You can research prices and deals on travel and hotels at reliable online travel companies based in India. Try www.makemytrip.com, www.yatra.com, www.cleartrip.com, www.tcindia.com, or www.travelmartindia.com. Note that Indian travel sites are not able to accept foreign credit cards, due to intensive antifraud card verification systems.
Because train travel is time-consuming, and roads generally appalling, the best way to cover huge distances is by air. A handful of very active low-cost airlines means that you have a wide choice at bargain prices; no need to scour all the websites, though, if you're looking for the lowest price -- simply log on to www.travelocity.co.in or www.yatra.com, two excellent sites. Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com), with its fleet of new planes, First-World service, and good connections, is still a very good airline, but Kingfisher Airlines (tel. 1800/180-0101; www.flykingfisher.com) is definitely our favorite: Aircrafts are brand-new, cabin crew are efficient and superfriendly, and service is exemplary -- in the last 2 years Kingfisher has expanded its network to include even niche market destinations such at Agatti in the Lakshadweep islands. They frequently offer a better deal than their competitors, and online booking is painless. National carrier Air India (which has completely merged with and absorbed Indian) may be having financial troubles, but services have improved dramatically -- in fact, when we've most recently flown with them, they compared favorably against Jet. Another contender for the domestic crown is Paramount Airways (tel. 800/180-1234; www.paramountairways.com); predominantly based in South India but steadily expanding, it offers full business-class cabins and service at less than economy-class fares. Basically, opt for Kingfisher or Paramount if the price is comparable, but don't hesitate to fly Jet or Air India if the price is right.
Best of the low-budget airlines (and clean, reliable, relatively cheap) is SpiceJet (tel. 800/180-3333; www.spicejet.com). Also worth comparing prices with are Go Air (tel. 800/222-111 or 09223/222-111; www.goair.in) and IndiGo (tel. 099-1038-3838 or 800/180-3838; www.goindigo.in). If price is important, you can usually save money with one of these airlines -- but don't expect top-notch service (often no meals or beverages served), and worst of all, you may have lengthy delays. Note that erstwhile Airline Deccan has been completely absorbed by Kingfisher, which has launched a semibudget brand, Kingfisher Red, although it's not yet fully understood how this service differs from its full-fare flights. Similarly, Jet Lite is Jet's lower-priced wing, accessed via a separate website, www.jetlite.com.
India's domestic and international check-in and preboarding procedure may be one of the most rigorous in the world. Technically, check-in will start 180 minutes prior to international departure, and you need to produce a ticket before being allowed access to the airport building (airlines generally have ticketing windows for collection of e-tickets purchased online, or if you need to buy a ticket at the airport; alternatively, speak to a security officer, who will escort you to the appropriate ticket counter). Arriving less than 60 minutes prior to domestic departure is definitely not recommended. Your checked baggage must be scanned and sealed before you report to the check-in counter. The list of dangerous items not permitted in your carry-on bags is fairly extensive, but these days no more so than at airports around the world (and because the security is so tight, they tend to be less paranoid about what you can or cannot carry). In any case, India's screening procedures genuinely enhance your sense of security -- there are no half-hearted measures, and personnel are generally very pleasant in their attitude, even as you're being frisked by a uniformed army officer. Check-in closes 30 minutes prior to departure. After check-in, you should immediately head for the first security check, which will involve a body pat-down and a scan of your carry-on luggage. Boarding gates close 15 minutes prior to scheduled departure (although delays are fairly frequent), and there may be second body and carry-on checks before you are permitted to board the plane. In some instances, you will be asked to identify your checked luggage on the tarmac. While frequent travelers may be irritated by these ungainly, time-consuming methods, others find the process provides peace of mind.
Tip: Always have your concierge (or yourself to be sure) reconfirm your flight at least 72 hours before departure to save yourself the frustration of arriving at the airport only to find that your name has been deleted from the computer.
India's roads are statistically the most dangerous in the world -- according to The Times of India, August 2009, India reported the highest road fatalities in the world with 13 people dying every hour. Self-driven rental cars are simply not available (with the exception of unauthorized operators in Goa) and if they were, renting your own car and attempting to traverse the chaos that passes for traffic is simply suicidal. That said, having your own vehicle -- and a driver who knows the roads, can read road signs when they're present, and can communicate with locals -- is in many ways the best way to get around. You can set your own pace, without having to worry about making public-transport connections (a major headache taken care of), and you can see the sights and experience many of the attractions without feeling anxious (your driver will be a huge help in providing advice on customs and pricing -- not to mention helping with mundane everyday needs such as topping up your local airtime), as well as experience off-the-beaten-track towns and rural scenes that give you the only sense of real India. And by American and European standards, the luxury of being chauffeured around the country -- not necessarily in a high-end luxury vehicle, keep in mind -- is ridiculously cheap. Certainly this is the way to go to concentrate on certain parts of India, such as Rajasthan, but it's not advisable as a way to cover long-distance journeys -- aim to spend no more than 3 to 4 hours a day in the car (there will be, of course, exceptions). Note: Whatever you do, make sure your plan does not include traveling at night.
If you plan to tour North India by car, setting off from Delhi, contact Khaver Ali Khan (email@example.com) who will put you in touch with one of his travel experts at Kamalan Travels, and you can create a custom tour within any budget (tel. 011-257-30256, -33652, or 97-1100-8521; www.kamalan-travels.com).
What kind of car? -- Standard cars are sometimes antique-looking and very romantic Ambassadors, tough cars despite their appearance, but sometimes unpredictable; don't rely on them for long out-of-town journeys -- better perhaps to opt for a modern vehicle like the compact Indica. A vehicle with off-road capabilities is essential in some of the more remote and hilly regions, including eastern Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Sikkim, and parts of Uttarakhand; it is also recommended for some of the awful road conditions in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, for example, where there may be more potholes than patches of tarmac. Air-conditioned vehicles cost more but are always recommended because you may want to keep windows closed in order to shut out the endless traffic noise and pollution.
How much will it cost? -- Charges for this sort of car hire vary considerably. If you use a hotel rental service, you usually have to fork out exorbitant fees -- although the vehicle and quality of service will generally be top-notch. At the other end of the scale, you can walk up to a driver in the street, negotiate an excellent deal, and spend the rest of your vacation watching the tires being changed. It's often a good idea to start by contacting the Tourist Development Corporation in whatever state you wish to hire a car. Their rates are usually reasonable and fixed; you'll be spared the battle of the haggle; and you won't have to live with the misery of being overcharged. A good way to estimate how much a vehicle should cost for a multiday run is to calculate three things: a) the approximate distance you will travel multiplied by the per-kilometer rate (usually between Rs 10 and Rs 20 depending on the car); b) an overnight charge of Rs 150 to Rs 350 per night, plus state taxes, tolls, and across-state permits and fees; and c) the mileage for the car to return to its place of origin, even if it returns empty.
Travel agencies can assist you with car rental, many with their own fleet of vehicles and drivers; if the price doesn't seem right, shop around. Finally, when it comes to tipping your driver, a fair amount is Rs 200 to Rs 300 for each day he's been with you. If you feel you got exemplary service and want to give him more, however, by all means give him what you feel he deserves. If, on the other hand, you've had to tolerate a surly, uncooperative, and inefficient chauffeur, make sure you let the agency know, and reflect it in the tip as you see fit. Tip: Your car driver may sometimes drive you around for an hour in a new city rather than do the sensible thing and ask for directions. Remember, in most cities the best people to ask for directions are usually auto-rickshaw or taxi drivers. If you are on foot, however, more often than not if you ask a rickshaw or cab driver for directions, he'll probably tell you your destination is "too far" and that you need to hire his services.
Warning: If you are involved in an accident, it's best to get out of your vehicle and away from the scene without delay, inform your rental agency or hotel immediately, and have them inform local authorities. An accident involving the injury or death of a cow or person may result in a mob assault on all occupants of the offending vehicle as well as its incineration.
Taxis & Auto-rickshaws -- These modes of transport are the ways to go within your chosen city or town. Auto-rickshaws are best for short journeys only, being slow, bumpy, and open-air -- in other words, open to pollution. Always, always negotiate the rate upfront, having established the average going rate (unless the driver is using a "meter reading chart," in which case check it carefully, and make sure he is not using the night 11pm-5am chart, when charges are higher). We have tried to indicate these rates throughout, but given the potential escalation in fuel costs, it's best to ask about the going rate (your hotel or host should know) and figure out a fixed price for a given journey. To get from the station or airport to your hotel, use the prepaid taxi booths; remember to hand over your receipt only after reaching your destination. Be aware that in some cities it's a toss-up between forcing the driver to use his meter, only to be taken for a citywide spin, and agreeing to a slightly higher than normal price and being taken from A to B.
Remember: Carry your passport at all times -- many of the borders between states have checkpoints where passports may be checked. Also always have with you at least one photocopy of your passport and visa and four to five passport-size photographs; you will need them for permits and other unforeseen bureaucratic paperwork, like getting a prepaid SIM card for a cellphone.
India's rail network is the second largest in the world, and you can pretty much get anywhere in the country by train. That said, train journeys between major destinations can consume massive amounts of time (often more than car travel); and the network, tiers (one of the A/C, or air-conditioned classes may, for instance, be better than non-A/C first class), and connections can be confusing. It's best to determine well in advance whether or not your destination is accessible from your point of origin and which tier is the most comfortable, and then factor in delays; some slow trains stop at every two-hut village along the way, and this can extend traveling time by hours. Generally, you should only consider long-distance train travel if you are assured of exotic scenery (like the Konkan Railway, which connects Mumbai with Goa, Karnataka, and Kerala, running along the Konkan coast); or if the journey is overnight (like Delhi to Varanasi) and you have reserved a first-class air-conditioned sleeper or second-class air-conditioned sleeper berth, preferably the two-tier variety. (Never book regular second class, which can be torturous, claustrophobic, and distressing if you are at all intimidated by crowds.) You will be particularly comfortable aboard the overnight Rajdhani -- the superfast train connects Delhi to Mumbai for Rs 2,145 or to Kolkata (Howrah) for Rs 2,180 in the two-tier A/C (air-conditioned) class; it also connects Delhi with Chennai, Bangalore, Bhubaneswar, Thiruvananthapuram, Abu Road, Ahmedabad, and Ajmer. The best daytime travel train is the Shatabdi; these intercity trains have several routes between important tourist destinations (Delhi to Amritsar: Rs 665; Mumbai to Madgaon [Goa]: Rs 700; Delhi to Jaipur: Rs 485). Book a seat in the air-conditioned Chair Car class; small meals, tea, coffee, and bottled water are included in the ticket price, seats are comfortable and clean, and toilets are usually usable, but not great.
For extensive railway information, you can log on to www.indianrail.gov.in, which shows routes, availability, and prices for all Indian trains, but you cannot book online from overseas. For tips on how to maneuver this rather unwieldy website to get the information you need, see the box below. Better still, visit www.seat61.com, the online authority for train travel across the globe with a detailed, dedicated page devoted to train travel in India. Amongst many other issues, it explains in great detail how to purchase a train ticket from outside India using the government-sponsored ticketing website www.irctc.co.in. Do note that you can also purchase tickets for train journeys in India using the relatively painless www.cleartrip.com website which charges a Rs 100 booking fee per ticket, but allows you to buy your ticket using a credit card.
Purchasing tickets usually requires some advance planning, and it's a good idea to make all-important ticket reservations (particularly for overnight travel) before you leave for India, especially if you're coming during peak holiday season. You can make ticket reservations through your hotel or an agent (usually for a relatively small fee), or you can brave the possibility of long lines and silly form-filling at the train station; that said, check out "Booking Your Train Ticket at the Station," below, to see if the station you're heading to has a counter set up especially for foreigners. Not only is this an easy way to book your seat, it may be the only way to secure tickets when trains are completely full and agents can do nothing to assist.
Indian Railways Indrail Pass is a "discount" ticket for unlimited travel over a specific number of days (for example, air-conditioned chair car/first and second class: 7 days $135), but these still require reservations and are only likely to benefit travelers who expect to make two or more long-distance journeys in a short time.
We have included telephone numbers for railway stations, but don't expect too much information from these, if indeed you are even able to get through.
Tip: To avoid unnecessary stress while traveling by train (particularly on overnight journeys), use a chain and padlock to secure your luggage and fasten it to some part of your berth or cabin. Be sensible, and don't leave valuables lying around while you sleep.
Booking Your Train Ticket at the Station: The Nitty-Gritty -- Even though you will be told that there are no special lines or windows for foreigners who want to book train tickets, we assure you that this is not the case. More important, most trains have a quota of seats specifically for foreigners. This means that even if a train is completely booked up, as a foreigner you may be able to get a seat, unless other foreigners booking through the same service have already filled the seat quota. This is valuable information to keep in mind, because an agent cannot book a seat for you on this quota, nor can this be booked from the regular booking window; you must go personally to a Foreign Tourist Rail Reservation Counter (sometimes called Foreign Tourist Bureaus) with your passport, and pay either in foreign currency (cash or credit card) or show a currency encashment certificate or ATM receipt. The ticket costs exactly the same as the regular ticket (except for credit card surcharges). Train stations at the following Indian cities have a Foreign Tourist Rail Reservation Counter: Agra-Cantonment, Ahmedabad, Aurangabad, Bangalore, Chennai, New Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Kolkata, Mumbai, Secunderabad, Vadodara, Varanasi, and Vasco-Da-Gama (Goa). There's also a counter at the Delhi Tourism & Transport Development Corporation office at Indira Gandhi International Airport in the Arrivals lounge. In Mumbai, this office is tucked away next to the Government Tourist Office, on the first floor of the Western Railway Building, opposite Churchgate Station.
Booking Online: Understanding the Indian Railway Website -- Using the Indian Railway website can be an exercise in frustration; here are some tips on how to master it with ease. After you log on to indianrail.gov.in, click on "Train/Fare Accommodation" on the bottom menu (third choice from the left). Next fill in where you want to depart from (source station name) and your destination, but (and here's the key), only type the first three letters of the name of the place (mum for Mumbai, ban for Bengaluru -- because it's name only recently changed from Bangaloree -- and del for Delhi, and so on). Then fill in the class of service you're interested in (safest to pick "All"). Enter your date of travel (or a fictitious date) and click "get it." This will take you to another window where you narrow your choice of source and destination from a pull-down menu (all places beginning with mum and ban and del). For Bengaluru you may get several choices -- and this is another tricky part -- you have to pick one (usually the first "Bangalore" choice on the list). You will get a list of all the trains, with times, that run between the two cities. Now pick the train you want by clicking on the white circle to the left of the train's name to highlight it green, then choose your class of service (on the right). At this stage you can change the date if you like, and then get availability or fares. The availability is sometimes not online between 10pm to 6am Indian time, so if you don't get what you want, try again later. The availability chart basically tells you how many seats are still available in the class of service you've chosen.
The Romance of Rail: India's Special Train Journeys -- India's most famous luxury train, Palace on Wheels, currently operates in Rajasthan, and has 14 opulently furnished en-suite saloons, a bar, and two restaurants (tel. 888/INDIA-99 [46342-99] in the U.S. and Canada, 011/2332-5939 or 011/2335-3155 in India; www.palaceonwheels.net or www.thepalaceonwheels.com). Over 7 days, the train travels from Delhi to Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Sawai Madhopur (Ranthambhore), Chittaurgarh, Udaipur, Bharatpur, and Agra; and finishes its trip back in Delhi. The "Week in Wonderland" trip costs $5,250 to $7,700 double, including all travel, accommodations, sightseeing, and meals, but not taxes. And, if you like the sound of that, you might want to take a look at the similar service (and routing) offered by the very chic Royal Rajasthan on Wheels (tel. 877/INDIA-99 [46342-99] in the U.S. and Canada; www.royalpalaceonwheels.com or www.heritageonwheels.com; $8,310-$12,670 double for 7 nights). Other luxury trains in India include: Maharasthra's Deccan Odyssey; Golden Chariot which makes traveling through Karnataka less tedious; Fairy Queen, the oldest operating steam locomotive in the world, dating from 1855, which takes an overnight trip from Delhi to Alwar, Rajasthan (with a visit to the Sariska wildlife sanctuary) and back.
For a truly exclusive train journey board the private The Viceroy of India -- aka The Darjeeling Mail Tour -- which runs just one or two 15-day trips a year from Mumbai to Calcutta via Jaipur, Delhi, Varanasi, and Darjeeling, and is priced at $22,790 (Viceroy class) or $34,390 (Maharaja suite) double (www.gwtravel.co.uk).
Getting to the hill stations of Shimla (Himachal Pradesh), Darjeeling (West Bengal), Matheran (Maharashtra), or Ooty (Tamil Nadu) can be a scenic novelty if you don't mind spending long hours traveling in the atmospheric "toy trains" that chug their ways along narrow-gauge tracks to high altitudes by way of an endless series of hairpin loops -- fabulous views are guaranteed. And then, of course, there is the Konkan Railway, which runs along the Malabar coast and has truly wonderful scenery almost every click-clack of the way.
Unless you are on a serious budget and traveling in India for months, we recommend you avoid all forms of bus travel. Often crammed full of commuters, state-operated buses are driven at bloodcurdling speeds along dangerous and punishing roads. Numerous so-called deluxe or luxury buses, operated by private companies, often ply similarly dangerous routes overnight. You may be tempted to save time and money with this option, but be aware that safety is rarely a priority, and sleeping is almost impossible thanks to generally uncomfortable seating and/or noise. Regular stops at roadside truck stops along the way will have you arriving at your destination bleary-eyed and exhausted, wondering why you've opted for a vacation in hell; on one of our most recent trips we were horrified to witness a "luxury" bus windshield shatter midjourney, and the driver simply continued on (through the night) till he reached his destination. On some routes (such as Delhi-Jaipur or Kochi-Bengaluru), the exception is the comfortable "Volvo" bus with good suspension and skilled drivers. Another exception is the Manali-to-Leh route, where the Trans-Himalayan scenery is jaw-droppingly awesome, and an overnight stop in tents is part of the deal. If you do decide to take a bus, a good place to search for deluxe (or "luxury") private services and book them online is www.ticketvala.com.
Note: Buses in India do not have onboard toilets (thankfully, given the state of so many of these on trains), so stops are usually at grimy roadside dhabas (local diners) or just along the side of the road.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.