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A rich tour of India, on the cheap

Chicago Tribune

The Bengal tiger was lying on its side in the shade of a tree, acting like a house cat.

It slept. It yawned. It rolled onto its stomach, raising its head for a look around. It saw us in our large safari vehicle, decided we were of no interest and slumped back onto a rock for more shut-eye.

Excited chatter buzzed around as a half-dozen safari vehicles jockeyed for a good view of the tiger, which was no more than a couple hundred feet away.

When our vehicle pulled out to leave, another quickly slipped into our spot. Not surprising, since Ranthambhore's elusive tigers are a must-see on many tours of India's Golden Triangle, which extends from Delhi to Agra to Jaipur and back to Delhi.

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That night, I relaxed by the hotel pool with a bottle of Kingfisher beer and pondered the cost of travel. Was seeing the tiger any more exciting or meaningful for those who paid two or three times the $1,999 my trip cost? Did they see a more grand Taj Mahal in Agra or a spiffier Amber Fort in Jaipur?

Naaaaah!

Maybe they had better lodging? Doubtful. All of the hotels used by tour operator World Spree for its Incredible India tour were five-star properties and far better than anything I'd run across on other budget-priced trips (flashback to a closet-sized room in a London hotel).

Better guides? Girish Bakshi, who patiently shepherded our group of 21 without losing anyone, even in the raucous atmosphere of a Jaipur bazaar, was a gem. He gave us a broad overview of both the good and bad of this complicated country and its 1.3 billion inhabitants, touching on areas as diverse as the average age of marriage (21 for men, 18 for women) to "Why are those women stacking cow patties?" (For fuel.) And he did it all while dealing with the personal needs of a group whose ages ranged from 7 to the 70s.

World Spree, which began life as China Spree, specializes in budget-priced trips in the Far East (and now Peru) without cutting corners on creature comforts like lodging. I took the Incredible India trip to see whether a low-cost package could deliver a quality experience. In this instance, the answer is a solid "yes."

Depending on your travel dates, this tour can run from as little as $1,399 per person, double occupancy, to $1,999, with single occupancy adding on roughly $500. That price is pretty amazing when you consider that it includes round-trip air, nine nights' lodging in five-star hotels, buffet breakfasts and some other meals, your tour director/guide, and all taxes and admission fees. In-country transportation is in a full-size motor coach, which means the typical World Spree small group has plenty of room to spread out.

So was everything perfect? Of course not. Even $10,000 trips aren't perfect.

The weak link in the package — and not everyone on the trip agreed with my assessment — was Air China. In-flight service was sketchy, meals were mediocre (even by airline standards) and meeting flight schedules didn't seem to be a priority. That said, the overall package was still a winner. And if you don't want to fly Air China, you can buy the land-only portion for $999 and book your own air.

India is a mix of the splendid and the squalid. It's a country that definitely has its draws, but it's not an easy place to visit.

Among the splendid:

•The Taj Mahal is a marvel, its curved marble dome glowing in the early morning light.

•At Ranthambhore, we delighted in the tigers (we were lucky enough to see two), deer with massive antlers, mongooses, garishly colorful peacocks and comical looking monkeys sitting in a large group by the side of the dirt road.

•In Jaipur, the excitement was palpable as we watched the jubilant lighting of bonfires on the eve of Holi, the festival of colors and sharing love.

In this country that holds 18 percent of the world's 7.4 billion people, it's impossible to ignore the poverty and the litter that is virtually everywhere. Yet, amid the squalor, we saw the spirit of India's people, and it, too, was splendid:

•In the village of Khilchipur near Ranthambhore, members of an extended family welcomed us into an outdoor area near their home as they celebrated with smiles and laughter the life of a recently deceased relative.

•Students at a girls school sang and impishly mugged for our cameras through their classroom doorways.

•A message scrawled on the entrance to a house joyfully announced "SWEET DATE 17, FEB. 2016" to commemorate the occupants' recent marriage.

Truth is, travel doesn't have to be easy — or pricey — to be meaningful.

Phil Marty is a freelance writer.

If you go

World Spree (866-652-5656, www.worldspree.com) offers several India packages, including ones tied to the Holi festival and the Pushkar Camel Fair. The Holi festival version, held in late February or March each year, substitutes a free day in Jaipur with a day attending a Holi celebration at a private facility.

Free airfare for most of the packages is on Air China from Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York, flying through Beijing. For select dates, listed on the website, it's possible to fly nonstop on Air India from Chicago, New York or San Francisco. To see departure cities available for any date, click the "Book" link next to the date.

If you fly Air China, you can do a three-day/two-night layover in Beijing for just $200 per person.

Other extensions are also offered, including a six-day/five-night visit to Nepal, which costs $849.

World Spree also has modestly priced packages for travel to Bali, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, Laos, Nepal, Peru, Thailand and Vietnam.

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