Preparing for Your Trip to India
A Short Guide
By Stephen Knapp
I often get questions about how to prepare for a trip to India and what to do, what to bring, and how to go about having a safe trip. So to help those who wish to have a pleasant journey, I am preparing this article to guide you through the basics. Naturally, traveling to India is an extremely individualistic experience. What you may love in your trip someone else may dislike. Someone may have life-changing experiences and insights, while another may simply want to leave and go home. So it can vary tremendously.
Anyway, be sure to do your homework before you go. By that I mean try to figure out where or what cities and towns you will be visiting before you arrive so that you can adjust your schedule accordingly. However, if you are traveling alone leave room for changes in your plans because once you start traveling, you may meet other travelers who will tell you about places that you hadn’t planned to see, but will then want to visit. This is actually part of the fun. Of course, it’s always safer to travel with someone else, especially if they have been to India before, and especially if you are a woman. Or you may be traveling with a group tour, which can greatly simplify things, especially if you are not used to traveling in India. However, I have traveled alone throughout India on most of my trips, and met many others who have done the same with great success. But often times such people are serious pilgrims, like myself, or serious travelers who have specific things they want to see, or are familiar in the ways of traveling by themselves. India is not always a place in which it is easy to travel. Nonetheless, for those who are not familiar with traveling in India, let me get you started. The first thing you need to do is to:
GET A PASSPORT AND A VISA
Most of you probably have a passport. For those of you who don’t, you can get all the information you need by looking up “Passports” in your phone book in the “US Government Offices” section. There will also be a listing of how to obtain this information online for those of you with online capabilities. There are also rush services available for passports.
All tourists to India are required to have a visa. If you are receiving visa information by mail, a visa application and instructions are included. If you want to receive this information by email, please go to the website, http://www.indiacgny.org/ for the application and instructions. If you are reading this online on my website, you can also check these sites for information about visas and applications that are listed on my links page, such as: http://www.indianembassy.org, and, http://chicago.indianconsulate.com/VISAINSN.html. Also check, http://www.indianembassy.org/consular/visa.pdf, for downloadable visa application forms in Adobe Acrobat Reader.
It is best to apply for the 6-month tourist visa, which should be enough for most tourists. This will cost about $60 for a US citizen, plus postage. However, I go to India on a regular basis, so I have a ten year visa, which costs $150. It allows me to go as often as I like as long as each visit is no longer than six months.
If you apply for a visa by express mail to the Indian Consulate, your visa will be processed in 5 days. If you live in a city with an Indian Consulate and submit your application at the counter, the visa will be processed the same day. The listing of Consulate offices is given in the visa instructions. Apply to the one designated for your area. It is best to send it by certified or registered mail, and add a return envelope with prepaid postage by certified or registered mail as well.
In the visa application, you will be asked to list the areas of India you plan to travel to. So list a few places that you may be visiting. When I’m traveling, I’m usually visiting so many places that it would be difficult to list them all. So I merely list a few. You will also be asked to give 2 references for people residing in India. List a couple of friends if you have any there, or call the Consulate about this if you have no one in particular that you know. Or if you are affiliated with a temple and have friends there, there are bound to be some people who can help you out with a few names and addresses.
If this is your first trip to India, you may be worried about diseases. Contact your doctor or the Disease Control Center in the local hospital if you would like professional immunization advice. They will let you know of any outbreaks of diseases in India, or any for which you should be prepared. From personal experience, malaria medication may create discomfort, and may not be worthwhile, and you may not need it. It is always helpful to ensure that your tetanus shot is updated, as you are walking barefooted through old structures. Otherwise, typhoid and cholera may also be of some concern.
The first time I went to India, I got shots and medicine for everything. Later I learned that most of them are only good to a certain percentage anyway. Now I don’t bother with it, but only take along herbs and anti-diarrhea medicine, like Imodium A-D. Another very good Ayurvedic medicine that will help, if you can find it once you get to India, is Sudha Sindhu. This is quite good for stomach problems and diarrhea. I use it whenever I start getting an upset stomach to keep it from developing into anything further. However, it is not so easy to find.
A very helpful medication is a low-grade antibiotic called “Doxycycline”, which kills bacteria in the Gastro Intestinal tract. It can be taken on a daily basis to ensure that you don’t have stomach problems during your stay. Ask your doctor for advice regarding this medication.
Following the suggested list for what you will need to bring will help you make sure that you are prepared for whatever may happen. Because you will be moving from place to place, please ensure you have 4 changes of clothes, some of which need to be appropriate for temples, if that is a place where you will be visiting. And going to India should mean visiting temples. And remember that the hotel laundry service, when available, may not always be convenient. So this is what you want to bring along:
1. Particular clothes, which can include:
A. Modest light-weight summer attire, unless you are going into the northern regions during the winter months. This would include:
B. a couple pair of pants,
C. shorts if you want (for a man),
D. three or four simple T-shirts,
E. A hat for warmth when going into the mountains, and a sunhat for protection from the sun, which you can also get in India. In the winter the days will be warm but the nights can be cool.
F. A coat or warm sweatshirt. In the winter, or if you are going up into the mountains even in summer, you need to bring a winter coat as well. A lightweight wrap or sweater can be good for heavily air-conditioned buses or trains, or cool evenings as well.
G. Raincoat & umbrella, a necessity in the monsoon season, and the umbrella can help protect you from the sun in the summer.
H. Additional clothes can include something you may need for visiting temples. Once you get to India, you can also shop around for these. I usually bring two kurtas and two dhotis with me, while you may bring or buy two kurtas and two pair of loose fitting white pants, or pajamas as they are often called in India. Women can bring or buy a few blouses and a couple of saris or long skirts or dresses. Shorts for women are inappropriate in India. Such an outfit can cost anywhere from $20-$30 in India. Pants or jeans can also be acceptable in most other places.
2. Socks. These can help against hot temple stones, especially during the heat of the summer or in the south. However, I usually don’t bring socks since they get dirty quickly and become just another item to wash everyday. If you visit the temples in the morning, then the stones will likely not be overly hot from the sun. However, during the summer in the south, the outdoor stone floors and courtyards can draw in the heat from the summer sun quickly, and can burn your feet by 11 AM.
3. Sandals that can be easily removed, or simple and cool jogging shoes
5. Mosquito repellent
6. Over the counter diarrhea medication, as previously mentioned.
7. A small packet of Kleenex.
8. A small flashlight, especially one that can fit in your purse or shoulder bag, because in the small villages the lights can go out at any time, and it is better to be equipped.
9. Snacks like granola bars, dried fruit, or nuts if you want, otherwise there are plenty of snacks you can buy in the stores in India.
10. Cold medicine, and aspirin or Tylenol, or herbs to help maintain your health.
11. A water bottle carrier if you want. I always buy bottled water from the shops.
12. A lite shoulder bag to carry your things while on the bus, and a smaller fanny pack or purse to carry your valuables into the temples or while you shop, especially for women.
13. Pens for yourself and to give to the children that you will meet everywhere–they love brightly-colored pens. However, requests for pens have greatly diminished over the years because the quality of Indian pens have improved. Yet in some areas, they still ask for American pens.
14. A good alarm clock, and a travelers watch. I often bring a cheap Casio watch with a built in calculator, which is great for figuring currency exchange rates on prices.
15. Camera, the one of your choice, and plenty of film, although you can buy good film in the bigger Indian cities. Bring the film in a lead bag that you can purchase at your local camera store to protect it from airport X-ray machines. However, in this day and age of higher security, it can help if the plastic film containers are see-thru, like those Fuji Film makes. Then the airport security people can easily see what is inside if they have any questions, which should not be the case if it is in your check-in luggage. Of course, as digital cameras become more popular, this arrangement is not so necessary. But then make sure you bring enough memory for storing your photos.
16. Also consider Q-Tips or cotton swabs for cleaning your ears, some band aid bandages, a role of medical tape, and a tube of anti-septic ointment, just in case. These can also help if you get blisters on your feet from walking or any small cuts. A small container of Vaseline may also be helpful.
17. Don’t forget your finger nail clippers, and any other small toiletries that you like, such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, and razor & blades, or hair shampoo, yet many of these are readily available in India if you forget or run out.
17. You may also want to bring a money belt, or thin wallet to keep in your front pocket.
18. Make copies of your passport and visa, and your list of travelers checks, to keep in various places amongst your belongings.
19. Bring a good but not overly large shoulder bag or backpack to put all of this stuff in. I usually bring nothing more than I can handle at any one time. So that includes a shoulder bag and my camera bag, since I’m always photographing the temples and holy sites. And that’s it. Of course, once you begin shopping around and picking up things to take back home with you, additional bags or suitcases can easily be purchased to pack all the stuff you want to bring back home. However, I usually wait to do my souvenir shopping until near the end of my trip so I don’t have to be lugging a bunch of stuff around wherever I go. Although I am often going to many out of the way places where many other tourists wouldn’t consider.
You don’t want to lug too much stuff with you because some places don’t always have nearby ricksha or taxi services. This happened when I was in Sanchi, which only had horse-drawn carts, I think one or two in the whole village, and the train station was in the next town. In Badami I had the same problem. So even though many places will have service to help you, some places are so small, depending on where you go, that you don’t want to be stuck with too many things to carry.
20. Traveler’s checks and enough cash, keep them in separate places. An ATM card is also convenient. There are often more ATM machines than banks who can cash traveler’s checks, especially in smaller towns.
21. Other helpful items that I bring include:
A. Bottles (for holy soil or water), B. Indian train schedule, C. Guidebook, D. Maps, E. Itinerary of places I’m considering visiting, F. Small notebook for photo notes, etc., G. Journal to write in, H. Extra pair of glasses, I. Combination lock for places where you stay, J. Lock & keys for bag and house, K. Some plastic bags for storage or separating dirty clothes, L. Handkerchief or wash cloths, for wiping away the sweat, M. List of India contacts, N. Tilok, O. Japa beads, P. 2 gamchas, Q. 2 kaupinas or underpants, and R. a towel.
22. An electrical adapter to change voltage for any appliances brought from America to be used in India is also a good idea, like hairdryers, recharging batteries for digital cameras, etc.
23. Plane tickets, by all means don’t forget these, and make an extra copy of them.
If you are traveling with a group tour, they will often make arrangements for your currency exchange. They will probably provide arrangements for your travel from the airport to the hotel, so you wouldn’t need to have money for taxi or the hotel to start off with. However, if traveling alone or with a few friends, things will be different. So this is what I do.
When I arrive at the airport in Dehli, I will first stop at the bank exchange window that one of the banks will have not far from the luggage pick up area and exchange $100 or $200 of cash or traveler’s checks into rupees. It is better to do it there than at the hotel, where exchange rates are not as good, although this is not the problem that it used to be. After I’m in town, later I’ll go to a bank where I can exchange more money if I need to. You can go to the American Express office for America Express Traveler’s Checks, or to the Thomas Cook Travel Agency, or one of the prominent banks.
Another consideration is that I usually bring about $1000 for every month I’ll be traveling in India. Now I don’t spend that much on travel, and I certainly intend to bring the rest of it back home, but if there is an emergency then I’ve got enough to handle whatever may come along. If you stay in cheaper hotels, and use less expensive means of transportation like buses, you can easily travel and stay in India for anywhere from $5 to $15 a day, or around $400 to $550 a month. Of course, it is more expensive while staying in the bigger cities and in bigger and more sophisticated hotels, or when traveling with a tourist group, but smaller towns can be especially affordable. If you are not doing so much traveling and staying in affordable places or smaller villages, you can get by on less. However, prices are always going up, on both travel and accommodations in India. And actually, India is not the travel bargain it used to be, yet it is still cheaper than traveling in many other parts of the world.
A little less than half of the money I bring, I bring in cash. As I travel, I use the cash first and then depend on the traveler’s checks later, since they are more secure. If you want, you can bring more money in checks. But I’ve found that unless you are careless, a person is not likely to be robbed in India. Besides, while traveling to small towns or villages, some places I’ve gone to do not have a bank with facility for exchanging traveler’s checks, and could only exchange cash or the foreign currency. So you better have some cash on hand when you run out of rupees in such places, or make sure you plan accordingly. However, always keep enough dollars on hand for when you return to the US for taxi or other expenses until you get back home.
Another thing I do is spread my money in different places between my wallet, shoulder bag and camera bag, and I don’t carry too much money on my person. I’ve had my wallet pickpocketed once, and lost it once. Both times I did not lose that much money and had money elsewhere, making it possible for me to keep traveling in spite of the loss. On my person I keep my wallet in the front pocket of my pants, which are somewhat snug, making it impossible for someone to reach in to take it without me being aware. I only keep several hundred rupees in my wallet at any one time, or maybe 1000 or so. Yet, if you keep most of your money in a money belt, do not let anyone see you taking money from it. It is better to show a wallet with a small amount than to reach in a money belt, because then people will know you have a bundle. Then someone will know where the majority of your money is. That’s not good. Robbery can result.
I had a friend tell me that once he had to reach into his money belt on his stomach while riding on a train. After waking the next morning from sleeping, he checked for his money belt and it was still there, but there was a cut across the bottom where someone had taken the money out of the belt while he slept. Of course, if riding a train in the first-class section, where the people are more reputable, this will not likely happen. But still you need to be careful, and then most everything will be fine. Of course, even in America or other countries such precautions are necessary, not just in India.
This is easy advice, but is probably the most important if you want to have a good trip. Watch what and where you eat. Please drink only bottled water in India, even for brushing your teeth, which is available most anywhere. Don’t think that you can go up into the mountains and let your guard down because the water must be cleaner, at least in the restaurants. Not true. Even with all the experience I’ve had, and I’ve drunk water from a variety of places while in India, still one time I drank water from a restaurant in Gangotri and by that night I was sick, and was mildly sick and weak with a protozoa infection for the next five weeks. Bad move. As I’ve said, I always buy bottled water and sometimes keep a canteen with additional water in my shoulder bag. Whenever something goes wrong with my health during my travels in India, it’s because I failed to follow these rules. It takes only one drop of bad water to cause stomach problems. You can increase the variety of foods you eat when at reputable vegetarian restaurants or at the sattvic ashramas and temples where they are strict about serving vegetarian foods.
Also, watch out for drinks that use ice, unless you are sure where the water for the ice comes from. You should eat only hot, cooked food or peeled fruits and vegetables. Do not eat from street sellers! And at bus or train stations, only eat fruits that can be peeled by you and certainly no salads. Strictly following this simple advice will help a lot. You have to be in India a good while for your body to acclimatize, so to speak, to be able to drink water from various places, which you may not want to do anyway. When I first started going to India, I always lost weight. Now I’m so used to it that I may even gain weight. I love that Indian vegetarian food.
HEAT STROKE OR HEAT EXHAUSTION
This can happen more easily than you think. Make sure when you visit India that you keep yourself covered while in the sun. Make sure you wear a hat or a covering. Too much sun or heat in India can kill you, or put you seriously out of action for days. If you start getting overly hot, tired or dizzy while in the sun, take a break in the shade, and don’t forget to drink plenty of water.
DEALING WITH RICKSHA OR TAXI DRIVERS
I want to offer a few words of caution which may save you some money and aggravation when visiting the bigger cities and dealing with ricksha and taxi drivers. You will sometimes find that in some cities motor-ricksha drivers have formed a syndicate and charge exorbitant prices to foreigners. Locating drivers away from major tourist hotels or attractions, or train or bus stations, will help you find drivers who charge more reasonable rates. A few rules to follow are:
1. Find out what the going rates are before getting a ricksha or taxi, if you have time. The manager of your hotel can often be of help in this regard. Or he may have someone to recommend. Where travelers are especially susceptible to being cheated in this way are places when they come into a town for the first time, like coming into Delhi. Often times tired travelers just want to quickly get to a hotel and are willing to pay a higher rate without questioning or bargaining. Or they simply don’t know what the proper rate is or where to get a reasonable taxi. That is why so many taxi or ricksha drivers seek out foreign travelers at the airports or train stations. In Delhi, you can get a prepay taxi as you leave the airport waiting area (where people are waiting to pick up friends and relatives) and go outside just as you enter the parking area. There will be a booth on your right. The prepay taxi services inside the airport still charge higher prices, sometimes by a few hundred rupees.
2. Always set the price first in other situations. If the driver does not set a price, don’t go with him. Find someone else who will set a price.
3. Don’t be afraid to bargain. If he says one price, set a lower price and see if he will go lower, or find someone who will.
4. If you do go with him and he says “Pay as you like,” then make sure you stick with that and if he asks for more than you want to pay, don’t pay more. First get out of the ricksha or taxi, take your bags with you, check with another driver what the going rate may be, but if the drivers are working together they will both say a high price. Or better yet, simply tell him that you want to find a policeman to settle the issue. If the driver knows the rate is too high, he’ll immediately drop it. If you’re still not satisfied, then go find a policeman to see what he says, or simply go off and get lost in the crowd (if there is one) and disappear without paying anything, as long as he doesn’t know your hotel. Otherwise, you’ll find him there waiting for you. This last suggestion may sound a little dishonest, but chances are that if he is ripping you off, you are not the first person to whom he’s done this.
When you are a Westerner and unfamiliar with rates of travel, it is not unusual for drivers and shop keepers to suddenly raise their rates when they see you coming. Someone told me that when you deal in dollars, the prices tend to be very high because Americans are used to higher dollar rates. But say, for example, you want the price in French Francs, the costs are comparably less.
Another point to remember is that drivers are often compensated by shop owners in money or gifts for bringing foreigners to their shops, which in turn will cost you in the form of higher prices on the items you buy. I went to a shop and was interested in buying a particular miniature painting. They wanted 1200 rupees. But after negotiating with them and when they learned I had no driver outside waiting for me and they would not have to pay any driver a commission, I finally bought the painting for around 700 rupees, almost half the original price. So it is often better when you go to a popular shop to have the driver simply drop you off, sometimes a little distance from the place, pay him for the ride and then let him leave. Thus, there is no driver for the shop to pay. Then after doing your business, simply find another driver to take you elsewhere.
AVOIDING SCAMS AND BEING PREPARED
As much as we would rather not talk about this possibility, we must understand that there are always people waiting for those who are unfamiliar with India and who want to take advantage of them. So we must know a little about what to watch out for. Some cheating is bound to take place, and we just have to accept that as part of the expense of traveling. But we can keep it to a minimum if we are careful. So, for example, if you are entering India through Delhi, there are a few things you need to do. You can keep this in mind for any city that you are entering.
1. Have a reservation somewhere in a hotel to at least spend the first night or two. Years ago it used to be easy to fly into Delhi from overseas and find a room without having a reservation, but those days are gone. There are so many more travelers within India, and the consumer class of India is growing, so more people are traveling. This means it is harder to find a hotel without a reservation in places like Delhi. Once you get to India and spend the night somewhere, you can always look around and find a different or better place the next day. But if you come into Delhi at night, and most flights do arrive at night, most hotels can be booked up by then, especially on the weekends. So have a reservation somewhere. This will help avoid the second point:
2. Do not go to a government tourist office if trying to find a hotel when you arrive in Delhi. First of all, they usually are not really government offices. They just call themselves that to get you in and gain your trust. Then they try to sell you a package trip or something. Taxi drivers, if they know you have no prior reservation or arrangement to spend the night, will often try to drive you to such an office, working with the people in the office to get your money. Or they may be willing to get you a hotel, but it is usually at a more expensive price.
If you do go to such a tourist office, they are usually just regular travel agents looking for a good profit from you. This is especially if they know you have just arrived and have all of your travel money to spend, or if you are unfamiliar with the prices of things in India, so if they quote you a price, it won’t seem as expensive as it really is. In other words, so you won’t suspect so easily that you are actually getting ripped off.
A common ploy is that if you have not booked a reservation in a hotel, they may call some hotels for you but actually they may only be calling their friends who pose as the hotel manager or something who say the hotel is full. Then as this goes on, you don’t know what to do and become more vulnerable to considering their advice to quickly leave on a package tour, like to Srinagar or somewhere. If you go, you have just bought yourself an expensive trip. It still may be fun and worthwhile, but it will be for more than what you could have spent if you had gone about it differently. Of course, if you were planning to go to a place like Srinagar anyway, then if you don’t mind paying the prices they want, it may all work out.
3. Do not go to a travel or tourist agent to buy a bus ticket. Just go to the Interstate Bus Terminal in Delhi, which is near the old train station, not the one at Paharganj. Buying a ticket directly from the station or on the bus is always cheaper than buying it through an agent. Or if you are indeed going to someplace like Srinagar, check with the Jammu & Kashmir State Road Transport Corporation, which has a separate station a ways away from the Interstate Bus Terminal. Any taxi or auto-ricksha driver can take you there. Just be persistent that you are not interested to go someplace else. They offer direct buses from Delhi twice a day for the nonstop, 25-hour trip to Srinagar. Or you can always take a regular bus to places north, stopping at places to see along the way, until you get to a place like Jammu, and from there easily get a bus on to Srinagar. Or if you are in a tourist office and they won’t help you in any other way, then just walk out. You can get another taxi, auto-ricksha, or just walk down a busy street to the next hotel you find.
4. You can also take a train to most places you want to see. If you are a foreigner to India, you can get your train tickets at the International Office on the second floor at the main station near the Paharganj area of Delhi. Don’t fall for a scam and get lead somewhere else, or think that you have to go through an agent or something. The people at the station are usually very helpful and can book your tickets to several places at once if you know where you want to go and the train on which you want to book a reservation. However, you will be expected to pay for the ticket in dollars, or in rupees with a certificate of where you exchanged your money into rupees.
5. Don’t listen to anyone, but only go to these bus or train stations to get your tickets, if you want the best prices for them. And if you have a hotel reservation, don’t fall for the trick of the taxi driver at the airport or train station telling you that you have to reconfirm it once you arrive in Delhi. If you fall for that, it is likely that you will only be told by someone on the phone that the hotel is full and you have no reservation. Or that the taxi driver knows a reliable and trustworthy government tourist office that can help you. If you listen to that, you’re in trouble, or you have got more money than I do. If you have a reservation, then just get a prepaid taxi at the airport and have them take you to your hotel. Then you are set for the night and can take care of things the next morning without being exposed to these kinds of scams.
6. If you do arrive in Delhi without a reservation, the problem is that many flights arrive late at night, which is a bad time to be looking for a room at various hotels. This is for safety reasons, and because many are indeed filled up, especially if it is a weekend when there are generally more travelers coming in to town.
If you do arrive without a reservation, and if you are going for the cheaper end and don’t mind staying in the busy Paharganj area where many of the cheaper hotels are located, you can ask your driver to just drop you off at the train station and then just walk down the street of the main bazaar at Paharganj and stop at each hotel (there are many) until you find a room. And if you try them all and there’s nothing to be found, find a taxi or auto-ricksha and go to the Karol Bagh area, which is not far away and where there are plenty more hotels. Somewhere there is likely to be a room available. Then the next morning you can scout around again and find something more to your liking, or just get your ticket out of town. And of course if you come in by train, especially before late afternoon, then just cross the street to the Paharganj area to look for a room, and it should not be a real problem.
Once you have seen what you want to see in Delhi and hit the road to other places, things usually get easier. So don’t fret too much about what happens in Delhi if things are not what you expected. Delhi can also be very interesting once you begin to know your way around.
EXPECT PERSONAL CHANGES IN YOURSELF
There is no way to prepare for what India may do to you! It can be magic! You just have to be open to whatever may happen and go with the flow. This will be one of the most memorable and possibly most profound experiences in your life! Go for it!!!
More information and details about traveling in India can be found in my books, or my “Seeing Spiritual India” article, other guide books, and also from other links on my “Links” page on my website, available at: http://www.stephen-knapp.com.