India is an immense country. It can take 1-2 days to travel from city to city. Thus, trip planning for India can feel overwhelming at times, especially if you’re planning to travel India alone. Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered. I’ve got tips on navigating Indian culture and trip planning, insights on ashrams, yoga teacher’s certification, eating with your hands and more.
Here’s basic things to know before you go to India
What to Wear in India
Wear local clothing. Shop for Indian paps and kurtas. They are inexpensive. Tourists will always stand out, but donning local clothing helps you to blend a little more. Locals might assume you’re an expat who lives there or are married to an Indian. Either way, it shows you’ve embraced the culture and might be knowledgeable about it. This will keep you from appearing like a naive tourist.
Wear lightweight clothing as India’s heat can be like a summery hot.
Women should dress conservatively. No bare shoulders or short shorts and skirts. While Indians wear modern clothes in larger cities, you are likely to cross paths with Indians from rural villages as well and they hold traditional values.
Bring flip flops (aka slippers or thongs. I like wearing my Havianas). If you’re planning on visiting temples, a common practice is to remove your shoes. Slippers are easy to remove and if you bring a plastic bag, to carry them in your backpack or purse (or you can pay and have them watched by a ‘shoe watcher’. Yes, this is an actual job in India outside of temples). Flip flops are also easy to wash should you ever step in cow or dog poo.
Bring or buy a scarf. Scarves are common in India as it’s part of the wardrobe. They come in handy for two things- covering yourself from dust inhalation and for entering Sikh temples where you must cover your head.
Tips on Transportation & Getting Around
In India, there is a local price and a tourist price. No matter what, you will probably always get the tourist price and it will be a few ruppees more. For western travelers, this won’t burst your bank, but it’s ideal if you know the ballpark rate. You will have to haggle in India (This is a handy travel survival tool to have in your pocket for any country).
Take Prepaid or Metered Taxis
A rule of thumb is to always request your taxi to use the meter. Some will try not to. If they refuse, get out and use another. Otherwise, airports and train stations occasionally have prepaid taxi centers, where you pay a standard rate up front. If you do not know if the prepaid center is the right place, ask trustworthy locals.
Airport pickup service
Many guesthouses and hotels offer an airport pickup service. The hotel rates for pickups will be slightly higher than a prepaid taxi, but in some cases, where your hotel or guesthouse is hard to find, it’s worthwhile to pay a little extra. The driver will know the way or sometimes, he calls the hotel for a boy to come out and retrieve you.
India has a variety of options for travel: trains, buses, rickshaws/auto rickshaws and cars. Cities like Delhi, might even have an inexpensive hop on hop off tour bus.
Hiring a driver for a day or as an alternative to long distance travel is convenient and recommended if you want to get around quickly to local sights without having to buy a tour. Ask your hotel for their recommendation.
Update: These days, there’s Ola Cabs, a service you can book on your phone. You can download the phone app to your mobile.
India is a lot bigger than it seems on a map and transportation delays are expected. Consider this when planning your schedule; try not to book your connections back-to-back. Give yourself at least a day or day and a half for transit time.
Some trains are “seasonal” or run only on certain days of the week. During holidays, trains can be booked full. The good news is that India has extra tickets put on the side for tourists, called tourist quota tickets. You can get them at the train station booking office, but often you’ll have to wait in line and then see if there’s any quota tickets available.
You can maximize your sightseeing time by booking sleeper trains on the longer journeys.
Indian Railways website (for railway schedules and fares)
If you’d like to book in advance and independently, the three best website search engines India travel are here.
Guesthouses, Budget hotels & alternative stays
Guest houses and budget hotels can run cheap and are generally similar in condition ranging from poor to moderate. For $6-24/night for a double, western bath with hot water, tv. Here’s a peek inside the anatomy of an Indian hotel.
Okay, midrange hotels don’t really exist in India and if it does, then it’s not the same standard as the western world. While mid-range hotels can cost you anywhere from $20- $60/night range, this doesn’t mean that the conditions will be “better or cleaner” than your 2-star accommodations. India hotels generally run either budget or expensive.
Meditation and Yoga ashrams offer safe options to a stay. However note: sometimes you’ll be required to take part and abide by its rules such as abstaining from sex, alcohol, smoking, meat.
Local Tips and Scams
Be wary of tourism information offices
There are many tourism information offices and generally, they’re private agents vs. an impartial government office. They might even claim to be the government run ” tourism information office” (a common scam and one I ran into). The actual tourism information office will not try to sell you any tour packages or drivers. The real tourism office will just deploy impartial information.
Dealing with Guides, Scams and Beggars
As a tourist, one of all will inevitably cross your path. People have different approaches to handling this. I’m always reluctant to give money to beggars for the simple reason: it does not encourage self-respect, self-sustainance and in the case of children, it keeps them out of school.
- Avoid donating money to anyone. Begging children can break your heart, but one can easily offer candy, chocolates, sweets, pens or food. Remember that children are also used to collect sympathy and sent onto the streets by parents or worse, a boss. However, the sugar can cause tooth decay and not all families can afford to send their child to a dentist.
- If you give one child something, expect to be mobbed by many children who seemingly appear out of the blue.
- Children and touts depending on the areas you’re in, will persistently offer their services as guide. Some may follow you assuming that you’ve accepted or will eventually accept their services if they are persistent. If you don’t want a guide, learn some bits of Hindi such as Chalo (go away), Nein (No) and speak it firmly to people so that they get the point. Chale Jao! spoken sternly, is a term I’ve found to work 70% of the time.
Check your water bottles
Purchase only bottled water with unbroken seals. The reason is that sometimes people in India recycle bottles and refill them with unclean water. Also, after drinking your water, it’s best to crush the bottle so that it’s not reused.
You can determine the shots and medicines you will need to bring by reading Lonely Planet, visiting a travel doctor or ODC website.
Drinking water is not clean in India. You will need to buy, filter or boil water before drinking it.
Take a 2 oz spray bottle of Febreze. This is partly for peace of mind but also to kill germs. What people don’t always recognize is that Febreze doesn’t “mask” odors but kills 99% of the germs and bacteria that creates it. Thus, it’s a great way to freshen and disinfect bed sheets or anything that may seem questionable.