Tips for the First-time Indian Traveler

 So a lot of my friends who are travelling abroad for the first time, have been calling me up a day before travelling, with a whole set of questions. While I could answer quite a few of them, I felt I wasn’t of much help, because the answers came too late. Most of these people had their trips planned through travel agents, so ideally the travel agents should have answered or helped them with their queries. Sadly, I think most often these agents don’t really care after the booking is done, and are not as forthcoming as they should.

So here’s a list of tips for the first-time Indian traveler. However, do remember that these are from the original “reluctant traveler”. 🙂 Am still quite a novice traveler. During my earlier trips, I used to travel with friends, and the hubby, and had quite a few things taken care of. Over the past 2 years, I have been doing a fair amount of travelling alone, and have come to value all the information I can get. Suffice to say, it’s all yours, but most important – please do your reading up before you travel!

Here you go. Enjoy!

1. Forex – Is it okay to carry cash?  Do I take local currency?

So when I used to travel with my friends till around 2 years back, I used to carry cash with me. So you would think that cash for all your pocket expenses would be a lot of money, but when you actually convert your hard-earned Indian rupees into dollars/euros/pounds, it’s not really much. In fact, when you see your bundles of cash turn into super-thin layers of wadded cash, you might feel really sad for your poverty. At least I did. So it never felt that I was carrying lots of money on me. Having said that, carrying cash is theoretically not a great idea. Lose it, or be robbed, and your entire vacation could be in peril.

Two years back, I switched to carrying a Currency card, which basically acts as a debit card, as well as a credit card. So you could withdraw cash from an ATM, as well as use it as a credit card to pay your hotel. An added advantage is that since the card has local currency, you do not end up paying the international charges that are mandatory on an Indian credit card (usually 3.5% of the total transaction). Sometimes it’s not possible, or it’s difficult to get local currency. For instance, when I travelled to Eastern Europe, I had to have the Croatian Kuna, Hungarian Forint, and Czech Koruna. Austria  and Slovakia used the Euro. In this case, I took Euro as my currency in the Currency Card; I did have to pay inter-currency exchange rates, but it wasn’t so bad. In fact, a lot of times I realized that the bank rates were much better than cash exchange rates provided in Money Exchange counters.

I have used the Axis Bank Currency card for three of my last trips in the past year, and it worked beautifully. I understand that SBI, Yes Bank, ICICI bank, and a few other banks also have Currency Cards.  Certain other private Forex providers like Weizmann and Centrum also provide currency cards. The difference seems to be in the number of currencies they offer. I think Axis bank offers around 10 currencies. Also, what’s staggeringly different is the service provided – since the Currency card seem to be a new product, most branches are pretty clueless about the product, and you have to really push to get what you really want.  My personal favorite is the HDFC multi-currency card that was recently launched. The advantage on this one is that I can change the currencies myself online. For instance, if I pay to get Euros worth Rs 50,000, but I change my mind later, I can convert it online to maybe Rs 25000 to US Dollars, and remaining 25k can be kept as Euros. HDFC also seems to have the largest number of , and most diverse  selection of currencies offered.

Two bits of caution:

1. Always check your statement online, especially when you are doing hotel payments. Sometimes, there are discrepancies when the hotel re-authorizes your card, or takes a deposit from the card. I had this happen twice in Europe, and in both cases, I got the money back. But it’s necessary to check, and let your hotel know immediately. This is especially critical if you are on a tight budget, and your card holds an exact amount of money.

2. When I went to purchase this card from HDFC, they insisted that it was only possible, if you have an account with the bank. (Even though their web site clearly says that anybody can purchase the card). This is NOT true, so insist on it. All you need is your PAN card, visa and  flight ticket. Nothing more. The HDFC bank near my house refused to give me the card, without starting a savings account; I registered a complaint, and they gave me a card the next day 🙂 Axis Bank was a lot more friendlier, but they did not really know much about the product, and had to dig up information, when I insisted. Always call up the branch to check if it’s a Forex branch before you turn up.

2. Forex –  A related question is…”How much cash should I carry?”

Well, this is very subjective, isn’t it? Depends on the place you are going, and what you intend to do. There’s no simple answer here, except that you should do your research, and also be very organized about it. Here’s what I do. In an Excel file, I put a day-wise agenda (You would already have this as your itinerary). I just add a list of activities at I might like to do – for instance, watch ballet, or go for a sight-seeing tour, or  wine-tasting….bla bla bla. Based on my research, I have a rough idea of the cost; add it all up, and I have a rough indication of how much pocket money I should be carrying. But honestly, this totally depends on you, and the kind of trip you want to do. When I travel to the mountains, I usually am on a budget, and I can make do with very basic food. But when I go to the sea, it’s very difficult for me to scrounge – I end up spending a lot on seafood and drinks in beach side places!

3. Phone – Do I use roaming? Should I take Matrix? or should I take a local sim?

Well, the local sim is always the cheapest option – much, much cheaper than Matrix, or international roaming. A lot of airports have counters where local telecom providers give good deals on pre-paid sims. For instance, Bangkok and KL airports have this facility. If not, gas stations and convenience stores usually have pre-paid sims. However, I do admit it’s a hassle. When you have just arrived at a new place, your first priority is not really to find a gas station. This is one reason I never really bought a local sim when I was travelling with my friends. We never stayed for long in a city, and we were so excited to see the countryside,  purchasing a sim was never really a priority. Having said that, having a phone definitely helps – we

have been lost on a hike, and had no way to contact our host; similarly, times when we really needed to call a cab, or change a booking, we struggled. Travelling with the husband has its perks. A gadget freak, he introduced me to the world of GPS and maps. It helped. A lot. Coming back to the question of local sims, on my last trip, I was travelling to five countries,  and I just could not bear the idea of looking for sims, in 5 different places. I was leaning toward Matrix, when I found a much better option. One of Reliance’s lesser-advertised products is the Reliance World sim. It’s a life time sim, and can be used in a whole set of countries. Biggest advantage – it’s prepaid, you can buy it paying cash, you don’t have to give your credit card, and re-load it online. It costs roughly Rs 2000 which includes a talk time of Rs 1200. The call rates are very competitive as well. For instance, incoming is free in a lot of countries, or at a maximum of Rs 15 in some countries. Outgoing also is around ten to 15 rupees, while calls to India are around Rs 40. Now for calls to India, there’s a much better solution. Just buy a Skype subscription, connect to the net (most hotels have free wifi these days), and call!  It’s really quite cheap – around 8 to 10 dollars, and you get around 120 minutes of talk time!  You really wouldn’t need to call India for more time than that, would you?

4. Visa 

Well, this is a very obvious one, and I am sure most people would be able to search for the required info. But search you must!  Don’t take things for granted. Visa policies keep changing, and you really should read the website to get the latest information. Sometimes, we make the silliest mistakes. For instance, I had researched Croatia, somehow assuming that it was a Schengen country; a week before the trip, the hubby asked me if it was a Schengen country, and I gazed at him in horror, realizing that I hadn’t really checked. I had assumed. On checking the embassy web site, I realized it wasn’t, and I was ready to get into panic mode.

Thankfully, I read on that, as per a recent directive, Schengen visa holders do not require a separate visa. Just to make sure I checked with the embassy, and they sent me an email confirming this. I took a printout of this mail and kept it with me when I was crossing the borders. So, yes – always check the VFS site or the consulate website for the latest information.

5. Should I do…shouldn’t I …Maybe I should?

Relax!!! Deep breath! I noticed that before I traveled, I was getting bombarded by all this information, and I was panicking. The more information I had, the more I was second-guessing myself, the more I was panicking; it was taking away from the whole excitement of planning and anticipating the trip. I just had to take calm myself, relax and let go. I could do my research, but there would always be some mistakes, some ways of doing things better, something that could have been better planned. But hey, that was also part of the joy of travel – the idea of letting go, the idea of not being control, the idea of dealing with things outside your comfort zone. When I let go, things went well. It was not just that I was letting myself be more spontaneous; it was also that when I stopped panicking, I became calm and much more organized in my thinking, and everything went smoothly!  The idea is – have fun! The planning of your trip should be as happy and fun, as your actual trip. If you are a wreck before travelling, you will most likely be recovering during your trip, rather than enjoying it. So my tip – Enjoy and anticipate every moment of your planning days!

May the journey begin! 🙂


into journeys far and unknown…

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