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Elephant Festival in India

India Travel Guide

We've compiled this comprehensive guide to visiting India based on our many years of experience. We hope you find it useful!

Intro

India, the world's most populous country and the birthplace of some of the best moments in cinematic history. Whether you're a seasoned traveler or a first-time visitor, there's no denying that India is a world apart. India has only recently had the chance to form its national identity after gaining independence in 1947. Once known as the "Jewel in the Crown" of the British Empire (a title that cost the subcontinent a great deal), India has rapidly developed and emerged as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. This rapid growth has resulted in a blending of old culture and traditions with modern technologies and comforts. First-time visitors may find it daunting to navigate all of this but not to worry! That's what we're here for. We'll continue to update this guide and if you have any further questions that are not answered here, please let us know!

Before You Land

Visa & Travel Documents

So you've decided to make the trip to India, (exciting!!) let's start with how to get there. If you are not an Indian citizen, will need a valid passport and a valid visa or OCI card to enter the country. Your passport must be valid for at least 6 months beyond the date of your visa application. You can apply for an e-visa online, just make sure you have a scanned copy of your passport and a recent picture of yourself, as well as any info on previous Indian visas you've held. There is a processing fee for each visa application and each application takes about 72 hours to process. If you have any questions during this process please feel free to reach out to us (note: there are online services that offer to help you with the visa process, these are mostly scams and we'd advise against going through any 3rd party since the website we linked to above is the only way to actually apply for an e-visa).

Booking Your Flights

Now for how to get there. Most routes from the US to India include layovers either in Europe or the Middle East. We would recommend booking a flight that has at least a 2 hour layover in between stops, since some airports require you to switch terminals/go through security again, etc.

Additionally, to make your trip as smooth as possible, we would really recommend trying to fly directly into whichever city you're headed to first (i.e. if you're visiting Ahmedabad first, a route through the Middle East directly to AMD airport will be a much better experience than catching a connecting flight from Mumbai or Delhi). This is mainly because you will need to go through immigration and customs at whichever airport you enter India from, regardless of your final destination. After 15+ hours of flying, having to endure immigrations and customs only to turn around and recheck your bags for a domestic flight will really test your patience (speaking from experience here). Of course people do this all the time without issues; our main goal is for everyone to arrive with their sanity still intact so we're just making some suggestions. Ultimately you should do whatever works best for you!

Immigration & Customs

Before you land in India, you will need to fill out an arrival card for immigration (these are usually handed out on the plane, although they should also have copies in the airport as well). You will need to provide an address in India on this form (we usually provide a family member's address) as the form will not be considered complete without this information. Please reach out to us if you are unsure of which address to provide on the form. Additionally please make sure you save the boarding pass from your flight to India -- as you may need to provide this at the immigration counter.

Customs should be fairly straightforward for most of you, please refer to this website for more information. 

Indian Currency

The local currency in India is the rupee. The conversion rate hovers around 83 INR = 1 USD. If you are planning on catching a cab from the airport, it is a good idea to arrive with some rupees in hand -- some banks in the US will convert USD to INR at fair rates or you can try your luck at the currency exchange counters in the airport. Many stores in India will accept credit cards, although it is still a good idea to carry rupees. There are various phone-based money transfer services available (ex. GPay, PayTM, Phone Pe) but they haven't worked for us thus far. If you're interested in using any of these apps, we'd recommend that you look into it before you leave for India.

After You Land

Transport From Airport

Yay you finally landed! Once you've cleared immigration and customs, it's time to brave the sea of taxis and Ubers waiting outside the airport. You can order rideshares in most cities in India -- we usually use Uber. Unfortunately for all of us, the wifi networks at most Indian airports can only be accessed if you already have an Indian phone number, which means that most international travelers cannot access the internet unless they arrive with an Indian SIM card or have an international cell phone plan that includes data roaming. This is incredibly frustrating but not to worry, we have a few workarounds to this problem:

  1. Get a cab at the pre-paid taxi stand inside the airport. These stands will usually give you a fair price and can take you anywhere that falls within city limits. You may be approached by cab drivers as you exit the airport but there is no guarantee that they'll give you a fair rate. Either way, any time you are using a cab or rickshaw please make sure you agree to the price of the ride before you get in the vehicle. 

  2. You can hire a car service before you arrive in India and ask the driver to come to the arrivals hall of the airport. Please specify that they will not be able to contact you and ask them to bring a sign with your name on it so you will be able to find them. 

  3. If a family member is picking you up, ask them to come to the arrivals hall so that you can see them when you arrive. Otherwise it will be difficult to coordinate a pick up without call or text.

  4. Depending on your cell phone provider, you may already have free international call, text, and data, or you might have a "pay as you go" option available for international roaming. If so, you can use your cell service the day you land to call an Uber. 

Traveling Domestically - Indian Airports

There are a few things that are different about traveling through Indian airports which are worth mentioning:

  1. You need a valid boarding pass and form of ID to enter any Indian airport. This will be checked by a security officer before you are allowed to enter the terminal. Before arriving at the airport, please make sure you have checked-in for your flight and received some sort of boarding document with your name on it -- no need to have a hard copy. Show this along with your passport when you reach the airport.

  2. If you are planning to fly domestically within India, please keep in mind that the weight limits for handbags and check-in bags are different for domestic flights than for international flights. Unlike the US, most Indian airlines will weigh all your luggage, including handbags. Unfortunately most airlines will charge you quite a lot for overweight luggage. If you know you will be traveling domestically with all your bags then it might be better to buy extra weight when you are booking your initial ticket.

  3. At airport security, you will need to remove all electronics including charging cables, battery packs, headphones, etc. It's good to keep this in mind if, like us, you hate having to empty half your handbag at security. 

Traveling Domestically - Hotels

This is the good part -- in our humble opinions, India has some of the best hospitality in the world. Depending on your travel goals, you will find no shortage of fabulous hotels. But before we get to that, please be aware that any hotel you stay at will require you to provide a passport and visa (or OCI card) at check-in. You will not be allowed to check in without these documents so please make sure you have them with you. See the "Our Recommendations" section for hotel recs.

Food Safety

If you only read one section of this travel guide, please make it this one. Seriously, it's all fun and games until you get hit with a case of Delhi Belly. Take it from us. 

For the uninitiated, Delhi Belly refers to food poisoning contracted in India especially by tourists. It is contracted by ingesting contaminated water or food. The best way to avoid falling sick is to follow the rules we've outlined below. Some of it may seem excessively cautious, but please just trust us on this one:

  1. Never, and we mean NEVER, drink the tap water. Tap water is the biggest culprit for gastrointestinal problems in travelers to India. If you have young children, or have a particularly delicate stomach yourself, it might be worth considering using filtered water to brush your teeth as well. Additionally, it is a good idea to make sure that the dishes/utensils that you eat from are completely dry before using.

  2. Along these same lines, beware of any food that may have been made using tap water (uncooked, of course). We're talking about chutneys (or any sauces that are not cooked) and of course Pani Puri (if you are really dying to have pani puri, you can find restaurants that make the dish with mineral water in most big cities).

  3. Avoid street food. This one hurts, but most Indian street food is made using chutneys which may have been made from tap water. Besides that, the general hygiene of street food carts is questionable at best. If you must eat on the street, foods that have been thoroughly cooked or deep fried and are not garnished with anything would probably be the safest.

  4. Speaking of water, it is generally a good idea to stick to drinking bottled water only (referred to as mineral water on the subcontinent). The exception to this is RO (reverse osmosis) water. Most households, restaurants, and hotels use this filtration system and it is safe for foreigners to drink. 

  5. Beware of raw fruits and veggies: the general rule of thumb is to not eat any fruit or vegetables that can’t be peeled. A peel ensures a protective layer which helps avoid contamination. If there’s no peel, make sure to wash the fruits or veggies thoroughly with bottled or boiled water. This means that you’ll also want to avoid salads, or any food with excessive raw garnishes.

  6. Avoid ice. If your water is contaminated, there’s a good chance your ice is, too. If you can't verify that the ice was made from filtered water, then it's best to avoid it altogether.

  7. Speaking of juice and drinks in general, you should always verify that any beverage that you are served is fresh with no extra water or ice added. Bottled drinks and juices are totally fine.

  8. This is not necessarily related to food safety but food in India tends to be on the spicier side, which may upset some travelers' stomachs. If you don't have food poisoning but do have an upset stomach, try eating just plain foods (like plain daal, rice, khichadi, etc.) and see if that makes a difference.

  9. Do enjoy the many (cooked) wonderful dishes that India has to offer. None of this is meant to scare you, the food really is one of the best parts about visiting India! We just want your experience to be maximum enjoyment with minimum regret.

Because it's better to be safe than sorry, we'd recommend traveling with some powdered electrolyte mix (like Liquid IV) and maybe even talking to your doctor about getting antibiotics for traveller's diarrhea beforehand. If you fall sick at one of our wedding events, we will have all the necessary medications with us as well as doctors available if you should need them. However if you plan to travel elsewhere, it's a good idea to be prepared. 

If you do fall sick, don't panic. We've all been there and made it through in one piece. In the event that you do get food poisoning, the most important thing is to avoid getting too dehydrated. Rest as much as possible and slowly sip any sort of oral rehydration solution -- oral rehydration salts can be found at any Indian pharmacy. If you have an upset stomach, it's best to follow the BRAT diet: Bananas, Rice, Apples, and Toast. Please reach out to us if you get sick at any point and we can provide further guidance.

Travel Tips for First Time Visitors

Safety

Apart from food safety, it's always important to keep some general safety tips in mind when traveling abroad:

  1. Always keep an eye on your belongings. Although India is not notorious for pickpocketing, it's always good to be vigilant in crowded spaces. Make sure all your essentials (i.e. passport, cash, etc.) are either with you or stored away safely.

  2. Tourists can sometimes be targeted by scammers, offering some sort of fake tours or products. It's usually best to be cautious of anyone approaching you with unsolicited offers. 

Traffic

One of the things that may surprise you the most if you're traveling from the West is the way traffic moves in India. Not only do they drive on the opposite side of the road, the laws of traffic often seem to defy the very laws of physics. While there have been huge improvements in highways and general infrastructure, it can still be quite stressful to sit in the front seat as local drivers zip through traffic and seemingly avoid collisions every other minute. But we've learned that there's a method to the madness, people adapt to each other on the road and so pedestrians, scooterists, and motorists can all coexist. No need to stress, just relax and enjoy the bizarre and beautiful ecosystem that is India's roads and highways.

Rickshaws

Speaking of India's roads, if you need to get around town, we'd recommend trying a rickshaw at some point. If you are too nervous to hail one you can now order rickshaws through the Uber app. If you are sensitive to pollution then this maybe isn't the best mode of transport, but it's fun once in a while.

Pollution

And speaking of pollution, it is no lie that big cities in India suffer from poor air quality. If you are more sensitive to pollution or if you have any condition that could be aggravated by poor air quality then please come prepared with medications and/or masks.

India's Disadvantaged

Despite the economic growth India has seen, there are still many who live in poverty. While we won't get into all the reasons behind this, we think travelers should be aware that you may be approached by families or children asking for money while visiting India. Of course not everyone that approaches you will be asking for money -- some might just want a picture (particularly if you look like a foreigner) -- but just be aware that this can happen depending on where you are.

Pushy Tour Guides/Salesmen/Etc.

Along these same lines, you may notice that some people in the tourism industry will hound you for more money or push you to buy things you may or may not want, especially once they find out that you are a foreigner. We understand that this is frustrating, particularly when you are on vacation. However, most of these people are just trying to make a living, and ultimately you are never obligated to give in -- a "no, thanks" will always suffice.

Our Travel Recommendations

Apurva's Recs:

1. Gangtok, Sikkim

Sandwiched in between Nepal & Bhutan, this province might as well be the ultimate Himalayan escape. The hills the air is reminiscent of Devbhumi in Uttarakhand. Be sure to have VEG MOMOs on the way up. Make friends with peeps from Siliguri, and go up by rail to see how India evolves. 

2. Bengaluru ಬೆಂಗಳೂರು (a.k.a Bangalore) , Karnataka 

A city renowned for its excellence in science, and endowed by a grant won by C.V. Raman, Chandrasekhar’s uncle, the city has become a poppin’ city to live your best cosmo-politan life in. Check out the white tigers the Brits poached in the nearby Bhanerghetta sanctuary, and try to get a tour of the or the Raman Research Institute. TOIT a 3-story brewery named after a French terrace, is a fun hang in Indiranagar. Kormangala, where the Indian Insitute of Astrophysics is located, has a chaotic madness to it, in the middle of which has organic & vegan grocery stories reminiscent of woke Europe. Don’t miss a proper 1920s South Indian thali (MT Road), and wake up in the morning to “Idli Dhabas” where you can get fresh Vada, Idli Sambhar paired with a 10-20 rupees Kaapi coffee & masala chai.

3. Varanasi (a.k.a Banaras) , Uttar Pradesh  

Varanasi, or Banaras, is the most ancient living city in Asia and also the only city in India where they still speak Sanskrit. Not as pretentious as 1900s Pune, the people in the gullys (alleyways) will greet you with a smile & a Namaste (try that in Bombay !) If you ask a Banarasi where you get the best Paan they will say “Paan Banaraswala” (popularized by the movies Don (1978)). 

In a Banaras Dhaba in 2017, I ended up doing some reflection after a dear friend had passed. The city has survived in its ancient heritage because of a Jyotirlinga (1/12) that is placed there “Kaashi Vishvanath” which may represent the final year of Jupiter’s orbit. In Vedanta and mindfulness, there is no end, as the present is all.

Climb to the top of a hill, near the ghats, and you will see the burning of human corpses, a Halloween like no other.

For food ! Here is where you might steer clear or go for the goalpost.

In a Banaras Dhaba I asked “Where do Jalebis” come from? I asked a local.  They somehow agreed that Ja-le-bi, B–anaras. Check out the Assi Ghats, and take a ride down the Ganga. I got an ear-infection after jumping into the Ganga, but if you’re smarter than me, and a really good swimmer – canon ball in for a once in a lifetime ash cleansing of dead human bodies. 

Jaisal's Recs:

1. The Gems of Rajasthan

Rajasthan gets a lot of hype these days, and honestly a lot of it is well-deserved. History lovers can revel in the ruins of the Indus Valley civilisation and explore the magnificent forts and palaces of the Rajputana; adventurers can venture into the dunes of the Thar Desert (either by jeep or by camel); music-lovers can enjoy the beautiful melodies of traditional Rajasthani folk songs. 

I've been to Rajasthan a few times, and although the sites like the Pink Palace in Jaipur do get very crowded with tourists, I still think it's worth the trip (although I'd recommend getting to the most popular sites first thing in the morning to beat the heat and the crowds). I would start in Jaisalmer -- the Golden City -- which has the oldest "living fort" in the world, and then make my way to Jodhpur to see the stunning Mehrangarh fort, and then finally end in Jaipur. If you have extra time, a stop to Udaipur or a desert camping experience are also well worth your time.

2. South Indian Coast or Goa

This one is vague, I know. But when I was young, my family took a roadtrip across various hotspots in South India and by far my favorite part was the beautiful beach towns we stopped in along the way. From Kovalam Beach in Kerala to Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu, there's plenty of coastline to enjoy.

If you're looking for a relaxing vacation, allow me to point you in the direction of the lovely beach resorts of South India. There's nothing quite like having fresh pineapple juice brought to you on the beach. Actually all tropical fruits taste absolutely fantastic in this part of the world (just please wash them properly first). And the food of South India really is phenomenal, you just have to experience it for yourself. 

I threw Goa in for anyone looking for a more eventful beach vacation. The scenery and landscape here is gorgeous and there is no shortage of fabulous resorts. If you're interested in bustling nightlife then opt for North Goa, otherwise South Goa is your way to go for a relaxing vacation. 

3. Coonoor, Tamil Nadu.

This one is for the recluse. Coonoor is a hill station known for its tea estates and not much else. It is a beautiful region, and if you've never visited high-altitude tea estates, then you'll find the landscape absolutely unique. There's not much more to say, other than it is a beautiful and peaceful place. Bonus for the SRK fans, the train ride from Ooty to Conoor was the backdrop of the famous song "Chaiyya Chaiyya" from Dil Se.

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