My partner and I were planning our first post-Covid trip for September 2022 and wanted to visit somewhere neither of us had been. We decided on Japan and I put in happy hours of research into deciding where we'd go and what we'd do. Just one problem: despite months of signalling from Tokyo, the country just didn't reopen to independent travellers in time.
So with two and a half weeks to go we switched focus to India. There wasn't much time to plan. I'm thankful that I quickly found the excellent reviews for Incredible Real India and their website, and was impressed by both.
I was particularly struck by two things: a review by a woman hired by IRI to help redesign their website, and the fact that several reviewers said IRI had happily returned their deposits when they were unable to travel.
Even though the first came from someone contracted by the company, its sincerity shines through. You can tell that the writer was hugely inspired by her dealings with the company, its founder and its staff.
And I was impressed that IRI was happy to return deposits – especially in Covid times, when tales of years-long waits for refunds abound.
So I emailed the company with a rough idea for a custom two-week itinerary. Perhaps we could start with a look around the Golden Triangle and Rajasthan, before a few days in Kerala and Goa. I love gems so was keen on a few days in Jaipur, and my partner and I share a love of adventure so we wanted to spend some time in the desert.
I heard back overnight and soon was chatting via WhatsApp to Raju. It was a lot to pull together in not a lot of time but he worked really hard. I asked him to rein me in if I wanted us to see too much too quickly and he advised that we should choose just Kerala or Goa and save the other for another trip. I also cut a few of the suggested cities and towns out so we could stay longer in a couple of places and catch our breaths, rather than be constantly travelling.
My big anxiety in this planning phase was that I wanted an idea of the cost, to be sure we could afford the trip. Raju reassured me ("it's not only my business, not only the money, it is my passion too") he would be able to supply it once we'd agreed the final itinerary, and that I would be happy with it.
And I certainly was! So much so that I was able to option up two of the hotels, switching twice from IRI's "affordable" accommodation options to its "luxury" list, opting for Samode Haveli in Jaipur and Suryagarh in Jaisalmer – the night of my partner's birthday. Both looked just stunning – unforgettable places to stay.
We chose Goa over Kerala and Raju advised me to find our own hotel there. He offered to book our internal flights if needed but I was able to handle that too.
As I'm usually an independent traveller I loved the control we had over the tour, but since there was so little time to prepare it was wonderful to have Raju's expertise, as well as the knowledge we'd be looked after by an experienced driver who would adapt each day's travel to our liking, hour by hour if needed.
So we bought travel insurance and airfares, paid the IRI deposit then applied online for e-visas, which take a day or two to come through. That's when disaster struck. My visa was denied!
I'm a journalist and, as it turns out, members of the media aren't allowed to visit India on tourist visas. I was shocked: I've been to upwards of 30 countries on tourist visas and, while I might expect, say, an authoritarian regime to restrict entry to journalists, I wasn't expecting it from the world's largest democracy.
(Journalists are allowed to enter India for purposes of tourism but we must apply for J visas, which can take months to arrange. I'd always thought J visas were only required for foreign correspondents – reporters sent to live in another country to file back to their media organisations.)
Cue a frantic week of running into the Indian consulate and its outsourced visa service, phoning, begging, emailing, twice reapplying. Raju was endlessly supportive via WhatsApp, and reassured me that he'd return our deposit if the worst came to the worst.
It did, and he did, though I repeatedly asked him to keep some back as payment for all the hours he'd put into planning and booking our tour. But he said: "Don't worry, I never charged charged anyone yet and I don't wish to. It is just helping people is a great pleasure to me."
As we'd lost thousands of dollars spent on airfares (insurance won't cover them if visas are denied) the refund was gratefully received. I told Raju it was my fervent wish to write about his tour one day.
So even though I didn't manage to set foot in the country, I can wholeheartedly recommend booking through Incredible Real India. Raju is a king.