India is such a vast country and has so much to see that visitors are tempted to pack in as much as possible. Begin any trip to India with the knowledge that no matter how long your vacation, it will not be long enough. Knowing this can help you make the best of your time here and prevent you from planning a punishing schedule that will leave you not only thoroughly overwhelmed, but with an uncomfortable feeling that you've rushed through most of what you did see.
Despite greatly improved accommodations and transportation options, India is still a challenging destination, and you should always be prepared to take in stride a delayed flight, slow check-in, or upset tummy on, say, a long-distance train. Set aside time to acclimatize and simply unwind -- this is, after all, a vacation.
Ideally, you should use the"Best Of"s to work out a route that covers those experiences or sights that really appeal to you, as the range of possible itineraries is endless; what we've suggested are three rather full programs covering either North or South India over a 2-week period. If possible, extend your trip -- 2 weeks is not enough time to come to grips with India -- and set aside more time for those destinations that sound most appealing to you. The fourth itinerary is for those who want to experience India at a languid, easy pace while still taking in key attractions -- and there is no better place to do this than in southern India.
You could, of course, combine a trip to both the north and the south, but then you really should stick to one state (even one hotel!) in each area. For instance, you can arrive in Delhi, travel through Agra and then Jaipur, Bundi, and Udaipur, covering this region in 8 days, and then head south to Kerala. In Kerala, you can cover Cochin and Kumarakom (cruising the backwaters) and finish off with a couple of days south of Kovalam (or, better still, in the less-discovered far north of Kerala), before flying out of Bengaluru or Mumbai.
None of the itineraries include a trip into any of the fabulous Himalayan regions covered in this guide. If you do in fact extend your time in India, make your way from Delhi to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and then explore the remote valleys of Kinnaur, Lahaul, and Spiti before heading into surreal Ladakh; alternatively, you can take a road trip from Delhi through the picturesque Kumaon in Uttarakhand, or take off from Kolkata to Darjeeling (book the famous toy train there) and Buddhist Sikkim.
Whatever you decide to do, we highly recommend that you end your trip in one of India's natural paradises, at least to recover from the sensual assault you'll experience exploring the crowded and often polluted urban areas. These oases include the beaches on the Malabar coast and Goa, the backwaters of Kerala, the lunar landscapes and wooded hills of the Himalayas, and the wonderful hotels and resorts in Rajasthan.
Important: Should limited time force you to include only the most obvious stops in your itinerary, you will invariably only make contact with those locals who depend on you for a living, which regrettably could leave you with a frustrated sense that many of India's inhabitants are grasping, manipulative, or downright pushy. This is why it's so important to get off the beaten tourist track, and book at least one homestay in order to experience firsthand the warmth, hospitality, and generosity of the Indian people and their culture, which celebrates an ancient philosophy of the guest as god.
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.