India offers a huge range of accommodation from the highest levels of luxury to more basic options. Overall, the quality you get for your money is extremely high. Here are a few notes to help you choose based on my personal experience.
In the large cities we stayed in chain hotels which are of a high, international, standard but tended to lack character like similar hotels around the world. The rooms were high quality and the food provided was good, and very diverse, with international options available. The basic price for bed and breakfast is good but extras such as non-included meals, drinks and laundry tend to be expensive.
A piece of advice, is to ask your driver to take you to a local restaurant for dinner which is likely to be much lower cost and more interesting than eating in the hotel.
In the regional cities such as Udaipur, Agra and Jaipur there are some very pleasant more individual hotels. These will have good facilities typically including swimming pools and spas. Extras are expensive, as above.
Indian Home Stays / Guest Houses
In planning my last trip I was keen to try Indian home stays and, after staying in three of them, I have to say, I was very impressed. The standard was generally very high, at a very reasonable cost, and it did allow us to get away from the international hotels, which, whilst being good, could be anywhere in the world. The environment in the home stays was very sociable with dinner being taken with other guests. Also, the host worked as a personal guide and advisor for the local area. We found there was no need to have a car and driver as our host could arrange all transport for us, in fact, in our last stay our host drove us around and guided us through Kochi at no extra cost. We were also taken to the airport for our flight home.
The accommodation, in all cases, was set in the community so taking a walk around the houses was a great experience and a chance to see, and interact, with local people who were very friendly and pleased to see us.
The home stays we tried were deliberately different and they ranged from basic to very luxurious but they were all good and tremendous value for money. The more basic stay had small bedrooms and no real extra facilities. The high end stay was set in beautiful grounds and had its own private swimming pool and the rooms were large and very well furnished.
If you want to get closer to real India I suggest you include home stays to your trip.
High End Home Stay - Kochi
View from the garden
A walk around our Home stay
National Park Lodges
For each of the national parks, I have stayed in a specialist lodge in, or near, the park. The accommodation is outside the Indian national parks, and privately run, in most cases (Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Tadoba Nagarhole and Bandipur, etc). The quality of the food and accommodation, as well as the service, is fantastic with a genuine desire from the staff to please. The accommodation is individual with its own character, without the feel of a hotel chain. All the lodges have a swimming pool and spa facilities and are set in their own grounds which you can stroll around and bird watch.
Corbett Park is the exception, as it has government run accommodation within the park and this is much more basic, but adequate, but the big advantage is you are staying in the core of the park and your wildlife viewing starts even before you set off for the game drive. For me, the trade off is worth it.
See my visit blogs on the national parks, under wildlife category below, for more details.
Having been to India numerous times, and been heavily involved in planning my own trips, I have used my experience to provide some guidelines on planning your itinerary and travel.
India is a vast and varied county and it is easy to try and see too much and end up spoiling your trip through excessive time traveling. A good guideline is to aim to spend two or, ideally, three days in each place of interest. This will give you time to relax, enjoy, and really get to know each location without feeling you are constantly under time pressure. Building in a variety of activities also works well, for example, planning your tour so that after spending three days in national parks you go to the beach or an historical site next rather than go straight on to another national park.
Try not to travel too far between each stop. Don’t be fooled by the distance between locations as average speeds may be very low. Instead use Google maps directions to provide a time estimate which I have found to be reasonably accurate. Don’t plan to travel after dark due to the hazards of animals on the road etc. You may need to have an overnight stop to break your journey up.
There are good options for internal flights within India and costs are very reasonable. There are a few things you need to be aware of though:
Flight times are prone to change so it is vital that you stay in touch with your airline or travel agent. A good travel organiser will keep you informed on any changes.
Security is very thorough at Indian airports which, of course, is very reassuring but you need to leave plenty of time for the checks.
Fog / smog can be a problem in North India in the winter so flights may be cancelled.
The baggage allowance on internal flights is only 15Kg per person so that may give you a problem if you have used your full international baggage allowance to get to India. You can pay for extra allowance in advance which is much cheaper than doing it at the gate.
Also, be sure to buy the biggest cabin bag you are allowed and make use of your allowance.
Note: many hold cases weigh three or four kilos so you won’t have much allowance left for your belongings. It may be worth investing in some light weight bags before your visit.
These factors mean that internal flights are best only used for the long transfers.
India is modernising at an astounding rate but the train service is still to be updated, having said that, it is still an option worth considering.
Buy the highest class of ticket you can get and it still won’t be expensive. On a day journey, food and drink will be served throughout the trip and the food quality is acceptable, and safe, as long as you stick to cooked vegetarian food only.
A group of four of us used the sleeper service recently and we booked the highest class, there are about eight classes in total, and it was just about alright if you are not too fussy. Four is a good number as if you book together you should all be put in the same four berth compartment. If less of you are travelling you will be sharing with other people who may come off or on at any time. We decided it would be easier to sleep in our clothes.
It is not easy to know when you are getting to your station so a little tip is to use Google maps to track your progress.
The trains are quite slow and the toilets are not great, especially for the ladies. It is quite interesting, though, to see the track rushing past below!
Car Hire and Driver in India
The normal, and strongly recommended, option, when travelling by road in India, is to hire a car with a driver. Driving in India is very different to driving in western countries and having a driver will not add a lot to the cost of hiring the vehicle. And, to be honest, driver is a bit of a misnomer as they will give you a whole range of help from guidance and information about the area, finding suitable places to eat, helping you to shop for local delicacies or souvenirs. The driver ensures your trip goes smoothly and comfortably in all ways and you don’t have to worry at all about the itinerary or travel. Whatever your problem or need just ask your driver!
You will tend to have the same driver for quite long periods so by the end of the trip you will probably be firm friends. On a recent trip, we had the same driver for over two weeks whilst we travelled through Karnataka and Kerala. He was excellent!
A good agent will ensure you have a good, modern, car with functioning seat belts and air-conditioning. They will also ensure you have the name and contact details for the driver for each leg of your journey.
Our group of four travelled in a six seated Toyota Innova which was very comfortable and had plenty of space for all of us and our luggage. There was also a spare seat for an official guide when we had one booked.
You have probably heard scary stories about the Indian roads but I can assure you, from my experience of twenty years of travelling to India, it is getting much better.
Tourist Site Guides In India
When visiting a sight an expert guide will greatly improve your experience. A good tour operator will be able to arrange a guide with the right knowledge for the sight and your particular interests. It is very important to ensure your guide is official and registered so he/she is allowed to take you into all areas of the attraction. I have heard a few stories of people hiring a guide on arrival at a tourist site only to find out later they have not been shown the main places of interest and have, therefore, had a substandard experience.
You may use the services of a guide for a particular sight or to take you around all places of interest in a town or area. For example, on a recent trip to Mysore we had one guide who showed us around everything in the area from the Tipu Sultan’s summer palace, outside Mysore, to the Nandi Hills, Mysore Palace and the town’s fruit and vegetable market.
The guides, invariably, speak good English and are very knowledgeable. Most with a degree level education. They will not add a great deal to the cost of your visit but you will get so much more from your time with their help. You can decide how much detail you want to hear and how long you want to spend somewhere but the guide will ensure you see all the best places and also help you to get the best photos.
I love wildlife, and wild places, and have visited many of the great African national parks. In 2016 I visited three Indian Tiger parks and had a wonderful time. The parks, and the way of viewing the wildlife, is quite different from Africa though so I have decided to share some notes on how to get the most from your time in Indian parks. A group of eight of us are returning to India in 2017 and so the notes are there partly to ensure we are thoroughly prepared for our trip.
Indian National Park Drive:
Game drives generally happen twice in the day and the exact timing changes through the year. The first drive enters the park at dawn (between 5.30 and 6.30 am) and leaves four to five hours later. The second drive will enter the park at mid-afternoon and leave at sunset and is typically a three hour drive. You will be returned to your lodge for lunch and a rest between drives.
A packed breakfast will be provided, at a suitable stopping point, during the morning drive.
Most parks will be closed for at least half a day per week so at these times no visitors enter the park.
The park authorities are very strict about timings and drivers will be fined or banned from the park if they are late leaving. For this reason, please respect your driver’s need to get to the gates on time.
The number of vehicles allowed in the park, and in any zone, at any time, is very strictly controlled. So your driver will have limitations on where they can go on any particular drive. A good tour operator will ensure you get to see all the zones but will focus on the most productive ones for that year.
Entering the Park:
To enter the park, if you are a foreign national, you need to have your passport with you so the driver can take this to the park officials at the entry gate. The passports are used to verify that the booking is correct and is for the right people. Some parks also have a camera charge so you will need to give this to your driver so he can pay the authorities before each drive. A receipt should be provided for these payments.
The most commonly used vehicle is the Gypsy, an Indian built small jeep, which can seat eight people in total. It is open-topped and excellent for viewing and photographing wildlife. Although it does not feel very big when a large tiger approaches!
Your Driver and guide:
Each vehicle will have its own driver who will take you to the gate where a guide will be allocated to you, at random, for that particular drive. Occasionally, the lodge will also provide you with a naturalist who will provide further information during your tour. As, typically, there will only be four visitors in the Gypsy it can feel as if there are a lot of staff for each drive. I believe it is deliberate policy of the park authorities to create a lot of direct employment of locals and, in my view, is a very shrewd measure. By contributing so much to the economic well being of the locals the parks are greatly valued by the local communities which in turn leads to better protection of the animals as poachers are unable to operate without the knowledge of the people who live nearby.
Your driver’s job is, strictly, to just drive the vehicle with the guide doing the wildlife spotting, but we found the driver was at least as good as the guide at finding wildlife. (Remember he spends his whole life driving in the park.) The driver is generally provided by the lodge, whereas the guide is provided by the park, so it is a good idea to ask for the same driver for the whole of your stay. By doing this, you can ensure that he knows what you want and also what you have seen. I, for example, enjoy travelling at a slow speed so that there is a chance of spotting all wildlife. By telling the driver this he can ensure that, for all your drives, you get what you want. It is worth withholding the tip until the end of your stay and be generous if he/ she has followed your requirements.
For advice on tipping of your driver and guide see my blog on the subject.
Conditions on the Drive:
You will encounter a wide range of conditions on your drive and you need to be prepared for them all. As mentioned earlier, the vehicles are open so you are exposed to the elements.
Temperature & Sun:
The temperature can vary widely from being very cold at dawn, in winter, to being very hot in the afternoon. For your dawn drive it is worth taking a good coat and, maybe a woolly hat and also accept the blankets the driver offers you. Once you start moving the apparent temperature will drop very quickly.
The strength of the sun, as the day moves on, needs to be respected by ensuring you apply sun cream and have water and a good hat.
Conditions can be very dusty and following other vehicles can be quite an unpleasant experience. Be prepared to ask your driver to hang back to reduce the impact but also come prepared. Ensure you have good sun glasses to protect your eyes but it is also a good idea to have clear glasses that you can wear in the low light conditions at dawn or dusk. Have a snood (a fabric tube you can wear around your neck or face) ready to protect your nose and mouth and filter out some of the dust.
If you have expensive camera equipment ensure you have dust protection for this too. Many people use pouches that protect the cameras but it is also quick to get the camera into use when that tiger comes along.
Approach to game viewing:
The Indian park guides and drivers tend to be completely obsessed with seeing tigers to the exclusion of almost everything else. The tiger is, undoubtedly, the most spectacular of sightings but your tour of the parks will be so much more rewarding if you take in everything else that it has to offer. Ask your driver to travel slowly and stop at waterholes so that you have a chance of spotting the smaller wildlife and stop when you see something. It can be very interesting watching the bird life or a troop of lemurs, for example, and very often by focusing on the smaller things you will be rewarded by a big sighting!
Be prepared to move away from the gaggle of other cars. Earlier this year in Bandhavgarh national park a large male tiger could be seen asleep in the long grass about 200 meters away. After about thirty minutes, we asked our driver to move on as the tiger was not moving and a very large group of vehicles had congregated around us. The driver and guide were reluctant to drive on but eventually did so. After driving for thirty minutes we spotted four tiger cubs on the edge of some woods. The mother was off hunting. We had the best part of an hour watching these young tigers, on our own, and we even witnessed the excitement when an Indian wild boar ventured a bit too close.
On another occasion we watched an oriental honey buzzard systematically consuming a bee’s nest. It was amazing to watch but everyone else was staring at the road waiting for a tiger to appear.
As well as camera and video equipment a good pair of binoculars will really improve your game viewing as you can watch birds up close or looking into the bush to see animals in detail.
Tipping makes many people feel awkward as there is uncertainty about whether it is appropriate at all and, if it is, how much to tip. Here I provide a few guidelines on the subject for your trip to India.
Tipping is normal in tourist areas in India and is a very important source of income and, when provided, tips are gratefully and discretely accepted. However, tips should only be given when you feel it is merited by good service.
Hotels can be particularly awkward due to the large number of staff that you will encounter during your stay. I have been in the situation where several people have helped load bags into my car and I have provided tips to the main contributors, but as I do this I noticed a host of others, including security staff, gathering around expecting something. It becomes impractical to hold enough small change to sustain this. The other problem is that the tips are only going to the front-line staff.
Thankfully, most hotels now have a central tipping box and you should look for this and use it if it is available. If there is not one, I suggest you complain and suggest one should be provided. As a rough guide a tip of Rs100 per guest /day is a reasonable midpoint.
Drivers: A tip of between Rs 200/ 400 per day is reasonable. To put it into perspective, a driver in India will earn between Rs10,000 and Rs 15,000 per month so you can see that the tip is a significant salary supplement.
You may be with the same driver for several days and they can be invaluable help in getting the most from your trip, so weigh up how useful they have been and if they have followed your instructions. They can guide you to restaurants etc. On the other hand, they take you to un-requested tourist shops which can cause considerable detours and wasted time.
Guides: Rs 200/500 per day for a personal guide is a reasonable range. Again, judge whether they have been working in your interests or if they have taken you to shops when this has not been requested.
Restaurants: 5% to 10% of the bill if you are happy and also if service is not included on the bill.
Drivers and Guides in National Parks: There is very strong local support for the national parks and tiger reserves as so many locals benefit directly from the tourists that visit. When driving in the parks you will have a driver as well as a park ranger and sometimes a naturalist, supplied by the hotel, as well. This may appear to be overkill but it is providing livelihoods to many local families. Try and get the same driver for the whole time you are in the park and train him to give you what you want. If he provides a good service tip him in the range Rs 100/Rs500 per day.
The ranger will be different for each session so you will only get them for half a day at a time. I would suggest tipping them in the range Rs50/ Rs100 per session. Do not be afraid to give nothing though. We have had some rangers who we have even noticed sleeping rather than game spotting.
Staying connected whilst you are on your India holiday is very high on most people’s priorities. It allows you to stay in touch with friends and family, but also, to get support should you need it. Here are a few tips on how to achieve this in India.
The India mobile phone network is very good, I suspect, that like many developing countries, it is jumping straight to the new technologies. In my experience, the key to staying well connected for all your needs is your mobile phone. By setting up tethering, creating a Wi-Fi hotspot from your phone, all your devices can access the internet. I will explain what you need to do below in detail but, in short, you will need to install an India SIM card.
Calls to home will be a lot cheaper with an Indian SIM as well as calls to other members of your group, these may even be free if you buy cards from the same provider. But also, crucially, this will be a very economical way of accessing the internet. If other members of your party are close by, in the next hotel room for example, they can share your connection.
Our excellent tour providers used email via the mobile network to keep us informed on our itinerary. This included such things as the name and phone number of the driver for the next leg as well as any changes to flight times etc.
On my travels I have found that almost everywhere I have been in India I have had mobile data connection, and this includes the lodges at the Tiger reserves. Sometimes that connection has been slow “G” but often it has been “H+” or even “4G”. I am referring here to the little letter that comes up next to your mobile signal strength and this indicates the speed of your data connection. However, even “G” is enough to send and receive simple emails.
Most, but not all, hotels will offer Wi-Fi but the majority charge for it, typically Rs600/day, and it is often very slow. If it is free you should use it if you can, but if they are charging at the sort of rates indicated here it is usually much better to use your phone. The exception is if it is a fast connection and you are using a huge amount of data.
Even in the remote areas, where the hotel was not able to offer Wi-Fi, I was usually able to get a basic connection through my mobile phone.
What you Need:
An Unlocked phone of the correct specification. If you have a phone on contract you will need to contact your phone provider and get it unlocked. You will probably have to pay but it will be useful to have it unlocked for all your travels. I prefer to buy a phone outright, with no contract as it is unlocked from the start.
A modern Android smart phone will normally be fine but if you are in doubt you may need to do a bit more research here.
An India SIM card. Your tour provider can advise and help you get one shortly after your arrival in the country. You will need the following documentation
2 colour passport photographs of yourself
A photocopy of the personal details page of your passport. You will also have to produce your passport for verification.
A photocopy of your Indian visa. Once again, you will have to show the original.
A photocopy of the proof of your home address in your country of residence. This could be your passport, driver’s license. Remember to carry the original document along for verification.
Proof of where you will be staying in India. A letter from your hotel confirming that you are a guest for example.
At the time of writing it is possible to get a package, from Vodafone India, with 2GB of data and a good talk time allowance, valid for 28 days, for Rs1100. This includes India wide roaming. On a recent trip of four weeks, and heavy usage, I used just over 2GB of data. So this is excellent value and, as I say, it is very often faster than the paid hotel connection and only costs the equivalent of a couple of days paid hotel connection. Vodafone India
Wi-Fi Tethering from Your Phone:
It surprises me how many people don’t know about the ability of their Smartphone to create a Wi-Fi connection for other devices as this is an incredibly useful feature. You are able to create a wireless link to the internet as if you are connecting to a normal router.
Your phone will allow you to set up a password and even decide if the network is visible so you can ensure that no one else uses your data.
Setting up tethering will differ slightly by phone type but here is how you would do it for my android phone.
Settings – Tethering & mobile hotspot –Set up Wi-Fi hotspot.
From here you can use the network name suggested, or change it to one you prefer. You will also be asked to set up a password.
Then: Settings – Tethering & mobile hotspot – mobile Wi-Fi hotspot (turn it on)
Now simply go to your laptop or other Wi-Fi connected device and look for the network and log-on as you would for any other wireless connection.
I find even when travelling in my own country it is usually better to use Wi-Fi tethering than pay for it. You do need to check if your mobile phone provider charges for tethering though!