Visiting Taj Mahal has been my dream destination since I was young. I'm just amazed by the story behind it, which I first heard during a history class in school. Sure, you can see so many photos of it online, but I'm curious about how this magnificent building would look like in person. Unfortunately, none of my friends is interested to join me so I decided to go there alone. Besides, travelling solo is not something new to me, so why not?
So I booked a ticket to Delhi and head to Agra for a couple of days since my main purpose at that time is just to see the Taj Mahal. Although India is not an expensive country to visit, if you're not prepared, you could end up spending more than what you are supposed to. In fact, I got tricked into paying double for my train ticket to Agra. It sucks, and I never wish for it to happen to anyone travelling solo to India for the first time. So here's what every traveller needs to know before visiting Taj Mahal.
1. Book your Train Tickets Ahead
I did my research about the trains going to Agra from New Delhi and I know that there are plenty of trips every day so I did not consider the thought of booking my tickets in advance. From the airport, I took the metro to the New Delhi Railway Station, which is where I got scammed.
While walking towards the station, a guy approached me asking where I'm heading. I did not mind him, let alone glance at him. I know these things, having visited so many Asian countries in the past where the practice of touts is common. So while I was inside the station, I approached another guy to ask where to purchase my tickets. Then he acted like he was surprised and told me I was in the wrong place and that this was not the place to purchase my ticket. Well, I was surprised as well. I haven't heard of any train station that does not sell any train tickets.
Then another guy approached me and told me the same thing that the other guys told me. He said he knows the place where to buy the ticket and he can have a rickshaw driver to take me there. I was hungry, tired, and sleepy at that time so I just gave in, even though I already suspect that something fishy is going on.
True enough, the rickshaw driver took me to an office where I was told that all the trains going to Agra on that day are fully booked and that the only way I can get to Agra is to rent a car. Of course, I did not believe him and I know right then that they are trying to trick me into booking a car for hire. Without saying anything, I stormed out of the office, and head back to the New Delhi Railway Station.
While on my way back to the station, the driver of the rickshaw is trying to convince me that he has special access to the railway authorities and he can get me a ticket despite the trains being booked that day. I'm just really tired of arguing at that point so I gave in to whatever price he is quoting me for the ticket. I found out later on that I actually paid twice as much as the actual rate. It's really frustrating but I guess the important thing is that I arrived safely in Agra and my dream of seeing the Taj Mahal is finally going to come true.
So if you don't want to suffer the same fate, please purchase your train tickets in advance. If you prefer to buy your tickets at the station, head straight to the station and look for the ticket booth yourself, and please, DO NOT EVER talk to anyone!
2. Choose a Hotel That Offers Free Pickup and Drop-off
Hotels in Agra are cheap and even the most luxurious ones are way cheaper compared to other Asian countries. Since I'm staying in Agra for just one night, I decided to splurge a bit and stayed at a posh hotel, the Hotel Taj Resorts, which is just a stone's throw away from the Taj Mahal. It's a 3-star hotel with luxurious amenities, but I only paid $30 for a 1-night stay.
What's even great is that they offer free pickup from the airport or train station and drops you off at the end of your stay. This was such a relief because, after my experience in Delhi with a rickshaw driver, the last thing I want is to get scammed by another rickshaw driver in Agra.
Just in case your hotel cannot arrange for a free pick up, you can hire a rickshaw outside of the Agra train station for around 100 rupees. Make sure to negotiate the price ahead. Be firm and do not easily give in. If you think they are quoting you a higher rate, walk away and look for another driver.
3. Ask your Hotel To Book a Tour on your Behalf
After what happened in Delhi, I no longer want to talk or negotiate with any rickshaw driver in Agra so I requested at the hotel reception to book me a rickshaw for my Taj Mahal Tour the following day. They quoted me a price of 1,000 rupees for a half-day tour and that includes the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. That's only around $15, so I believe it was a good deal.
Fortunately, my driver was kind and polite and even took me to one of the best restaurants in Agra for lunch where I had the best meal ever. He even waited for me to finish my meal and took me back to my hotel, although the initial agreement was just to bring me to the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. I was expecting him to charge me more, but he didn't. Yet, I gave him a generous tip because I know he deserves it.
4. Hire a Professional Photographer for a Minimal Fee
Like most of the tourist destinations in India, you'll find many touts at the gate, including photographers who will take a souvenir photo of you at the Taj and will hand the printed photo at the gate exit. They may be annoying, but these people are just making a living. Politely decline them or simply ignore them. In my case, however, since I'm alone, I asked a photographer to take pictures of me using my own camera and in return, I'll pay him 100 rupees ($2).
He gladly agreed to my offer and took so many great photos of me in front of the Taj, including a photo in that iconic chair where Princess Diana was photographed. Seeing my photos, I know I made the right decision for hiring a professional photographer for only $2!
5. Be Prepared for the Tight Security
The security at the Taj Mahal is very tight and you will have to go through strict checkpoints at the entrance gates. Be prepared for your bag to be thoroughly searched and scanned. Large bags and bulky backpacks are not allowed inside, but they have storage facilities where you can leave them. So to avoid any hassle, it is best to carry a small bag with essential items, such as your mobile phone, camera, and perhaps a water bottle. You're not allowed to bring your own food as well and certain items like lighters, phone chargers, knives, and tripods, are also not allowed.
My trip to the Taj Mahal may have started out on a bad note, but after seeing the Taj Mahal and finally making my dream come true, I realized that everything I've gone through is definitely worth it! In fact, my Delhi experience won't stop me from discovering more of India's magnificent attractions.
So if you're planning to see the Taj Mahal, whether you are doing it solo like me, or you're travelling in a group, I would suggest that you do your research well especially if you're visiting India for the first time. If you're not on a budget, I would recommend booking a tour. Agra is a bit out of the way and there are plenty of tours that will make your Taj Mahal experience smoother and hassle-free. But if you prepare to do it on your own, my tips above should get you covered.