If you talk about diversity, there’s no country like India. I say this to fellow travelers who haven’t been to India, ‘India is not a country, it’s a continent’. Every 50 or so km the way you experience India changes completely, people look different, speak in a different language that has a different script, the local staple food changes, the geography changes.
Traveling to India for the first time can be an overwhelming experience. There is a multitude of choices at every step of the way from enormous food options to adventurous travel ways.
“If there is one place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India” – Romain Rolland
Here is a beginner’s guide to preparing anyone who’s traveling to India for the first time.
1. There is wifi but not open
Wi-Fi in India is commonly available in cities. In rural areas, people tend to have a mobile phone with data but wifi is not common.
Open wifi in India is a rarity. It’s available in some railway stations but it requires an Indian number to use and is generally available for up to 15 minutes.
2. SIM card is cheap and useful
India provides data for some of the cheapest rates in the world. There are many service providers available like Vodafone, Jio, and Airtel.
I personally use Vodafone and have been happy with their coverage.
My recommendation would be to not take a SIM card at the airport as it would be expensive. It should be fairly easy to get a SIM card for 30 – 90 days.
3. There are many budget stay options beside hostels
India caters to all kinds of budgets. So you would find 5-star luxury hotels here and also dirt cheap hostels (The cheapest deal I found was a dollar for a night).
Here is the jargon used in India for stays:
- Hotel: This is a term everyone understands. Hotels are fairly common in tourist places and generally range from Rs. 800 to Rs. 4000 (average stay cost)
- Backpackers hostel: Hostel culture is something that picked up in India in the last 4 years. Before that, the term was only used for university hostels or hostels in cities used by working professionals taken on monthly rentals. So, you might come across people who don’t understand the term ‘hostel’ at all. It’s best to use ‘backpackers hostel’ or ‘dormitory’.
Having said that, you will find hoards of hostels in most tourist towns. In general, I have found hostels in the northern part of India slightly cheaper than the ones in the Southern part of India. If you stray away from the tourist trail, there might not be any hostels there.
- Guesthouses: These are like cheap hotels with private rooms. Generally, sheets are clean but old and housekeeping can’t be expected every day.
- Homestays: Homestays are much more common in the Himalayas than any other part of India.
4. Food is the soul of India
If you have never tried Indian food before then you’re in for a treat, and if you have, then too you’re in for a treat. Indian food is by far one of my favorite cuisines in the world.
Street food in India is huge and it can cost as low as Rs. 10 for some fresh pakoras (fritters).
Best for in-between snacks, but you could also find regular meals on the streets. However, remember it’s not the most hygienic. Indians with iron stomachs also fall sick to these yum threats.
My recommendation would be to ease into Indian street food. Start with freshly made stuff like dosa. then level up slowly. Try to avoid cold water as much as possible. Unfortunately, that’s an essential ingredient of one of my favorite street food out there – Panipuri. These are deep-fried puris (a crispy bread hollow inside) filled with spiced water along with mashed potatoes and some onions.
Most travelers I meet stick to packaged mineral water. The two extremes I have met – one guy I met used to brush his teeth with packaged mineral water as well, another guy I hosted started drinking filtered tap water (like me) from day one. The second guy did get food poisoning a few days later in another city but it could have been from all the street food he was trying.
5. Make use of the foreigner’s quota on Indian trains
Before I begin writing about this, remember, in all these of travel in India, I have never reached anywhere on time that was advertised. Buses, trains, people, everyone and everything in India is generally late.
There are largely two kinds of buses –
- Government-run buses
- Private buses
While government-run buses on some routes are much cheaper, they can be really busy (lots of people standing). Also, they don’t care so much about service quality. Like this one time when the conductor told me the bus would stop for 10 minutes but took off within minutes when I was in the toilet. My bag was on the bus and I was stranded at a bus station I didn’t know the name of at 4 in the morning.
Tip: In most private buses there is reserved ladies seat which shows in pink when you’re booking the ticket. This makes it highly likely there would be a women seated next to you. If you’re a solo woman traveler, I would highly recommend booking a ladies seat only.
Note: There’s no toilet on Indian buses. Long-distance buses generally take one or two steps along the way for food and toilet breaks. The toilets are generally filthy, so be prepared with your own soap and toilet paper.
Booking a train ticket in India could be your most frustrating experience while traveling in India for the first time. Some important things to note:
- Foreigners have reserved seats in most Indian trains
- The reservation can be done online at https://www.irctc.co.in/nget/train-search or in person at the nearest railway station.
- If you’re going to drop a friend at the station, in order to enter the station (the platform area near tracks), you need to buy something called as a – platform ticket. It can be purchased at the station and usually has a separate counter to buy it. Some stations also have auto-dispensing machines for this ticket. The platform ticket costs Rs. 50 for one person. if you have a train ticket for the same day, you don’t need a platform ticket.
I have learnt from some friends that their (foreign bank) cards didn’t work on irctc. In this case, you could get a ticket over the counter. Agents can charge upto twice the original amount.
Type of coaches in an Indian train:
- Sitting trains: There are generally for short distances and have two sub categories:
- Non-A/C: wooden benches, cheaper, and crowded
- A/C coaches: Cushioned chair, more expensive, less busy
- Sleeper trains: These are long distance trains and the categories can be quite confusing. Most indian trains have the following classes in increasing order of cost:
- General coach: Super busy, no reserved place to sit. Not the coach to sleep. A ticket is only a permit to enter the coach. Being able to find a seat is upto you. It wouldn’t be surprising if one can’t enter the train.
- Sleeper class: These are the cheapest sleeper coaches on the train. Seats are cushioned but there are generally more people than permitted so it tends to get more dirty. This coach is very dusty owing to the windows that can be opened and most times don’t shut properly. Be prepared to see some horrid toilets.
- 3rd A/C: Cheaper air conditioned coach, about as many people as seats so everyone keeps to their place. In last few years, this has gotten crowded as well. Same as sleeper except toilets could be cleaner (no guarantee). 6 people in a coup and 2 on the side.
- 2nd A/C: Much cleaner compared to 3rd A/C. 4 people in a coup and 2 on the side.
- 1st A/C: Generally used by government officials who get free tickets. The tickets can be as expensive as flight tickets. Each coup has 4 people. I have never travelled in this class.
Tip: Pickpocketing, and losing luggage on trains is not unheard of. Best to keep bag under your head (as a pillow) and essentials in a hidden money belt.
Tuktuks are very common in India. Found in almost all places except some hilly areas where it’s not safe.
If you’re a solo woman traveler and the driver wants to pick a friend up along the way, refuse.
Uber and Ola (Indian cab sharing company) are fairly easy to use in most tourist towns except places where it’s banned like Goa and some tourist destinations. It would be the easiest to use cab service in bigger cities.
If you’re a woman, I would strongly recommend not to even try hitchhiking.
If you’re a guy then I would recommend that you try it at least once. Hitchhiking is not common place in India so it can be confusing to riders when they see a person with their thumbs out in the middle of the road. My suggestion is to ask a person at petrol station or anyone just starting their car to see if you could hitch a ride with them.
6. How to Budget for India travel
India caters to all budgets. You could travel for close to nothing and you could burn money on travel if you like. There’s no paucity of fancy things to do.
If you’re a budget traveler then $500 a month would be a decent estimate. Of course the more you move around and the more activities you plug in, the higher it goes. $500 a month is okay for staying in hostels, eating in smaller eateries, taking public transport. When I don’t move around for a month and eat street food, I spend about $300 a month in the north (hostels and monasteries are cheap there in winters).
7. Religious Sentiments are in plenty and hurt easy
While as a tourist you would be cut some slack but there have been rare cases of tourists being pulled into a scuffle over things that were probably just a lack of awareness.
There are over six religions being practiced in India with over 80% Hindus. So, there are quite a few sentiments to consider. In my knowledge, below are the things that have caused issues in the past –
- Religious tattoos below the waist:
According to a large population of Hindu practitioners (the beliefs I grew up with), anything below the waist is impure. This is why in some places, they don’t wear gold below the waist (like anklets or toe rings) and consider it rude to touch paper with their feet. If you already have such a tattoo, then try to keep it covered.
- Short clothes in places of worship:
There are a gazillion places of worship in India and thousands in making. With all sorts of rules, the best is to dress conservatively the day you intend to visit any place of worship. While visiting a Gurudwara (place of worship of the Sikh community), the head is to be covered as well by all genders, so it’s best to carry a scarf or a handkerchief.
8. India doesn’t have a national language
The extent of India’s diversity is difficult to fathom for anyone who’s never been here. One of the ways in which it presents itself is the number of languages commonly used in India. India has over 1600 spoken languages and over 20 official languages. The official languages are determined by the states. So essentially, the language you hear would change every few Kilometers.
The best way to get by this is to try to pick up a few Hindi words for the northern part of your trip and English works fine for the southern part of India. English is a commonly spoken language at the workplace in India so getting messages across or seeking some information for common tourist places is never a challenge in India.
Note: Some commonly used words like bus, train, time, phone, etc. are used in their English form in everyday use even when rest of the sentence is in Hindi. The Hindi translation of these words are not part of the everyday vocabulary in most places.
However, do note that learning a few words in Hindi would not help very much with negotiating prices. Indians are tourists outside their home state as well. A simple way to get the right price is to ask at multiple places and don’t buy anything at the very first place you stop. I often get an estimate of what should be the right price using this method.
9. Some common gestures in India
A lot of conversation in India happens through gestures alone like the below:
This means hello in most parts of Northern India. Expressed with folded hands.
- The Indian head bobble:
The first time I was asked about the Indian head bobble, I replied, ‘what head bobble? what do you mean?’. I was 28 then. Most Indians are not aware of it, I still can’t do it on cue because I don’t know what is it exactly. I just know it’s something to do with my head shaking that only non-Indians notice.
10. Indian standard time is almost always late
I was seeing off a friend in Goa, she was to take a bus to her place. At the bus stop, she decided to stay another day. To prepare for the next day, we asked the bus timings around. There was one at 6 p.m. and the last one was at 7 pm. Great, we were prepared for the next day.
The next day, we were at the bus stop at 6:30 pm but it was empty, unlike the previous day when there had been lots of people waiting for this bus. We waited for 15-20 minutes and asked around. This is when we got to know that particular bus doesn’t run on Tuesdays.
Tip: Remember to add an hour to your plans in India. Transport can be late for reasons even Indians learn everyday.
11. Common Scams to be wary of in India
I don’t know how to say this without scaring anyone but be prepared for a lot of scams. Some are harmless but some can be traumatizing. Here are some usual ones
- The taxi driver would tell you that the hotel address you’re looking for has closed down. He would offer to take you to another ‘good hotel’ he knows of. The chances are he gets a commission from this hotel. Just tell the driver to take you to the hotel nevertheless and that you’re waiting for a local friend there.
- Taxi/Tuktuk driver would take you on a tour and would stop at all these stores along the way for you to check out. They get a commission out of that too. Choose to go to government authorized stores if you’re looking for things like sandalwood, silk, specific handicraft of that state.
- I was standing with a few Mexican friends of mine in New Delhi. We were waiting for our cab and it was pretty late, around 9 pm. This is when a heterosexual couple approached us saying they were from Turkey and were looking for Dominos. They started making conversation with my friends (all three women), while I looked at my phone to see cab status. The conversation went from where are you to ‘are you carrying any Mexican currency on you’? I was being distracted by the women at this point, When I heard this, I yelled at my friends to stop and not get any wallet out. Our cab came at the same time and asked them to run to the cab. The couple soon disappeared. They definitely had the intention of running away with their money.
12. Apps that will come in handy in India travel
- Google Maps: I have been a fan of Maps.me but in India, I have noticed google maps tend to work better. It has the alleys and shortcuts that oftentimes are missing on Maps.me
- Zomato/Swiggy: Widely used food delivery apps that I have used in some remote hostels. I personally prefer to walk around and eat at local places but on some occasions, that’s not the safest option.
- Ola/Uber: Ride-sharing services. They work in most cities. I would do a quick check before I ask for a local taxi and take the cheaper option available. Both options have tuk-tuk as well and in some cities motorbikes too.
- Olx India: To buy or sell used things. Beware of the increasing scammers on the app though.
13. While traveling in India, be prepared for
When I traveled outside India, I didn’t realize the absence of below things so much but when I returned, the presence of these things was a shock to my senses. So, be prepared for –
In India, you would see high-rise buildings that are works of art and within steps, you could see kids without a home. The poverty we see in India is not ordinary, the healthcare system is dismal, some people you come across asking for alms are difficult to look at. Some have severe deformities, some have skin diseases left unattended, some are visibly mentally unstable.
Note: According to NHRC report, in any given year, 44000 children go missing in India, and of them 11,000 remain untraced. Some of them are forced into begging on the streets by begging rackets. So, be mindful of your donations.
Pollution (Noise and Air):
The permissible noise levels in residential areas in India are 55 dB during the day and 45 dB during the night. Every 10 dB increase is 10 times more to the ear. This means 55 dB is going to sound 10 times noisier than 45 dB sound.
According to the 70 noise monitoring stations put up in 7 cities in India, about 90% of these stations found noise levels over the permissible limits both during the day and night.
Nothing can prepare an individual for the noise pollution in India. Honking is common, not rude, lots of people continue to use old vehicles that shouldn’t be on the road leading to both noise pollution and air pollution.
Being stared at:
Guy or girl, be prepared for this. Indians are a curious bunch of people. Indians get stared at by other Indians as well. It’s mostly from people who are new to a different culture like I get stared at when I visit smaller towns because my mannerisms and way of dressing is visibly different from the norm there.
However, not all staring is innocent staring. Some men would look pervasively at women just because they are scumbags and haven’t known a better world. Feel free to shame such men publicly.
Also read: Is India safe for Women Travellers
If you’re white, blonde, and especially if you have green or blue eyes, you would be the little celebrity while traveling. Everyone would want to get clicked with you. Although this is prevalent more in the north, staring is more ubiquitous.
But, in spite of all this, come with an open mind to truly enjoy India. In Monica Geller’s words, ‘Welcome to the real world. It sucks. you’re gonna love it’.