Advice for first trip to India?
March 10, 2008 12:23 PM   Subscribe

Advice for first trip to India?

I'm researching a possible trip to India for me and my girlfriend at the end of the year (between November and January). We've never been there before, and would probably have about two weeks to travel.

Can you give me your suggestions for possible itineraries? We don't want to run around to 5 different cities - we'd want to take our time and travel slowly in order to really get the feel of life there as best as we can - but we want to see some variety.

I know we'd definitely want some time in a city (Mumbai?) and, I imagine, at least a quick visit to a nice suburb to see how the other half lives. We might want to allow a couple days for a beach resort somewhere, possibly in the middle or at the end, to help unwind a little from the hustle and bustle.

BTW - I'm a travel agent and have traveled alone in Thailand. I'm not interested in tours or packages - would prefer to book everything on my own.

Thanks in advance.
posted by kdern to Travel & Transportation around India (19 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Note: we're in our early 30's, healthy and pretty adventurous.
posted by kdern at 12:32 PM on March 10, 2008

We flew from USA to Delhi, which we loved. We stayed for five days, then flew to Mumbai for another six days. It was an incredible trip, but if I were doing it again I'd swing down to Goa for a few days and spend a little less time in Mumbai. My husband is now hankering to see Bangelore and/or Hydrabad, but that will have to wait for the next trip.

If you just do those two cities, I have two suggestions:

From Delhi, definitely take the day trip to Agra. We went via hired car, but I wish we'd taken the train. The Taj is worth the trip, for SURE.

In Mumbai, take an afternoon for the ferry to the Elephanta Island. It leaves from India Gate and is about an hour there and another hour back, and a fairly strenuous walk up to the shrine area, but worth every single minute. A stunning place.

We had a blast.
posted by nkknkk at 12:40 PM on March 10, 2008

You should definitely take a train ride at some point. One of my favorite parts of an India trip.
posted by theiconoclast31 at 1:02 PM on March 10, 2008

Excellent weather! Some thoughts, if you're doing Mumbai, then there are tours that 'do' Dharavi, Asia's largest 'slum' and now famous as a hive of entreprenuerial activity at the base of the pyramid.

Mumbai to Pune to Goa is worthwhile - Goa is probably already known to you as a tourist destination but Pune (Poona) on the way is not only a thriving industrial city but its pretty and quite like Bangalore and there are mountains and resorts (lonavla, khandala) on the way. Goa is the beach resort at the end. Try flying to mumbai, taking buses or trains through the journey to Goa and then flying back to Mumbai for your return.

From mumbai area some short trips to make - Ajanta/Ellora, Lonavla, Khandala

If you're looking to combine a beach with a city there's Chennai in the south, its different, but Bangalore is close by and an experience in its own right (india's silicon valley) lots to see and do there and the closest beach resorts I highly recommend are Mammallapuram (also known as Mahabalipuram) and Pondicherry a former French colony with Auroville as its spiritual centre, a UNESCO heritage designed settlement. You can also get an overnight bus from Goa to Bangalore.

If you're looking for the 'classical' India tour, then New Delhi, Agra (Taj Mahal), Jaipur, Pushkar, Ranthambhore are all close to each other and doable in two weeks. November-January is the gathering time in Rajasthan for many tourists ;) I've got a friend who runs a lodge at the Ranthambhore Tiger Sanctuary (Sawai Madhopur district) if you decide on this route, email me.

I like the Bangalore, Mysore, Hampi etc (all links above) historic with Pondi as a unique experience and Mahabs as the best beach resort (though its been some years since I was an undergrad ;p and it all may have changed) as the unusual from the usual. Then second choice would be Delhi/Rajasthan though you'll find it packed with tourists at that season. Mumbai/pune/goa would be unusual but between Mumbai and Goa I don't think you'll find as many tourists but you might find it packed full of daytrippers.

Geographically, the 5 major metros are spread out into different cultural regions so choosing one to make your anchor and doing stuff around it the best idea in your short trip. Bangalore and Madras (chennai) are close enough, and exploring the route to Mysore is very unusual. Kerala state is doable from Bangalore too if you don't want to go east towards Chennai. That's lush and green and has beaches.

What else interests you about India? Calcutta is the heart of India's culture and my birthplace, much overlooked by many so there's the Eastern side as well.

Here are some tips for your girlfriend -

Its not a paper towel culture, carry packets of Kleenex with you everywhere. Take your own rolls of TP and a roll of paper towels. Once you get accustomed to this, life without is very difficult. And the TP in India sucks. Carry other feminine products that might be required, you won't find anything you like in India.

Walk with her, 'eve teasing' is rampant, especially if they can get away with it with a foreign woman. Though mumbai is probably much much better than the Greater Delhi area (the worst). Accompany her though it might not strike you in other countries to necessarily do so, especially after dusk. i.e. its not so much a vigilant eye as sending signals that she's not 'unprotected'
posted by infini at 1:04 PM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is great advice - please keep it coming!

One added question - is it possible to generalize about differences between North and Southern India? It looks like two possible options would be using Delhi as our base or Mumbai and Bangalore.
posted by kdern at 1:15 PM on March 10, 2008

My dad lives in Mumbai, and I visited him in July, during the height of monsoon (note: do not do this). I personally found the city rather overwhelming, which is unusual, since I've been traveling since I've been visiting my dad in various countries overseas most of my life. However, we did get to go up to Shimla, in the Himalayas, and it was one of the most amazing places I've ever been. Seriously, truly, awe-inspiring. The people, the atmosphere, the views...I couldn't recommend it more. I'm pretty sure there's a train that goes from Dehli to the foot of the mountains, then you take a "toy train" up to Shimla. It's not the beach, but I promise you wouldn't regret it.
posted by odayoday at 2:19 PM on March 10, 2008

general differences between north and south in no random order (btw bombay is neither, its the midwest har har) - some are true, some are "common stereotypes" but even they are usually founded on 'truth'

the south is considered gentler, more educated, more conservative in general. women are better treated and educational opportunities are open to both men and women. Kerala for example has an almost 90% plus literacy rate. the north particularly Dehli and its neighbouring states have been called the 'cow belt', its rougher, more 'macho culture', less 'cultured'

Culture, food, language, people, even naming is as different as France from Poland, consider India closer to the EU than a country per se like China. Each state has its own language, food, dress and rituals

the approximate analogies would be Mumbai = NYC ; they're both islands, advertising and financial hubs
delhi = DC = National capital region with suburbia in different states - Gurgaon is the up and coming suburb with all the MNC offices there

Calcutta is the 'Paris/Vienna' of long political discussions in coffeeshops and teahouses, theatre, the arts and the glory of bygone days

South India and North India

Bombay (mumbai) is its own planet ;p its a sister city to LA, nuff said.
posted by infini at 2:46 PM on March 10, 2008

Some random ideas.

1. Trains - YES ! Don't get too hung up on going in 1st Class/AirCon etc half the thing is in being with the other people on the train. In my experience the more expensive the seats the less interaction there is. In winter in north india there's no need for air-con anyway.

2. Agra - try not to go there early in trip. The inhabitants have taken hassling tourists to new levels of perfection and you'll need a few days before you're ready for it. The taj is wonderful of course. The view of the taj from the opposite side of the river is also amazing (on the river bank south of the area marked Nagla Devjit as shown on this map - can't remember how i got there though.

3. Fathpur Sikri is 50kms out of Agra. It's weird and wonderful, I would recommend.

4. Sorry to state the obvious but you're going to have a more pleasant time from an intestinal point of view if you stick to veggie food (which is dead easy to do because that's what half the population are doing).
posted by southof40 at 3:59 PM on March 10, 2008

I wouldn't spend all that long in Indian cities., although Mumbai is fun for a few days. In some ways, I'd also advise against the golden triangle. The Taj is spectacular and Jaipur is nice, but they're also tourist traps and are not exactly in the most interesting and pleasant parts of the country.

Anyway, my favourite trip. Fly into Madras (everyone still calls it that) then go down through Tamil Nadu to Rameswawaram, stopping at Pondicherry en route. Enjoy the food. Cut inland, go to Madhurai and then across the western ghats ; stop in Kodaikanal, the only hill station founded by Americans. Go down the other side and wind up vegging on the beaches in Kerela or hanging out in Kochin. Up to Mumbai if you have longer. If not fly out of Kochin.

I also like Darjeeling, Varanassi, Khajuraho, Mysore, etc. And Ladakh, although it isn't much like the India everyone imagines. If you are in Mumbai and want an interesting two day break, the hill station of Mattheram is nice.
posted by rhymer at 4:59 PM on March 10, 2008

All sorts of advice here:
posted by babysingsing at 6:11 PM on March 10, 2008

Mumbai wont do much for you, its just a busy metropolis with lots of slums. Good for studying interactions between people but not exactly a great point for a tourist. North and South are two options. Delhi should be a good spot to go to Rajasthan or Agra etc. The airport is currently a mess but should be a bit better by the time you go. South is great with excellent temples and architechture but you might want to use Bangalore as a base. Lufthansa and BA fly direct from Frankfurt and London respectively.

One tip you will thank me for: NEVER ever change a flight in India between International and domestic. Airports are a mess and it can take hours and hours.
posted by london302 at 6:55 PM on March 10, 2008

Quassia as an herbal tincture before meals as a parasite preventitive. Works well for me.
posted by pointilist at 8:52 PM on March 10, 2008

Seconding infini's on North/South characterisitics and southof40's Agra tips.

I wasn't going to see the Taj as I thought it was too expensive and a tourist trap, but honestly, you can't go all the way to India not to see it. Go to the Taj, and do it at the crack of dawn when they open the doors, after that hop on a bus in the afternoon out to Fatehpur Sikri, spend the night out there, check out the ruins in the morning, take the bus back, and get the hell out of Agra.. for all its beautiful monuments, the way they treat foreigners in Agra is quite possibly the worst of all India.

Two weeks isn't a lot of time for India. I suppose if you wanted to do things without being rushed, I'd arrive in Bombay and just slowly make your way south down the western side by train (hitting up Kerala and Goa), then eventually flying back from Chennai or Bangalore. Just take your time, forget about sticking to a itinerary of sites, and let it all soak in.
posted by hobbes at 11:01 PM on March 10, 2008

i spent a lot of time in india (8 months) and a lot of time travelling to other southeast asian countries for much shorter periods of time, and can offer the following suggestions:

everyone has their own pov about whats interesting, what they're visiting india for, etc. so

a) buy a copy of the lonely planet india (or rough guide if you're one of those weird anti-LP people)
b) read it cover to cover (yes, i know it's 800 pages, but it's worth the effort)
c) choose 3 different places - one big city you can fly into internationally (delhi, mumbai, bangalore, calcutta) which appeals to you, and then 2 really amazing looking places (hopefully somewhat close by to your city-of-arrival) that push your buttons in some way, but arent on the main 2-week-tourist circuit (ie. agra/taj mahal/jaipur)
d) spit your time between the 3.

i say 3 and not 5-8 (like you might do in a whirlwind tour of european capitals) because travelling any distance at all in india is absolutely draining. if you spend your whole time in india running around from one place to another, standing in line 5 hours to buy tickets for trains that leave at 1am and take 36 hours to get to your destination etc etc, you may not have any energy left to have fun.

ps. one suggestion for your consideration: hampi has scores of fantastic ancient 1000-year-old temple ruins, full of amazingly detailed carvings and statues, set amongst a crazy unique landscape and would make a great 3-4 day side trip from bangalore. it was probably the most astounding thing i saw in 8 months of travels in india, if not ever, and it isn't nearly as overrun with tourists and scammers as your standard tourst spots - i'd choose it over the taj mahal any day. there are similarly unique spots like this all over india, just waiting for someone to find them buried in chapter x of the guidebooks, somewhere between the chapter for agra and the one for goa....
posted by messiahwannabe at 5:17 AM on March 11, 2008

If you're going to the south, go to the state of Kerala and arrange to take a houseboat trip along the backwaters. It would be at least one overnight, and will be a wonderful experience.
posted by mbarryf at 5:23 AM on March 11, 2008

"If you're going to the south, go to the state of Kerala and arrange to take a houseboat trip along the backwaters. It would be at least one overnight, and will be a wonderful experience."

i was *this close* to suggesting that as well...

bangalore ->hampi -> kerala? (based at lovely kovalum beach with day trips to the backwaters and trivandum, which is a really nice midsized indian city)
posted by messiahwannabe at 6:11 AM on March 11, 2008

One thing I didn't see mentioned here is that a lot of hotels--well, many I ran into in various places in Gujurat--have a 24-hour checkout policy. That is, whatever time you check in is also your checkout time the next day. Great if you get in at 6pm, but horrible if you check in at your hotel at 5am after a long train ride. If you don't check out by 5am, you're charged another day. I was staying at super-cheap places, though, so if you're staying at Holiday Inns and Best Westerns, I imagine things would be a bit different. Be certain of the checkout policy wherever you plan to stay.

I've also heard rumors (or maybe read in a guidebook) that it's difficult for unmarried men and women to travel together in India. Never ran into the problem, myself, having only traveled alone in India, but to be on the safe side, I'd suggest photoshopping a marriage certificate to carry around and present to hotels if they balk at letting you two share a room.
posted by msbrauer at 8:05 AM on March 11, 2008

i travelled in india with my ex-wife (we actually *were* married at the time) but no one ever really believed we were married as we were fairly young, kind of crazy looking and staying in backpacker places. we certainly didn't carry our marriage liscence with us, and we never had the slightest bit of trouble with sharing a room - i don't believe anyone asked, ever.

we did refer to each other as "my wife" "my husband" and stuff though. hmmm, maybe i'm not actually the best person to comment on this actually! still, you might take msbrauer's marriage comments with a grain of salt - no offense! that 24 hour checkout thing does happen in some places, but not most - generally it's only in the cheapest backpacker dumps with super high volume and turnover.
posted by messiahwannabe at 11:35 AM on March 11, 2008

btw, the IHT Globespotters blog just ran a short entry on Mumbai. It's a nice 5-minute read, though I don't know how accurate some of its recommendations in the city are.
posted by hobbes at 5:10 PM on March 17, 2008

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