This is for all of the over-confident travelers out there planning a trip to India. It’s for the budget backpackers, the culture-seekers, the luxury lovers, and the trailblazers who may not realize just how challenging India can be for first-timers. If you already know the challenges and you came in search of advice, you can skip straight to the India Travel Tips. The rest of you, read on…
My mind was always wandering back to India in the months leading up to my trip. I couldn’t wait to taste the famed biryani in Hyderabad, or explore the cave temples of Elephanta Island in Mumbai. I planned out the angles for a sunset photo shoot in the beach town of Fort Kochi, where I would watch fishermen bring in their catch from ancient the Chinese fishing nets. Traditional Keralan houseboats drifted through my dreams and I longed to wander through the bright green tea fields of Munnar. Cardamom and cumin, chilis and coriander kept working their way into my meals at home, unable to be contained in just my thoughts and plans.
Throughout all of this I received a few warnings, that India would be too tough, or that I shouldn’t bother going. But I was not to be discouraged. I was a traveler. I thought I was immune to the culture shock of India because I already knew what to expect. I’d read tons of guidebooks and blogs and hunted for India travel tips, preparing myself for the chaos of India. “Bring it on,” I thought, “I was made for this.”
Despite all of the preparation, my plans were fundamentally flawed: I was over-confident.
Without having been there, it’s easy to think you can flit from city to city, soaking up as much of the culture as possible in your limited time. Just about anywhere else, that would work. But in India if you put too much pressure on yourself and try to do too much, you’ll just wind up disappointed and miss out on some really incredible experiences. Things will not always go smoothly and they won’t always be what you expect.
In India, everything is more concentrated. Many times that’s a wonderful thing. Fruits were bursting with sweetness, masalas were packed with flavor, and markets were crammed with goodies for a tenth the cost I was used to. But it also meant other things were more concentrated: the smells, the people, the pollution. Generally, I can brush it off if someone bumps me on the sidewalk, cuts me off on the highway, or if a man shouts a creepy remark as I walk by. But when it’s 15 people shoving past me, 150 cars cutting me off, and every man I pass after sunset calling me “baby,” I start to get a little pissed off.
To attempt to prepare travelers, many bloggers and guidebooks will say things like, “just go with the flow” or “keep an open mind.” Even I’ve been guilty of saying some of these things. But when you really think about it, this advice is crap.
Imagine you’re choking on thick diesel fumes while your auto-rickshaw driver putters aimlessly for 45 minutes through packed dusty streets because he lied when he said he knew what temple you were going to. You duck out of the auto and pay the inflated fare just as a pigeon drops a load in your hair. Stepping off the street, you trip on a patch of missing concrete and break your sandal in the process. Dodging a small pile of smoldering trash, you hobble in search for a public restroom where you can clean yourself up. You don’t find one. “It’s ok, the water isn’t clean anyways.” Your head starts to pound and you recall the mantras, “just go with the flow,” “keep an open mind.” “OK, sure, I’ll get right on that,” you think to yourself, “Just after I clean the feces out of my hair and catch the next flight to anywhere else.”
All of those things happened to me. Not all at once, maybe, but I found that the more I tried to do in a single outing, the more things would go wrong and start to pile up.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t travel to India. The thing is, when I slowed down a bit and conceded some of my travelers pride, things started going more smoothly. Things like skipping a hard-to-reach site or taking the extra time to figure out how to hire a driver wound up turning my luck around completely, allowing me to really enjoy the places we did go.
You just need to approach travel in India differently than most places. If you normally go from city to city every 2-3 days, you’ll want to bump that up to 4-5 days. If you typically take sleeper trains or long-haul buses to save money, consider spending a little extra to fly between cities. If you’re the type of traveler that likes to “wing it,” you just might find that a little preparation can go a long way. Just one upgrade in comfort level can make extreme changes to the outcome of your day. It did for me. And in India, where most things are quite cheap, most travelers can spring for luxury without breaking the budget.
If you’re thinking, “Psssh, it can’t be that hard. I’ve traveled to all kinds of places, this advice is just for newbies,” then listen up! It just might save you from curling up in a ball of defeat halfway through your trip. When you’re planning your India travels, use these tips to prevent potential break-downs and sure-misery and instead turn your trip into the experience of a lifetime!
India Travel Tips
Planning Your Time
- Spend at least 36 hours in each place, preferably more, unless it is just a stop on the way to your main destination.
- Plan to do a maximum of 2 activities or sights per day. Make sure they are both in the same area.
- Build in some down time at your hotel each day. You’ll need it to recuperate and relax, especially at the beginning.
- Mix things up by seeing both cities and countryside, alternating between them if possible.
- If you don’t like a particular city or area, don’t force it. Move onto a new place that better suites you. India is such a varied country, there is something for everyone.
- It helps to have a back-up plan. Think about what you will do if any one of your major transportation options falls through.
- Don’t take the last flight/train/bus out of a city if you need to catch another flight/train/bus the next morning. We almost learned this the hard way.
Where to Stay
- Make your first stay be at a luxury hotel. It will give you a respite from the madness when you need it most. Once you’re adjusted, I recommend staying in guesthouses or homestays when they look good.
- Pick a hotel close to the sights you want to see.
- Leave the driving to the professionals. Driving in India is complete chaos. There are often no lanes (and if they exist, they are ignored). Cars are constantly weaving and squeezing through tight spaces between vehicles. People walk in the streets mixed in with the cars, trucks, and auto rickshaws. Don’t try to navigate these roads yourself.
- Hire a driver for the full day or even the full time you’re in each location to avoid transport hassles and maintain some consistency and predictability.
- Some cities make it easy to hail a taxi or auto-rickshaw for short distances. Mumbai was one of those cities. Hyderabad was not. Simplify your trip and just hire a driver! I say this twice because that’s how big a difference it can make!
- Don’t write off air travel as too expensive. Lots of budget carriers have quick and affordable fares between major Indian cities, and can cut your travel time and stress levels significantly.
- Print out your flight itinerary before you get to the airport or they won’t let you in! Really!
- You know the rules for food right? No tap water, no ice, no raw food unless you peel it yourself, avoid meat from sketchy looking places, check cleanliness of glasses, plates and utensils, etc. No street food.
- The rules for food are made to be broken (except for the tap water rule – never break that one), but always use your best judgement. When in doubt, go where there’s a crowd.
- The food is NOT that spicy. If you can handle “medium” or “hot” in an Indian restaurant at home, you’ll have no problem in India. The spice level was way over-hyped. To nip in the bud all of the unavoidable comments that will follow, I was in Hyderabad, Mumbai, and Kerala and ate in homes, restaurants, and holes-in-the-wall.
- If you can’t find bottled water, go for a coconut! They’re delicious and refreshing. Just don’t forget to check the cleanliness of the straw.
- Naps! Try your best to wake up in the morning, even if you spent the entire night staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. By getting up and eating breakfast, and doing an easy activity you’ll start to reset your internal clock. Then retreat for a mid-day nap (no more than 2 hours) and head back out in the afternoon.
- Don’t skip meals. Garren and I screwed this one up a few times when we either forgot to eat, couldn’t get transportation, or were just too exhausted to bother. I was wracked with stress and jetlag the first few days in India, and my appetite was not at its usual levels. I would feel full all day just to wake up starving in the middle of the night. Don’t force it. Just eat what you can at the normal times and bring some snacks along in case you’re hungry later.
- Wear earplugs to block out traffic noise while you sleep at night. Or, forget them and let the circus symphony of honking horns sing you to sleep.
- Don’t try to get a sim card if you have other options. Getting a sim card in India can feel like you’re applying for citizenship. If you’re up for the challenge, Deb from Tag Along Travel can show you how to get a sim card in Bangaluru India.
- Maps are (almost) pointless. Taxi and auto rickshaw drivers don’t read them and navigate, instead, by landmarks. Know the major landmarks near your destination and use those to tell them where you want to go. If that doesn’t work, you can navigate for your driver using google maps offline (no data required) to track your position en route using your phone’s gps.
- Bring a scarf to tie around your face to filter pollution out during auto rides. Handy for religious sites as well.
- Crossing the street: Wait for a tiny lull in the nearest lane and walk out with your hand outstretched but held low with your palm facing traffic. Be assertive and alert. Drivers are accustomed to pedestrians in the street. Sometimes you have to just go for it!
- Don’t be afraid to bring your camera. Just travel light and keep it secure with your hand on it at all times. I brought my Sony a7 everywhere.
- Keep your debit card, credit card, phone, and most of your cash in an inside pocket. (Lululemon Yoga pants were perfect. Bra stash works well too (minus the phone). I’m not a fan of money belts because they are so bulky and have way more storage than I need.
- Careful with backpacks and open-top purses. A cross-body bag that you can close up and keep on your hip will deter wandering hands.
- Expect security checks with metal detectors at every big hotel, mall, or even some restaurants. Men and women go through different lines and are searched by a guard of the same sex. The funny thing is, they will pass a wand over you, but even if it beeps, they probably won’t check to see what set it off. It is more of a formality and if you look Western they typically won’t search you seriously.
- Haggling is more about facial expressions and body language than the words you use. The shopkeeper may not speak English, but they all at least know English numbers! Ask how much (you could just point to your wallet or a small bill with a questioning look and they’ll get it). Then say a number much lower. They will respond with another number. Raise your number a bit. They will drop a bit. At some point it will be clear they will not drop any lower. This is when you make a face that says, “ehhhh naw, not worth it” and walk out. Once you’ve passed out the door the shopkeeper will chase you down the street shouting one last number. That’s the one you take.
- It’s a good idea to get travel insurance in case something goes wrong. I like World Nomads because they keep their plans simple and affordable, and they came through for me when I needed them when we lost our houseboat deposit due to the strike in Kerala. I also like that they offer extra coverage for high-value items since I travel with two cameras and a laptop! Bloggers gonna blog!
Solo or Female Travelers
- Try to do things during the day and be back to your hotel at night. I know, sometimes you just want to get your Bollywood dance party on, but it is important to stay safe too.
- If you have to go out at night, find someone to go with you and take your private driver (one that you have already met and trust).
- Tell people where you are going, both at home and where you’re staying and keep them updated of your plans. Make sure people have a way to contact you and you have a way to contact your hotel and friends/family at home if you get stuck. WhatsApp is a great way to text without huge data fees since it uses just a few kilobytes of data compared to your standard text messaging app.
When I went to India I didn’t think the culture shock would affect me as much as it did. Don’t delude yourself into thinking you can speed through the country or rough it like a local! Take it slow, give yourself some time to adjust, and don’t make things more difficult than they need to be. Only then will you really be able to appreciate this crazy, beautiful, wild, magical country
You’ll thank me later.
Do you have any India travel tips you wish someone had told you?
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