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Travel Tips For India

by Max Lent.  © 2003 Max Lent


Handling money in India is a unique experience.  It takes a little getting used to, but once you learn the rules it works fine.  Here's some basic facts about Indian money transactions:

  • Merchants in India do not like to make change. 
  • Merchants prefer that you pay the exact amount.
  • Merchants will not accept damaged or worn bills
  • You will likely carry very large quantities of small bills with you when you shop.
  • Cashing traveler's checks in excess of $100 U.S. will require a brief case to carry the amount of Indian currency you will receive.  A $500 U.S. exchange requires a duffle bag or backpack to carry the currency.
  • Banks staple money together with a type of staple that is nearly impossible to remove without damaging the money.  Have the bank remove the staples from money bundles before leaving the bank.
  • Beware of leaving a bank with large quantities of Rupees.  Thugs know where tourists go to exchange money.  When tourists leave money exchange centers with large full bags, everyone knows what is in those bags.  Having a taxi waiting for you is a good way to be rushed out of the area and to a safer place.

Travel Agencies

When traveling in India use Indian travel agents. Traveling from place to place in India and Nepal cannot be easily arranged in advance with certainty from the U.S. by most U.S. travel agents. My wife called a local travel agency to get a quote on a trip to India and ended up in a comedic word game where she would say India and the travel agent would say Indiana. Imagine if my wife asked for a quote on transportation between Delhi and Agra. Not all U.S. travel agents are so inept. Some may even do a great job of getting you into India into a first class hotel at a reasonable cost. Even if you use your regular travel agent to get to India, sign up with an Indian travel agent on your arrival. Hereís why.

The relationship between Indian travel agents and their clients is unlike anything you may have experienced in the U.S. Americans have few servants and nearly everything possible is self-serve. Traditional travel agencies are being challenged by self-serve Web-based travel Web sites. In contrast, customer service is elevated to an art by better Indian travel agents. The reason for this is that Indians are very demanding of customer service. Living in a country where there is an oversupply of low paid workers, middle and upper class Indians are used to being cared for by servants and businesses. When it comes to travel agencies they expect nothing less.

After a great deal of Web surfing and telephone calls to local and national travel agencies we responded to an advertisement in the travel section of the New York Times. The agency with the best ticket prices was an Indian travel agency. We were very cautious and untrusting about our purchase, which is not a bad behavior to exercise when making purchases by phone. The travel agency raised our concern when they requested payment by money order through the mail. We also had to fax our order to them. When we received our tickets we called the airline to confirm that our tickets and our reservations were real. Everything was as the travel agent promised. We had no idea where we were going to travel in India when we got there, so we didnít ask about any additional services. In retrospect, we did the right thing.

We discovered that we were traveling to India during the high season, December, when the weather is cool. Indians from all over the world return home during the winter months to visit relatives. We were a part of that migration.

Our situation was unique because we were staying with relatives in New Delhi. We didnít require hotel reservations or ground transportation. After only a couple of days in New Delhi we decided we wanted to go to Nepal to see Mount Everest. What was not unique for us was that we wanted to travel within India and to Nepal and competition for transport was fierce. Our relative recommended a travel agency, Inter Sky Links, to us. At this point we discovered the first difference between an Indian and an U.S. travel agency.

Indian travel agencies, we discovered, like to meet with their clients in-person, so we made an appointment to discuss our travel plans. The agents we met at Inter-Sky Links spoke perfect English, most wore western style clothing, and they were very solicitous. The agent who was assigned to us questioned us carefully about our needs and preferences. We were informed that obtaining flight reservations to India would be difficult and that they could make no promises. With the needs assessment completed we were told that we would hear from them later that day with an itinerary. The agent called us when he said he would and told us that he had arranged tickets for us for the dates and times we requested. The speed and quality of our service could have been influenced by the fact that our relative used the agency routinely for business travel. However, we later discovered that the kind of service we received was typical.

Indian and Nepalese travel agents are networked with each other, not in the computer sense, but in the business-to-business sense. When customers are sent from one city to another a different travel agency in the destination town takes over serving customers. For example, when we made arrangements to travel from New Delhi to Agra to Rathambore to Jaipur, and back to New Delhi we were handed off to different agents in Agra and Jaipur. Each new agent treated us though we were the most important clients they ever had. It was wonderful.

Arriving in Agra, we were greeted by our new agent, a chauffer, and English speaking guide who took care of our every need. We didnít have to touch our luggage or make any arrangements. We were transported to our hotel and the chauffer and guide waited patiently while we checked in, cleaned up from the train trip, and ate breakfast. When we were ready to sightsee they were ready for us. The guide was excellent and very helpful.

To get to our next destination, the tiger preserve at Rathambore, required that our driver drive us for most of the day through the rural countryside. The driver was a bit reckless and drove too fast, but the travel agent wasnít there to see what was going on.

Getting from Rathambore to Jaipur required another day-long journey by car. The travel agent in Jaipur sent a driver to pick us up and drive us back to Jaipur. The driver knew and anticipated our needs. When it was time for us to take a break he knew which roadside restaurants had western style bathrooms and which ones had food that might be suitable to westerners.

The travel agent in Jaipur arranged a chauffer and guide for us. The Jaipur guide was even better than the guide from Agra. The hotel arrangements made for us through Inter-Sky Links throughout this trip were regal.

At the end of our stay in Jaipur our Jaipur travel agent came to our hotel with the chauffer to take us to the train station to see us off. Our train was hours late, so the travel agent took us to the lobby of a nearby Sheraton hotel to wait. He left us at the hotel and returned to the train station to wait on word about the trainís arrival. While at the Sheraton we ate and sat in the lobby reading. The moment the trainís arrival seemed immanent, our travel agent returned to fetch us. We still spent another hour at the station. During our wait, our travel agent did his best to make small talk with us and to ensure that we were comfortable. The train finally arrived and it was time for us to board. Our travel agent saw us onto the train and heft our luggage into the overhead racks. When he discovered that our reserved seats were not together he talked with about have a dozen people to request that they move so that we could sit together. Imagine your local travel agent sitting with you for several hours at an Amtrak station to ensure your comfort. Now you can imagine the difference between Indian and U.S. travel agents.

What Indian travel agents cannot do is work against their own travel culture. For example, we were stranded for several days in Nepal because India Air refused to recognize our confirmed reservations back to New Delhi, India. There was nothing the travel agent could do to help us. To respond to the problem we talked with our agency in Nepal and arranged for a fabulous stay at the Chitwan tiger preserve. The trip was planned meticulously and carried out with perfection. We were coddled every moment of the trip.

Another amazing fact about traveling in India is that it was incredibly inexpensive. The chauffeurs and guides cost us about as much as we might pay for a rental car in a large American city. The posh hotels we stayed in cost us about as much as a small town Ramada hotel in the U.S. Food was always very inexpensive except at the nicest of hotels.

In summary, we found the least expensive airfares to India by reading the travel ads in the New York Times. On the ground in India, using Indian travel agents smoothed out any problems we might have encountered on our own. Our stay in India and Nepal was greatly enhanced by the exceptional service provided by Indian and Nepalese travel agents.

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