If you want to experience ‘the real’ India, you need to avoid 5-star hotels


One of my most memorable (first) days during a holiday I took started at the Mumbai airport, about 15 years ago. We took off in Amsterdam on a cold December morning and headed to the Indian Subcontinent after a short layover in Rome. It was a long time ago, way before the internet was widely available at every corner of the globe. Traveling was much more adventurous during that time; we had no pre-booked hotel rooms and no google maps. It was the time when “Lonely Planet” acted as our travel guide and our intuition did the rest. However, we had a rough plan of our trip. We planned to start in the south of India and slowly travel back to Mumbai which is home to the Gateway of India. We had two options when we arrived in Mumbai and we decided to take a decision after we landed. The first option was to continue our travel and book one of the early morning flights to Trivandrum, Kerala. The other option was if we would arrive very exhausted and without any energy left to spend more hours in cars, trains or automobiles.  We would then book a room in Mumbai and acclimatize a day before heading any further.

Although we arrived tired, we decided to move on within India. I knew that we could take a flight to Trivandrum that would leave from the airport in a few hours. I don’t know why and how, but we made a terrible mistake by taking a small hotel minivan, to take us to a family run hotel  ‘in front of the domestic airport’. Assuming that I could walk from the hotel to the main gate, we said yes to this very pushy sales guy, something that I usually would never do. Our ride ended after A 30-minute back route experience and we stepped out in front of a murky hotel without any windows. Set in a concrete jungle with no signs of an airport anywhere in the vicinity. Now I was angry. Not about the dirty hotel, but about the promise that the hotel would be in front of the domestic airport. I walked to the front desk and put on an angry face, demanding to speak to someone from the management. I was bluffing, but the discussion ended well; we found out that the next flight from Mumbai to Trivandrum was leaving in three hours and we had plenty of time to travel back to the International Airport. My assumption that the flight would leave from the domestic airport was wrong…

Traveling in Mumbai, especially in the dark, could be unpleasant, with people sleeping on the streets and beggars asking you for some spare change. We observed the darker side of Mumbai from an air-conditioned minivan and reached the airport, back where it all began. We boarded the red-eye flight and arrived in Trivandrum just when the city was slowly waking up. After clearing all our stuff, we took a cab and headed to our final destination: Kovalam. It took us about 90 minutes to reach and we unloaded our suitcases  to then search for a place to stay. Walking with trunks and looking exhausted is a recipe for disaster in India. You will be ‘attacked’ by a lot of people, offering to help or simply asking for money. We just wanted a bed and some rest, so we did not check all the possible options and just went to bed in a small but clean room in the green area of this small village. We both woke up within an hour, after birds in the surrounding trees began to sound a bit too noisy. Hungry, exhausted but overwhelmed by the beauty of India, we walked to the beach and spent some time there . Referring to ‘magical moments’ during travels and holiday’s, this one would definitely be in my top 5! The long travel, combined with the heat and beautiful setting resulted in an almost unreal feeling. Is this true? We looked each other deep and in the eyes, to capture the moment on our internal hard drive and had a late breakfast in one of the beach shacks. We spent our time looking at the sea and the rising sun that slowly began to warm up the beautiful clean sands in front of us. Traveling for me is all about exploring and filling up my mind with memorable experiences; it’s not about the destination but all about the journey itself.

Back at that time, we were traveling on a medium-budget. We could only afford to stay at 3 or 4 star hotels from local chains and although it was ok for us to travel between cities by an airline, there were limitations from a budget perspective. We would never stay in the Taj in Mumbai or something similar. I’m older and wiser now and my travel budget has increased a bit, which gives me the opportunity to go for the occasional ‘5 star’ or ‘extreme luxury’. But what do you gain if you spend extra money? And will this increase your luck of creating long-lasting memories? I would say yes and no. Special holiday memories are never fueled by big box. However, I really like to mix ‘n match during holidays, mixing up traditional and culture experiences with comfort and luxury. During my present stay in India, I have only had experiences in the ‘5 star’ category, mainly because we did not travel that much, and a few short trips were of business purpose. India is a country where budget is almost never a constraint, because almost everything is much cheaper than in western countries (except imported Parmesan cheese and good French wines). For a long while I almost always followed the ‘100-Euro- Rule’ in Europe: by trying to book a good room below that price in large cities. During recent business trips in Europe, I have booked rooms occasionally for  200 Euro to fulfill certain standards. My personal ambition to stay under 100 Euro’s is not possible anymore, except ion eastern countries that have recently entered the European union. As mentioned earlier, India, is something else. For 100 Euro you will definitely get a 5-star room! And even if you have a tight budget, you could still travel and experience some occasional luxury.

But unless luxury is your aim, you won’t find any of the specials that makes India so special. You won’t see much of India if you stay in your luxury room, you need to get out! We are planning to stay here for at least one more year (and some months) and our bucket-list with Indian destinations is long. And during these upcoming travels I definitely want to also travel in a more basic manner. I want to create the mix of culture, nature, food & magical experiences. I want to hike, see small villages, visit temples, explore markets, meet people and learn more about this fascinating country. If you only stay in 5-star hotels and travel with a personal driver, you will unquestionably end up at the highlights of certain areas. But if you really want to understand the country, it is necessary to go for something more basic. For example – to experience the best chai, the most colorful people, and the magic of India? Please forget about the Taj, the Marriot JW and the Trident and choose to go for something more basic!

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