Revisiting India with Louise Nicholson

A lot has changed since 2015 when we last caught up with author and India travel expert, Louise Nicholson. We recently interviewed Louise to revisit the wonders of this exotic far east destination. The most notable change is the drastic improvement in the country’s transportation infrastructure and hospitality amenities that have expanded the possibilities in an already expansive country. Read our Q&A and watch our interview with Louise below to learn more.

WATCH our interview with Louise Nicholson

Give us an update on what you’ve been doing? 

I’ve been spreading my wings!  Just done a fabulous new tour through Central India seeing a string of star sites and staying in great hotels that make this a new take for the first time visitor, and without tourist traps of the familiar Delhi-Agra-Jaipur itinerary.  And about to do a new tour to Ladakh in the stunning high Himalayas, seeing painted monasteries and staying lakeside on the Tibetan plateau in pristine mountain beauty – my stunner for July.  Also, working with museum trips, institutions, and lots of private trips for families.

When we talked in 2015, you gave us an overview of your top 5 destinations in India: Mumbai, Rajasthan (Vlarspur, Jodhpur, Nagaur), Tamil Nadu, Ajanta and Ellora and Sikkim. Anything new to report? 

My top favorite India destinations do change as places become more accessible thanks to India’s manic road-building and improvements in local accommodation.  So, while Mumbai, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Ajanta/Ellora are still up there, Sikkim’s formerly great hotel in the west has unfortunately plummeted in admin and staff.  I’d replace it with the newly more accessible glories of Central India’s early cities – where you can wander Champaner, Mandu and Chanderi’s stunning medieval buildings in beautiful rural settings with few tourists.  This region has additional options to visit India’s tribal belt villages and markets as well as see sophisticated weavers making exquisite traditional textiles thanks to great NGO leadership – such as Rewa and Women Weave at Maheshwar and LemonTree and Chanderiyaan at Chanderi.

What’s hot in India now?

  1. An increasing number of heritage hotels in off-beat places – for instance, there’s a beautiful mansion on the fringes of Kolkata, a fantastic multi-layered and complex city, so you could do a few city days and then a few in this rural idyll.
  2. Pondicherry.  The revival of the French colonial area began more than two decades ago and continues to be done with great taste thanks to the local conservation body INTACH.  There are now lots of beautiful historic buildings to stay in large and small, such as Palais de Mahe, and lots of stand-alone bars and restaurants, as well as boutiques stocking India’s superb young fashion designers – which I just don’t understand why they are not available globally.  The only downside of Pondicherry is there is no beach of quality, but Indian beaches rarely come up to US east/west coast standards.
  3. Ahmedabad city in the west.  Really buzzy with its old city heritage walks, the Calico museum of textiles, the LD Lalbhai museum of historic art, great Gujarati food found at House of MG’s rooftop restaurant, buildings by Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn.  And a newly opened (Jan 2017) gorgeous historic mansion renovated by Rahol Malhotra and containing the collection of another Lalbhai, Kasturbhai Lalbai, which has both historic and very good contemporary collections, a real treat.

 Anything that we need to me mindful of as we plan a trip to India?

My motto is ‘Less is more’, meaning the fewer places you go the longer you have in each and therefore the more you will get out of your whole trip.  India is not about manically ticking off places from the Taj Mahal to seeing a tiger; it is about getting down on the ground to see the sites, sure, but also to walk old cities, stay in a nature reserve for three days, encounter locals, visit markets, experience the contemporary such as going to the movies or hanging out in a cafe with locals or arranging a spice shopping outing and then a cooking demonstration.

Movies like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel idealize India as a place for expats to set down roots.  What’s your honest take on that consideration?

Well!  As you may imagine many of my friends and clients have asked me to set up my own Marigold Hotel in India!  Seriously, though, India is a very good place to select one place – very carefully – and put down roots for, say, six months or a year.  You would get to know the local people from mango sellers to schoolchildren, you would feel the rhythm of the seasons, share in the festivals, and also be able to contribute your skills and get a lot of fulfillment.  But choose carefully: a city may suit some, a village others.  But it is not a breeze.  India is simultaneously very welcoming and fairly tough.  You would have to be quite self-sufficient emotionally and self-starting in finding something to occupy your days, as Judy Dench and the other actors in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel showed us very clearly!

Business travelers, what’s in your suitcase?

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

If you’re a business traveler, a recent survey from DUFL says you’re packing some fancy duds. Banana Republic was the top pick clothing brand cited by female respondents. For the guys, Brooks Brothers’ threads were their top choice.

DUFL, a premium valet app that allows business travelers to travel luggage-free, surveyed 500 of their users to gain insight into what goes in their luggage. See the infographic for additional stats associated with the survey.

“Because of the unique nature of our business – storing, inventorying and shipping clothes, shoes, toiletries, sports gear, etc., we have access to anonymized data related to their travel habits,” says Bill Rinehart, DUFL Founder, Chairman, and CEO. “This data allows us to tailor our business to accommodate the needs of our customers and to do what we set out to do from the beginning – adding convenience and eliminating stress for folks who spend the better part of their time on the road.”
DUFL anatomy of a business traveler

Travel insurance is sexy when it helps you beat the airlines

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

You’ve heard the phrase, “Go Big or Go Home”? Well, Jonathan Breeze, CEO of Aardvark Compare, has his own motto, “Go Non-Refundable and Travel Insure!”. Don’t start yawning because you think this post is about insurance.  Once you wrap your head around Jonathan’s awesome travel hack, you’re going to perk right up.

Did you know that a large majority of companies insist that their employees book Refundable Airline tickets? In doing so, they believe they are enjoying increased flexibility in the event of cancellation or rebooking. Sure, that’s all well and good, but they are paying through the teeth for that allowance — typically three times more than they should be.

According to Breeze, there is a little-known travel hack that will beat the airlines at their own game. “The airlines are robbing us blind with their 3x pricing on refundable tickets. That is the basic math. The seat price for a Refundable flight, particularly when booked far in advance, is typically 3 or 4 times as much as a Non-Refundable flight. You will hear of these Non-Refundable tickets being called ‘Throwaway Tickets’ because if you don’t fly, you may as well throw them away.

The best way to think about Non-Refundable tickets is ‘Inexpensive, yet Insurable’. Not as sexy, I grant you, but certainly, much, much cheaper, most of the time, ” says Breeze.

Simplistically, a Refundable Seat can cost 300% of the price of a Non-Refundable Seat bundled with inexpensive insurance.

So, if one buys a Refundable Round Trip Economy Ticket, say from DFW to LAX in August for a week (6 months from now), American wants $2,100 for a Main Cabin Fully Flexible Seat. It’s in the Main Cabin, but it’s more expensive than a First Class seat.

aarvark compare

So, you bypass this option to seek a more traditional Main Cabin (Economy) seat. And now, this looks like a bargain, after you managed to avoid the $2,100 fully flex seat.

Breeze points out that American wants $1,150 for a Main Cabin Flexible Seat. So, it is flexible, just not ‘fully’ flexible. Travelers may change their flights, not lose all of their money, but they will need to pay for the effort to make the flight change — a $200 change fee.

aarvark compare

According to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the Top 25 US Airlines rake in $3Bn a year in Reservation Change Fees. And $4Bn a year in Baggage Fees.

“If businesses didn’t hate the airlines before, they probably hate them now,” says Breeze.

“But, let’s go beat them at their own game…

Just before I hit the ‘Buy’ button, I, unlike almost every traveler, decide to get creative. Why not buy a Non-Refundable seat, and wrap it up with some ‘Cancel For Any Reason’ Travel Insurance from a Marketplace, similar to what we do at AardvarkCompare.com.

aarvark4

American wants $400 for the Non-Refundable Main Cabin Seat. Add the Insurance, it will cost around $50 — And you’re bulletproof! You have secured coverage for Cancellation (Sickness, Death, Incapacitation etc) – 100% Refund; Cancellation for Work Reason – 100% Refund; and Cancellation for any other Reason – 75% Refund.”

So, for $450 a customer booking that DFW – LAX return has nearly the same level of coverage as the person paying $1,150 for the exact same seat — A $700 savings.

Breeze emphasizes that the person in the $1,150 seat still has to pay $200 every time they make a change. Whereas the person in the $450 seat just needs to throw the ticket away and use their insurance if a flight needs to be canceled.

“However, I haven’t explored why these price discrepancies exist. Normally there is no such thing as a free lunch.

It’s pretty simple – Travel Insurance is based on risk, and the probability of claim.

Whereas flight prices are based on pricing models that try to wring as much money out of a passenger as possible.

And if a company likes to fly some of the Execs in First Class, the numbers become even more staggering. Recently we ran a study that showed a $16,600 saving on a First Class ticket, using this exact same methodology.”

Watch out for these common travel scams

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

If you have an impending trip, you may already be scouting the best hotels, applying for travel-friendly credit cards, and researching local culture. But according to Brian Acton, contributor to Credit.com, there might be one set of local customs you aren’t prepping for: travel scams. “Scam artists around the world often try to separate tourists from their money or possessions.”

Acton lays out four common travel scams and tips to help you avoid these cons and traps so you can enjoy your vacation without the headache of being scammed.

taxi scams

  1.  The Taxi Scam

There are a few variations on the taxi scam. In one version, your driver will claim their meter is busted and negotiate a dramatically over-inflated fare. In another, the driver might take you on a long detour to your destination, artificially driving up your fare.

To avoid these scams, you could decline any ride with a “busted meter.” You may also want to bring a map. While you probably can’t memorize all the local roads, you can study the map before and during your trip, gaining a general idea of the area’s layout. If you must, you can negotiate a price before you get in the taxi to help avoid surprises.

  1.  Card Skimmers & Readers

Card skimmers and readers are devices that pull data from credit cards and bank cards used at a register, kiosk or anywhere you swipe your card. Once you’ve scanned the card through an unauthorized device, the skimmer sends thieves your card details, which can then be transferred to a fabricated card.

To help you improve your odds that this won’t happen to you, you may want to avoid giving anyone your card unless they’re about to process a purchase. Try to only use ATMs located inside a legitimate bank. For credit card readers, you can consider using a secure wallet. And, because this one isn’t entirely avoidable, it’s a good idea to always monitor your statements for any suspicious activity.

  1. free wifi“Free” Wi-Fi

Scammers can set up unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots in public places, then wait for people to access the network with their phones, laptops or tablets. If you unknowingly access one of these hotspots, it could leave your account, passwords, and computer vulnerable to thieves, who can then get hold of your personal information, potentially subjecting you to identity theft.

To help you avoid falling victim to this scam, it’s a good idea to avoid using unverified and unsecured Wi-Fi networks. If you’re in a hotel or restaurant, ask which network is the official one. When in doubt, keep using your data plan — it will be less costly than a hacked device. If you do end up a victim of identity theft, you will have to go through the process of disputing fraudulent accounts and getting them removed from your credit reports.

  1.  The Friendship Bracelet & the Gold Ring

The friendship bracelet is a common scam in Europe, particularly in Paris at the steps of the Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre. The scammer will approach tourists warmly, offering a friendship bracelet as a gift. They’ll then tie the bracelet onto the tourists’ wrist. But, according to Laurence Noah, travel writer at Finding the Universe, there’s a catch.

friendship bracelet and gold ring scam“Usually they will say this is a gift, but once they’ve got the bracelet tied, they will start to harass you for money,” Noah said. “Basically, don’t let anyone tie anything to you, and if they do, just refuse to pay or walk away.”

The “found golden ring” is a similar scam. Scammers will “discover” a gold ring and ask if it belongs to you. “Obviously, you’ll say no, at which point they’ll say they think it’s worth quite a lot, and if you take it to a jeweler, they’ll give you a handsome sum for it,” Noah said.

He said the person who found the ring (aka, the scammer) won’t be able to do this themselves for some convenient reason, and so they’ll suggest you just pay them a small sum for the [finders] fee. Of course, that fee will turn out to be far more than the ring is worth.

Travelling can be a great source of adventure and inspiration. But you might want to avoid the kind of wisdom gained by becoming a victim. By staying vigilant and protecting yourself from potential scams, you can increase the chances of an incident-free, pleasurable trip.

Brian Acton is a freelance writer and contributor at Credit.com. Several years ago, as he worked to pay down debt and purchase a home, Brian became interested in personal finance and credit. He has been covering these topics ever since. Brian has a BA in History from Salisbury University and an MBA from UMUC. He lives in Maryland with his wife and two dogs.

You, a backpack and the wilds of Africa

Even with its abundant wildlife, stunning landscapes, precious gems and distinction as the cradle of humanity, Africa still leaves some travelers uneasy despite their fascination and longing. To dispel your fears, we caught up with Valerie Bowden, Africa travel expert, author, and blogger at BackPackingAfricaforBeginners.com. Valerie shares her personal account and love story with the continent, and how anyone — even a solo woman traveler –can explore the wilds of Africa safely.

WATCH our video interview with Valerie Bowden

Tell us about your website and what you do?

After my seven-month backpacking trip across Africa, I realized that a lot of people want to travel the continent, too, but they don’t know how. So I decided to start a blog and write an ebook, both called Backpacking Africa for Beginners, to help more travelers choose Africa as their next destination. While I share some personal stories, I mainly concentrate on providing practical how-to information to make their journey safe and fun.

How does a young woman take on the intrepid adventure of backpacking Africa alone? 

I was never that adventurous growing up, but I always wanted to go to Africa for some reason. After months of searching the internet, I finally found someone who had traveled the continent and was willing to give me some advice. He didn’t say much, but he told me that I’d be safe, and that he had seen other girls traveling solo. That was enough reassurance for me, so I booked my ticket.

To be honest, my original plan was limited to visiting five countries in two months, but the more I traveled, the more comfortable I felt. Plus, I realized Africa had a lot to offer. So I just kept going and going. Eventually, my trip ended up including 13 countries and took seven months. 

Africa is known for political instability, crime, and violence in some areas, but you say Africa is safer than Europe is today. Talk about that, because the big question on the minds of many travelers is, will I be safe? 

Most African countries are very safe to visit. The rise of crimes against tourists in Europe along with the threat of ISIS is making enough people, including myself, reevaluate what destinations are safe to visit. For the average tourist, the biggest crime they have to worry about in Africa is getting pick-pocketed. I recommend following basic common sense (not walking alone at night, not walking off with people you don’t know, etc.) and asking locals for safety information specific to the area. For example, everybody told me in Kilagi that I could walk down a dark alley with all my valuables, and I would be fine. But in Nairobi, I was told to take a taxi once it got dark even if I was only going a few minutes away. By following suggestions like this, I never put myself in a compromising position.

I actually just met a backpacker from Colombia, and he expressed that African countries are even safer to visit than South America. He cited the kindness of locals in Africa as a big advantage.

Which areas offer beauty, wildlife, and adventure while ensuring one’s safety, particularly if you’re a woman traveling this country alone?

Ironically, as women, we feel like it’s harder to travel alone. But in some ways, it’s actually easier. Throughout my trip, locals would help me, citing, “This is how I would want someone to treat my mother (or sister, or wife, etc).” And when I hitchhiked, I felt like individuals and families were much more willing to pick up a female traveler than male. I met dozens of other girls traveling Africa solo along my trip, and they all agreed with me.

As a woman in Africa, I think you can have a great time in almost all the countries. Just be more careful not to wander off at night or drink so much that you’re unaware of your surroundings. But again, that’s basic common sense that you should follow anywhere in the world. 

How would you categorize ways to experience Africa – we know safaris are a big one, but what are other options and what would one see and do? 

Besides safaris, travelers can enjoy outdoor activities (hiking, climbing mountains, visiting waterfalls,), adrenaline-pumping experiences (shark cage diving, sand surfing, bungee jumping), rest & relaxation (spas, wine tastings, luxurious resorts), historical sight-seeing (the pyramids in Egypt &Sudan, the churches

in Lalibela), cultural immersion (visiting rural communities, seeing huts, going to local markets, meeting locals), animals/marine life (snorkeling, scuba diving, walking safaris, riding ostriches, petting zoos, gorilla trekking, rescued animal orphanages), festivals, shopping, and so much more! 

How much time do you need to plan for a safari and how does one go about planning this type of trip?

If you’re new to Africa, I recommend going on a safari in one of the three most popular spots. This means visiting the Kruger Park region in South Africa, the Serengeti in Tanzania, or Masai Mara in Kenya. You’ll have a much smoother experience given that their tourism industries are more built up. You can explore lesser known, more rugged areas the next time.

It’s best to plan your trip around the time of year you can go, and what you want to see. Do you want to see the Big 5 game (African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros), the Great Wildebeest Migration, etc.? As far as which resort or tour guide to pick, check out reviews online from other travelers. They’ll give you the latest and most specific up-to- date information. Resorts will prefer you pay online before you come. But it’s not necessary. Once you arrive in the country, you’ll find dozens of tour agencies and resorts willing to help you make your trip spectacular. 

Obviously, different types of explorers and demographics will come at Africa in vastly different ways. For a younger person with limited resources, what’s the shoestring approach to getting to Africa and which country would you recommend as a starting point for first timers? 

For the shoestring budget, I recommend bringing a tent and sleeping in the camping section at backpacker lodges. Frugal travelers can also save money by taking local buses and eating at cheap local restaurants.

Malawi and Mozambique were two of the cheapest countries I found. But for someone who is really apprehensive, start in South Africa. It’s the most developed and easiest country to travel in Africa. Go there first. Travel around until you get the hang of backpacking. After that, you can explore cheaper countries.

What about the more mature traveler who has more disposable income and may want to experience a wildlife adventure, but on a gentler scale? 

There are many beautiful and luxurious resorts in Africa– especially in safari areas. They offer international comforts with a taste of Africa. It’s great for someone who wants to see animals and experience Africa, without the typical discomforts and annoyances that budget travelers will no doubt face.

This kind of traveler will find Africa a joy to travel. I think they’ll even be surprised how comfortable and extravagant it can be. My only warning is that at times some roads and paths may be uneven. Just make sure you’re in good walking shape, and you shouldn’t have a problem. 

What is your favorite African destination and why? 

I love Malawi. It’s cheap, locals are friendly, and Lake Malawi is unbelievably gorgeous. Uganda is a great destination for an adrenaline junkie. When I was there, I trekked gorillas and went white water rafting on the Nile.

When is the best time to visit Africa?

Right now! But practically speaking, it’s best to look up weather information per country so you travel at the right time. For example, in Ethiopia, I would avoid coming during the rainy season (July-September) because it’s a lot harder to travel then. But sometimes coming off-season has its advantages. Visiting Kruger Park in South Africa is actually better in the off-season because it’s cheaper and the colder weather brings more animals out of the shade. So do your research before you come based on the specific area you want to visit. And keep in mind some of the countries are so big that rainy season will occur at different times depending on which part of the country you’re visiting at that time. 

Any final thoughts or advice for our viewers/readers?

Just come! I know it’s hard to believe that Africa can be so magical and safe to visit. But it is! According to the Africa Tourism Monitor, over 65 million international tourists came to the continent in 2014 alone. While the media might pick up on the few cases that something bad happened, the majority of people who come will have amazing, lifelong memories.