James and I spent a month in India in early 2015; a wonderful month in which we saw beautiful places, met local people, overcame an inevitable bout of culture shock, and realised we could probably live on a diet of pancakes and curry forever. When you look at my photos or read my previous blog posts about our travels in India, you would never guess that our entire trip was fuelled by a cleverly thought-out, well-rehearsed scam.
James and I both finished university in mid-2014 and had no plans to look for long-term employment after graduating; we wanted to travel as soon as possible. We got temporary jobs and worked all the overtime hours possible in order to save up for our big trip, and by late January 2015, we were ready to embark on our adventure – first stop: India.
I promise that this post is not going to make you decide against travelling to India. Even though we fell for a scam, it did not ruin our travels. But I feel the time has come to share this experience with you. I am by no means an expert when it comes to travel (scammed in India, robbed in Cambodia, and my hiking boot broke on the top of a mountain…) but the memories and experiences I took away from a month there are priceless. I’ve written this post not only to share this secret with you, but also to make you slightly more prepared for your own trip to incredible India.
We arrived in India without much of a plan; the only things set in stone were our flights from Birmingham International to New Delhi and from New Delhi to Bangkok exactly a month later. In total, we were hoping to be away travelling for about 6 months. We had saved up our money and I was all stocked up on rehydration tablets (link) in case we got the dreaded Delhi Belly, but in terms of our route? We didn’t have one. I hadn’t done my (now-mandatory) planning on Pinterest and endless blogs to find the best places to go, the best places to stay, how to get from A to B… At this point I wasn’t a member of any Facebook groups for travellers – groups which now make up the majority of my newsfeed! I didn’t have a map; I didn’t even take my trusty guidebook with me!
I figured we would just turn up in New Delhi and go with the flow. Looking back now, I was surprisingly calm about travelling to a country I had never been to before with no plan whatsoever. However, in my defence, I figured I had no reason to panic. James had been to India before and wasn’t panicking. The few blogs I had read advised not to plan much at all, so you can just make it up as you go along. But we hadn’t even planned how to get to our hostel!
We landed in New Delhi in the late morning, after a 7 hour flight with not much sleep. This is the first time I had ever experienced jet-lag and it was NOT nice. Through immigration and the baggage claim, we found the airport exit and, after giving up on the bus and train (which would have been easy if we had researched it in advance!), we hailed a cab.
The first driver approached us, asked where we were going, and offered us a “good price”, which seemed strangely low. We followed him to his taxi which was in fact a car without a number plate, and we swiftly said no.
A second driver asked us the same question, and made a phone call while he was speaking to us. Out of nowhere a car pulled up which he announced was our taxi, even though it looked just like any old car. Again, we refused.
A few other drivers approached us and asked if we’d like to take a rickshaw (similar to a tuk-tuk) to the city, which would have probably taken about a day. We declined.
We went to the taxi stand where we ordered what I assume was a legit taxi. I can’t really remember what it looked like, just that we were issued with a ticket, and before we knew it, we were on our way to the city.
As we approached the city, the smog thickened, the traffic became heavier and we became more and more excited to explore. Our driver asked us for the name of the hostel and advised he didn’t know where that hostel was, even though we gave him the address. He said he didn’t even know where the road was, and we hadn’t got a map. He dropped us off at a travel agent, where he assured us the staff members would be able to phone the hostel and find out where it was. I felt confident.
The staff member greeted us and asked us for the details of the hostel. He phoned the hostel, but no one answered.
“Perhaps they are busy at the moment,” I thought.
I fumbled in my bag for my phone, which I had put a Global Sim Card into, and switched on my data. I brought up Google to find a map to the hostel, and then I received a text from the Sim Card provider to say my credit was too low and the data stopped working. Great. I had topped it up with over £20 worth of credit in the UK, so I could hardly believe it had just “run out”.
The man phoned the hostel again, still no answer. He told us he could book a hotel for us for the night if we wished, or perhaps a tour.
James politely declined and we left. Tired and grumpy from lack of sleep on the flight, I was annoyed that we hadn’t planned our route to the hostel and felt frustrated that we had no idea what to do – we hadn’t even started our trip properly yet!
“What should we do?” James asked. How could we get to a hostel that we didn’t know how to find? James tried to use his data on his phone and received the same text message. I was annoyed that we had bought these stupid “Global Sim Cards” that had decided not to work. We had no data or credit to make a phone call. We had no map. All we had was an address.
A rickshaw drove by. James beckoned the driver over and asked if he could take us to the hostel. He did that sideward nod that Indians do which can either mean yes, no, or I don’t know. We got on.
About five minutes later we stopped at a different travel agent – this time on Connaught Place – and much of the same story unfolded. The travel agent tried to call the hostel, the hostel didn’t answer and we sat grumpily on a sticky leather chair not knowing what to do.
The man asked if he could help us by finding us a hotel for the night, seeing as the hostel we had booked “did not exist”. Perhaps he was right – perhaps it really didn’t exist and that was why no one was answering the phone. I had no way of calling the hostel myself, so how was I to know? What else could we do, but trust him? What other choice did we have?
We reluctantly agreed to a room – as long as it was cheap, it would be fine just for a night, surely…
Then he said he could help us plan our trip around India. I said no. We wanted to do it ourselves and we hadn’t decided where we wanted to go yet. He told us the trains are difficult to navigate in India and we would need to book them in advance. All of a sudden, all these worries were going around in my head.
What if we can’t find somewhere to sleep? Why won’t anyone help us? Is everyone out to try to make money off us? What if we can’t get around in India? What if you can’t turn up at the train station and hop on the next train? What if we are stuck in New Delhi forever? Why didn’t we plan the route to the hostel? Why didn’t we plan anything?
So we told him we were in India for a month and hadn’t got any plans other than a flight to Bangkok in a month’s time. We told him we wanted to see the Taj Mahal and the Golden Temple in Amritsar and we weren’t sure what else. He suggested a route; we said yeah that’s a good idea. What about the tigers at Ranthambhore Safari Park? Why not – I love tigers. How about Shimla, up in the mountains? Okay, let’s visit Shimla. How about Goa – a break from the craziness of India where we can just relax on the beach? Okay, we’ll go to Goa.
Note: You definitely can simply turn up at a train station and get on the next train to a new place, as we found out later. Also, Delhi is surprisingly easy to navigate; you can get a tourist travel card and hop on any line without any problems.
On a sheet of paper branded with the travel agency’s name, address and contact details, he scribbled down the ins and outs of our trip. He stopped a few times to call various hotels or contacts he had, speaking very quickly in Hindi, and then scrawling away in English.
He named his price and my jaw dropped. “Each?” I asked. But for some reason I handed him my credit card. I told myself it wasn’t that much, because everything was included.
The named price (47,800 Rs. each – roughly £580 GBP) included transport (buses, trains and a private taxi); accommodation in various private rooms in 3 star hotels with wifi, and a beach hut in Goa; and tickets to the Taj Mahal and a Tiger Safari at Ranthambhore National Park. The only things we had to pay for were our transfers from the train stations to our accommodation, our meals and our souvenir-shopping (i.e. elephant pants!). When I played that over in my head, it didn’t seem that expensive.
Regardless of the fact we had the trip of a lifetime, I still feel that if we had only done a small amount of preparation before going to India, things would have gone a lot differently. Looking back now, I feel that we were so young and naive; we fell for one of the most common scams in the book! And it literally is written in the Lonely Planet guide as something to be aware of when you land in New Delhi: drivers insist they cannot find a pre-booked hostel/hotel and consequently take their passengers to a travel agent, who pretends to phone the hostel/hotel and claims that it has shut down or that no-one is answering. It seems this is indeed a highly practised trick into getting tourists to book trips through overpriced travel agents.
To avoid the same happening to you, here are a some words of advice:
If we had researched in advance, we would have realised that using public transport to get to the city centre is really quite simple (though we did figure this out on our return journey!) This website will tell you all you need to know about getting from New Delhi airport to the city.
We should have had a map to the hostel – even just a print out from Google Maps! Now, whenever I travel to a new country, I make sure I have an offline map downloaded onto my phone, so I can use GPS without using data. My favourite app for this is Nokia Here Maps. You can download it here by clicking the Android or Apple symbol on the top right.
I still think that you can still turn up without planning everything and take it as it comes, but it’s a good idea to at least have an idea of what you would like to see and do. And, if you really have no idea, I would recommend pretending to. By coming across as unsure and uncertain, we made ourselves more vulnerable. If we had said that we had already booked onward transport from Delhi elsewhere, perhaps we wouldn’t have been sucked into booking a whole trip.
It’s so easy to look back on my experiences now and say that we should have just said no. We could have accepted his offer for a couple of nights’ accommodation and then just moved on. If you aren’t happy with something, don’t be afraid to refuse: firmly say no and walk away.
Look up how much things cost before you go so you have an idea of a fair price – this way you’ll also know how to budget. Research how long you will need to make the most of your trip; one month in India is nowhere near enough – if you can, go for longer! I also wish I had bought a cheap Indian Sim Card instead of wasting money on a Global Sim Card which didn’t work! I find Facebook groups, Pinterest and blogs are the best forums and sources of information for this sort of thing!
Since our trip to India, looking up common scams is now one of the first things I research when I travel somewhere new. The internet offers a plethora of information on peoples’ first-hand experiences as well as formal travel guides. Read blogs, guide books, and ask others who have been before.
I suppose we weren’t really scammed in a way, because we did get everything we “paid for”, i.e. everything that was scrawled on the piece of paper given to me by the travel agent. However, it was highly likely that the travel agent lied to us by saying that the hostel was unreachable (we met someone a few days later who was staying there) and therefore we felt forced booking accommodation and consequently a tour through the company. It’s also possible that the driver who dropped us at the travel agent was looking to earn a commission by leaving us there (this is something that happens all over India, which we found out again when we were taken to an overpriced jewellery shop in Jaipur by a taxi driver.)
However, we didn’t have any major problems and everything went quite smoothly. The travel agent was available by phone and text throughout our trip. Our taxi driver was always on time and our accommodation was good; we adored our beach hut in Goa. I think the most frustrating thing is knowing that we were overcharged; we spent over £500 each on this trip and still had food and other bits & pieces to pay for. We soon realised – from speaking to other travellers in India, and from what I researched online afterwards – that India is an incredibly cheap country to travel in, and, had we done it ourselves, we would have probably spent only half as much.
I’m not normally someone to choose a tour (unless I really have to) as I prefer the freedom of being able to travel at my own pace. There are often places you don’t think to visit from reading the guidebook alone – and some of these places we didn’t go to, because we already had everything booked. I would love to visit Varanasi and Jodhpur – they are definitely on the list for next time!
I don’t look back on our month in India negatively. Nothing major happened apart from we lost out on some money; we still had the trip of a lifetime and I treasure the memories we have: of meeting locals on a 2-day sleeper train from Delhi to Goa, of finally seeing the Taj Mahal, of visiting the incredible Golden Temple in Amritsar, of seeing the daily ceremony at the Wagah Border, of wandering around Victorian town of Shimla, of mastering public transport in Delhi, of getting henna painted on my hand in Jaipur, of seeing a tiger in his natural habitat on safari in Ranthambhore… We will definitely be back.
I can’t wait to visit India again – hopefully soon!
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Thanks for reading and happy (scam-free) travels!
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