The best months to visit Tamil Nadu are December to March, when days are hot and sunny (25-35C) and the evenings are warm. April and May get hotter and more humid, but are still quite bearable; May and June see plenty of local festivals. The summer monsoon brings rain in July and August, but it's very light in this part of India, with some moderate rainfall in the evening. September is usually dry, before the winter monsoon arrives in October and November.
Note: flight, boat, train and bus timetables change constantly, and airlines come and go, so please do not rely solely on this information for your travel planning. Check with relevant companies, or a flight search engine like Skyscanner, first.
Chennai (Madras) is southern India's main air hub.
From the UK:
There are direct flights to Chennai from London Heathrow with British Airways. Oman Air, Emirates and Qatar Airways fly indirectly from London to Chennai via their respective hubs.
Lufthansa operates direct flights from Frankfurt. From other European cities, the quickest option is to fly via London or Frankfurt, or via the Middle East with Emirates or Qatar Airways.
From North America:
There are no direct flights from the USA or Canada to Chennai. Take a flight via London with one of the airlines mentioned above, or fly from New York (JFK and Newark), Los Angeles, Chicago, Montreal or Toronto via Delhi with Air India.
From Australia and New Zealand:
Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific fly indirectly to Chennai via their respective Asian hubs.
From within India:
Air lndia, Jet Airways, JetLite (formerly Air Sahara), SpiceJet, IndiGo and Kingfisher Airlines all fly to Chennai from various hubs in India.
From the Airport:
Chennai International Airport (MAA) is 7km south of the city. It's connected to the centre and other areas within the region via the surburban rail network.
Tamil Nadu has good rail links with cities and towns across India - see below for more details or visit Seat 61 for a beginner's guide.
India has a good rail network, though trains can be slow and journeys lengthy. Check out Indian Rail for timetables. Chennai has 2 stations - Chennai Egmore, from where there are trains to destinations within Tamil Nadu and Kerala (including Villupuram, which has a rail link to Pondicherry, and Trivandrum), and Chennai Central, which has trains to cities across India. First-class cabins sell out quickly so book in advance if you want more privacy than the flimsy second-class curtains offer. But both classes have air conditioning. Booking train tickets can sometimes be subject to a complicated wait-listing process.
BY CAR & DRIVER
If you can afford it and have limited time, we would recommend hiring a car with a driver as the best way to see the country. It's cheaper than hiring a self-drive car, and the drivers usually arrange their own accommodation and food. Be warned: self-driving might seem appealing, but the Indian drivers' way of overtaking each other at breakneck speed on the very narrow roads can be hair-raising, to say the least… Driving is generally slow but the distances aren't huge. Traffic drives on the left. The other main advantage of having a driver (apart from not getting lost) is that hawkers, seeing you are with a local, give you space where they might otherwise hound you.
Travelling by bus is a cheap way to get around, but they can be very overcrowded and uncomfortable. They link all towns and cities, and you can always pick up a rickshaw at the bus stop for short hops to your hotel. There are private and state buses, each with various categories of speed (from superfast, which is slow, to superexpress, which is quite fast) and of comfort (from semi-luxe, which is cramped and hard, to deluxe, which has 1 fewer seat per row, seat padding and air conditioning).
There are taxi-cars, with or without air conditioning, and a large number of auto-rickshaws (noisy but nippy three-wheelers) on the roads. Agree to a rate before starting your journey and make sure the driver has a clear idea of your destination. Fares are cheap with various small extras. Some drivers try to stop off at shops where they get commissions on your purchases, while others fend off all touts and take you straight to your destination.
Almost every non-Indian needs a tourist visa from their embassy or consulate. There are 3- and 6-month multiple-entry and single-entry visas (the cost is the same), and they can no longer be issued the same day - so plan ahead! You will also need a valid passport. For access to certain protected areas (e.g. national parks), you will need a special permit and, often, a guide; these are available locally.
The most common health problems for visitors are diarrhoea and sun-related problems. It's important to drink a lot of bottled water (tap water isn't safe to drink) and protect yourself from the sun. Also be aware of what, and where, you are eating. Choose fruits that you can peel and avoid fresh salads (or wash them yourself with purified water) and ice made from tap water. Be cautious of ice cream, cold milk and undercooked fish or meat. If you experience diarrhoea it's very important to replace lost fluids and, in the case of severe diarrhoea, lost minerals and salts (it’s a good idea to go prepared with some oral rehydration salts). If you become ill your hotel should be able to recommend a good local doctor or clinic. You may want to consider carrying an emergency treatment pack including needles and syringes.
Make sure you're up to date with vaccinations for diphtheria, tetanus and polio. Vaccinations for hepatitis A, hepatitis B and typhoid are also advisable (note that the current vaccine against cholera offers very low protection and isn't usually recommended). Consider vaccinations against rabies and Japanese B encephalitis if you're planning to stay longer than a couple of weeks. Malaria is present in Tamil Nadu - your doctor will be able to advise you on the appropriate anti-malarial medication. Insect repellent is essential; use one containing DEET.
Many staff are paid very low salaries and expect to be tipped. In hotels and restaurants, 10% is normal. In other situations, where there is no bill, a few rupees will suffice.