A package tour to India can help tremendously when you have a short amount of time and want to pack in as much as possible. You'll save time by not having to arrange everything yourself or learn too much about the great Indian art of haggling, and you'll also know in advance what you're getting. The downside is that you'll often end up paying much more. Because tour companies assume, in general, that foreigners traveling to India expect Western standards of accommodations and dining, they'll often book you in business-class or luxury hotels and have you eating pricey meals. This approach often neglects a more authentic understanding of India, where independent travel and exploration can be very fulfilling—not to mention much cheaper—if you're willing to do a little research and branch out from the typical tourist spots.
American Society of Travel Agents. 800/275-2782; www.asta.org.
United States Tour Operators Association. 212/599–6599; www.ustoa.com.
Local tourism boards can provide information about lesser-known and small-niche operators that sell packages to only a few destinations.
Guided tours are a good option when you don't want to do it all yourself. You travel along with a group (sometimes large, sometimes small, sometimes just your party and the guide), stay in prebooked hotels, eat with your fellow travelers (the cost of meals is sometimes included in the price of your tour, sometimes not), and follow a schedule.
A knowledgeable guide can take you places that you might never discover on your own, and you may be pushed to see more than you would have otherwise. Tours aren't for everyone, but they can be just the thing for trips to places where making travel arrangements is difficult or time-consuming (particularly when you don't speak the language).
Whenever you book a guided tour, find out what's included and what isn't. A "land-only" tour includes all your travel (by bus, in most cases) in the destination, but not necessarily your flights to and from or even within it. Also, in most cases prices in tour brochures don't include fees and taxes. And remember that you'll be expected to tip your guide (in cash) at the end of the tour.
The number of tours to India is overwhelming. Quality and price vary greatly, but the ones listed here have proven track records. Overseas Adventure Travel offers a good, "classic" tour of India in which you'll visit points in Rajasthan as well as Agra, Khajuraho, and Varanasi. OAT tends to attract older Americans who can afford a high standard of travel—standards reflected in the tours' cost. Tours usually cost somewhere around $200 a day (including international airfare).
Four Wheel Drive India is a Jaipur-based tour company that provides several tour options, including honeymoon and wildlife packages. The major advantage here is that if you don't see the exact tour you want, they can customize one for you and help coordinate every aspect. Siddharth Travels Interserve, based in Delhi, is a responsive company that has many suggested tours that can also be personalized. Compass Tours and Travel offers a dizzying array of options all over the subcontinent, from four-day jaunts in Goa to luxury tours of Rajasthan at all price points. Djoser offers the opportunity of traveling with small groups of Europeans (mostly Dutch) and caters to a more independent-minded traveler. Their tours lack the cookie-cutter features of more mainstream tour companies.
Compass India. 877/772–6672; www.compasstours.com.
Djoser. 877/356–7376; 484/595–0480; www.djoserusa.com.
Four Wheel Drive India. 950/993-5599; www.fourwheeldriveindia.com.
Overseas Adventure Travel. 800/955–1925; www.oattravel.com.
Siddharth Travels Interserve. 11/4656–5500; www.siddharthtravels.com.
Both Smithsonian Journeys and National Geographic Expeditions have tours that come with highly educated guides, lodging in high-end hotels, and hefty price tags. Their tours will involve you in local culture, as in having dinner in an Indian family's house or a visit to an ashram. Alumni associations are another source for interesting (albeit also often expensive), culturally oriented trips to India.
National Geographic Expeditions. 888/966–8687; www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com.
Smithsonian Journeys. 855/330–1542; www.smithsonianjourneys.org.
Photo Safari India, run by photographer Vandit Kalia, can put together custom tours whose destinations maximize the chances of getting great shots of wildlife. (Group tours to national parks—Ladakh, Goa, and Arunachal Pradesh—are also run on occasion.) National Geographic takes advantage of its publication's traditional strength by offering a 10-day tour tailored to photographers.
Photo Safari India. www.photosafariindia.com.
Transitions Abroad, a clearinghouse for creative ways to travel at low cost, lists many organizations that accept volunteers for their programs in India.
Transitions Abroad. www.transitionsabroad.com.