Planning a two-week trip to India was, oddly enough, a big part of why I (re)started this website on travel to China. The Internet abounds in recommendations for travelers to both countries, but clear and comprehensive guides — especially for the short-term traveler — are scanty. I’m even farther from being an India travel expert than I am from being a China travel expert, so this page is by no means the end of the story. But if you’re a perfectionist agonizing over which of several unappealing guesthouses to stay in, I might be able to help.
Traveling in India is an overwhelming experience. It is easy to fixate on the dirt and discomforts, and you should be prepared for that. But I think the rewards absolutely outweigh the difficulties. The country is holding onto its past even as it embraces the present, creating a balancing act that is fascinating to observe. The monuments are exactly as beautiful as they say — and I’m not just talking about the Taj Mahal. And the food… oh the food. It’s absolutely worth the stomachaches that will ensue.
Warning: The Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays! Maybe everyone else knows this, but, uh, we didn’t. Plan accordingly.
My roommate and I had two weeks to travel in April 2009, and when we found affordable tickets from Hong Kong to India, we snapped them up. But where were we going to go? We had friends in Mumbai. We couldn’t miss the Taj Mahal. Ditto for Rajasthan, summer heat notwithstanding. And Varanasi… sounds awesome? Suddenly, we had an itinerary.
Day One: Arrive by air in Varanasi.
- Days One to Four: Sightseeing in Varanasi. Walk along the ghats and through Varanasi’s narrow streets, take boat rides on the Ganges, attempt to see the Golden Temple from afar, drink lots of chai, and do plenty of shopping. Buy lots of silk scarves here — my shopper’s regret was not getting more of these. They are a bargain at around 150 rupees. Day trip to Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon.
- Day Four: Overnight train from Varanasi to Agra.
- Day Five: Visit Fatehpur Sikri (via public bus from outside the Agra train station). Evening drinks at the Oberoi hotel, which is where we learned that the Taj Mahal is going to be closed the next day, a Friday.**
- Day Six: Early morning Intercity Express train to Delhi, arriving around 11 a.m. Afternoon sightseeing/rickshaw-dodging in Old Delhi, including the Jama Masjid (mosque).
- Day Seven: Full day of sightseeing, shopping and food poisoning in Delhi, of which the highlight was Humayun’s Tomb.
- Day Eight: Early morning Taj Express back to Agra. Visit the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. Evening train to Jaipur.
Days Nine and Ten: Sightseeing in Jaipur, including the absolutely incredible Amber Fort (for which you will need to take a bus out of the city), the City Palace and an election parade on rickshaws.
- Day Ten: Late afternoon train to Mumbai, arriving on the morning of Day Eleven.
- Days Eleven through Thirteen: Sightseeing, relaxing and last-minute shopping in Mumbai. There aren’t many unmissable tourist attractions in Mumbai, but it is a fascinating contrast to the other four cities on our itinerary.
- Dinner at Trishna is an absolutely worthwhile splurge. (And it’s only a splurge relatively speaking — dinner for three with beer ended up costing around 1500 rupees, or $60.)
- If you’re nervous about tummy troubles courtesy of street food, but still want to try Mumbai’s famous snacks, check out Swati Snacks. We heard about it first in this New York Times article on Swati Snacks and other restaurants that dish up chaat, pav vada (India’s veg answer to the hamburger, a deep fried potato patty served on a bun and smothered in garlicky sauce) and other yummy things in more sanitary environments. Then our host recommended it for lunch, so we knew we had to go. Most menu items were priced around 60 rupees or less, and one is enough for lunch for one person.
- Day Thirteen: Late-night flight back to Hong Kong.
**This is where the itinerary becomes “do as I say, not as I did.” Don’t plan to visit the Taj Mahal on Friday! Check the opening days and times of the once-in-a-lifetime attraction before you finalize your itinerary. And then check it twice. Originally, we would have spent all of day Six in Agra, gone to Agra that evening, had Day Seven to sightsee in Delhi and taken a morning train from Delhi straight to Jaipur.
After much searching online, I settled on the guest houses listed below. They far exceeded the low expectations set by reading Trip Advisor reviews, and I would confidently recommend each of them. We stayed with friends in Delhi and Mumbai, so I can’t recommend accommodations in those cities.
Varanasi: Hotel Alka
We opted out of the main budget guest house neighborhood near the Manakarnika Ghat, which is used for cremation. Hotel Alka is located further south at Meer Ghat, right on the Ganges River. It is still very much in the thick of things. Our room was clean and had a large bathroom, a perk when there is no shower curtain. Our air conditioning went out a few times during our stay during power outages. The only major problem we had was on arrival, because they had lost our request for an airport pick-up. Once we called, they gave us instructions for the taxi and met us in person, because you cannot drive in the old city.
Hotel Alka is located near Meer Ghat in Varanasi. Reservations can be made via e-mail at hotelalka —at— hotmail.com. Our double room with air-conditioning cost 750 rupees per night. There is a charge to use the Internet. The courtyard cafe/restaurant looks out onto the Ganges River and is a great place for breakfast or an afternoon lassi.
Agra: Tourist’s Rest House
We heard bad things about most of the guest houses in Agra, but if you don’t mind being a bit removed from the Taj Ganj action, this is a great option. Our room was clean, largeish and air-conditioned. The staff is very helpful with directions and do not push you to use their drivers. (In fact, we were told to take the bus to Fatehpur Sikri, right, rather than hiring a car.) My only gripe is that they didn’t tell us that the Taj Mahal would be closed on Friday when we checked in on Thursday morning.
The guest house is located on Kutchery Road, near the Sadar Bazaar, in Agra. Reservations can be made via e-mail at dontworrychickencurry —at— hotmail.com. Our double room with air conditioning cost 700 rupees per night. There is a charge to use the Internet and a lovely restaurant in the courtyard.
Jaipur: Hotel Pearl Palace
This hotel is definitely a winner. Our room was tiny but spotless. The staff are exceptionally helpful, and the hotel offers services far above and beyond its price point, including an inexpensive laundry service. They even picked us up at 2 a.m. when our train was four hours late.
Hotel Pearl Palace is located on Ajmer Road in Jaipur, fairly close to the train station. Bookings can be made on their website. Our double room, with a fan, cost 500 rupees per night. Laundry and Internet were available at an extra charge. There is a rooftop restaurant.
Train travel in India
Because we were on a budget, we relied mainly on trains to get around India. There are definite downsides to this choice: mainly that the trains are slow and often late. But they get you where you need to go, at rock-bottom prices, and let you see a wide range of Indian society en route.
Unlike in China, in India you can book train tickets online, up to 90 days in advance of your train. Use the Indian Railways website to book tickets. The Man in Seat 61 has detailed instructions on this process. Many trains sell out weeks and months in advance of travel, however, so unless you are very on top of your trip-planning game, you may find that the tickets you want are not available or are only available as waitlisted tickets. But never fear! Once you get to India, you will be able to buy tourist-quota tickets from the Foreigner Ticket Offices at major train stations. As long as you don’t need a long-distance train ticket in your first few days in India, you should not have a problem buying all your tickets there.
Of course, if tickets are available online before you leave, you might as well buy them early. All you have to do is print your ticket off your home computer and show up on the day of your train. You may have to stop by the Foreigner Ticket Office to have them look up your berth number, as those are not assigned for Internet tickets until a few hours before the train departs.
When I started to get into the nitty-gritty of trains and hotels, I found myself a bit befuddled. I’ve tried to distill some of my wisdom here, but I can’t possibly answer every question. Some sites that helped me include:
- The Lonely Planet Thorntree forumsfor advice from fellow travelers.
- India Mike has tons of articles covering destinations all over India, but the site is totally disorganized and some articles are quite out-of-date. Their forums are also active, though the information can seem contradictory.
- The Man in Seat 61 pulls through once again, with an incredibly detailed report on Indian train classes and ticket booking procedures.
- India Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Limited>Indian Railways: This is the site for purchasing tickets online, direct from Indian Railways. It can be a bit complicated (see “Getting around”), but once they were purchased, the tickets worked perfectly. When our itinerary changed, refunds were quick and almost fee-free.