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India is an exotic-as-they-come destination and in the hands of well-planned tour – as safe as can be. Should you make it a family vacation and take the kids? Yes! Culturally it will be eye-opening and maybe life-altering. Iconic sightseeing includes palaces, temples, mosques and minarets. There are forts to climb, bazaars to shop, and they’ll be wowed by camels, elephants, and mischievous monkeys. And just think about all that wonderful Indian food to eat in situ. Here are our top tips for visiting India with kids. Namaste.
Tips for Visiting India
When I returned from my recent trip to India, I was peppered with lots of questions. The top three were: Did you see the Taj Mahal?” (I did.) “Is it safe?” (Yes.) Could you – or should you – take kids there? (You could, and I would. Little ones, no – but for tweens and teens, the experience could be life-altering.)
India was always on my wish list. It took me a New York minute to say “yes” when I received an invitation to join a group of travel agents on what’s known in the industry as a FAM–familiarization tour. These trips provide destination training – geographical, historical and cultural. We inspected hotels, saw iconic sights, and dined around. The food was amazing! Participants return home prepared to advise their clients on all of the above and share a wealth of practical tips.
I’ve joined the legions who are passionate about this mystical country. Are you ready for some TravelingMom India intel? Here goes!
The Planning Process
You need to travel with a reputable India-based company. Moms, forget about all those college-break backpacking odysseys. With kids in tow, no. No way.
Our FAM was hosted by a terrific company called Vilasa Luxury Travel. We heartily recommend them. A division of Minar Travels (India) Pvt. Ltd., a well-known company operating successfully for decades, Vilasa customizes itineraries throughout India for groups and individuals. These trips will be memorable, educational, as luxurious as you’d like, and yes, safe. A good tour company – like Vilasa – can propose hotels to suit your style and budget, suggest activities that would capture your children’s interest and incorporate your wish list.
Getting everyone involved in the pre-trip planning process helps ensure success. Then leave the logistics to Vilasa. The company can provide a vehicle and driver and decide when it would make sense to fly from point A to B, instead of driving. Then the agents will book your tickets and provide a transfer to your hotel to begin your next adventure.
Hotels – Where to Stay In India – in your Comfort Zone
Hotels in India are as diverse as the country. Many of the U.S. brands are well-situated and can provide an easy entry to this exotic land. After 14 plus hours of travel, I arrived in Delhi and was met and shepherded by Vilasa staff to the five-star Hyatt Regency. It was so, well, Hyatt-y (in a good way), yet you know you are not in Kansas anymore.
Like all the hotels we stayed in, it has a great pool that any kid would love. Breaking up some days of sightseeing with a swim works well. In Arga, we stayed at a fancy-schmancy, yet reasonably priced, Marriott Courtyard. Bonus, it was just a stone’s throw from the Taj Mahal. Afterward, we hit the pool.
Hotels with a Sense of Place – Heritage Hotels
Carefully chosen palaces, forts, and havelis (traditional mansions) restored to their former glory and updated with modern conveniences (sumptuous baths and WiFi) comprise a collection called the Heritage Hotels. We stepped back in time to the storied days of the Maharajas. We stayed at the Fateh Garh Hotel in Udaipur. On a hilltop, this oasis-like resort boasts stunning views. While mom is centering with a yoga lesson, kids can swim, bike or zipline.
Our group enjoyed a stay at another of the collection’s properties, The Samode Palace on the outskirts of Jaipur. Stunning. It’s poised above a small, ancient rural village that begs to be explored.
Every vacation deserves a splurge or two. Adding a few nights at some of India’s top hotels would check that box. Consider one of the hotels in the Oberoi Group, each unique and gorgeous, Oberoi is noted for its stellar service. The elegant Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts pay homage to India’s distinct geography and architectural history. They all have decadent spas. Traveling Moms like that.
Hotel Note: On the subject of safety, all but the more rural properties offer tight security for admittance with scanners for luggage and bags. Once inside, you receive a warm, ceremonial greeting. Lovely.
Where to Visit in India with Kids?
Our itinerary was a popular one called the Golden Triangle. It highlights Northern India and provides a fascinating introduction to the mystical subcontinent. Delhi, the country’s chaotic capital; Agra, home of the famed Taj Mahal; and Jaipur, capital of romantic Rajasthan. Think 1001 Arabian Nights.
The colorful kinetic capital provides a snapshot of India and the opportunity to begin understanding the country’s complexity and grasp its history. There is poverty and pollution. But there also is beauty, grandeur, and spirituality.
We loved—and adopted—the custom of acknowledging others with a “Namaste” while bowing, hands pressed together. Our guides shared with us the tenets of the Hindu majority, the Sikh philosophy, and the interaction with Muslims.
Visiting temples is a key component of any trip to India. Our Sikh guide took us to the white, golden-domed Temple of the Sikh Gurudwara. We joined volunteers in its “langar” (free kitchen) to learn how they prepare and serve thousands of free meals to those in need and others seeking a sense of community. You can make arrangements to help cook and serve.
What Kids Will Love in Delhi
We traveled wide boulevards—created during the 300 years of the British Raj—and ancient narrow streets. Chandni Chowk is a must. This centuries-old bazaar is a labyrinth filled with shops and stalls offering everything one could imagine. We “toured” in pedicabs – called tuk-tuks. I couldn’t help but look at it through a child’s eyes. Oh, the sights, sounds, and smells. We saw monkeys swinging from building-to-building, lowing sacred cows, honking horns and all that street food being cooked and enjoyed by hordes of people. Museums offer history in context including the tumultuous story of India’s independence.
A pre-trip lesson about the mighty Mughal warriors will allow kids to appreciate the massive Red Fort, which offers an exciting Sound and Light show most evenings. Consider a 2-hour walking tour organized by The Salaam Baalak Trust City Walk. Led by adolescents—former street kids—fully trained as local guides, families will see Delhi through their eyes. Being aware and taking safety precautions are similar to any other major city.
I doubt there is any child beyond the age of 12 who has not heard of the Taj Mahal. Seeing this monument to love in all its white marble magnificence is quite an experience. Plus, think of the bragging rights. Your kids will enjoy taking photographs and it’s a top spot for people-watching, too. Other Agra to-dos: one of India’s finest Mughal Forts and the deserted red sandstone city of Fatehpur Sikri.
TravelingMom Tip: Go to Taj Mahal early before the crowds – but an expert guide will know that.
Rajasthan – Jaipur & Udaipur
I think Rajasthan, the country’s largest state, is the India of storybooks filled with palaces, forts, and bazaars. It has a thousand stories including why its capital, the walled city of Jaipur is painted pink. We visited its brilliant City Palace—where royalty still reside—and marveled at the 1000-windowed Palace of the Winds. An elephant or a 4X4 vehicle takes you high in the hills to visit the lavish Amber Fort.
Keep this in mind, too: you just might see a Bollywood movie being filmed there. Jaipur is a mecca for shopping—there are treasures galore so brush up on your negotiating skills. A good guide is invaluable. Ours gave us the green light with the code word “bingo” before we handed over our rupees.
Our itinerary included a stay in the so-worth-seeing city of Udaipur. It has pretty mountains, lakes and its enormous, ethereal 16th century City Palace. We saw fascinating collections of antiques and miniature paintings. To consider: a camel safari and Ranthambhore National Park for tiger spotting. Both would wow those kids.
Food, Marvelous Food – in India
Indian food varies by region. The north includes more meats (lamb, chicken, goat) thicker curries and lots of unleavened breads. In the south, they consume more vegetarian dishes and rice. Moms of picky eaters might be concerned. I say, “not to worry.”
Most hotels offer expansive breakfast buffets with traditional western breakfast foods, cereal, pancakes, eggs cooked to order and such. However, chafing dishes filled with fragrant Indian specialties are tempting. So, one morning you might just see your offspring sampling – and then, smitten. Generally, there are two or three dining rooms.
Most offer western cuisine (The Hyatt Regency in Delhi has a charming trattoria, and a yummy thin-crust pizza.) So, compromise, if need be. Maybe one night Indian, one night western. We bet they’ll acquire a taste for this cuisine that they will enjoy forever. Our culinary and cultural highlights included a home-hosted meal arranged for us by Vilasa. That was special.
Early in our journey, our guide said that India is a place that a Westerner cannot understand on the first trip. “You are not sure you like it, you want to fix it, and you are sure you will not want to go back. By the end of the trip, you are planning your return.” He was so right!
This post was written with Connie Walsh from ForksOnTheRoad.com .