Buses, cycle-rickshaws, autorickshaws, e-rickshaws, tempos (big, brutal-looking autorickshaws), taxis, boats, tongas (horse-drawn carts), metros and urban trains provide transport around India’s cities.
Costs for public transport vary from town to town.
For any transport without a fixed fare, agree on the price before you start your journey and make sure that it covers your luggage and every passenger.
Even where meters exist, drivers may refuse to use them, demanding an elevated ‘fixed’ fare; bargain hard. 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 may struggle to find change for you.
In some places taxi/autorickshaw drivers are involved in commission rackets.
App-based taxis such as Uber and Ola Cabs mean you can call a taxi or autorickshaw and the fare will be electronically calculated – no arguments, and cheaper than ordinary taxis, though the whole procedure tends to be more time-consuming than simply hailing an auto.
Similar to the tuk-tuks of Southeast Asia, the Indian autorickshaw is a three-wheeled motorised contraption with a tin or canvas roof and sides, usually with room for two passengers (although you’ll often see many more squeezed in) and limited luggage.
They are also referred to as autos, scooters and riks.
Autorickshaws are mostly cheaper than taxis (typically around half the price) and usually have a meter, although getting it turned on can be a challenge. You can call autos via the Ola Cabs Auto app (www.olacabs.com), which electronically calculates your fare when you finish the journey – no more haggling!
Travelling by auto is great fun, but – thanks to the open windows – it can be noisy (and chilly in winter).
In some cities there are larger, more environmentally friendly e-rickshaws (electric rickshaws), some of which (though not all) are shared and thus cheaper, but you'll have to be going in the same direction as the other passengers. In the Northeast States these e-rickshaws are known as totos.
Vikrams and the more brutal-looking tempos are outsized autorickshaws with room for more passengers, shuttling on fixed routes for a fixed fare.
In country areas you may also see the fearsome-looking ‘three-wheeler’ – a crude tractor-like tempo with a front wheel on an articulated arm – or the Magic, a cute minivan that can carry up to a dozen passengers.
Various kinds of local boats offer transport across and down rivers in India, from big car ferries to wooden canoes and wicker coracles. Most of the larger boats carry bicycles and motorcycles for a fee.
Urban buses range from fume-belching, human-stuffed mechanical monsters that travel at breakneck speed to sanitised air-conditioned vehicles with comfortable seating and smoother ride quality. In any case, it’s usually far more convenient to opt for an autorickshaw or taxi, as they're quicker and more frequent (though more expensive).
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 blazing sunshine but lowered to provide extra space for luggage.
Fares must be agreed in advance – speak to locals to get an idea of a fair price for the distance you intend to travel.
Kolkata is the last bastion of the hand-pulled rickshaw, known as the tana rickshaw. This is a hand-cart on two wheels pulled directly by the rickshaw-wallah.
Most towns have taxis, and these are usually metered; however, getting drivers to use the meter can be a hassle. To avoid fare-setting shenanigans, use prepaid taxis where possible. Apps such as Uber and Ola, or radio cabs, are sometimes a more efficient option in larger cities.
Getting a metered ride is only half the battle. Meters are almost always outdated, so fares are calculated using a combination of the meter reading and a complicated ‘fare-adjustment card’. Predictably, this system is open to abuse. It's usually better to simply agree a fare beforehand. To get a rough estimate of fares in advance, try the portal www.taxiautofare.com. Better still, ask a local for advice.
Major Indian airports and train stations have prepaid-taxi and radio-cab booths. Here you can book a taxi, even long distance, for a fixed price (which will include baggage) and thus avoid commission scams. Hold onto your receipt until you're sure you've reached your destination, then give it to your driver. The driver won't get paid without it.
Radio cabs cost marginally more than prepaid taxis but are air-conditioned and staffed by the company's chauffeurs. Cabs have electronic, receipt-generating fare meters and are fitted with GPS units, so the company can monitor the vehicle's movements around town. This minimises the chances of errant driving or unreasonable demands for extra cash by the driver afterwards.
Smaller airports and stations may have prepaid-autorickshaw booths instead of or as well as prepaid-taxi booths.
In some towns, tongas (horse-drawn two-wheelers) and victorias (horse-drawn carriages) still operate. Kolkata has a tram network, and Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai, among other centres, have suburban trains.
In mountain areas shared jeeps supplement the bus services, charging similar fixed fares.
Although nominally designed for five to six passengers, most shared jeeps squeeze in more. The seats beside and immediately behind the driver are more expensive than the cramped bench seats at the rear.
Jeeps only leave when full; people often bail out of a half-full jeep and pile into one with more passengers that's ready to depart. Drivers will leave immediately if you pay for all of the empty seats and 'reserve' a vehicle for yourself.
Jeeps run from jeep stands and ‘passenger stations’ at the junctions of major roads; ask locals to point you in the right direction.
In some states, jeeps are known as ‘sumos’ after the Tata Sumo, a popular vehicle.
Travel sickness, particularly on winding mountain roads, may mean you are asked to give up your window seat to queasy fellow passengers.