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Fly, train or drive within India -- which is the least hellish?

Fly, train or drive within India -- which is the least hellish?

Old Feb 6th, 2011, 02:15 PM
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Fly, train or drive within India -- which is the least hellish?

Against my better judgment, we've started to plan a trip with kids to India in December, hitting the highlights of Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, and a tiger safari at the insistence of my wife. The latter requires either a turboprop Kingfisher flight from Delhi to Jabalpur in the middle of Delhi's notorious foggy season, or alternately an overnight train which appears not to have the supposedly "first class" sleeping cars, but "second-class A/C" which our tour company advises is "still very nice". We Googled the Indian train system and all classes of sleeping cars looked horrible. We can't even get our own private sleeping car. Not exactly the Orient Express.

I wasn't into backpacker-style travel even when I was a penniless student, and I'm certainly not interested in it now, with children along. In the photos I saw, the train compartments were just disgusting -- toilets that amounted to a hole in the floor, metal racks on the walls with a thin layer of plastic padding for the bed -- and these were the first-class versions! It makes the Trans-Siberian look positively luxurious.

Our third option might be to drive, but reading some of the trip reports on this forum, it is not encouraging. It appears that driving in India, especially at night, is one of the quickest ways to shorten your lifespan. So hiring a driver to take us the 300-odd miles is also not a great alternative. Toss in the fact that it is inevtable that someone will be suffering from Delhi belly, spending 8 hours in a car is not my idea of vacation.

Anyone have experience with this Delhi-Jabalpur routing who can comment on any or all of these mode of transport? At this stage I am ready to call the whole thing off, as none of these options look very attractive and, having been to Mumbai several times on business, I'm not that keen to see other parts of India anyway. Mumbai lived down to every worst expectation I had -- it's the only place I've seen that makes Mexico City look like Switzerland. I've stayed at both the Taj and the Oberoi and couldn't wait to get out of there.

Appreciate any advice for someone who is not remotely interested in roughing it. I survived a few years of flying Aeroflot in the Soviet days, but I'm not interested in trying my luck with Indian puddle-jumpers.
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Old Feb 6th, 2011, 03:13 PM
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Sounds like you're heading to Bandhavgarh. Getting there is not easy. We flew from Delhi to Varanasi and then to Khajuraho. From Khajuraho it was a five hour or so drive to Bandhavgarh. We set out around 6 in the morning and arrived in time for a late breakfast. I was quite apprehensive about the drive but it was great. There's so much interesting activity along Indian roads. For the return trip we drove back to Khajuraho and spent the night. The next morning we drove to Orchha and connected to the evening train to Agra.
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Old Feb 6th, 2011, 03:49 PM
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Actually, it is Kanha we are supposed to be going to. At first the overnight train sounded great, until I read about them and saw the photos. So the alternative is to fly a Kingfisher ATR prop plane to Jabalpur, which is still 170km away from the park, so I assume it's a 2-3 hour drive. And I avoid prop planes even in the US, so I'm not excited about taking an Indian version.

I've done safaris in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, and they were great, but the accommodations were good in all cases (without paying for the Ambercrombie & Kent top-class standard). However, it appears the options in India are much worse for reasonable-standard lodging. If A&K is an A, a Holiday Inn is a C, and a backpacker hostel is an F, I'm looking for a B or B+. I'm not confident we'll find it.
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Old Feb 6th, 2011, 05:16 PM
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Clark, are you thinking you won't find luxury properties in India? India has some of the most Luxe properties in the world. I don't know what kinds of facilities they have at Kanha, but take a look at The Oberoi Vanyvilas at Rathambore.

Ah, I did a brief search and Chitvan Jungle Lodge seems to be the best accommodations in Kanha Park.

BTW, Kingfisher is an excellent airline. I'd fly a Kingfisher turbo prop.
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Old Feb 6th, 2011, 05:44 PM
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CCAfrica (now And Beyond) has a tented camp in Kanha:

http://www.andbeyondindia.com/luxury...ha_tented_camp

The And Beyond camp we stayed at in Bandhavgarh was every bit as nice as the And Beyond camps we've stayed at in Africa. They are pricey.
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Old Feb 6th, 2011, 05:50 PM
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You write that you are "not even remotely interested in roughing it" and hated Mumbai's Taj and Oberoi hotels, and say you're not keen to see other parts of India.

I'm guessing you are not going to enjoy this trip, and should nix it right now.

Even the nicest travel in India requires plnty of "roughing it". Of course, that's what makes places like the Oberoi Amarvillas is so "worth it."
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Old Feb 6th, 2011, 06:23 PM
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If there's no easy way to get there, I would scratch Jabalpur off your list - especially with kids traveling too.

The problem with India is sometimes the place you want to go to is really nice, but it's the "getting there" that's the problem. If It's too much of a hassle to get there, then I don't go.

You don't mention how long you will be there or the ages of the kids. How long will you be in Delhi? There's a lot to do there as well as in Jaipur, so maybe you can off the hook for the Jabalpur part.

The foggy season is generally late Dec. into January when the air temps are at their coldest. The fog is more of an evening - night - early morning problem.

Be kind to yourself and kids and go with an itinerary that won't have them cursing at you.
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Old Feb 6th, 2011, 06:32 PM
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i agree about trying to avoid the fog at that time of year...flying during the day is one way to do that...

instead of going to that park why don't you change and go to one like rathbone (sp) in the same area as your other travels?

i loved having a driver all around raj. area... he made our trip wonderful...

a new marriott is opening in jaipur which should meet your needs... the sheraton there is acceptable too as is the one in agra without the high priced hotels... tons of nice hotels in delhi.... a palace or two...should be fun and interesting for your kids...

i would also avoid the trains... others love them...

i will be there at the same time and have a driver for about 70% of my trip... this is my 2nd trip...
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Old Feb 7th, 2011, 03:06 AM
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Ranthambore would make so much more sense for your itinerary and there is plenty of upscale lodging near the park. We traveled in 1st class a/c from Sawai Madhpur outside of Ranthambore to Delhi and although our cabin looked like it was straight out of the 1950's, it wasn't bad at all.
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Old Feb 7th, 2011, 07:19 AM
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We traveled by train twice (once from Delhi to Jaipur and again from Agra to a town near Orchha), but only during the day so I can't comment on night trains. One of the trains was older than you'd see in Europe, the other was a bit newer. Neither was in any way luxurious, and yes, both had squat toilets, although one had a western toilet as well. I used the squat toilets and they were tolerably clean. I thought the trains provided efficient, safe transportation, and I enjoyed "the adventure." Given your comments, I don't think you'd like them, so I'd recommend passing on trains - especially night trains. And yes, fog can be a problem in December. We were about an hour late leaving Agra because of fog, and I think we were lucky it wasn't worse.

We also traveled in a large van (we were a group of eight) and, on another segment, in two SUVs. Both were quite comfortable. The road from Jaipur to Agra was mostly good, a large portion of it was highway. The other leg - from the town near Orchha to Orchha and then on to Khajuraho the next day was much more interesting, as we went through numerous small villages, but the road was poor - mostly one lane. Still, I'd strongly recommend a car/driver for at least part of your journey. It gives you more freedom to stop when/where you want, and you can hire a nice car/van/SUV that will be comfortable for you and your family. Plus you'll have someone knowledgeable along to help smooth out the logistics.

Lastly, we flew from Khajuraho to Varanasi and then back to Delhi on turbo prop planes. I thought they were fine and would have no hesitation using them again. We flew Kingfisher once and, I think, Indian Airlines the other time.

As for accommodations, we stayed in some C- places and some B places. I loved the heritage hotels but I'm not sure they'd meet your standards. They were very atmospheric but definitely not luxurious. There definitely B+ properties to be had, though, so I don't think you'll have any problems with comfortable hotels.

I'd have mixed feelings about the tiger safari. As I understand it, you're very lucky if you actually see a tiger. Is it worth it considering the distance/inconvenience of getting there? Or yes, how about Ranthambore as others have suggested?

How old are your kids? If they're teens, I'd suggest taking them to a Bollywood movie in Jaipur. I think everyone would really enjoy it. The theater we went to was Raj Mandir, and it's gorgeous. It was so much fun being there with all the Indians decked out for a night on the town.

I hope you get the details worked out to your satisfaction because nothing is LESS fun than going on vacation and thinking you won't enjoy it... because you probably won't. And that would be a shame, because India can be a fascinating, exhilarating experience, but it is what it is and I think it has to be approached with the right attitude.

Good luck and keep us posted.
Karen
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Old Feb 7th, 2011, 07:21 AM
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Definitely don't drive at night! If you expect to hate India you will hate India, even if you're staying upmarket.

Sounds like you should fly and risk the cancelation. Did you look at seat61.com for the trains? If there are four of you and you go 1AC you stand a good chance of getting the compartment to yourself, equally, in 2AC you stand a good chance of a section to yourselves, but there's no guarantee of either, and if you're predisposed to be unhappy on the train you will be.
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Old Feb 7th, 2011, 07:29 AM
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One more thing to add to what I've said above - it's not necessarily true that you'll get Delhi belly. Yes, it's a concern and a lot of people do, but on our trip only one of the eight had significant trouble, and that was just for one day. He was also the only one of our group who decided to use tap water to brush his teeth!

If you're very careful with your diet (cooked foods only or fruit that you can peel yourself - no salads), drink bottled water, and bring hand sanitizer everywhere you go, you may luck out. Be sure to tell the kids not to open their mouths while in the shower. Eat in busy restaurants (higher traffic means food sits out less) and ask for "mild" - unless you currently eat a lot of very spicy food.

The one man in our group loved Kingfisher beer. For me, it was the masala chai that I got hooked on. Your kids might really like banana or mango lassis. Yum.
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Old Feb 8th, 2011, 12:12 AM
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Thanks for the comments, everybody. I'll look into Ranthambore if it is more accessible. I fully expect that if we do go to a safari park, we are not likely to see a tiger. From reading other comments it appears even if you do see one, it is instantly surrounded by 20 jeeps jockeying for position -- something we never once experienced on our African safaris. So it sounds like a massive waste of time to me.

The biggest problem is that I think of all the nice places we could go instead... Provence, Tuscany, Mauritius, the Caribbean... why go to a 3rd-world country and be miserable the whole time? I've got a limited amount of vacation, and I spend most of my life traveling around the world anyway for work, so I don't really need to be spending vacation time in places that do not appeal to me. We got out of Egypt just before the riots, so I'm ready for something that is relaxing, comfortable and easy, none of which applies to India.

Now I just have to convince the others...
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Old Feb 8th, 2011, 03:53 AM
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Now, let's all just stop for a moment and think.

This is not about ClarkB, it's about US. We have the potential for one of the great trip reports of all time here. A true curmudgeon with literary skills. I've read his last report:

http://www.fodors.com/community/afri...-lowlights.cfm

and we NEED to get him to India, preferably to the most Clark-Busting places we can find, just so we can all share in the delicious aftermath.

I think it's called shadenfreude.

I can see where he's coming from. That crappy old Taj hotel in Mumbai is just awful, surrounded by all those grubby Indians walking in the street - and, as we know, the rest of India is exactly the same. I get news reports of Kingfisher flights dropping from the sky every second day. And the trains! Nothing more need be said.

Suggesting Ranthambore is a great start. Anybody with African safari experience [and I've had lots] will implode. There's nothing like a good safari park for a meltdown. So, I think a few days there will be great copy.

I have the names of some of the great arch-villains of Indian tourism; drivers to reduce him to gibbering rage, hoteliers to screw him around, restaurants to positively foster diarhhea - this is gonna be great.

I'll contact my Mumbai beggar tribe and offer them a few bucks to follow them around the country. Some of those kids will have him in sweet paroxysms of rage.

But sh-h-h-h-h, don't tell him. What would those dang Indians know about tourism...?

So let's not say that his attitude is based on presumption, arrogance and ignorance. That'll spoil our party. Let's not tell him that India does five-star tourism like nobody else in the world. Let's not reveal that the only thing that is stopping his family from an amazing trip is him.

For all his blah about what a big-deal world traveler he is, it's clear that our Clark hasn't seen a damn thing... just his own reflection staring angrily at the mirror.

And, as those of us who've spent time there know, India is the greatest mirror in the world. It will give back to Clark exactly what he puts in to it, multiplied by a thousand.

I'm looking forward to THAT trip report.
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Old Feb 8th, 2011, 03:56 AM
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I would agree with the others that going on a vacation to a place against your will does not make a lot of sense. But I suppose that is what marriage is all about (and which would explain why I am not married). I would have the following observations/suggestions:

1. Mumbai does not in any way represent India. Don’t judge the whole of India by it. I am constantly advising tourists to avoid it, as it has little to offer in terms of sights. While it has some good restaurants, shopping and museums and the pretty seaside, there are many other places in India which can offer that without 19 million people in their cars all trying to get to other side of town at the same time. (I have not been to Cairo in decades, but I would say Cairo is worse than Mumbai; more chaotic. But maybe I am just used to India at this point.)

2. Flying is, IMO, the way to travel with the “least hassle” of the three transport options you mention. There are many excellent Indian carriers. Indian airports are a mix, but are generally good and improving, some are quite good like Bangalore and the new airport at Delhi. You won’t, however, get to see the countryside much or do the people-watching which is so much a part of Indian travel (Indian airports do not, IMO, offer the same people-watching opportunities as train stations, where you get a much broader mix of people). In addition, there are many extremely interesting places that are not served well by air. So IMO you have to do a combination of all three as necessary. Driving is perfectly fine if (i) it is not for more than 5-6 hours a day, and (ii) you avoid night driving. For short distances it is faster than a train and certainly more convenient. For long distances which are not served by air, you may have to just grin it and bear a night train; but also consider day trains which let you see the countryside, even if you are “wasting” time that way.

3. If you really want to avoid hassle, you could look into “luxury” train options like the Palace on Wheels or the Deccan Odyssey. I think rather canned, and only a short time in each place, but everything is done for you and the sleeping accommodations would be better than the average train.

4. An Indian safari in no way compares to an African one, and I am afraid you will be disappointed. I am eternally grateful that I went on several Indian safaris first before going to Africa. The reverse would not be as good an experience. The number of variety of animals to be seen in Africa is just astounding, and I don’t think any Indian safari can match it. If your wife and kids have been to Africa, I would serious suggest you drop the idea of an Indian safari. Go to a beach area instead, like Kerala, where you can relax, rent a houseboat for a few days, and then if you want to make a 2 day trip someplace like Periyar, you could do that (about 2.5 hours drive from the Allepey coast area). Ranthambore is fine, is in very nice weather and December, and certainly offers some nice hotels; I agree you may be overwhelmed by other "nature lovers", esp in December which is the height of the travel season. But I would still say to leave a safari out unless you have 3 or more weeks to travel, where you can take your time getting places and spend time once there. With a short trip, IMO, it is not worth the hassle for the amount of animals to be seen.

5. Turboprop Kingfisher flights are perfectly acceptable. Fog can be a problem in Delhi on winter mornings, and the Jalabapur flight leaves at 6 am, so is in the window of potential fog delays. It will simply be a matter of luck on the day you fly.

6. As personal observation, your itin of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra is just the well-worn path of thousands of first-time tourists to India. As I don’t know how much time you have, it’s hard to make other reccos, but for sure the south would offer contrast to the north, as well as beaches and great food. While I can appreciate wanting to take the family to Agra to see the Taj, it’s a pain to get there and back, and Jaipur ends up being on the itin a bit by default because that is the easiest place to get to after Agra. You could consider skipping Agra (!) or try to include an otherwise more varied itin. Try Kerala as I mentioned above, or Goa. Or staying in the north, go someplace like Rikisesh, where you can white water-raft and hike, see ashrams and temples in a very lovely, basically untouristed setting, and you could easily do a day trip from Rikisesh to Rajaji National Park, see http://www.rajajinationalpark.in/. (But you can see tigers and snow leopards in the Rikisesh area without going on safari if you are lucky.) You could also make the longer trip to Corbett National Park from Rikisesh which should be about 4-5 hours by car, and stay in Corbett for a few days. Rikisesh is an easy 4-5 hour daytime train ride from Delhi to Haridwar and then a short drive, or you can take the 1-hour turbo prop Kingfisher (late afternoon flights offered) to Dera Dun and then a short drive. I really like the Ananda resort there ((http://www.anandaspa.com/), which is about 20 minutes outside the town, with wonderful spa treatments, a tremendous view, great yoga instructors, great food, just can’t say enough good things about this place. The Glass House might also work, see http://www.neemranahotels.com. Shimla might also be a good choice for outdoor activities and a contrast to the deserts of Rajasthan. Or consider Varanasi, which is very interesting and a good contrast to the other parts of north India on your itin. (You can even fly to or from Varanasi from Bangkok on Thai Air in 3-5 hours, which means you might be able to add Bangkok to the itin which might be interesting too. Or just get a non-stop to or from Bangkok and London, which I believe is your home airport, and then connect to a flight to or from Varanasi. Varanasi makes a good entry or exit point from India,IMO.)

Finally, I would note that Provence and Tuscany in December will be colder and darker than I personally would enjoy, and with nothing in bloom. As you know, daylight is in short supply and so are warm temps. (That being said, this has been the coldest winter in the Delhi area for decades, but temps are still better than France and Italy in December, and days are longer.) If you want to go to Mauritius and the Caribbean in December, unless you mean before Christmas, you had better already have made your booking…..and be prepared to pay.
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Old Feb 8th, 2011, 04:59 AM
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Dogster, you're a gem!
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Old Feb 8th, 2011, 07:51 AM
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Clark, you might want to consider not going to India. You are sure you won't like it, so you won't. But your wife and kids want to go to India and they sounds like adventuresome travelers - let them go. You or your wife can set up a trip with a dedicated car and driver or a combination of flying/car and driver and wonderful hotels. You family can have a marvelous time - and so can you (but vacationing elsewhere).
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Old Feb 8th, 2011, 10:52 AM
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you will not be bored in any way clark.... you will find it eye opening in every way, both the good, excellent and the bad...

remember it not "all about clark".... haha
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Old Feb 8th, 2011, 11:16 AM
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Thanks everybody for all the additional tips.

And dogster, you should have seen my trip report from Kyrgystan in 1993! Now that was funny!

And it's not anger, just fatigue. I've been to 60-some countries in the last four years, averaging about 180 nights a year in hotels. So traipsing around anywhere other than some nice beach is not something I can get too excited about right now. Give it a try and tell me how you get on before you give me the lecture on politically correct tourism.

I am seriously considering sending the wife and kids on their own, they're up for anything, but I'm not sure the kids would be happy with me not going, given how much I am away from home.

If I do go, however, I'll be happy to entertain you with my rantings in the vein of that other great misanthrope PJ O'Rourke (I just wish I was that funny). I'm an equal-opportunity complainer. Beats We-Are-the-World earnestness any day!
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Old Feb 8th, 2011, 02:40 PM
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Go with the wife and kids. You can hang out at Ananda Spa and then meet back up in Delhi for departure day.
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