South India Travel Tips - 2012

By Kavan Ratnatunga

Travel involves many issues, and one often learns the hard way from experience, only to forget the next time you travel. So I record below bits of information on various topic, I picked up during my travel to south India that would have helped me if I knew before travelling.

Airline Tickets

Booking Sri Lankan Airline e-ticket to Chennai online was easy. The website displayed an array of optional dates and flights available with the total cost of ticket including Taxes. If you are flexible on travel dates and time you could save a few thousand rupees.

The ticket you download as a .PDF file to print says The Credit Card holder must be a member of the travelling party. At the Airport you will be requested to produce the Credit Card that you used to purchase your e-ticket. You will not be allowed to travel if above two conditions are not fulfilled

So don't forget to take that credit card to Airport or lose it. I lost my wallet few days before travel and was extremely lucky to get it back. Not sure what I could have done if I didn't.

Indian Travel Visa

The Indian tourist visa application also done online printed and submitted with travel documents and two copies of recent color photographs which is now printed on Visa as a security measure. A Visa for a Sri Lankan takes 3 working days and cost around LKRs650. As a dual citizen I had to hand fill an extra form and pay an additional FAX fee of about LKRs300 and wait six working days. The status of the visa can be checked online and picked up. The Visa is valid for 3 months after issue.

Indian Train Tickets

Booking Indian train travel online was a challenge. Indian railways does not accept international Visa/MC and did not say so till I asked Customer Care by E-mail. I had to use my son's Amex to ensure a reservation before it filled up. This online minefield I guess ensures that local Travel agents remain in business, charging, as I discovered a 100% markup on Indian train tickets.

Went by night train from Mysore to Chennai. I booked in the class 2A sleeper. It was one large coach with about 32 sleepers in 2 tier bunk beds with Toilets you don't want to visit at either end. The class 3A has 3 tiers of bunk beds and must be far more cramped. The online train booking did not allow selection of sleeper. The system allocated the next available based just on preference of lower or upper bunk. The single row of bunks along the side of train was not OK for anyone over 6 feet, The pairs of bunks across, a taller person could stretch legs out into corridor. The upper Bunk on the side was OK, but the lower bunk had two halfs that folded down to make the bed leaving a slight gap in the middle. Sleeping along the direction of travel of train makes it more sensitive to changes in motion of train.

An elderly couple got in and were desperate since they had been assigned upper bunks after being first two on waiting list. A mutually beneficial exchange between 4 travellers and we were all happy.

Indian Intercity Bus Tickets

Online Indian bus booking was also a challenge. did not accept international Amex but accepted my MC after correct answers to security checks.which included the E-mail associated with the credit card.

Attempts to change the travel date of ticket was not easy. The online travel agent did not allow preponement or postponement of travel date. I could only cancel the ticket hoping to get refund less a 15% penalty sometime, and buy a new ticket. Regretted having booked and paid for a ticket in advance, which made travel less flexible.

Went by KPN Bus AC Sleeper from Trichy to Bangalore. The night Sleeper Bus was a new experience. The bus has 30 beds in 2 tiers. 2+1 across and 5 deep. I was on the upper Bunk and had a smoother ride than the lower bunk which felt more of the road.

On the ticket, the Reporting Time, was 10:15 PM, for 10:30 PM Departure. Glad we went early. We were sent by a shuttle bus to another pickup place at 10 PM, and had to wait there till almost 11 PM to get on Bus.

Did go once in a local Bus in Chennai to two large Dept stores in T Nagar. The problem was to know where to get off. Luckily a passenger who spoke English instructed the conductor to inform us of the stop.


I had only made an E-mail reservation at arrival city Chennai, so I could list an Indian Address in the Indian Visa application. I selected the hotel after checking reviews on the Internet.

A reasonable clean hotel Room with AC in south India costs around INRs1650 (US$30). Also very useful is the 24-hour checkout policy in most hotels we stayed in. Cash in one hotel gave a 20% discount. It is however essential to look at the room and Toilet before checking in. We often asked to be shown another room before we were satisfied. It was not difficult to find a reasonable hotel. None were fully booked. So I was glad to have not made paid advance reservations.

Most of the Hotels we stayed at had Cable TV in the room so there was a wide range of English channels and News to watch.


Most Indian Restaurants are vegetarian. Finding a non-veg restaurant is an challenge. The best was the Hoysala Village Resort at which we had both breakfast and Lunch on way to Halebidu and returning from Belur. It was an expensive but beautiful resort. Buying water and soft-drinks outside the hotels was a lot less costly. Ensure known Brand name and a sealed bottle when buying water, soft-drinks or fruit juice.


Power Switch Power Indicator

We tried the hotel Laundry when we stayed more than one day. The one day service was OK and reasonably priced. South India is warm so most hand washed cloths will dry overnight under the fan, or over the day if you keep the fan on when you leave for sight seeing during the day.

All of the hotels tried to make sure you switched off power when you left the hotel room by needing you to put the key tag into a slot to switch on all power to the room. A power indicator light was fixed outside the room. I nice idea except that the key could be removed from key-tag to lock the door :-).


Indian currency like that of Sri Lanka is not issued by Banks outside India. Legally you need to take an International currency or Travellers cheques. The street price for INRs1 was LKRs2.55 Withdrawal from an ATM gave the correct rate of LKRs2.40 but HSBC bank charge LKRs400 per withdrawal. So you need to find out what your bank charges before you travel, and you should not withdraw small amounts. The credit card used LKRs2.45 which was the best option.

The Chennai Airport Exchange booth gave a rate which was over 5% less than Hotels I stayed at, which gave close to Midpoint. Most surprising was the much lower rate (about 5%) for the AU$ than the US$ when on the international market it was over 2% higher that day. I am told the US$ currency notes have a higher demand in India. Authorised Money Changers also gave a good rate, but not easy to find.

Another surprise is that they don't accept currency notes of an older series. I had taken a British 20 Pound Note left over from a trip to UK in 2005. That was declined, and I am told not accepted even in Lanka except at a Bank.

A Sri Lankan can take out a maximum of LKRs5000 in currency notes to have some money on return. You need Exchange control permission to take any circulation coins out of the country, since they cost CBSL more than face value to mint.

Credit Cards

Since I had problems booking a train ticket without an Amex card, I got myself one before I left for India, in case this was a problem at Hotels. However I did not need to use the Amex.

All hotels that Accepted credit card payments accepted my Sri Lankan HSBC Master Card which I had activated for use in India during this period. It was declined only at a restaurant and a department store. I forgot to try my Amex at those locations.

Prepaid Taxi

At Chennai Airport there was a prepaid taxi stand which took us to our hotel in an antique Ambassador Car at INRs375 which was reasonable for 15 kms. Taxis I am told charge about INRs100 start and about INRs15 per kms.

Booked a Taxi to return to Airport at midnight. The cost of INRs420 was only slightly higher because of late night surcharge.


Taxi Rate All Indian TukTuks used to have meters. It is a pity the meter is now defunct and the driver charges whatever he can get away with, like in Colombo before Meter Taxis became popular. There was a notice on the back panel, giving a rate of INRs9 per kms with a INRs15 minimum. But this was covered by a cloth in most taxis.

Chennai Railway station had a TukTuk stand which seemed to be very popular. You stated your destination and you were told your fixed fare before you got into TukTuk next in line.


Car Rental

Car + Driver Renting a car with driver is inexpensive in India. For about US$40 per day, we got an A/C Indica with 250 kms including the Driver's Bata. Extra km was just INRs8. In India, the driver was comfortable about sleeping in car if hotel did not provide quarters. Fuel is included, but Road Tolls and Pondi Permit cost extra.

If you don't return to your point of origin you need to add the return distance to the mileage used and pay for any Tolls. There should be an online share travel sites from which some other Tourist could use this Car which would otherwise return empty. Maybe drivers already have that worked out, to make a quick profit.

Read the meter daily, and compare the usage with distance computed. If booking for the day workout the distance on a Map and agree on a fixed amount for trip. I felt the distance was significantly shorter than they computed. I disagreed and said I will pay by the meter. Bad decision. The driver some how put and additional 50 kms. I refused to pay this excess.

When I did an inquiry in Sri Lanka it was 3 times as much per day for the same distance, and I was told I was responsible for the driver's meals and accommodation.

Pondi Permit

Pondicherry which was a French enclave, is now administered independently within Tamil Nadu state and has it's own taxes. A Pondi Permit is needed for any Tourist Car and costs INRs200 to travel on it's road for a week. We needed to travel extra 16 kms to the main freeway to get the permit which was checked at many places by Traffic Police. The road Tolls were additional to this permit.

Mobile Phones

As soon as we landed in India got SMSs about Roaming on our Lankan mobile SIMs. Activated Dialog OCOR (One Country One rate) Roaming. Incoming calls from SriLanka cost only Rs2 per min.

Got an Indian Airtel SIM with almost instant activation, after giving a photocopy of passport/Visa. Cost only INRs150 with INRs100 credit Calls to Lanka from this Indian SIM was very expensive. A Dual SIM phone is useful to have both your Lankan and Indian SIMs.

An Indian SIM however makes you open to a whole range of Phone Marketing and SPAM SMS messages which became very Annoying. One even said I had won US$500,000 and to contact someone by E-mail to claim it. I am glad there is regulations in Lanka to prevent this abuse.


Internet cafes were not difficult to find close to find within short walking distance of hotels and rates similar to that in Lanka. INRs10 got you 15 min INRs30 got a hour. They were open from around 10 AM till about 9 PM. The Internet kept us informed with detailed news from Lanka.

In Chennai however you need to show ID such as a Passport to use the Internet. This is a special regulation in Chennai and took me by surprise. The ID and time of use was recorded in a book. Probably logs the websites you visit as well.

Travel Bugs

When I arrived in Bangalore I discovered I had caught a Travel bug in Trichy. and was in bad shape. A tuktuk ride to the local Hospital, I was able to see a Doctor for INRs10. He prescribed 3 drugs for 5 days on medication. He said bottle water does not imply it is safe to drink. He recommended sticking to well known Brand Names. When the diarrhea did not improve, a Pharmacist prescribed something stronger, With no other option I took the magic pills and was OK in 24 hours, Returning home I discovered that I had been given a drug used in developed countries as the last resort to cure worst case Bacterial infections. In India, I guess it is needed more often. My diarrhea vanished on returning home. I was back to normal 5 kg lighter. I hope I am able to keep that extra weight off.

Travel Agents

Keep away from them. Their only aim is to make some money, giving a commission to the TukTuk driver who took you to him. I regret having used a Bharath International Travel Agent in Bangalore. The guy not only surcharged 25% the tour tickets, to get a 40% profit, booked a Hotel room in Mysore which needed to be upgraded and cleaned before we could use it. That hotel had running hot water for only 2 hours in the morning. The shower was cold when you needed to wash away the dust from travel. When we insisted they did get a bucket of hot water, after waiting about an hour.

Guided Indian Tours

Avoid them. Went on an afternoon city tour of Bangalore, and a day tour to Mysore the next day. This was a bad decision. Often the Guide spoke Hindi with a nominal use of English. The city tour which was advertised as from 2PM to 7PM was more like 3PM to 6PM with only about 1.5 hours spent at sites. The tour operator was more interested in taking us to Shops from which he gets a commission, and some of the places in the itinerary was a view from the Bus as it drove past. Also with a divergent group of different interests, lot of time was wasted waiting for the full group to return to the Bus. The Art Gallery which was on the itinerary was closed when we reached it. I guess they couldn't risk keeping the shopping till the end.

At the beginning of the tour, the guide would collect more money as entrance fees and as he called it his Guide fee. Shouldn't that be a part of the tour for which we had already paid. A notice printed inside the Bus stated that these fees were extra.

Anyway there are no Tour buses to mainly Archaeological sites like Halebidu and Belur. I was told local Tourists are only for religious or entertainment sites.

Entrance Tickets

As in Sri Lanka, the museums and archaeological sites charge Foreigners about 5 times as much as Indian citizens, At the Tipu Sultan Summer Palace in Bangalore we were told that, those from a SAARC country would be given the Indian rate, if we showed our Lankan Passports. That was nice and worked. I hope the SAARC countries including Sri Lanka adopt an uniform standard to improve cultural exchange within the SAARC nations. However I was told on the next tour this SAARC consession was not given for the Mysore Palace. Free entrance to the grounds of the Mysore Palace when that is lit up on Sunday Nights, and one is allowed to take your camera. During they day they want you to deposit cameras and mobiles in a locker


One needs to research this online before travel itinerary is organized. Museums are not easy to find. Find if there is a Museum and if so the address and days of the week and time they are open. I did not know there was a Museum at Halebidu till I saw it listed in an Archaeology Survey book I obtained later. The Museum in Pondicherry was unfortunately closed on Monday when we were there.

Photography is not allowed in some Museums and inside Shrines being used for religious activity. In some museums a camera permit at additional cost is required.

On Site Guides

I declined the many offers for a Tour guide so I can't comment on them. They claimed to be Licensed etc, the fees were far more than I felt reasonable. An English guide book I felt was far more economical.

At the Mysore Palace they had recorded tape Guides you could rent. However to rent one you needed to leave an identification at the counter, or an extra cash deposit of INRs2000

Travel Bags

The SriLankan Airline allowed 30kg per economy class passenger to Chennai. Most travel to take goods from Sri Lanka and bring back goods from India. Checking in with less than half the baggage allowance was a surprise to Airline counter agent in Chennai, who upgraded our tickets to Business class which was kind of him, although we really need a dinner at 3 AM.

Even that is too much when travelling by Train or Bus. One must travel with the bare essentials packed in small cabin size bags. So we left a bag at the Hotel in Chennai with what we did not need till we returned.

Book Shops

I did purchased some interesting books on coins and heritage sites of India at Museums. However even at the two largest shopping malls in Chennai I was disappointed to not find a large comprehensive bookshop. An Indian book dealer at the CIBF confirmed that the shops in Channai no longer carried a good selection of books, and only stoked books of popular interest from which they got larger commissions. I would need to go to Kolkata, Delhi, or Mumbai.

Colombo Airport

There is no direct Airport coach to serve passengers from Colombo. There is a normal bus service (#187) to Katunayaka from opposite Colombo Fort Railway station. From Katunaya there is a free shuttle to the Airport which also brings passengers to and from the Parking lots. However these buses, serving those who work at the Airport have no place for large Bags. I tried it once buying an extra seat for my small Bag. From Mount Lavina to the Airport, a nano cab costs LKRs2100, and a van costs LKRs2500.

When we landed back home and there was no problems with bags or customs. The prepaid taxi at the Colombo Airport to Mount Lavinia was LKRs3500. So we walked away. We were soon getting offers at LKRs3000, and finally outside the Airport we bargained down to LKRs2500, as we had paid to come in. The AC car we returned in I suspect was not a taxi, but a driver making some money via an agent after dropping his master. It was lot better than the prepaid taxis I had used in past.