Your options for getting around India are largely dependent on two things: time and tolerance. Both will play an important role in how much of this wondrous and enigmatic country you can absorb on a visit here.
India is widely served by direct flights from Europe, Africa, North America, the Middle East and Asia, and usually with no more than one layover from South America. Upon arrival, an extensive network of planes, trains and buses serves the country, all with their advantages and disadvantages. For any far-flung destination that infrastructure doesn’t reach, it’s also very affordable (and fascinating) to hire a car and driver. However you do it, navigating India transportation is an epic adventure. Strap yourself in!
Flying to and Around India
Most folks will enter India at one of its two biggest gateways for international visitors, New Delhi and Mumbai, though Kolkata, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai receive their fair share of international arrivals as well. The list of international airlines serving India is extensive: Air France, Air India, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Etihad Airways, Emirates, KLM, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and United Airlines, among others. Those flying to the subcontinent from North America can choose direct flights from Newark, New York or Chicago. From South America, you are most likely to transfer in London, Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
Note that flights to India from the West often land at very antisocial hours — 3 a.m., 4 a.m. — so you will save yourself oodles of hassle if you have a hotel and airport pickup booked in advance. The last thing you want to do is start the inevitable rickshaw battles the first moment you arrive (more on that later).
India has five main domestic airlines, some in less dire financial straits than others: Air India, GoAir, IndiGo, Jet Airways/Jet Konnect, and SpiceJet. (Air India and Jet Airways are by far the most stable.) Cleartrip, Yatra and Make My Trip are the main travel aggregator sites for domestic travel in India.
Flying around India has a lot of advantages. If you are short on time, it allows you to cover more ground in what is an extremely large country to tackle on the ground. Compared to those in North America or Europe, domestic flights in India also tend to be quite affordable. Lastly, traveling around India can be a hectic, dust-ridden and nerve-rattling adventure — sometimes it’s just more comfortable to be at 35,000 feet.
The down side is that so many of India’s great moments happen while traversing this great nation at sea level. Staring out the window of a bus or train is a mesmerizing pastime.
India by Train
India is home to one of the world’s largest railway networks, and riding its rails is a memorable travel experience in itself. While it most definitely requires some trial and error — just getting your head around the various classes of travel can be an exercise in hair-pulling frustration — traveling India by train will no doubt be one of the highlights of your trip.
The most popular class of travel for most visitors is Sleeper Class (open-plan carriages with three-tier bunks and no air conditioning), which gives a reasonable amount of comfort and a whole lot of atmosphere for a pittance. Those seeking more comfort and cooler carriages should opt for one of the three air-conditioned classes: Air-Conditioned 3-Tier (3AC; three-tier berths in groups of six), Air-Conditioned 2-Tier (2AC; two-tier berths in groups of four with curtains for privacy) or Air-Conditioned 1-Tier (1AC; two- or four-berth compartments with locking doors and meals). On Shatabdi Express trains, AC Executive Chair Class is always a quick, comfortable and cool way to go. Unreserved Second Class (wooden or plastic benches and a cavalcade of people) should be avoided by all but the bravest or most budget-oriented of souls.
Once you wrap your head around that, the real fun begins: trying to book trains. Booking trains for foreigners, especially from abroad, has become increasingly difficult in recent years, despite travel aggregator websites that have condensed and simplified the process. The easiest way is to go through a travel agent or to walk into a train station, though the latter can be a harrowing experience if you are averse to long lines, lots of people and utter chaos.
The most pleasant way to control your own train destiny is by purchasing tickets online, but that’s where things get tricky. You must first register on the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) ticketing website, which you need an Indian mobile number to do (easy to get in country, not so much from abroad). You can then make reservations via IRCTC or link your account to more easily navigable sites like Clear My Trip and Yatra. It’s a bureaucratic mess that’s worth it if you will be in India for an extended period.
A handful of luxury tourist trains also operate in India, such as the Palace on Wheels or the Deccan Odyssey. These can easily be booked online at the websites below.
India by Bus
Indian buses are akin to semi-organized pandemonium. Little, if any, English is spoken at bus stations, and it can be easier to scale Everest than find the bus to your destination. Luckily, Indians are an ambitious lot — they usually know the destinations foreigners are likely to be going, and will grab you amid the bedlam and throw you on the correct bus (only a slight exaggeration!).
Major routes often have comfortable, air-conditioned buses, often referred to as Volvo AC, which are on par in comfort and safety with their international counterparts. You can book seats online, and sometimes they even give you a bottle of water. Most of the time, however, Indian buses are ragged and recycled U.S. school buses from decades prior, where people and luggage are piled in with little regard for comfort or safety. They are sometimes a necessary evil, as they can be handy for reaching destinations not served by the extensive rail network. On most routes, you can choose between state-owned (more reliable) and private (usually more comfortable) buses.
It’s best to have a travel agent book your tickets for you or simply go to the station yourself and buy there. Many tickets are purchased on the buses themselves.
In general, if you can get a seat, you’ll be fine, but be prepared for a chorus of wacky Bollywood film soundtracks at ear-splitting volume along with nonstop horn honking (headphones are a lifesaver), and don’t be surprised if a fellow passenger falls asleep on your shoulder/leg/head at one point or another.
Hiring a Car and Driver in India
Hiring a car and driver sounds fancy, but it’s a popular and affordable option in India, especially since driving yourself is strongly discouraged due to lack of respect for traffic laws, frequent accidents and absolute chaos on the roads by Western standards.
You’ll need to choose between air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned cars, and vehicles are often the ubiquitous white Hindustan Ambassadors — the definitive Indian car. Flashier cars are available as well (Toyota Innova, Tata Indica, Tata Indigo, etc). Your hotel or any travel agent can help you arrange a car for hire. There are taxi stands in bigger cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata.
Driving here — as in all countries — is a picturesque and enlightening way to enjoy a foreign land. In India, throw in a lot of horn use, wayward farm animals and haphazard adherence to traffic laws, and you’ll have an idea of what this experience will be like. Seatbelt mandatory!
Motorcycle and Bicycle Hire in India
Yet another romanticized view of Indian travel is the long-distance overland motorbike odyssey, with Rajasthan, South India and Ladakh being some of the most popular areas for touring. The preferred motorcycle of choice is the Royal Enfield. Lalli Motorbike Exports in Delhi and Allibhai Premji Tyrewalla in Mumbai are two recommended rental agencies. Motorcycle tours are also very popular.
You will need an International Driving Permit in addition to your home country’s license to rent a motorcycle in India, though this can be an often-overlooked technicality.
Unless you are a glutton for punishment, renting a bicycle in India should be restricted to the most fervent of cyclists.
India by Auto-Rickshaw
The traditional Indian auto-rickshaw (a motorized, three-wheeled cabin cycle) is the most ubiquitous form of travel in India, used mainly for getting around cities and sometimes short-haul destinations outside town. The government generally controls fares, but a foreign face is nearly guaranteed to elicit an automatic 200 to 300 percent fare increase. Fighting with auto-rickshaw drivers is often the single most frustrating experience for travelers in India.
Handling them is entirely personal, but here’s the best way to ensure you are not being fleeced. First, ask a local (someone not in the tourism sector) what a particular fare should be. Hop into the rickshaw without pre-negotiating a fare, and when you arrive at your destination, hand over nothing more than the amount suggested by the local. Then walk away, ignoring the rickshaw driver’s inevitable cries of injustice and protest. Trust us.
Renting a Car in India
–written by Kevin Raub