Wowzers, where to even begin! India is the most incredible country I have ever been to. My time in this colorful landscape has changed my life and my outlook in many ways. India is unique, and while it helps to have some other travel experiences under your belt, exploring India requires its' very own handbook. I had no such handbook for my first trip, and I managed to survive just fine, but I wanted to take the time and put together all my best tips for anyone else traveling to India.
The first thing you should know, is don't underestimate the Visa process. You NEED to apply for a visa before hand. Depending on which passport you're holding, you may be able to get a 8 week e-visa. If you want to stay any longer you will have to exit and re-enter with a new e-visa. I recommend applying for a 6 month visa, this may require your passport to be held for up to 2 weeks at an embassy.
India is the second most populated country in the world, with nearly 1.4 billion people, they contain 17% of the total world population.
The land mass is over 1 million square miles with a population density of 1,200 people per square mile.
Remaining flexible-minded is critical in India. Straight off the bat, most things will not go as planned, and that is ok. India is a very large country, I could spend the rest of my life trying to scratch the surface of the many cultures, languages and ethnic groups. Be sure to give India the proper time. You will never see it all, so if you only have three weeks, maybe aim to see 3 different areas. If you have 3 months, you may be able to cover more ground but I recommend keeping your schedule open, free and simple. The more time you have, the more open your schedule can be and thus the more spontaneous magic will occur! Soak up all the spontaneity you can because other aspects of traveling in India require at least 2 weeks of foresight.
Trains / Transport
Trains need to be booked 10 - 14 days ahead of time at least. This really caught me off guard on my first trip. I spent an entire day trying to navigate the online system to buy my own train tickets. 8 hours of frustratingly slow wifi later, I had no tickets! I hear the site is easier to navigate now a days.
For train bookings use IRCTC online - or just visit a tour agency and have them book and print your tickets for you. Chances are, you will be put on a wait list and receive a notification when you have a confirmed seat.
It was middle of winter in Northern India and I did not think that AC units sounded necessary and I went for sleeper class- but in India, AC means that the train car or bus is air tight and the temperature inside is regulated. This is what you want every time if possible!
Train seats will come in 3 tiers of AC options and then you get into the more interesting arrangements. Perhaps you don't have 10-14 days ahead of time to book, you end up in a sleeper class car - The seats have a very thin cushion on them and you will not get sheets. The seats do not get disinfected, so it's always best to have your own blanket, towel or oversized scarf to lay down on. The windows are open to the elements, so this could mean freezing at night and boiling hot during the day, or just boiling hot the whole time. The train is extremely loud, especially in sleeper class with exposed windows, and the smells can be unbearable - keep in mind the squat toilets just empty onto the tracks, sometimes the trains are stalled for hours.... so AC class will be significantly more comfortable if you are able to swing it!
Throughout my days in India I spent over 150 hours riding trains, some of these hours felt like hell, and other times, I was full of electricity, completely alive in that moment. You are likely to experience the full range of human emotions, and although some of those days were rough, riding trains across India is an experience you will never forget.
People are often traveling in large groups - for religious pilgrimages, and family gatherings. Every time I had a bottom seat on the train, I would get shoved aside while a huge family swarmed in for a picnic. The plus side was I always ate delicious food and tried cuisine from all over India while making new friends. It was presumptuous to believe that my train ticket would allow me one seat to myself. It didn't take long for me to learn that you are never alone in India- even when you try to be.
There are a couple of tricks to know for riding trains:
1. If you suddenly decide to meet a friend in another town and you need to book a train ticket immediately, there is such a thing as an "Emergency ticket", if any are available you can purchase at an inflated rate.
2. If you end up with a chair class/general class ticket, there is a chance that you can pay the conductor to upgrade your ticket once you get on board. There is no guarantee and it may take 6 hours to get a new seat, but it's better than standing for 22 hours! I once spent 25 hours on a train without a seat assignment and I just moved to any open bed until getting kicked out. Of course this should be a worst case scenario.
In the winter, there is a lot of fog, and this slows down the trains. Don't be surprised if your ride is supposed to be 14 hours, and it ends up being 25. These things happen - Always have what you need to stay occupied.
What if you are alone, and you need to use the squat toilet on the train but you have a 60 L backpack with you?? Yes I have done it before, but I do NOT recommend squatting with your backpack on. BEFORE you get on a train, go to a shop that sells tools, you should be able to find thick chain. Some but not all train stations will have shops like this outside, but better to come prepared. You will chain & lock your backpack to the seat poles on your train or bus. Then just keep your absolute valuables on you at all times. This will allow you to feel a bit more free on the train to enjoy some fresh air or to take advantage of the bathroom stops on a long bus journey. You will also be able to nap with more ease.
Book your buses on the Red Bus app. Government buses are more reliable and more safe than private buses - You will always reach the proper government bus stations. Sleeper buses are easy to find in India and this is a good alternative if all the trains are booked up. You do not have to book these far in advance. The only downfall with buses is that none of them have bathrooms. They make periodic stops, but for long distance journeys, trains will be the most comfortable option. I was always extra intimidated as a woman, especially traveling alone, that none of the drivers would want to stop for just one woman to go to the bathroom. Buses always remind me of how easy it is for men to go to the bathroom anywhere they please - needless to say, I was always very dehydrated on travel days.
It's always best to have a preliminary plan when arriving to a new city - at least the name of a hostel or guest house. I was riding a sleeper bus in Rajasthan when all the sudden we arrived at our destination 5 hours EARLY! They threw me off the bus at 3:30 am in the middle of a sleeping city. I had the name of a guest house, but nobody was awake to let me in and I had to sleep on the streets.
Don't be surprised if your train is a day late, don't be surprised if your bus arrives 5 hours early! You just never know, try to plan for a number of outcomes or just be prepared to roll with the punches, you will learn how to let go of control and expectations.
Other useful apps are: Make My Trip for booking tickets or you can find good deals if you want to upgrade for a couple of days and binge on room service :) You can also check out room deals on Oyo Rooms.
When it comes to cabs from the airports, TAKE A LEGIT CAB FROM THE OFFICIAL TAXI STAND. Yes, they do cost more, but trust me, you will gladly pay $12 for a cab into Delhi and arrive safely than get swindled into an elaborate scam by taking an unmarked taxi. When it comes to auto rickshaws, they are a great way to get around and do city tours in- It does get dusty and rates will vary depending on which state you are in. If you look like a foreigner or even someone from a different state in India, rickshaw drivers will likely try to get get extra $$ from you. They are notorious hagglers, so whenever I arrive to a new town, I ask around at the guest house for estimate cost of getting around the city - this way I at least have a range in mind. Big cities have Uber and Ola, so that's often an option.
Renting a motorbike is very affordable and fun! BUT be careful!! Some roads are treacherous. Some of the big cities and high in the mountains, I would not recommend driving around yourself. If you are riding in remote areas, it's always best to have a small convoy incase you run into bike troubles.
Before You Go
Before you head to India, do a quick search for the common scams. I did not do this and was scammed pretty bad on my very first day in India. The day ended up being INSANE and it's going to be a whole blog post of its own, hehe. The main thing to keep in mind is that people may try to trick you by saying that "roads are closed and I can't take you to ___ town, you will have to stay here, we have a guest house, blah blah" For this reason it's best to ride in marked taxis and use government buses. After my first scam, I never had issues for the rest of my months in India. I don't want to worry you and make you feel like you will get screwed over. If you have city smarts in the USA, chances are you will be fine. It is important to stay fierce on the outside and try not to look vulnerable. A good way to not look vulnerable is to avoid getting lost. Download map apps to your phone that you can use offline. It may take a minute for the device to register your location but this way you can test if cabs are taking you in the right direction. I used my map apps everyday - you can mark your guest house on the map and then feel free to get lost in the busy streets, without having to keep track of your turns.
This brings me to my next point:
SIM Card ?
I usually never get SIM cards when traveling- there is something special about being "all in" in each moment and reserving specific wifi time at coffee shops to talk to friends and family back home. India however, is an exception. It can be very helpful to have a SIM card in India. I have managed months in India without, but it was at times a pain in the ass. There are a lot of SIM card scams, so if you want a SIM card, be sure that they are registering you properly. They should ask for your passport, and it could take overnight to activate. Even if you opt for the convenient SIM card dealers in the Delhi airport, $20 bucks should get you 3 months of coverage, plenty of data and an Indian phone number (this will come in handy more than you know).
The food is one of the many reasons to LOVE India, and the flavors vary quite a lot from state to state! When compiling my travel advice, my Indian friends all mentioned warnings of SPICY FOOD. The rumors are true folks, some food in India is a lot more flavorful than what we are used to in the West. The cuisine in Southern India is particularly spicy and in my opinion, the best food in the world!
I love spicy food, my personal experiences in India have been that the locals were very cautious around foreigners. They have heard rumors too, that western people don't like spicy food. I usually had to request for my food to be regular spicy, and this always came as a shock to the chef. Just like any other dietary restriction, if you have special food needs, let them be known. Sticking to a vegetarian diet is really easy in India. Most of the cities I frequent are holy cities - You won't find alcohol or meat in these places. Generally, alcohol is not a part of the local culture, it's easy to find in places like Goa or perhaps at a party hostel, but I prefer sticking to chai. Since alcohol isn't a big part of the culture, it happens that those indulging can over do it. I was often traveling alone and I tend to avoid anyone drinking heavily.
You probably never thought you would have to ask for orange juice without salt, but yes, it's true. You might just want a soda water but then be puzzled by the question "salty or sweet"? Hmmmm, can I have neither? Okay I guess I'm having a salty soda.
Soon enough, you'll know what I'm talking about
India is full of surprises
My stomach has steadily grown stronger after spending a couple years traveling in Asia, but I am not immune to the infamous "Delhi Belly" - When you first arrive in India, take it slow. If you are prone to stomach problems, only eat hot cooked food- no raw veggies or fruits. If you don't already take probiotics, now is a good time to start. You can bring probiotic powders with you, you can take concentrate papaya pills as a supplement to ease stomach aches. You can keep activated charcoal in your medical kit ( yes bring one!) incase you eat something bad. Bring a "Life Straw" or "SteriPen" with you. You will save money, and save the world from unnecessary plastic. Some of the water bottles you can buy on the street are tap water, if you are buying bottled water, make sure you break the official seal. Simple tasks will keep you healthy: pour tea tree on every open wound, keep soap on you & wash your hands often.
It's important to dress modestly in India - as a general rule of thumb, I try to blend in as much as possible. Fortunately, India is full of incredible handy crafts, silks and linens. You can get custom made clothes in a matter of hours. Varanasi is a great place to buy silk, and so is Kashmir. A lot of fabrics are made in Rajasthan, for this reason, Pushkar is one of my favorite places to shop. Many of the textile factories & jewelers are there, so if you build a relationship with one of the designers, you can visit the conditions of the factory in person! I do not recommend buying the cheapest things possible, its likely they were not made ethically and they will fall apart quickly! India is very affordable, you can find quality goods that are well made and well priced.
There are parts of India where you can relax more with your dress code. The touristic parts of Goa, Gokarna, Hampi, Rishikesh: these places are already quite westernized. If it's really hot you can go sleeveless so long as you aren't visiting any holy sites. Otherwise, cover your shoulders to your knees and wear loose fitting clothes. People in India tend to stare at foreigners, and trust me, you don't want to add any unnecessary reasons for staring. It can get intense, especially when you are by yourself and there are 12 people starring at you on the train for 20 hours straight.
DON'T TAKE IT PERSONALLY
It's not necessarily rude or sexual or to make you feel intimidated. I spent days and days on Indian trains and never saw another foreigner, ever! There is a chance that you are the first foreigner they have ever seen, or the first person with blue eyes, or red hair, or a pierced eyebrow, a neck tattoo and so forth...
A vast majority of the local people I met wanted to practice their english with me, take selfies and ask my thoughts on India. The connections I have made in India are among the most genuine and beautiful of my life.
Make Friends with Locals!
Beyond genuine connections, I have made life long friends in India too! One of the coolest things about India, is that it's full of Indian travelers. Indians love to travel around their own country. Other Indian travelers make for ideal adventure buddies: they may be able to narrow the communication gap, they may be more familiar with how to drive a motor bike/navigate trains, they will be more familiar and can help explain some of the traditions, ceremonies and stories.
You will see and experience so many things in India that you will not understand. This is a very ancient culture, you will witness devotion like you've never seen before. Much of what you see, may leave you with more questions than answers.
Having local friends can help facilitate more understanding. You can learn so much just from listening - hear about their home town, what their family life is like, and what types of expectations are upon them. I come from an individualistic culture, spending time in communal cultures has brought me a more dynamic understanding of how other people live and perceive their roles in society.
India is WILD. There are opportunities to see elephants, tigers and more in the State Parks. You might hear tigers roaring in the jungle from your bedroom, you might be enjoying an evening by the river when a wild elephant surprises you (and scares the SHIT out of you!) Monkeys and Cows are a lively part of everyday exchanges. They will always steal your snacks if you aren't careful, or even demand a piece of fruit in exchange for safe passing across a bridge.