India Primer Part 5: Getting Around and Where to Stay
By Rico Zook, Edited By Nina Osswald
GETTING TO YOUR HOTEL
The following modes of transportation for getting from the airport to your destination are given from least expensive to more so.
This is an air-conditioned bus service that goes from Hyderabad International airport to various points around Hyderabad. Cost is around rs.150. If you can find the stop that is closest to your hotel, you can take an auto-rickshaw from there. This will likely be the most comfortable and least expensive travel mode, as long as you get out at the correct stop, and you do not let the auto-rickshaw driver charge you an excessive amount. In the links below you will find the Hyderabad airport’s website with information about this bus service including its stopping points. Try to choose your stopping point beforehand and write it out on a piece of paper, in case you’re unsure of how to pronounce it.
AUTOS AND TAXIS
In India an ‘auto’ is the word used for a tuk-tuk, its full name being autorickshaw. If you use that word they may understand due to the high number of foreign travelers, but it is just as likely they will not. A ‘taxi’ will be a car or minivan. Autos are cheaper than taxis.
Charges for taxis and autos go up at night, officially by 25%, as I understand it. However, be prepared for the driver on the street to want to charge 50 to 100% more then daytime amounts. And even though they are supposed to use their meters, with foreigners this is unlikely. So be prepared to bargain. Knowing the approximate distance to your hotel can help with knowing a fair or decent fee. I would say that a daytime rate of 25 Rs. per kilometer a fair rate, though with longer runs you should get a better per km rate. I have traveled 30 minutes in an auto for about rs.200. Time is not always a gauge for price though as the city can get very dense with traffic. I give you these very general rates so you have something to consider when you bargain. With auto drivers, there is no one rule or approach for bargaining. As a friend once told me, “They can be your best friend, or your worst enemy.”
If you’re not using a taxi app, always agree to a price before getting into an auto or taxi. And it is acceptable practice for the taxi or auto to stop for gas (if they need it) and ask you for some of the fee to pay for it.
All major airports, and most larger train stations, will have a counter or booth for prepaid taxis and/or autos. As airports are usually further outside the main area of the city, it is not common to have prepaid autos as they are smaller and for more local rides.
At airports the prepaid booth can be inside or outside the terminal exit. You can ask airport workers by simply asking for ‘prepaid taxi’. Again, when you queue for this you may have taxi drivers asking where you will be going and trying to get you into their or someone else’s taxi before you get to the window. Regardless of what they say, it is highly unlikely that they will be cheaper than the prepaid.
When you get to the prepaid window you will need to have the address of your hotel to give them. It would also be good if you have the name of the district or area of Hyderabad that it is in. I always write the name, address and contact phone number clearly on a piece of paper that I can show the prepaid people and the driver.
The prepaid window will assign you to a specific taxi. The paper they give you will be of 2 sheets, one for you, one for the driver. The taxi assigned to you will be shown on this by its license plate numbers. You pay the full cost of the taxi at the window, and there is usually a 5 to 10 Rs. charge on top of the taxi’s rate. You DO NOT pay the driver any money. He collects his fee from the prepaid window itself. There will be taxi drivers crowding near or around the window and they can help you find the correct taxi.
Be aware that your driver may not speak English, or very little. You may get lucky and have one that does speak good English, but you never know. This and the reality of Hyderabad being a large and sprawling city mean that the driver may not have a clue where your hotel is actually located. They will be able to get you close, but that does not make the hotel much easier to find. It is hard to describe, but getting around in India is much more work and time than in the west. There are rarely any type of street signs, and address numbers are likewise few and far between. Most directions that are provided in India give a nearby landmark to help people find their way. This can be anything, a cinema, petrol pump (gas station), hospital, or government building. So be sure to include that on your paper with the hotel details. Most drivers are unfamiliar with maps and GPS, so having that is not much help for them, but it may help you help them. Make sure you download some offline maps on your phone before your departure, as they can be of invaluable assistance for finding your destination.
Be aware that it is quite possible that the driver will try to get more money out of you. This is not so common with prepaid, but I have had this happen. A simple firm no is all you should say, likely a few times. And if they persist you can say that you will report them to the prepaid people, though it’s usually just better to say no and ignore them. I have never had it go that far. As always, I try to just let this stuff roll off me with a laugh and shrug.
If we (my driver and I) have a hard time finding the hotel, especially if it drags on for more than 15 minutes, I will usually give the driver some extra money. Remember, a 10 to 50 Rs. tip on a 500 Rs. fee is a very good one for India, and is less than a dollar US. Historically tipping has not been a practice in India. However, with the rise in tourism and foreigners that do not know local customs, tipping is now more prevalent, and at times the drivers will expect and demand it. With prepaid I am much more open to this as I am getting the same rate as everyone else. Plus, a 50 Rs. tip can make the day for a poor auto or taxi driver. When you get an auto on the street the rate you will pay will definitely be higher than a local would pay, unless they actually use the metre. People often call this the foreigner or white ‘tax’. In these cases, especially if the driver has been aggressive or insistent, it is rare that I will tip.
CALLING A TAXI
The most reliable, comparatively hassle-free way to get a taxi is to use an app such as Uber or Ola. Try to install and sign up before you fly, so you can use them right away upon arrival. You can select whether you want to pay by credit card through the app and travel cashless, or to pay the driver directly in cash. Do not expect the drivers to be overly familiar with GPS though; expect to be called and asked for directions, sometimes repeatedly, until the driver has found you. Equally, expect to help the driver in finding your destination. Be patient and understand that many taxi drivers are migrant laborers, working very hard under stressful conditions. They may not even know the city much better than you do, and are likely much less familiar with smartphones, apps, maps, GPS, and the English language than you are. At the airport there is a also a regular, or radio cab, taxi stand. While a good and reliable choice, these taxis are usually higher priced than the app services.
People in general are friendly about letting you use their phone to make a local call, especially for a foreigner that has just arrived at the airport. You might even be able to ask a friendly looking person to book an Ola or Uber for you and pay the driver in cash. So this could be a viable option for you, especially if your arrival is later at night and you don’t have your own phone on you.
When I first arrived there 15 years ago I saw few queues, and those usually having a crowd at its front from people just jumping in. The usual was just a mass of people crowding around a window. Now it has been getting better, from our western perspective. So be patient, and be ready to secure your place in line. This is acceptable, though in a gentle and friendly manner.
In recent years, the Government of India has been tightening up regulations. One of these is keeping better track of all the foreigners traveling throughout India. Officially, all hotels have to fill out a C-form for all foreign guests. Many hotels do not want to do this, so will not accept foreign guests. So, if you are looking for a hotel be prepared to have to try a few of them. On my last visit to Kolkata I had to walk to 12 different ones before finding one that would accept me.
It is important to understand that the standard we have here in the states is different from the standards in India. This is not always about quality or such, just that what is expected and what is acceptable is different. This is definitely true with hotels. In general, I will not stay at a hotel that is less than 600 Rs. as these lower priced ones will be dirtier. The exceptions to this are in areas with many ashrams (Pondicherry and Triuvanammali) that can have very nice places for 200 Rs. or so, some touristy areas or similar (Hampi) where accommodations can be simple clean naturally built shacks. Expect to pay around 800 to 1000 Rs. for a modest room. Mid range I would consider 1000 Rs. to 1500 Rs. (as of last April).
It is important to understand what constitutes a 1-day stay. Some hotels are on a 24-hour rate, that is check-in time is checkout time next day for a 1-day billing. Others have a set checkout time much as the west does. I have had places try to bill me for every calendar day I was there, for instance if I stayed 2 nights, they tried to bill me for 3 days, not 2. So be clear beforehand about how your hotel bills.
Most places require that you pay for at least one night when checking in, or may ask for a deposit against payment. This is the standard practice. Make sure you get the receipt.
It is always a good idea to look at the room before you accept it. This is perfectly acceptable and expected in India. The following are things to check when doing this.
WINDOWS, FAN, PLUG
Is there a window? Many rooms are interior ones without a window. These are often the cheapest. Does the window open and have a mosquito screen? Does the fan work? If you want to charge things, be sure that the sockets/plug points are in good shape. I have been in rooms with loose sockets that made plugging and unplugging a high-risk adventure.
BED AND SHEETS
Make sure the bed is one that you can sleep in. Many times, especially the lower rate places, the beds will be lumpy. It is also very common that they are harder than what is normal for the west. I prefer a firm bed, so am usually happy with that part.
Look at the sheets. They will quite often appear to be dirty. Seeing a stain does not mean the sheet has not been washed. With basic hand washing (most washing is done by hand and hung to dry) some stains are very hard to get out. And having just said that does not mean the sheet has been washed. So practice your observation skills and assess if the sheet is clean by means other than whiteness. One of my most favorite hotels in Bangalore is an old school India style one. It is very affordable (450 Rs./night single) and has a charm that is simple and quiet. The beds are old and somewhat lumpy, the sheets are clean, but can have a hole or two. I have never seen a cockroach, and the restaurant has great food. My baseline is cleanliness. After that it is all bonus points
TOILET AND BATH
This is an important one, and for me, basically about the toilet working, and cleanliness. First be aware that the traditional, and still dominant, toilet is the squatter, or Indian style as it is referred to. The other one is the Western style toilet, what we have here in the states. If you want the western style, this will limit you somewhat in the lower range of hotels. As the room rate goes up, the more likely there will be a western style toilet. When you first arrive at the hotel you can request a room with one, but be prepared if there aren’t any. Make sure there are buckets and a small pitcher in the toilet/bathroom….. In the next installment I will talk about using a squat toilet, cleaning without toilet paper, and flushing.
Turn on the tap to see how the water flows. There will very likely not be a shower as a bucket bath is the most common and traditional way people bath in India. Even if there is a showerhead, it is just as likely not to work, as it is to work. So if you want that, check it out.
It is very rare for the lower priced hotels, and even many mid-range ones, to have running hot water on tap. It is common, though not always, for the hotel to either have hot water available for a few hours in the morning, or you can purchase a bucket for 10 to 15 Rs.. If there is hot water in the morning, it is best early in the timeframe as later more people have used it and it could run out.
When you do have hot water on demand (not uncommon in mid-range hotels) it is often from a Geyser, which is an electric water heater that is hung high up on the wall. To use this you turn on a switch and let it heat from 15 to 30 minutes. It usually has a light to let you know. I will discuss more about bucket baths and such in the next installment of this series.
COCKROACHES AND OTHER BEINGS
If you have a phobia or strong emotions around cockroaches and other such beings, I suggest you consider how you are going to cope, in general, in India. It is important to understand that in the tropics these beings are everywhere and it is very hard to not have some members of this community around. The only way to truly keep them away, and this only temporarily, is with chemicals. I am lucky in that cockroaches do not particularly bother me, as long as they stay out of my bed and food. While the population of these in your room will indicate cleanliness, seeing one or two does not mean the place is filthy or even dirty. While I prefer a roach free environment in my room, if I see one or two small ones (.5 inches) it is not a big deal. I did walk out of a hotel after taking a room (luckily I had not paid for it yet) when a very large cockroach walked up the wall right next to where my head would be when I slept. You have to decide what is acceptable to you in this regard, especially if you are staying in lower to mid-range hotels.
*Photos by Nina Osswald