India is the seventh largest country in the world, covering a total area of 3,287,263 square kilometres, north of the equator, part of continental Asia.
India borders China, Pakistan, Bhutan and Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh and nearby islands include Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
India is divided into twenty-nine states and seven union territories.
All visitors to India must obtain a visa in advance of arrival in the country. No visas are issued at airports and you will be denied entry if you arrive without a visa. Visas for most nationalities are valid for six months from the date of issue so it is important not to apply too far in advance. Application forms and other relevant information can be downloaded from your country’s Indian High Commission or Embassy website. We recommend applying for your visa 2 months before the commencement of your trip.
The vast size of the country and huge range of climatic conditions means that somewhere in India the weather is perfect for travel at any given time of the year. India experiences two monsoons annually with the first (south-west) arriving and bearing heavy rain from around the start of June, sweeping in up the western coast of the country to be the dominant weather feature over the middle months of the year. By July and August much of the west and north of the country experiences a regular dousing of rain. This monsoon eventually dissipates and is replaced by the south-east monsoon which travels south from September onwards before it finally ends in late-November or early December, with the south-eastern corner of India being the last region to receive rain. While ‘monsoon tourism’ is increasing in popularity, most people choose to avoid visiting a region during the period of the heaviest rain, due in part to the potential for travel plans (especially by road) to be affected. The summer months (late March through to June) are generally hot and humid in most parts of the country and travel during this time of the year can be a little uncomfortable. The best time to visit is generally from October to March, with the exception of the hills and mountainous regions in the north where the winter months are best avoided, and travel through from April to September is most desirable.
The currency in India is the rupee, nominally made up of 100 paise but this smaller unit is very seldom encountered. A historical average for the rupee over recent years is around 45 rupees to the US dollar. All major foreign currencies can easily be exchanged for rupees at airports, hotels and money-changers in most towns and cities. Rates are theoretically fixed and although ‘shopping around’ can sometimes achieve a better rate it is usually only a very nominal difference. Traveller’s Cheques are still accepted and can be cashed at hotels and moneychangers as well. Credit cards (Visa and MasterCard much more than Diner’s or Amex) as well as Debit cards linked to major networks can be used at ATMs throughout India. It is advisable to carry money in two or more forms- cash, cards and some back-up traveller’s cheques are a good idea.
There is a wide choice of accommodation in India, from 5-star international standard resorts and hotels, ‘heritage’ properties (restored and renovated palaces, forts or plantation homesteads), guesthouses and Homestays and everything in between. While there is no formal grading system in operation in India, places which are rated as 4 or 5 star match the generally accepted international criteria for grading accommodation at those levels.
High season occurs at different times of the year depending on the region, but in the main the busiest period is from November to February and during these months in particular it is essential to book your holiday accommodation well in advance.
Most people enjoy the experience of staying in heritage accommodation while visiting India, while others choose hotels. Self-catering, motel, type accommodation in India is extremely rare.
It is strongly recommended to have travel insurance to cover you for all eventualities while travelling. All Indian Panorama vehicles are insured and licensed as per the rules and norms of the Government of India. Please ensure that you are adequately insured for the entire duration of your travel with regard to illness, injury, loss of baggage and personal belongings. If you do experience the highly unusual event of having something stolen (petty crime of this sort, especially against foreigners, is very unusual in India), seek assistance from your driver or tour operator in dealing with the local police, filling out forms etc.
Your travel insurance needs to be adequate to cover you in the event of a cancellation or postponement caused by road conditions, a change in flight or train schedules or other event which leads to your programme being disrupted.
English is the common language by which Indians communicate with each other beyond state and regional boundaries. While there are over 20 ‘official’ languages, with Hindi being the most widely spoken across many states in the north, if people in different parts of the country want to interact, English is the medium in which they do so. This makes things very simple for the visitor as almost without exception hotel and restaurant staff, as well as the majority of people you will buy things from and speak with will have a reasonable to excellent command of English. Of course, learning a few simple words or phrases will always be welcomed by locals,
India is a land of ancient traditions, many diverse religious practices and many social norms here may be quite different to those you will encounter at home. These are particularly relevant when visiting sacred places such as temples and ashrams, as well as many historic monuments. It is almost impossible to prepare for every eventuality as different places have different rules, but observing what the locals do is always a good guide if you’re unsure.
You will notice many different forms of respect shown when people visit a Temple or sacred place. They will cover their arms and legs, and remove their shoes. Visitors should do likewise. In many places silence is required. In Buddhist and Hindu shrines it is offensive to sit with your feet pointed at the Buddha, the Deity or other people, especially the soles of your feet, as they are considered unclean.
Please dress modestly on the days you visit temples or shrines, uncovered upper arms and legs can cause offence. Observe how the locals dress and follow their example. In some places it is mandatory to cover all exposed flesh on the arms and legs- at most places where this rule applies, some sort of simple sarong or other material will be available to hire for a nominal fee. As it is compulsory to remove one’s shoes inside temples, some people like to carry a pair of socks which offer some protection from the heat as much as anything.
While silent reverence is a powerful experience in many sacred places, there are occasions when the celebration of the Divine turns positively raucous- this will come as an extreme contrast to most forms of worship in western religions and holy places. Go with the flow- you are unlikely to cause offence if you wish to join in but equally be aware that crowds can occasionally get out of hand.
Rules about photography vary enormously from place to place. For example, it is almost universal that the deity in a temple may not be photographed under any circumstances. At some places, filming video is prohibited while still photography is permitted.
Another Indian social custom to which visitors need to be particularly sensitive is displays of public affection. While it is not unusual to see people of the same sex holding hands in public, or even men draping an arm around a friend’s shoulders, the same type of activity between men and women is still almost completely taboo. Visitors should observe this strictly and refrain from holding hands and most definitely from kissing in any type of public space in India.
Having an informative, English-speaking guide to escort you around major monuments will add greatly to your experience of these places. By using only government-licensed guides you ensure the best possible service and minimise the possibility that ‘unwanted’ shopping trips will be added to your excursion.
Self-drive car hire is not an option in India and instead most trips are best undertaken by private, chauffeur driven vehicle. This is a very economical way to get around as all costs are included in the basic rate (fuel, road tolls, interstate taxes, parking charges and driver’s expenses) and the convenience of having a vehicle available at all times is significant. The role of the Tourist Driver in India is a little unique. While the driver is not a licensed guide and cannot take you inside monuments or temples, he will be only too happy to give detailed explanations of many aspects of life and culture in India. Your driver is the person you will spend the most time with on your trip and he will be 100% dedicated to your comfort, safety and understanding at all times.
The driver is there to assist you with all your small requirements throughout your trip, showing you small places of interest along the way and describing different socio- cultural things you will see – marriages, funerals, festivals and other parts of daily life. The car is with you “on disposal” to go out for dinner in the evenings or take short excursions to places close to your main destination. They want you to experience the maximum you can and do not have hard and fast rules about the kilometres driven.
For longer journeys, trains or flights may be necessary to connect to different regions.
Long distance train travel in India is a fantastic experience, provided you travel in an air-conditioned carriage in 1st, 2nd or 3rd class sleeper carriage. These carriages have berths in different configurations (generally two berths high in 1st and 2nd class and 3-high in 3rd class) which double as comfortable bench seats by day and are folded down to become bunk-beds by night. Carriages are clean and well maintained with Western-style toilets in every carriage. Food is available on the train. In any of these classes, allocation of berths is strictly controlled so there is no chance of your berth or seat being occupied by someone else. Bedding (blanket, sheet and pillow) is provided and is delivered to your berth in the early evening by an attendant. Travel by rail is not only convenient and inexpensive, but it is a great way to meet local people. Travel in 1st or 2nd class is generally only undertaken by educated professional people and their families, so you are assured of interesting conversation about life in India, and you will surely be asked many questions about life in your own country. We do not recommend other classes of travel where overcrowding can be a problem.
For shorter distances, travel by express train can provide a convenient way to connect cities and places of interest. Carriages in these types of trains are normally ‘chair-class’ (seats rather than beds)
Entertainment and Alcohol
India is a very conservative society in comparison to almost all western countries and as such socialising in the sense that it is accepted in the West is quite unusual in India. Outside of the major cities and a handful of tourist areas such as Goa, bars are not at all common and the vast majority of Indians do not consume alcohol at all. Due to the constraints on obtaining liquor licenses, it is highly unlikely that smaller hotels, Homestays or guesthouses will be able to supply you with a full bar- this type of facility is only available in 5-star hotels. Many places will be able to serve beer on an informal basis. In most places there will be a wide choice of restaurants available within close proximity of where you are staying.
Health and Safety
Being vaccinated is a very personal decision. Some people prefer to be covered for everything that might happen and others prefer not to have anything more than is absolutely necessary. There are also homeopathic alternatives to conventional vaccinations. There is a lot of information on the internet about vaccinations but it is always best to combine your own research with the sound advice of your own doctor or a specialist traveller’s medical centre.
It is strongly recommended that everyone be covered for Tetanus. One injection should cover you for 10 years. Hepatitis A is carried through food and water and there is some risk of coming into contact with this. Vaccination involves 2 injections one month apart. This would be a sensible vaccination to have before travelling anywhere in Asia. There is now a common vaccine offered which covers both Hepatitis A and Typhoid. Hepatitis B is carried through blood so you are at very low risk of being in contact with this. Injections are costly and are given over 6 months without any guarantee of absolute protection. Generally the advice given is that there is no need to have a Hepatitis B vaccination for stays of less than 6 months in a country with a high risk of infection.
Malaria is not common in most parts of India which are visited by tourists and mostly in isolated areas after the monsoon. Malaria tablets are very difficult for the body to process and can have some very severe side effects. We do not encourage people to take Malaria tablets for this reason- it is a far better option to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes by using anti-mosquito creams and sprays than to take malaria medication.
Useful things to pack
Travel light! Almost anything you need which you might have forgotten can be picked up in India at a fraction of the cost at home.
As the climate in India is generally warm, you don’t need to bring many warm clothes, however in the north of the country, the ‘winter’ months from December to February can be decidedly cool and a light woollen jumper and jacket are essential. There is also a tendency for air-conditioning on trains to be set to very low so you may want to have something warm to hand if travelling by train.
Most hotels have an efficient and cheap in house laundry service so you don’t need to bring many sets of clothing. 3 lightweight shirts, (some people find even tee shirts a bit warm) and the same number of lightweight trousers or skirts should be enough. Some long sleeved tops to guard against mosquitoes in the evenings are a good idea- preferably in light, natural colours to assist in keeping them away. Western style clothing is increasingly easy to find and should you need more clothes, they are often much cheaper than at home. And the experience of shopping for any item in India is always a lot of fun- both for you, and for the locals!
Services and Utilities
It is very simple to stay in touch with family and friends back home while you are travelling in India. Most major mobile phone providers from western countries will offer a roaming service enabling SMS/text messages and calls to be made and received. It is a very good idea to check in advance what the likely cost of such services are while you are going to be in India. Email and internet access are available in all towns and cities with many hotels offering cheap or even free internet services. Wireless broadband is also becoming widely available in hotels
Many people these days travel with several electronic items and/or items with rechargeable batteries. Indian current is the 240V and a simple adaptor can be used to enable the appliances you bring from home to be plugged into a standard Indian wall socket. Most travel and airport gift shops sell an adaptor which can be used in India, or these can be picked up cheaply once you arrive in the country.
India has a well justified reputation as a shopper’s paradise and throughout the country there are many beautiful arts and crafts available. Bargaining is expected and is part of the experience. It pays not to rush into any transaction but to get an idea of prices by visiting a number of shops selling similar things. The first price quoted by most shopkeepers will very likely be several times the ‘true’ price so don’t feel that by offering something much lower than the initial price you will be insulting anyone. But always bear in mind that even a price variance of several hundred rupees does not amount to all that much in your home currency.
From the moment you arrive you will see that India runs on tipping, from the person who carries your bag, delivers your food or drives your vehicle.
Many quality hotels are now implementing a ‘centralised’ tipping system. This is a much more equitable way of sharing out the tips as there are often dozens of staff in a hotel (cooks, gardeners, laundry people etc) who you never see, meaning that the front office and room staff get the vast majority of the tips. Please look out for a box on the reception desk at the time you check in. If you tip a total of 100-200 rupees per day in such a place this would be fine, although perhaps a little more in 5 star establishments.
If this is not the case, then for a porter who carries your bags to the room a 10 -20 Rupee tip is fine. A similar amount is OK for the people who come and clean your room. In restaurants work on 10% of the total bill as a reasonable tip- there is no set amount as is the case in other countries.
At the end of your trip (or each sector) it is customary to tip your driver. 200Rs to 500Rs per day is a reasonable tip for the driver, but the amount is totally up to you. For guides at monuments etc, a tip of Rs100-200 is fine.