Today’s guest post is from a book author who has written for me on several occasions in Perceptive Travel. See the link at the end for the book and blog from Jim Johnston, but he’s just back from India and is giving us the scoop on current prices there. As I noted recently, it’s a good time to visit India if you’re a budget traveler because the U.S. dollar is fetching 50 rupees. So not only is the math easier, but this has made a bargain destination even cheaper. Take it away Jim!
The extremes of poverty and wealth in India make thoughts about money complicated. One of the clearest statements came from Ashish, our guide in Lucknow. Few tourists visit the place and he was thrilled to be showing off his hometown. In the narrow lanes of the oldest part of the city we visited a small workshop where two young men were pounding out silver leaf with heavy wooden mallets. Each square took 15 hours of pounding to make it thin enough to eat-the silver is used to adorn pastries and candies. Each man earned about two dollars for a full day of hammering.
“They do not earn money,” Ashish explained. “No one earns money. You are given the money by God, so what you have is what you are supposed to have.”
What God has given me felt like an awful lot in India, one of the world’s great travel bargains. In fact, you could probably travel on less than $10 a day without much effort (although I wouldn’t want to see where you’d sleep).
The contrasts are striking: you can eat a full vegetarian meal for 75 cents, or go down the block and blow 75 dollars eating at a 5-star hotel. In Lucknow, two of us ate dinner, went to a movie, and had dessert afterwards-and spent under $5 US total. In Jaipur we went to a restaurant that had just opened the day before and were served a huge tandoori meal-for free, to celebrate the new business we were told. If you do splurge at fancy hotels or restaurants, expect to see luxury taxes added to your bill, which can be as high as 25 percent of the total bill.
Hotel prices run the gamut from a few dollars to a few thousand. Cheapest accommodations won’t be found on the internet—just walk around to find them. Clean, good-sized rooms with private baths can be found in most places for under $30. A splurge at the spectacular Bissau Palace Hotel in Jaipur was just $60 a night. Mumbai is notable for the lack of good value in hotels: our $20 hotel in Ahmedabad was larger, cleaner and more attractive than our $60 dump in Mumbai.
Air transportation within India is reasonable. A one-way flight from Mumbai to Delhi, for example, is about $65. The websites Cleartrip.com and Yatra.com offer bookings for low-cost airlines throughout India.
Indian Trains are a bargain, too, although the comfort level varies greatly according to class. You can buy tickets in advance (with a U.S. credit card) from Cleartrip.com and even get a refund if you change plans. Trains fill up fast in India, so it’s best to plan ahead. [Editor’s note – see this review of a fun e-book on the Indian Railway system.]
Long distance buses are even cheaper than trains, and it’s easier to get a last-minute seat, although it requires a trip to the bus station to buy tickets. A 130 km (3.5 hours) bus ride in Rajasthan cost us three dollars. Rajasthan tourism is more popular than most other areas, but you can still find plenty of bargains for shopping and eating.
Hiring a car and driver is a great way to get around. We did it a few times, and it averaged about $50 per day, including gas and tolls. If you don’t return to your starting point, expect to pay the cost of the driver to get back home.
Local commuter trains are very cheap. In Mumbai we paid 15 rupees for a half hour ride. A cost of the Delhi metro varies from 10 to 28 rupees, depending on distance.
A 90-minute taxi ride to the airport in Mumbai was 350 rupees (around $7). In Jaipur, a one hour cab ride (includes waiting time) cost 200 rupees. Our taxi from the Kolkata train station to south of city (30 minutes) was 150 rupees ($3). Most short-distance rides within cities will be a dollar or two.
Foreigners are often charged at different rates than locals, and it’s best to let go of any resentment about the fact as soon as possible. “We call it ‘skin tax’ here,” an Indian friend told me. “Most people assume foreigners are rich so it’s OK to ask them for more money.” If you start to feel uncomfortable about it, remember what you paid for your flight to India, which might amount to several years’ wages of the person who is “cheating” you.
Some taxi and rickshaw drivers refuse to use their meters and will quote inflated prices to foreigners (be sure to agree on the price ahead of time), but even these prices are usually cheap by U.S. standards. Many museums and monuments have entry fees that can range from 200 to 500 rupees for foreigners (only 10 to 20 for Indians). Entry to the Taj Mahal costs a whopping 750 rupees for foreigners.
Here’s a sampling of other prices around India. At the time of writing, January 2012, 50 rupees = $1:
Bowl of cut-up fruit (papaya) 10R
Fish with hard boiled egg and rice 40R
Apple milk 10R
Pani puri (snack food) 6 for 20R
Vegetarian thali lunch for two with bottled water 180R
Café Coffee Day (a chain selling good coffee) 70R
Chai from street stall 5 to 10R
Liter of water 15R
Shave and haircut 40 – 160R
Public urinals: free (most of these for men only)
Reserved balcony seat in movie theater 100R
Laundry in deluxe hotel: pants 30R, shirt 20R
Laundry in cheap hotel: 30 to 40R per kilo
Internet 10 to 20R hour
Massage on the ghat in Varanasi 400R
Hand embroidered Kashmiri shawl 2000R
Doberman puppy 10,000R male, 9,000R female
Daily wage for agricultural worker 30R
Jim Johnston, writer and artist, lives in Mexico City. His blog is MexicoCityDF.com