Various kinds of local ferries offer transport across and down rivers in India, from big car ferries to wooden canoes and wicker cor-acles – see regional chapters for details. Most boats carry bikes and motorcycles for a fee.
Regular scheduled ferries connect mainland India to Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. The trip takes around 60 hours from Chennai or around 56 hours from Kolkata. There are also sporadic ferries from Visakhapatnam (Andhra Pradesh) to the Andaman Islands. From October to May, there are also ferry services from Kochi (Cochin) in Kerala to the Lakshadweep Islands (around 20 hours).
There are also numerous ferry services across rivers, from chain pontoons to wicker coracles, and various boat cruises.
Truck drivers supplement the bus service in some remote areas for a fee, particularly in Ladakh, Lahaul and Spiti. However, as drivers rarely speak English, you may have difficulty explaining where you want to go and working out how much is a fair price to pay. As anywhere, women are strongly advised against hitching alone.
Few people bother with self-drive car rental but hiring a car with a driver is surprisingly affordable, particularly if several people share the costs. Seatbelts are rarely working – if they are, use them – or hold on tightly to the handrails.
Self-drive car hire is possible in India’s larger cities, but given the hair-raising driving conditions most travellers opt for a car with driver. International rental companies with representatives in India include Budget (www.budget.com) and Hertz (www.hertz.com); you’ll need an international driving permit.
Despite the horrendous traffic, India is an amazing country for long-distance motorcycle touring. Motorcycles handle the pitted roads far better than four-wheeled vehicles, and you’ll have the added bonus of being able to stop when and where you want. However, motorcycle touring can be quite an undertaking – there are some excellent motorcycle tours that will save you the rigmarole of going it alone.
The classic way to motorcycle round India is on an Enfield Bullet, still built to the original 1940s specifications. As well as making a satisfying chugging sound, these bikes are fully manual, making them easy to repair (parts can be found everywhere in India). On the other hand, Enfields are less reliable than many of the newer, Japanese-designed bikes.
The most preferred starting point for motor-cycle tours is Delhi, and popular destinations include Rajasthan, South India and Ladakh. Weather is an important factor to consider – for the best times to visit see the Fast Facts boxes at the start of regional chapters. At the time of research, it wasn’t possible to cross into Pakistan by motorcycle – check if the law has since changed. It’s still possible to cross into Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan with the correct paperwork – contact the relevant diplomatic mission for details.
Plenty of places rent out motorcycles for local trips and longer tours. Japanese and Indian-made bikes in the 100cc to 150cc range are cheaper than the big 350cc to 500cc Enfields. As a deposit, you’ll need to leave your passport, air-ticket or a big cash lump sum.
One consistently reliable company for long-term rentals is Lalli Motorbike Exports. A 500cc Enfield costs Rs 13, 000/23, 000 for three/eight weeks. The price includes excellent advice and an invaluable crash course in Enfield mechanics and repairs.
Only hire a bike with third-party insurance – if you hit someone without insurance, the consequences can be severe. Reputable companies will include third-party cover in their policies. Those that don’t probably aren’t reputable.
You must also arrange insurance if you buy a motorcycle. The minimum level of cover is third-party insurance – available for Rs 300 to Rs 500 per year. This will cover repair and medical costs for any other vehicles, people or property you might hit, but no cover for your own machine. Comprehensive insurance (recommended) costs Rs 500 to Rs 2000 per year.
Dozens of companies offer organised motorcycle tours around India with a support vehicle, mechanic and a guide. Below are some reputable companies:
Blazing Trails (www.jewelholidays.com)
Classic Bike Adventures (www.classic-bike-india.com)
Ferris Wheels (www.ferriswheels.com.au)
H-C Travel (www.hctravel.com)
Himalayan Roadrunners (www.ridehigh.com)
Indian Motorcycle Adventures (homepages.ihug.co.nz/~gumby)
Indian Shepherds (www.asiasafari.com)
Royal Expeditions (www.royalexpeditions.com)
Saffron Road Motorcycle Tours (www.saffronroad.com)
Wheel of India (www.wheelofindia.com)
If you are planning a longer tour, consider purchasing a motorcycle. Secondhand bikes are widely available and the paperwork is a lot easier than buying a new machine. Finding a secondhand machine is a matter of asking around. Check travellers’ noticeboards and approach local motorcycle mechanics and other bikers.
In Delhi, the area around Hari Singh Nalwa St in Karol Bagh has dozens of motorcycle and parts shops, but plenty of dodgy dealers. We consistently receive good reports about Lalli Motorbike Exports (011-25728579; www.lallisingh.com ; 1740-A/55 Basement, Hari Singh Nalwa St, Abdul Aziz Rd, Karol Bagh Market). Run by the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Lalli Singh, this place sells and rents Enfields and parts, and buyers get a crash-course in running and maintaining these loveable but temperamental machines.
A decent firm in Mumbai is Allibhai Premji Tyrewalla (022-23099313; www.premjis.com ; 205/207 Dr D Bhadkamkar (Lamington) Rd, Opera House), which sells new and secondhand motorcycles with a buy-back option.
A well-looked-after secondhand 350cc Enfield will cost Rs 18, 000 to Rs 40, 000; the 500cc model will cost Rs 35, 000 to Rs 65, 000. Prices for new Enfield models are listed on www.royalenfield.com. It’s advisable to get any secondhand bike serviced before you set off (for Rs 10, 000 to 15, 000). When re-selling your bike, expect to get between half and two thirds of the price you paid if the bike is still in reasonable condition. Shipping an Indian bike overseas is complicated and expensive – ask the shop you bought the bike from to explain the process.
As well as the cost of the bike, you’ll have to pay for insurance. Helmets are available for Rs 1000 to Rs 1500, and extras like panniers, luggage racks, protection bars, rear-view mirrors, lockable fuel caps, petrol filters and extra tools are easy to come by. One useful extra is a customised fuel tank, which will increase the range you can cover between fuel stops. An Enfield 500cc gives about 25km/L: the 350cc model gives slightly more.
There is plenty of paperwork associated with owning a motorcycle. The registration papers are signed by the local registration authority when the bike is first sold and you’ll need these papers when you buy a secondhand bike. Foreign nationals cannot change the name on the registration. Instead, you must fill out the forms for a change of ownership and transfer of insurance. If you buy a new bike, the company selling it must register the machine for you, adding to the cost.
For any bike, the registration must be renewed every 15 years (for around Rs 5000) and you must make absolutely sure that there are no outstanding debts or criminal proceedings associated with the bike. The whole process is extremely complicated and it makes sense to seek advice from the company selling the bike – see the Purchase section earlier for some honest operators. Allow around two weeks to get the paperwork finished and get on the road.
Buses are the cheapest way to get around India, though most travellers prefer trains for long-distance journeys. Services are fast and frequent, and buses are the only way to get around many mountainous areas. However, roads are perilous, buses are driven with wilful abandon and accidents are always a risk. Avoid night buses unless there is no alternative – drivers use the quieter roads as an excuse to take even more death-defying risks. All buses make regular snack and toilet stops, providing a break from the rattle and shake but adding hours to journey times.
Buses run by the state government bus companies are usually the safest and most reliable option, and seats can be booked up to a month in advance. Private buses tend to be cheaper but drivers are notorious speed-demons and conductors cram as many passengers on as possible to maximise profits. Earplugs are a boon on all long-distance buses to muffle the deafening music. On any bus, sit between the axles to minimise the effect of bumps and potholes.
Luggage is either stored in compartments underneath the bus (sometimes for a small fee) or it can be carried free of charge on the roof. Conductors will carry your bags up for a modest tip, or you can scramble up yourself and have peace of mind that your luggage is secure. Roof riding on public buses used to be a thrilling way to see the Indian countryside but the authorities have decided that it is (a) dangerous, and (b) too much fun. Roof-riding is now only possible on local buses between outlying villages.
If your bags go on the roof, make sure they are locked shut and securely tied to the metal baggage rack – some unlucky travellers have seen their belongings go bouncing off the roof on bumpy roads! Theft is a minor risk so keep an eye on your bags at snack and toilet stops and never leave your day-pack unattended inside the bus.
Share jeeps complement the bus service in many mountain areas.
The cheapest buses are ‘ordinary’ government buses but prices vary from state to state – expect to pay Rs 40 to Rs 60 for a three-hour daytime journey and Rs 200 to Rs 300 for an all-day or overnight trip. Add around 50% to the ordinary fare for deluxe services, double the fare for AC and triple or quadruple the fare for a two-by-two service.
Train travel is one of the joys of India. The network is extensive, prices are reasonable, and the experience of travelling on an Indian train is a reason to travel all by itself. Around 14 million passengers travel by train in India every day and Indian Railways is the second largest employer in the world, with a staggering 1.6 million workers.
At first, the process of booking a seat can seem bewildering, but behind the scenes things are incredibly well organised. Trains are far better than buses for long-distance and overnight trips. Some cities also have suburban train networks, though these can get very crowded during peak hours.
Train services to certain destinations are often increased during major festivals but every year, people get crushed to death in stampedes on overcrowded platforms. Something else to be aware of is passenger drugging and theft.
It’s worth buying a copy of Trains at a Glance (Rs 45), available at train station bookstands and better bookshops and newsstands. It contains comprehensive timetables covering all the main lines, or you can use the train search engine on the Indian Railways website (www.indianrail.gov.in). Another useful resource is www.seat61.com/India.htm. Big stations often have English-speaking staff who can help with picking the best train. At smaller stations, mid-level officials such as the deputy station master usually speak English.
Fares are calculated by distance and class of travel. Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains are slightly more expensive, but the price includes meals. Most air-conditioned carriages have a catering service (meals are brought to your seat, but carry some tissues to use as napkins). In unreserved classes, carry samosas or other portable snack foods. You can search for exact fares on www.indianrail.gov.in. Seniors get discounted train tickets.
Major stations offer ‘retiring rooms’, which can be handy if you have a valid ticket or Ind-rail Pass. Another useful facility is the left-luggage office (cloakroom). Locked bags (only) can be stored for a small daily fee if you have a valid train ticket. For peace of mind, chain your bag to the baggage rack and check the opening times to make sure you can get your bag when you need it.
Deluxe buses can usually be booked in ad-vance – up to a month in advance for government buses – at the bus stand or local travel agents. Reservations are rarely possible on ‘ordinary’ buses and travellers often get left behind in the mad rush for a seat. To maximise your chances of securing a seat, either send a travelling companion ahead to grab some space or pass a book or article of clothing through an open window and place it on an empty seat. This ‘reservation’ method rarely fails. If you board a bus mid-way through its journey, you will have to stand until a seat becomes free.
At many bus stations there is a separate women’s queue, although this isn’t always obvious as signs are often in Hindi and men frequently join the melee. Women have an unspoken right to push to the front of any queue in India. This includes female travellers so be ready to sharpen your elbows and barge through the crowds.
No reservations are required for general (2nd class) compartments. You can reserve seats in all chair-car, sleeper, and 1AC, 2AC and 3AC carriages up to 60 days in advance at any station with a computerised booking system. Advance bookings are strongly recommended for all overnight journeys.
The reservation procedure is fairly simple – obtain a reservation slip from the information window and fill in the starting station, the destination station, the class you want to travel in and the name and number of the train (this is where Trains at a Glance comes into its own). You then join the long queue to the ticket window, where your ticket will be printed.
In larger cities, there are dedicated ticket windows for foreigners and credit-card payments. Elsewhere, you’ll have to join a general queue and pay in rupees cash. A special tourist quota is set aside for foreign tourists travelling between popular stations. These seats can only be booked at dedicated reservation offices in major cities (details are given in the regional chapters), and you need to show your passport and visa as ID. The government has recently changed the rules, allowing foreigners to pay for tourist quota seats in rupees, British pounds, US dollars or Euros, in cash or Thomas Cook and American Express travellers cheques (change is given in rupees). However, some offices still ask to see foreign exchange certificates before accepting payment in rupees.
Trains are frequently overbooked, but many passengers cancel. You can buy a ticket on the ‘wait list’ and try your luck. A refund is available if you fail to get a seat – ask the ticket office about your chances. Refunds are available on any ticket, even after departure, with a penalty – the rules are complicated so check when you book.
If you don’t want to go through the hassle of buying a ticket yourself, many travel agencies and hotels will purchase your train ticket for a small commission, though ticket scams abound.
Internet bookings are also possible on the website www.irctc.co.in, and you can choose an e-ticket, or have the tickets sent to you inside India by courier. The website www.seat61.com/India.htm has some excellent advice on online bookings – scroll down to the ‘How to book – from outside India’ heading.
Reserved tickets show your seat/berth number (or wait-list number) and the carriage number. When the train pulls in, keep an eye out for your carriage number written on the side of the train (station staff can point you in the right direction if you get confused). A list of names and berths is also posted on the side of each reserved carriage – a beacon of light for panicking travellers!
Tours are available all over India, run by tourist offices, local transport companies and travel agencies. Organised tours can be an inexpensive way to see several places on one trip, through you rarely get much time at each place. If you arrange a tour through the local taxi office, you’ll have more freedom about where you go and how long you stay.
Drivers typically double as guides, or you can hire a qualified local guide for a fee. However, be wary of touts claiming to be professional guides in tourist towns. Ask the local tourist office about recommended guides and demand to see evidence from guides who claim to be accredited. Assess the experience of trekking guides by asking about routes, distances and the type of terrain involved – vague answers should set off alarm bells.
On any overnight tour or trek, ensure that all the necessary equipment is provided (eg first aid, camping gear) and inspect everything before you set off. Always confirm exactly what the quoted price includes (food, accommodation, petrol, trekking equipment, guide fees etc).
Many international companies offer tours to India, from straightforward sightseeing trips to adventure tours and activity-based holidays. To find tours that match your interests, quiz travel agents and surf the web. Some interesting possibilities include the following:
Dragoman Overland (www.dragoman.com) One of several overland tour companies offering trips to and around India on customised vehicles.
Essential India (www.essential-india.co.uk) Various tailor-made and special-interest trips and treks in North and South India, with a responsible-tourism ethos.
Exodus (www.exodustravels.co.uk) A wide array of specialist trips, including tours with a holistic, wildlife and adventure focus.
India Wildlife Tours (www.india-wildlife-tours.com) All sorts of wildlife tours, plus horse-riding safaris, fishing tours and bird-watching.
Indian Encounters (www.indianencounters.com) Tailor-made and special-interest tours, including wildlife, cookery, arts and horse riding.
Intrepid Travellers (www.intrepidtravel.com) A huge range of tours, from sightseeing to cycling, river cruising, festivals, wildlife and cooking tours.
Sacred India Tours (www.sacredindia.com) Offers tours with a spiritual or holistic focus, including yoga, meditation and Ayurvedic trips.
World Expeditions (www.worldexpeditions.com.au) Options include cooking tours, trekking tours, walking tours, cycling tours and volunteering-based trips.
Buses, cycle-rickshaws, autorickshaws, taxis, boats and urban trains provide transport around India’s cities. On any form of transport without a fixed fare, agree on the fare before you start your journey and make sure that it covers your luggage and every passenger. If you don’t, expect heated altercations when you get to your destination. Even where local transport is metered, drivers may refuse to use the meter, demanding an elevated ‘fixed’ fare. If this happens, find another cab. Parked taxis in tourist areas almost always ask for elevated fares – moving taxis are more likely to use their meters. On some routes, particularly to airports, it may be impossible to get a metered fare.
Costs for public transport vary from town to town. Fares usually increase at night (by up to 100%) and some drivers charge a few rupees extra for luggage. Carry plenty of small bills for taxi and rickshaw fares as drivers rarely have change.
Many taxi/autorickshaw drivers are involved in the commission racket.
The Indian autorickshaw is basically a three-wheeled motorcycle with a tin or canvas cab, providing room for two passengers and luggage. You may also hear autorickshaws called autos, scooters, tuk-tuks or Bajaj (after the company that makes them). Autorickshaws tend to be cheaper than taxis (though not everywhere) and they are usually metered, though getting the driver to turn the meter on is a challenge.
Travelling by auto can be great fun, but the clunky two-stroke engines are smelly and noisy and the open windows allow in blasts of cold air – which can be a boon or a curse, depending on the ambient temperature and the level of pollution outside.
Tempos and vikrams are basically outsized autorickshaws with room for more passengers, running on fixed routes for a fixed fare. In country areas, you may also see the fearsome-looking ‘three-wheeler’ – a crude, tractorlike tempo with a front wheel on an articulated arm.
A cycle-rickshaw is a pedal cycle with two rear wheels, supporting a bench seat for passengers. Most have a canopy that can be raised in wet weather, or lowered to provide extra space for luggage. Most of the big cities have phased out the cycle-rickshaw, but they are still the main means of local transport in many smaller towns. As with taxis and autorickshaws, fares must be agreed upon in advance.
Locals invariably pay lower fares than foreigners, but considering the effort put in by the rickshaw-wallahs, it’s hard to begrudge them a few extra rupees. Around Rs 20 to Rs 40 is a fair price to pay for a one or two kilometre journey in town and tips are always appreciated.
Kolkata is the last bastion of the human-powered rickshaw, a hand-cart pulled directly by the rickshaw-wallah. Of course, some people feel that being towed around by a local is a little too colonial for comfort.
In some towns, tongas (horse-drawn two-wheelers) and victorias (horse-drawn carriages) still operate. Kolkata has a tram network and both Delhi and Kolkata have fast and efficient underground train networks. Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai all have suburban trains that leave from ordinary train stations. See regional chapters for further details.
The big three domestic airlines – Indian Airlines, Jet Airways and Air Sahara – charge rupee fares for Indian citizens and higher US dollar fares for foreigners (usually payable in rupees). Most budget airlines charge the same low rupees to everyone. Budget airline seats can be booked by telephone, through travel agents, or cheaply over the web. Fares change daily, but you usually get a better deal the further you book in advance – check the airline websites for details.
Reconfirmation is normally only required if your ticket was bought outside India, but call a few days ahead to be safe. Airlines may issue a replacement for lost tickets at their discretion, but refunds are rare. For details of discounts on airfares.
Check-in for domestic flights is an hour before departure and hold luggage must be X-rayed and stamped before you check-in. Every item of cabin baggage needs a baggage label, which must be stamped as part of your security check. Flights to sensitive destinations (eg Kashmir or Ladakh) have extra security restrictions: cabin baggage may be completely prohibited and batteries must be removed from all electronic items and placed in the hold. You may also need to identify your bags on the tarmac before they are loaded on the plane. Officially, photography is forbidden but this is not strictly enforced.
Some smaller airlines will only take off if there are enough passengers to cover costs. Passengers usually receive a refund for cancellations, but several travellers have reported being booked onto other airlines at inflated prices by airline staff. If your flight is cancelled demand a refund and make the onward booking yourself.
The baggage allowance is 20kg (10kg for smaller aircraft) in economy class, 30kg in business.
In recently years, there has been a massive surge in domestic flights around India. The state-owned carrier Indian Airlines (www.indian-airlines.nic.in) still has the largest network, but its record on safety and reliability is unenviable and the private airlines Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) and Air Sahara (www.airshahara.net) are catching up fast. Then there are India’s new budget airlines, offering discounted rupee fares for flights around the country over the internet.
In fact, the whole industry is seriously over-inflated, with many airlines spiralling into debt. Until the bubble bursts, this is a great time to fly around India, but fares change daily and there is no guarantee that all the airlines will be around after the expected slump occurs. As a rough indication, fares for a one-hour flight range from US$150 on an established carrier to Rs 1000 with a budget airline.
New airlines seem to spring up every month, so it’s worth talking to local travel agents and scanning the web for the latest routes and carriers. The airline websites have details of routes, fares and booking offices.
Air Deccan (www.airdeccan.net) Budget fares and a growing list of destinations, including Kashmir, the Kullu Valley and the northeast.
Air India (www.airindia.com) India’s national carrier operating a number of domestic flights generally leaving from the international terminals of Indian airports (check in advance).
Indian Airlines (www.indian-airlines.nic.in) With its subsidiary Alliance Air, the state domestic carrier has flights across India and international services to 20 neighbouring countries, but a poor record on safety and service.
IndiGo (www.goindigo.in) A growing budget carrier set to expand massively with 100 new planes.
Kingfisher Airlines (www.flykingfisher.com) Yep, it’s an airline owned by a beer company, serving Kashmir, the plains, South India and the northeast.
Sahara Airlines (www.airsahara.net) Hot on the heels of Jet, with a similar domestic and international network.
Spicejet (www.spicejet.com) Discount seats to hubs across India.
There are no restrictions on bringing a bicycle into India, though it may be cheaper to hire or buy a bike after you arrive. Mountain bikes with off-road tires give the best protection against India’s potholed and puncture-prone roads. Roadside cycle mechanics abound but you should still bring spare tires and brake cables, lubricating oil and a chain repair kit, and plenty of puncture repair patches. Bikes can often be carried for free, or for a small luggage fee, on the roofs of public buses – handy for uphill stretches. Contact your airline for information about transporting your bike and customs formalities in your home country.
Read up on bicycle touring before you travel – Rob van de Plas’ Bicycle Touring Manual (Bicycle Books, 1987) and Stephen Lord’s Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook (Trailblazer Publications, 2006) are good places to start. Consult local cycling magazines and cycling clubs for useful information and advice. The Cycle Federation of India (/fax 011-23392578; Yamuna Velodrome, IGI Sports Complex, New Delhi; 10am-5pm Mon-Fri) can provide local advice.
Road rules are virtually nonexistent in India and cities and national highways are hazardous places to cycle, so stick to back roads. Be conservative about the distances you expect to cover – an experienced cyclist can cover 60km to 100km a day on the plains, 40km to 60km on sealed mountain roads and 40km or less on dirt roads.
Big tourist centres and other places where travellers hang around – eg Goa, Hampi and Leh – are the easiest places to find bicycles for hire. Expect to pay Rs 30 to Rs 100 per day for a roadworthy, Indian-made bike. Hire places may require a security deposit (cash, airline ticket or passport).
The best place to buy anything bicycle-related is Delhi’s Jhandewalan Cycle Market, which has imported and domestic new and secondhand bikes and spare parts. Mountain-bikes from reputable brands like Hero, Atlas, Hercules or Raleigh start at Rs 2000, and extras like panniers, stands and bells are readily available. Reselling is quite easy – ask at local cycle or hire shops or put up an advert on travel noticeboards. You should be able to get 50% of what you originally paid back if it was a new bike and is still in reasonably good condition.