or only after return home, and whether there is a 24hr medical emergency number. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit – typically under £500 – will cover your most valuable possession. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police.
Broadband has now reached more or less everywhere, leading to a proliferation of wi-fi connections. The majority of hotels and guesthouses, at least those in touristic areas, will offer wi-fi, usually free but occasionally chargeable; we have noted exceptions in our accommodation reviews. Many cafés and restaurants also have wi-fi facilities. As a result of wi-fi, the number of internet outlets has declined but you can usually still find somewhere with public computers in any sizeable town, charging from ₹20–40/hr in urban areas to as much as ₹300/hr in more remote places such as the Andaman Islands. Speeds can still be painfully slow and computers rather antiquated, making it difficult to load complex websites or to perform online transactions (like booking a train ticket).
For unlimited Wi-Fi on the go whilst travelling India, buy a Skyroam Solis, which works in 130+ countries at one flat daily rate, paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. You can connect up to five devices at once. Prices start from as little as €5 a day.
Although some hotels have washing machines and independent launderettes are starting to appear, most places still send laundry to a dhobi, either in-house or nearby. The dhobi will take your dirty washing to a dhobi ghat, a public clothes-washing area (the bank of a river for example), where it is shown some old-fashioned discipline: separated, soaped and given a damn good thrashing to beat the dirt out of it. Then it is hung out to dry in the sun and taken to the ironing sheds where every garment is endowed with razor-sharp creases and then matched to its rightful owner by hidden cryptic markings. Your clothes will come back absolutely spotless, though this kind of violent treatment does take it out of them: buttons get lost and eventually the cloth starts to fray.
Most stations in India have “cloakrooms” (sometimes called parcel offices) for passengers to leave their baggage. These can be extremely handy if you want to go sightseeing in a town and move on the same day. In theory, you need a train ticket or Indrail pass to deposit luggage, but staff don’t always ask; they may, however, refuse to take your bag if you can’t lock it. If you lose your reclaim ticket expect a lot of bureaucracy before you can get your bag back. Many cloakrooms in large stations operate 24 hours but smaller ones may not. The standard charge is currently ₹15 for the first 24 hours, plus ₹20 per day afterwards.
Getting good maps of India, in India, can be difficult. The government – in an archaic suspicion of cartography, and in spite of clear coverage of the country on Google – forbids the sale of detailed maps of border areas, which includes the entire coastline.
It therefore makes sense to bring a full country map of India with you. Freytag & Berndt produce the best country map, while Nelles covers parts of the country with 1:1,500,000 regional maps. These are generally excellent, but cost a fortune if you buy the complete set. Their double-sided map of the Himalayas is useful for roads and planning and has some detail but is not sufficient as a trekking map. Ttk, a Chennai-based company, publishes basic state maps which are widely available in India, and in some specialized travel and map shops in the UK such as Stanfords; these are poorly drawn but useful for road distances. The Indian Railways map at the back of the publication Trains at a Glance is useful for planning railway journeys.
You can sometimes get larger-scale city maps from tourist offices, though Google Maps or OpenStreetMap are vastly superior (simply print them off at an internet café or before you leave home). Eicher has a growing series of glossy City Maps and city Road Maps produced in India and available at all good bookstores.
As for trekking maps, the US Army Map Service produced maps in the 1960s which, with a scale of 1:250,000, remain sufficiently accurate on topography, but are of course outdated on the latest road developments. Most other maps you can buy are based on these, and they’re still the best available for most of the Himalayan regions. Leomann Maps (1:200,000) also cover the northwest Himalayan regions. These are not contour maps and are therefore better for planning and basic reference than for trekking. The Survey of India publishes a rather poor 1:250,000 series for trekkers in the Uttarakhand Himalayas – simplified versions of their own infinitely more reliable maps, produced for the military, which are absolutely impossible for an outsider to get hold of.
Since the mobile phone revolution, privately run phone international direct-dialling facilities – STD/ISD (Standard Trunk Dialling/International Subscriber Dialling) places – have become far less common so you can’t always rely on finding one. In addition, calling from them will cost more than dialling from a mobile if you have an Indian SIM card. Most visitors bring their own phones and buy an Indian SIM to cover their trip.
SIM cards are sold through most cellphone shops and network outlets, though the process for obtaining one is rather complicated and can take up to 48 hours. You have to provide a photocopy of your passport (photo and visa pages), fill in a form and be registered at an Indian address, though the hotel you are staying in usually suffices. There is an initial connection fee ranging from ₹50 to ₹250, depending on the dealer and network.
Coverage varies from state to state, but the largest national network providers are best – Vodafone, Airtel and Idea. Once your retailer has unlocked your phone and you have paid for the initial card, it can be topped up (“re-charged” as it’s known) by amounts ranging from ₹10–1000, though only by paying specific amounts (check with the retailer) will you get the full amount in credits. Call charges to the UK and US from most Indian networks cost ₹2–3 per minute. Also, ask your card supplier to turn on the “do not disturb” option, or you’ll be plagued with spam calls and spam texts from the phone company.
Indian mobile numbers are ten-digit, starting with a 7, 8 or (most commonly) a 9. However, if you are calling from outside the state where the mobile is based (but not from abroad), you need to add a zero in front of that.
Calling an Indian mobile or landline from a UK landline, you can save a lot of money by dialling via a company such as Planet Talk, which requires no sign-up but uses an 0843 number, or better still by signing up cost-free with a VoIP provider such as 18185. In the US you can make cheap calls via reasonable monthly deals on Phone.com.
Beware of pointing your camera at anything that might be considered “strategic”, including airports and anything military. Remember too that some people prefer not to be photographed, so it’s a good idea to ask before you take a snapshot of them. More likely, you’ll get people, especially kids, volunteering to pose and it’s quite common for Indians to ask you to be in their snaps. Almost all photo shops can now transfer digital images onto a memory stick or CD – useful in order to free up memory space.
Post can take anything from six days to three weeks to get to or from India, depending on where you are and the country you are posting to; ten days is about the norm. Most post offices are open Monday to Friday from 10am to 5pm and Saturday from 10am to noon, but town GPOs keep longer hours (usually Mon–Sat 9.30am–1pm & 2–5.30pm). Stamps are not expensive, but you’ll have to stick them on yourself as they tend not to be self-adhesive (every post office keeps a pot of evil-smelling glue for this purpose). Aerogrammes and postcards cost the same to anywhere in the world. Ideally, you should also have mail franked in front of you.
Sending a parcel from India can be a performance. First take it to a tailor to have it wrapped in cheap cotton cloth, stitched up and sealed with wax. Next, take it to the post office, fill in and attach the relevant customs forms, buy your stamps, see them franked and dispatch it. Surface mail is incredibly cheap, and takes an average of six months to arrive – it may take half, or four times that, however. It’s a good way to dump excess baggage and souvenirs, but don’t send anything fragile this way.
India is all in one time zone and remains the same year round: GMT+5hr 30min. This makes it 5hr 30min ahead of London, 10hr 30min ahead of New York, 13hr 30min ahead of LA, 4hr 30min behind Sydney and 6hr 30min behind New Zealand; however, daylight saving time in those places will change the difference by an hour. Indian time is referred to as IST (Indian Standard Time, which cynics refer to as “Indian stretchable time”).
Western-style toilets are becoming much more common in India now, especially in hotels and lodges in touristy areas, though you’ll probably still come across a few traditional “squat” toilets – basically a hole in the ground. Paper, if used, often goes in a bucket next to the loo rather than down it. Instead, Indians use a jug of water and their left hand or the hose provided, a method you may also come to prefer, but if you do use paper, keep some handy, especially if staying in basic accommodation or going too far off the beaten track. Travelling is especially difficult for women as facilities are limited or nonexistent, especially when travelling by road rather than by rail. However, toilets in the a/c carriages of trains are usually kept clean, as are those in mid-range and air-conditioned restaurants. The latest development is tourist toilets at every major historical site. For ₹5 you get water, mirrors, toilet paper and a clean sit-down loo.
The main tourist website for India is incredibleindia.org. The Indian government also maintains a number of tourist offices abroad, whose staff are usually helpful and knowledgeable; addresses and contact details can be found on bit.ly/IndiaTourismoffices. Other sources of information include the websites of Indian embassies and tourist offices, travel agents (who are in business for themselves, so their advice may not always be totally unbiased), and Indian Railways representatives abroad.
Inside India, both national and local governments run tourist information offices, providing general travel advice and handing out an array of printed material, from city maps to glossy leaflets on specific destinations. The Indian government’s tourist department, whose main offices are on Janpath in New Delhi and opposite Churchgate railway station in Mumbai, has branches in most regional capitals. These, however, operate independently of the state government information counters and their commercial bureaux are run by the state tourism development corporations, usually referred to by their initials (e.g. MPTDC in Madhya Pradesh, RTDC in Rajasthan, and so on), which offer a wide range of travel facilities, including guided tours, car rental and their own hotels.
Just to confuse things further, the Indian government’s tourist office has a corporate wing, too. The Indian Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) is responsible for the Ashok chain of hotels and operates tour and travel services, frequently competing with its state counterparts.
There’s all sorts of information available about India online – one particularly good general site is indiamike.com, which features lively chat rooms, bulletin boards, photo archives and banks of members’ travel articles.
South African Department of Foreign Affairs
State tourism websites