India is an amazing country for kids to experience. Our trip to Bangalore and Kerala in March 2016 was our children’s first taste of South Asia and really opened their eyes to the beautiful country their dad called home when he was a child. In India, they saw two extremes – the luxurious lifestyles of a portion of the population and the challenges of a developing country. Our most memorable experiences of the trip included countless amazing meals, fabulous shopping, unparalleled street chaos (vehicles, people and stray animals sharing the road) and some luxurious relaxation in Kerala.
My husband and I had previously traveled together to India over the Christmas holidays in 2006. Our trip included stops in Goa, Mangalore, Bangalore and Bombay, but we knew that we wanted to limit our internal travel on our first trip with kids. We chose to spend the majority of our time in Bangalore visiting my husband’s family and make only one side-trip to Kerala during our 16 days there.
We traveled when our youngest was a full-fledged toddler of 20 months but could still qualify as a lap-child, which is how she would travel even if we bought her a seat. Because we were staying mostly with family, our trip planning for the Bangalore portion required only booking flights. With the long journey to get to India, we decided to extend our sons’ spring break by a week to minimize school absences. About five months before our trip, we booked flights from Cleveland to Bangalore on Qatar Airways with stopovers in Boston and Doha.
Many Indian travel companies require payment in local currency or a physical credit card and therefore cannot make advance bookings from the US. Mark’s uncle was able to help us book our Kerala trip locally through Atlas Hoppers, but we understand that Atlas Hoppers can accept bookings from outside of India. Nancy also has friends who have highly recommend Tours By Locals to arrange guides.
Prior to our departure, we secured e-visas. We traveled on 60-day e-tourist visas but had to apply during a specific window and complete final processing at the Bangalore Airport upon arrival. It was a bit of an added hassle to our middle of the night arrival, but far less expensive than the one-year visa. This option made sense for us because we did not expect a return trip in the near future.
We also made got the necessary vaccines, which include typhoid and Hepatitis A. Because there was minimal malaria risk in Bangalore and Kerala during the time of our trip, we did not have to take precautionary malaria medicine. This was a huge relief because all anti-malaria medication have pretty scary side effects. We carried bug sprays and wipes because the selection and availability of both are limited in India but were glad not to need them.
Because there was no fee for checked baggage, and I was not completely sure what items might be easy to find in India, I packed substantially more than usual. However, next time we go to India, I’ll bring far less knowing that we are certain to purchase clothes and likely even shoes after we arrive. Also, it’s important to check the expected temperature, as some seasons can be very hot in India. It was unseasonably warm during our stay, so the skinny jeans I packed were really of no use. I recommend packing light-weight clothes. As always, I traveled with some children’s ibuprofen and adult pain and cold medication even though we knew that medicine was readily available in pharmacies at a fraction of their US cost (e.g. a bottle of children’s ibuprofen cost about $.30). Diapers are probably available, but I would recommend bringing them as well.
I was worried about how the kids would survive the 30-hour trip from Cleveland to Bangalore. Before our departure, we learned that the Boston-Doha route we booked was starting service on the day before our departure and featured the United States’ second Airbus 350. As soon as I stepped on board, I knew that the Airbus 350 was a special aircraft. It was absolutely beautiful with décor and lighting that reminded me of a night club. The in-seat entertainment was unparalleled. All the Academy Award nominated films that I had not had a chance to watch were available even before their DVD releases. The electronic components were cleverly stored under the floor so that valuable under seat leg room was not sacrificed in the process. Also, the plane was mostly empty, so my husband and each of my boys took a row of three seats for themselves to sleep, and my daughter and I shared another row. This allowed us the luxury to get semi-decent sleep for about seven hours of the 12-hour flight. The Airbus 350 is the way to travel – especially on a long flight when traveling in coach with a toddler virtually connected to you. When we stepped off, we were sad that we would not be traveling home on this exact plane.
Qatar Airlines ran promotional videos about Doha on all flights and offers complimentary city tours. It definitely looked like a city we would like to visit one day, but our itinerary did not permit us to leave the airport. My oldest son did play a little violin in the airport during our layover for the novelty of playing violin in Qatar.
India is definitely a challenging travel destination logistically – with or without kids. If you are traveling to India without local family, you need to make sure to hire a recommended driver and guide for every day that you are there. This may seem like an extravagance, but it is relatively inexpensive (we paid a driver with a car about $20 for eight hours). While we often traveled by uber and even auto with no issues, my husband was very familiar with the city, and his uncle always took the precaution of watching our driver’s route from pickup to drop off.
Traffic is pretty chaotic in Indian cities and watching the other travelers on the road is truly an experience. The vehicles, people, animals and signs you see and non-stop honking you hear are all so different from anything you see in the West. Cows were a common fixture along the side of the road, and we once even saw an elephant. It’s a good thing that it was so interesting to watch because even traveling a few miles can take quite a long time in crowded cities. Also, car seats are virtually unheard of, and cars are not equipped with self-retracting belts or any kind of LATCH/Isofix system to make them really usable. Luckily, cars, motorcycles, autos and bikes travel at low speeds. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself.
We were fortunate that we were able to mostly stay with family. If you are not visiting family or friends, it is advisable to book higher-end or recommended hotels, and 4.5-5 star hotels are generally available for $100-$150/night. We thoroughly enjoyed staying at Taj hotels during our trip to Kerala and had a wonderful buffet lunch at the stunning Leela Palace.
Shopping in India is pretty amazing. Most items are a fraction of the cost that you would find them in the US. On our first trip to India before kids, we bought so much that we had to purchase a suitcase to bring all the items back with us. We purchased several bedspreads, a rug, two side tables (which came apart and fit in our luggage), a carved lamp, prescription glasses, some handicrafts and jewelry. While I was there, I felt like I was buying too much jewelry. But, I found that in the nine years between our visits that I rarely found pieces as interesting, unique and affordable in the US. So, on our trip last year, I made sure to not limit myself and found several new pieces, which are now in heavy rotation.
Not only are prices substantially lower in India, but service is amazing. When we looked at jewelry in a store and returned a few days later, the salesman (or less commonly, the saleswoman) would pull out whatever pieces I expressed any interest in and place them on display as I reached the counter. In home goods stores, someone would pull out every bedspread or rug that we looked at twice.
Many people think that communication would be an issue in India. However, Hindi and English are co-official languages. There are 22 major languages spoken in India, and many Indians speak their local language at home, but Hindi and English are unifying languages. In our experience, anyone in a service industry role spoke English. The only times we needed to communicate with a non-English speaker occurred when we were riding in an auto. My husband’s broken Hindi was all we needed to get to our desired destination. The prevalence of English surprises many Americans but is an obvious result in a country that was largely a British colony for over 300 years.
Many people asked if it was safe for our kids to travel to India and had specific concerns about healthcare, safe food and water. If you do have a medical issue when traveling in India, first-rate healthcare is widely available and affordable. The day we arrived, our son spiked a fever, which soared to 104 degrees the next day. We were able to take him to an ER on a Sunday and have him examined by a pediatric doctor. The doctor prescribed medicine and rest and prepared a folder filled with all the details of the examination and recommendations. We were definitely satisfied by his care and shocked that the hospital fee was a mere $8 and prescribed medicines cost about $1 total at the pharmacy. After this experience, it doesn’t surprise us that people travel to India from all over the world for medical procedures, including $1,800 heart surgery with outcomes among the world’s best.
The tap water is absolutely not safe to drink, even when brushing your teeth. Outside of our relatives’ homes where the water was specially filtered, we only drank sealed beverages. While this seems odd at first, it is such a common request that servers typically bring sealed beverages to your table so that you are certain that no tampering could have occurred. There is also a risk that raw fruit and vegetables may have been washed in tap water that can cause illness. Luckily, the country’s specialties are all cooked food like curries, naan, dosas, biryani and samosas, and cooked vegetables are especially tasty. We ate our way through India at well-known and higher end restaurants and had no food or water issues at all.
Because my son contracted a bacterial infection from swallowing pool water in Mexico as a toddler, we were particularly careful with our daughter. She only used one pool in Kerala, and I held her above the water the entire time she was in the pool. We were also extra careful when bathing her.
Because of risks related to food and vaccinations, India is not a recommended travel destination for young babies or women who are pregnant, nursing or planning to become pregnant.
India with Kids?
Our vacation in India was definitely more complicated than any of our other trips as a family, but I’ve never seen our boys have so many “aha moments.” Nothing quite compares to the moments they spent playing soccer with local boys in their dad’s school yard, dipping their toes into the Arabian Sea, relaxing on a houseboat in the backwaters of Kerala, learning to swim in their great aunt and uncle’s pool, riding in an auto, watching us negotiate with salespeople, operating a Chinese fishing net, attending Mass in a church that gave “standing room only” a new meaning and eating the most delicious meals of their life. If you are aware of the risks and plan accordingly, India is an amazing family travel destination, and one you will definitely never forget.
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