Some tips for visitors to Delhi

This post has a simple purpose: to compile in one place some useful information for visitors to Delhi. This would include delegates at the upcoming RC21 Conference ‘In and beyond the city: emerging ontologies, persistent challenges and hopeful futures’ from 18-21 September 2019. Despite the plethora of travel blogs and websites these days, in the run-up to my recent trip I found it hard to sift the helpful and current information from the dated or just downright wrong advice. So these are my first-hand thoughts and experiences.

If you are flying into Delhi from abroad you will arrive at Terminal 3 of Indira Gandhi International (IGI) Airport (IATA: DEL). I’ll briefly cover five things which I hope you’ll find helpful:

  1. Getting cash on arrival
  2. Getting a Prepaid SIM
  3. Getting a taxi, including scams to avoid
  4. Getting around in Delhi: use Ola
  5. Getting out of Delhi: take the train
1. Getting cash at IGI Airport T3, Delhi

This is well covered elsewhere, but there were both Citibank and State Bank of India (SBI) ATMs in the arrival lobby of Terminal 3 immediately after exiting customs. I used the Citibank ATM, which charged a fee of ₹200/- and gave my cash in a mixture of ₹500 and ₹100 notes (from memory). The SBI ATM was right next to the Airtel Booth (see below). Based on subsequent withdrawals, I expect it would have been fee-free, but everyone withdrawing money there seemed to walk away with only ₹2000 notes, and smaller notes are worth their weight in gold in India.

2. Getting a SIM at IGI Airport T3, Delhi

Having a local Indian SIM makes so much difference - see Ola later in this post! There is an Airtel booth (open 24hrs) almost directly opposite the exit from the Terminal 3 baggage claim and customs, right next to the SBI ATM. I was charged ₹999/- (~£11/AUD20/USD14) for a SIM with unlimited local calls, STD calls and SMS messages and the all-important data connection (up to 1.4GB per day) for a period of 3 months. It also includes ‘roaming’, which means it’ll work on other networks operated by the same provider within India, such as other states. A few things to note:

  1. The actual recharge value was ₹495/- so there is a hefty mark-up.
  2. You need to submit a form, they photocopy your passport, and you submit a passport-style photo (alternatively, it seemed they were taking digital shots of other travellers).
  3. The SIM is not active immediately. I arrived at 1am and mine was active within a couple of hours after I called customer service to confirm details. But it wasn’t really functional until recharged, which was done by the outlet at 11:40am the next day. They promised to have it active by 3pm, so this isn’t too bad, but worth bearing in mind if your plan involves immediately getting online on your smartphone.
  4. The Airtel booth only accept cash, so withdraw cash before getting your SIM.

Airtel booth, IGI Terminal 3 arrival lobby, viewed from outside The Airtel booth in the IGI Terminal 3 arrival lobby, viewed from outside

3. Getting a taxi at IGI Airport T3, Delhi: options and scams to avoid

Ola would probably be a great option to get from the airport to your accommodation. But because your SIM is unlikely to be active, and because data roaming for overseas SIMs in India is so expensive (my carrier wanted £3/MB), options are restricted. I did a lot of reading about this. The three main suggestions seemed to be

  1. Get your hotel to send a car;
  2. Take one of the ‘Radio Taxis’ operated by Meru and Mega, which (theoretically) should use a meter and are air-conditioned; or
  3. Take a prepaid taxi booked through the Delhi Traffic Police booth (not air-conditioned).

I eliminated the first because I was sure the price would be stratospheric, and decided to try the second. I ended up taking the third. But how it played out gives a useful lesson in the plethora of scams targeting visitors arriving in DEL. Be aware and on your guard, and you’ll be fine.

Tout #1: ‘Come my friend’
Approaching the Meru taxi counter the guy behind it seemed to nod me in the direction of a man near him. This guy took me over to a four-wheel-drive labelled ‘tourist’. I got in, at which point I asked where the meter was. He said “no meter”, and proceeded to offer the ride to my hotel in the vicinity of Connaught Place for ₹2500! I laughed and said “no way” while he made all sorts of protestations about the rates, how good the car was etc. Knowing this was well above the going rate I finally just said “no” and started getting out. As I exited he offered ₹1500. I kept walking.

Tout #2: ‘Come my man’
After the experience above I decided to take one of the prepaid taxis which you book at a booth operated by Delhi Traffic Police. Approaching the booth, another tout tried to convince me to come round to his taxi parked behind. I had a quick look, realised what was going on and returned firmly to the window of the booth!

Scam #3: ‘The quick switch’
Don’t feel that because you are booking your prepaid taxi at a set rate at a booth operated by Delhi Traffic Police that you can let your guard down. There is a scam operated by the clerks there which I’ll call ‘The quick switch’. I had read about it somewhere online, but still it was a surprise when they tried it on me! So be ready for it. Here’s how it works:

  1. Weary traveller says where s/he is going, and the clerk quotes the price (₹470/- for me);
  2. Traveller gives a ₹500 or other high-denomination note/s to the clerk;
  3. Quick as lightning the clerk switches it for a ₹100 note, then says he needs ₹370 more.

Circumvent this scam by counting out the notes as you hand them over. I knew I’d given a ₹500 note, so I stood my ground, assertively saying that I had given him ₹500 and therefore he owed me ₹30 change. He kept showing me the ₹100 he’d switched out until it became clear that he wouldn’t pull the wool over my eyes, then quickly gave me my change and the trademark green and pink carbon-copy prepaid receipts and waved me in the direction of “any black cab”. Guard the green receipt carefully! That’s what the driver needs to get his money on return to the airport, and will prove useful if he tries any schemes on you on the way. Mine didn’t, we arrived at my hotel and I finally got some sleep :-)

Delhi Traffic Police Prepaid Taxi Book, Arrivals area, IGI Terminal 3 The Delhi Traffic Police Prepaid Taxi Booth at IGI Terminal 3

The prepaid taxi receipts - the top (green) one is given to the driver when you reach your destination The Prepaid taxi receipts - the top (green) one is given to the driver when you reach your destination

4. Getting around in Delhi: Use Ola

Depending on where you are going, the Delhi Metro can be very convenient (carry correct change), but most visitors will use surface transport. Of course, everyone should try their hand at bargaining with one of Delhi’s ubiquitous auto-rickshaw drivers! To give you an idea of what you should be paying, Delhi Traffic Police have a helpful fare calculator. Once you’ve done this, though, I suggest you use Ola, the home-grown Indian version of Uber (also in the city). If you like, you can use my referral code: 0E5ZYPU. I used Ola extensively, and found it was both cheap and reliable, with rides ranging from ₹120-250 depending on distance. It has at least three significant advantages for visitors:

  1. You can choose your destination using a Google Maps-based interface. You can then keep an eye on the route as you travel on either/both your phone and the driver’s to ensure he isn’t taking some detour to run up the fare.
  2. You get a break from the mental fatigue of constant bargaining/arguing with every auto or cab driver you see, who will suggest fares somewhere between the ludicrous and the insane.
  3. You will get electronic receipts emailed to you. If you are a business traveller you now don’t have to have a fight with your finance department over the fact that you don’t have receipts!

In an Ola cab In an Ola cab

5. Getting out of Delhi: Take the train

No visitor should stay in Delhi exclusively. To get out of the city and for intercity travel, I’d encourage you to use trains. They are more sustainable and more relaxing than cars, and vastly better than planes! Anyone thinking of catching a train will almost certainly have already visited The Man in Seat 61, so I won’t repeat the excellent advice there. The trains I caught in India were comfortable and cheap, just don’t expect them to be on time! The Shatabdi I took from New Delhi to Agra ran an hour late on what was scheduled as a 2hr trip; and the return train (which starts in Bhopal) was nearly 1.5hrs late by the time it arrived in Agra. Needless to say it made up little time between Agra and New Delhi!

One thing I missed on Seat61 was that in the Air-Conditioned “Chair Class” on the Shatabdi and Janshatabdi trains there are power plugs in the carriage. They aren’t at every seat, but if I’d known this this I would have taken my power adaptor for my long day-trip to Agra, during which time my phone got heavy usage, mainly taking photos and using maps. The outlets will accept a variety of plugs, including Australian and US-style plugs as well as Indian ones.

There are also waiting rooms for Chair Class passengers at many stations. I used the one at Agra, which was on Platform 1 and labelled the “Upper Class Waiting Room”. The waiting room also had power plugs. Carry some toilet paper if you’re out and about. Trains have at least one western-style toilet per carriage, but you won’t find any toilet paper. The same is true for many tourist sites.

Power points between each set of windows in the Shatabdi and Janshatabdi trains Power points are provided between each set of windows in AC Chair Class on the Shatabdi and Janshatabdi trains

Enjoy your time in India, and I hope these tips help get it off to a smooth start 🙂!