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"Slow travel" in India?

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Hi,

I'm looking at planning my first trip to India, as part of a longer trip that will include Europe and either Japan or Vietnam. India's been a "dream" destination of my mine for a long time. I think I've read every single India trip report on here 2-3 times each!

I'm nowhere near the nitty gritty of a detailed itinerary yet. I'm still reading guidebooks, thinking about what to see and do. But I do have a sort of broad, general question about traveling in India:

How do you decided how long to stay in each destination? And why do most people seem to travel so quickly through India? Is it because it's unpleasant to stay in any one place too long, or is it more a desire to see as much as possible?

For background, I'm late 30's, female, will be traveling solo. Never been to Asia before. I've done a couple of trips to Europe where we moved around every few days, and enjoyed myself. But when I travel solo, I tend to "stay put" for 1-2 weeks time in major cities like London, Paris, Rome, Florence, without a whole lot of traveling between places.

Back to India- I'm planning maybe 6 weeks, mostly by train. I'm thinking something like Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, Kolkata, and then a couple of weeks in Darjeeling and Sikkim (I'm also thinking about including a few places in Rajasthan, or even scrapping the north and focusing on the south instead- as I said, I'm a long way from a proper itinerary).

When it comes to my question about "slow travel", here's an example of what I mean: my "instinct" is to spend maybe 6 nights in Varanasi- it takes a lot to get there, overnight train to and from, or a flight. The gnat activity of course sounds fascinating, and from what I've seen on various youtube videos, the old section of the city itself also looks fascinating. Most travelers seem to love Varanasi and highly recommend it. But at the same time, most travelers seem to recommend only 2-3 nights. So I wonder if 6 nights would be a mistake...?

I know there are lots of experienced India travelers here- I'd love to hear your thoughts about the ideal pace of travel in India.

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    "How do you decided how long to stay in each destination?"

    The $64,000 question. And there's quite an easy answer, from my perspective. For someone, like myself, who likes longer stays than the norm wherever I go, travel in India can make those location choices easier to make for the simple reason that if we find ourselves in one location, and wish we had not planned to stay so long, it's easy to make arrangements to move on.

    I discovered that fact on my very first visit, deciding to add a location. I called the travel agent who had made my original arrangements and it was done, no fuss! On the same trip, which I'd extended beyond the formal arrangements, I decided to leave earlier than I'd originally intended and go to Thailand. I asked the airline and, again, no problem.

    So my advice to you is to do more than the usual reading, India is a big & complex country in which to travel. But when you're in the midst of your travels, if you find you want to make a change, do it. Never feel bound by the arrangements you've made because, as long as you haven't prepaid, and you don't need to prepay, you can change your mind.

    "And why do most people seem to travel so quickly through India?"

    I don't know! If there's a 1 place on earth where going slow is rewarded, in my experience, India is it. Don't lose that thought! It's my belief that the reason is that many/most (1) don't know how to slow down from the ragged pace of their usual lives, and (2) since they've never done it, are under the delusion that they see more by going faster and to more locations. While it may make a certain sense to those with nothing to compare, it's my belief that there's an inverse relationship to speed and seeing, where travel is concerned in general. The slower we go the more we see. But I think you know that already.

    My other theory is that the effort involved in moving is largely wasted because, whether you move or stay put, you're still in India. So why not relax?

    I think you're definitely on the right path in your planning. Do your best to plan the trip that's right for you and never forget that you can change your mind anytime along the way. Some of the best places I've ended up were at the suggestion of fellow travelers I met along the way. To deny myself the luxury of changing direction would have meant robbing myself of some of the best things I've done. We cannot always know in advance what's best.

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    "And why do most people seem to travel so quickly through India?"

    Well, I think for many people, India is unfamiliar territory, so even if they don't take a group tour, they use tour company itineraries to plan their trip. As we all know, tour companies never give you enough time anywhere. Look at most of the itineraries over on the Europe board - you could ask the same question.

    I expect you have a sense of how much time you need in a place. Do your research, come back and ask questions, and we can give some input, but ultimately, you are the one who knows how much time you want/need.

    As someone who always encourages people to slow down - no matter where their travels take them to - I applaud your effort.

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    "And why do most people seem to travel so quickly through India? Is it because it's unpleasant to stay in any one place too long, or is it more a desire to see as much as possible?"

    Here's my theory as to why people can't or don't want to stay put in India , or anywhere to which they travel:

    Just as you are, people are intrigued by India (or wherever). Unlike you, they probably are not fortunate enough to have six weeks of time, for whatever reason: jobs, family obligations, limited funds. Maybe this is the once-in-a-lifetime trip they've dreamed of for years, and they would like to experience (in whatever way they choose) the same fascinating places that draw you in your research. Maybe the places you mentioned-- Varanasi and Kolkata and Agra and Delhi ad Sikkim --are places they re intrigued by and want to visit, but they've only 2-3 weeks. So should they just forget about seeing all because they should "slow travel" when they may not have the chance to return? "I'll spend a week each in two places...which two?"

    There is nothing wrong with using a travel agent or "tour company" to help plan your trip...IF you find a good one, which will plan and suggest per you request, and if offering suggestions,will give rationales for those suggestions. As Mme Perdu said, if you want to change, you just call and they handle it, no problem--this has been my experience in various parts of the world. However, it sounds from what you've written that you will not need a travel agent as you are fortunate to have lots of time not only once there, but to plan the trip.

    Enjoy the anticipation and planning--that's part of the whole experience. If you havent already, do check Indiamike for far more detailed info about India from a huge variety of travelers of all ages, styles, nationalities,budgets.

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    Regarding CaliNurse's mention of a travel agent, I used an Indian agent for the first weeks of my first trip and only to make arrangements & bookings for me. I had a clear idea of places I wanted to go, which accommodations I wanted and how long in each. It was a struggle, but one I won in the end, to get what I wanted. Indian agents, maybe agents everywhere, seem to want to guide you onto the path they feel is best, or maybe where the commissions are best. In any case, I stuck to my guns and was happy with the trip I got, MY trip.

    I definitely won't discourage you from using an agent as sometimes they can arrange better prices for nice hotels, for instance. And book cars & drivers for you when it's the best way to get around. But there's also no reason you can't make bookings yourself. Also, once accommodations are booked, cars & drivers can be arranged through them, maybe even train tickets. And a great deal can be done online. But don't dismiss the idea altogether of using a local travel agent when it makes sense.

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    I guess there is no right answer to your question as it will largely depend on individual preference, However I think there are some marked differences between India and Europe to take into account.

    For me slow travel in Europe involves sitting in cafes in squares enjoying a coffee or a glass of wine and people watching, you can wander around the back streets of the majority of towns and villages without people taking much notice of you and you can easily rent an apartment for a week or so giving yourself your own little haven and can cater for yourself using local shops and markets having little picnics in parks etc.

    Whilst I am sure it is possible to do all this in India it is not, in my view, as easy. If you are going to travel slow in India you may therefore want to book hotels/homestays that have the sort of premises where you can comfortably spend a little private 'down time' as otherwise you could become a bit overwhelmed with the constant stimulation of the local life around you and the number of people who want to interact with you either to sell you something or who are simply curious abut you. This would be particularly true of Varanasi which is fabulous but hectic to the nth degree and six days there with no place of calm and respite to retreat to would have proven too much for me.

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    The responses already here cover much of my own thinking to explain your question as to why it's not a place where one lingers that long in any one place -- and the word, "linger", is, I think, my point. While I've only spent 3 weeks travel in India (Rajasthan, Delhi, Varanasi), it was a trip with "3 nights here, 2 nights there", which allowed us to get the flavor of the region.

    As loncall writes, "slow travel in Europe involves sitting in cafes in squares enjoying a coffee or a glass of wine and people watching". You can't compare the major European cities that you mention ("London, Paris, Rome, Florence") to any of the places in India, at least that I've visited. They are not places that invite lingering, cafe-sitting and people watching. The large cities that I visited are certainly not easy to negotiate. Delhi is not a beautiful city, and not a city that warrants a long holiday visit, unless you're there for a purpose. And certainly none of the other places that we visited have the kind of ambience or cultural offerings that would warrant a longer stay. Varanasi is a fascinating place, but our 2 nights (3 full days) were plenty. Perhaps Mumbai warrants a longer visit - I haven't been there yet, so can't speak to that.

    Many of my favorite experiences and memories of India, though, are in the "in-between" places -- the interactions in smaller towns, the drives between places -- and though we stayed 2 or 3 nights in most places, I felt that it was a rich trip filled with a range of experiences that added up to a great sense of place.

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    To offer advice on an experience that one hasn't had is, I think, to be in danger of being discounted. To say "it's not a place where one lingers that long in any one place" when one hasn't lingered, would suggest a shortage of evidence with which to come to a useful conclusion. And further, that "certainly none of the other places that we visited have the kind of ambience or cultural offerings that would warrant a longer stay" speaks to not having spent long enough to find places that would "invite" or "warrant a longer stay", not that they don't exist. I'd invite the OP to consider the possibility that longer stays might offer just such opportunities that a quick pass-through might not.

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    I thought I might be misunderstood. While it's true that most places in the world will reveal themselves to you if one is able to spend a longer time in them, I would stick to my original comment that many of the locations in India, at least the ones that I've visited (individual cities & towns in Rajasthan, Delhi, Varanasi) don't easily lend themselves to long visits. I'm comparing the experience to the cities mentioned by the OP, that is, several of the major cultural centers of Europe.

    Then again, if one chooses to stay in one place, then no doubt it will allow for a very different experience. I don't question that and I'm sure it would be a wonderful opportunity to get into daily life in a completely different culture. But as CaliNurse also mentions, most of us don't have the benefit of travelling for 6 weeks at a time and rather than staying in one place, India lends itself easily to brief stays in smaller cities, allowing one to get a sense of a region or place.

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    Thank you all for your thoughtful responses. Lots to chew on while I research and put this trip together.

    Something I neglected to mention in my OP- I'll be traveling on a very moderate budget. I'm looking at simple, mid-range hotels, 2AC or 3AC train travel, maybe a couple of budget flights, mostly exploring on my own during the day.

    It never really occurred to me that I could use an agent- I assumed agents have their own list of hotels, and are primarily a means through which to book a car and driver. If I had my own list of mid-range hotels (and maybe a couple of modest splurges), and only a sporadic need for a car and driver, would an agent even work with me?

    Having the freedom to change plans at the last minute is very appealing to me...I assume it's easier with an agent.

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    Agents can book any hotel you want. It may or may not save you money at mid-range hotels. But if you plan to use a car & driver at all, and they can be very handy on occasion, where planes and trains don't go or take extra time, then I'd give an agent a shot. If you decide to change things during your trip, they have the overview and can make it simple.

    I used an agent once, on my first trip for the first few weeks. Though experienced traveling independently, India was, I suspected, a whole new ballgame. I was on my own and glad I'd begun with some help and backup. It can certainly be done on your own but having some professional help before & during the first time out is just nice and I doubt it will cost you more, maybe less.

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    A good agent will ask about your budget. And as Mme Perdu says, having the car and driver (e.g. someone to meet you on arrival at airport, train station, etc, get you at your lodging, be available in evenings to drive you to wherever for din) makes the travel more "seamless"--especially important for people who do not have weeks of travel time. You have lots of time, but your expectations about time will change almost immediately in India, where things move at a totally different pace than what you expect or are accustomed to. Especially at the beginning, on your first trip, at the beginning when life there can seem overwhelming, it might help to have someone just a mobile phone call away 'til you get your bearings.
    My thought re: agent is, if there is a problem, they "have your back." If you're on your own, well...you're on your own. Having a reliable, local agent who could make changes, or advocate for me (sadly, some people see a solo older woman and try to "get over" e-who needs that when tired at the end of a travel day?) during assorted times in India, VN, and E Africa, made a difference..You're just one person, but many hotels do NOT want to make enemies of a well-known agency when it mean they will get no future customers from that agency.

    If focusing on "budget" digs and transport, you will get better practical suggestions on the Indiamike website. There, the vast majority of contributors are in search of a true bargain (e.g. lodging less than 50 quid/night); on Fodors, the majority of contributors are well above that price range. No judgment here: just be aware of the differences in different travel forums.

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    plus, your chosen list of hotels may be based on assorted review on online forums, which may or may not be accurate. Again a good objective agent can tell you if they are worth your time and money or not.Some are good and objective, others will of course push their favorites. But there are times when they agent favors a place based on previous clients' actual feedback,

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    If you know what you want, like I knew what I wanted, it's my experience that you may initially find dealing with an agent a study in you managing them rather than the reverse, at least until they learn your style and that your desires are quite specific. The detailed help they can give you, though, is well worth "educating" them regarding what you don't want as much as what you do.

    My best advice is don't settle on what they offer, unless a cookie-cutter experience is what you want and I doubt that. That's where they'll begin, with a canned itinerary, and where you'll begin to tailor your own experience. Always remember that they work for you, not the other way around. In the end I was firm and got exactly what my research led me to believe I wanted and it was pretty perfect.

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    Thank you @MmePerduu and @CaliNurse, and again to everyone else who responded earlier.

    I've been reading threads over at India Mike and Thorn Tree, as well as that big brick of a book, Lonely Planet India. Hands down, though, Fodors has the best trip reports and very thoughtful posters.

    The possibility of an agent is something I'm going to keep in mind now, while planning. I'm certainly tempted by the possibilities for more rural destinations...

    Just planning for India seems so overwhelming, with so many possibilities and so many things to consider. I would like to have a good balance of both chaos and calm, cities and rural, smaller areas. I can see the merits in both moving around to get a taste of an area, and of lingering.

    I'm sure I'll have lots more questions as I start to cobble an itinerary together.

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