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19 things you must know before going to India

An article from The Times Newspaper.  Found it very useful.
Dara Flynn got scammed, got ill and got bitten in India – here’s how not to make the same mistakes

Dara Flynn and Andrew Isaacs barely knew each other before they committed to a 180-day round-the-world adventure. They’ve jumped in at the deep end by spending their first four weeks in India, an experience that’s taught them as much about their relationship as it has about the country. Read their first dispatch here, and read on below for their top tips on how to avoid making the same mistakes they have made.

India: What we wish we’d known

1. The Taj Mahal

[spoiler]The Taj Mahal  is free on special dates, such as certain religious holidays. Check locally, as the monument doesn’t advertise this fact openly. However, the free tickets are issued only after 7.30am. If, like us, you get up before dawn to catch it in the best light, you’ll have to wait at least an hour to waive the substantial 750Rs fee… and you’re very unlikely to hang around to do that. The difference in crowd levels is insignificant between dawn and 7.30am, so have your extra hour in bed and save yourself a few quid.[/spoiler]

2. At train stations

[spoiler]At train stations, platform numbers  for your departing train are subject to change all the time, sometimes at the very last minute. Keep checking at the enquiry window or strain to listen to the announcements.[/spoiler]

3. Mis-Guide books

[spoiler]Certain top name guidebooks,whilst extremely helpful, should not to be followed to the letter. The “Tourist Window” directions they list for train and bus stations can change regularly; accommodation can very quickly go downhill, especially if it changes hands, and remember that food recommendations are as subjective as the author’s favourite colour. What’s more, just because the guidebook says one particular cafe’s banana pancakes are to die for doesn’t mean you won’t catch a tummy bug to die for when you try them.[/spoiler]

4. Get at least three opinions about a destination

[spoiler]Get at least three opinions about everywhere you want to go: one from a local and two from other travellers. India is a place of extremes – people either love it or hate it – and people rarely agree. Try to get a majority opinion, since the distances you must travel between so-called hotspots are longer than they look on the map.[/spoiler]

5. Napkins

[spoiler] Every time you stop to eat, nab a few extra napkins for loo stops. Toilet paper is practically non-existent outside of the better hotels and westernised hostels.[/spoiler]

6. Keep Delhi belly at bay

[spoiler]To keep Delhi belly at bay, try to eat in busy places that appear clean. These can be hard to find in many Indian tourist spots, so it’s worth walking around. Brush your teeth with bottled water, keep your mouth closed in the shower, avoid salads and stick to vegetarian food if you have any doubts. Listen to your instinct as much as your hunger pangs.[/spoiler]

7. Best Season

[spoiler]We travelled to India in early September and we got soaked several times. Had we waited a few more weeks, the rainy season would have dried up in most of our destinations. Bear in mind that if you’re seeking the buzz of the crowd at Goa, Kerala and many other destinations in India, nothing really kicks off until mid-October.[/spoiler]

8. The Locals

[spoiler]The majority of locals you’ll meet are polite and well-meaning, but very few are in the habit of striking up random chats with tourists. Remember this when you find yourself chatted up by anyone with something to sell. By all means enjoy the exchange, but remember their goal is to get you to buy and it’s much harder to say no after you’ve swapped names and listened to a sob story.[/spoiler]

9. Tips are expected sometimes

[spoiler]Tipping is recommended and in some places, expected. In shops, try to pay with your large notes to keep a constant supply of tens and twenties for drivers, waiters, bellboys and, if you’re so inclined, beggars.[/spoiler]

10. Booking Trains

[spoiler]Trains fill up quickly, so book well in advance. There is a waitlist system for full trains, where tickets are confirmed on a first-come-first-served basis as cancellations occur. As a general rule, if the waitlist number given is below 30, you have a good chance of getting a confirmed ticket for a train that’s departing within a day or two, so it’s worth chancing it. If the waitlist number is higher than this, you may not get a confirmed seat and will have to go through the refund procedure, which can be complex.[/spoiler]

The scam: How not to book a train ticket in India

Here’s some advice about navigating a first-time train booking in India. The Lonely Planet warns of this scam, but only in the Delhi section. If you hit Mumbai first, beware it’s the same there too.

1. At the station, aim to go to the tourist office, often located upstairs. They can get you a ticket fast, for the right price, and often have tourist quotas for busy trains. If a man pulls you aside and says the tourist office is closed, he is probably lying.

2. Do not trust this man’s ID card even though it says he is an official railway employee.

3. Do not follow him out of the station, through the traffic and across the road into a tiny shop.

4. Do not hand him your passport number.

5. Do not let him book your seat on the computer he has in this little shop. Even if he is extremely polite.

7. When he says he takes a small commission for booking the train, since the tourist office was closed, walk away. This is your last chance.

8. Do not under any circumstances pay 3,500Rs for a 2,000Rs ticket you could have booked yourself in the train station, or better still, in your hotel on the internet.

9. Do not assign blame for the event to your significant other; it doesn’t really help and it doesn’t replenish your wallet, or anyone’s mood.

We disobeyed all of these rules. We were had. We later learnt from some Irish girls that they were nearly had too, but just as the man said the tourist office was closed, a woman passing by hissed at him and said, “No it is not closed. Go on girls, go upstairs.”

You have been warned.