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India - Lessons Learned

Added: November 26, 2008

Tags: India info photos
We have returned from our short trip to India a few days ago and I would like to write about what we have learned about India which can be useful to others. Complete report with pictures will follow shortly. We have been there only 12 days with flying there and back so I am not going to claim we have learned everything or this will be complete guide. Contrary we have learned only basic things and I am sure even those are not correct :-) I have decided to write separate post about this only to help future readers to find complete information at one place. Otherwise it would be split to several posts and quite hard to find.

This text turned out to be quite long, so if you are not interested reading it completely, you can jump to the most interesting part.


I would like to thank to Robo Koscura who provided us the most useful information we could get. His 2 basic rules turned to be invaluable for us.

  1. Don't wonder at anything
  2. Don't believe anybody
The first might not seem like something special, but it helped us to set correct level of expectations and set better threshold for bizarre :-) The latter rule on the other side is real money saver. There will be more later. Apart from these most important rules he gave us bunch of other pieces of advice, most notably about medications to buy in case some problems occur.

Having someone you trust telling you all those pieces of advice cannot be compared with possibility to reading about them in books, blogs and discussion forums. In the end, to experience it and learn by your mistakes will show you how much you underestimated those pieces of advice.

Our plan

Our trip was planned only for 8 work days + 2 weekends because of limited amount of days off Zuzka had available. But that did not discourage her to cram a lot of places into our itinerary. Everybody who had seen our plan told us we are crazy. Another unusual thing we did (blame belongs to me this time) was that we planned everything. We reserved accommodations, booked trains and local flights. Now, that was crazy. It is not very wise to plan trip to India like that, because India does not work according your plans. Trains can be delayed for many hours or even cancelled, you might miss your train and next one might run tomorrow and so on. But because we wanted to see many places in short time we did not have luxury of postponing decisions for later time. Fortunately we have been lucky. Everything (or 99% of everything) went along the plan as we knew it on day of departure.

Of course some unwanted changes happened about week before our departure. One flight was moved 3 hours sooner, thus we were left with only half a day in Jodhpur and flights to and from Amritsar were moved to be 12 hours later, thus we needed to swap days we will see New Delhi with one unfortunate twist, that everything is closed in New Delhi on Monday.

Golden Temple in Amritsar. Most peaceful place in whole India. Click here for bigger image.


Nice People

People are very nice in India. They are curious where are you coming from, everybody associated Slovakia with former Czechoslovakia immediately. They wanted to take photos of us or with us, some of them offered photographing us with our camera (I never let them to handle mine, Zuzka has smaller and cheaper one so it looked like good trade-off :-) ).

From all people you will meet children are the best. They are genuinely interested, they want to shake hand with you, want you to take picture of them and so on. You can also by sure they do not belong to category described later (yet).

If you ask two schoolgirls to pose with your girlfriend, be quick or you might not find her in the photo...

If you ask your girlfriend to raise her hand she should be quick enough or you might not find her in the photo...


It is, however, important to distinguish genuinely nice people from those who would like to take advantage of you either by selling you something, providing some service to you or just con you. We have met a lot of people belonging to this category. It is time for the first lesson we have learned. Always think about why they are so friendly, maybe it is not because they want to help you.

Those trying to take advantage of you are very well masked as friendly people and they are skilled psychologists (in my opinion). Their skills were improved with "help" of thousands of visitors before you. By answering them a few questions (How long have you been here, what places have you visited, ....) they are able to categorize you well and then they know how to approach you with their "offer". It can be overpriced taxi service for sight seeing or similar. We felt to this trap too. So never do business with anybody you have told "enough" about yourself. Later on, being fully aware of these it was quite easy for me to being friendly to guy who came and sat next to me at train shortly before we arrived to Jaisalmer. After answering those questions (you cannot be sure what is his intention at that time, at least I am not able to) he just asked if I want accommodation in Jaisalmer, because his friend has nice place. "No, I don't and this is end of our discussion". He understood and left. Some time later I could hear from near distance how he or his colleague made a deal. I am not saying that that deal was rip-off, but I suspect it was not based completely on friendship... What could be wrong on accepting offered accommodation? Well, the problem is that that guy gets commission and you are going to pay it in your payment. If you are not prepared as we were and you need to find an accommodation, just ask people you selected, don't accept offer of those who approached you, because they are "professionals" living from offering overpriced places to stay at. This might be bit bold statement, it is quite possible that you would be able to find good place for decent price and you are loosing "only time" in case you are not satisfied with room or price. In our situation, time was precious commodity.

Some people (happened to us with taxi drivers) do not want to tell you price beforehand. "Money is not problem. Friendship is important" or "You will be surprised with price". Never agree to such an offer. You might be surprised by price :-) Probably not immediately, it can seem reasonable compared to what you have paid before, but with time you will learn how unreasonable it was.

Any time you hear following phrases start to be suspicious about their intentions: I am not cheater, I am good guy. I am not selling you anything. or It is government approved X (price list, rickshaw, agent).

The best idea how to avoid touts and people trying to sell you something is to ignore them completely. They do not exist and if they are not on colliding trajectory with you don't look at them. If you do it like this they will lose their interest soon. And never ever take any gift from anybody. It is considered as contract for future deal.

I am sure there are decent traders in India and these pieces of advice are damaging them, but you cannot find easily if guy you are dealing with is one of them.


During our 12 days in India we used 5 domestic flights, 5 trains, only 2 short rides by bus, 2 whole day trips by taxi, about 5 short rides by taxi (pre-paid) and several auto rickshaws. So again, we had nice mix of transports, we have learned a lot about haggling rikshaw price, but we overpaid most of them.

As I have said we needed to use flights to save time, this was clearly most expensive way to travel, but at least it is safe. Lesson learned: you might be used to way e-tickets are used in Europe - you do not need to show any paper at check-in. It might be case also in India, but I do not encourage you to try, because you would not be allowed into terminal building. Always keep any piece of paper confirming you have right to be inside terminal building. Security is pretty tight and uniformed men would not let you into terminal. For example we arrived to Mumbai International and had another flight from Mumbai Domestic airport several hours later. So we used free bus to get us to domestic airport, but there are 2 terminals there. So we got out at one where KingFisher is operating. We had still some time to spend so we went out to see how India looks like :-) It was hot and nothing irresistible was there so we wanted to return. But they did not allow us in, because our flight was with KingFisher Red (former Deccan) that is located in other terminal building... So we needed to find another transport (paid one) to get there. This have confirmed us that we failed in another important instruction Always reconfirm everything. We have asked at KingFisher booth if we are at correct terminal, because our flight is not listed on display. The answer was YES. Never formulate question in way YES is possible answer. You will get it with high probability.


Trains are another very good way to travel in India. It can be cheap or bit more expensive depending if you use general class or air conditioned coaches. We were satisfied with our pick of AC2 and AC3 coaches. I encourage you to pre-book your tickets on internet at http://www.irctc.co.in. Trains can be found at http://www.indianrail.gov.in. Everything you "will ever need" can be learned at Train travel in India - a beginner's guide.

We were lucky with trains, because we did not experience any 15h delay as you can hear about on Internet :-) We had only 2 late arrivals - 45 and 60 minutes. Surprisingly 12h ride from Jaipur to Jaisalmer with train departing 45min late arrived at planned time. Even more surprisingly we arrived 20 minutes ahead of planned time on our 6h ride from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur. It is surprising because train was late about 15-20 min at previous station.

New Delhi Railways Station scam

Our worst experience happened when we arrived to NDLS (main railways station in New Delhi). I feel like an idiot while I am writing about it. Our first train ride was about to happen. Immediately as rickshaw stopped at station a guy pointed us to entrance. No reason not to believe him, many people shown us a way before. As we got to the entrance (gate) another guy asked us to show him ticket. We were not aware that Nobody should be checking tickets at train station. Due to our airport experience it looked natural. That guy told us "you have electronic ticket, you need to go to information centre to replace it with real ticket. Do you have more tickets? You can exchange them all.". Somehow I forgot what I have read about e-tickets - you need show e-ticket and your passport to claim your seat. Nothing else. "Do you know where it is? I can draw you map... You need to go to X (sorry, I forgot :-( ) Then you go to DTTDC N BLOCK where... You can take government rickshaw. Do you know how government rickshaw looks like? I will show you. And pay them 25+25, not more! And do not worry, your train runs in one hour and it is 2 hours delayed, so you have plenty of time/"

So we sat into rickshaw this nice guy shown us and got to Connaught Place (big roundabout south of NDLS). Block N is inside of roundabout at south side, close to Palika Bazaar (easy to spot on the left as rickshaw turned to the right). One more turn to right and we were there. I am not describing directions for you to get there easily, but to easy spot you are taken there!

We got inside, it looked fine and authentic (whatever purpose that place had). Booths, computers, phones, chairs, ... We were asked to sit down shortly (probably to enjoy the place and get confidence in it?), then we were waved in by business guy on phone. "Good afternoon, how are you?" A few polite questions followed. I got bit nervous: "Could we get to business?" His attitude has changed "What is that? I am polite... You always think you are smarter than us, but this is India. Many like you have returned with tears to us to help them." A few more sentences like that and I started to feel I have really overstepped good manners. I started to feel bit more humble. I have even apologized. "So, tell me why are you here" he continued, pleased with my change of attitude. I am not sure we really told him "We don't know" or it was just written in our puzzled faces. We had no clue, why we were there.

We produced our train tickets, he asked about our plans, ... he studied tickets, then put 2 of them aside saying "Those are good, but there are problems with these". Then he started to sketch our complete itinerary, time to time shaking his head in disbelief (or at least it seemed so to me). Then he told us, that we are going to visit Golden Triangle, and Lonely Planet speaks highly about Golden Triangle. "have you read it?" He was satisfied with our answer "Not completely". (BTW later on I have asked if he has Lonely Planet there to check it out. He had, but he had never shown it to us. He might be afraid we would find something about con artists operating in New Delhi. Just my impression...)

He explained to us, that those tickets are bad because trains are slow in Rajastan and unreliable, they are often cancelled. So it is better if you rented a car, adding quickly "I am not renting you a car, I am only helping you", still we got to car bit later - 290€ (about 18000 Rs) for five days with English speaking driver. We can stay at hostels we have booked.

I was not sure, I have asked questions, trying to express my doubts. I have asked about some ID or badge, so he called a guy sitting in next booth (busy booking trips to other people as he claimed). He has shown us some badge, from my position it looked like copy made by bad copy machine or on matrix printer... not very convincing. Of course I cannot take a photo of it! "You are very suspicious man, and that is good" I was told by our "business partner" several times. "Many people are suspicious at the beginning. I will show you ... Here is book with references we got. Read this one - 'I was not sure in the beginning, but now I am thankful DTTDC for wonderful holidays we had here', or this one '...', and see this '...' ". All these references were without signatures, addresses, mail addresses, phone numbers. Written on plain A4 papers and kept in plastic pocket sleeves. Somehow they failed to make good impression on me, but maybe I am too paranoid... :-) Or maybe they seem too good, very similar and not being written in a book (or glued into the book). At least I have to give credit to them that they were not written by the same hand, but maybe there is company in New Delhi that produces them...

At the beginning of our "information gathering" we were pointed out to two girls being there "look people are coming here, we are in demand (everybody trusts us)". As we were leaving (without making any deal, of course), they were sitting at next desk I have asked "Excuse me, do you believe them?", "No-ooo" immediately followed by unfriendly gesture of their 'business partner' saying clearly "Get out!".

Most of things we heard made sense. They are very well prepared and he knew how to approach us. For example he made very good impression on Zuzka by being able to tell us departures and arrivals all of trains we had in Rajastan (but that is not as big deal as it might seem to be). What probably tipped them off was that he told us, there is no problem with full refund of all our train tickets when he cancels them (remember we thought they are railways related office in the beginning). But based on my studies of India I know that ticket cannot be refunded fully less than 24h before departure. It is something like 50% or less. So I guess price of our tickets was counted in rental price...

As we left, one of them went out, asking us if we want to go for cup of coffee to discuss it more. When we refused and wanted to stop rickshaw he called us another one (staying nearby) "Take these guys to ticket office, for 10 Rs". He dropped as at the ticket office or what place it was, about 300m from main gate to station, we went quickly to station and I have asked policeman to show us where we should go (explaining briefly that they wanted to con us). He did not understand, other guy staying behind policemen wanted to help, but I have said "I do not want to talk with you. I want only authority - somebody in uniform. Could you show us where we should go?". He led us to real entrance to train station, I had pointed him guy who sent us to DTTDC, but he apparently did not notice him :-) , then I could see our train is on platform 4 and it is ON TIME! We hurried, got into train just 5 minutes before scheduled departure. So looking back, those guys wanted us to miss our train. No questions about that!

Lessons learned:

  • The most if not all trains at NDLS are starting there, so if somebody says train is delayed he is lying!
  • Don't believe anybody twice as much around NDLS
  • Read what Lonely Planet writes about con artists in New Delhi! Interestingly it mentions DTTDC as a way to get transport (not saying anything negative about it) so it says it is genuine. My problem is that they lied to us several times (delayed train, a need to exchange e-tickets, ...) and they used another clueless prey as reference to make their case. So for me there is nothing reliable about DTTDC. Or (less probable as I have confirmed on map) we were taken to fake DTTDC. I don't know.
Later we were speaking about our experience with hostel owners and one Danish couple. We learned that somebody else used similar service and a car never shown up! On the other hand, Danish couple paid about 25000 Rs and were quite satisfied with service (apart from that they learned later it was too expensive).

Pre-paid taxis

The best way to travel from New Delhi airport is to use pre-paid taxi. We have paid 250 Rs for 17.4km ride (twice, so they are consistent) and also 205 Rs for 14.4km ride to New Delhi Railway Station. On the other hand we have paid 1000 Rs for return trip (return next day) at airport in Amritsar for 13km ride (twice) - they told us (police staying around), that it is insecure place. It was probably OK, because hotel asked 720 Rs for pick up service.

Nevertheless, it is good idea to use pre-paid taxi as transport from airport compared to other taxis/rickshaws as they are wanting to rip you off. This is more secure way to get to intended place. There is check point where your name is written into book, so there is less probability to get cheated, as driver might be afraid of authorities :-) Or that was my interpretation of it :-D BTW, I have always looked which way shadows go (during day), imagining at what azimut Sun is at given time trying to learn which way we are going. But I am not paranoid, no way! :-)

BTW we found pre-paid taxi driver who asked other drivers and also phoned somebody to learn how to get to Lotus Temple. Funny thing is that he then asked "Give me one hundred", "Why?", "Bakshish", "For what?" (he was pre-paid and he got voucher, so I did not see any reason for giving him 40% tip for not knowing where we wanted to go).

Auto rickshaws

Auto rickshaws are my favourite transport in India. They are cheaper, there is better contact with traffic and they are more adventurous. If you do not know what I mean by 'contact', try find some videos on youtube.com (use e.g. "traffic india"). The best thing about them is that you can haggle price (from our numerous rides meter was running only twice and for one of them price was agreed before). It took us several days to learn something about prices and how to haggle (thanks to Canadian couple that have shown us). We have adapted following approach:

  • "Will you take us to X?"
  • "Yes"
  • "I offer you 50 Rs per couple"(make sure they know you are not going to pay per person)
  • "No, it is 20 kilometers from here up to hill - 150"
  • "No, we went other way for 50 and it is not 20km"(sometimes I added "you are lying", but that's just me)
  • "We are not interested, bye"
  • go away
  • He will call you back in case he did have high enough margin, asking for less. It is up to you if you agree or not, because there will not be many situations when no other rickshaw is around. If you let him go, and 5 following rickshaws do not agree with your price then maybe your offer is too low.

In time you will get an idea what is good price for given distance. So it is good idea to do your homework and find distances between atractions you want to visit. Good help is maps.mapmyindia.com. Also be aware they will try different tricks. Loosers just ask you plainly for tip, hoping you are compasionate. Others will try tricks like "you are two, you have baggage", but you always rented whole rickshaw regardless of weight you cram into it. Another experience we had went like this "Do you take us to airport? For 80 Rs" I knew that expected price from center is 70Rs, this was a bit further away so I started a bit low. "Yes" Interesting - no haggling, maybe price was incorrect... As we got to airport he asked while pointing finger at us: "100, 100 - 200", "No, we agreed on 80. You will get 80. Do you have 20 for a change?", "OK, 150 Rs then." "No way I am going to give you 150. You are cheater. You could get 80, but now I am not going to pay you anything, let's go." And I stepped out of rickshaw and slowly headed to terminal. But Zuzka called me back asking me to pay him. He was just staying there, helpless, not doing anything. I am not sure what he was thinking about, but he was happy when he got 90 Rs (he did not have enough change). Always have enough of 10s and 20s to pay because drivers usually pretend not having any change. They are even willing to wait (while still playing their part) until you go somewhere to change money. Be tough with your haggling and do not give them more regardless any trick they use, unless you are in dangerous situation :-)

To provide some hints about prices we have paid following:

  • 100 Rs for 11.4km in Jaipur
  • 50 Rs for 3km in Jaipur
  • 65 Rs for 6km in Jaipur by pre-paid ricksaw
  • 70 Rs for 5.5km in Jodhpur (not paid, but in listed on flyer from hotel)
  • 100 Rs for 13km in Delhi

I took this photo while waiting for our guide to call out taxi at Ellora Caves. It was probably only photo of person I did not ask before - so much for bad composition.

Full day taxi

We had very good experience with Saibaba Travels (saibabatravelsabad@yahoo.co.in). We hired a car (with driver) for whole day to visit Ajanta and Ellora caves from Aurangabad for 2450 Rs. Quite expensive, but we did not want to risk that we could not visit both places in one day if we used other transport.

Zuzka together with our driver and guide in Ellora Caves.

We had another taxi for whole day in Agra, driver was nice and talkative, but we were not satisfied as much (at least it was cheaper). We have learned that it is not necessary to take taxi (rickshaw) for sight seeing, it is always less expensive to pay for individual rides.


Unfortunately there is not much I can say about food, we ate only in restaurants and guest houses we stayed at. And somehow I was not very hungry. I had sweet stuff with myself and that was usually sufficient. But others say Eat only at places where many people eat (also local). This way you can be sure it is fresh and not very pathogenic.

When buying packaged stuff in shop (it took us some time to realize that those garages are real shops) then check M.R.P. Every item should have it and it means Maximum Retail Price. Do not pay more than M.R.P. (or only slightly ;-) ). At some places where we wanted to buy water and mango juice, M.R.P. was not there (but other bottles of the same brand bought elsewhere were clearly marked, so I am sure they cleaned it off). Staff at shop in Jaisalmer at following photo wanted to sell us mango juice for 40 Rs, but MRP was 22. No success, we settled on 25. In such a situation just say you are not interested and price will be lowered.


Everybody says that tourists should drink only bottled water. But Robo told us that it is possible to find drinking water, you just need to learn how. Do not drink tap water! Airports, train stations and tourist places have dedicated places with drinking water. Just look for text Drinking water. It is possible that such water will have strange taste, but it should be OK. We bought more bottled water than we obtained from those places, ratio could be 60:40 or 70:30. And we are fine :-)


We were accommodated in hostels and guest houses listed at http://www.hostelbookers.com. They are not the cheapest places to stay at, but they have reasonable prices. We were happy with most of our selections. We have found that family run guest houses are the best, because their owners have genuine interest to satisfy their customers. Basically they need good review and they know word of mouth is the best way to stay in business. These owners (and their families) were the nicest people we have talked to in India. Some of them even offered us possibility to leave our backpacks there after checkout and collect them before going to train. We had very nice stay in Agra, Jaipur and Jaisalmer (see details in individual reports ). Compare such approach with approach of anonymous taxi drivers - they just need to rip you off as much as possible. They can do that, because there is nothing you can do to make them suffer for their misconduct... I mean legal.

The photo on the right shows our bathroom in the nicest guest house we have been to (in Jaisalmer).

Our worst and surprisingly the most expensive hotel was The Manor Hotel in Aurangabad. It was 1700 Rs for double room and we did not get towel (hostelbookers says towel is in price). It was just a bit better than our cheapest one - hostel in New Delhi for about 780. OK, room and bath room were much bigger :-). Stay away of it if you are able to find other place with similar price.

All accommodations booked through hostelbookers either sent confirmation immediately or after writing them. Some hostels provided free pickup, most of them asked for money and some of them provided thorough directions how to get there. Example: "Do not say driver you are going to our hostel, because they will bring you to fake one with the same name, because we do not pay commissions. Ask for Clock Tower (there is only one in town) and then go ... (a map is here)" Very nice approach, I have to say :-)


India is country well worth of visit. Just use your common sense, do not accept offers that seem to be too good, and do not allow to be ripped off. I am sure most of people have only nice memories, we have too. I just wanted to have those worse experiences we had at one page so I can concentrate on positive parts later.