Even if you're not booking with us but want some help while in Kolkata, don't hesitate to call or email.
Prepaid Taxis to Kolkata from the International Terminal
The prepaid taxi booth can be found once you have left the customs area. It is strangely located past the main exit gate, with no proper signage, so you continue walking past the terminal exit (Gate 4a and 4B) until you see a prepaid taxi sign on a tiny booth. It is almost at the end of the booths in this area. Do not confuse it with a car hire service or anything else. There may be a portable sign showing the way or a wall sign but it is about 50 metres past the main gate. The signage and placement is not good. You will have to know where you are going ..name and address of hotel and locality and have some rupees. You will then get a slip of paper which you take outside, (double back to main exit). Cross the road to a line of taxis and someone will find the taxi for you. You do not have to pay any more money for any other service. There is a money exchange booth well before you get to the prepaid taxi booth and it should be open at all hours. Ask for at least some of your rupees in small denominations, either Rs 100/- or Rs 500/- notes. You could also change a small amount in your departing city, say $150.00 or so depending on your accommodation costs. Most of your money can be changed in the city at a better rate.
It helps if your place of accommodation is not well known to get your hosts to send a local landmark so the driver can find it.
Recently we arrived at a busy time at Kolkata airport only to find the prepaid booth closed due to lack of taxis. We were not carrying a smart phone (yes it is possible) but luckily found a nice woman in the Uber booth who let us open up our Uber account on her phone. Lesson: Uber or Ola in Kolkata on your smart phone can be very handy.
Tips for travelers arriving at the airport or catching cabs late.....
Arriving at the airport late at night? A little nervous about getting a taxi back to your hotel? As you get in, note the registration number of your taxi or car. Then inside before you leave make a mobile call from the backseat passing on the registration number and approximate arrival time. It does not matter if the mobile is not working, it is important only that the driver thinks it is and his details have been passed on to someone.
If you are staying at a hotel that is not really famous, get the hotel to pass on a couple of local landmarks close to the hotel and keep their contact numbers so the driver can connect to them if he is lost.
Insist on the driver using the meter unless you know the correct fare. They may not use their meter so try and find out from your hotel or locals approximately what the fare will be before you ride.
Uber and Ola in Kolkata
Extremely useful to have their apps on your phone if staying a while. Both are price competitive compared with taxis except during peak periods. They have the advantages of being cleaner and more reliable than a taxi and with GPS are usually able to reach their destination better than a taxi. You also do not have to bargain over the price. They work on a dreadful labour and owner model and both driver and owner are squeezed by the big companies but when the taxi won't take you or wants 4 times the fare or there are non, then they are very useful.
The Kolkata Metro Timetable
The Metro is a fast and usually efficient service that travels the length of the city on one line. It is faster than a taxi and much less expensive. Monday to Saturday the first trains leave from the south and the north stations at 6.00 AM. The last trains leave these stations at 9.45 PM. Early and late trains run at a 15 minute interval but drop to 7 or 8 minutes during peak times. Trains on Sunday do not commence service until 10.00am and end at 9.45 from the terminal stations. They run at 15 minute intervals. There are three main city price zones depending on distance traveled. Single, return and multiple ride tickets can be purchased. Trips to the new stations in the south put you into other fare zones but most travelers will not go to the most southern stations. A couple of new lines are expected to open in 2019 and 2020.
Auto Rickshaws ply on set shortish routes and the cost is usually no more than 6 to 9 rupees per ride.A passenger can book online tickets 120 days in advance. If you are planning a tour and want to book trains in advance then you need to make the bookings on the day they open for many routes. Web services like makemytrip.com have revolutionised how people book. You can book trains, flights and even some luxury bus services through these web pages from the comfort of your home. However managing the system as a foreigner from abroad can be difficult, as you have to register with Indian Rail first. See later info on booking from overseas.
As in most countries Indians travel during holiday time in extra numbers. The end of the monsoon holiday period during October and November can be an extremely busy travel time. Booking rail and even air bookings at this time can be difficult for many destinations. Book as soon as possible and provide options if your first choice is not available.
Planning a tour
Some people tell us they want to see the Sunderbans and Darjeeling and do a cooking class all in 4 days. Distances between places can be long but also travel can be very slow. Roads are poor in places and waiting for connections can add a lot of time to a trip. A trip of 170 kms can take 5 hours or more. What looks like a day trip is better done in at least 2 days. It takes an overnight train and half the next day to get to Darjeeling from Kolkata travelling by train and jeep. It takes most of a day to get to the Sunderbans. Also remember that there is always a chance that your plane, train, bus or car will arrive at your destination late. This is so common as to be a factor in planning a tour. Try not to have one journey linked too closely to another in case you cannot make it to your second starting point in time. Also try and be aware of holidays that can also interfere with your travel plans. These days you can easily look up dates on the web. Also take into account the travel fatigue factor. Plan to do less rather than more. Many people devise plans which have them travelling every other day. Moving can be interesting but it is also taxing. Build relaxation places into your trip to give yourselves some quiet, peaceful time. Apart from some of these practical considerations it is worthwhile reflecting on your reasons for travel and how you might make the most of the experience. Too many people follow guide-books and not their existing passions. And of course we are here to help you build your tour.
Please note that October is a busy season for local travel, bookings open 3 months before departure and foreigners can avail themselves of a special quota but they need to front up to designated rail booking offices personally or at least give an agent your passport.
Linking one activity with another with only a small time gap can be a problem. People often tell us they are arriving on a train or plane from somewhere and want to do a walk or have a cooking class that morning only to find the train is 10 hours late or the plane flight was cancelled.
Give yourself time between activities and try not to pack too much into the first day in a new city.
Coming from Varanasi in winter or the Andamans at any time can be especially problematic.
Check out holiday times on the net before you travel. You may arrive in a city and find the place all but closed down because you have arrived on a national or state holiday or festival day. This may affect you ability to book onward tours, bank or obtain permits as well as get into museums and see the city as it normally works.
India now has a plethora of low cost domestic carriers. They are good value but there can be problems. Booking from overseas can be a problem and using international credit cards even here can involve you getting your home bank to guarantee your credentials. Things however have improved and we refer you to the new web pages that make booking easier. You may also face the problem of flights being cancelled especially on less popular routes. Usually you can get on to another carrier but this can mean delays.
If you arrive at Howrah Station there are prepaid cabs at an inflated price. If you have a light backpack you can catch a ferry across the river during the daytime (go by subway out of the station) and catch a cab from the other side of the river. Much cheaper. Also a prepaid system exists at Sealdah Station.
Banks are slow. For cash and traveller’s cheques, licensed money-changers abound and are fast and easy. There is a good legal money exchange on the first floor of the new complex in the New Market or in the street leading to the New Market from The Grand Hotel. Sudder St has many money changers and you just need to bargain to get he right price. We change money on Sudder St at the first little shop on the right coming from Chowringhee Lane and the Blue Sky Cafe. He gives good rates and is very honest. You will need your passport to get a receipt for the exchange.
ATMs work well and are bobbing up everywhere including on Chowringhee at Park St. and Esplanade metro station outlets. Getting cash is usually not a problem. Be careful however when you pay with a credit card. There has been widespread abuse of credit card information and foreigners with big credit limits can find themselves in trouble. Do not travel with a huge credit limit in your account and if you can, move money through your internet banking account into your credit account as you need it.
There are no formulas, you can't divide the asking price by 2 or 4 and offer your price. Some shops have fixed prices. Where you can, start and maybe stay with these. Try not to make an offer until you have shopped around to get a ballpark idea of the price and have walked away a couple of times. If it is a costly item go back over a period of time and see if the price changes. It is possible to bargain your hotel bill, especially prior to arrival and depending on the season.
This is the backpacker’s budget area with a few middle range hotels. Not a heavy place but it does attract touts out to make all sorts of deals with foreigners. It is not representative of the city, which, although diversified, is generally a little less pushy. Wifi cafes like Blue Sky now provide free internet connections for travellers.
Some cheaper bars will not serve women and have no female toilets. If you are after cheap drinks in bars that will serve you, Olly’s Pub in Park St. (upstairs) is a good starting point or The New Cathay on Chowringhee close to the Grand Hotel entrance. The Cecil in Bowbazar does allow women and is well run by a Canadian Sikh. The Broadway on Ganesh Chandra Avenue is a lovely old pub, which welcomes women. Cheaper all male bars abound and can be interesting but are often none too clean with poor toilet facilities. The Chota Bristol behind the Metro cinema is a large old style bar and interesting. Country Liquor bars are for the brave.
What to wear
Looking like you are loaded is not always wise especially if you are out and about the streets at night. On the other hand, looking like a ‘hippy’ will exclude you from many potentially rewarding contacts with the locals. Of course it is your choice, but choosing to alienate large sections of the population does limit the range of contacts that can be made. Many Indians disapprove strongly of women showing too much flesh, although Bengali woman can show a fair bit of tummy. It may be unfair but it is the reality.
Kolkata is still one of the safer big cities. You do need to be careful however. Travel with a couple of locks and a chain. On a train trip chain your luggage immediately on entering a carriage to the rack above and opposite you or beneath your legs. Do not carry anything of value in top pockets or small backpacks, especially in the back zip pocket. Pouches in the front do make sense for carrying valuables. Credit cards are increasingly the best way to carry money if you protect them. Some people travel with a phony wallet and long inside pockets for items not needed often. Carry a torch and have it handy at night. Con tricks come in many forms. “Just wait here and I’ll go off and buy it for you,” should raise alarm bells, but there are many variations. Photocopy airline tickets, passport and credit card details before you leave home and keep them separate.
Women travelling without men are considered by some local men to be 'loose and available'. How convenient. Nevertheless it remains a perception, as does the one about women in the west liking 'free sex'. Again unfair but to avoid nasty situations consider dressing conservatively (sorry if this offends but it could be very unpleasant), avoid crushes (including crowded transport), keep to lit areas and carry a heavy torch at night. Bengal is better in this regard than many other parts of India or Asia. If you are taking taxis, especially at night, pass on the number plate details to someone as you get in and let the taxi driver see you do this or pass it on in a mobile phone conversation, even if the phone does not work. This is more for your peace of mind than anything but probably a useful insurance policy. Don't be put off, many women travel alone here.
Gay and Lesbian
News Update: Homosexuality Legal Again.
As of September 2018, the Supreme Court of India has decided: Homosexuality is not an offence in India, five Supreme Court judges declared today in a spectacular verdict for the gay rights movement in the country. The Supreme Court reversed its own 2013 decision and said Section 377, a controversial British-era ban on consensual gay sex, is irrational and arbitrary. "We have to bid adieu to prejudices and to empower all citizens," Chief Justice of India Dipak Mishra said, reading out the judgement. Four judges gave a concurrent judgement.
There is no organized gay or lesbian social scene as such. There are a couple of support groups however. Kolkata is even more conservative than most other metros. On 2 July 2009, the Delhi High Court decriminalized homosexual intercourse between consenting adults. However this was later reversed by the High Court of India, and homosexual acts are once again illegal. This was reversed again by the High Court Of India in 2018 and same sex relationships are now decriminalized. Very conservative attitudes in India can make for awkward situations like the one a German guy found himself in when he tried to book his Indian partner into the room he was staying in. This was a mid range hotel but they refused and all other hotels in the area did likewise. This was before the last law change but I doubt if things have improved. Two foreign men would have fared better. From time to time a bar becomes the in place especially for younger men. You can check with locals by going to any of the gay social networking sights that cover India. Like in Britain, Lesbians never had the same legal problems as men but social attitudes are the same. I invite you to watch Fire, a 1996 Indian-Canadian romantic drama film written and directed by Deepa Mehta, starring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das.
Phone and email
There are now very few Personal Call Offices (PCOs) allowing local, STD and ISD calls and some Cyber Cafes operating in the central city and not many cyber cafes.
You can purchase local SIM cards for your own phone but make sure your phone is unlocked. You can also purchase an unlocked cell phone for a very small price. For people travelling for some weeks this is not a bad idea. You will need a passport photo and your passport (copy of key pages) and usually a letter from your hotel proving that you are staying there. You can then purchase a sim card with a very short validity period. In some places very little is required but also the connection may not work after purchase so try and buy when you have some days in the same place.
Train bookings from overseas.
Wanting to book train travel to Darjeeling or Varanasi or anywhere in India from overseas?
Train Bookings from overseas can be a problem. There are booking websites that can assist but they often are complicated, see below. The process involves registering with Indian rail and then either booking with them, using what can be a complicated web site or booking with another company like Cleartrip but having already registered.You get great information on how to book Indian tickets online from this website.. http://www.seat61.com/India.htm#book - from outside
You can also contact the train booking agent we use and get him to make an e-booking.
He will send you an e-ticket once you have sent payment to him. He is trustworthy and runs an honest business.
We receive no commission from him, we are just telling you in case other methods do not work for you.
His name is Wasim from Bengal Travel Service , located in Sudder St Kolkata.
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone his mobile on 9831086208 after 1.00pm.
You need to outline the journey and tickets you require, the dates, the class you wish to travel (2 or 3 tier AC or 1st Class), name, age and sex of each traveller in your group.
If he does not reply within a few days send another message, and then another, and then..... and bone up on train terms and rules from the website below. And please do not blame us he he fails to respond.
If you are booking more than a month in advance then he may ask you to pay directly into their bank account, otherwise he will indicate alternative payment methods. For more details on train travel in India check out http://www.seat61.com/India.htm#.Ut9ZGdK6Zkg
If you are in Kolkata and want a reliable travel agent we recommend Wasim, he is a good bloke.
You get a much better exchange rate for cash or T/C's in the city as opposed to the airport. Carry some cash as not all airport exchange booths will have ATM or card facilities.
In India the cost of most packaged goods have an MRP price, the maximum price that can be charged for that item. Sometimes it is on the main label, sometimes on the top or lid or bottom of the package. This will stop you from being overcharged and useful if for example you want to buy fresh items like spices but have no idea what they cost. Packaged MRP spices will give you the general ballpark price.
In Kolkata, auto's or auto rickshaws (Tuk Tuks) run like a bus not a taxi, so you cannot expect it to take you where you want to go. It will take you where it wants to go, like a bus. They have set routes. You can hail it like a taxi and you share up to 4 passengers per ride. You may be able to convince someone to take you for a ride but it will be illegal.