A street food vendor in Bapu Bazar, Jaipur, India.CreditPoras Chaudhary for The New York Times
India is one of the most vibrant, colorful, exciting places to visit in the world. The diversity of people, culture and cuisine make it a worthwhile destination for any traveler. Here are nine tips to ensure your next (or first) trip to India goes as smoothly as possible.
1. Print your visa. No, the other visa.
A double-entry tourist visa to India, with a four-month window to make your first entry, is fairly easy to obtain through a website run by the Indian government. However, when you receive the confirmation email that your visa has been approved, there’s some confusion as to what you actually need to print out and present to the authorities.
As it turns out, you aren’t actually emailed the document you’ll need to print out in order to enter the country — and to board the plane to India. At least 10 people on my flight to New Delhi were pulled out of line during boarding and hustled to a small side office at Newark Liberty International Airport to print out the proper Electronic Travel Authorization form needed to enter India. They had a printout of the email confirming their visa — that is not what you need.
I happened to have a printout of the proper document, but I found it purely by chance. When you’ve been approved, go back to the visa application site and click “visa status.” After entering your information, click “print status” at the bottom of the screen, and the proper form should start to download. It should have your photo and a bar code on it — if it doesn’t, it’s not the right document.
2. Take your credit cards
In general, you should make it a habit to take printouts of all itineraries, be they for flights or hotels. But also remember to take the credit card with which you purchased the reservation. For flights it’s particularly important — in the fine print on some airlines, you’ll notice that it’s actually a requirement. And while my credit card was not checked the majority of the time, on one occasion it was. Don’t find yourself in an awkward situation: Make sure you have it with you.
3. Stay in touch, but don’t overpay
If you’re going to spend more than a brief time in India, you should invest in a local SIM card. The AT&T Passport plan charges a flat fee of $60 for up to 30 days, and gets you a measly one gigabyte of data — you can also pay $120 for three gigabytes. And if you go over, prepare to fork over $50 per extra gigabyte of data.
Upon landing in India, I headed to the Airtel kiosk and paid 999 rupees for a local SIM card, including all taxes and fees (a little more than $14). The card, good for 84 days, included 1.4 gigabytes of data per day, 100 SMS, or text messages, per day and unlimited local calls. That’s just an incredible deal, and worth taking advantage of no matter how long your stay.
If you’re country-hopping, you might want a more flexible option. A data-only AIS travel SIM card came in handy when I hopped a flight to Sri Lanka and my Indian SIM card no longer worked. An AIS card provides four gigabytes of data over a period of eight consecutive days and claims to work in 18 different countries (I can only vouch for Sri Lanka and India, however).
4. Stay mobile, but exercise patience
You’ll get to know ride-share apps well in India — they’re convenient and inexpensive, and it beats having to bargain with drivers. Prepare to exercise a bit of patience, however. Uber and Ola Cabs, the two ride-share apps I used in India, worked well enough, generally speaking. But I found myself frequently having to cancel or reorder, as drivers frequently just didn’t show up or got stuck in horrendous traffic. If you’re on a tiny side street, consider walking to the nearest large thoroughfare — it will be easier to get a car.
Additionally, make sure the credit card you’re using to pay for your rides doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee. If you have a credit card attached to your Uber account that does charge a foreign transaction fee, you may find yourself paying extra when you use Uber overseas. The Citi Premier Card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve are two examples of cards that do not impose foreign transaction fees.
Sometimes it’s quicker and more convenient, however, to take a tuk-tuk, or auto rickshaw. In that event, prepare to bargain. Also be aware that tuk-tuks can’t take you everywhere — when I hailed one to drop me at the airport in Delhi, it was an unpleasant surprise when the driver wouldn’t take me right to the terminal and I had to take a separate shuttle — tuk-tuks, he said, were not allowed to drop you off at the actual terminal.
5. Get change
I found exchange rates to be decent in airports, and one advantage of exchanging in person as opposed to an A.T.M. is that you can ask for small bills. You don’t want to be walking around with a fistful of purple 2,000 rupee notes. Whenever you can make change, do it. Fast food restaurants are particularly good for this. You’ll need small bills when you’re buying a cup of tea on the street, or taking a tuk-tuk ride — do not expect your driver to be able to make change.
6. Stay active
There are plenty of opportunities to attend movies, events and concerts in India. The website Book My Show is quite useful for this, and is widely used throughout the country — I booked a concert in Mumbai with no issues. For tours and guides when in a new city, I tried to book directly with a company whenever possible, but also used larger aggregator sites like Viator and Klook simply for the convenience.
There are also plenty of opportunities to find tour guides on the ground in a new city. In Mumbai, for example, there are quite a few on the street right outside the Gateway of India. A trusted home stay is also a fantastic way to get suggestions for things to do and places to go — I had a lot of luck with this when I rented a room through Airbnb during my stay in Kolkata.
7. Stay safe
I had no safety issues while traveling in India — I avoided conspicuously displaying money, didn’t walk around too late at night and generally used common sense. But I understand that the experience for female travelers, particularly women traveling alone, might be quite different. Much has been written on the topic, including this National Geographic piece by Neha Dara and this piece by Candace Rardon. I recommend reading personal accounts of women who have traveled to India, or speaking with friends who have gone, if possible, and then making your own assessment. Travel should be an adventure, but it shouldn’t make anyone feel unsafe or compromised.
8. Let’s make a deal
Haggling is an art form. And while some people truly don’t like doing it (I don’t particularly, either), it’s worth trying to get in the spirit of it, especially if you’re planning to do any shopping. In general, decide what the particular thing — a shirt, or a handbag — is worth to you. Set a mental ceiling on what you’re willing to pay. The first price the seller will throw at you, particularly if you’re visibly foreign, will likely be very high. Come back with half of that price, or possibly even less, depending on the circumstances. The seller will dramatically dismiss your reply and come back with a slightly smaller number.
From there, it’s just a question of how much you want the item. Don’t focus on getting to the absolute lowest price a vendor will go — if it’s between paying 500 or 600 rupees for something, don’t make a federal case over that last 100 rupees, which is less than two dollars, and possibly lose the sale. Remember: Objectively, you’re still probably getting a good deal, and that money likely means more to them than it does to you.
9. To eat or not to eat?
I am an unabashed proponent of street food. I love the flavors, the environment and the fact that it is, by its nature, quite frugal. But street food obviously has potential risks. When I traveled to China earlier this year, some street dumplings gave me some major stomach issues. In India, I had better luck — and that’s what it is, really: luck. If you eat enough street food, you’re going to get sick. It’s just a matter of time. For me, the payoff is worth the risk. And if it’s something you’re going to try, there are ways to reduce the chances you’ll get sick.
First, don’t drink the water. This sounds obvious, but it extends to other activities: Be careful when brushing your teeth with tap water (use bottled if possible) or opening your mouth while showering. I also avoid buying drinks with ice on the street — while the fruit juice you order might be perfectly safe, the ice may not.
I’ll pass on fresh produce, unless it’s something that can be peeled. Generally, I look for hot foods, and street stalls that have a lot of turnover. If they’re serving a lot of food, there’s a greater chance the food is fresh. And things like the wonderfully spiced, milky tea, which is kept at a rolling boil at the many street-side tea stands, are likely to be safer than raw items.
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