India Primer: Part 2: Preparing For the Journey
By Rico Zook, Edited By Nina Osswald
You have done it! You purchased tickets to the International Permaculture Convergence in India!
Now what? What do you need to do to prepare for this amazing journey? What to bring? What about shots and medicines? What about visas and flight tickets? Do you bring a bank card, cash, or traveler’s checks? Computer? Phone? Are you forgetting anything?
This is the second installment of our India Primer Series that will prepare you for an amazing and informative time in India and beyond. This time we will discuss the various preparations you will need to do so that come travel day you are relaxed, prepared, and excited to no end. We will start with the very basics and work our way up to your depart date, which is the beginning of our next installment of this series.
Plan well ahead of time to apply for your passport if you do not have one yet. In fact, do it immediately after reading this. It can take 4 to 6 weeks to receive it back, if there are no glitches or problems. Then, you will need to send it back out to apply for the India Visa.
If you are getting passport photos taken make sure to get extra copies to take with you. If you already have a passport, get some extra photos to travel with. These will be needed for a few things you may need or want to do while traveling.
If you already have your passport make sure it is up to date, has enough pages and will be valid for at least 6 months after you return to the states. Yes, after you return. Many countries will not admit travelers if their passport has only a limited validity left. Similarly, most countries require that you have more than 2 blank passport pages left in it. Having less may cause them to not allow you entrance into their country.
I have been advised to not give specific recommendations or suggestions in regards to which visa to get due to potential legal issues. As such I strongly recommend that you go the the India Embassy website to read about the various visas and to choose the one that works for you. I will discuss some aspects of visas in general; however, you need to decide which visa is for you, and to take responsibility for reading all the regulations and rules regarding it. And regulations keep changing, so it is very important for you to be current with your information.
The information I give may change due to changing regulations and rules. It is up to you to confirm all regulations and rules regarding your visa and other aspects of travel in India!
If you decide on a tourist visa India recently introduced a tourist visa on arrival process, though for only a limited number of countries. The United States is one of these. You will still need to do a pre-registration for this, but it is an easy online process and can be done in one visit if you have all the details they ask for. Be very aware that this visa is valid for 30 days only. If you are planning your trip for less days than this, then this is a practical and confirmed way to get your visa. Though it will limit you from deciding to extend your ticket while in India, as it is not possible to get an extension.
India has outsourced the visa application process. We have provided links to the India Embassy website, and to the company they identify as the ‘authorised visa service provider’.
If you want to get a regular Tourist visa be very aware that the start of their validity (the timespan for which they apply) is when the visa is issued. It does not start upon your arrival. So if you are getting only a 3 month tourist visa, and plan to be in country for 2 months, then the visa has to be issued no more than one month prior to your arrival in country. So do the math and get a visa that will comfortably cover the full length of your stay. Remember: visa validity starts when it is issued, not when you arrive.
My strong recommendation from 14 years of booking travel is to use the various travel sites only to find the itinerary that you want, then to go to that airline’s own site to book directly with the carrier. It is important to understand that the airline itself will only work directly with the company or individual that booked the ticket, not the person who is listed on the ticket. So any changes to the ticket, especially cancellation, can only come from the booking agent. This means you are at the travel site’s mercy regarding charges and responsiveness. I have had several times that I had to make changes and the travel site charged an excessive fee for doing so. Even if booking directly with an airline might cost a bit more than a travel site, in my experience the benefit of dealing directly with the airline in case of changes far outweighs this in my experience.
In looking at flights, I recommend landing between 5am and noon. This gives you plenty of time to get through immigration, get a taxi, and settle into your hotel with a bit of daylight left for other things, if you have the energy. It is best to be able to see the city you are traveling through, to see where you are going, and to get a sense of the place and the neighborhood your hotel is in. If at all possible, avoid landing at night (unless it is the just before dawn). Besides not being able to see much of the city, it is very common in India that taxi rates go up after dark.
If you are arriving right before the gathering, try to book your international flight to land into Hyderabad directly, where IPCIndia is being held. This is to avoid having to go through immigration at another airport, than getting your luggage and checking into a domestic airline. If you do it this way, make sure you allow at least 3 hours between these flights. Also keep in mind that domestic flights normally have smaller baggage allowances than international ones. If you have the time to arrive a few days early, it is worth considering flying into Mumbai – which generally has somewhat lower airfares compared to other destinations in India – and taking an overnight train to Hyderabad. Keep in mind that this will cost you extra energy though, in addition to time, and might be best done by those with some prior experience of traveling in India. the Mumbai, Domestic and International terminals are separate and require a shuttle bus to get between. As with any connection between international to domestic flights, it is best to check about terminal locations and transit times between them.
Many countries require this for people traveling to them. It is an important thing to have if you have need of it. As with many things, do the research and make this decision and/or choice as best fits your needs.
Also know that there is quality medical and dental service available in India. The challenge is finding them as there are also some pretty unqualified people calling themselves doctors and dentists.
SHOTS and MEDICINES
This is really a very personal choice. What shots to get and the ones you do not want is a decision you need to think about carefully before making a decision. Make your decision after you have done more research and thinking than just what I am sharing with you. The information I give is personal to me, and you need to talk with others and your doctor if you wish to make a more informed decision. And there is no guarantee about what and what not you could be exposed to.
The only shots I have gotten in all of my 14 years of travel in India has been my hepatitis shots. This is a two shot procedure, with the second one 6 months after the first. So this is one to start immediately. I have also kept up on my tetanus boosters.
Do the research about the regions you are going to visit as risks vary greatly region to region in India, as well as season to season. Malaria is a very seasonal disease, being most prevalent during and just after the monsoon. I do not carry malaria pills when it is not malaria season or i am not in a malaria region. I have never taken them as a precautionary measure. You need to think for yourself and consider well all the options to decide what is best for yourself.
A potentially bigger concern than malaria is viral dengue fever, also transmitted by mosquitoes, but by different species. The best way to protect yourself, as with malaria, is not to get bitten – so use a mosquito net and mosquito screens in the windows, wear long wide clothes (which also protects you from the sun, heat, and curious stares), and use natural mosquito repellents such as citronella oil liberally. You can buy all of these in India, and at better rates, if you have some time to go shopping when you arrive. Natural sprays can a bit harder to find, so best to bring this with you. Do be careful of mosquito repellents (and indeed any cosmetics) that are merely labelled “natural” or “herbal” but are full of chemicals. The dengue transmitting mosquitoes bite in the mornings and evening, but also during the day, so sleeping under a net alone will not protect you sufficiently. Ceiling fans are also very helpful in keeping mosquitoes off you while sleeping, so use these when available.
WHAT TO BRING
Here is a link to the list I provide to interns and others that have interest.
To some degree this is a generalized list, though anything extra to it, besides needed medicines, I would consider luxury items and only necessary for your personal pleasures. I strongly recommend to first decide on the size of the pack or suitcase you wish to carry and fit your needs to its size. I much prefer a pack to a rolling case. It has a much greater ability to go places a suitcase cannot. It is also more adaptable to the variety of public and private conveyances that you may use. If you take a suitcase, make sure it is a trolley type that you can both pull after you and strap it on your back to carry for medium distances and staircases.
This past fall, the present Government of India started a scheme that became widely known as ‘demonetization’. While going into detail on this would go way beyond the scope of this series, it is worth mentioning to any India traveller that one outcome of this has been that cash supply in India has been greatly restricted, with only limited amounts being available at ATMs and banks. When I went to my usual money changer in Darjeeling recently, he had no rupees to exchange, and when pressed only offered me some for 25% under the going rate (I did not accept). The cash supply has been improving somewhat, but only slowly. It is hoped that by end of this year, things will be back to a normal cash availability level – but you never know with incredible India! There is also a general suspicion that the current Prime Minister Modi will again pull back the newly introduced two thousand rupee notes that replaced the old one thousand notes, and replace them with a new one thousand rupee note. This is all part of a strong push to thin out the black and grey money markets, and to create a cashless society. To know about demonetization and to follow its impacts, check the following links.
So if you have an ATM card, traveler’s checks, or foreign currency, the ability to use these to get rupees could be greatly restricted, depending on what the Central Government of India does in the future.
BANK CARD: ATM, CREDIT, DEBIT
This is the most common form of monetary conveyance that travelers use. There are many ATMs all over India, even in small towns or villages. If you are using a card, you need to talk with your bank before you leave so they know that charges will be made from India. If you do not let them know, it is highly likely that they will block your card the first time you try to use it in India. This is to protect it and your account. When you talk with your bank, make sure you get a name phone number, or two, of who to call if the card does get blocked. I have known many people who have had this happen to them even after talking to the bank. So knowing whom to call, and them knowing you might call, really helps get the card unblocked quickly.
Due to demonetization I have seen many more foreigners using credit or debit cards than previously. Both of these work quite well in most places in India. And while India is much safer and trustworthy than most people expect, some discretion on the use of cards for purchases is best. I have made the choice in my life to use credit cards to the absolute minimum necessary (I got my first card for international travel 15 years ago). As such I use only cash in all my monetary exchanges, except for online purchases. This online activity is almost all for travel tickets, an essential need for my work.
Even if you are planning to get your money from a card, I highly recommend having at least 200 US$ with you, in cash or traveler’s checks. This is security in case your card does get blocked, or you find yourself someplace without a ATM. I prefer cash, but traveler’s checks do work fine in almost every place. Be aware that the exchange rate will be different for cash compared to traveler’s checks. And strangely, sometimes the cash gets the better rate, sometimes the check.
If you bring money, you have to be very selective about the actual condition the paper monetary note is in. Many people in India and as well as many other parts of the world, will not accept cash notes that have tears in them (even a very small one), or if the image is worn too much, which usually means just a bit more than very slightly. I have even had a moneychanger want to give me a lower rate because the bill had a small tear in it. (I kept that bill and gave him a better one) I usually start building my clean, intact travel money a few months prior to my departure. Start by looking at the money you have and high grading out (separate out) the best bills. If you need more, go to your bank to exchange the bills you have for better ones. And keep them unfolded in your money belt.
Traveler’s checks are a great option if you are uncomfortable carrying too much cash. I have not used them in over 10 years, so do not know about the acceptance of lesser known issuers. I am sure all commonly known issuers are readily accepted. They are fairly easy to use at most money exchange places. Be clear about what the particular issuer of the checks requires in regards to reclaiming the monetary value of lost or stolen ones. The critical part being good records and numbers in a place separate from where the actual cheques are carried.
The basic question is: around the waist, or around the neck? When I carry my money on my body I prefer the waist. The neck is fine and safe as long as it is tucked in and not seen. I have seen both types used as outside the body accouterments with money and passports in them. If you are serious about safekeeping your money and important documents, and these are with you, keep them hidden and inaccessible to others. Having either of these for spending money is up to you, but do keep your passport secured on your person if you have it with you. I only need to get it out for registering at a hotel, money exchange, and some ticket purchases. Occasionally the train conductor asks for it when checking your ticket. Choose one of these, belt or neck, or one of the other options I am about to mention. Make sure it is a comfortable fit for you, as it can be on you for days at a time and you may sleep with it on trains and buses. Make sure it can carry all you need secured with a bit of extra space for some valuables you may gather along the way.
Perhaps you are a more unconventional type of person, or have more to hide, or just want to be a bit trickier for some other reason. There is a money pouch that can be strapped to your leg. I have tried this (I like to be tricky when I can), but found it uncomfortable and not really staying in place. I think this can be a good option, but for it to work I think it needs to be a well designed and well made one that has both a top and bottom strap for securing to your leg. And you will need to wear baggier, loose clothes to hide the bulge. This option is an easily found one when you are bodily searched, but a great alternative if you have concerns about robbery or muggings.
An actual money belt that you are able to hide folded money in is a great backup if you do lose your main money pouch. It will not hold your passport though. A money belt is just for the security of having well hidden extra cash for the event when you have lost everything else. And a few hundred dollars cash in hand will be greatly appreciated by you if such an unfortunate event were to happen.
THE NEXT INSTALLMENT
You are spending good money to get to India, yet when you are there, the cost of living is much more affordable when compared to the west. For as little as $300 per month (a limiting but doable figure) you can explore and travel through this diverse and interesting country. Our next installment will be a very brief and incomplete introduction to the various regions and places in India that you may wish to visit as part of your India journey. We will also have a discussion about where to land in India and travel onwards; however, a more in depth discussion of travel within India will be in part five of this series.
All photos by Rico Zook
RESOURCES AND LINKS
Neither we nor PMNA endorse nor discredit any of these sites. They are just what we found online.
INDIA VISA PROCESS
India has outsourced the application process. So there are likely different companies doing this. I do not endorse any of these companies listed here. I just web searched to find what I could and pass on my results. If you find one that works good for you, send the link to share. Or if you have a bad experience, let us know that also.
India Embassy, DC Check this site out before applying for a Visa.
Visa on entry, or e-Tourist Visa (eTV) as they call it
Regular tourist visas. This is the only authorized India Visa service provider for the US. There are others doing this, and you can find them online. However, this is the only one we will share here.
There is information on the US gov site, but it goes to a different provider.
US PASSPORT APPLICATION