Yes I am back now. Apologies on the delayed response. Please see my detailed recap below:
I was very satisfied with all the hotels in all the cities. Overall, The Holiday Inn in Delhi and the Grapevine in Varanasi were the best in terms of the quality of the hotel, the service, and the food options. I understand that location is not always possible, and it might be driven by price point, but it would be nicer if the hotels were located more centrally to places that we could visit/explore on foot.
I was very satisfied with all the drivers in all the cities. Their English in general was not very good, but it was enough where we could communicate if needed. I especially liked the driver I had in Delhi-Jaipur-Agra as he was the most attentive and the one who provided the best service overall (always early, safe driver, and made sure we were dropped off and picked up in safe places).
Air / Train: :
I was very satisfied with all the air travel and the train ride. I was always greeted upon my arrival, and it was easy to locate the driver. The drivers also dropped me off at the airport with sufficient time to check in and relax. Sometimes it was a bit too early, but I would rather be early than late. I understand that timing is not always easy, but I think the optimal time to be dropped off at the airport for a domestic flight is 2 hours beforehand.
As for the train ride, I knew that there could be delays. I understand that this is part of the experience, but it was the hardest part of the ride (waiting at the station for the train to arrive - about 2 hours delayed). Finding the seat was simple once I was guided on to the correct car, and the berth was better than I expected. My recommendation for people doing this in the future would be to warn them that larger suitcases don’t fit under the berths and will have to be stored elsewhere. My suitcase did fit so I was lucky. Also, it was a bit challenging to know when to get off the train as the signs were not very apparent, but I had help so it was ok (the person riding in the same area helped me out).
Guides / Tour: :
Overall, the guides and the itineraries were awesome. I liked that the guides were flexible with respect to traffic, time spent at each place, and side options where available (driving a different way to get a different view of some attractions). They were also very accommodating with timing the lunches and making sure I had water and that I had an opportunity to use the restroom when needed. Also, all the guides were good with helping me with taking pictures (in the best spots).
Delhi - I know I mentioned initially that I liked this guide, but after having experienced all the other guides, I would revise my review and say he was just ok. There was nothing wrong with him, it’s just that all the other guides provided so much more information, historical perspective, and personal meaning in their respective cities.
The other five guides were excellent. I would highly recommend all of them to anyone visiting India. I felt all five of them cared about my well being and about my experience in each city. Each of them added a personal touch to their tour - adding what made their city special to them. It is difficult to rank or separate the five of them, but if I had to, I would pick the Jaipur and Mumbai ones as the two best. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with them as they immediately made me feel like I was part of their personal family. But as I mentioned, I would highly recommend the Agra, Varanasi, and Aurangabad guides again as they were also extremely excellent. These five guides made my trip memorable in a way that I will always remember India and the specific places each person took me to.
I do have one favor to ask you. If possible, would you be able to provide me the name and email address of the guide in Jaipur? I wanted to send him a personal note to thank him.
If you have any other questions, please feel free to reach out. Thank you for setting up an amazing tour! I highly recommend Optima Travels as thoroughly ethical and professional India tour facilitator. You can pass on my email or contact number to any prospect who wants to be doubly sure about credentials of Optima Travels.