Unlike in most countries, when you hire a car in India, you'll commonly get a driver along with it! Understandably, this can take a bit of getting used to, especially if it's your first trip to India and you've never experienced it before. Here's what you need to know.
Why Hire a Car and Driver?
Why not simply hire a car and drive yourself? Or take the train or fly? Or take a tour? Hiring a car and driver is ideal for independent travelers who want flexibility and control over their itineraries, and ease of travel.
You'll be able to stop at places that interest you and not have to worry about how to get around. While options for hiring a car without a driver are growing in India, self-driving is not recommended for mental health and safety reasons, as roads are often in poor condition and road rules are frequently not followed in India. Train and plane travel is useful for covering long distances with nothing much to see in between. However, if you're planning on exploring various destinations in a state such as Rajasthan or Kerala, then hiring a car and driver makes the most sense.
How Much Does it Cost?
The price will depend on the type of car and whether or not your driver speaks English (these drivers typically cost a bit more). The charge is per kilometer, and you'll always have to pay a minimum per day (usually 250 kilometers but can be more or less particularly in south India) no matter what distance is traveled.
The rates for each type of car do vary by company and by state, although the following is a general estimate:
- Small Car -- Typically an air-conditioned Tata Indica, starting from about 10 rupees per kilometer. It's cheaper to hire a modern car than one of the atmospheric old Ambassadors, which will cost you about 15 rupees per kilometer. These cars comfortably fit two passengers but can fit four.
- Medium Car -- Typically a Toyota Innova SUV or Mahindra Xylo, starting from 13 rupees per kilometer. These cars comfortably fit four passengers but can fit six.
- Large Car -- Typically a Tempo Traveller, starting from 18 rupees per kilometer. These unique vehicles are like mini buses and can fit up to 10 passengers. Larger ones are possible.
The rates are for travel from destination to destination. They usually include fuel, insurance, tolls, state taxes, parking, and the driver's food and accommodations. Rates for hire for sightseeing within a city are less.
Where to Hire From?
Any tour company in India will be able to arrange a car and driver for you, as too will most hotels. However, if anything goes wrong (such as the car breaking down or misunderstandings), you'll want the business to be responsible for it and not the driver. Rates from hotels will also be more expensive. Hence, it's best to book through a reputable company. These companies will also organize hotels and guides if necessary. Some recommendations are provided below at the end of the article. Most tourists start their trips from Delhi and head to Rajasthan, so these places have many options. Be sure to do plenty of research and make comparisons to decide on what suits you best.
Decent independent drivers with their own vehicles do exist. You'll need to have the right contacts to find them though.
Where Does the Driver Eat and Sleep?
Drivers are provided with a daily allowance (usually a few hundred rupees) by their employers to cover the cost of their food and accommodations. Some hotels offer separate accommodations specifically for drivers. However, drivers will commonly sleep in their cars to save money.
Foreign tourists who are used to equality often feel that their drivers should dine with them, especially during lunch if they're on the road. This is not the norm in India though. Drivers have their preferred places to eat, and they may not be comfortable joining you for social reasons (India is very hierarchy-oriented). It doesn't hurt to ask though. Just don't be surprised if they are reluctant to accept the invitation.
Tipping the Driver
Is it necessary and how much? Your driver will definitely expect a tip. Depending on how happy you are with his services, 200 to 400 rupees per day is reasonable.
What to Keep in Mind
- The condition of the roads in India is variable and can be very poor in some places. It may take you longer to reach your destination than expected, so do take this into consideration when planning your itinerary and allow plenty of time. Don't always believe the travel times shown by Google Maps!
- If comfort is a factor, it's worth paying more to get a better vehicle such as a spacious Toyota Innova or Mahindra Xylo. Roads that are in poor condition tend to be bumpy and the lack of decent suspension in older cars will be very noticeable. In addition, most people prefer to choose an air-conditioned car as roads can be dusty and the weather hot.
- The tax for vehicles to cross state borders is costly (for example 1,000 rupees in Uttar Pradesh), so do check whether this is included in the price quoted.
- The car will need to return to its starting destination (at your expense), so do take this into account when planning your trip and budget.
- The drivers don't act as guides. They will take care of your itinerary, get you to each destination, and answer general questions. They won't accompany you inside monuments and attractions though.
Other Things to Expect
- Your driver may invite you home to meet or have dinner with his family. This can be interpreted as a friendly and warm gesture. However, do be aware that drivers usually come from lower middle class backgrounds, and it may be done in the hope that you will give something to them. Many tourists do feel compelled to contribute some money/financial assistance. If you're fine with this, especially if your driver has been honest and helpful, then no problem!
- It's likely your driver will suggest that you shop at certain places and eat in certain restaurants. This is because he will receive a commission from those places or get free food. It can become tiring after a while, especially if you're not interested in doing so. Be firm in declining.
Some Recommended and Reliable Companies
- Namaste India Tours is a small company that's been arranging tours by car (predominantly of Rajasthan) since 1994. They offer a number of pre-planned circuits as well as personalized itineraries. All trips depart from Delhi. Click here for information and rates.
- Magic Tours of India began in Mumbai and has expanded to popular tourist destinations all over the country. As well as custom tours, they arrange transport and guides. Click here for contact details.
- Swagatam Tours is one of the largest tour and travel companies in India. They have an extensive network and presence all over the country (with their head office in Delhi and branches in Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore), plus a large transportation fleet of all kinds of vehicles.
- V Care Tours and Travel is an excellent company for hiring quality cars and drivers in Rajasthan. I used them when traveling there with my mother and the service was impeccable.
- Car Rental Delhi (a division of Kalka Travels) has been operating for more than 25 years and has a fleet of more than 30 vehicles, specializing in north India. Pricing is competitive and service personalized, with separate contact staff for domestic and international tourists. Notably, the company also guarantees that they don't have any commissioned-based relationships with shops or businesses.
- India by Car and Driver is a large company based in Jaipur, and provides car rental services to both domestic and international tourists.
- Pioneer Personalised Holidays is headquartered in Kochi, Kerala and was founded in 1995. The company is a good choice for travel in south India and has their own fleet of vehicles.