India on a Shoestring – Part 2
Part One of this India on a shoestring blog covered the country’s most popular backpacking destinations, so in Part Two we focus on how to travel between these destinations, the variety of accommodation options available, and practical information on social customs and traditions worth knowing while in India.
One of the biggest reasons why backpackers flock to India is the cheap and plentiful transport options available throughout the country. While most tourists prefer to use the old reliables of train and bus, the more adventurous can also opt to rent a motorcycle or car, take a boat or ferry, or hire a rickshaw and its driver for the day, or longer.
Traveling by train in India is an exhilarating experience. Inter-city trains are normally full to the brim with passengers, and we’ve all seen the pictures of those unable to get a seat sitting on the roof when carriages become dangerously overcrowded. Despite this, the train network is very efficient and offers a quick and viable way to move between cities. Ticket costs are low and dependent on the class of travel and destination, however, with air-conditioned carriages, onboard catering and bunks available for competitive prices, it is hard to resist the temptation of splurging on a first or second-class ticket. As with travelling by train in most countries, theft can be a problem, so baggage should be securely locked at all times. The website for Indian Railways (www.indianrail.gov.in) contains comprehensive information on timetables, routes and ticket costs.
Offering an even cheaper mode of travel than the train, travel by bus is the most popular way to move around India. State run bus companies compete with private operators on many routes, and traveling by bus is the only viable method of transport in much of northern India’s mountainous areas. Prices vary depending on travel time to the destination, but government bus companies are generally cheaper than their private counterparts. One word of warning, however: India’s roads and driving standards leave a lot to be desired, and an excitable driver can quickly turn a standard journey into a test of his and the bus’s capabilities. Night time bus journeys should be avoided if possible as drivers tend to drive even quicker when the roads are quiet. Despite the risk of accidents, the buzz of traveling by bus in India continues to entice many travelers.
Motorcycle or Car
Renting a car for self-drive can be a good transport option for groups of backpackers who are willing to share the burden, but in many cases hiring a car and driver can work out cheaper. Given the low standards of driving, this is a much safer option and most large cities and tourist locations will have numerous drivers offering their services in areas popular with backpackers.
One of the best ways to really see India is to hire a motorcycle, and a wide selection of tours offer motorbike enthusiasts a route and companions for the journey. Motorcycles are available for rent in various engine sizes, although many recommend hiring an Enfield as spare parts and repair shops are plentiful throughout the country. Deposits in the form of submitting a passport or a large sum of cash are usually required. Motorbikes can also be rented for long-term agreements, and purchasing third party insurance is strongly recommended.
With India’s booming economic growth and development, cheap and cheerful accommodation options are not as plentiful as in years gone by. While there are still some great bargains to be had, a standard three-star double room in some of India’s most popular tourist areas will typically start from US$40 per night. This may stretch the daily budget for some a bit too close for comfort, so if cheaper alternatives are necessary, we advise requesting to see the accommodation first before confirming a booking. Travelers should be mindful of the old proverb: “you get what you pay for” and be willing to look around and negotiate a discount.
As always, hostels are a cheaper alternative, and while some in India have gained a poor reputation for lack of cleanliness and security (theft being a big problem), excellent hostels at very affordable prices can be sourced on websites such as www.tripadvisor.com and www.hostelworld.com. We advise reading client reviews and being willing to pay a small deposit (usually 10 percent) if making a booking online.
Much like transport, food is one area where budgets can stay safely intact in India. Simple and basic meals can be purchased at small roadside restaurants and stalls at all times of the day and night, and given the diverse flavours of Indian food, this offers a great way to fight off hunger while traveling. Food is eaten by hand in India, and while this may seem a little strange at first to foreign visitors, it should be tried at least once. Fellow customers at restaurants will quickly show their appreciation too.
Depending on the location, it is possible to have an all-you-can-eat dinner that consists of a choice of curries, rice, vegetables, bread and soup for as little as US$1. Street food vendors also sell a kind of ready made meal of rice, curry and bread for under a dollar. As many Indians are vegetarians, most of the curry options will be lentil or vegetable based, therefore meat lovers should ask for suitable options before ordering. Given the holy status of cows in India, beef on menus is hard to find, although there is the odd steakhouse in popular tourist areas such as Goa and Mumbai.
Local Customs and Practical Information
Tipping or ‘baksheesh’ is par for the course in the services industry in India. While these tips normally only amount to a few rupees, backpackers should be aware of the custom and that they will need to tip waiters and hotel staff for services received.
India’s high levels of poverty, and the disparity in the cost of living between foreign tourists and local citizens means that tourists are generally charged a higher price for most items; such as admission fees, souvenirs, goods and food. In most cases, the difference in price will be clearly stated and tourists just have to accept it, but if the price does seem outrageously high, haggling and bargaining may result in some form of a discount.
Female travelers in India can sometimes be on the receiving end of unwanted glares and attention from local men. This is mainly due to western-style fashion and the implications it has in Indian society. To help reduce attention, female tourists are advised to keep their shoulders, cleavage and legs covered, and to use sarongs to help cover up while at the beach.