India is an absolutely huge, diverse country with so many incredible things to discover, that it would be impossible to see everything in just one trip. I spent 3 and a half months travelling this immense country and still barely scratched the surface.
It’s a country of immense sights, sounds, tastes, smells… It’s a country which will assault your senses and leave you feeling elated, confused or utterly broken. Sometimes all 3 in one day.
Before I went I had lots of questions about what I could expect to find, and so I thought it would be useful to sum up everything I’ve learned during my stay for anyone looking to make the trip in one handy travel guide to India.
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- Location: Sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, South Asia
- Size: 3.28 million km²
- Population: 1.25 billion (yes, that’s not a typo!)
- Currency: Indian Rupee (INR)
- Official languages: Hindi and English
The best time to travel
As India is so massive, there really isn’t a ‘best time to travel’ suitable for the whole country. It’s generally accepted though, that the most popular time to travel through the majority of the country is October – March, or ‘high season’.
April and May are good times to travel if you want ‘off season’ prices, but be warned that most of the country is so hot that you’ll probably need to invest in air conditioning in your room anyway, wiping out any savings made by negotiating off-season room rates. And when I say ‘hot’ I mean 40 degrees plus. It’s really not pleasant!
The monsoon (heavy rains) start in the south of the country in June and work their way north, finishing in the mountains of the Himalayas in September.
If you’re looking to go to the mountains, then the best time to enjoy them is between June and September, when the rest of the country is being battered by Monsoon rains.
Not to miss places in India
The Taj Mahal – The most famous palace in India, the Taj simply can’t be missed. Visit at sunrise or sunset for the best photos.
Hampi – A 13th and 14th Century settlement now holds some of the best ruins in the country. Plus it’s a really laid-back chilled out town, with its own elephant in residence!
Mumbai – Hot, sweaty and full of life, it’s my favourite city in India! Try the amazing street food, visit the Gateway of India, take a tour of the slums and then go dancing in Bandra West.
Manali – Right up in the Himalayan Mountains, this relaxed mountain town is also home to some great adventure sports. See the top 10 adventures in Manali.
Jaisalmer – Near the border with Pakistan and right out in the Thar Desert lies the still-inhabited fort town of Jaisalmer. A camel safari is a great way to feel back in touch with nature.
Goa’s beaches – Nothing like the rest of India, Goa is a welcome break from the chaos. Chill on the South Goan beaches of Palolem and Patnem, and then head north to party in Anjuna before soaking up the culture in Panaji.
Varanasi – The holiest place in India and home to the River Ganges. People flock here to bathe in the holy waters and also to cremate deceased relatives.
Kerala’s back waters – Take an overnight boat ride or a local ferry to see these beautiful back waters and spot wildlife.
Planning your trip
The main thing to remember that when planning your trip to India, you will have to be flexible. Plan in some extra time for the inevitable delays you will encounter, and remember that getting from A to B takes a lot longer than you may anticipate.
Also, keep in mind that you may get sick and this will delay you for a few days or more.
Sign up to cleartrip, India’s most helpful travel website and you will be able to check availability for buses, trains, planes and more. Book as far in advance as possible, but put a few days aside for ‘taking it slow’.
If you’re outside of India when booking the trains you will need to register with IRCTC (the trains network) by a 3 step process. It’s complicated and you might just want to wait until you arrive in India and get yourself a SIM card.
If you want to book your accommodation ahead of time, then booking.com offer free cancellation on most of their reservations so you can remain flexible.
As you can imagine from a country with over a billion people, Indian culture is rich and varied. The predominant religions are Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism and Christianity, and you’ll find that some places will sway more towards one religion than others.
When travelling through, you’ll find yourself witness to a myriad of cultural festivals and events (I was even invited to an Indian wedding!), which is one of the reasons this country is simply fabulous.
Religion aside, the culture in India is largely conservative. People dress modestly, respect each other and live peacefully. You should respect the local way of life and follow what they local people do. Dress appropriately, and show particular respect for elders.
It’s the Indian way to normally address men first, so if you’re a woman and you feel yourself being ignored, then don’t take it personally! Women in India tend to marry young and spend their time raising a family, so the western way of women marrying later and having a professional career can seem strange to people here.
India has the 3rd largest train network in the world, which makes it a great way to cover this massive country. Trains are reliable and safe, and although it’s normal for them to suffer regular delays, they are still my favourite way to travel in India.
There are lots of different classes of travel available, and depending on your budget you’ll make your own choice. Sleeper class is crowded and hot, but very, very cheap. You will be able to mix with the locals but be warned that giving you your personal space is never high on other people’s priority list, and you will be stared at, poked, squished, and asked endless questions. But like I said, it’s a great way to mix with the locals!
Most tourists choose to travel in class 2AC or 3AC. AC stands for ‘Air Conditioned’ (which is very welcome in the hotter parts of the country), and the 2 or 3 relates to how many bunks are stacked on top of each other. I’ve travelled in both 2AC and 3AC and found them both pretty comfy, but I prefer 2AC as you can sit on your bunk without hunching over.
Tickets on the train network are cheap (as a very rough rule, a journey in an air conditioned carriage in 3AC or 2AC should cost about 100 rupees per hour).
You can book train travel online at cleartrip. The further in advance you can book, the better, as trains do get booked out in high season.
For more info on the Indian trains network, see this super helpful article by India Mike. It’s an awesome, very detailed resource.
Although I would always recommend taking the train where you can, in some locations it’s just not possible, so buses are the next best way to get around.
There are a few different types of bus, and what you choose will depend on your preference and the availability of services in the area you’re travelling through.
Local buses are really, very cheap and are a wonderful way of travelling on a budget. They tend to be a couple of hundred rupees for a journey of about 8 hours, however there are a few drawbacks. They are not air conditioned, they’re crowded and there’s rarely anywhere to store your luggage.
On local buses you may have to throw your luggage at the front, on the top of the bus or if you’re lucky, in a boot (although it will cost you a few rupees normally). They also have a nasty habit of not entirely stopping, so getting on and off with a large bag whilst the vehicle is still in motion can be a stressful experience.
Tourist class sleeper and semi sleeper buses are usually pretty good, but come at a premium compared to local buses. They are usually air conditioned (although not always) and provide a reclining seat or a flat bed to sleep on if travelling overnight.
One of the best examples of this I have seen is between Hampi and Goa, where the bus was in great shape, and the ride was bumpy but comfortable.
Buses in Rajasthan and ‘the north’ tend to be a little more on the battered side, and because of the winding nature of the roads in this area (generally), you do get thrown around quite a lot. Also, there are also fairly regular accidents reported out of Rajasthan on the bus network. A fellow blogger Drew was in a nasty accident there just a few months ago. Read his story here.
There is also a rather obvious downside of travelling by bus rather than train… You are at the mercy of the driver for food and toilet stops. I have had to bribe a driver to pull over to relieve myself at the side of the road. He chose to stop in a busy town and then drive past me very slowly so everyone could get a good look. Gee, thanks Mr Driver!
Actually, I’ve had more than my fair share of humiliating roadside wees by travelling on a bus, including having an entire family stare at me whilst I peed next to an angry dog, so don’t say I didn’t warn you!
If you don’t have much time and you can’t stretch to a 16 hour overnight train through the Indian countryside, then flying between major cities is a good option, and it’s cheap too. I flew from Goa to Mumbai for around 2,500 rupees (£25) one way with Jet Airways.
Other cheap domestic airlines include Spicejet and Air India. Check and compare before flying, and make sure you know the limitations of air travel. You may be charged extra for baggage, online check in or meals.
Don’t bother booking flights through a travel agency. They will only add a commission to the price and you can easily book for yourself online.
There aren’t many opportunities to travel by boat in India, but if you’re travelling in Kerala, then you really must take a boat or ferry between cities. The back waters are truly beautiful and it makes a wonderful change of pace. See my article on travelling by local ferry.
In large cities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Amritsar, getting around by taxi is actually pretty convenient using one of the local metered taxi services such as Ola. It will save you the hassle of haggling with a rickshaw driver too. Note that in big cities, rickshaws should be metered, but this doesn’t always happen.
There has been lots of focus in the news about safety in India, particularly surrounding the 2012 gang rape and murder on a bus in Delhi.
Although there are still a number of incidents like this throughout the country, you have to remember that there are 1.25 billion people in India, and just like any other country, they will have examples of violent crime.
You are very unlikely to experience violence, however it’s not uncommon for women to experience verbal or sexual harassment.
I travelled with my boyfriend and I never felt threatened or in danger (with Delhi being the most uncomfortable city for me), however I was subjected to some sexual harassment including ‘brushing against’ private parts and a few rude comments. I definitely felt safer having a man around in some situations.
If you’re travelling solo there are some general tips you can follow to keep yourself safe:
- Avoid travelling alone at night, especially on local buses.
- When in crowded places, be aware that men may ‘brush against’ or grope you. Don’t be afraid to speak out. People are generally very friendly and will instinctively protect a foreigner / guest in his / her country.
- Wear appropriate clothing. Cover your arms and legs, and if you’re feeling a little uncomfortable then cover your hair and face too. Dark sunglasses can help to sidestep any unwanted stares, especially if you have blue or green eyes.
- If you are being stared at, do not reciprocate, as this can be misconstrued as a sign of taking interest. Simply learn to ignore it. I know it’s difficult, but it’s just their culture and you have to learn to live with it.
- There is a lot of corruption in India, and it’s true that ‘money talks’. Everything runs on money, and people can and will be bought. Remember that this can go both in your favour and against it, and be aware of this fact as you travel through.
- Food poisoning is also another large concern for foreigners travelling in India, and most people do succumb to it at one point or another. I was so badly poisoned from a paneer tikka masala in Mysore that I ended up in hospital on a saline drip.
Here are a couple of suggestions to help avoid food poisoning in India:
- Check that everything you eat is fresh and piping hot. Lukewarm food that’s been sitting out for a while is definitely not advisable!
- In the hot weather, avoid eating meat or fish. Frequent power cuts mean that even the most well-intentioned restaurants may not be able to keep meat fresh. If you can’t guarantee that it’s been stored correctly then don’t risk it.
- That said, don’t be afraid of street food. It’s some of the most delicious food you can get! Simply follow the rules above… Make sure it’s hot and fresh! Pick a stall with lots of customers which can ensure a healthy turnover so you know your food is prepared on the spot.
- Stock up on anti diarrhoea tablets, as well as probiotic tablets to help keep the good balance of bacteria in your stomach.
- If you have been sick for more than 8 hours, then get yourself to a local hospital for a check up. It’s better to be safe than sorry, and you can dehydrate very quickly if you’re sick in the heat.
Other tips to help you prepare for travelling in India:
- There is life everywhere! As well as the 1.25 billion people, you can also expect to see cats, dogs, horses, pigs, sheep, goats and lots and lots of cows sharing the streets in India. Cows are a holy animal so people allow them particular free rein.
- Foreigners are exceptionally interesting to Indian folk, so expect to be asked a lot of questions about where you’re from, whether you are married and what you do for a living (guys get asked this more than girls). Also expect to be asked to pose for photos. A request for ‘one snap’ invariably leads to a hundred, as a queue of fascinated Indians forms near you.
- Street vendors, rickshaw drivers and anyone who provides a service for you are going to try and get as much money from you as possible. They are particularly devious in Hampi and Goa. Honestly, the women selling jewellery in Goa have a special gift that makes you feel like you’re their best friend, and before you know it, you’ve been duped into paying 1500 rupees for a tacky piece of jewellery worth no more than 200. You have been warned.
- Haggle for everything. It’s a pain in the bum and requires a fair amount of skill, but people expect to do it. Note that haggling isn’t really fruitful in the Himalayan region, and you’ll find a lot of ‘fixed price’ stores offering decent prices in the first place.
- In shops, make sure you look out for the ‘MRP’ (Maximum Retail Price) marked on the item. This is the absolute maximum that shop keepers are allowed to sell an item for, so don’t let them charge you more.
- Agree a price for any service (especially in taxis and rickshaws) upfront. Never fall for the ‘pay me what you think it’s worth’ scam, as the drivers will make you feel guilty for whatever amount you end up paying, and will try to get more from you.
- Beware that in larger cities, there are lots of beggars. It’s up to you whether or not you choose to give, but this article on begging children is a worrying read, and highlights the problem of gangs using children to beg. I choose not to give money. Food is usually a good option for someone who is genuinely in need, but make sure it’s open so it cannot be resold for financial gain of the gang leaders.
Tech and staying connected
Wifi is unpredictable and patchy so invest in a local SIM card as soon as you arrive, even if you are only travelling for a couple of weeks. They cost anything from 150 to 300 rupees (£1.50 – £3.00) and you can top up about 150 rupees per GB of data. You can buy one from any newsagent, and you’ll need a copy of your passport to register. Note: SIMs issued to foreigners automatically expire after 3 months, so if you’re travelling for longer you’ll need to buy another.
Having an Indian SIM card will allow you to register with cleartrip, which is the easiest website to use for booking your train and bus travel. Tickets are texted to you for you to show to the ticket inspectors so you don’t have to bother printing off tickets every time.
India is a developing country with an unreliable power grid, so power cuts are commonplace. Make sure you carry a torch with you at all times.
One of the biggest draws to people looking to travel in India is the food. Each region has its own speciality and twist on the classics, but generally it’s spicy and full of flavour! Some of my favourite dishes as I’ve travelled though have been:
- Vegetable Jaipuri – A mild to medium veggie curry hailing from Jaipur. Great with jeera (or zeera) rice.
- Chicken Kadai – Just the right blend of creamy and spicy, and with plenty of vegetables too.
- Kofta curry -A curry local to Rajasthan which is made with deep-fried balls of lentils.
- Tandoori chicken – Chicken marinated in spices and baked in a clay oven called a tandoo
- Daal Fry – A lentil based curry cooked in spices. Mild but delicious.
- Thali – A mix n’ match dish giving you a little bit of everything
- Pani Puri – Crispy hollow balls filled with lentils and tamarind water. Mostly served as a street food.
- Parathas – Flakey, cakey breads covered in butter. Amazing.
- Chicken Momos – Steamed or fried dumplings hailing from Tibet but really popular especially in the north.
- Yak cheese – Found in the north and kind of like a more flavoursome mozzarella. Sounds gross but you should totally try it.
- Chai – Indian tea full of milk and sugar. The best chai in the country is served on the trains, believe it or not!
- All Indian sweets. All of them.
A short packing list for travel in India
Depending on where you’ll be going, your packing list will vary slightly. For example, if you’re planning on spending time in the Himalayas, you’ll need walking boots and plenty of warm clothes. If you’re sticking to the south you probably won’t need these. Here’s a very simple packing list for travelling through India:
Clothes – A capsule selection of tops, T-Shirts and lightweight shirts to cover your arms. A couple of paris of long trousers (lightweight material), one warm jumper, underwear, socks, swimwear, flip flops and sturdy walking shoes.
Accessories – A couple of thin scarves and shawls to cover your shoulders and hair, jewellery, small day pack and small handbag. Packing cubes to keep your belongings organised.
Toiletries – Shampoo, conditioner, shower gel as needed. These can be bought very cheaply in India so just stick to the small bottles and don’t overpack.
Tech – Camera, smartphone (buy a SIM card when you arrive), chargers, power adapter (European style 2 pin plug).
The best apps for travel in India
Cleartrip – Book your train, bus and plane travel, as well as hotels should you wish.
Skyscanner – compare flights easily.
Rome2Rio – Find the route from A to B, just take the prices with a pinch of salt.
XE Currency – Find out today’s exchange rate.
Redbus – Book bus travel in India.
BlaBla Car – Lift sharing app. Not advised for a female travelling alone
Meetup – Only really useful in major cities such as Mumbai or Delhi, but a great way to meet like minded people.
Hostelworld – Hostels. Enough said.
Other India travel resources
IndiaMike – Amazing forum style website with loads of India travel questions and answers.
Hippie in Heels – Rachel lives in Goa and her blog is dedicated to sharing the India love.
Dream, Breathe, Go – Mariellen has lived in India on and off for several years and has some in depth articles on lesser known areas.
Let me finish by saying…
There is a saying in one of my favourite films based in India, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “Everything will be all right in the end. And if it is not yet all right, then it is not yet the end”. I really like this saying, as it encapsulates the feeling of the country. Things just work. I have no idea how, but they do.
Trust the system, even though there is no system. India is one of the most chaotic yet wonderful countries I’ve ever visited.
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