How to Survive and Travel Inexpensively in India

Izon is a Canadian travel journalist covering youth budget routes.

Between rampant poverty and bureaucracy that would try the patience of a Hindu saint, even the most experienced travelers find themselves at the end of their temper at some point during their travels in India.

"Yet," write authors Geoff Crowther, Prakash A Raj and Tony Wheeler, "it's all worth it."

Research from their own travels in India and information provided by travelers who have used their guides have resulted in a new edition of the 800-page "India--A Travel Survival Kit."

This guidebook is most often recommended by budget travelers to India.

Not only does it provide information on such topics as hiking in the Himalayas and living on houseboats in Kashmir, but it details India's history and culture and provides information on various sites, weather, accommodations, transportation and health problems.

One way in which guidebooks can be helpful is that they warn you of simple situations that are handled differently in other places.

Filed Under First Name

For example, if you have arranged to pick up mail and there isn't any, have the clerk check again. It may have been filed under a first name.

If you are going to mail a parcel home, it's common practice for a tailor to stitch it up in cheap linen, the seams sealed with a wax impression. This service is offered outside of some of the larger post offices.

Hundreds of readers of the first two editions of the guide have contributed advice on budget accommodations, restaurants and travel services, plus general tips on preparing for a trip that you would never consider on your own.

For example, you may have already planned to pack a sun hat, a long-sleeved lightweight shirt, insect repellent, a water bottle and toilet paper, which sometimes can be difficult to find outside of major centers.

But without the advice of experienced travelers, you might not have considered adding a universal sink plug (sinks never have them), cellophane tape (enables you to flawlessly repair torn bank notes) and a flashlight (power cuts are common and there's little street light at night).

The authors say one of the most helpful items for your pack is a padlock. To wit: "Many cheaper hotels, in fact, most of them, have doors that lock by latch and padlock. You'll find having your own sturdy lock on the door instead of the flimsy thing the hotel supplies does wonders for your peace of mind.

Worth the Investment

"The locks also can be used to lock a pack onto a railway luggage rack at night. Combination locks are relatively unknown, so they are effective."

Although budget travelers may feel this is a fairly expensive guidebook at $17.95 U.S., it is worth the investment.

For example, special Indrail passes are available to foreign nationals on unlimited rail travel for seven to 90 days. You can buy the tickets before you leave home or at a limited number of offices in India. In India, however, they must be paid for in U.S. dollars.

Are they a good buy? Considering that the India Railways system is the fourth-largest in the world, moving 9 million passengers a day, it might seem so.

But, according to the authors: "It is virtually impossible to cover enough distance to make the pass worthwhile."

The authors also point out that cost shouldn't be the only factor. "The main virtue of the Indrail Pass is its ability to produce a seat for a sleeper when there isn't one. That can be worth far more than mere money."

The authors warn that when traveling by rail in India, "getting there may not always be half the fun but it is certainly 90% of the experience."

They found that one advantage of having passes is you don't have to stand in line to buy tickets. It is also easier to get reservations: in India there is always "a tourist quota, a VIP quota, a station-master's quota and so on."

Seats Still Available

But when a train is full, Indrail pass-holders often find that for them, seats are still available.

Three grades of Indrail Passes are sold. A ticket for air-conditioned services for 30 days costs $300 U.S.; a 30-day, first-class pass (no air conditioning) is $150 U.S., and a 30-day, second-class pass costs $65 U.S.

Says the book: "In second-class unreserved, the train carries as many people as can be crammed on board, which usually means there is not a square inch of sitting, standing, squatting or hanging space left."

The authors suggest: "If you are going to travel by Indrail, then go the whole hog and get a first-class pass." But not, they indicate, the first-class, air-conditioned pass since first-class, air-conditioned cars are not on every route.

Indrail passes also allow you to use railway retiring rooms, which the authors found "were just like regular hotels or dormitories except they are at the railway station . . . they are often very cheap and in some places they are excellent value."

First-class pass-holders also are allowed to use the first-class waiting rooms in stations, which the authors found to be "a peaceful haven."

"India--A Travel Survival Kit" ($17.95) is published by Lonely Planet. For more information on India, contact the Government f India Tourist Office, 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 204, Los Angeles 90010, phone (213) 380-8855.

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