Once or twice a month someone comes to us waving an itinerary they received from another tour company, which we can call "Cheap Charlie in Chennai."
"Tell me what you think about this," they always ask. "Can you offer the same cheap India tour? Can you do it even cheaper?"
Nine times out of ten, the answer is an emphatic NO. Although we could offer the kind of low-cost, low-quality tours that many Indian tour companies sell, we politely decline.
Before we tell you why, however, we want to congratulate you for bothering to read this. For most travelers, India is a one-time destination, so most are not able to tell the difference between a good tour and a bad one. In the end, they simply choose the one with the lowest price. Chances are, you are reading this because you understand the difference between price and value and want to decide more carefully.
There are four major differences between a fantastic tour and a mediocre one:
HotelsThere are a few really good hotels in India, a lot of bad ones, and very little in between. The result is staggering hotel prices comparable to London, New York and Tokyo.
The Indian government maintains a peculiar star rating system for hotels that somehow awards five stars to hotels that would not receive three stars elsewhere. Some hotels ("lodges") do not get star ratings at all. The highest rating is five stars. However, there are five star hotels and there are FIVE star hotels in India, so top hotels are not always comparable to each other.
While we do not put a lot of confidence in the advice given in most guide books, there are websites like Trip Advisor that show candid photos of hotels and publish comments from guests. If your tour company suggests hotels that are not mentioned anywhere online, that's a bad sign as well.
Price is not always a reliable gauge of quality in India. We have heard plenty of stories about (and even seen) about stinky $200 hotel rooms with dirty sheets, refrigerators that have not been in working order for years, one towel for two people to share, furniture with cigarette burns, and bathroom sinks that drain on to your feet. Yet we have also enjoyed delightful "heritage" hotels that we would love to see again.
One of the most wonderful things about a journey through India is that you also have a chance to stay in these fascinating "heritage" hotels, many of which were once palaces or fortresses. A program that misses such opportunities, may cost less but you will miss truly memorable cultural experiences in the process. Staying in heritage hotels does not always mean a higher cost.
An itinerary that does not name specific hotels or states "XYZ Hotel or similar" is a sign of a cheap India tour leading to disaster. You can not rely on Cheap Charlie's standards to judge similarity.
There is no established standard for amenities in India. With few exceptions, in-room internet access, WiFi, health clubs, and 24 hour room service will be found only in the top hotels. You can not expect to find satellite TV, in-room safety boxes, mini-bars or IDD telephones in budget hotels.
ItinerariesThe right itinerary can easily mean the difference between a great trip and a disastrous one, so it pays to be cautious about what you are offered.
Above all, resist the temptation to try to do to much in too little time or you may end up with what we call a "drive by" tour. Well, technically it is possible to drive from Delhi to Agra and see the Taj Mahal just before dark. Or try to see all of Delhi in a single day. Or be dragged through Jaipur so fast you barely remember being there. We have seen itineraries that are virtually impossible to accomplish. A neophyte usually has no way to know what is possible and what is not.
(Incidentally, we think the itineraries on our website offer the optimum amount of time to travel from place to place and see things comfortably, so we hope you will compare our itinerary with others you receive.)
Your itinerary should include the places you want to see. While this sounds a bit ridiculous, Cheap Charlie's cheap India tour may actually skip places that charge a fee to enter in favor of places that are free. On the other hand, you can see the Taj Mahal from the window of your car perfectly well, so why trouble yourself to go inside? (You probably can if you pay the admission cost yourself.)
If you expect a custom tour you should actually be able to customize it, and not just choose between a series of sample itineraries that are not exactly what you want.
Even if the itinerary looks great, will it actually be followed? Sadly, some companies in our industry, particularly in one-time destinations like India, do not follow their own programs carefully. Once they have your money and put your body in their vehicle you do not have much choice but to go along. They are used to hearing arguments from tour members and they have a lot of experience feigning deafness.
Ground Operations"Ground Operations" includes guides, drivers, vehicles and those odds and ends that are or should be included in a tour.
Guides. Practically all tour operators in India use local guides, which means you will have one guide in Delhi and a different guide in Varanasi. You can usually arrange to have a single guide throughout, although that increases the cost substantially and that guide may not be as familiar with a city as a local person.
Many cheap India tour companies use unlicensed guides who lack the training and experience of a professional guide. Guides not wearing an emblem that shows they are licensed are frequently stopped and ejected at monuments. This can be both embarrassing and inconvenient in addition to a waste of money.
Vehicles. Make sure your tour will use late model air-conditioned vehicles. Some Indian cars are much smaller than Westerners are used to, so it pays to confirm the make, model and age of the car you will be getting. Cars used for tourism require special permits and insurance. Some tour operators cut corners by using unregistered private vehicles. If noticed by the authorities, drivers are arrested and passengers are temporarily stranded. Cars without the necessary commercial permits are not subject to commercial safety standards. You definitely do not want to watch the road speed by through the rust holes in the floor.
Hidden Costs are a major scam some cheap India tour operators use to make you think their prices are very low. Make sure you get a written statement from Cheap Charlie about what is and is not included in your cheap India tour. Exactly which hotel and what kind of room? How about breakfast? Admissions costs? Road tolls? Special transportation? Just because your tour includes entry to the game reserve does it also include the elephant or jeep necessary to take you around? Are admissions to the places you will visit also included? How about the cost of overnight accommodations for the driver or guide? Of not, you will be digging into your pocket quite a bit while enjoying your Cheap Charlie's cheap India tour.
ServiceWhat happens before you travel plays a big part in the success of the trip. Responsiveness and willingness to answer any and all questions are both essential. Incomplete or evasive answers to your questions are a bad sign.
Cheap Charlie should be flexible enough to make small changes in your program as long as they are not done at the last minute, and not requested every time you read a story in a travel magazine or meet someone at a party who went to India once and wants you to take a trip exactly the one they took. When unlimited service is available it will not be at a bargain price.
The way a company represents itself should give you important insights into what you can expect from them. If they promote themselves as a cheap India tour operator, you will probably end up with a tour that leaves you wishing you had made a different choice. On the other hand, a company with a reputation for producing a first class program and is proud to share feedback from past customers will probably give you a great tour. Herein lies the big difference between price and value, as well as the difference between "them" and "us." We turn down the opportunities some customers give us to compete with budget tour companies because we are not interested in putting Purple Dragon's label on the miserable, cheap India tours that they show us. We do not cut corners or indulge in deceptive practices in order to make one sale. Almost 25% of our customers are repeat guests, which is pretty remarkable.
The service should not stop once the tour has been sold. Good tour companies will give you a detailed itinerary with local contacts before your journey begins, as well as 24-hour numbers where you can contact them in case of a problem. You want to make sure the numbers actually work, of course.
By the way, we are happy to provide an honest, objective critique of the itinerary you receive from Cheap Charlie. We now charge a $50 fee for this service. If you ultimately decide to choose Purple Dragon instead of, we apply the fee towards the cost of your tour.