A trip to India can be as luxurious and expensive—or as bare-bones and cheap—as you want it to be. The economy has really spiked since 2000, along with domestic travel and international foot traffic, and as a result, room rates at fancy urban hotels are comparable to those in New York, London, or Paris. You'll pay substantially more for everything in popular tourist spots and big cities compared with the rest of the country, although certain goods (including soda, cigarettes, chips) have a maximum retail price (MRP) printed on their packaging. It’s illegal to sell such products for more than the printed amount, although sometimes vendors try to charge foreigners more, assuming they are unaware of this price regulation.
If you're willing to stay at modest hotels and eat where the locals do, you might find that the most expensive part of your trip turns out to be the international airfare ($1,000–$2,000, depending on when you go). It's possible to find decent hotels for less than US$70 a night, and the cheapest run less than US$20 (sometimes a lot less). You could also conceivably eat every meal for less than US$2.
Many merchants, even in big cities, still only accept payment in cash. Always carry sufficient rupees as well as a credit card in your wallet. (Although it's possible to cash traveler's checks in big cities, it's rarely convenient to do so.) Shopkeepers appreciate it when people pay with the exact amount, or as close to it as possible. In fact, they balk at giving change in general. The 1,000 rupee note should definitely not be used to pay for, say, something that costs Rs. 100, because merchants might not even have that much change on hand. It's advisable to stick to denominations of Rs. 100 or less, and don't flaunt Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes.
A cup of tea from a stall costs about Rs. 5–Rs. 10 (US9¢–US17¢), but in top hotels it can cost more than Rs. 80 (US$1.30). A 650-ml bottle of beer costs about Rs. 75 (US$1.25) in a shop, and upward of Rs. 250 (US$4.15) without taxes in a top hotel. A 6-km (4-mile) air-conditioned taxi ride in Delhi is supposed to cost about Rs. 73 (US$1.22), though it may cost more; taxi drivers often do not want to use their meters and try to charge higher prices for tourists.
Prices throughout this guide are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
ATMs and Banks
Your home bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you'll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
PINs with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in many countries. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
There are only a few cash machines in smaller towns in India, but larger cities are dotted with ATMs. Look for ICICI, HDFC, Citibank, or HSBC ATMs, which generally accept foreign cards. Other ATMs might only accept Indian cards, especially in smaller towns. If you know you'll be traveling to a rural area, it's crucial to have enough cash on hand.
If you think you'll need cash from your bank account or cash advances through your credit card, make sure that your bank and credit cards are programmed for ATM use in India before you leave home, and inform your bank that you'll be using your cards in India. All ATMs function in English, and most have security guards.
It's a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you're going abroad and don't travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the issuing company might put a hold on your card due to unusual activity. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you're prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you're abroad) if your card is lost, but you're better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you'll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it's usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there's a problem), note that some credit-card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they're in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won't be any surprises when you get the bill.
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you'll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Dynamic currency conversion programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don't always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice.
Credit cards are widely accepted in large Indian cities, especially at the retail chain stores and the upscale restaurants. Smaller merchants and street stalls, however, are likely to take only cash. It's a good idea to keep at least Rs. 1,000 (in small denominations) in your wallet at all times in the cities, along with your credit card, so you'll always have both options. In rural India, don't ever count on being able to pay with a credit card, and always have enough cash to see you through.
American Express is rarely accepted in India, Diners Club is not widely accepted, and Discover isn't accepted at all.
Reporting Lost Cards
American Express. 800/528–4800; 124/280–1800; www.americanexpress.com.
Diners Club. 800/263-5018; 303/799–1504; www.dinersclub.com.
MasterCard. 800/627–8372; 636/722–7111; www.mastercard.com.
Visa. 800/847–2911; 800/100-1219; www.visa.com.
Currency and Exchange
The units of Indian currency are the rupee and the (rare) paisa—100 paise equal one rupee. Paper money comes in denominations of 2 (also rare), 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500, and 1,000 rupees. Coins are worth 5, 10, 20, 25, and 50 paise (all rare), 1 rupee, 2 rupees, 5 rupees, and 10 rupees, but it's unlikely that you'll see anything less than 1 rupee. At this writing, the rate of exchange is approximately US$1 to Rs. 60, so that a 500-rupee note is worth just over $8. The price of big-ticket items, such as real estate or cars, is usually given in units of lakh or crore. A lakh is equal to 100,000, and a crore is equal to 100 lakh. Therefore, 1 lakh rupees is equal to roughly $1,700, and 1 crore is $170,000.
India has strict rules against importing or exporting its currency. The currency-exchange booths at the international airports are always open for arriving and departing overseas flights. When you change money, remember to get a certain amount in small denominations (in 10s is best) to pay taxi drivers and such. Reject torn, frayed, taped, or soiled bills, as many merchants, hotels, and restaurants won't accept them, and it's a hassle to find a bank to get them exchanged.
Always change money from an authorized moneychanger and ask for a receipt, known as an encashment slip. Some banks now charge a nominal fee for this slip, which you might need if you want to reconvert rupees into your own currency on departure from India. Don't be lured by illegal street hawkers who offer you a higher exchange rate.
For the most favorable rates, change money at banks. Although ATM transaction fees may be higher abroad than at home, ATM rates are excellent because they're based on wholesale rates offered only by major banks. India's state-run banks can take a long time to cash traveler's checks. If you must use them, save time and use an American Express office or the foreign-exchange service at your hotel. Rates will be slightly lower, but you'll save irritation and time. Rates are also unfavorable in airports, at train and bus stations, and at restaurants, hotels, and stores.
Traveler’s Checks and Cards
Fewer establishments accept traveler's checks these days than ever before. Nevertheless, they're a cheap and secure way to carry extra money, particularly on trips to urban areas. Thomas Cook, Citibank (under the Visa brand), and American Express issue traveler’s checks in the United States, but Amex is better known and more widely accepted; you can also avoid hefty surcharges by cashing Amex checks at Amex offices. Whatever you do, keep track of all the serial numbers in case the checks are lost or stolen.
You can use traveler’s checks in India, but in most cases it's just not that convenient to cash them. Cash (both brought in and withdrawn from an ATM) and credit cards are better options. You can cash traveler’s checks only in big cities, and most merchants, whether urban or rural, don't accept them. Lost or stolen checks can usually be replaced within 24 hours. To ensure a speedy refund, buy your own traveler’s checks—don't let someone else pay for them, as the purchaser is the only one able to request a refund. Don't leave traveler’s checks in your hotel room, and keep the counterfoil with the check numbers separate from the checks.
American Express. 800/528–4800; 124/280–1800; www.americanexpress.com.