India (and Asia) travel tips

• In addition to the various Lonely Planet guides on India, the DK’s “Eyewitness Travel Guide: India” is well worth looking at; the copious illustrations make it very easy to find your way through tourist sites without a guide. If you are heading to the South, George Mitchell’s “Blue Guide: Southern India” is a must. Two other books we never travel without are Lonely Planet’s “Healthy Travel: Asia & India” by Isabelle Young and “The Pocket Doctor, A Passport to Healthy Travel” by Stephen Bezruchka, M.D.

Pushkar camel traders (2004). Photo: Holt

• My husband, Clyde, and I got our visas from the Consulate General of India in New York in 2004. Figuring we’d want to go to India more than once, we each got a 10-year visa ($150). There are many visa options available, but this was the most economical and involved the least hassle for us. Since our current passports will expire before our visas, we’ll just travel with both old and new passports rather than each pay the $25 fee to transfer the visas to our new passports.

• You can arrive with some rupees in hand by calling International Currency Express at 888/278-6628. They have been providing us with foreign moneys for over seven years and are very reliable and easy to work with — and they sometimes have stacks of 10-rupee notes (see below).

After your first trip to India you will probably want to return, so come home with rupees for the next trip. That way you will have cash just in case you need a taxi or a quick meal upon arrival.

• We are still working our way through $3,000 worth of travelers’ checks we bought for a trip to China seven years ago. We have never used an ATM to get cash, though if we did we’d use our brokerage card, which charges only a 1% currency conversion fee.

We found that using banks to change money in India was much slower than using registered foreign-exchange offices, which we found just about everywhere. At banks, lines are long, business hours are limited and the amazing Indian penchant for doing everything in triplicate slows things down (they record the information once on the computer and twice by hand, copying every detail into two enormous ancient ledgers).

You need to be sure to get an “encashment certificate” to prove that you have changed money, should you want to reexchange it before leaving India (something we have never done).

Our favorite exchange office is in Delhi: the Ganga Darshan Forex at C-30 Connaught Place. There I have successfully bargained for a better rate of exchange for amounts greater than $100.

I did an informal comparison of exchange rates on our most recent trip, January-March ’07. The difference in rates between banks and private exchanges was minimal. Most, but not all, of the money changers gave better rates for travelers’ checks than for cash, something I never could understand but appreciated. In Kolkata we ran into a new feature: a 100-dollar bill received the best rate.

The differences were so minimal, however, that we never really worried about it and just changed money when it was convenient or necessary. I always note on our itinerary when it may be absolutely essential to change money, say, if we are heading out to remote or rural areas.

• Stock up on 10- and 20-rupee notes whenever you can; they are useful for the numerous tips you’ll be paying. (Hotel cashiers often have nothing smaller than a fifty, possibly to encourage extravagant tipping.) If you are given torn or really dirty notes, give them back and ask for cleaner ones; we have had some establishments and merchants refuse the old grungy notes.

• If you are traveling independently and paying your own entrance fees, it is wise to keep abreast of the rate of exchange. The exorbitant foreigners’ entry fees at tourist sites are often quoted in Indian rupees and U.S. dollars. We very often found that it was much cheaper to pay in dollars. The only problem we had was that ticket sellers never had change for dollars, so you need to have one- and 5-dollar bills available.

• We frequently had our driver stop at a shop or stall so we could stock up on half a dozen liters of bottled water or a case of a dozen. We thus avoided the outrageous hotel charges for mini-bar water. Our drivers couldn’t believe how much water we bought; we wondered if they thought we were bathing in the stuff.

We generally paid Rs12 (near 28¢) for a liter of water. Specific popular state brands include Dazzle, Bubbles and Kwencher (I just love those creative names). Bisleri, Kingfisher (of beer and now airline fame), Kinley (made by Coca-Cola) and Aquafina (Pepsi) are readily available nationwide. The latter two brands sometimes were more expensive and I never was able to get the price down for them.

Although most of the bottles are marked Rs12, the shopkeepers sometimes ask for Rs20. Do not pay it. Two-liter bottles also were useful, and cheaper at Rs18 (41¢).

We were told to look for the ISI mark on the label as a sign of purity. The list of ingredients sometimes includes chemicals you’d rather not know were there, but at least you are told it’s “pure.” And, of course, always be sure the bottle actually has an unbroken seal. We have never seen a broken one, but we are always warned to check.

• Everyone also always reminds you not to drink the tap water. Don’t forget when taking a shower to keep your mouth shut. The first thing I do in our hotel room, after asking for extra bath towels to wring out clothes, is to place a shower cap or plastic bag over the faucet; this serves as a late-night (or anytime) reminder not to drink the water, which is an act so automatic for us that it is difficult to overcome.

• I carry a small map of the U.S. so when someone asks, “You are from where?,” I am able to show them that Vermont is very far from California, the state they all seem to know.

• Finally, a great online forum, with all kinds of travelers offering all kinds of advice, is Any question you ask about India is likely to be answered in a matter of minutes.


Hinesburg, VT