March 10, 2004 -- India is a land of marvels. Golden temples and ancient carvings dot the subcontinent. The Taj Mahal is probably the world's most perfect building, while in Udaipur, a perfect palace floats on its own island in a blue lake. Few cities match the drive and intensity of Bombay, and lions and tigers roam in the nation's wildlife sanctuaries.
But when I was there in 1999, I was quickly overwhelmed by the aggressive hustling and the false friendliness of locals who saw me (as they see many Western tourists) as not a human, but as a bucket of dollars. A rug salesman in Delhi put it best: "In America," he said, "you have welfare, you have public schools, you have public assistance. In India, you hustle, or you die."
I'd written India off my return-to list until I got a copy of the new Frommer's India, a truly extraordinary guide that's the result of two years' hard work by two experienced writers. Yeah, yeah, I know, this is the Frommer's newsletter and I'm plugging the latest Frommer's guide. But trust me: at least pick up this book in your local bookstore, and you'll be stunned by the ways it lays out how to avoid the traps and actually achieve comfort in a trip through India, for less than a maharaja's ransom.
[Editor's Note: You'll be able to read excerpts starting in April in our Destinations section. Don't know what that is? Just click the "Destinations" tab at the top of this Newlsetter.]
While prices in Europe shoot off the charts, the US dollar has remained relatively stable against the rupee. That means a beautiful, whitewashed room on the shores of Lake Pichola in Udiapur is still $26, a deluxe suite in a 17th-century Rajasthani fort-palace will run you $50, and main courses at Mumbai's top restaurant, Indigo, cost under $10 each.
The book tells you how to get hired as an extra in a Bollywood movie (hang out at the Leopold Café in Bombay, and don't be surprised if you're cast as a villain), where you can sleep in a bamboo treehouse in the heart of a forest (at the Green Magic Nature Resort in Calicut), where the hippest yuppies in India's Silicon Valley hang out (at the i-Bar in Bangalore) and how to avoid stress on a railway journey (book Chair Class on the Shatabdi Express.) Follow Frommer's instructions, and you'll be able to fend off cheats and hustlers, too.
Frommer's India is now available at a bookstore near you or online here: www.frommers.com/guidebooks/0764567276.html.
Getting to India For Less
With great lodging like Delhi's Master Paying Guest House costing $16 for a double room, by far your biggest expense in a trip to India will be getting there. As with everything Indian, you have to have "connections" to get the best fares, which means hiring a real, live travel agent. Ethnic consolidators catering to the expatriate Indian community often have the best fares; try checking out the Sunday travel section of your local newspaper or the New York Times. One US-based consolidator recommended by the American Society of Travel Agents is Trade Wind Associates (www.twai.com).
One low fare available to everyone is Korean Air's great sale to Bombay. Flights from LA are $899 and flights from San Francisco are $919, both with a connection in Seoul. You must purchase by March 31, four days in advance of travel, for travel on Mondays-Thursdays through May 4. Book online at www.koreanair.com/local/na/eng/pt/psv/ps_subList.jsp?promoid=54.
Also on the ASTA's list of agencies, but India-based (in other words, it may be a hassle to get in touch with them) is Prime Travels (www.primetravels.com). We're mentioning them because they're currently advertising flights to India from Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago and Philadelphia for under $1,000 -- all good deals. They're also members of ASTA, have an IATA number (which means they issue their own tickets) and take credit cards, all of which are signs of a good firm.
For help arranging travel on the ground, Frommer's recommends Indian Experience, run by Raj Singh (e-mail: Rajsingh53@aol.com). Get in touch with him, give him a budget, and he'll set up a trip for you including accommodation, attraction entry fees, and a car and driver. When we say "budget," we really mean it in the truest sense of the word: $30-40 per person per day should be enough for a good trip.
Do you know of a great consolidator for fares to India? Share that and all your tips on our India Message Boards.