The Ultimate Guide for Planning your First Trip to India | Popular Itineraries & Costs

India for Beginners: Planning your first trip to India?

 

When planning a trip to India it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with a vast and diverse country like India. Many travelers don’t know where to begin their research or know where to go. This  India for beginners guide breaks down  India trip planning, my top 5 fave trip routes in India and costs and prices in India.

I’ve had a love affair with India for over a decade. It started with my interest in yoga and spirituality and the fact I got my yoga teacher training certification in India. From there I got bitten by the Bollywood film bug. All of these interests, inspired me to travel India and delve deeper into understanding its food, religions and cultures.

Planning your  First Trip to India

The first question on the forefront of everyone’s mind when planning your first trip to India is Where to go?  India is such a large country of diverse culture and landscape. Just opening your India travel guidebook can feel overwhelming.  So in trip planning, there are two things I recommend travelers to look at: 1) popular trip routes taken by other travelers, and 2) themes and personal interests .

India’s Popular Sightseeing Routes & Itineraries

When planning my India trip itinerary, I try to map out a route that is convenient for efficient travel.  Distances you will travel in India, from city to city can take anywhere from two hours to a day. Rather than jumping around in locations, it’s best start by mapping travel routes or covering India by linear chunks or regions.

I’m going to list the top 5 popular routes that travelers take in India. This is merely a starting point for your trip planning.

Also read Planning a Trip to India: Things you Should Know

1.  The Golden Triangle

Popular cities: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur

Traveling India,  the most popular tourist route of first time travelers to India, is the Golden Triangle. The first time I traveled India, I did this route.

The Golden Triangle creates a triangular route, hitting the highlight jewels iconic of India, such as the Agra’s Taj Mahal, Jaipur, a home of Rajput royalty and maharajas, and India’s government capital, Delhi. These three destinations make a triangle. This can be traveled in a week. Delhi is only a few hours from Agra and Jaipur, so travel time to either cities is less than a day. The best time to visit the Golden Triangle  is February and March, October and November.

Taj Mahal in Agra, top wonders of the world

Taj Mahal in Agra

Things to do in Delhi, delhi taxi, delhi tourism, backpacking india, top attractions in delhi

Lotus Temple

2.  Experiencing Rajasthan’s deserts and Raj royalty

Popular Cities : Jaipur, Pushkur, Udaipur, Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur

The Rajasthan route is the second favorite tourist route. Rajasthan is known for its Mughal history, Rajput royalty and the Golden Age of Maharajas, and it’s desert-like terrain. Be on the lookout for elephants and camels and brightly colored saris dotting this region!

On my first trip to India, I combined the Golden Triangle route with a Rajasthan focused route: Jaipur- Bikaner- Jaisalmer- and just eclipsing the blue city ofJodphur. I threw in Varanasi at the end of my trip too. This entire route took me around two weeks.  On my third trip to India, I circled around back to Rajasthan to experience Pushkar and the Pushkar Camel Fair.  

explore rajasthan, golden triangle itinerary, jaipur

explore rajasthan jaipur

3: Find your inner hippie in Goa

Popular cities: Mumbai, Goa, (Karnataka Region) Hampi, Gokarna,

There are many popular destinations in India and Mumbai (or Bombay) is yet another. The Bollywood capital of India draws movie star hopefuls, but feels a little technologically behind compared to Delhi; it still has not acquired a metro system.  This was the start of my second trip to India– a three month route. Surprisingly, Mumbai didn’t hit my favorite Indian city list as I hoped. I never got to see Bollywood stars or a Bollywood film being shot !

A favorite route for travelers is to come into Mumbai and travel down to Goa, for its beaches and rave scene. Continuing south, you’ll hit the Karnataka region and smaller, slightly rural towns like Gokarna (beaches) and Hampi (a town of UNESCO ruins). This region was a little hotter, and at times it felt more arid.

Read Indian buses: Is it safe for female solo travelers?

goa

Goa & Trip planning for India

4:  Chill out in Southern India ( Kerala region- beaches, rivers & backwater )

Popular cities and travel guides:   Alleypey and Kumarakom travel guide , Fort Cochin,  Varkala Beach,  Trivandrum, Kanyakumari travel guideMadurai travel guide.

Southern India heralds the Kerala region. Known as “God’s Land”, you can understand why -the region is lush, with lots of backwaters, rivers and river boat or houseboat tours. The state is a little more affluent than other states in India, streets are well-maintained and there’s many universities in the area.  Book a houseboat tour in Alleypey or take a three-hour public boat tour of the backwaters where you’ll see fisherman laying nets. Fort Cochin is a town with colonial architecture and is home to giant fishing nets and a fishing trade.  For those interested in spirituality, the most well-known ashram of the south is the home of Amma, “the hugging saint”. It is also a place where I had my first Sivananda yoga ashram experience (in Trivandrum).

Temple architecture changes around the Southeastern regions, as in Tamil Nadu cities, like Madurai, where you’ll find the arts are of high focus. Temples can be brightly colorful, and/or a little more illustrative. Southern food and culture also changes, as fish can enter the menu and you might find your dosa or thali served on a banana leaf. Local Indians, raised with Hindi and English might hit language barriers with Tamil.

Alleypey Kerala,

Planning your trip to India: Alleypey, Kerala

Fort Cochin, Cochin nets, cochin fishing nets

Fort Cochin & its fishing industry

5.  Explore Northern India’s Hill regions

India Travel Guides: Ladakh, AmritsarDharamsala, Sikkim, Rishikesh, Darjeeling, Varanasi

The northern areas generally feels the pull of influences from neighboring countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet. The ethnography changes a bit as can the food, culture, language and landscape. In Northern India, I wanted to take my yoga teacher certification program in a place I felt might connect me with a beautifully serene, mountainous environment, where I might learn the meaning behind an eagle pose while looking out and see soaring eagles — that was Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama.  Additionally, yogic travelers like to get their spirituality on in Rishikesh, a cleaner and more peaceful alternative to VaranasiAmritsar is a Punjabi region, where you’ll find Sikhism, the Golden Temple and the Wagah Border.

Further up north there’s Ladakh and Leh, a surreal mix of desert and ice landscape; for me it was heaven on earth.

ladakh landscape, ladakhi mountain range, ladakh culture, nubra valley ladakh

Nubra Valley

Mcleodganj, Dharamsala,

Ladakh, leh ladakh

Leh culture, Ladakh

6.  Experience diverse ethnic cultures in East India

Odissha, Orissa, Kolkata, Darjeeling, Gangtok, Sikkim

I haven’t touched much on East India, because I haven’t traveled much of it. In Northeastern India (West Bengal and higher) the landscape and temples change distinctly again as you head up to Darjeeling and Sikkim, where you’ll encounter a mixture of Tibetan Buddhism and momos.

Pursuing your passions in India

What draws you to India?  You can design your itinerary according to the aspect of India you are most attracted to.  Theme interests can range from culture, spirituality (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, etc…), temple architecture, Ayurvedic interests, yoga/meditation, food, etc… You can be an expert traveler of India or maybe your knowledge consists of a photo you’ve seen in a guidebook or blog. Either way, you can paint your itinerary with the mystery and exoticism of India dreams.

7. Spiritual & Yoga Retreats in India

If you’re interested in spirituality, seeking out ashrams, meditation centers and temples. I once backpacked through India for three months, exploring yoga ashram and living in Dharamsala for a month, while getting my yoga teacher training certification.

Note: A lot of yoga enthusiasts love to come to India because they think of the yogic experience.  Yoga is practiced differently in India than the way it’s practice in the US, so this may be an enlightening experience for you.

yoga teacher certification

hindu pujas sivananda ashram campus, ashrams in india

Puja ritual

Hampi Travel Guide, Virupaksha Temple, hampi ruins india, hampi unesco ruins

Virupaksha Temple, Hampi, Karnataka

Varanasi Travel Guide

Aarti in Varanasi

8. Popular Indian Festivals for Travelers

Maybe you want to focus on festivals because India celebrates festivals in a grand way,.. very colorful and big. What a lot of people don’t know is that some cities celebrate certain festivals in a larger way that others do. Diwali is strong celebrated in Varanasi, the city of Light; whereas, Durga Puja is celebrated big-time in Kolkata. In Kolkata, Durga Puja artists bring the festival to life through their craft, so there are many puja tours around town, celebrating highly decorated Durga pandals (aka temporary structures).

Note: Holi Festival is a world re-known Indian festival, celebrated with the throwing of colored dye powder. It is a festival that has attracted the attention of foreign travelers. However, it is advised that women avoid attending Holi in public festivities. A majority of Indians and authorities will advise travelers against the festival. Holi can attract a lot of drunken, rowdy men and there have been a high number of cases of women being groped in inappropriate places. I celebrated Holi in the safety of an ashram. These days, some hotels and homes will have their own Holi festival to keep the celebrations safe.

holi celebrations, sivananda ashram, ashrams in india

Making many friends and elebrating Holi at a yoga ashram in India

9. Unique city attractions

There are cities in India which have unique attractions, which are eye-catching and distinctly characteristic of a city or region. Some examples are the fishing nets in Cochin, the Wagah Border Ceremony (a face-off between India and Pakistan), or Pushkar Camel Fair in Pushkar.

Amritsar, wagah border

Wagah Border (Border between India and Pakistan), Amritsar

 

Recommended websites for India trip planning

Reputable Trip/Day Tour sites: For trip planning ideas or booking a tour, check out G Adventures or Intrepid Travel (check out their last minute travel deals for savings). I use Get your Guide for day trips. If you’re looking for yoga retreats I visit Tripaneer.

I also like to look at travel blogs for more in-depth information. My favorite India Travel forum is IndiaMike.com – it’s a great resource with an active Indian community around trip planning. You’ll get locals answering your questions.

Facebook groups: There’s travel groups and communities on Facebook or India travel Facebook groups.

Booking.com and Agoda are the booking sites I visit for hotels. I always check reviews before booking anything online. In the past, hotel websites proved too unreliable as photos were not always accurate. These days, everything is aired in a customer review. Booking.com is my favorite of the two as you can cancel your booking without a fee; additionally, I use this to book my hotel for my India visa application.

Read Transportation tips for getting around in India

Tips for Backpacking in India

Yes, it is very possible to wing your trip to India and it’s something I’ve come to enjoy.

Long-term backpackers often like to wait until they arrive in India to see what’s available in resources. However, if you’re going to be researching your trip while you’re traveling, you’re going to be losing a lot of valuable time to the Internet. So here’s some travel hacks I use:

Indian travel agents are knowledgeable in helping you plan and schedule onward travel and tours . Also, their commission won’t be much.

Make friends with Indian tourists and locals. It is not easy to cross paths with other western travelers in India. Backpacker routes here are not like backpacker routes in Thailand, or Cambodia where you’ll hit a stream of other travelers or a plethora of hostels.

Hostel chains are beginning to pop up in India.

Take an India guidebook. It’s a good read on a long train ride and great for last minute recommendations.

Look into day tours, where you can get more insightful cultural information. This is key to unlocking India’s mysteries and your confidence in traveling.

Travel insurance is always advised in the case there are any medical or travel emergencies.

How much does it cost to travel India ?

I know people always ask how much does it cost? It depends upon the type of vacation you’re taking. There a vacation travelers, who travel anywhere from two days to two weeks.

A two week trip to Europe, might cost you $3000. If you’re traveling to India, $3000 might get you through two months. So that’s a big difference.

Vacationers don’t mind splurging for a good experience, to feel safe and often, they will pay a little more for convenience. If you are a long-term traveler, nomadic or a round-the-world trip traveler, you’re going to want to watch your budget a little more. When I was traveling India this last trip, I was traveling for several months and also adding on other countries, flights and visas. I needed my dollar to stretch. My average was anywhere from $25-$35/ day.

My budget range for guest houses/ hotels: Rs.900 (approximately $14 or $15 a night)
Read: Tips for Finding Budget Accomodations India

Mid range or budget hotel:  $20-$30/day.  Hotels often have tax or tariff. Luxury hotels have a luxury tax.

Street food : Rs.10-Rs.60  (that’s literally under a dollar)

Restaurant meal: around Rs.150 a dish

Intercity travel (via taxi, autorickshaw or rickshaw): Around Rs.60-70 range  It’s priced according to distance.

Going to the Airport: Rs.150+ ($2.50)

Domestic Flights : around $60 and up. Usually under $200. But if you’re traveling during festival season, then expect those prices to inflate.

Trains: $12-$35 2AC, 3AC, sleeper 3AC

Attractions:  around Rs.200 for foreigners, lesser attractions will be under Rs. 100

Budget:  $20 to $35 dollars a day. This is fairly mid-inexpensive, and affords a decent time. Budget backpackers can survive on  lower.

Popular Scams in India

What are the popular scams in India and will you encounter any? As a tourist, one or all will inevitably cross your path, so it’s best to know what to look for.

  • Do not give money to begging mothers with babies. The reason is that these demographics are often sent into the streets by a big boss to collect money. The mother with baby is sometimes a scam. Whether or not she owns the baby is one thing; but sometimes, they might ask you to buy milk for her. When you agree, she takes you to a shop to buy the milk and after you’ve bought it, returns it to the shop and starts again.
  • Do not give money, candy or pens to begging children.  In India, begging children are also used by mobsters who keep them in the streets working to beg money. Quite often, the child is not getting anything but a life of abuse, ill-health and poverty under a boss’s whip (think Slumdog Millionaire– it is not far from the truth). As the children are not properly cared for by a caring adult, they can easily get tooth decay and it is unlikely they will be sent to a dentist. Another common reason to not give anything to a begging child is that you will get swarmed by many should you give to one.
  • 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.
  • If any guide or taxi offers to take you to the tourism office or a gem shop, decline. Often they are trying to take you to a shop where they will get a commission from your purchases. Worst case scenario, they could lead you to a place where you will be pressured to buy things.
  • Avoid buying a week or two long tour from an Indian tour agent. I was scammed with friends on my first trip to India. We were sold the same itinerary that we planned, with exception we got a driver (vs train travel) and higher priced hotels (which weren’t any better than we planned). Every stop for restaurant, shopping, tour and stay was something the agent took for commission and there was pressure to buy or trust the offerance.
  • Do not accept red string bracelets from holy men. They are not gifts but money is expected. This reminds me of a Pushkar Lake scam in Pushkar.
  • Your hotel burnt down or the landmark you were going to visit is closed.  This is one of the most popular scams in India and they are to detour you from your path so you can be refocused onto another which affords the person taking you there, a commission.
  • The taxi meter is broken. If that is the case, get out and hail another taxi. India also has Uber and Ola Cabs which are more reliable and safer.

What to Wear in India

Being a conservative country and a predominantly male public, women should dress conservatively. In big cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, women dress a little more western. However it is important to note that all types of Indians travel in large cities, even Indians coming from small villages.

As a foreigner, should you wear anything inappropriate in short skirts and shorts or low cleavage or bare shoulders, you might get unwanted attention.

When visiting temples, always dress conservative. No bare shoulders or short shorts and skirts. Also, you need to remove your footwear when entering a temple. Wearing flip flops or sandals are easy to remove and if you bring a plastic bag, you can carry them in your bag.

Although India might feel like summer in many regions,  buying native clothes like an Indian pap will help with the heat, while keeping your covered.  Also, the lightweight clothing that Indians wear is comfortable. An advantage is that it’ll help you blend in and look a little more local.

Read How to Pack for India and Southeast Asia

Best Bollywood Films to Watch to Inspire your India Wanderlust

A Bollywood movie is nothing like a Hollywood film. It is a different type of entertainment escape for the masses and it holds a formula which Indian cultures and values understand and appreciate. There are a lot of song and dance numbers and a movie can last up to three hours long, with an intermission midway.  Read my 26 Best Bollywood Movies to Inspire India Wanderlust

Recommended Essentials for India (Shop)

Traveling India  Series ( Video playlist)

Tips & City Guides for Solo Travelers

As a female solo traveler and YouTuber, I take you inside Indian trains, how I got a foreign tourist quota, how to get your Sim card and how to navigate Indian transportation, food and cities.  These are all filmed as I travel through India alone, so you can see the degree of difficulty or not.   I love India but I am certainly not invulnerable to trip difficulties, worry or culture shock.

Trip planning for India ? Start here.

Planning your first trip to India? Start here. What to Pack for India Backpacking? Check here.  Read about how to Get an Indian SIM , do you need a female urinary device?getting an Indian Tourist Visa for U.S. Citizens

Learn the India trip essentials from India scams, dress etiquette, itineraries, accommodations, food insights, how to take the bus, dealing with sexual harassment and indian trains, and staying at ashrams.

how to plan your first india trip

how to plan your first india trip

planning your first india trip

planning your first india trip

Best Travel Insurance for Backpacking India

I highly recommend travel insurance. American travelers often pay a premium on travel insurance.  World Nomads offers economic solutions for travelers who seek security and peace of mind.  It covers 150 countries.

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.

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