I will try to offer some advice based on my observations and this blog entry may be updated from time to time.
Which tour is right for me?
Obviously only you can answer that. Work out how long you are able to go for and plan from there. If this time would be your first time in India, you might want to plan a shorter rather than a longer journey. I must admit that towards the end of the trip the thought of yet another Indian meal, no matter how delicious, was starting to pall. My regular diet is much more varied and I remember I was tired of SE Asian food a few years ago after eating it for a few weeks.
I think you can do any of the trips and you will see a lot of unforgettable sights. India is not just the Golden Triangle. I found Intrepid's North India Revealed to be a good match for me. Others might suit you better.
The other parameter is comfort level. My tour was basic and for the most part I was happy with the accommodation. I always compare my bed to a United flight from LAX to Sydney so I am easily pleased. Most of the accommodation exceeded my expectations. The rooms can vary in a hotel so you can be lucky or unlucky.
I expect the 'original' and 'comfort' levels will be more luxurious and probably with a better chance of getting a really good shower.
The main benefit of the 'basic' tour are that it is inexpensive and more likely to attract young people as well as old codgers like me. My tour finished up with a wonderful mix of youth, energy, enthusiasm, wisdom and fun. Hopefully you will be lucky as well and you will meet a bunch of really interesting people.
However I do wish Intrepid would charge a bit more and put us in better carriages on the train.
When to go?
My trip started on February 15 and lasted until March 8. Like much of the planet, India is suffering from global warming so temperatures were higher than normal. It was more than hot enough for me and if I did the trip again I would have picked an earlier date.
The transfers from the airport to the hotel.
My experience was good and it was very helpful of the driver to make sure I was inside the hotel and somebody was aware I was there. Some others tried taxis but their experiences were not great. Since I had no Indian money on me, the transfer got rid of the problem of getting a taxi. Remember the ATMs in India are not reliable and the ATM at the airport was not working.
Intrepid recommends using a back-pack and I went with their recommendation over my usual carry-on roll-around. I wish I had ignored them because the roll-arounds that other other people used worked fine. The important thing is to bring a small carry-on size case. A big heavy bag is awful to maneuver and lift. The other thing to remember is that it really helps to be able to slide your suitcase / backpack under the seat in your train carriage. You have perhaps 8". The lock and chain to secure it from theft is also a good idea though most people do not use one.
What to Bring.
Less. If you are only going to use an item a couple of times, think twice about bringing it. Don't bring your entire wardrobe and remember it is allowable to wear clothes more that one day. Washing facilities are available at every hotel and are very inexpensive. Just pick a hotel where you will be two or more nights and hand it over at the beginning of the day. You can pick it up in the evening. You could easily get by on three shirts plus the one you are wearing.
I don't pack extra shoes except for a pair of thongs or flip-flops. This reduces the weight load in your pack a lot. I noticed at least half the group were wearing water-proof shoes by Keen, including me. They work well, they are super comfortable and you can stride through virtually anything with confidence. By the way you will be removing your shoes a lot to enter temples and houses.
An extremely light weight jacket could be useful. Those with light skin will find a hat essential.
Because of my blogging I carry my 2.5 pound laptop along with associated charging wires and adapters. Others did very well with various sized Ipads and tablets. Internet connectivity can be an issue at a lot of hotels so bringing a device that can take an Indian SIM card is a good idea. SIM cards are inexpensive in India so get one that comes with a fair amount of data.
I used my Lumix ZS-50 and it performed well again. I love being able to shoot one handed and within a second or so of seeing the photo develop in my mind. Bruce had a later model and seemed to like it. Of course larger cameras can produce a better shot but I think my small camera does pretty well for a quick point and shoot and cropping.
Make sure you have an extra battery and keep it charged. You will be taking a lots of photos.
Some used their IPads and appeared to be getting excellent results, but it is not the camera for a quick snap.
Get your shots well before you leave. Bring stuff for diarrhea but you will find everybody is stocked up on everything and will be willing to share if you have forgotten something. Of course you can just go to a local chemist in India. They are fine and will have everything you need and it will be very cheap.
When in India
Crossing roads and walking.
The constant beeping will initially drive you nuts but eventually you get used to it. The traffic seems quite chaotic and the guiding principle seems to be to get ahead of the next person.
You will eventually get a sense of how to cross the road. Simply wait for a gap or go downwind of a local.
It is usual to walk on the left side of the road with the traffic coming up behind you. The beep - beep is just to let you know somebody is approaching you but has seen you. Try to be predictable with no sudden moves.
I saw very few accidents, none involving pedestrians and the vehicle incidents were minor. Usually the traffic is moving quite slowly because of the congestion.
They are everywhere. They vary in size and most are very placid. Just walk past like the locals do and I suspect that is what the cows want you to do as well. Don't freak out.
Touts and beggars.
Your guide will tell you to ignore them and do not make eye contact. I am 6 feet and it is easy to pretend that they are not even there.
This can present a challenge, particularly in Dehli. ATMs are often empty of cash early in the morning but may get some cash later in the day.
The situation is usually better in the country cities.
Always make sure you have a few 10 rupee notes or coins for chai or bathrooms.
At various stages, we all borrowed or lent a few hundred rupees to others in the group. It's not a great amount of money with 100 rupees = US$1.67.
You can only trust water from bottles and you have to use it for everything. You will soon develop your technique for brushing your teeth using only bottled water.
Make sure you never go out without your bottle of water. Bottled water is available everywhere for about 30 rupees for a litre bottle.
You guide will know of some trusted food stalls where they use fresh ghee. Some people seem to get away with eating street food, but others are unlucky.
At dinner when eating with the group, it is quite normal to order a dish and share with the others. Three dishes often is sufficient for four people.
I mostly ordered Kingfisher beer in the 600 ml bottle for about $3. Others had white wine, usually a sauvignon blanc from India and they were complimentary about the quality. Wine is quite expensive by comparison.
As a traveler used to going solo, the biggest question I had was whether I would fit in with the group. I need not have feared and I had a wonderful time talking to all the others at various occasions. It helped to have a small group of twelve which makes it easier to get to know everybody though it does take a few days to remember everybody's name. It is especially wonderful at meal times since there is always somebody to sit and eat with.
The people who go on these trips are usually very interesting people with interesting backgrounds. All seem to have a great sense of humor.
This is your greatest resource so use him / her. They are there not only to lead the way but to make sure things happen on time and as they should. They resolve problems with hotels, tuk-tuk drivers and all the other people that you now don't have to deal with. They know the correct tip for the correct individual and you can be sure they don't get trapped into overpaying.
Perhaps one of the the nicest things is when you arrive by train in a new city. Your guide makes sure you all made it off the train and then leads you through the exit to the area where your arranged transport will be waiting for you. You and your luggage are loaded aboard, the transport sets off and eventually after a myriad of mystifying turns you arrive at your hotel where you can relax on a sofa. You will hand over your passport and fill out some items on the hotel register. It is all made very easy. No negotiations, no being told your hotel has burned down but there is another even better hotel etc.
And of course, your guide is the one who makes sure you are coping with everything and that you are well. India is stressful and the journey can be tiring especially for old codgers like me.
And once again, our group was very luck to have Happy.
As others from the group send me links to their blogs or photos, I will add them here.