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India Travel Tips

The following is an assortment of useful tips regarding travel and survival in India. Some of this information was provided by an old friend Jim Butler and his wife Jessica, who preceeded me to India several years earlier. The question and answer format you used throughout this page is from an email interchange between Jim and myself.


Guide Books

The Black Market



Health Issues


'Ganja' and 'Charas'



Inter-City Travel



Money/Travellers Checks

Stopping On The Way



Taxis and Rickshaws



We tipped beggars 2-5 rupees. Everyone makes his/her own decisions about beggars. We gave to the elderly and infirm, and occasionally to families. But watch out for a scam--we saw old men rading crutches among themselves...there was a different man sitting outside the restaurant with crutches in front of him every time we walked by. Beware of women who trade babies for the same reason. Bottom line suggestion: I would rarely give beggars 100 rupees....big sums of money are best given to reliable charities. I'd stick with 2-5 rupees, unless you really believe this is a special case. If you start giving 10 rupee notes, you will be mobbed by beggars. With 2-5 rupees, you won't. (I know that we are talking the difference between 15 cents (5 rupees) and 30 cents (10 rupees). Its just that for Indians, the 10 rupees will go much further and is akin to giving a homeles person $5 instead of spare change. Givng more than 10 rupees to beggars marks you as a mark. (REMEMBER, I am writing after a trip in 1996. If you are reading this post in 1998, check the current rate of conversion!!!)

Always give beggars money when you are leaving a place, as you get in the car. Otherwise, you will be mobbed. Everyone makes their own decision about children. We have been advised by some to carry candy to give to children, since children beggars may be giving the money to their parents. On the other hand, we saw plenty of homeless children. I don't mind giving children 2-5 rupees, but doing it only when we believed they were truly in need (not sent by their parents to beg). Begging is the hardest, most heart-wrenching thing about India. Beggars routinely make hand-signs for being hungry. We ended up setting a daily limit of money we would give away (50-100 rupees) and that was it for the day.

On the other hand, if a child is performing a service, even if it is acrobatics, I'd tip for this.

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Jim: Read Lonely Planet. It's the Bible and will answer a lot of your questions.

Jim: Buy (and bring with you) either Lonely Planet Guide or the India Handbook (by Footprint Handbooks, published in US by Passport Books). In prep for our trip, we read several guidebooks and these two were the most useful to us (and most accurate, in our personal opinion). You can find the Lonely Planet in most bookstores. The India Handbook is harder to find--we found it in a travel store. The India Handbook is updated each fall (so the 1998 book will be sold in the fall of 1997). Some stores will try to sell you the 1997 book, so check carefully to be sure you are getting the 1998 one. The Lonely Planet, considered the "bible" for India travel by many, is also updated regularly. Both have detailed hotel and restaurant descriptions. Maps in India Handbook of particular cities were better, but Lonely Planet had more detailed hotel descriptions. Husband brought LP; I brought India Handbook. We also found the Lonely Planet map of India (a thin paperback book) and Hindi phrasebook to be useful.

BTW, I forgot to mention the usefulness of a phrasebook -- Lonely Planet Phrasebook ("Language Survival Kit", fits easily in shirt pocket) in Hindi/Urdu is good for North. "Yes", "no", "thanks", "please", "excuse me" and "how much?" are all good to know, and don't forget "Challo" (in North) for "go away" (good for obnoxious panhandlers). LP also has phrasebooks for Bengali and Sri Lanka (presumably some in Tamil for the latter). You won't need much, as everyone wants to practice English on you anyway. BTW, Hindi is much easier to pick up than Tamil et. al. as the phonemes are totally different -- in Tiruvannamalai, an ashram guard and I amused each other for about five minutes trying fruitlesly just to learn each other's names ("Okay, almost... Jim Butler." "Ghad-yeim Abhoat-lyar?" "That's better...")

Also see "Travels through Sacred India" by Roger Housden; at Border's. Lotsa good details there for various folks.

Phil: I carried both Lonely Planet and The Rough Guide. I found that these books complemented each other very well. LP had travel destinations, restaurants and hotels that the Rough Guide did not have and vice versa. Between both, I felt that I had a much larger perspective than carrying only one. Generally speaking The Rough Guide lists restaturants and hotels of a lower quality but cheaper price than LP, which is why the name...

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The Black Market

I wouldn't use the black market for two reasons. One friend used the black market and thought he was watching the exchange very carefully. But, he ended up with a large wad of paper cut to the exact size of 100 rupee notes, wrapped in a few 100 rupee notes. Indian thieves and con-men are very well-practiced, just like the men running con games on the streets in New York. The other reason is more practical. We have heard of some corrupt police officers masquerading as black marketeers. After you make the transaction, they threaten to arrest you (and put you in an Indian jail) unless you pay A VERY VERY LARGE fine right now to the officer. These fines can run into the thousands of dollars.


Phil: BTW, did you avoid busses?

Jim: Not totally, but don't recommend them unless you want to test your karmas. Avoidable, if you take a train or spend the bucks and hire a car.


Phil: Shorts, are they a big no-no for a travelling westerner? Better to wear long pants?

Jim: OK in south. Probably not in North, especially Muslim areas or rural areas. Wear light cotton trousers instead. Buy there, and don't pay too much ... 300 rupees max for stuff like this; Indians pay way less, but what can ya do.

Phil: How cold was the north at night, how hot waa the south during the day? IOW, what did you pack in terms of clothing?

Jim: Bring about a week's worth of sox and undies, one-two pair shorts, two-three long pants, and around five shirts. Include a decent outift in case you hit a nice place (nice Dockers and a nice shirt with collar are fine). You can also buy stuff there -- kurtas, lungis. etc.

Phil: I ended up buying several kurtas, which harkened back to the late 60's, but did help to blend in with the locals.

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Health Issues

As I said, we enjoyed our trip to India, and believe we enjoyed it more because we were careful re health and safety. My view was that when I had only a few weeks in India, I didn't want to spend one day sick, since there was so much to see in India. So, I was very careful about health issues. Remember: if you get sick, you won't have access to the kind of top-notch medicine and health care we have access to in America. This post focusses on health issues .

My husband was in India in Oct-Dec 96; I joined him in Dec 96. We got sick only 3 times. My husband got sick once, after eating in a restaurant where there was no one else. I got sick twice--after eating fancy** meals at the Taj hotel. These are the things we think helped us avoid getting sick. (Phil: same thing happened to me in Delhi!).

  1. We were careful to wash our hands before eating and after using the bathroom with Wash and Dry's. They contain benzalkonium chloride, which is also the active ingredient in Bactine (it might be easier and cheaper to just bring a small bottle of Bactine). We met an epidemiologist who was traveling in India. She was amazed that many Indians (including those working in hospitals) "just didn't fully get" fecal-oral contamination, but they didn't. A small bottle of bactine slips easily into a backpack, and Wash and Drys are tiny enough that they are easy to stuff in to all sorts of nooks and crannies.
  2. Don't eat in a restaurant where there is no one else. This is a sign that food may not be fresh.
  3. Avoid lukewarm food. Eat food only if it is served hot. Avoid tourist buffets, where the food is likely to have been sitting out. (Phil: I ended up eating chicken and seafood, with no problem, but prehaps I was lucky...)
  4. We avoided meat except in better restaurants. Reasoning: we're more likely to get sick from bad meat, than from veggies/rice/bread.
  5. Don't order the Western Food except in major restaurants--no one else orders it and so it is likely not to be fresh. Of course, in restaurant in major hotels, we found that it was okay. Also, Nirula's for pizza in Delhi was great.

    Phil: After a while I got so sick of Indian food, I began to seek out Chinese restaurants, which are plentiful in India, and having a curry-like orientation. As my trip progressed, I became less picky over my choice of restaurant, and was forced in some situations to take whatever food I could find. Best places: Neelams in Rishikesh (westerner's hangout,even has spaghetti!) and Ramanashram in Tiruvanamali (incredible!).

  6. Wipe out glasses and plates. Waiters may rinse them off to "help" you, but those little droplets of water can make you sick. If glasses don't look clean, drink soda straight from the bottle.
  7. We both also ate a lot of yoghurt (curd) in the first few days to let our systems adapt to the local flora, and have met other people who have done the same. I think this really helped a lot.
  8. As a backup, I brought a plastic jar of peanut butter from the US. In small towns, it was easy to just get bread and dip it in the peanut butter. It may be tougher to bring peanut butter if you are bringing only a backpack. Otherwise, its fairly simple.
  9. Restaurant rules: Don't drink from the glass if it looks slightly even dirty. Insist on carbonated water being brought to you in the bottle. If there are drops of local water on your dishes, dry them off before putting food on them. Do NOT eat from tourist buffets, especially cold food. We saw several tourist buffets with cans of sterno under the pots to keep them warm. But the sterno had gone out and so the food was getting cold (and incubating bacteria).

Phil: In terms of eating, what to definitely avoid, what to look for?

Jim: Avoid street food. Eat at places where it looks fresh and not dirty. Nirula's in Delhi is nice, for example... lotta tourists (even have something like pizza there

Phil: What health preparations did you take? Shots, vaccines, etc.?

Jim: See LP and ask your doc. Pepto Bismol is good (tablets); stops low level nausea dead in its tracks. I took 2-3 per day at times. But bad for peristalsis, so bring Swiss Kriss tabs (the one thing I did not think I needed was a laxative, and paid dearly). Get some Triphala while over there -- tastes awful, but it's effective and gentle. Also take some decongestant/antihistamine -- pollution's bad in big cities and your nose will need it. Also take some Cipro (in case of dysentary) and maybe an antibiotic in case of sinus infection. Malaria med is mandatory. Bug repellant too, obviously.

Phil: If you got sick, what did you do? Suggestions?

Jim: Follow LP's advice adn get an IAMAT card and a medical traveller's policy, and if you are sick you can either go to a big city to a decent place (see LP) or worst case get Medivac'd to Singapore or Bangkok. Also I used three of my Ben's for charity -- to a Swami I met who was a the friend of a family and I knew was real (prostheses for kids type stuff), and to a homeopath named Dr. Qasim who's a really good guy and who also helps poor kids. Qasim's worth seeing for some homeopathy to ease trip. Say hi if you go (Delhi). Dr, Mohammed Qasim 1 Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin (near Police station -- have driver take you there, it's a long way from Connaught Place) New Delhi 110013 work: 011-91-11-463-6161 home: 684-9199

Do bring a good mosquito repellant. You will not find 3M, Cutters, or Off in India. If you tend to be allergic/develop sinus infections, bring sudafed and also a pill with dextromethorphan (active ingredient in Robitussin DM). Husband developed a sinus infection due to the pollution and dust in Delhi (its so bad that little children color the sky GREY in Delhi) and the area north on the way to Dehra Dun. Dextro would have really helped with the itching/aching cough that lasted for a week. If you have ever gotten jock itch or a yeast infection, bring medicine for those. You can't just walk into the drugstore and pick up Monostat or Lotrimin. I mention this because we know people who have gotten jock itch/yeast infections due to the tropical circumstances in India. They were miserable until they got back to US.

Odomos is a mosquito repellant in India, plus the tablets, that you light up in the room, according to Suresha. Green ban seems to work. Suresha made a repellant our of essential oils: green ban, eucalyptus oil, pine oil, rosemary oil.

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Bottled water should have a hard plastic seal that you have to break when you unscrew the top. We stayed away from bottles with ONLY cellophane seals / Bisleri, Bailey's, and Yes are major brands of bottled water. (Either Bailey's or Yes has both the hard plastic seal and a cellophane wrapper).

We paid 12-15 rupees a bottle (36-45 cents American) when we bought it on the street or at the train station. You can probably bargain it down for less but we didn't want to mess around when it came to water. We also used iodine if we had any doubts (iodine tablets now come with another tablet that removes the bad taste and odor. You may want to visit the CDC's bulletin board--I learned that you had to leave the iodine in for a period of several hours, not just 20 minutes). DON'T DRINK THE WATER IF IT SMELLS BAD. On our last day in Delhi, we were given a bottle of "Voltic," an obvious copy of "Volvic." I should have known something was up when the label said unusual things like "good for infant formula."

Anyway, the bottled, which did have a hard plastic seal, smelled like a Newark sewer. While on the water topic, I had to wait a long time at the Delhi airport for my luggage, which is a bit unusual. The small bottle of water that I brought from the US came in handy.

CHECK THE BOTTLE CAREFULLY BEFORE DRINKING. One friend found bugs in his. Another drank 1/2 of a bottle before looking closely and seeing a tiny whole in the bottom that was stuffed with clear plastic (the same color as the bottle). Of course, it turned out to be unsafe water and he got sick. Its pretty clear that someone bought the defective bottles, filled them with regular water, stuffed the holes, and sold them.

Three things should go without saying:

  1. Hotels will put what appear to be unsealed bottles of Bisleri in your room. If there is no seal, do NOT drink the water. People in India tend to recycle the water bottles and fill them with tap water.

  2. Bring your bottle of water with you before going out on an adventure or even to visit people. In Kerala (which has a high Christian population), it may be hard in small towns (and in Fort Cochin) to find people selling water on SUNDAYS. If you are going to visit people in their home, bring along your bottled water. A friend got sick when she went to someone' s home and accepted a cup of water.

  3. Insist that waiters bring unopened bottles of water to the table. If the seal is broken, you may be getting a recycled bottle filled with chilled tap water.

Take L. Acidophilus or Lactic Acid Yeast a few weeks before leaving for a trip. It acidifies the intestinal tract, making it harder for bacteria to grow.

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A word on this. Everyone told us soda in India tasted bad. I thought Thumbs-Up was great. It appears to be Coke with a touch of lime or an herb added to it. If you are used to drinking diet soda, the Indian sodas may seem overly sweet. This is just because they have sugar in them.

'Ganja' and 'Charas'

Phil: Ganja and charas are names for what we know as marijauna, and it is plentiful in India; it doesn't take much effort to get it. Particularly in the Gharwal Himalayan area of India, there is very little law enforcement and large areas of land upon which to grow the sacred weed. A cab driver, to show me the prevalance of ganja, aksed me for a couple of bucks and came back with a finger of hashish that would probably worth over a hundred bucks these days.

The chances are getting caught are slim, but there have been busts in the Goa area, a famous hippie hangout from the 60s, and the descriptions of the Indian jails were enough to influence me to throw out my cab driver's gift. Another time in my life, I would have cried over the plentitude of available cheap dope!

I did partake of it once, while in a cab. My guide would stuff a cigarette with charas and we'd smoke it out in the open. That old familiar feeling, it was nice, but the thrill is really gone at this time in my life. Nonetheless it was a fun trip down memory lane.

I also saw many sadhus partaking of the sacred weed in their chillums, and these guys use it a serious accessory to their spiritual sadhana.

Jim: Forgot to mention this, and I don't know whether you were considering chilling with a chillum of Indian sacred herb, but read the Lonely Planet caution. Some places, like Puri (Andrew Cohen's haunt) and Varanasi, the sacrament is legal -- these are holy cities, so alcohol and (I think) meat are banned, but OTOH you have government bhang shops! Still regulated as to where you can partake, I think -- not in public, not in some hotels. In Pondy and Delhi, I was offered, but refused, not knowing the seller. Woulda been fun -- I mean Lord Shiva does -- but didn't make it to Varanasi, and had no other aching need for Puri. Also hazardous alone, obviously.


Phil: Guides are useful for the early part of the trip, to give you inside information, and to open doors not ordinarily open to tourists. I know of a fellow who entered the Golden ShivaTemple in Varanasi, strictly forbidden to non-Hindus, via the cunning of his guide. I used a guide for the first few weeks of my trip, then relied upon my own capacity to get around, once I knew how things 'worked' in India.

You will be bombarded just about every day you're a tourist in a city by people wanting to be your personal guide, which can be annoying. If they're really creative, or have a really juicy offer of special access, it may be worth it to take a chance, but otherwise, learn quickly how to so 'no!' strongly and definitively. Many a so-called guide are touts working for a souvenir shop. I had one guy follow me up to the cave of Ramana Ashram, thinking that we made some kind of non-verbal commitment for his guidance. In any case, no money flowed out of pockets to that opportunist.

If you've just arrived into town, getting a guide may be worth you're while. Pre-negotitation of a price is of utmost importance, and learn that whatever price is their starting point, it is a rip-off in the scale of the Indian economy.

Jim:We gave guides on tours 100 rupee tips--these were tours with 5 people in our group. On a big tour bus, I'd tip 10 rupees. Again, be careful about people coming up to you and talking to you about the temple/town etc., and then asking for 500 rupees. We paid 100 rupees in this situation, if we got a good tour. In Cochin, one man walked us around Ft Cochin and showed us a really cool church. We didn't mind giving him 100 rupees. But, you don't tip 100 rupees because someone comes up to you in a temple, tells you the history of the temple for 30 minutes, and then wants 100 rupees. I'd tip 10 or 20, if at all. I hate being the target of rip-off schemes.

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Jim: These are a few notes about hotels and restaurants in India in places my husband and I visitied in Oct-Dec 1996 (rupee was 33 to the US dollar then). To put in context my India hotel recommendations: we went to India on a nylon rope, not a shoestring, and not a steel cable. We stayed in middle-class type hotels.

Rule 1: You should make reservations in advance, especially in Delhi, Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta. Unlike US, you usually don't have to guarantee with credit card, so you can reserve 2 or 3 places in case the 1st one is a dump. When we were travelling to smaller cities, we made reservations a few days in advance. You can make long distance calls from any of the "STD" booths around town. (In fact, to save money, use the booths. Hotels will charge you a surcharge for making long-distance calls, especially international ones.) In Delhi-Madras-Bombay, we had trouble finding good rooms if we hadn't made reservations 1-2 weeks in advance.

Rule 2: In North, you want a "geyser," meaning that the hotel room has an individual hot water heater. You won't find this in the South. It may take a while to get hot water running in your room in the South; you may want to just take cold showers to spare the waste of water.

Rule 3: In the South, you want a ceiling fan. When the power is cut, the hotel's generator generally will not run the air conditioners, but will run the ceiling fans. This is a big deal: we got stuck in one hotel without a ceiling fan and they often shut off the central air. (The exception is that when you are in a "luxury" hotel, the generator will run the a/c. By luxury, I mean the Taj, Oberoi, Sheraton,etc class hotels.)

Rule 4: Make reservations in advance for your first night in India. Do not arrive without a reservation, as you will get ripped off by the taxi wallahs. It happened to very good friends of ours.

Rule 5: Buy (and bring with you) either Lonely Planet Guide or the India Handbook (by Footprint Handbooks, published in US by Passport Books). In prep for our trip, we read several guidebooks and these two were the most useful to us (and most accurate, in our personal opinion). You can find the Lonely Planet in most bookstores. The India Handbook is harder to find--we found it in a travel store. The India Handbook is updated each fall (so the 1998 book will be sold in the fall of 1997). Some stores will try to sell you the 1997 book, so check carefully to be sure you are getting the 1998 one. The Lonely Planet, considered the "bible" for India travel by many, is also updated regularly. Both have detailed hotel and restaurant descriptions. Maps in India Handbook of particular cities were better, but Lonely Planet had more detailed hotel descriptions. Husband brought LP; I brought India Handbook. We also found the Lonely Planet map of India (a thin paperback book) and Hindi phrasebook to be useful.

Phil: Several addendums to Jim and Jessica's points.

Mid-range hotels (what would normally be 2-3 star places) are a crap-shoot in India. The range usually goes from 5, to 4, to 1star or less. You really have to lower your expectations about what is 'middle of the road' in India. But you can get wonderful places very cheaply in India. Bathrooom cleanliness in all but 5 star hotels is always substandard, just get used to it!

I must reiterate the point that it is extremely important to have a hotel arranged for you for your first few days in India - the culture shock is enough without the possibility of a frazzling hassle of trying to find a hotel and not get ripped off by the touts waiting to converge on a vulnerable tourist. Book a 4 or 5 star hotel when you come into India (and when you leave) to make the cultural crossover a bit easier. I'm glad I did it that way.

I found that The Rough Guide was an excellent companion to Lonely Planet - they covered different ranges of recommended hotels, so it increased your choices. The Rough Guide had more listings of 'rougher' and cheaper hotels than LP, if that's useful to you.

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Inter-City Travel

Phil: Did you take trains or fly between cities?

Jim: Flew mostly, and hired a car -- check LP for rates; you gotta negotiate, but it's better than trains in places (e.g. getting to Tiruvannamali). OTOH, take a train a couple times at least, and in the country, don't get air-con -- feel and smell the air and sights. Kozhikode to Cochin was great.

Phil: Trains: did you go first class (AC, 1 - 2 bunks per compartment, etc),or did you rough it a bit?

Jim: Why do anything less than first class -- it will get very old. I don't like to sleep on trains.

Phil: Any travel that was more than eight hours by car or train led me to choose to fly between cities. Indian Airlines, despite a bad reputation, seemed to work out quite well.

I booked several multi-day taxi rides, one through the Himalayas, and one through southeast Tamil Nadu (Madras-Mahabalipurum-Pondicherry-Tiruvanamalai). It worked out quite well, though more expensive than the train, but gave me control to take pictures, stop along the roadside, meet the locals, etc.

The Shatabdi Express from Delhi to Haridwhar/Rishikesh was a very pleasant experience, with a decent breakfast and tea served. I hghly recommend it. The trains reminded me of the Long Island Railroad, cirica 1960, with faded yellow windows. Did second class once...just once!


Jim: They like it if you try. Learn to say a few words in the local language (like "please" "thank you", "yes" , "no" , "this tastes very good") and it will help a lot.

BTW, I forgot to mention the usefulness of a phrasebook -- The Lonely Planet Hindi/Urdu Phrasebook fits easily in shirt pocket) in Hindi/Urdu is good for North. "Yes", "no", "thanks", "please", "excuse me" and "how much?" are all good to know, and don't forget "Challo" (in North) for "go away" (good for obnoxious panhandlers). LP also has phrasebooks for Bengali and Sri Lanka (presumably some in Tamil for the latter). You won't need much, as everyone wants to practice English on you anyway. BTW, Hindi is way easier to pick up than Tamil et. al. as the phonemes are totally different -- in Tiruvannamalai, an ashram guard and I amused each other for about five minutes trying fruitlesly just to learn each other's names ("Okay, almost... Jim Butler." "Ghad-yeim Abhoat-lyar?" "That's better...")

There are parts where there just ain't much English (even in many parts of Delhi, as I found -- tried to buy a Coke and make a phone call), so a phrasebook is the way to go if possible. Typically, outside Delhi and Bombay, the guy you negotiate with for a driver will speak English and the driver himself will speak about 10 words (in Madras, the guy I had as a driver had a small but effective vocabulary including "bastard" and "urinate").

If you do the Maharastra stuff, I'd really try to get a Marathi one, though Hindi may help a good bit. Check the travel bookstore.

Phil: Once you spend a few weeks in Northern India, speaking small Hindi sentences is a possibility, and you can pick up on common words once you get the sentence structure down (verb is usually at the end of the sentence, such a 'hai', meaning 'is').

But it is all lost as soon as you travel to South India - Tamil and Mayalayam (spoken in Kerala) were almost completely incomprehensible to me, including the Malayalam scripts, which looks like a bunch of w and m script letters piled together. Fortunately, South Indians seem to be well educated and English is a second language of preference (over Hindi!, a cultural war over that...), and unless you're in a remote village, you can find someone who speaks English fairly quickly.

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Phil: How did you pack - suitcase, backpack, what is the best kind of luggage situation for moving around to various places in India?

Jim: Backpack/duffel

Phil: Buy a soft travel trunk with high volume capacity from Eagle Creek, worht the investment. Check out their site at http://www.eaglecreek.com.

Money/Travellers Checks

Jim:In our trip (Oct-Dec 96), we found ATMs in the major cities: Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Bangalore. We did not see ATMs in smaller cities, like Mysore and Cochin/Ernakulum. We only used the ATMs in Delhi and Madras for Visa cash advances. We did not try to get cash out of bank accounts. So, I don't know how well this works. (Phil: I used a Bank of America in Bombay to do this wth no problem, though only a $200.00 per day limit).

Phil: Money, did you use travellers cheques, transfer into rupees or is the good 'ol US greenback a good door opener?

Jim: Take: an ATM card like a Visa; nice to have in case you run out. I brought 1/2 in American Express traveller's checks; 1/4 in Thomas Cook; 1/4 in Ben Franklin's (plus a couple 20's). Don't use black market-- easy to get ripped off. Ben's are good in a pinch (bank takes nothing else), OR to buy large quantities of good like art for gifts (gets you discount; they'll know how to get a good black rate, you will not). Also I used three of my Ben's for charity -


We have seen very good guidebooks advising that you bring two different kinds of Travellers Checks and I would follow this advice. Its based on the theory that in the 3rd world, not all traveller's checks will be accepted everywhere. We found that almost every place we were in in 1996 took American Express traveller's checks. There was a rumor in the early 1990s that, due to widespread counterfeiting, it was hard to cash AmEx checks. But, in 1996, we found the AmEx to be the most accepted checks--everyone took them and everyone knew what they were. By contrast, the Thomas Cooke checks were not always accepted everywhere, although we could use them in big cities. Also, AmEx was more helpful when my husband had his trav chex stolen in Delhi; AmEx replaced them immediately; Thom. Cooke took a few weeks to replace. If you do take AmEx trav chex, hit their website and copy down the addresses/phone of their offices in Indian cities. These come in handy, in case you lose checks, need to get money, need to cash checks, etc.


Plan to spend some time doing this, especially in smaller cities (like Mysore, Cochin, etc.) They will give you 100 rupee notes. It will be a huge stack. First, you have to get 500 rupee notes. Ask the person who changed your money. If that fails, ask other people in the bank. We sometimes had to ask 3-4 people before we got them. Second, you need to get 1, 2, 5 and 10 rupee notes (1,2, and 5s also come in coins). You will need these for tips and buying things on the street. Be prepared to stand in a few different lines, but you will get them. If you are changing money at AmEx office, they may only give you a limitednumber of 10 rupee notes.


When you leave, you can change money back at the airport. They will ask to see your encashment certificates, so save them. If you don't have a certificate, you cannot change money back. There was a Thomas Cooke counter and State Bank of India counter at the Delhi airport. Once we crossed into the secure area (after immigration desk), the restaurants and vending stands took US dollars,as well as rupees.

Phil: I exchanged fairly large sums of money into rupees, about 200 dollars at a time, kept some on me and the rest of the rupees locked in my bag. I always had travellers checks and US cash on my person, in my passport pouch. I tended to cash in large sums so as to avoid lines as much as possible.

Make it a point to exchange money at the airport when you arrive in India, so you're ready to deal when you hit the streets.

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Stopping On The Way

Jim: This is an opportune moment for my traveling strategy rant. Try and do a layover in Europe en route to India if you can, if you fly that route (same would apply in Hawaii, maybe). Breaking up the trip can save your getting sick when you get there -- very stressful to travel like that. It is so worth is not to get to Delhi wiped, and usually you can do one leg of trip laid over for little or nada extra. If you can't do that, you will almost certainly have around 7 hours in Frankfurt, so get a day room at the Sheraton (right in the airport; pre-reserve it) and sleep for a couple hours; I did and it made a giant difference. I'm not a hardass yogi type, and /or lack the bounce of my 20's, so this was a nice thing to do. Costs like $100+ for the room, but it's not like you can sleep in that Ikea-like airport otherwise.

Phil: I spent a week in Switzerland with my wife before I made my way to India. I did it non-stop on the way back, and it was the longest day of my life. I couldn't imagine having to deal with India after arriving from such a long flight.


Jim: We tipped the porters 10-20 rupees per bag. We gave the "room boy" who brought us soda and room service items 5-10 rupees a trip (10-20 rupees in nicer hotels, like Sheraton, Taj, Oberoi). Don't ever tip with a 100 rupee note--get smaller denomination notes at the hotel front desk and from banks.

You will be "marked" for the rest of your stay in that city if you tip hotel staff with 100 rupee notes.

Check the restaurant bill: some add on a surcharge [service fee], so you don't need to tip. We gave a waiter a 20 rupee tip when he found a table for us at an especially-crowded restaurant. (I will say this, having waited tables ourselves in College, we tipped 15 percent on bills. We didn't go by the custom of just leaving loose change on the table. I don't begrudge waiters their tips in the US and I'm not going to start doing so when I go to another country. But, this was a personal decision.)

Tip more money to special tour guides, travel agents who work with you, drivers you have for a few days--especially if they are very good. If you plan to hire drivers for a day or 1/2 day, email us and I'll get my husband to tell you what he paid in various cities he was in. [I only went by car once, from Mysore to Kozhikote (Calicut), so I don't remember what we paid.] I do remember that we had a terrible time getting a car. My husband bargained with the car drivers in Mysore and then when they showed up, they wanted more money. He finally ended up getting a rickshaw wallah to take him to a travel agent so he could hire a car.


Jessica: Tip the restroom attendant at aiport 1-2 rupees. In women's restroom, there was a scam. They would take the toilet paper out of bathrooms and give it to you when you entered, hoping you'd give them a 10-20 rupee tip. I would NOT do this. (Note: The above was based on 1996 rates of 30 rupees pre USD).

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Jessica: In response to some of the questions I've received, here are some safety tips for India: You will enjoy India, but you should keep your eyes open. We really enjoyed our trip, but we were careful. We found that people who did not enjoy India didn't observe basic health/safety principles and/or were unprepared for the realities of a third-world country. India is a beautiful place, and you will enjoy it even more if you are prepared. By way of background, my husband was in India in Oct-Dec 1996 and I joined him for Dec 1996. The first thing I learned was act like you are in New York City, regardless of where you are in India: small town, big town, its all New York . This will save you a lot of headaches. For example, we met several people who had put their bags down in train stations "for just a moment," only to have them stolen. Would they do put their bags down on the New York City subway?

Things in India get stolen. We are coming from the relatively rich America/Europe/1st world. This makes us a target for theft. You won't recognize the thieves. When looking at the Wanted Posters for train thieves, my husband was struck by how normal the thieves looked. We saved some heartache by bringing small combination locks for our backpacks/duffel bags and a lightweight cable lock we ordered from Campmor that enabled us to lock our bags to a post or to the other bags. On the trains, there are shelves overhead that you can lock your bags to. My husband adds that if you are travelling a lot by train and have a duffel/back pack, bring medium size padlock. The padlock is better for locking your bags to the shelf.

My husband had his traveller's checks stolen. At the Amex office, he met others who had had their bags stolen. He believes he had his checks in his small backpack, and that the outside pocket was unzipped in a crowded market, by a light-fingered pick pocket. After this, he started using the small combo locks on his backpack. At Amex, many of the other people he met either had their checks in their bags/backpack and their bags were stolen, or had the checks in their backpacks and the checks only were removed. Most had put their bags down "only for a second." A) Don't put your traveller's checks in your bags. B) Don't put your bags down unless you are going to sit on them or lock them up. If you are going to do something like wear a fanny pack, safety pin it to your clothes with big safety pins. (For an around-the-neck pouch, you can also safety pin it to your clothes.

Watch out for anyone being too friendly. India today is not India of 10 years ago. Many people will befriend you to sell you something. A young man in Madras began talking to us in a temple and then pointing out things about the temple. Then, he wanted 500 rupees. We gave him 100. He got upset, "please, I need it to feed the guru."

Don't give in to this. And don't tell people this is your first time in India. If you are in Delhi, tell people you have been to Bombay before, but not to the North of India. If you are in the South, tell people you've been to the North before. Once you are in the country for 2 weeks and have your "land legs," tell people you've been in India for 2 months. In terms of being wary for anyone who is too friendly, include in this category Westerners who look down on their luck. Westerners who have been in India for months, and have no money, learn to steal and con,unfortunately.

Back on Travellers Checks. Keep them with you at all times. Do not leave them "hidden" in your hotel room; they will be found. My husband's checks were stolen in Delhi. He was carrying American Express and Thomas Cooke. AMEX replaced the checks on the same day. Thomas Cooke claimed that it would take a longer time to get the checks, and originally wanted a police report. (Good luck getting a police report in Delhi.). He ended up making long-distance calls to London to get replacement checks because of difficulties with the Thomas Cooke operation in Delhi. Lonely Planet advises to bring 2 different kinds of Trav Chex and I would follow this advice. In our opinion and based on our experience, we would recommend taking more American Express trav chex than other brands. We found that Amex travellers chex were easiest to use and to cash at banks and hotels. They were quite liquid. Friends who went to India in 1992 or 1993 were a bit fearful of AmEx chex because there was rumor that the Amex checks were being rejected due to widespread counterfeiting. But, in 1996, we found the AmEx to be the most accepted checks.

If you think you are going to buy things in India, bring an extra lock for the extra suitcases you will end up buying. Suitcases are cheap; we paid $18 for a large one on wheels in Delhi (where prices are higher). The locks on all of the suitcases were easy to break. Indian padlocks are cheap things, easily broken into. The extra lock came in handy here.

Lock things up in your hotel room--don't leave them out as you would in an American hotel. At one fairly nice hotel we stayed in, we left our stuff scattered around the room when we left. We returned and found that the mosquito repellant was stolen. {You cannot get good mosquito repellant in India; I would bring it with me.} If you are staying in a cheaper hotel, lock your stuff up before you go to sleep. Otherwise, you may be the victim of a crime.

Phil: What scams did you encounter, and how did you deal with it?

Jim: First night at Yatri, room boy tried to bill me Rs 100 extra for "using air conditioning." I said, okay, let me see the manager. Didn't hear about it after that.

Common thing: guy attaches to you and leads you on a tour. Starts out friendly but gets more manic. The demands money and acts real indignant when you only want to give, say Rs. 100 or 200 -- demands 500. NEGOTIATE EVERYTHING BEFOREHAND.

Guy in Delhi had a minor siddhi -- bet me X he could read my mind. He did, but I bet him to much and he didn't want to stop. Walk away .. but be nice, lest he curse you.

Use common sense. Don't tell anyone it's your first time in India! (unless they are a friend). Tell them it's your third time and you just got in, for example, at airport. When negotiating a driver, you can say you are Australian -- they have less $$ than Americans. Indians know that it takes nearly half of a middle-class Indian annual salary (or so -- you get the idea) just to get a round-trip ticket to India, and are not stupid -- the idea, even the ethic, is to charge what they think you can pay.

Phil: How badly were you targetted walking around the street by beggars, touts, ripoff agents?

Jim: Got better the longer I was there. Don't look too wide eyed. Buy some native stuff and wear it -- definitely helps.

Phil: Did you keep you money and passport in an inner money belt? Keep your pockets clean?

Jim: I used an around the neck thing for air tickets and passport and big bills; carried ca. Rs 500 in pockets. Later went to fanny pack, whihc I detested, but it was best way to carry camera. don't wear expensive looking jewelry and don't wear the camera around neck.

Phil: What street-smart things did you learn?

Jim: Put little locks on your luggage. Lock your bags when you leave the hotel room. Carry a small backpack for day stuff (hold water, LP, maybe camera, etc.) Get the LP map of India -- very nice. Get a Trains at a Glance once you get there; at any railway station and many bookstores. Your driver can help you find lots of stuff. Buy him lunch (rs. 50 -- he'll be able to get lunch for that in Delhi, you will not) and tip him Rs 100 or so at the end of the day. He's like gold.

In smaller towns you'll just use the rickshaw-wallahs.

Phil: Did you dress funkily in order to avoid beggars, touts, etc., or is that a hopeless ventures? Any need to bring good clothes?

A little, You'll get hit on. My policy: only give money to the elderly or crippled, or to anyone doing a service, including street entertainers, even kids doing cartwheels. India has no social security, after all. But I didn't tip able bodied types. Typical scam: teenage girl comes up to your auto rickshaw looking forlorn holding a baby. It's bullshit! They're in business! They'll just pass the baby to another girl!

I usually gave 10 rupees. Maybe 15 or 20 better with exchange rates ... it's like Rs 40 to the dollar, so... As far as tipping, Rs 20 is good for carrying bags; Rs 50 in an upscale place (i.e. more than like 1000-1200 rupees per night -- which you might stay at once or twice).

Phil: I only had my shoes stolen (at Sai Baba's ashram!), but this is a normal occurrance. Considering the overwhelming level and degree of poverty in India, it is a remarkably safe country, IMO. Other than the shoes, I did not encounter any problem, and felt very safe even in the dark in the cities- of course I didn't try to do foolish things such as show off my wealth. I dressed down as much as I could, and wore native stuff as much as possible.

If I thought I was being a approached by a tout or rip-off artist, I would tell them I was from Australia, since Australians apparently are regarded as poorer than us yanks. One tout said, "oh yeah, I can hear your accent!".

I heeded Jim's advice and kept my bags locked in my hotel rooms and locked my bag to the train superstructure if I had to use the bathroom in the train.

Another positive feature regarding a large, heavy, soft travel trunk - no one is going to lift it from you - mine was so heavy that most Indian couldn't lift it! I always kept my backpack near to me, and only would separate from it if I knew my taxi driver well (when I would leave the cab to take pictures).

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Jessica: We were in Karnataka in early December: warm during the day. In the evening, I wore a windbreaker. My husband is from Michigan, and so he didn't need a windbreaker.

Weather in Kerala in December: it feels like July in the U.S: 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Its even hotter at other times during the year. People carry umbrellas to ward off the sun. Bring sunblock & insect repellant; you cannot get them in India at reasonable prices, if at all.

Rain wasn't so bad when I was in south, from Nov 11 to 26 and then again from 12/7 to around 12/20. Rains hit in between 11/26 and 12/7. But it was a light and late monsoon. Should be weird again with El Nino...

Phil: India is hotter and more humid than you can possibly imagine. You do not need anything more than a windbreaker or a heavy long shirt, unless you're going into the Himalayas. You just have to learn to adjust to the weather - always have lots of water with you.

I travelled late October through December in 1998, and it rained only a couple of days in the south for short periods. And for most of my journey, there wasn't even a hint of a cooling breeze, even in the Himalayas! Kochin and to a lesser degree, Bombay, were like steambaths, though apparently it was a wamer than usual 'winter'.

But nothing compares to Varanasi - it was like an oven, and I was there in November! It can reach temperatures there of 45C/117F degrees in the summer for days, without a breeze. And there's no place to get away from the heat.

Both Kochin and Varanasi were heat tests for me, and it was reassuring to see that the locals were also affected - in Kochin, many women use umbrellas to ward off the sun.

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