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There and back again: a conflicted (and reimagined) India Trip Report

There and back again: a conflicted (and reimagined) India Trip Report

Jan 19th, 2015, 08:58 PM
  #1  
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There and back again: a conflicted (and reimagined) India Trip Report

As mentioned on my other thread, I didn't want to write a traditional trip report. I've done that before and, honestly, with this trip, I suspect we didn't do anything all that groundbreaking or out of the ordinary -- certainly nothing different than most folks do on their first trips to India.

Instead, I figured I'd tackle this by a list of lessons learned and tips for future travelers.

India is a land of extremes. Our feelings about it mirrored that. Wonderment. Frustration. Excitement. Head-banging on the wall. Spirituality. Utter despair. It's all part of what makes it India.

So here's the first half of the list I've been collecting. I know some of you have been asking for me to post these sooner than later...so, in the interest of timing, I figured I'd get at least the first half of this up. I'll add the rest soon hereafter.

We'll start with the overview, the cities, the hotels, the planning specifics and then the actual tips. I'll finish up with the highlights.

Apologies in advance for any typos.
filmwill is offline  
Jan 19th, 2015, 09:02 PM
  #2  
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THE DATES:
December 16th to January 6th

THE PLANNING:
Planned using Castle & King over the course of 10 months. Arvind was very helpful and he was always very responsive in getting back to me through my myriad email questions. The issues—if there were any—with C&K is that we discovered upon arrival that most of the drivers and guides we had were just subbed out to them by local agencies in each city we were in. The problem therein is that they lost a TON of quality control, in my opinion, by doing this. In particular, we did have a few issues about guides bringing us to “workshops” for a commission (in these instances, we stayed in the car until it was clear we weren’t going in) and some guides trying to shorten our day or rush us through things, so buyer beware. C&K were extremely apologetic and even seem incensed that their guides had brought us to these places when, according to them, they had asked their guides never to do this again.
I don’t think it’s C&K’s fault since it’s hard to have a personal connection to every driver and guide in every city, but they should try and maintain a bit more control over the specific guides they do use. I should also note that we did have 2 or 3 fantastic guides/drivers on the trip overall and only a few bad apples. Arvind was also responsive on-the-road about some of these little hiccups. So, all-in-all, a good experience with C&K. Bumps in the road, but know you’re not dealing with a high-end planner and set your expectations. You will have to do some work if you’re even slightly Type A. Just know what you’re getting. I’d say they do a great job at doing 80% of the work for you.

THE PLACES VISITED:
Singapore (1 night stopover)
New Delhi (3 nights)
Jodhpur (2 nights)
Udaipur (3 nights)
Agra (2 nights)
Varanasi (2 nights)
Cochin (2 nights)
Kumarakom (3 nights, including 1st night on their houseboat cruising the backwaters)

THE HOTELS:
Mandarin Oriental, Singapore
Leela Palace, New Delhi
Raas, Jodhpur
Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur
Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra
Nadesar Palace, Varanasi
Brunton Boatyard, Cochin
Kumarakom Lake Resort, Kumarakom

THE RULES (IN NO MEANINGFUL ORDER):

1. IT’S TRAVELING, BUT IT’S NOT VACATION
Overall, the trip was absolutely amazing. I just want to get that out now since you might find a lot of the things that I say here to be more focused on the challenging aspects—rather than the amazing ones--as a focus of these tips.
We saw things that took my breath away and I felt like we got a chance to see a sampling of so many different areas and vibes that definitively, on paper, this trip was everything I wanted. So why, you may ask, did I come back feeling a bit disappointed and generally exhausted? Mostly because I think we came to the conclusion, after much debate, that this trip really was we’d classify as ‘travel’ and not what we normally think of as ‘vacation’. The line between those two things has gotten admittedly blurry in the past 10 years or so that we’ve been traveling. What would’ve passed as a relaxing vacation for us on our first trip to Thailand we might now, admittedly, feel was too rushed or too touristy. Mostly, though, I think the differentiating factor was that we really don’t enjoy regimented trips. We had a “tour” before in China in 2011 and, for the same reasons, it was not one of our best trips.
Despite how much I hoped it wouldn’t be, it really felt like we were marched from sight to site to site to tourist restaurant to site, etc. And a lot of what I think the real India is (you know…the one Dogster used to talk about) is very much hidden from the eyes of tourists. It’s unfortunate, because the minute glimpses we had of that is EXACTLY what I had hoped to see in India. The only place we really experienced the “real’’ India was Varanasi, because you simply cannot hide any of it from tourists, despite how much you might want to. Hence, Varanasi was, above and beyond, our favorite destination.
To be clear: in retrospect, we could’ve used a ‘vacation’ with the kind year we had in 2014, but, again, no regrets. Every trip is a learning experience and a chance to see and do things you’ve never done before.

2. BE ASSERTIVE. GET WHAT YOU WANT OUT OF THE TRIP
Even though I worked with C&K to exhaustively plan our trip months in advance – and even tweaked a lot of it before we left (based on input from you guys)-- I still felt often that we were on what we kept calling “The White Person’s Tour of India”. I don’t mean that to be demeaning, but rather, that we literally saw the same people everywhere we went. It was almost comical – at restaurants, at almost every site, at museums…and I know for a fact that most of them weren’t using C&K so it wasn’t that. The benefit was that we actually made friends with a lovely British couple because we had seen them so many times in the span of 3 days that we all felt it was incumbent upon us to dine together one night—definitely an evening to remember! But it became quickly apparent from one of our more chatty guides that a lot of local agencies sort of have a “program” that every client seems to be in store for. For sites, that’s fine. You have to/want to see the same general sites in various cities. I get it. But for the food, it really felt limiting. We visited a ton of non-descript and SUPER BLAND restaurants that literally served the same thing everywhere. No spice, no life, no nothing. When we caught on, I started researching restaurants online and brought my phone with me and would literally try to re-direct our driver or guide. At first this wasn’t met with open arms. They protested, claimed either that the restaurant I found was “shut down” or that they didn’t know where it was, despite the Google Map on my phone…but I was onto their game. I did get one guide to admit he didn’t want us to “get sick and blame the company”. See, this is my issue with tours. I just don’t travel that way. I understand the risk. If I choose a place and I get sick, that is life. Lesson learned.
Finally, I think they realized I wasn’t backing down and they relented, and as a result we had some of our best meals this way. My moment of triumph was introducing our guide and driver in Agra to a lunch place I had heard about and they ended up eating with us and couldn't stop talking about how good the food was. I don’t think this is a C&K-specific issue but rather ANY tour operator in India, no matter how personalized. I think the takeaway here is that most tour operators want to “protect” Westerners. I think they think they’re doing us a service. I would disagree. I don’t think there’s a wrong or right here. But think it’s important if you value traveling a certain way that you push to get what you want from your experience

3. GET CONNECTED, INDIAN-STYLE
No brainer. $40 for an Indian SIM card for 10GB of data and a ton of minutes (that more than carried us for the 3 weeks we were there). Your TA can arrange this for you. If you have an iPhone 5 or later, you can easily swap your domestic one out with the one your TA procures for you upon arrival. The ability to contact your agent when problems happen (which will be often) and the ability to have much faster internet than most of your hotels will have is invaluable. In 90% of our hotels, our not-so-great 3G data connection on my phone was always MUCH faster than the hotel’s wireless connection.
(FYI: Can’t speak to other phone types but, despite what you may hear, you absolutely CAN use foreign SIM cards in iPhone 5’s and later…you cannot with earlier models, but this is a super important fact for travelers in general to know!! You do NOT need to have an unlocked phone to do this. My phone is on Verizon and it’s locked and I had no issues swapping out with an Indian SIM card.)

3. BE AT ONE WITH THE FOG
People warned us about the fog. Can’t say I didn’t know going in. Didn’t make it any less frustrating to have a delay on almost every single flight we had in northern India (and even in other place we were, since those planes most likely, at some point, fly through northern India to get to you). I can’t say the fog ‘ruined’ anything, but you really have to get zen about it. Just make sure you don’t have any tight connections and, if you do, have If you go in December/January, this will be part of your experience, much as you may not want it to. It not only screwed up flights for us, but also driving that needed to happen to get to said flights. In one instance, we left Agra to catch a flight in Delhi at about 4 AM and it still took us almost 6 hours to get there (normally 3 hrs without fog), as we couldn’t see all but (literally) 2 feet in front of the car the whole way. Speaking of flights…

3a. FLY BUSINESS CLASS WHENEVER YOU CAN AFFORD TO
When arriving at airports that have fog delays (and New Delhi is the WORST when it comes to this) you may find yourself with literally minutes to spare to make your flight. You won’t be too thrilled when you see (literally, again) a 2-3 hour long line queued up at the check-in counters. Any shouts of “Hey, I’m going to miss my flight!’” or “Can you please help me!?” will go completely unheeded. You’ll get nothing but indifference and a kind reply to “please, wait on the line”. There’s a stunning lack of urgency in India when it comes to mass transportation. I found that maddening. You’ll have a line snaked around for hours and the security guard is picking his fingernails and barely paying attention.
Speaking of security checks: another painfully long queue-up situation, on the heels of your last painfully long check-in wait. The whole experience of the agents getting you to the airport way too late, the maddening rush to not miss your flights and the complete and utter lack of shite given by the people who work at airports, to me, was the most frustrating part of India. If folks enjoy traveling with that kind of madness, all power to them. I don’t.
But there is a workaround. One way to alleviate SOME of this frustration is to ticket in business class. All BC lines were almost always short…and in one particularly hairy incident at New Delhi, we would’ve missed our flight had I not gone to the BC check-in counter and upgraded our flights.
In fact, we ended up upgrading all our Air India flights (see below why) and even one of our Jet Airways flight. Something good to note is that, often, you’ll get a quote from your travel agent that can seem particularly high or restrictive for upgrades. We found getting to the airports a little bit early and going to the ticketing counter netted us out with much better prices (caveat: space must be available and, during the holidays, that’s a crap-shoot).
But if you can't upgrade...

3b. AVOID AIR INDIA LIKE THE PLAGUE
…because Air India is simply awful. Everything about Air India is terrible. There are words that have not yet been invented in the English language to describe what a tragedy of epic proportions this airline is. If a stomach virus was an airline, it’s Ari India. Are you getting the idea yet?
The planes we flew on felt older than anything I’ve ever flown on in my life (including the planes in Burma, which admittedly, must’ve entered service in the 70s). Tray tables were falling off the backs of the seats, seat cushions were ripped down the middle, and the “television screens” had smudges of food and other… unidentified …substances all over them.
In contrast, all our Jet Airways flights were smooth and, yet, every Air India flight had massive turbulence and some of the hardest landings we’ve ever had. I was convinced the pilots were actually watching a cricket match up there and peering out the corners of their eyes once in awhile to make sure that at least they hadn’t crashed (yet). The service on the flights were almost non-existent and the “food” consisted of something you might have expected to get in Economy on Aeroflot in the 80s. Since you all know I’m prone to sarcasm, is there a little exaggeration in my description? No. Absolutely not. Avoid Air India. Flying outside on the wing of their planes might be safer and more comfortable.
In comparison: Jet Airways is really lovely. Brand new planes, smiling service, decent food (not great, but not a wiggling chunk of gelatinous muck). There’s a reason most good TAs will tell you to always fly with Jet. I was sort of surprised that C&K did not advise us at all about which carrier to fly.
filmwill is offline  
Jan 19th, 2015, 09:03 PM
  #3  
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Part II to follow...
filmwill is offline  
Jan 19th, 2015, 09:29 PM
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Loving this, film will. I encourage future India travelers to heed your advice. Many of these tips have been given again and again on Fodor's (slow down, allow time for delays, don't let drivers bully you into shop stops, etc.) and yet it is hard for people to believe it can be that bad, until it is!

And really, DO not fly Air India unless there is no other choice.

And like you said, India is well worth the frustrations, but still it is challenging at (many) times.
lcuy is offline  
Jan 19th, 2015, 10:03 PM
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Fab report FW, for someone ( like me) who hasn't been to India, it's a great synopsis ....and has given me a clear understanding of some of the things to look out for. Looking forward to part 2
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Jan 20th, 2015, 01:51 AM
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THANK YOU WILL!!!!!
But Grrr, we just booked AI flights after ourSpice Jet flights were cancelled so I am not sure we had an alternative with decent times. Would you mind PLEASE posting the names of the restaurants you went to, I have had some trouble finding restaurant blogs for India.
FromDC is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 02:40 AM
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Billy, you are totally nailing it - great advice for all future travelers...
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Jan 20th, 2015, 02:41 AM
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filmwill,
Thank you for such a wonderfully honest and incisive report. In many ways, I agree with you -- my husband and I were there 2 years ago, and loved India more than any other trip, yet also experienced many of the same feelings you did.

We loved Varanasi for its absolute "otherness" from any other place we've ever been. And, to a good extent, found the touring experience of the many sites of the rest of the trip both exhilerating and sometimes, a bit of a letdown. We worked with an agent we were very happy with, too, but some of the guides were certainly better than others.

I laugh over your description of the food -- we, too, found the tourist restaurants dull and also insisted that we get taken to a "real" place; in Udaipur, after asking for a "real" place, our guide took us to a local restaurant for lunch, and we had one of our favorite experiences, having lunch with him in a place that cost us less than $10 for the 3 of us.

What we did that helped was plan a few stops to smaller places, which got us out of the "forced march" of sites, and those stops made a huge difference in the overall feeling of the trip. Also, by driving through some of the smaller roads (often not good!), we got to see and experience a non-tourist India. I thank julies for this, since her first trip report gave me the idea to include some off-the-beaten path stops.

I hope you don't mind these comments here -- I don't mean to take over here on your thread!

I'm really looking forward to the rest of your report!

Paule
progol is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 03:29 AM
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We traveled with castle and king, but only used a driver. We really didn't see any reason for a guide after spending months researching the trip. At the taj, when arvind supplied a complimentary guide the first day, we were pleased with our decision to forgo the guide. Whenever we did want a guide, we found audio guides or guides readily available. In the evenings, rather than using our driver, we gave him the time off and hired a tuk tuk for only a few dollars. This gave us an opportunity to wonder and interact more with the people, which is what we wanted. Perhaps this would be a better choice for those not wanting to feel so insulated.
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Jan 20th, 2015, 03:32 AM
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Would love to hear what you thought of Cochin and the backwaters as we are planning a second trip to India. We agreed that varanasi was our favorite experience.
dgunbug is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 04:43 AM
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dgunbug,
We found that a combination of days with guides and days without were perfect. There are times that having a guide is invaluable; we also found that the personal connection with each of them, to a greater or lesser extent, also added to the overall experience. And, for that, I do like the use of guides -- having someone as a bridge to another culture. Not that we felt a connection with everyone, but with some, we did, and we found that it enriched our experience.
progol is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 04:47 AM
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Following along too, and making some mental notes on the useful advice you're providing. Sorry to hear about the problems you had with your guides.
tripplanner001 is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 05:11 AM
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Great post. This will be useful to a lot of people
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Jan 20th, 2015, 07:28 AM
  #14  
rje
 
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Thanks filmwill for the really interesting post! Looking forward to reading Part II.

We're in the planning stages for another trip to India next year and I'd been wondering what airline to use for internal flights. I'm still in mourning for the demise of Kingfisher, which I found wonderful. We found their red-jacketed reps who would greet you at curbside and walk you through the airport chaos to be really helpful. And their almost-realized membership in Oneworld would have been great. I still have one of those silly red Kingfisher pens they gave out during flights!

We haven't used guides in India, but I can second your point about the tendency of some drivers to try and steer westerners toward certain restaurants. Like you, we do independent research, and had the drivers take us to some we'd found, but there is always the doubt that maybe a local person knows something we don't know about a particular restaurant! We never did get sick, though.
rje is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 07:43 AM
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Great start! I appreciate your frankness. And I haven't read anything I would disagree with. Looking forward to more.
Kathie is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 08:58 AM
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It's not every morning you wake up to a quasi trip report by filmwill - what a treat! Well done - a little conflict and introspection elevates travel writing to the next level.

Your observations made me happy that we used a high-end trip planner (not usually our MO) and also that we went off season (September). Our guides were pitch perfect - ridiculously well educated, great humor, some could be friends. Biggest issue was convincing them we weren't famous because they were used to world leaders and rock stars. Like dgunbug and progol, we also had about 50% guide-free time when we could channel our inner dogster.

A friend was in India when you were and had an almost identical takeaway - said her trip was fascinating, but not a vacation. She said she could not recommend India to anyone she knew (but would recommend dugout canoeing on the Amazon). I'm wondering if the dreary weather was an issue for you both. Looking forward to your take on the south.

Agree completely about the restaurant conundrum. We had some excellent meals in hotels, but would have loved to be more adventurous. We found some amazing-sounding recs for Delhi in Time Out, but then would find reviews on TA about how deathly ill diners had become.

FromDC, maybe it was the multiple ganeshes we purchased, but Air India (domestically) was fine. We flew economy on two flights and encountered no queues and no delays. And they serve decent hot veggie meals and show Bollywood movies. Wondering if it has gone downhill in two years...

Thanks for this. Can't wait for more.
crosscheck is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 09:52 AM
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We're experienced India travelers who definitely can understand some of the things you are saying and some of your frustrations. And, I absolutely understand what you say when you say a visit to India is travel not relaxation. I too am very much enjoying this compilation of your thoughts and have some perspective on why you ended up feeling the way you did about the trip.

Please don't take this too harshly, but the reason you very infrequently got a taste of the "real" India that you so wanted is because you chose to insulate yourselves by staying in all 5* places, using a car and driver non-stop, having a guide most of the time, sticking to the same old tried and true itinerary that everyone does with all of the same canned stops for sightseeing and meals etc. You were on a regimented tour, not a trip planned by you. I can tell that you feel you learned from this experience as we all definitely learn from what we've undertaken as we travel.

Here are a couple thoughts for others who will be reading this as they plan their India adventures. You will see more of what filmwill refers to as "real" India if you take these things into account.

Riding India's trains will give you an opportunity to visit with people from India (and you'll get a chance to experience the chaos of India's train system). So, add a couple trips by train into your itinerary. If you are worried about finding the right train and getting on the right train, we have always found that our driver or the porters will make sure we are in the right place.

5* international hotels all attract the same people all over the world. Make other choices instead; there are some fabulous places that are equally lovely, offer great service and let you immerse yourself in the real culture (and they are usually a lot cheaper).

Choose different locales to visit rather than just the same-old, same-old. No matter how much you think you are asserting yourself and making choices about what you want to do and where you want to go, agents do have their canned itineraries and lodging recommendations that they think most foreign tourists want.

And, yes, you will find that the larger agency almost always farms out their guide and driver services to someone in the vicinity.

Have enough flexibility to just wander around and participate in everyday life. Don't barricade yourself off with a guide all of the time. Serendipity can't happen when you have a guide hovering over you all of the time.

Add in some rural destinations because that is the true heart of India. Particularly in northern India there are some absolutely fantastic places that are owned by the royalty who now need an infusion of funds to keep their estates going; they offer rooms and activities to tourists now.

It is getting out of the super-wealthy (and anyone who plans a trip with only top-of-the-line lodging, flights, and a private car and driver is seen by most of the world as fitting into this category) tourist cocoon that will allow you to have the types of experiences you feel you missed out on during this trip.

As I said, please don't be offended, but we've had two very successful long trips to India (and are in the midst of planning a third).

To be frank, as much as I find a treasure trove of valuable information from all the different posters here, my frustration is that so many posters seem to assume that travel needs to be at the very top end of the expenditure range or it can't be any good or will be too dangerous. That's not true.

We are way beyond backpacker stage, but we don't necessarily spend a gazillion dollars either. And, we end up with perfectly lovely trips staying in very nice places. I've got two long and detailed trip reports for northern India for anyone who is interested. Click on my name to find them.
julies is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 10:23 AM
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Thanks for all the encouragement, guys.

I'm working on Part II now. Hoping to have something tonight or tomorrow night.

But I felt compelled to respond to Julie's post. I absolutely appreciate your insight...but, in all fairness, I haven't finished my observations yet so it's kind of hard to do a frank analysis on the overall trip without dealing in massive generalities.

I do agree that having a driver and guide everywhere absolutely insulates you. But we didn't have them even close to that. I would not completely agree with the assertion that staying at the Oberoi, for instance, made any impression on my take on India at all (but rather more my take on those kinds of hotels). If anything, having a lovely room and warm bath to come back to was a welcome respite. If we had no drivers or guides at all, I probably would've still stayed at these places. I'd also add that not all the hotels we stayed in were 5 star. Some were, for sure. But not everywhere we stayed--which definitely helped break things up. I will say that the 3 star we stayed at was not nice or comfortable in the slightest, so I think it's really about finding the properties that most appeal to you and staying where you feel comfortable.

The trip itself was not planned by a "large" agency (as far as I can tell, C&K is a rather a small operation) so I think it's important to point out that anyone could find themselves in this predicament -- either going with a big agency or a smaller, more local option -- or even if they stay in 3 star or 1 star hotels.

It's also not accurate that our itinerary was somehow picked for us. For our first trip, there were places we felt we wanted to see...and those happen to be the same places everyone on their first trip to India feels they want to see. First time visits always vary with mileage. Much in the same way that my first trip to Thailand I did things so wildly touristic that I'd shriek in horror at the idea of doing on my 2nd, 3rd or 4th trip there.

I did actively participate in choosing every place we wanted to visit. In fact, C&K did not give us any lede on this. I also researched and chose every hotel myself -- again, not a single place recommended by the agent...they knew we wanted to make our own decisions. That said, when you're IN each city, then, yes, you do get the regular "program" that all other tourists get--and, indeed, I did not enjoy any part of that. But it's important to know that I actively chose to have most of our lodgings be "inside the bubble" as we knew we'd want that respite every day. That doesn't work for everyone, but I don't agree that a choice of hotel defines the experience you have inside a city. It's what you do when you leave the hotel (let me get to that in my report) that defines the experience to me. However, in some instances, where we stayed was a highlight in itself (Nadesar, Kumarakom, etc.).

As for having a guide every day, we did not. We had access to a driver each day and we only had 4 guides total across the 7 places we visited (1 day with a guide at most in each place). We only used our drivers otherwise to get to places we wanted to see when we explored on our own. That doesn't make the frustration I described above any less, of course. If we had guides any more I would've lost my lid.

I also vehemently disagree that having "top-of-the line" flights somehow insulates you. If you're suggesting that flying on coach would've enhanced my experience, I'd love to debate that point further (outside this post, of course). As for trains--sure. We would've loved to take some. But we had a choice to either see Kerala or only do northern India and travel by train more. I do regret not being able to travel by train (it's something we try to always do on trips) but seeing the backwaters was another highlight, so I don't regret that choice either.

Sorry if I've given the impression that we literally only had guides with us 24/7, just wanted to clear that up. I guess that's a symptom of this TR not being finished. So please be patient.

Appreciate your input. And agree with the spirit of what you're trying to get at, but I don't think it's a completely accurate assessment of why I was frustrated. While I agree with some of your points, I also think you're generalizing a ton about things...and people's individual styles. I don't think it's so black and white. As such, neither is India.
filmwill is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 11:02 AM
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Filmwill, my response to you earlier this morning was rushed because I had to dash out. I really appreciate what you've posted so far and I'm looking forward to the rest.
FromDC is offline  
Jan 20th, 2015, 11:16 AM
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Love this report film will. We're planning a trip next Dec and although I too would like to see the less touristy aspects of India, know that I also want to see the "must see's". Tough decision. I'm working with a travel agent and although I haven't settled on an itinerary yet, feel that I'd like to travel less and spend more time in some places that warrant more time. Where would you have spent more time/less time/no time if you had to do it over again?

Another thing is that everyone I know who has gone to India has traveled with guides and drivers in most places. We have been warned that the way we like to travel - walk the streets, experience the areas through serendipity vs carefully planned daily itineraries - is not really possible nor fun. What was your experience?

Was the weather that much of a drag on your trip as we're going around the same time.

Keep up the great reporting. And thanks for your help.
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