Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Key Information for Foreign Travelers in India

Visiting India can be a wee bit unnerving for the first-time visitor as the lifestyle and culture is totally different from that of the West. We’ve made a list of some important dos and don’ts for hassle-free and enjoyable travel.
General Tips for Travel to India
Bullcart India
  • A proper visa and complete paperwork to enter and stay in India is a must, except for some countries which can get Visa on Arrival.
  • Do not encourage beggars.
  • Don’t trust strangers with money. Trust your hotel, but not people you may bump into on the streets.
  • Don’t offer bribes to get any job done. Bribe-taking and bribe-giving are a common practice in India but they are intended to speed up things or win a favor that you are not entitled to. Plan well in advance. Seek help from travel consultants or trade and industry associations. If you expect favors, let them come free or not at all. Warn anyone (even in government) who asks you for a bribe that you would report him to the Anti-Corruption Bureau or the nearest police station. If he persists, do it discreetly so that he can be caught red-handed.
  • Indian English may sound different to foreigners of English origin. Don’t show amusement at the different Indian accents and choice of words.
  • It is advisable to cover yourself with travel insurance for thefts, loss and medi-claim.
  • Carry proper maps of the places you plan to visit in India, as signboards are often absent. Try to reach a station during daytime if traveling on your own. In any case avoid persistent touts and taxi-drivers at airport/stations/bus stands to help you find your hotel. Always use tourist assistance desk for proper advice.
  • Women traveling alone in certain deserted places should avoid walking at odd hours.
  • While changing money, insist on getting encashment certificate.
  • Do not checkout of the hotel in hurry. In some hotels, there may be errors in your bill, which you would end up paying if you don’t cross-check.
  • Do not leave your cash and valuables in your hotel rooms. Keep your cash divided in different pockets on your person. Otherwise, deposit the extra money in the safe keeping of the hotel, but remember to take a receipt.
  • Take care of proper disposal of your waste materials always whether you are exploring desert, or Himalayas or beaches or anywhere else. Your behavior is your identity.
  • Don’t accept offers of visiting anyone’s home unless you are confident of the person.
  • Use licensed guides for sightseeing.
  • Always use strong suitcases/baggage, as mishandling is common at airports/stations.
  • Don’t tip unreasonably and unnecessarily in a hotel. The news soon spreads in the hotel and by the time you checkout there will be a group of them saluting you to expect something.
  • In monsoon time avoid night stay in the desert while you do camel safari.
  • Check out the weather as per your time of travel and come prepared accordingly.
Car – Private Transportation for Travel
Bike - Foreign Traveler
  • Best way to travel in India.
  • Avoid driving in India unless you have been trained on Indian roads.
  • As a driver you should always have one person alongside to help you and your luggage.
  • It is better to hire a commercial taxi with a professional driver. Never use your personal vehicle, as in case of any accident, your insurance policy may not cover the damages incurred in a foreign country.
  • Be abreast of the traffic rules in any country you visit. For any offense, however unintentional, the traffic police or Regional Transport Officer can penalize you heavily.
Sikh - Big Turban
  • Do not visit places which encourage orthodoxy, social injustice and inhuman practices (like visiting a sati temple)
  • Politics can be freely discussed in India and most people will have an opinion which they will not mind being contradicted. But avoid discussing religion as you might hurt someone’s sentiments.
  • Avoid offers of spiritual salvation and magic remedies from saints, or anyone. There may be some spiritually elevated people in India, but there is no way you can distinguish genuine ones from crooks. If you are seriously interested in these aspects of India, take help from someone you know or visit one of the respected and well known spiritual organizations in India.
  • Don’t ever enter a temple, mosque, tomb, dargah or Gurudwara ( Sikh Temple) with shoes on. Avoid being scantily dressed. Things to remember include that one should cover his/her head with a cloth while in a Gurudwara or Dargah, and the parikrama or walking around the sanctum should always be in clockwise direction.
Food & Water
Indian Food
  • Take care of contamination of water and food poisoning. Always drink safe mineral water and take well-cooked food from a joint that appears neat and hygienic.
  • Drink bottled water only. Even many Indians who have lived out of India for a few years sometimes suffer stomach upsets on drinking local tap water. If there is no alternative to tap water, ensure it is boiled. Some popular brands of mineral water are Bisleri, Aqua Fina, Kinley and Himalaya.
  • Avoid eating buffet meals, even in expensive hotels. The food may become contaminated due to over-exposure.
  • It is advisable not to buy food from roadside stalls or mobile canteens. Not that they are bad, but your system may not be accustomed to such delicacies and you might end up with an upset stomach.
  • Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Tikka, Chicken Curry and Naan are the most common dishes preferred by western people, but  the Indian cuisine is very diverse and you can choose as per your mood and preferences.
  • Lassi, aerated cold drinks & mineral water are popular drinks. Kingfisher large beer is one of the most preferred alcoholic brands consumed by foreigners.
Traveling in Trains, Buses, Cars & Flights
Indian Railways
  • While traveling, don’t act confused. Keep a posture of a person known to the region.
  • If you are traveling in the trains then you may have to reserve your seats in advance, as it may not be easy to get confirm seat reservations at the last minute.
  • Some buses may not be as comfortable as trains. If you wish to travel by bus, choose the class of travel carefully. A ride in a Volvo bus could be very relaxing.
  • Be careful about your luggage while travelling.
  • Flights to and from popular tourist destinations are often over booked so try to get a booking as soon as possible.
  • Trains and buses are the best and cheapest option if you are traveling for more than one month. Also not all cities have an airport.
  • It is always better to arrive one hour before scheduled departure at the railway station/ airport.
  • Always chain and lock your luggage under your berth in a train. Don’t keep anything valuable near the window. Always carry plenty of water, fluids in trains. A lone woman traveler may request to be accommodated near other female travelers.
  • Don’t eat anything offered by fellow travelers. It might be contaminated by drugs.
  • Trains and domestic flight’s can get cancelled without any prior notice but it wont happen unless there is some major problem.
Shopping in India
  • Don’t buy antiques more than 100 years old. Selling and buying “shahtoosh” shawls is a crime. The same goes for ivory and wildlife.
  • Buy at genuine shops only. Bargaining is a popular practice in India and necessary too. Don’t ever believe in lucrative offers of antique dealers in which they offer you to carry a parcel of some other buyer back home with your own margin described. Entire transaction should be legal and transparent so that you may claim later if dissatisfied.
  • Guides & Taxi drivers often get commissions if you buy anything from the shop they take you to. Percentage of commission depends on your bill, so more you bargain, lesser is their commission.
  • If you are buying from roadside stalls or hawkers, bargain you must. Start by offering half the price they ask for and settle for 70 – 80%. Don’t bargain in shops, especially those that display “Fixed Price” signs,  that will be seen as bad manners. It is always better to buy from the shops which have price tags attached on their merchandise.
Society & Trends
Indian Wedding
  • Participating in a social occasion or visiting a person’s home requires conservative dress codes. Do not shake hands with ladies. Always pick up a thing and eat with your right hand. Take only as much as you can eat, do not leave anything uneaten over the dish.
  • Do not point your finger at any person. It is taken as a sign of annoyance.
  • Be careful of cultural and social sensitivities of the regions. There is no single rule for that, the best way is to observe and follow.
  • The “NAMASTE” is a local form of greeting. It involves the joining of your palms as during prayer in church (in church, the two thumbs are crossed, in the Indian “NAMASTE” , the thumbs join but remain parallel to each other: this is only for information as the difference is not visible to the person in front of you).
  • If you find the lady is not extending a hand shake, go for the “NAMASTE”. Even with men, the “NAMASTE” can be an excellent little PR gimmick! Follow it up with a “AAP KAISE HAIN” (how are you?) and you have broken the first block of ice if there was one ever.
  • If somebody has invited you home for dinner, carry with you a box of sweets or at least a chocolate bar for the kids.
  • Don’t show your amusement even if some practices you witness may appear funny.
  • Don’t photograph women without permission.
  • Enjoy Indian weddings and other festivities to the full, as they are very colorful and gay.
  • Tipping in India is a common practice. There are basically two types of tips. In the first case, the tip is paid after the work is completed. In the second case, tip is given beforehand to ensure a good service. In hotels, porters and room service attendants are generally tipped at the end of the stay. However, the amount of tip varies depending on the type of services rendered and the type of establishment.
  • In restaurants, the tip to waiters is around 10-15 percent of the bill. In cases of restaurants of famous and prestigious hotels, generally a 10 percent service surcharge is added to the bill. Tipping at such a place is discretionary. In smaller places, the tip is not a percentage of the bill. Rather, few rupees are given as a tip, depending on the quality of service.
  • Tipping taxi and three-wheeler a driver is not too common but still they expect from foreigners. It is up to your discretion. However, if you want to tip, then, 10 percent of the fare or leaving the change is enough. If you are hiring a car throughout your stay, then, tip the driver Rs. 100-200 per day, depending on the distance travelled. At railway stations, pay the porters around Rs. 10-20 per bag. But, make sure to set the rate beforehand. If you stay at somebody’s house, ask your host before tipping their domestic help.
Customs & Airport Authority of India
  • Please confirm with the Indian Customs department at the airport before carrying any liquid item, especially medicines.
  • Remember to announce your weapons, if any.
Some important monuments are closed on particular days of the week, or during specific times of the year. So one should plan accordingly:
  • Ajanta Caves are closed on Mondays.
  • Ellora Caves are closed on Tuesdays.
  • Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays.
  • Lotus Temple in Delhi is closed on Monday.
  • Akshardham Temple is closed on Monday.
  • Most of the national parks in India remain closed from 1st July onwards till 30th of September but Corbet National Park is open after 15th November.
  • National Museum in Delhi closed on Monday.
As the temperature rises as the day progresses, it is advisable to start sight seeing little early in the morning. If you start around 8:00 AM, you can avoid the scorching heat of the northern plains. Also the traffic encountered on the city roads is lesser during the early hours of the day.
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