After two trips to India, I have spent a cumulative 2 months there, which may sound like a lot but it is merely scratching the surface of what this boundless country has to offer.
These travel tips will help you have a more pleasant journey through the incredibly diverse and culturally rich country of India.
– Get a Charles Schwab card
This is important for all travelers, regardless of where you’re going. Don’t waste your money on exchange rates and commission. Open an account at Schwab and never pay a foreign transaction or ATM fee again.
-Take out cash for a few days at a time
ATMs are everywhere in larger cities, however, there can be technical difficulties or long lines. In smaller towns, ATMs can be extremely difficult to find, and being stuck without any rupees is NOT fun. You’re going to want to travel with enough cash for a few days at a time to be safe. In the cities, a lot of places, sometimes most places, will accept cards— some do not accept foreign cards though. The informal economy is big in India— bazaars, fruit markets, street food, chaiwalas.. so make sure to carry small bills as well.
AND of course always beware of pickpocketing, always. Don’t carry all your cash in one place, and make sure it’s an inside pocket.
-Understand that India is not a particularly relaxing vacation
India is a big bustling developing country. Parts of it are beautiful, and parts of it are, well, not. Your time in India can be stressful. People are friendly but in touristy areas businesspeople can be pushy.
Cities and towns in India are LOUD. Book decent accommodation, you’ll be thankful to have somewhere to escape the cities at night, and not have to listen to honking from the street.
India has over a BILLION people. Just keep that in mind when you’re annoyed that there are people in your photos. Chances are, you’re in someone else’s way too.
-Don’t be cheap
Sure, there are $1 hostels in India… but do you want to get bedbugs, scabies, etc? Spend what you would normally spend on accommodation, and enjoy the luxury, rather than cutting corners. You’ll appreciate it later, trust me.
-Bargain, but don’t over-bargain
For more expensive merchandise, bargain hard, especially in Rajasthan. For cheaper things, it may not be worth the hassle to bargain at all. When it comes to shopping and bargaining, don’t waste your time nickel-and-diming somewhere for a product. It’s not worth 5 minutes of your time to get the price down one more dollar.
– 100% make sure to have an internet plan
You definitely want to have Internet in India. While maps.me and google translate can be downloaded offline, you’ll want more accurate online maps as navigating can be difficult. Also, Uber WhatsApp and other apps won’t work without the internet, and you don’t want to be caught in a sticky situation without them. This, like many other trips, goes for everywhere, not just India.
-Don’t expect to get anywhere quickly.
Things in India move slowly. Expect everything to be late. Sometimes buses will not come at all. Trains may be full or oversold, traffic can take hours to get through. I have waited hours just to get tickets for a bus which ultimately only went halfway to the destination then stopped and I had to improvise, hitchhiking on the back of a local’s motorcycle in the middle of the night.
Part of this is cultural- India is generally (and I say generally because India has many cultures) a more relaxed place like Southern Europe or the Middle East. People compensate for this by driving really fast.
-Take a cooking class
Indian food can’t be beaten— it’s definitely my favorite and once you see the vast variety of dishes you’ll be amazed. Before you spend money buying spices in the bazaar, take a cooking class.
Did you know that most North Indian ‘curries’ are yogurt based? I didn’t until I took a cooking class and realize EVERYTHING is loaded with yogurt, plus cream, butter, and oil. No wonder it’s so good.
-Venture off the beaten path to get a real taste.
India is interesting because some places are completely spoiled by tourism, such as the ‘holy’ city of Pushkar in Rajasthan, while others, such as Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat, are relatively untouched.
See the major sites, such as ‘Golden Triangle’ of Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra, and then opt for a village experience, or visit a state you’ve never heard of.
You’ll notice the people are much friendlier, and prices are 2-10x less expensive. You’ll have gorgeous temples all to yourself and may even get invited to a family dinner or wedding.
While the major sites are breathtaking, I found that the people you interact with (and this is true of most touristy places) on a daily basis are not normal people; they are business people who are 9 times out of 10 trying to get you to buy something. I try to minimize those experiences and maximize my time with genuine locals, who 9 times out of 10 are not trying to sell you anything.
– Uber/Ola when possible
Uber and Ola are available in most of India, which the exception of Goa. You have the choice to get an autorickshaw, motorcycle, prime car or mini car. Rates in big touristy places will be cheaper than hailing a cab/auto from the street, and you will be relieved not having to explain a million times what your destination is and that you DONT need a tour.
Also, intercity travel is pretty cheap on Uber and much more comfortable than a train or bus. If you have more than 1 person in your group, private car travel will be roughly the same price as a train, so it seems like an obvious choice.
Getting you, your luggage and your group from the hotel to the train station, getting tickets, getting off at the right stop, and getting to the next hotel or hostel is a long and tiresome experience that can be easily avoided.
-Visit religious sites — beware of scams
India is the birthplace of Asia’s oldest and largest religions: Hinduism, Buddhism as well as Jainism and Sikkhism.
Attending prayer ceremonies/services or poojas can be a really fun, colorful and educational experience, which I highly recommend.
However, beware of scams. Don’t let anyone convince you into paying more than a listed price for a service or guilt you into donating a lot. At a proper temple with proper religious people, services will be free or inexpensive.
Because of India’s long history of Mughal rule, there are also really impressive Islamic sites (you know, like the Taj Mahal). These will be closed on Fridays, so plan accordingly.
– Don’t expect to see it all in one trip
India is huge, and also very dense. A mistake travelers I met often made, I think, was biting off more than they could chew, spending two or three months in India, trying to see everything. Ironically, the ended up seeing all the sites but not getting to know the people or the different cultures, and didn’t seem to be having a great time.
The law of diminishing returns is not just for economists— the 10th ancient Hindu temple or Mughal palace you see is not going to be nearly as exciting as the 1st and 2nd. You’ll be happier if you see a few things, and then come back later in life. India will always be there, and there’s always more to explore.
– Take it slow so you don’t burn out
You’re going to be forced to go slow— so plan on taking it slow, and this way you won’t be frustrated. Trying to cover a lot of ground and rushing around in India is exhausting and not a good approach. Pick a few places, or maybe just a state or two, and delve in deep.
An itinerary that may take a week in Europe may take two weeks in India. While infrastructure is generally pretty good, it can still be difficult to see many things in one day. The drive from Jaipur to Amer (5 miles) took two hours. That’s just part of the experience.
Being in India, you’ll see, isn’t always easy. Even if you’ve spent months backpacking Eastern Europe and you think you’re ready for India, you may come to find your patience wearing thin after a few weeks.
– Don’t be afraid of street food — BUT don’t be stupid
Every traveler knows someone who got food poisoning traveling in South America or Southeast Asia. You may have heard horror stories about India.
You’d be missing out if you didn’t try Indian street foods. You can read more about it here:
My advice is to proceed with caution. Don’t eat pani puri (literally ‘water bread’) on the street and you’ll probably be fine. If it’s steaming hot, it’s fine. If you don’t see the vendor cooking, don’t eat it.
Know your limits. If you have a sensitive stomach or have gotten food poisoning before, you should know what you’re dealing with.
Remember, you can get food poisoning from anything. Most of the time, it’s from ‘Western’ food. Don’t waste your time eating ‘Western’ food. You’re in India. Eat something you’ve never seen before, you won’t regret it.
– Be stern/have a thick skin
If you’re in the Golden Triangle area, or Goa, or somewhere touristy, people are going to hound you for tours, to buy their products, etc. They are generally nice about it, but very very persistent. Be as stern and short, but not rude. A simple ‘no thank you’, should work. In Agra, you’ll have to say ‘no.’ with a very strong voice 4 or 5 times. Don’t get mad, and if people start giving you a sob story or calling you names, its just because they’re trying to get your attention.
If you don’t want to take a selfie with someone, just say no. Chances are, you will be asked a few times to take pictures with complete strangers. Be open to it though as long as you feel safe, you might make a new friend.
– Don’t feed or antagonize wild/feral animals
In India, cows are sacred, stray dogs roam the streets, and monkeys loiter anywhere they can find food. Do not feed or bother the animals, as they can be unpredictable, especially monkeys.
Feeding the monkeys only makes them more dependent on people and encourages poor behavior.
– Learn some basic phrases
This goes for anywhere you visit. Remember that India is incredibly diverse and that Hindi isn’t everyone’s first language.
Almost every state has its own language and may have several dialects, meaning that what you picked up in one city you may not be able to use in the next. Learning basic greetings in regional languages will earn you some serious Brownie points. See bottom for some very basic Hindi.
– Pills, pills, pills
Get the required shots before traveling to India. No one is going to be checking, it’s up to you to be responsible. You don’t need to be scared, just be precautious.
Stock up of Diarrhea pills, even those with strong stomachs may get some unwanted watery stool. Not fun, especially when public toilets can be difficult to find and not particularly equipped. Better to have more than less, because if you’ve got the runs, you’re not going to be able to make it to the pharmacy to get more.
Malaria pills you can take daily or weekly, they’re inexpensive and though it may be a hassle, taking a pill is much better than getting malaria.
If you happen to get a minor ailment, try some Ayurvedic (traditional herbal) medicine. I got a swollen taste bud a few times, and a sore throat from the pollution and Ayurvedic medicine (sold at many pharmacies) cleared me right up. I highly recommend Kanthil for sore throats.
-Try a local guide
While the guides hounding you at the entrances to sites may be annoying, don’t shoot them down right off the bat. Some guides are in fact government certified and will greatly add to your experience!
Without a guide, you may find yourself looking at a building with no clue what it is. Signage is generally good and in English but sometimes difficult to understand and assumes you have lots of prior knowledge.
Be sure to discuss the price before accepting, and bargain.
-Consider wearing a mask in bigger cities
The air quality in many Indian cities is considered ‘unhealthy’, or even ‘hazardous’ according to iPhone’s weather app. The forecast may simply say ‘smoke’. I was taken aback the first time I saw this.
If you don’t wear a mask, you might start to feel the pollution negatively affecting your health and constitution. I didn’t think I was sensitive to air quality, living in an industrial part of Brooklyn. Then I got to Ahmedabad and was hacking phlegm for 2 weeks, and found myself really tired and getting frequent headaches.
The air quality depends on the season and city and isn’t going to harm you unless you’re riding in auto rickshaws all over town for days without a mask. Plenty of places have ‘normal’ air.
Don’t let me scare you– India is an incredible place! Don’t let the fear of getting sick deter you from going, or trying new things. I hope you found these tips useful, and that you have a great trip!
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Coming soon: posts on Indian food, a Golden Triangle trip review, and What to do in ‘Ahmedabad, the Manchester of the East’.
Basic Hindi Greetings
Hello – Namaste
Good Morning – Suprabhat
How are you? – Ap kay-say hoh? (formal)
How are you/What’s up? Saab tik?
What’s your name? – Ap nam kya hay?
My name is.. – Meera nam..
How much? Kitna? (Most will respond with English numbers)