Confused about India?
Fascinating, intense and at times maddening, India – like the most interesting people – can be mystifying. Here, the Ampersand team answer your questions and fears, and share our top luxury India travel tips
India was the original destination Ampersand started selling many years ago and it is not only the destination we know best, it is also the closest to our hearts. Having put together thousands of tailor-made tours of India for our clients, we know that it is a country that confuses and bewilders – especially for the first-time traveller.
It is called the 'Indian Subcontinent' for a reason; nearly 3 times larger than Western Europe and as wide as it is long, India's regions differ considerably in terms of weather, language, food and culture. It is not possible to have one blanket set of rules and guidelines for the whole area. When it comes to tourism – and luxury tourism in particular – finding information that you can trust online is not easy.
So we decided to stage a round table debate amongst the Ampersand team to shed light on some common myths surrounding travelling in India. Here's our 2 Rupees worth…
The Ubiquitous Taj Mahal
Many travellers assume that the Taj Mahal is an essential part of any India trip and – if you have plenty of time to play with – it is indeed a beautiful and mesmerising place to visit.
However, as well-seasoned, well-travelled India specialists we personally feel that you can have more rewarding experiences doing other things. Going to Ahilya Fort, for instance, truly captures the essence of India. Set amongst the temples overlooking the Narmada River in Maheshwar, this palace hotel offers a wonderfully non-commercial and intimate experience, with beautiful surrounding villages and rural landscapes.
This is the kind of India experience that we love, rather than jostling with throngs of other tourists.
Scenes of Hardship
India is a country of diametric opposites: the beautiful and the ugly; the wonderful and the terrifying; and tremendous wealth, such as that possessed by the Maharajas and Nizams, and some of the greatest poverty on this earth.
Some travellers are naturally concerned that they will find this shocking or upsetting, but we find that they are just as likely to be astonished by the positivity and cheer from those facing such adversity. Their spiritual approach may even have you question the true sources of happiness.
There's an intensity to India that is like being on a Big Dipper – for those who do hop on, it promises a thrilling journey!
Organising your own Trip
Backpacking across India is hugely popular and this has helped spread the misconception that it is just as easy to organise your own luxury trip across the country.
Luxury travellers have a different set of expectations to backpackers. You want the whole trip to come together seamlessly and in comfort, without any logistical hiccups, and this is very difficult to achieve if you are organising your own itinerary.
For us it is a doddle because we're doing it for the ten thousandth time and we have built up a strong relationship with our colleagues in India. We are very proud of the fact that our clients often say they cannot believe how easily their trip flowed and how they never had to worry about a thing.
The Quality of Indian Hotels
In our opinion, India has the best, most luxurious hotels in the entire world, and we’re always astounded when people assume Indian hotels are tatty and substandard.
Absolutely – there are budget options throughout India for backpackers who want to spend a couple of pounds a night where this holds true. However, when you're dealing with the crème de la crème you then enter into a completely different sphere.
Oberoi Udaivilas, Vanyavilas and Rajvilas often get voted amongst the top 10 hotels in the world by Travel & Leisure Magazine; Mihir Garh was voted 'World's Best Boutique Hotel' in the 2013 Boutique Hotel Awards; and Rambagh Palace, run by Taj Hotels, Resorts & Palaces, was recently voted the 'Best Hotel in the World' by Condé Nast Traveller readers. India's historic Palace Hotels go beyond "5 star luxury"; in addition to lavish décor and service, many of them have the most incredible history and pedigree, which is a winning combination. Virtually no other country, maybe with the exception of Italy or France, can even come close.
A More Expensive Room is a Better Room
This is a universal misconception across travel, but one which is particularly tricky to judge in India. We're not talking about presidential suite territory; it's more about knowing all of the rooms intimately – the angles, the views, layouts and styles of décor that will suit the individual – and knowing which categories are worth the splurge and which are not.
At Amanbagh, we always use their Pool Pavilions, which is their top category and the category they have the most of. We do not think there is a more wonderful room for a couple; it is outside the reach of most people in terms of cost, but for full-blown romance and luxury it doesn't get better that this.
For the best base category rooms, the Taj Falaknuma Palace, Rambagh Palace and Raas all offer fantastic rooms. At Rajvilas we love the Royal Suite and at Amarvilas we would recommend the Luxury Suite. At the Taj Lake Palace, we think the top suite categories are not necessarily the best – some of them are nice to look at but are not necessarily the best to stay in. There's a suite that we booked for a member of the British Royal Family which, although small, is perfectly formed (a little square one, in a funny spot but it is amazing).
In terms of a truly knockout and special experience, we think the Heritage Lake View Rooms at the Leela Palace Udaipur are unbeatable, and that is only one above their base category. It is extraordinarily comfortable and large, and the beds look directly out over the lake.
Any apprehensive parents should know that everyone in India loves children. Nobody will bat an eyelid if your child is noisy or makes a mess because Indian culture is very accepting of that and view it as part and parcel of the delights of childhood.
In our opinion, India is one of the best destinations in the world for children – you just need to be wise about how you structure your trip. A full-blown touring holiday involving multiple journeys and multiple hotels, forts and temples might not be the most suitable itinerary to take on with young children.
However, for families who are happy to do a leisurely tour, cherry-picking 2 or a maximum of 3 hotels and just enjoy relaxing in a place of great beauty, then India is perfect.
Travelling with the Elderly or Disabled
In India there is a strong caring element for the old and infirm. The older you are, the more respect you get. Plus, India's attitude to foreigners is that "Guest is God". The combination of these things, in addition to having lots of able people to help out all the time, means you will get better hands-on service and attention than you could possibly dream of having in Europe.
If you are wheelchair-bound or if you require 24-hour assistance for the duration of your trip, this can be arranged at minimal additional cost. India is the country where nothing is impossible. If you ask for it, they'll find a way to do it. They call it "Jugaad", which means that everything is fixable – even if something is broken and you don't have the parts for it, there is always a solution to any problem. If you approach it in the right way, have a little bit of patience and actually voice your request, it will happen.
Where best to see the majestic tiger largely depends on who you ask, but we think the best option is Ranthambore National Park. It takes the best part of a day and a half to get to Bandhavgarh or Kanha and the best part of a day and half to get back, whereas Ranthambore is en route on most Rajasthan itineraries.
Most people staying 2 to 3 nights at Ranthambore will have roughly a 70% chance of seeing a tiger. If you just stayed an extra day and had 4 nights at Ranthambore, it would be a near-certainty.
Fifteen years ago, when we first started selling India, 50% of our clients got an upset stomach. But nowadays most of our clients actually put on weight because the food in India is so good!
There has been a dramatic improvement in food hygiene, so you do not have to worry when eating in an Ampersand approved hotel or restaurant. The main thing to be aware of is you cannot drink the tap water and should brush your teeth with bottled water. When it comes to street food, just make sure you eat at a busy stall where the food is cooked fresh in front of you. Eating street food is one of the highlights of visiting India and on an Ampersand trip you will be accompanied by a knowledgeable guide who will take you to the best stalls.
There are many regional culinary variations within India and there are always non-spicy options for those worried that Indian food may get them too hot under the collar.
Thousands of years of culinary evolution has created dishes which combine many different spices and subtle flavours, which are not all dominated by chilli. Dhal is a mild and comforting lentil dish and a staple of most Indian meals. There are also plenty of curries that are yoghurt or cream-based, therefore not so fiery.
Restaurants usually tone down the level of spice for tourists, particularly in the top hotels, so if you love spicy food then be sure to mention this to your waiter as usually chefs are happy to use a more authentic amount of chilli upon request. But be warned – then it really will be spicy!
Monsoons in Rajasthan
Some travellers advise you avoid Rajasthan between April and September but we happen to think that August and September is the most magical time to explore the region.
You really do not want to visit Rajasthan in May or June as the heat is insufferable during summer months, but the weather at the tail end of the monsoon is ideal.
Hotels offer great off-season rates, so you'll bag a bargain, and you'll be able to enjoy the cultural sites without the peak season tourists who visit from October to March. For the more daring, if you visit Rajasthan in July, the days are 3 hours longer than in mid-winter, so you have more time for sightseeing in the morning and lounging by the pool in the afternoon.
Those who claim that Indian airports are a nightmare may have had a case a few years ago, but now they are really quite impressive.
Delhi airport is pretty much along the lines of Terminal 5 at Heathrow. Hyderabad airport is as good, if not better, and the new Bombay terminal is going to be great. Jaipur airport is really not bad and Udaipur is the same.
Of course there are some airports that are more challenging, but that is changing now and the airports on the whole are brand new and in line with 21st Century technology.
Indian Visa Applications
Getting your Indian visa is only stressful if left to the last minute. Unless you're a photographer or journalist, an Indian visa is generally an easy thing to obtain, but we do recommend applying for your visa at least two months in advance. All foreigners except for nationals of Nepal and Bhutan need a visa to enter India.
We recommend Visa Express (0207 251 4822), who will organise your visa on your behalf for a charge of £25 per passport in addition to the charge for the visa itself. If you are arranging your own visa, you can apply online at VFS Global. If you do NOT have a UK passport or documents proving you have been a resident in the UK for more than two years, you will need the following documents:
– Stamp of indefinite stay OR
– Utility bills pertaining to current month, and one for at least two years back (but not older than 30 months).
– Utility bills include only landline telephone, gas, electricity, water, council tax bills and tenancy agreement.
– Bank statements will not be considered as proof of stay.
– Mix and match of the utility bills are not acceptable.
There are only five countries that can obtain a "Tourist Visa-on-Arrival" to India – they are Finland, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Singapore. However, for the time being we would not recommend getting a visa on arrival even if you are eligible because people recently have been held up from 3 to 6 hours upon arrival.
British nationals who travel often for work or pleasure, do be aware that you can apply for a second passport. This removes the worry of being without a passport while your visa is being processed at the embassy.
To discover Ampersand’s favourite experiences and hotels across India, browse our suggested North India itineraries and South India itineraries.
To start planning your own tailor-made tour of India, please speak to one of our India specialists, Catriona, Shalmali, James or Ellie:
+44 (0)20 7819 9770