Probably the worst way to get introduced to India for the first time visitor would be to fly into Delhi on one of those packed red-eye flights arriving at 1am, and take a random taxi from airport into a hotel in a backpacking district, and follow the taxi driver hotel suggestions once you have heard that your hotel has been closed/burned a few days ago. This city is difficult to handle even for seasoned travellers, and it is hard to shake off the feeling that it is one big dirty noisy dump where everyone tries to rip you off.
Generally, for a first-time visitor, you will get a better experience of India if you initially fly to Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore or Kolkata (then you can continue to Delhi). However, if you must fly to Delhi:
- Book a flight arriving during the daytime, preferably afternoon (morning and evening traffic is very bad). A huge number of flights, mostly from the Middle East, are arriving in the late night, and the airport is crowded.
- For the first-night book a hotel in advance in the same price range you’d book a hotel in your own country. Yes, good hotels in India could be very cheap, but it is hit and miss. Next day you can walk around and move to a different hotel, or negotiate a price in your hotel down (this is why you only need to book one night).
- Ask the hotel to pick you up from the airport. You will pay 2x-4x more than the normal taxi fare would be, but you will save yourself lots of hassle as the driver will wait for you in arrival area (and yes, they will still wait even if your flight is 4hr late) – and, being the first time in India, it is unlikely you’d get a normal taxi fare anyway. Trying to get Uber at Indian airport also is not a good idea, as finding your driver is always a major hassle which requires several calls – too many cars, and too many people.
Note that those items mostly apply to Delhi only. Other Indian airports receive significantly less international traffic and are less crowded, and Delhi seems to be the only major city in India which still doesn’t have a proper concept of taxi regulations, and has such a huge abundance of hotels which shouldn’t even be allowed to open doors.
Indira Gandhi International Airport, (IGI, IATA: DEL), located in the south-west of the city, is the arrival point for many visitors into Delhi. Once notoriously bad, the airport has been transformed into a thoroughly modern facility and is one the best airports in the world. There are several security checkpoints in the airport and you may have to show your boarding pass and passport a dozen times before boarding the plane. (Be aware that access to the terminal is limited to ticketed passengers, so you will need to show proof of ticketing and your passport to gain entry.) When leaving Delhi from the International terminal, you should show up 3 hours before your flight is scheduled. For domestic flights, 2 hours should be enough, depending on whether or not you must wait in the queues to check luggage. While sometimes time-consuming, the process is smooth, and the new terminal’s shops and restaurants are sensibly located at the gate area, not before security. However, if you wish to change Rupees back into foreign currency, you must do this before clearing security.
During the winter, Delhi often experiences dense fog and visibility is reduced considerably, making it difficult for flights to land and take off. Both international and domestic flights are often diverted, cancelled, or delayed.
Delhi Airport has three operational terminals:
- Terminal 1C/1D, also known as “Palam Airport” or “Domestic”, is used only by low-cost carriers IndiGo, GoAir and SpiceJet. Flights arrive at Terminal 1C but depart from terminal 1D.
- Terminal 3, the enormous main terminal, is used by all international flights and all full-service domestic carriers which include Air India, AirAsia India and Vistara.
- Terminal 2 Specific flights
A free shuttle bus operates between the terminals every 20 minutes; however, the shuttle is only free for arriving passengers with onward connecting tickets in the other terminal. Alternatively, public city bus #4 (₹25) operates the same route and does not require a flight ticket. While the terminals share the same runways, connecting between the two requires a massive detour via a nearby highway, so allow up to 20 minutes to make the transfer.
To travel between the airport and the city:
- Delhi Airport Metro Express is a train line that operates between New Delhi Metro Station and Dwarka Sector 21, with a stop at the airport Terminal 3. See the website for the schedule. The journey to New Delhi Metro Station is fast and comfortable and takes 20 minutes and costs ₹60. From the railway station, you can transfer to the Metro (crossing the city street to reach the station).
- Delhi Transport Corporation and EATS (Ex Serviceman’s Airlink Transport Service) operate buses between the airport and the city 24 hours per day. Travel time is approximately 50 minutes and the cost is ₹50 per adult, ₹25 per child below 12 years, ₹25 for heavy luggage. Buses run to ISBT (Inter State Bus Terminal) near Kashmiri Gate, Connaught Place, Delhi Train Station and many hotels in the city centre, departing from both airport terminals every 60 minutes from 10AM-11:10PM. Tickets can be bought and a fixed seat can be booked at a desk in the Arrivals Hall.
- For booking Taxis from the airport, you have a variety of options including the yellow prepaid taxi booths operated by the Delhi Police. There is one located directly outside of the airport and one located near the rental car counters to the right of the exit doors. You may be approached by touts offering pre-paid taxis; just ignore them as there have been safety incidents reported. There are 5-6 radio taxi companies operating taxis in Delhi and they are cleaner and more reliable than the prepaid taxis. They are safer as they are GPS-monitored at all times. You can find the booths of various radio taxi companies as you exit the terminal. A prepaid taxi to the city center will cost you more than a radio taxi. Ignore any requests by the driver for additional payment. There is no practice of tipping taxi drivers anywhere in India. When you reach your destination, take your baggage first, then give the driver the receipt/pay the driver(in the case of radio taxis) and walk away without further discussion. Note that taxis routinely get stuck in traffic during rush-hour, but the journey to the city center is much quicker at night or early morning.
- Prearranged pick-ups are also available from most hotels. The cost may be double the charge from the prepaid taxi booths, but you will have someone waiting for you at the airport with your name on a sign and you won’t have to wait in the taxi queue.
- State run and private operators bus normally used by people working in and around airport for daily commute. Its the cheapest way to travel from airport to anywhere in the city. When you exit airport, head straight to pillar no. 18 on left side, from where you can catch DTC express buses. If you walk 5 more minutes in same direction (or just ask anyone), you can catch a bus for INR 5 to Mahipalpur and then bus to anywhere in Delhi and Gurgaon.
Many online cab hire services are now extensively serving major cities in India like North India Ola, Uber, Amy CAB, My Tempo Traveller, UberX are in fact more reliable, cheaper, and more pleasant than dealing with (and haggling with) unscrupulous/overeager/bothersome taxi drivers or autorickshaw drivers. You can get in by cabs and this is the safest way to get in if you want to avoid bus services in Delhi.
Buses arrive from Kathmandu and Chitwan in Nepal (36 hr+) and virtually every city in India. Although not as comfortable as the trains, buses are the only choice for some destinations, mainly those in the mountains.
Delhi has a confusing slew of inter-state bus termini (ISBT), which all have two names. The Delhi Transport Corporation is the major operator, but every state also runs its own buses and there are some private operators.
- Kashmere Gate ISBT (aka Maharana Pratap), Metro Kashmere Gate, Line 1/2. This is “the” ISBT and the largest of the lot. Buses to points north, including Nepal.
- Sarai Kale Khan ISBT (aka Vir Hakikat Rai), next to Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station. Buses to points south including RJST Ordinary buses.
- Anand Vihar ISBT (aka Swami Vivekanand), on the east bank of Yamuna. Buses to points east.
- Bikaner House, at Pandara Road, India Gate (Central Delhi) provides hourly air-conditioned Volvo buses to cities of Rajasthan (State famous for royal fortified desert-towns) – Jaipur (State-Capital), Udaipur (Lake City), Jodhpur etc. Bus Stop is uncrowded, well-maintained and ideal for luxurious travelling.
- Mandi House, at Barakhamba Road, near India Gate (Central Delhi) provides hourly air-conditioned Volvo buses to hill-stations of Himachal Pradesh (State famous for Himalayan panoramas) – Shimla (State-Capital), Manali (North-India’s honeymoon destination), Dharamsala (Capital-in-exile of Tibetans) etc. Bus Stop is uncrowded, well-maintained and ideal for luxurious travelling.
- Majnu ka Tilla Tibetan colony, a short rickshaw ride from Metro Vidhan Sabha.
Trains arrive at one of four main stations: Delhi Junction, also called Old Delhi or Purani Dilli; the second at New Delhi which lies in Central Delhi; Hazrat Nizamuddin a few kilometers to the south; and the upcoming Anand Vihar station to the east (very few trains use Delhi Sarai Rohilla or Delhi Cantt stations). Delhi Junction and New Delhi Railway Station are now conveniently connected by Metro Line 2, just minutes apart, while Anand Vihar is served by Line 3. It will take about 40 min-1 hr to travel from the New Delhi Railway Station to the airport by car, depending on traffic.
A ticket office open to all is on the road to Connaught Place with longer hours. It often has waiting times not much longer than at the tourist booking office. You will need to know the number or name of the train you want to take. Easiest of all, though, is to book online through the Indian Railways booking website. (Note, however, that you are required to have both an e-mail address AND a mobile phone number that is registered within India in order to access the booking area of the site.)
Once you have purchased a ticket either at the ticket office or online prior to the trip, all you need to do is go to the rail car labeled with your class of service purchased. You can either get on and sit in the first available seat or often times for higher classes of service, they will post a passenger list on the car when it stops. Look for your name and go to the assigned car, cabin and seat. There is never a need to get a boarding pass so if anyone comes out of the crowd to tell you that, don’t listen to them; it is a scam. If you’re brave, you can simply purchase a general 2nd class ticket and then get on any car where there is availability. The conductor will come by and check your tickets after the train starts moving. If you are in a higher fare class than you are ticketed for, all you have to do is simply pay the difference in fare to the conductor. The only risk here is that the train could be full and you could be stuck in the lowest fare class which can be very crowded with little room to sit.
New Delhi Railway Station
The main entrance to New Delhi Railway Station (code NDLS) is located just outside of Paharganj, also known as the backpacker ghetto. The Delhi Metro now connects directly here, but the metro exits are at the Ajmeri Gate (second entrance) side near platform 16. You can also take prepaid rickshaws and taxis from the plaza outside the main entrance.
The station is large, crowded, confusing and packed with touts. Allow one hour to find your train the first time you visit. Don’t trust the electronic display boards, which often show incorrect information. Instead listen to the announcements and ask multiple people in uniform (policemen) until you find your train. However, anyone who approaches you spontaneously should be completely ignored, including people who claim they work for the railway. Use one of the porters (in orange red uniforms with metallic arms badges) to find your train and carry your luggage, in exchange for a tip.
A tourist ticket office called the International Tourist Bureau is open 24 hours upstairs of, but still within, the main New Delhi railway station on Platform No.1 (on the side away from the metro). Note that it is only for foreign tourists, so you must have a tourist visa (i.e. student and working visas are not acceptable). Non-resident Indians can also book their tickets through this office. Bring your passport and cash or traveller’s cheques in U.S. dollars, British Pounds or Euros. If you wish to pay in Indian Rupees you theoretically must show an official exchange certificate (from India, not valid if you changed in another country) or an ATM receipt. All ticket bookings require exact change, as like everywhere in India the office has little to no change. If you don’t have exact change, it’s possible after booking to go down to the food stores, buy food to get change, then return and pick up your ticket. To get a ticket, first get a form from the centre of the room and fill it out. Then go to the information desk near the entrance. There, have the clerk check the availability of the train(s) you desire, and fill out your form accordingly. Then line up at one of the two u-shaped lines of chairs for the reservation desks. If you need a bathroom during this lengthy process, there is a relatively clean male and female toilet just outside on the verandah through the side door (the door you didn’t enter through). Even once inside, there are still touts around looking to make a quick buck on those who are unfamiliar with the process. Do not leave the International Tourist Bureau with a stranger.
Do not trust strangers who appear out of the crowd to help you; ignore them. Always ask for assistance at the enquiry counter or policemen (in uniform). If crossing over to other platforms from the Paharganj side, beware of people asking for your train ticket whilst going through security to cross the bridge. You do not need to show your ticket to cross the bridge despite what they may say. If a man with a pen appears as you approach, ignore him.
If you have a long wait for your train and need somewhere safe and peaceful, the IRCTC has an executive lounge, which can be found between the main entrance (Ajmeri Gate side) and the stairway up to platform 16, just after security. It is clean, safe and air-conditioned; the staff are helpful. The cost is INR150 for two hours. Meals are extra.
New Delhi Railway Station also has a pre-paid taxi booth run by Delhi Police. If you are arriving at the station, and want to take a taxi, head to the Delhi Police pre-paid taxi booth. Unfortunately, this booth is at the extreme far north end (about 50 meters from the station main exit) of the taxi parking and you will encounter touts claiming to provide prepaid taxi; just ignore them and find the pre-paid taxi booth run by the Delhi Police which are safe and least expensive. Taxi fare from New Delhi Railway Staion to the Airport should cost you about 400 Rupees.
A common scam is for a tout to approach you and tell you your train is canceled but you may book the next train at the official tourist office (typically in Connaught Square). Of course, this isn’t an official office, just a travel agency that will tell you the next train is booked and try to rent you a taxi at a very expensive price.
Delhi Railway Station
Formally Delhi Junction (code DLI), but best referred to as “Old” Delhi Station for clarity. Like New Delhi RS, this station is huge and confusing. The platforms are not in linear order, with some hidden in the west and east wings of the stations. The railway station is served by Metro Line 2 Chandni Chowk station, with an entrance just outside at the east end of the station and also just over the main road outside (last metro at about 23:30). If taking an Auto Rickshaw from here, the prepaid desk will often try and charge you as much as three times the actual price quoted on the official price guide displayed clearly in their window – bargaining is sadly often cheaper.
Hazrat Nizamuddin (code NZM) is the departure point of many trains heading south. Practically speaking, the only way to get here is by taxi or car (now there is metro connectivity). The budget alternative is to take a bus to the Sarai Kale Khan Inter State Bus Terminal (ISBT) on the ring road and then walk over to the station (400 m). It’s the least chaotic of the Big Three, but still pretty big and poorly signposted; listen to the announcements to figure out your train. The station has a pretty good food court that sells inexpensive, hygienic takeaway snacks including sandwiches and samosas.
If you have some time to kill, pay a visit to Humayun’s Tomb, which is so close to the station that you can hear the announcements from inside — although it’s a long, circuitous walk from the station to the entrance.
Anand Vihar Terminal (code ANVT) is Delhi’s newest station, located well to the east of the city near Ghaziabad – Delhi Border. Repeatedly delayed, the station finally opened in December 2009 and will gradually take over all east-bound services. The station can be reached by Delhi Metro Line 3. Anand Vihar Terminal is just opposite to Anand Vihar Interstate Bus Terminal (ISBT).