India Travel Tips: How to Survive Your First Trip to India
Someone asked me recently what travelling in India is like. I said 80% of the time it was amazing and 20% was horrible, but that ratio can easily change. There will be times when you hate India and curse the moment you thought of visiting in the first place and there will be times of complete travel perfection. Your first trip to India (and pretty much every trip after that) will be tough, so I’ve compiled some India travel tips to hopefully make your trip go as smooth as possible (which, being India, still won’t be that smooth!).
India Travel Tips: Transport
Get on at a bus station instead of flagging one down on the road if possible. You’re far more likely to get a decent seat. It’s hard to avoid entering a full bus in certain places but if you’re anything like me you want to avoid standing for too long. If you look pathetic enough someone will eventually share their seat with you (I’m speaking from experience on that one). Depending on where you are and how much you’re willing to pay, buses are either really comfortable or practically falling apart. If you’re venturing away from the popular spots they’ll likely be pretty basic, I guess it’s all part of the experience though.
Overnight buses are common and can be a good way to cover long distances. There are two schools of thought on whether to book a lower or upper berth. Lower is more comfortable to get in and out of but if you book an upper berth you can “avoid the citizens” as a travel agent once told me. Night buses often leave late (10 pm or later) so you’ll have to decide what to do for the day leading up to it. Having a restful day is one way to tackle it (possibly pay your hotel a little extra for a late checkout) or you can keep busy, tire yourself out and then hopefully get a good sleep. Of course, if you don’t end up getting any sleep you’ll be a mess in the morning.
When looking at bus options it’s best to search the journey you’re interested in online. You’ll find heaps of booking sites although as far as I know you can’t book with a foreign credit card. Red Bus and Make My Trip are the ones I used the most — both have a good review system although almost every bus company has their fair share of bad reviews so try not to let them scare you. You can find all the information on there and then either go directly to the bus company to book or use a travel agent.
The prime tickets (fan sleepers, 3ac/ 2ac) often sell out months in advance, so it can be a hassle to book overnight trains. There is a tourist allocation on some trains but I haven’t had much luck with booking them. Your best bet is to sign up to IRCTC and book 2 or 3 of your major journeys as soon as you can (tickets are sold 3 months prior to the train departing and fly off the shelf quickly on popular routes). You can always cancel these tickets later for a small fee. If you’re on a budget and travelling a short distance you can buy a “general ticket” at the railway station for a very small amount of money (as low as 15 INR). These tickets don’t guarantee you a seat and it’s often a mad scramble to get one. Standing gets annoying very quickly so if you want to avoid it you should book a proper ticket (but there’s a whole different process for that — do it online if possible as it’s often a hassle at the train station).
In general, I end up paying around 50 INR for a 2-3 km journey. This is probably 10-20 too much but considering it’s still less than $1 it’s a hit I don’t mind taking. It’s worth taking a rickshaw from train / bus stations if your hotel is a few kilometres away, especially if it’s hot outside. For 300-400 INR you should be able to get taken to several places over a few hours, and a whole day should be 700-1000 INR. It’s a cheap way to sight see, especially if you have a friend or two to share the costs.
These are good for short distances and are cheap. Rickshaw drivers do tend to try and rip you off (or just take you on a shopping tour that you don’t want to be on) in certain cities so proceed with caution.
Sometimes it’s worth paying a little extra to avoid a whole day (or more) of torturous bus travel. It’s possible to get some good deals too so it’s worth looking into. I flew from Indore to Lucknow recently for around $50 USD and it was money well spent. Be careful when taking a taxi / rickshaw from the airport as people will try to rip you off. It’s best to exit the airport and negotiate with drivers waiting outside.
I’m not “Millennial” enough to automatically think of taking an Uber over a taxi, but it is popular in India. Your hotel / guesthouse will gladly order you one or you could probably do it yourself. I’ve only taken them to the airport (twice) and it’s been a good experience both times.
How much will you spend?
Value for money varies greatly in India. I stayed in some great guesthouses in Himachal Pradesh for 300-500 INR but try spending that little in the big cities and you’ll regret it. On my latest trip I usually paid around 1000 INR. This generally got me a decent standard business-type hotel, with cable TV, AC (usually) and good ratings on booking sites. When you have a rat phobia like me it’s comforting to read reviews and learn that there isn’t a rat infestation. At the higher end of the accommodation scale things get interesting. You can stay in former palaces and mansions for less than you’d pay for a cheap hotel in somewhere like New Zealand. If you’re not travelling on a strict budget it’s worth checking out some of these luxury options — even if you are low on funds it’s worth splashing out for a couple of nights. I usually booked hotels that were close to the train / bus station — it makes it easier when you need to book tickets or just get from one place to another.
In general, it’s cheaper to walk up to a hotel than book it online, but online booking is great if you’re arriving late. Try not to book ahead if you’re arriving in the morning (after a night bus / train) as they may not let you check in until way later. You’ll have more bargaining power if you don’t book — there’s nothing worse than spending a sleepless night on a bus and then having to wait around for hours to check into your hotel.
In the more popular tourist destinations you’ll find plenty of hostels (most of which also have private rooms). It’s a good option if you feel like meeting people. I stayed at one in Varanasi after a couple of weeks of hardly meeting any other tourists and it was just what I needed.
Health and Safety
You’ve probably heard that everyone gets sick at some point while travelling in India, and it’s accurate. Luckily, I’ve escaped lightly and haven’t been struck down with food poisoning or anything. A lot of people resort to a vegetarian diet to avoid getting sick, but they miss out on so much good food, especially in the north. My advice is to accept you’ll probably get sick and try to forget about it!
India has a bad reputation, especially when it comes to the safety of women. Obviously, you want to be careful (you could say that about anywhere in the world) but going there with the attitude that everyone is out to harm you probably isn’t ideal. Indian’s are generally very curious and love a good stare — try not to get too annoyed as it happens to everyone (men and women). Many Indians will also strike up a conversation with any tourist they see, and it can get overwhelming at times. It’s hard to talk about women’s safety while travelling in India as I’m not actually a woman, but there are heaps of articles about this kind of thing if you need them.
Will your stuff get stolen?
I’ve never had anything stolen in India, but I’m sure it happens. I can imagine rustic beach huts in places like Goa are prime targets, so try not to leave valuables in your room and use your own padlock instead of the one provided. I’ve walked around with a camera in most places and never had any issues (it is kinda shit though) and smart phones are so ubiquitous that no one will think twice when they see yours. I always imagined that overnight trains and buses would be hotbeds for thieves, so I’m careful with my valuables. I’ll usually keen them all (laptop, camera, money, passport etc) in a bag and kind of hug it / keep it right next to me when sleeping. It does cut your room down a bit but I’m small so it’s all good.
When to visit to India
I’ve been to India twice and have ended up travelling in the scorching summer months both times. I swear I won’t do it again, but I’ve said that about a lot of things. Temperatures in summer (April – June) routinely pass 40 degrees and it makes everything harder. If you have no choice but to go at that time of year, consider heading to the Himalayas as it’s the perfect time to visit. You’ll most likely want to avoid the monsoons (July – September), so in terms of weather it’s best to visit most of India between October and March. Temperatures will be pleasant but it’ll be a lot busier, meaning higher prices and bigger crowds.
Where to go
India is massive and there’s no way you’ll have seen it all after your first trip (or your 10th). If you only have a few weeks it’s best to cover a small area. You could see Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan and a few other places in 2-3 weeks and that’s a popular option for a first trip to India. Those places are amazing so don’t rule it out because you think it’s too common or touristy. There are so many other options though, so it really depends what you’re into. For beaches and nightlife you’ll want to head to Goa or Kerala, for temples it’s hard to go past Tamil Nadu and for mountains I highly recommend a trip to Kinnaur and Spiti. Check out all my old India posts for some inspiration!
FURTHER READING: Two Weeks in Rajasthan: 9 Amazing Places to Visit
Buying a SIM card in India
Mobile data is extremely cheap in India. It’s a good idea to buy a SIM card as you’ll often need to direct your driver to your hotel etc. It also makes those long train rides a little easier. I paid 210 INR (around 3$ USD) and that gave me 1 GB (possibly 2) every day for a month. It was Vodafone but the internet was often slow. You’ll need your passport and a passport photo to get a SIM card and it can take anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days. I chose Vodafone because it only took a few hours, but I’ve heard from other travellers that Airtel is better.
What to Wear
Most Indian men don’t wear shorts, so I guess if you don’t want to stand out you shouldn’t either. I’m not a shorts guy anyway so the trouser culture suited me fine. Women have tougher choices to make and there is some debate on what should and shouldn’t be worn. Of course, you could dress exactly like an Indian woman (saris etc) but then you could be accused of cultural appropriation, and no one wants that.
RELATED POST: What to Wear in India: Fashion Tips for Female Tourists
Spend some time in a traveller enclave
India can seem a very foreign place at times, so it’s nice to occasionally visit popular traveller towns for a taste of normality. You’ll really enjoy these places if you’re used to the more traveller friendly places like Thailand – think lots of travellers, familiar food, relaxing cafes, touristy shops, hashish (especially in the mountains) and a general feeling that you’re not in the “real India” anymore. You’re probably thinking that sounds horrible, but after travelling in the “real India” for a while it might be just what you need. Popular traveller towns include Manali, Hampi and Jaisalmer. There are heaps more though!
The most important tip for surviving your first trip to India
Relax! India can be incredibly hectic and at times it can wear you down. When that happens go and get an ice cream, some KFC or find the most laid-back cafe you can find. You could also take up smoking as it’s cheap (I’m only half joking about that). Just find a way to relax when you need to, especially after long stressful journeys.
Do you have any other India travel tips? How did you survive your first trip to India? Let me know in the comments below!