Having run 14 escorted rail tours to India, Ffestiniog Travel have become experts on the dos and don'ts of travelling around the Sub-Continent. Seasoned FT tour leader Bob Cable gives his useful, first hand top tips for an enjoyable holiday in India with Ffestiniog Travel and in general, covering such issues as food, health, hygiene, luggage and security.
Getting the most out of a Holiday in India by following these tops tips on Health, Hygiene, Food, Security and India in General
India is a third world country and whilst there are CURRENTLY no compulsory inoculation requirements you would be foolish not to take precautions. As a tour operator we are NOT qualified to give definitive advice so you should consult with your GP if unsure and explain where you are going. You are likely to need Typhoid, Tetanus, Hepatitis and other inoculations. You will also need to take Malaria precautions, which involve starting a course a week before departure and continuing for 4 weeks after you return. Remember that a course of several inoculations will take several weeks as some cannot be given together.
We cannot give comprehensive advice about general health and food matters but some basic notes can be helpful.
- Never drink tap water. Always use bottled water even for cleaning teeth! Bottled mineral water is freely available but check that it is still factory sealed before you buy it. Old bottles filled with tap water are not uncommon and a disaster for your bowels!!!
- Never consume ice or ice creams, unless the latter are clearly factory packed.
- Indian dishes such as curries are generally much safer (and nearly always much tastier) than Indian versions of Western cuisine. Particularly beware of undercooked chicken, shell fish and buffet food where refrigeration is poorly understood and regulated - even in quality hotels.
- Peel all fruit and avoid water melon.
- Street stall (and ‘platform food’) can be fine if you consider a few basic points. Vegetarian items (such as samosas and fritters) are generally both safe and delicious if you see them freshly cooked or they look fresh and are covered up by the vendor. If they are selling well to the locals they are also more likely to be safe!! Meat items can be troublesome due to lack of refrigeration so these are best avoided.
- Western bottled drinks such as Coke (Limca or Miranda are refreshing lemon drinks), bottled water, crisps and chocolate bars are freely available in streets and on railway platforms, are factory packed and thus safe SO you won’t starve or die of thirst.
- If Indian snacks don’t appeal. Tea (chay) and coffee is served on platforms and is always freshly prepared and generally safe. HOWEVER it is always served very milky and very sweet. If you like black tea/coffee with no sugar it is almost impossible to get outside hotels so take a cup, some tea bags and instant coffee and just pay for some boiling water. A thermos flask (filled at your last hotel) is also invaluable.
- If you are a vegetarian you are in the right place as India is THE country for Vegetarian food. If you have any other dietary requirements you should be very careful indeed. Indians are naturally eager to please so if they don’t fully understand what you mean by a Gluten Free diet (or some such) they will often appear to understand or tell you they do but NOT give you what you have ordered. Speak to your doctor before departure and monitor your own diet avoiding anything that even MIGHT contain what you must avoid!! It is vital that you understand that the whole concept of allergies and special diets is VERY poorly understood in India and it is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY ALONE to look after yourself in this respect.
Carry a basic First Aid kit and supply of medicines. Virtually everything can be bought in India but you may not be able to get to a pharmacy. A Medical Kit may well include Headache tablets, Indigestion tablets, Antihistamine tablets, and stomach upset tablets BUT talk to your doctor. A couple of traveller’s tips might be handy here!
You may be unfortunate enough to get an attack of the ‘runs’ at some time. Most people carry ‘Imodium’ that is highly effective and generally stops you stone dead and is invaluable if toilets are remote or foul (like on stations!!). However as it stops you, rather than killing any infection, you can often feel lousy for days or even weeks afterwards. If toilets are readily available let any minor ‘runs’ go through you naturally or only use a gentle medication such as Kaolin and Morpine Mixture and you will recover much quicker. Speak to a pharmacist or doctor about this. BEWARE the fact that at many pharmacies in India they will sell you anything without prescription. It is very easy to end up taking unsuitable drugs (particularly antibiotics ) that can make you even more ill.
Where you are sold ANY medication insist they come with the instruction sheet and READ IT CAREFULLY before use. Otherwise your First Aid kit should include the normal range of plasters, bandages, antiseptic creams and insect repellent.
If you are particularly cautious you could consider taking a sealed needle/syringe kit that can be bought from chemists. Ensure you have a full supply of any regular prescription drugs that you are taking on a day to day basis.
‘Loos’ and Washing
Fear not! All the hotels Ffestiniog Travel tours stay at have rooms with private facilities of a standard you will be used to in Europe (or indeed far better in hotels like the Mayfair in Darjeeling). It is only when on the move that loos become an issue. By and large there are few public toilets in India and where they exist they can be pretty grim BUT having said that some tourist sights (such as the Taj) DO have acceptable facilities that are normally reasonably clean and sometimes spotless (and an admission is charged and/or a tip expected). In general if we need toilets on the move we stop at a roadside cafe and most are OK.
Station toilets are very mixed. The majority are ‘poor to grim’ whilst a few are quite acceptable. Trains generally have both Western style ‘sit on’ loos and the squat down variety with 3 of the latter and one of the former per broad gauge coach. Generally the loos are washed out frequently and are really not bad at all. The seats on the Western loos can be grubby so using the squat down variety is generally a better bet. There is almost never loo paper to be found on trains, stations and in public toilets as Indians wash themselves using a small water jug. Hence you will find a tap and jug in each loo. Once you have mastered the necessary contortions required to use these you have truly become an old ‘India Hand’! THUS take your OWN LOO PAPER. The flat pack variety is best and is sold in supermarkets. Rather surprisingly there is a good loo on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) charter train. Just as well as Ffestiniog Tavel journey on it for 2 days!
You can significantly reduce your chance of getting the 'runs' by washing hands frequently or using 'Wet Ones' where this is not possible.
On a FT India tour you are letting yourself in for a lot of travelling! Make a special effort to pack as lightly as reasonably possible and to bring the right sort of baggage. Get yourself a good quality soft/zip up canvas bag (with solid base, wheels, and on smaller ones, a shoulder strap) or consider a backpack RATHER than bringing a traditional suitcase.
UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES bring a huge suitcase or solid ‘shell’ type suitcases.
Soft bags fit much more easily under seats or on luggage racks of trains. Also take a cycle chain (with combination lock) to lock your bags to the seats/racks. (This is done by Indians as well as visitors and the underside of seats have loops fitted for this very purpose). This is good for security AND your peace of mind. All luggage locks are only of so much use (generally too easily forced open) but they do deter pilferage so USE them!! Combination locks are much better as you have no keys to lose!
NB On our FT tour your bags will in fact be handled by porters at almost all hotels and loaded on and off coaches for you. Also bags will be transported on several sectors by road whilst we travel by rail – ie from Amritsar to Nalagahr and onward to Shimla, from Shimla to Agra and Delhi, from Siliguri to Darjeeling and from Coimbatore to Ooty. All this is much more secure and a lot less hassle and effort! However you WILL have to carry your own bags onto and off a number of trains which will involve lifting your bags onto trains and conveying them up or down steps to footbridges and subways. – hence the need NOT to have oversize bags. REMEMBER it is your responsibility to see your bags onto and off coaches and in and out of hotels even when it is being handled by porters.
Electricity, Telephones and E Mail
Electrical supply in India is the same as the UK at 220V but you will need a continental adaptor which you can buy at any airport shop or hardware store.
The telephone system in India is almost up to international standards. Many hotels will allow you to make international calls direct from your room. However it is nearly always MUCH cheaper to make calls at public booths. Every Indian town and city seems to have ‘telephone shops/booths’ on almost every street. These have a prominent ‘STD/Fax’ sign. You tell the attendant what number you require and they dial it for you. Many of the better ones have a digital meter that shows the cost of your call as you talk. You pay the attendant on completion of the call. E Mail is also readily available at many of these booths as well as at your hotel or at Internet Cafes and is a very cheap way to stay in contact with home. Glenary’s Café in Darjeeling is located between the hotel and the station and has an internet café, as well as delicious sticky cakes! Wifi is available in several of the hotels we are using.
India has embraced the mobile phone like nowhere on earth. Be prepared for half the population to be on their phones half the time. Loudly conducted, ever so important phone calls are often inconsiderately conducted by the ever so important person in the seat next to you on a train. Sounds just like home!
If you have a mobile phone and you have an International roaming agreement with your service provider, you can use your UK phone everywhere in India. However you will probably be wise to check what the charges will be as they are normally well over £1 and as much as £2 a minute! If your phone is not ‘blocked’ buying an Indian SIM card would be a very good idea if you plan to call home (or even in India) a lot.
Currency/Credit Cards, etc.
The Rupee is a NON convertible currency which means it cannot be imported or exported from India so you cannot get any in advance. You would do well to visit the bank or ATM in the airport arrivals hall immediately on arrival so a small initial supply of Rupees can be obtained.
Credit cards are widely accepted in hotels, shops and fancier restaurants in the major cities, although shops often charge a fee for their use.
Maestro/Visa cards work in nearly all cash machines (ATMs) in the cities and all provincial towns. There are several ATM's in Shimla, Darjeeling and in Ooty and even one in the booking hall at Siliguri Junction station and indeed many other stations! The problem is that outside of Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai they can be just plain hard to find. When found they can also be out of order! It can cause you, and group tours as a whole, a measure of bother to have to search around in busy towns for an ATM machine! A tour leader should make sure you have adequate access to ATM’s at reasonably frequent intervals.
Traveller Cheques are now almost redundant and it is not recommend that you buy them. A few hotels will still change them at a poor rate (but NOT all by any means) and banks can be grindingly slow if you can find one that will change them. As a back-up for your cards we recommend you take about £150 per person in cash. Taking this in US$ serves no purpose as Sterling is accepted everywhere.
Always split your cards and carry your partners spare cards so if one person loses their cards there are some back-ups. If you want a back-up you would do well to obtain a 'Prepaid Currency Card' that limits what you could lose through fraud and can be topped up from your bank account whilst you are away. Some however have surprisingly high charges so it pays to shop around.
Tipping and ‘making things happen’
Tipping and making small payments to ‘make things happen’, is a way of life in India. Even poor Indians tip those poorer than themselves! It is, of course, part of the Hindu ethic to give to the poor although that is not always obvious. Partly it is expected that visitors tip as they are so wealthy! Sometimes the line between a tip and a minor bribe is distinctly blurred! HOWEVER this is not as bad as it seems!
The ‘standard’ tip for porters, sleeping car attendants, waiters and general small favours and assistance is Rs10-20 which at 13p or 26p is hardly going to hurt most of us! A generous (and well received) tip is Rs50 (62p) and over this they will think you an easy touch! However there are exceptions.
On a recent trip to India a tip of Rs200 (£2.50) to each of the loco crew for an unofficial footplate ride on the Ooty rack line was greeted with delight and surely paved the way for the ‘next man’ as well as being a very real token of appreciation for a fabulous experience and a tiny price to pay!
Having agreed a price for a taxi or rickshaw a tip is NOT expected. (never get into one until the price is FIRMLY agreed).
Even in moderately priced hotels and restaurants there will be a loo attendant to put soap on your hands and pass you a towel. You will get a long face if you don’t give him/her a few rupees as they are probably paid next to nothing and rely almost totally on tips.
In fancy hotels/restaurants the tip would be the international norm of 10% if no service charges have been added already.
It really IS worth going with the flow to make things happen. If staying a few days in a hotel the service is notably better if you have a reputation as a tipper! Don’t view this like a Westerner or Brit, as being greedy or grabbing but rather as an accepted way of life which applies as much to Indians as to tourists. The average waiter in a hotel earns about Rs3000-4000 a month which amounts to £10 - £13 a week! We are super rich by his standards!
Arm yourself with a fist full of Rs10 notes that you can get from hotel reception. Very useful!
IMPORTANT - On previous FT tours the leader has operated a tip fund to cover all Baggage porters in hotels and stations, coach drivers and their assistants, tour guides, hotel/waiting staffs and anybody else looking after you and the group in general. All that is left are very minor tips in loo’s and if you go out for a meal on your own. This was done by mutual consent of the group as a whole and worked very well. The suggested amount is Rupees150 (about £2) per person per day of the tour and this covers all of the above and removes the worry from individuals. On occasions our groups have been SO enthused about the 2 days on the DHR that a separate ‘whip round’ was done for the train crew!
Take sensible precautions! It is a sad fact that where there are lots of tourists they become the target of the local petty crook. Wherever you are in the World! Hence you will need to be most careful when we travel to Agra, Delhi and Chennai and will be safest in Shimla, Siliguri, Darjeeling and Ooty. Beware of jostling crowds anywhere and particularly when getting onto and off busy trains when there can be much pushing and shoving and you are most distracted.
Watch your belongings on long train journeys when you can be lulled into complacency. Remember to lock your bags to the underside of your seat as mentioned in the baggage section.
Also beware of hands snaking through open train windows and grabbing cameras or anything left carelessly lying on seats or tables. This HAS happened on a DHR charter where there were belongings left all over the carriage. You have been warned!
Buy a money belt or pouch that you wear under your shirt or at the very least a belt wallet which attaches to your belt and tucks inside your trousers out of sight.
Keep your passport, air ticket, and most of your cards here but split your money and keep a separate supply elsewhere. If you have two credit cards don’t keep them together in one wallet. If one is stolen you still have the other!
Bulky Bum bags are NOT RECOMMENDED as they are visible and the straps can be cut.
DO make the effort to use safety deposit boxes in hotels but most importantly don’t leave money or valuables lying around your hotel room.
Having said all this, India is remarkably safe to travel around. Whilst pickpockets and opportunistic thieves will capitalise on your carelessness, personnel violence (ie mugging or assault) is extremely rare and has never happened to anyone on one of our tours. In 14 tours to India we have only had a single incident of something going missing.
WE FEEL A GREAT DEAL SAFER, AND LESS THREATENED IN INDIA THAN IN MANY PLACES IN EUROPE, SO DO KEEP THINGS IN PROPORTION.
The police force at street level is honourable and mostly uncorrupted and can be relied on to assist. Attempted bribes to the police are NOT recommended and can get you into deep trouble. If you do have the misfortune to be robbed you MUST report it to the police and get a written report if you want to make an insurance claim afterwards.
Although it seems most unlikely with a group of this sort, we would point out that whilst drugs will often be offered to tourists (particularly in the mountains where it is grown) it is DEEPLY FOOLISH to buy, use or worse of all take any in or out of the country. The penalties in India are draconian and an extended stay in an Indian prison doesn’t bear thinking about.
Well…., lots of people worry about this one and you ARE going to be begged from at some time or other! Agra and parts of Delhi are probably the worst places whilst in Shimla, Darjeeling and Ooty almost no begging occurs at all, where there are hordes of tourists there are hordes of beggars and vice versa! How you cope with it is up to you but these points may help.
- Indians themselves give to the poor so it is not just aimed at tourists.
- Many visitors are determined to ignore all beggars on the basis that you cannot really make any difference. This is fair enough and the least hassle as most beggars give up fairly quickly. Equally giving to a beggar never satisfies them, they just immediately ask for more, and more beggars appear!
- Some ignore all beggars but drop a donation into a charity box at some stage of the tour. Boxes are often found in hotel lobbies. You then know in yourself that you have done the ‘right thing’ if such things bother you. This is undoubtedly the least troublesome option.
- Some find it easier to set aside a fixed amount each day and once it is gone that is that. Get say Rs40 (50p) in Rs1 coins each day and give that away. You will of course get two new children appearing for every one you give a couple of rupees to, so be prepared to attract an ‘attendant horde’. At least you will feel good with yourself even if you do create yourself lots of hassle and STILL make no difference to the world or India as a whole!
- Giving some forethought is another option. Buy 50 cheap pens OR 100 party balloons OR a few bags of boiled sweets and give these to the children. You will likely as not create the big daddy of all ‘attendant hordes’ but you and the kids will have great fun! This really only works outside the big cities. It is however a benign way of giving something and not going around feeling guilty with your ‘nose in the air’ and/or your eyes averted. Some travellers disapprove of this option and anything that involves giving to children does send out the wrong messages if the children get to think of foreigners as merely a source of gifts. However quite a number of our group members have found this a rewarding option.
Train Travel in India
Charter trains are still a novelty to Indian Railways and things can turn out differently to expected programmes. Travelling by Indian Railways is a vast undertaking and scheduled trains could run late and reservations may be changed at the last minute. We do not expect this to happen when we plan a tour, but this is India and not Western Europe. It should be an express condition of a rail tour to India that travellers accept this situation and not to expect refunds if parts of the itinerary are altered or curtailed through no fault of the organisers.
Striking a Balance!
India IS a shock to the senses. Probably there is nowhere in the world where so much poverty and wealth sits side by side. Indians themselves have a unique way of not ‘seeing’ what is staring them in the face. The story goes of the tourist commenting to an Indian friend that someone he sees defecating in full view in the street is disgusting. ‘No’ replies the Indian friend ‘it is YOU who is disgusting for watching him!’ You will get used to the notion that you are an observer of a country, and a way of life, that despite the superficial similarities, cannot and should not be compared to our own!
We have talked of robbery, illness and begging that may leave you wondering what kind of holiday destination India is! Don’t panic! All this does is to forewarn you of some of the pitfalls. Above everything else you will come away with warm memories of many charming people, great kindness, fabulous history and stunning scenery.
Nobody leaves India indifferent.
Either you will never return or have a ‘love affair’ with it for life. The vast majority the latter!!
Why not consider joining us on our next tour of India in February 2014 – Indian Hill Railways