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Trip Report Tips from our First India Trip - Castle and Kings

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We just returned from India - 15 days - first time in India. The sights to see are well documented so here are some tips and thoughts that might help future travelers. Thanks to those in the past who posted and help shape our trip. Some of the advice here is from me and my husband and some from friends who lived in Mumbai for the last 2 years.

Castle and Kings? After getting quotes and suggestions from 3 tour companies, we chose to work with Avrind at Castle and Kings. Avrind helped with the final details of the itinerary and never got tired of my emails/questions. We booked some of our own hotels and he booked some for us. In fact, we could not reserve a room at Taj Gateway in Varansi (and neither could the other agents we were considering), but Avrind easily pulled this off. We booked our internal air fare. The drivers provided were available all day/evening so if you want to go out for dinner, you still will have your driver. Other tour companies were not willing to offer this. Additionally, his pricing was quite competitive. The guides we particularly enjoyed are mentioned below by name. At each airport, we were met by a representative (we called him our handler) just to accompany us and the driver to the hotel. The handler made sure we got checked in and then firmed up the details of the guide who met us next.

Get an India SIM Card – Avrind arranged for his handler to provide a card so we could make calls in India. You can go on line and easily find a YouTube of how to replace your current SIM card with the new one (save your old one for when you return to States). Having the ability to use a phone helped us in countless situations, but especially with calling our driver. The charge was inexpensive – something like $5 or $10. Then we went to a VODAphone store and added on more usage (~ $15) so we could use internet and call home.

Fly or Drive? -- We don't like really long car rides so decided to plan our itinerary with multiple internal flights. We did get a chance to see some of the countryside during a couple of excursions. The guides mentioned that the monsoon season was very poor and consequently, the scenery was not as green as normal. What we did see was beautiful even though it was a bit brown. The destinations chosen were to give us a good combination of history, religion, architecture, nice hotels (some rest and relaxation) and shopping. We used air miles to fly Etihad business class from NY > Abu Dhabi > Delhi> Varanasi.
2 nights Varanasi
Fly to Agra for 1 night
Drive to Delhi for 2 nights
Fly to Udaipur for 4 nights – including 1 day excursion to Ranakpur and Kumbalgarh
Fly to Mumbai for 2 nights
Fly to Aurangabad for 2 nights
Fly to Mumbai for 1 night
Fly back to NY

Delhi Belly? I was a little neurotic about not wanting to get sick in India. A friend provided us with samples of Rifaxim which would last 9 days. We filled in the other days with Pepto Bismol tablets. Except for in Mumbai, we didn’t eat outside of the hotels. Cliff bars (brought from the US) and oranges taken from breakfast supplemented us during the day. At the hotels, we stayed away from lettuces, strawberries or any foods that would have been rinsed in water. Never got sick.

Air India vs. Jet Airways – I remember reading a post that said to avoid Air India at all costs. While we preferred Jet Airways, we also had multiple flights on Air India – they were all fine even if the planes are a bit older/dirtier. I wouldn’t arrange my trip around Jet Airways.

You won’t get to see everything. Inevitably, our Agra flight was delayed which made us cut the sightseeing short, We missed Itmaddaullah’s Tomb. This advice came in handy and we just rolled with it. Have your sightseeing priorities in order in case this happens.

Lots of small denominations in rupees. It seemed like we were constantly tipping so keep LOTS of small denominations with you. Tip the bathroom attendants. .

Expect to get pay more than you should have for something or other. As much as we like to bargain, these shop keepers are quite expert at the game. Sometimes you just don’t have the time to shop around so if you see something you like, and the price seems reasonable, just buy it and then expect to find that you paid more than you should have. Oh well.

Not sure about Varanasi? – We loved Varanasi with our excellent guide Vinod. We had heard that it could be quite touristy, but we didn’t pick up on this. Maybe because we were jet lagged or maybe because we arrived on a religious holiday and the city was packed with pilgrims. The excursion to Sarneth was well worth it. Include a quick spin through The Garden of Spiritual Wisdom which is close by. You can easily walk the garden in about 15/20 minutes and see various signs with the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Stayed at the Taj Gateway which was clean even if it was a little dated. Food was very good. You don’t need the dinner package – order a la carte and save a bundle.

Agra – Courtyard by Marriott on Marriott points. Don’t think of this as your ordinary US Courtyard. This was a new gorgeous property. They have a small spa where we got massages (about $50 each for hr. massage). Nice restaurant and rooms are new/modern. We visited both Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri. If you only have time for one – pick Fatehpur Sikri.

Delhi – ITC Maruya on Starwood points and cash program. Another beautiful hotel which is close to the airport. We liked our guide and would recommend– Vivek. Some of the sights in Delhi open early (dawn) and we took advantage by starting our day early and literally being the only tourists at Humayn’s tomb. Check the times of the openings and fit more into your day. Dinner twice at Bukhara; the second evening was a spur of the moment and we were lucky to get in with a short wait. Definitely make an advance reservation. One of the best meals of the trip – the leg of lamb is fantastic. Shop at Khan Market. I know a lot of people recommend Fab India, but I preferred Anokhi for women’s clothing, scarves, and wooden printing blocks which make nice small gifts. (another location in Mumbai, but Delhi store had more merchandise). Play Clan has a lot of nifty modern gifts (also better in Delhi than Mumbai).

Pick one of the “Purs”. Given our limited time, we picked Udaipur for 2 reasons. First, I’ve always wanted to stay at the Oberoi property – Udaivillas and second, it seemed like the perfect romantic place for our rest and relaxation. If you can only afford one splurge, this is the place to do it. 4 nights of bliss. Service was over the top. Rooms/pool/food excellent. Julianna at the spa gave excellent massage. Would go out of my way to go back here if possible!! Not sure you need a tour guide here for the city tour although we had one already set up. Make the effort to visit both Nagada and Eklinji temples which you can do the same one day city tour. We spent one day going to Ranakpur Temple and Kumbalgarh with just the driver. Ranakpur was amazing and worth the full day excursion. If you stay at Oberoi, do a private boat ride. If not, try to hire a private boat instead of one of the tourist boats.

Mumbai – Oberoi. We picked this hotel because the more nights you book with the Oberoi, the rate is reduced. Other than that, would have picked the Taj. If you don’t stay at the Taj, go there to walk around and see this beautiful hotel. We joined in on a tour of the hotel history. If you can book Shernaz Dick as your guide, do so; she was excellent. Shopping in Mumbai. Anokhi for women’s clothes. Neemrana for beautiful tunics (they will shorten them). They also have another store in the Marriott called Nakashi. Alilaya for tunics (more expensive than Neemrana), Joy Shoes in the Taj Hotel for sandals. Gossip Shoes for sandals in Colaba and also in the Oberoi shopping arcade although this is a smaller location. My husband bought beautiful quality linen shirts at Bombay Electric. I found some inexpensive jewelry with great design at The Bohemian – Oberoi shopping arcade (which is actually on the side of the hotel – not inside the hotel). Finally ventured out a bit more to eat. Soam for vegetarian lunch. Copper Chimney for tandoori. We did not go to Khyber, but it came highly recommended. We went to Dome for drinks – sunset – rooftop on Intercontinental Hotel. Yes, it’s a great view, but it was a bit dirty and the least expensive item on drink menu was 1 oz. vodka for $15. Not worth it. Final night, we left the Indian food behind and went to The Table (American food; reservations a must) – one of the best meals of the trip.

Aurungabad – intent was to visit the Ellora Caves and Ajanta. By the time we got in (late) and then a slight problem checking into hotel and then finding out that the drive to Ajanta was 2 ½ hours each way on a very bumpy road (our backs bothering us from so much sitting), we decided to cut short Aurungabad. Luckily, Air India let us rebook a day early with no charge and we checked back into the Oberoi in Mumbai a day early. Still the Ellora Caves were amazing and glad we got to see those. See above - won't get to see everything. Also, could not have done all the rebooking without the SIM card. Avrind easily arranged another driver for us for our extra day in Mumbai.

Looking forward to visiting South India next!

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