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Planning first India trip: Advice needed!!

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Hey,

First, thanks to everyone taking the time out to read and possibly help me. I'm in the process of planning my first India trip and have tons of questions. I have done a lot of research but have not found satisfactory answers to the questions I will ask here. If you can help in any way, it is greatly appreciated, thanks in advance.

First, the basics. I plan to travel for roughly about a month and a half in India then head to Nepal for about two weeks. I will be traveling only around Northern India and am putting priority on spending more time in less places then seeing more places and spending less time in each. I will be traveling from the last week of December 2013 to mid/late February 2014. I will be on a pretty strict budget. I am a seasoned traveler and have no problem roughing it. Let me first lay out my tentative itinerary. My first question: can anyone recommend how many days I need to really get a feel for each place. I plan on spending anywhere between 2 and 5 days in each place:

Arrive in Delhi

Delhi to Amritsar

by road to Dharamsala

Fly to Delhi (SpiceJet)

Overnight train to Jaisalmer

by train to Osian

by train to Jodhpur

by train to Ajmer

by train to Udaipur http://erail.in/?T=AII::UDZ: + day excursion to Ranakpur + day excursion to Eklingji

by train to Jaipur

by train to Agra + day excursion to Fatehpur Sikri

by train to Gwalior

by train to Orccha

Orccha to Khajuraho

Khajuraho to Varanasi

On to Nepal.

My first priority is firming up where I will go and how I will travel. Is there anything on this list I should leave off? Anything I should add? Is it to ambitious for a month and a half? I know this is all pretty subjective about likes and dislikes? I am just hoping to get some input from people who have done a similar trip.

Next, I am assuming (minus the spicejet back to Dheli from Dharamsala) I will be traveling mostly by train. I understand this is the most cost effective way to travel and a cool part about the India experience. My question is how far in advance do I need to book my train tickets. I don't want to get stuck anywhere, but want to remain flexible with my time. If I arrive in a city, could I book a ticket 2 days in advance when I leave? Should I wait until I arrive in Dheli and book everything those first few days? I'm just a little confused on what the time table should be for booking trains.

On the same note, how far in advance should I look to book accommodations? In most of these places, could I arrive and find something open the same day, or should I book in advance? This question obviously ties in with my trains and when I will be arriving in each place?

Basically I think these two things come down to should I book my whole trip a few weeks in advance, should I book everything my first few days in Dheli before I set out, or should I just wing it and book as I go?

I know this is a lot, so I really appreciate the help. Any advice or input would be great. Thanks in advance!

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    Hi there,

    My husband and I just wrapped up a month travelling in India and planned almost nothing before we arrived. We booked our flight into and out of Delhi and from there found flights, cars, hotels and trains when we needed them.

    With hotels, you should have no problem booking as you go. We used Agoda and usually booked a night before we arrived in a place (sometimes the same day) and were always perfectly fine (and happy with almost all the places we picked). I'd say wing it as you go....that way you can be as flexible as you want.

    Trains are a different matter. We only took a train from Varanasi to Agra and then from Bikaner to Delhi and each was an experience.

    The train itself was fine (just make sure you travel in the best class available, specially if you're travelling overnight) but the booking process was a bit of a challenge. For the Varanasi-Agra train, we went to a travel agent about four days prior to taking the train and one of us was on a waiting list to make sure a seat/berth opened up. It did come through but we were advised to give as much notice as possible when taking trains as they get booked quite a bit in advance. You can go directly to the train station (I'm sure you'll get responses from people who did this) but we decided to use a travel agent as the additional small cost was so worthwhile when calculating how much easier and hassle free it was to do so.

    You may also want to check out this post which is helpful for train travel - http://www.indiamike.com/india/indian-railways-f10/foreign-tourist-quota-ftq-a-basic-guide-t192751/

    As for the schedule, here's what we did and found it to be great for the month (in some places we opted to stay a little longer so it was better not to plan in advance):

    Arrive in Delhi - two nights. Fly to Leh for six days. Fly back to Delhi and fly to Varanasi for three days. Overnight train to Agra (2 days) then to Jaipur, Pushkar, Udaipur, Jodphur, Jaisalmer, Bikaner and train back to Delhi for three days.

    If I were you, I'd leave out Ranakpur and absolutely go to Jaisalmer which was one of our very favourite spots of all.

    On a cautionary note, we were forced to fly out a couple of days early as my husband caught malaria (in Varanasi, we believe). We were foolish in not taking any malarial precautions so you may want to keep that in mind.

    Overall, however, the month was exquisite in every way and we loved the people, country, food, experiences and everything else we came across in India (we've written about it in our blog at www.TheMeanderthals.com if you wish to check it out and please feel free to contact me if I can be of any assistance)

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    For lots of good info on Indian train travel go here: http://seat61.com/India.htm#.UlFjYRB5mSM

    Yes, Indian trains do book up, and you are starting at a particularly busy time. There are some seats reserved for the taktal (sp?) quota which are released in the last couple of days. For your trip I would consider an Indrail pass, which is what I used for my first trip to India (ten weeks, almost all by train).

    Besides agoda.com, travelguru.com is useful for hotels.

    Have you checked the weather in Dharamsala at that time of year?

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    Note that you will be traveling during the busiest and most expensive time of the year, especially that week at the end of December. I would absolutely book at least my first two weeks of accommodation. Also, someone here posted that they were able to gain access to a website to book Indian trains from outside the country. You'll likely want to do that for your first few train journeys. I certainly wouldn't wait until a couple of day ahead of time.

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    I haven't used it many years, but the site to book train tickets in India used to be https://irctc.co.in/
    It is a website operated by Indian Railways. Going to a train station to book tickets is like asking to get mobbed.

    Buses can be booked on http://www.redbus.in/

    Trains really need to be booked well in advance. If I am not mistaken, the booking starts 60 days in advance and fills up very quickly for popular trains. Flights, hotels and buses can be booked even until last moment. Sure it will cost a little extra but not a fortune. I never book domestic flights in India more than a week in advance. This gives me freedom to spend as much or as little time as I want at various places.

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    Hello,

    The programme that you have planned is fine & from what I feel 2-3 days at a place is enough to cover the important sites.

    However I am little sceptical about the train travel that you seem to prefer. Agreed that it gives you more opportunity to interact with people, view the countryside etc etc, but the logistics of booking them is not that easy

    First of all, would advise you to prebook the train atleast. Booking in trains start 2 months in advance & getting seats at the last moment is very difficult. Even travel agents may not be able to help you last moment because mostly the booking is govt controlled. The few who would claim to get you seats would be lying. Also would advise you to book the best classes as the crowd in the lower classes may be too much for you. The below site is the official site of ralways in India & you can use it after creating a login account

    https://irctc.co.in/

    Also during December, trains may get delayed very frequently due to Fog. So be prepared for that & keep flexibility in your program

    For hotels you may easily choose to book last moment if you are not looking for luxury or star category hotels. Yes December is a busy period in India, but accomodation may not be a problem

    Since I have been to most of the places, my suggestion to you would be in this order:-

    Arrive in Delhi

    Delhi to Amritsar

    by road to Dharamsala

    Fly to Delhi (SpiceJet)

    Overnight train to Jaisalmer

    by train to Osian

    by train to Jodhpur (its not that far from Osian (60 kms) so would suggest taking a bus or a cab)

    by train to Udaipur

    by train to Ajmer

    by train to Jaipur

    by train to Jaipur

    by train to Agra + day excursion to Fatehpur Sikri (we do not have train from Jaipur to Agra. Also to cover Fatehpur enroute, I suggest taking bus or cab)

    by train to Gwalior

    by train to Orccha (Train to Jhansi, bus or cab to Orcha)

    Orccha to Khajuraho (Bus)

    Khajuraho to Varanasi (no Trains, will need to take flight)

    Varanasi to Kathmandu (Flight) or you may drive from Varanasi to Kushinagar to lumbini (in Nepal). There are bused from Sanauhli border (near Varanasi) for Nepal.

    This is my suggestion in case you are very keen on taking the trains. However if I were you I would take the road as it gives you flexibility to cover places enroute & believe me there are many to be covered in India.

    Hope this helps

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    The irctc site is the official site for Indian railways. It is NOT the site to use if you are a non-Indian buying train tickets from abroad. That site is cleartrip.com.

    It is not true that it is impossible to buy tickets at the last minute. There is a quota held back, the tatkal quota. There is also a tourist quota. However, it is true that you would do well to book ahead in December.

    Traveling by road is OK for short journeys, but the roads in India can be quite appalling bad. The train is much safer!

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    Thanks for the info thursdaysd. I was not aware that non indian cannot book through irctc

    However lets be real & agree that booking trains last moment is a mammoth task and you cannot really bank on the tatkal or foreign quotas.There are few seats over too many requirements and the whole process is tedious.

    Also I maintain that during winters trains are not much reliable for timings & delays can eat in too much of the time.So for long or overnight journeys, its fine, but few distances can be covered by road.

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    I have bought tickets at the last minute, most recently from the tatkal quota, although that time I used a TA and it was quite painless. I do agree that doing it in person at the train station at a busy time of year is not an experience to be repeated too often! And the TA mark up is likely to be very small. However, for December and early January at least I would book ahead.

    I agree that short distances can be fine by road, but after a recent painful journey in Karnataka I am even more of a rail fan than I was before. And you don't have to worry about the railways trying to cheat you. (And forget about buses except for very short distances.)

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    A year and a half ago my husband and I took a 6 week trip in northern India spanning from towards the end of Feb. to very early April. I'd categorize us as more moderate budget travelers than super budget travelers. Like you, we typically believe less is more as far as visiting places. Like you I wanted to have flexibility and did not want to be locked in to places I might not enjoy or not have enough time in places I thought I'd like but didn't. After hearing that this desire for flexibility could cause problems in high season (basically the entire time you'll be traveling), we compromised and had the entire first half of our trip all booked up and left the second half more open to winging it.

    Train tickets were the MAIN cause of the hassles we had when trying to be flexible in the second half of our trip. We had to make plans based on when and where we could get tickets, and I spent much more time than I wanted to just trying to figure out the train bookings. We were able at the last minute (4 or 5 days ahead) to get tickets, but it was a hassle and nerve racking. Lodging was not a problem. Much as I hate to say it, I'd lock in my itinerary around the train tickets. We took the train from Delhi to Jaisalmer, Jaisalmer to Jodphur, Udaipur to Gwalior, Varanasi to Haridwar, and Ramnagar to Delhi. We flew from Khajuraho to Varanasi. In retrospect, I'd probably opt for more flights and not as many long train trips. Other segments of the trip we had a driver.

    Here is the piece that no one has told you yet. You can cancel your train tickets for a very small fee if you do so a day or so in advance. In your shoes I would have a set itinerary and advance reservations for the portion of the trip that is during super duper high season. (An agent in Kerala I've been talking to about a trip to southern India this winter just told me that things will open up after Jan. 10, but before that has some of the more desirable lodging already booking up. I'm assuming the same super high season will apply to the areas you are talking about.) Since you already have a rough itinerary, make several sets of train reservations that will allow you flexibility, and then cancel the ones you don't want.

    I used Cleartrip to book tickets before we arrived in India. During our time in India I had many, many difficulties trying to use this site. This I believe was due to Indian train security issues and the fact that I was then trying to book when I was going through a server that identified my locale as within India.

    Obviously it is all subjective, but of the places you are proposing that we visited, we loved Jaisalmer and Varanasi. We really liked Orchha and wished we'd had more than just one night here. We liked Jodphur. Khajuraho had nice temples, but for us one morning or afternoon was sufficient.

    I wrote a really long trip report, and you may want to at least take a look at my first posting which ends with a summation of the number of days we stayed places, their costs and how we traveled.

    http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/our-1st-trip-to-india-6-weeks-in-mostly-rural-less-visited-india.cfm

    Finally, here is what I wrote in my trip report (done immediately after returning home) about winging it vs. having a set itinerary for India.


    "Before leaving home, I had done a lot of the research for the second half of the trip so, I had a loose, tentative itinerary and some ideas about where we wanted to go, where we wanted to stay, and what we wanted to do. But, it was still more difficult (especially without good, constant, reliable internet access) and more time-consuming than I’d thought it would be to make arrangements on the fly. And, it truly was transportation realities/difficulties that dictated the itinerary for the second part of the trip. Our recommendation would be to have the major transportation (planes and trains) between different major locales all booked before starting the trip because this was the most difficult part of trying to set things up a week or two in advance. Then, leave your winging it to places within that general locale because you can easily get a driver (or bus if you are willing to go that way; we aren’t) to move within a general area.

    Having done the winging it bit for the second half of our trip, I have mixed feelings about taking this tack in India unless you are someone with a backpacker’s time, flexibility and mentality. Yes, when we realized how hot it was going to be we were able to X out the tentative plan we had to stay at a lodge in Panna National Park for a few days. And, yes, we were able to get the lodging we wanted with no difficulty. But, we also ended up spending a lot of time just trying to get logistics and other things figured out. This was difficult for us even though we had some pretty set ideas and had done a lot of our research before we left home, so I can’t imagine how hard it would be for someone just doing it cold."

    Good luck, and have fun!

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