Depending where in the world you come from, no travel guide will ever prepare you for the shock you might experience once you arrive in India. As I always say, once you’ve traveled around this extensive country (geographically and culturally speaking), you’re pretty much set to go around anywhere else in the world.
In India, the spectrum of things you can experience, see, taste and smell in one day are as broad as it gets. More than a country, this place resembles a continent. Come with your mind free of prejudice and you are very likely to have a life-changing experience. Traveling in India can leave no one indifferent. Love it or hate it, India will surely have an impact on you.
Don’t get too caught up in trying to experience “the real India” and missing out on some of the aspects that the country can offer. Both slums and fancy malls are authentic, for example. Don’t be a pseudo hippie, and allow yourself to experience it all! Just don’t be crazy enough to do things even some locals wouldn’t do when you’re after experiencing “the real real”. Don’t join in celebrations that not even all locals would care to be a part of (specially ladies when there is no other females around) or eating at street stalls that have no other clientele (particularly those that serve non vegetarian food).
If you look like a foreign, it is likely that you will be stared at eventually – but don’t let that bother you! You also came here to look at things, so… Go ahead and feel free to take photos. Indian people are not only photogenic, they tend to LOVE having their their photos taken!
It’s important to let a new place surprise you and inspire you as you go, but a few pointers don’t ever hurt. That’s why we invited a bunch of awesome bloggers that have either traveled or are based in India to share with you some non obvious insider tips, that will help you survive a trip around India. Don’t forget to click the links to their blogs for more travel goodness, in India and beyond!
Candace Rose Rardon from The Great Affair
1. Start your time in India away from the big cities:
The country can be overwhelming at first, so explore places where the chaos is a little less, well, chaotic – regions such as the backwaters of Kerala, the Thar Desert outside Jaisalmer, or the Himalayan foothills of Dharamsala. Your time away from cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, etc., will give you a chance to find your feet in India.
2. If you arrive at night, head straight to the pre-paid taxi counter typically found outside train stations and airports:
Fares are fixed and you’ll be given a receipt with the license plate number of the taxi on it, which you won’t hand to the driver until you’ve reached your destination.
3. Book your first night’s accommodation ahead of time:
Even if you leave the rest of your trip wide open, know where you’re going when your plane lands, as a lot of international flights arrive at odd hours of the night. The same goes for arriving by train or bus in a new city in India – touts will often be at the station in full force, waiting to seek out those with no plan.
4. When traveling by train, book an upper berth (or, even better, a side upper berth):
This will help keep your bags secure and out of the way as during the day, the middle berths are folded down so that the lower berths become bench seats for everyone. Oh, and always, always bring a roll of toilet paper on train journeys.
5. And in terms of staying safe, try to learn what normal looks like, and when something deviates from that, avoid it:
Transportation in India is often crowded – but if a bus is eerily empty, don’t board it. Or if you find yourself in an empty train carriage, move to a different carriage where other people are.
Samuel Jeffery from Nomadic Samuel
1. Carry an extra battery and memory card for your camera:
There hasn’t been a country that I’ve visited with so many photo opportunities. You can literally spin around 360 degrees firing randomly and you’d get at least one great shot. Bring an extra memory card and battery for days when you just can’t put your camera down.
2. Make sure Imodium tablets are in your medicine kit:
India is the most fascinating country I’ve ever visited but it is also where I’ve consistently had the most stomach issues. Armed with enough Imodium tablets will allow you to take buses and trains even during otherwise ‘emergency’ situations.
3. Expect the unexpected:
I think what I love most about India is that every single day I was traveling in the country I had some kind of unexpected encounter or experienced an adventure that was unplanned. If you roll with it India is rewarding and enriching as opposed to stressful.
4. Go on a camel safari but not for four days:
The camel safari experience I had in Rajasthan was one of my most distinct memories in India. However, sign up for a 1-2 day trip as opposed to 3-4 days. Riding a camel is like being tenderized. I could barely walk after my four day tour.
5. Bring your sense of humor and wit with you:
Dealing with touts over matters such as hotel rooms and rickshaw rides can potentially be a bit frustrating at times and your sense of humor and patience will certainly come in handy. I once saw a tourist get into an argument with an internet cafe owner for 30 minutes over the equivalent of 25 cents in local Rupees. It’s not worth it. Be firm, funny and patient and you’ll be able to bargain down to a price that is reasonable for you and doesn’t cause the other person to loose face.
Nick & Dariece from Goats on the Road
1. Bring Tiger Balm:
This magical Asian menthol works wonders and has so many uses! We suggest putting a bit on your upper lip to mask some nasty smells you might (will) come across, putting it on mosquito bites to relive the itch and if you’re feeling a little motion sick while on a bumpy bus ride, just take the lid off and have a whiff.
2. Eat at Hole-In-The-Wall Places:
Some of the most authentic, flavorful and mouthwatering foods can be found at the smaller side of the road restaurants. Even if it looks dirty, if it’s busy and filled with local people, it’s a great place to eat. Indian food is the best!
3. Don’t Look in the Kitchen:
To follow up with the fact that Indian food is delicious, make sure you don’t peek into the kitchen. We made that mistake once. Just enjoy the food that arrives on your plate (or banana leaf) and don’t worry about what the kitchen looks like!
4. The Price is on the Product:
This is the best tip for anyone on a first trip to India. Everything from toilet paper to shampoo to bottles of coke have the price written on them in rupees. Don’t be fooled by the friendly Indian man at the corner store, have a look at the price, and pay him that much.
5. Go Slow:
India may be a fast-paced, hectic country, but that doesn’t mean you have to travel that way. In order to fully immerse yourself in India and experience all that it has to offer, pace yourself. Sitting somewhere with a chai and watching India go by is one of our favorite past times. The slower you go, the more you’ll enjoy your trip.
Megsy & Tommo from Five Dollar Traveller
1. If it looks good eat it!
Most people come to India believing they will end up spending a considerable amount of time on the dunny (toilet for non Australians) with the dreaded Delhi Belly. So if its gonna happen, you might as well make it worthwhile but devouring all the amazing food India has to offer – this especially includes street food!
2. Showers are a bonus!
It’s best to realize early on that just because a hotel or guesthouse advertises hot / cold water this doesn’t mean that this will be coming out of a shower. Quite often you will find a hot and cold water tap and a bucket. This is your Indian shower – enjoy.
3. If traveling by auto rickshaw around town, use Google Maps to figure out the distance before hand:
Auto drivers are notorious liars and will tell you an attraction or hotel is twice the distance away so you give them more money. If you have already figured out the distance you can barter for a fairer price. Also don’t bother with the meter, most don’t work or if they do you’ll end up taking the “scenic” trip around town. Barter a fair price before getting into the auto.
4. Don’t sit in the front seat of a bus:
This may be an experience of pure terror that will be the thing of nightmares for years to come. In the South of India Red local buses are known as “Red Killers”. This name apparently came about due to their insane driving, and instances of a few hit and runs in their time. Sit further back, at least you can’t see just how close each almost head on encounter with a truck really is.
5. Most toilets are Western style:
I’m not entirely certain as to why we thought we were entering into world of squat toilets galore, we just did. But we are happy to report that the majority we have encountered have been good old fashioned western thrones, johns, water closet, loo, crapper – what ever you choose to name it, there’s mostly been no squatting required.
Shalu Sharma from Shalu Sharma Guide to India
1. Don’t put all your money in one pocket:
Make sure that you have small amounts or small bundles of money in various pockets. If you did get pick pocketed in one pocket then you still have money in the other.
2. Don’t over-eat:
India is a great place to try different types of food. In fact, the Indian experience is pretty much useless if you don’t experiment with food. But don’t get overboard and end up eating a lot at all costs. Indian food is a lot spicier in India then in the USA or Europe. By all means try various foods India has to offer but make sure you do not overeat and end up with “Delhi Belly”.
3. Wear combat pants:
These are trousers that have multiple pockets. You can then go hands-free. You can have a bottle of water in one pocket, a camera in the other, passport in yet another and so on. So leave the rucksack at the hotel and wear combat pants.
4. When buying bottled water from a street vendor, one way to check the authenticity of the water is by listening to the clicking sound of the bottle-top when you break it open:
If it makes a sound then you can be sure that the water you have bought is genuine and not tap water.
5. Carry a hand sanitizer with you and use it generously:
A foam or gel one would do nicely. India can be one dusty and dirty place and a hand sanitizer could you save you from getting stomach ailments.
Rachel Jones from Hippie in Heels
1. Don’t think you can drink as much Feni as the locals:
While in Goa, make sure to try the local booze “feni”. There are a couple types but cashew is the most popular, but while the locals fill up their whole glass, you should make yours a mixer or have a few regrets the next day.
2. Give into the “bum gun”!
The hose sprayer in the bathroom is your new best friend. Why worry about making sure you have tissues or toilet paper with you – it’s cleaner and easier to spray and shake. No sprayer? The bucket set-up is a far cry from second best, but it’ll do just fine and after a week you’ll be a pro.
3. Holi paint really dyes your blonde hair:
It’s been at least a month at the time you’re reading this since Holi and my once blonde hair still has light pink tips and a few splotches of blue in it. If you want to prevent permanent coloring, put coconut oil in your hair prior to playtime.
4. Got Delhi belly? Don’t take stoppers!
No Imodium for you! As a nurse and a person who has lived in India for a year and a half, I assure you it’s better out than in. If anything, take the Indian “cramping pills”.
5. Either take group photos if guys ask, or say no.
As a girl traveling alone, I had loads of young guys asking to take a photo of or with me – turns out according to all my Indian guy friends, these “photographers” are also good at Photoshop! Photoshopping your face to a naked body, that is, and telling all their mates about your wild night.
Josh from Engineer on the Road
1. Make friends with the domestic staff:
The Indians I’ve grown closest to are my maids, tea boys, waiters etc. (the “man camp” I live in has a crew of service staff, which makes it seem a bit Downtown Abbey at times) – they are humble and friendly, and really appreciate the time you take to talk to them. More than once they have given some helpful advice when I was struggling with culture shock.
2. When in traffic, RELAX!
The sooner, the better. My first day in India we swerved past a decapitated cow on the road to work; I’ve since learned to relax all my muscles and ignore everything around me, which means I’m able to catch up on much needed sleep.
3. Sometimes you have to be rude:
This was a big struggle for me, being British, but especially in a work context, you often have to be very pointed and clear when someone just isn’t doing their job or is completely incompetent. Take it further up the hierarchy too, and don’t worry about offending people, otherwise no work will ever get done.
4. Even men can be sexually assaulted:
It happened to me, and I know other people it has happened to. If you have concerns, report them to someone in authority and remove yourself from the situation ASAP. (NB: most sexual assaults against men in India are made by men who identify as straight, and no legal protections for male victims exist)
5. Remember to pack your sense of humor:
Being able to laugh when things are frustrating or difficult makes the situation a lot easier. You also come across as much more approachable, and that makes it easier for people to build a relationship with you.
Clare from The Wayfarer Diaries
1. Eat the street food:
India has some of the most incredible food on the planet, and I’m always amazed when people spend their time there eating crisps and packet noodles because they’re too afraid of getting sick. Bottom line – your stomach is probably not going to be happy whatever you do, so you might as well enjoy the delicious pani and dosas while you can.
2. Watch out for the cows:
Cows are sacred in the Hindu religion, and as a result, they are given pretty much free reign over most of India – from the beaches to the highways. Most of them are docile, but watch out for their long, pointed horns, and if you are driving remember that cows always have right of way!
3. Take earplugs:
India is constantly, uncompromisingly loud. The din of shouting wallahs, blaring car horns, music, laughter, screaming and roaring traffic can be heard from dawn until well after dusk, so if you want a good nights sleep while you are there, ear plugs are a must.
4. Always take the top bunk on sleeper trains:
Sleeper compartments on overnight trains are brilliant for meeting people, like the young Indian family who insisted on sharing their dinner with me and asked me to read to their three year-old twins. However, the lower bunks are used as seats for the daytime portion of these journeys, and if one of them is yours you will have to wait until everyone else in the compartment decides to go to bed – sometimes until 2am! Requesting the top bunk when you book your ticket means that you can socialize, then get some sleep when you feel like it.
5. Be open minded:
India is like nowhere else on earth; in turns magical, infuriating, exhilarating, frustrating, colorful and challenging. Take India for what she is, accept that not every experience will be an easy one, and learn from the difficult days as much as you revel in the wonderful ones.
Zara from Backpack ME
Last but not least, yours truly would also like to add some tips! As you may know from some of my previous posts, this gori has been adapting to the Indian life-style on and off ever since 2012… and that had to result in some practical knowledge too! So here it goes:
1. Use superstition and religion to your advantage:
When negotiating prices, arrangements or anything that involves coming to an agreement with a local person, don’t be shy and use superstition in a way that will benefit you. Example: you are bargaining for a souvenir that costs 100 Rupees but you think the price is too high. After you try bringing it down to 50 Rupees but the seller won’t agree, say something like “OK! This is a present for my Mother and her birthday is on the 7th. So I can pay 70 Rupees, because that is auspicious! I feel it will bring good luck.”. People might question a lot of things about your culture and the way you live, but if you say you are doing something because of your religion, then it is very likely that they will understand and/or agree with you. Do whatever you have to for the sake of the powers from above!
2. Unlearn how to stand in line:
Stick your belly, boobs, whatever is more prominent in the frontal side of your body, to the person ahead of you. If you leave half a centimeter in between, someone will come in line between you! Also, as a related note, if you want to order something at a restaurant counter or shop, say it out loud. If you’re going to stand there waiting for someone to ask you what you want, it can take all day long. Specially in the big cities. No need to be rude, be assertive. And don’t be shocked when Indians don’t acknowledge your “Thank you”, as in Hindi there is no word for “you are welcome”. That doesn’t mean they are rude – it’s just a cultural difference.
3. If you’re in a fancy restaurant, ask for RO water:
To the contrary of what most people will tell you, there is actually no need to purchase bottled water in India all of the time. In good looking restaurants, with decent standards of hygiene, you can ask for RO water. RO stands for reversed osmosis and in many individual houses and establishments there are RO filters that make the water safe to drink. This water will be served without a problem in nice restaurants: it’s safe, free and there is no environmental impact unlike when you buy plastic bottles.
4. MRP is your new best friend!
MRP stands for Maximum Retail Price and most packed products sold in India will include this. Don’t let sellers fool you or charge you a touristic price. You can always point out whatever is printed on the package of whatever it is that you want to purchase. That way, it’s easy not to get ripped off – at least when it comes to the grocery store.
5. Dress to NOT impress:
Not only it’s important to follow the local dress code up to a certain extent on a daily basis, it’s even more crucial to do so when you have to take care of something that involves bureaucracy or police. Say you need to do a visa extension or you got a fine and need to head to the police station, then dress accordingly so that people will take you seriously. For girls, this means a salwaar kameeze. For men, no shorts or unshaved face. It might sounds silly, but I have gone around town with various kinds of clothes and have experienced the tremendous difference that what I am wearing can make in the way local people will interact with me.
As a final note, please understand that there is no need to bring toilet paper from abroad. The amount of times I have read on online forums that people have packed their ass savers from the US or Europe before traveling to India makes me think that there are a lot of ridiculous goras out there! It might not be available in all public toilets around the country, but you can buy it in supermarkets and some grocery stores too. Don’t make a roll of toilet tissue travel internationally!
Pack your sense of adventure & come experience Incredible India!
Are you from India? Have you traveled there?
Please add your tips in the comments below