We (a couple in their upper 60th) decided to see India - for the first time. Considering exhaustion of long flights from home to India and back we decided to stay in India for a month to cover more India in a single trip. We usually prepare our trips and travel on our own, but sometimes for one reason or another we go with escorted group tours. After getting information about travel in India, water and food quality there, general hygienic conditions we thought that an escorted tour is more appropriate for us. After reviewing escorted tour offerings from US tour operators we could not find a tour or back to back tours that meet most our requirements for included cities and activities there, quality of lodging and transportation, difficulty, price. So we began to look for an Indian tour operators. We found a few specializing in custom private tours for western tourists, send them our requirements. Obviously after the first shot we did not get what we want, so we send comments about itinerary and its price back to them. During initial negotiations we found out that Maavalan Travels (www.maavalanindiatravels.com) was the most flexible in all respects while their price was less than others. So we continued to build our tour with Maavalan and were not sorry. The price of custom just-for-us tour was about the same as Gate1 would charge for a group escorted tour of equal duration but the included contents of our custom tour cannot be matched by any group tour.
Our 28-day/night (without international flights) tour of India included:
6 days in beach resort in Varkala, Kerala.
13 hotels with breakfasts.
6 intercity air transfers.
1 intercity train transfer .
8 intercity car transfers (with driver).
15 private car transfers to and from all airports and train stations with assistance of Maavalan representatives.
18 days of private (car with a driver) guided (English) excursions - cities, museums, and monuments.
Backwater private canoe cruise in Alleppey area.
2 small boat cruises.
2 jeep safaris with naturalist in national park.
2 rickshaw rides
Rent of mobile phone with prepaid allowance.
24-hour emergency contact to Avinash, our Maavalan customer relations manager.
Hotels varied from basic (**) to luxury (*****). All were safe, clean, comfortable, with air conditioning, with filtered tap water and packaged drinking water (we used it to brush teeth as well), with western bathrooms with hot running water, with restaurant(s) following western hygienic requirements and extensive Indian and continental menus. Locations were convenient and close to attractions to minimize car transfers. Staff was friendly and helpful in all hotels. Hotel porterage was not included in the tour but was always available.
Breakfasts in hotels varied from average to excellent in Varanasi, Khajuraho , Aurangabad. Light lunch with espresso we had in places recommended by guides or drivers. Most dinners we had in hotels where we stayed and they were good or excellent. In Varkala we went out to the cliff to enjoy a great choice of excellent fresh seafood in open air restaurants. We did not have any stomach problems during our trip. We used sanitizer a lot though.
Domestic flights (Jet Airways and Spicejet) and service there did not differ from flights at home. All flights were on schedule. Free luggage allowance is not limited by number of bags; it is limited by total weight (15 kg per passenger, which is lower than at home). It is strictly enforced and airlines charge hefty fees for excess.
Bathroom on the train in the highest class chair car was disgusting, otherwise train is like at home. There is no elevators or escalators on train stations, so luggage shall be carried up and down stairs of the overhead bridges and be lifted up from low platform to the train (to drop it down might be a challenge too). Porters are readily available to help passengers with their luggage. Porterage on train stations was included in the tour and, more important, managed by Maavalan representatives assisting us with transfer.
Driving in Indian chaotic traffic is an art. All 8 drivers that served us along our way were excellent. Unlike drivers of many other tour vehicles they drove without risky maneuvers and never exceeded speed limit even during overtaking. We felt very safe in the cars. During intercity transfers drivers knew where we could safely eat and regularly offered a stop for a clean western bathroom. All cars were air-conditioned midsize vehicles with good visibility; we were very comfortable on the back seat.
In each airport and train station we were met by a Maavalan representative holding a placard with our names, who took our luggage and escorted to the car. Representatives went with us to the hotel to make sure that we got our room (having confirmed reservation in India might not mean that hotel will provide a room). Representative also assisted us on departures making sure that our luggage is checked in and we boarded our flight. If something would not go as scheduled these representatives would resolve the problem.
Guides were knowledgeable and flexible throughout the tour, and in Khajuraho, Jaipur, Udapur, Aurangabad - exceptional. All guides comply with our requests for the pace of the tours, exclusion of shopping, visiting places that are out of bitten way, photography. They also helped us to get through crowds of hawkers and beggars. Each of us got cold in the middle of the journey; so guides noticed our condition and helped us to get ayurvedic medication that helped us to get well quickly.
We did not have emergencies so we used provided mobile phone to communicate with family and with Avinash who called us quite often to ask how our tour was going, and if our special requests were taken care of. Once I called him in hope to find my jacket that I left behind in a hotel a day before. I was quite surprised when this jacket was delivered. During backwater cruise there was no acceptable public restaurant there, so Avinash made us a gift in the form of a delicious lunch in a heritage villa on one of the islands. We never felt vulnerable as if we traveled on our own.
Overall the entire tour was very astonishing and interesting. While all visited places were fascinating, sites in Varanasi, Agra, and Aurangabad were the most remarkable and memorable.
Something was far beyond our expectation during our 28-day heavily packed journey: Maavalan Travels (www.maavalanindiatravels.com) ran our tour so there were absolutely no any glitches, failures or cancellations, everything went very smooth, making this trip our best.