What to eat & not eat:
The main rule is to not drink the water – drink only bottled water, or sealed beverages (like sodas or juices in bottles), or hot tea or coffee. This also means insisting on “no ice” whenever you are served a beverage. Keep a bottle of water by the sink in your hotel room, to remind yourself to use it when you brush your teeth. Most businesses have bottled water in the offices – just ask.
Other guidelines for a healthy trip are to: avoid raw or undercooked foods, especially meat, seafood and dairy products; avoid street food – it’s often safe, but why take the chance on a short trip; and eat foods that are well-cooked and hot to the touch. In general, it’s best to eat only those fruits and vegetables that can peel yourself. In the hotels business travelers usually stay at, most travelers have no problems eating fresh fruit and vegetables; they have been washed with filtered water and carefully prepared.
Note that the majority of Indians are Hindus, and most Hindus are vegetarians to some degree or another. Everywhere you go, you will see restaurants advertising either “pure veg” or “veg and non-veg,” which refer to all vegetarian, or vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, respectively.
You are not likely to need more than $100 in cash, unless you are planning to extend your trip significantly or plan to do lots of shopping. Although the usual travel advice is to not change money in the hotels, because the exchange rate isn’t very good, many business travelers do recommend changing money in the hotel in India. With the exchange rate at about 40 rupees per $1, even $100 can give you a big wad of bills (generally, you’ll need small bills for things that require cash). Counting that many bills in an unfamiliar currency, at the end of a long plane flight, can make changing money in the airport a challenge. For less than $100 or so in cash, the difference in exchange rates may not be significant. Wherever you change money, you are likely to get your small bills stapled together – ask them to remove the staple for you, because it’s difficult to take out with your finger and ripped bills are often refused by merchants.
If you are thinking about making a big purchase (such as a rug), and may need to pay for it in cash, consider bringing travelers checks with you for changing into rupees. New ATMs are opening up every day in major cities, but they don’t always work as expected. They can be out of cash, or limit you to a very small withdrawal, or to a specific number of bills. A few ATMs cannot process a PIN with more than 4 digits, or may not be able to access a U.S.-based account. You may want to bring an ATM card from another bank as a back-up.
Check with your credit card companies before you leave – most tack on a fee on international charges (which may not be itemized). Credit cards are accepted fairly widely in India, at least at the kinds of upscale hotels, restaurants and stores where you are likely to spend most of your money, and are usually the best payment system. Bring more than one type (e.g. MasterCard and Visa, or American Express), because many shops and restaurants will only accept one type or another, not all of them.
Bathrooms in upscale hotels, restaurants, stores and most business offices all have western-style toilets. Outside of those places used to international travelers, public bathrooms are quite rare, and if you do find them, they are more likely to be the squat-type toilets, and toilet paper is not usually provided. Forewarned is forearmed!
Indians tilt their heads and nod back and forth to indicate “no problem,” “okay,” or “whatever.” This is often done without much facial movement or smiles, and it is easy for Americans to think they are shaking their head and indicating “no.” You’ll get used to this quickly, and probably find yourself tilting your own head in a few days. In the meantime, if you have any doubt, ask the question or state what you want again, until you hear a firm “no problem” or “okay.”
Tipping follows different rules in India than in the U.S., but many of the service people you encounter will expect you to tip more in line with American culture, especially at high-end hotels. If you are with an Indian colleague, ask for his/her advice. I’ve asked a lot of people about tipping, and there is a wide variation in views on appropriate tipping levels, so here are some very rough guidelines about tips:
- In general, it’s better to tip as you go, not to save up until the end of your trip. You will get better service during your stay.
- Check to see whether service is included in your restaurant bills at hotels. If it is, a very small cash tip is always appreciated, but not necessary. If it’s not, you can just write in a tip of about 10% when you sign for food bills. You may also leave this as cash – it’s just harder to remember come expense time.
- People who handle your luggage should get somewhere around 20-40 rupees per bag, more if they’re gigantic.
- Give the guy who calls your car in the morning a small amount – 20-40 rupees – preferably each time.
- In business class hotels, leave about 30-50 rupees in your room for your cleaner every day.
- People who bring up laundry or food or whatever expect a small tip, perhaps 20 rupees.
- People I’ve surveyed about tips for car service drivers have really varied opinions – from 50–100 rupees per day; to one big tip (200–500 rupees) at the end of your stay; to varying tips depending on their day (less if they hung out all day at the office campus, more if they’ve taken you all over town a few times or are doing a long trip to/from another city).
- Tips for bathroom attendants/cleaners are really not required, but some attendants will try to insist on a tip, especially from foreigners. This can be annoying; it helps to remember how poor these attendants usually are, and give them a couple of coins along with a smile.
Things people often shop for in India include: gold and silver jewelry, pearls (especially in Hyderabad), textiles and clothing, and many kinds of crafts, such as inlaid wooden bowls or small stone or paper maché decorative items, and rugs. Ask your hosts to arrange for a shopping trip for the things you’re particularly interested in. Bargaining at most shops is an expected social interaction and part of the shopping experience – ask for advice before you get going or ask your Indian friends to bargain for you. There’s a fine line for Americans – you don’t want merchants to think they can rip you off, but you can also afford to pay more than the local standards and still have a great souvenir or gift at an excellent price. Try to find the right balance – you can tell if you are bargaining too hard when the merchant’s expression gets really sour; if he or she gives you a really big smile when you’re done, you probably should have tried for a bigger discount! You can also buy things at the fixed price stores in the hotel (for a premium).
Have fun! Although you are traveling for business, that doesn’t mean your trip has to be ALL business. Enjoy the experience, get out and go shopping or visit some of the local attractions. If you are going for 2 weeks or more, schedule a trip or two to some other part of India over the weekends.