Considering India Travel? 10 things to know
Something to consider for India travel: if you’re looking for a unique travelling experience, backpacking India can offer one like no other. And I mean “experience” in every sense of the word, as India runs on its own system – one that defies logic time and time again. At some point your patience will be tested. Your baseline of “standards” will completely reset. The absolute chaos will start to wear you down.
Yet somehow, the system works. And once you pass this initial hurdle (give it at least a week), you’ll see just how much this country has to offer! Whether you’re looking to explore new cultures, photograph amazing scenes, get your yoga/spiritual side on, or just totally chill out, you can do it all here. Eye-popping landscapes. Super-friendly people. Amazing food. The birthplace of yoga and meditation. And all at a ridiculously cheap price!
I’m currently on my 6th trip of India travel, this one being a long-term trip after taking a sabbatical from work. For the record, I’ve also backpacked extensively through Europe, Southeast Asia, and Central America. These were all great regions to explore, and I had an amazing time on those trips. But in the end, I am just hooked on backpacking India because of it’s uniqueness. To me, none of the other options compared on a total scale to the overall experience that is this beautiful crazy country can offer. I hope you’ll agree!
So before you go, I thought I would document a few overall concepts to help prep you. These are broad overviews of various topics. Feel free to drop me a line in the comments section if you want to know anything specific. Thanks for reading!
1) You will need to be open, and exercise patience during india travel
Like I said, India runs on its own system. On top of prepping for new culture, food, and climate, get ready for a new sense of time, space, privacy, and order. My advice: be open and take it all in stride. Sometimes, even partake in in the chaos. It’s more enjoyable that way.
Sometimes it can get too hot, or too loud, or too dusty, or too many people staring. Or, all of the above. And all this is going on while you wait for the bus to arrive (which was supposed to happen an hour ago). This type of scenario is bound to hit you at some point on your trip. Just be patient. Keep a book handy, and some earphones. They will definitely come in handy.
In short, if you’re the type that freaks out because the Starbucks barista only put 2 pumps of caramel syrup in your mocha-frappachino-latte instead of 3 pumps, then this country might not be for you. Actually on second thought: maybe you do need to come here, to realize that there’s more important things in life than caramel syrup pumps.
2) You need to lock down a Visa before you go
Good news: India has a new e-Tourist Visa option that came out in 2015, which allows a visit to India for a maximum of 30 days through an easy online process (FINALLY). I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews from fellow travelers on this, so get one! It typically takes 1 week to process.
If you want to stay longer than 30 days, then there is also the option a 6-month travel visa for India. You’ll have to follow your local Indian consulate application process (here’s a link to the Toronto Consulate of India application as a reference point), but it’s generally a standard Visa application process where you have to mail in a form, your passport, some photos, etc and pay a fee. My advice is to apply for your 6-month visa well in advance of your departure date (1 month ought to do it), since I’ve personally experienced horror situations of my application getting misplaced or lost, days before the departure date. Not fun.
3) It’s generally a very safe country. Just use your head, and be ASSERTIVE.
Despite stories you may have heard in the news, it’s actually very safe backpacking around India. In my 6 trips, I have yet to have a single safety issue as a solo male traveler (*knock on wood*). In regards to safety for women travelling solo around India, here are a some specific tips from some pretty cool girls who spent months backpacking solo around the country:
India is generally a god-fearing country. Muggings are unheard of for foreigners, and pick pocketing is rare except in commonly crowded situations (like riding 2nd class on the Mumbai commuter trains). Theft is also generally rare, although it’s advised not to show off any expensive jewelry or electronics. For example, I’m ultra-sensitive about where I break out my laptop because it attracts curious onlookers, which annoying questions like “How much did you pay for that?”. So I just use it in higher-end cafes and restaurants.
ONE EXCEPTION: incidents of backpacks being stolen on sleeper trains is becoming increasingly common. So, just like in Europe, if you plan on riding the rails then bring a cable “loop” lock so that you can use to chain your bag to a post.
In general, I shy away from unsolicited offers for hotels, rides, etc (you can always just walk one block further and hail a taxi). In shady situations, just be confident, be assertive when needed and trust your gut. If you’re unsure of a situation, just shake your head and walk away. Absolute worst-case scenario: make a scene. In India, foreigners generally have the public on their side should anything go down. Also, when you just want to be left alone, put on some sunglasses and earphones. It’s like body armor.
4) Get your vaccinations and “just in case” meds while backpacking India
I always make sure my vaccines and meds are up to date before arriving. The best thing to do is first visit the India site at the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) to see what vaccinations you need. Print out the info and bring it along when you visit your doctor or travel clinic. Some vaccines on the CDC list are a no-brainer (hepatitis A/B and typhoid) and some are recommended only for long-term stays or for the seriously risk averse (like rabies and malaria). While your doctor can advise you, you will ultimately have to make these decisions on some of these vaccinations based on your risk tolerance.
I usually take take it one step further and invest in an oral vaccine called “Dukoral” which vaccinates against E. coli, cholera, and other stomach-bugs. However this costs about US $100 and sometimes isn’t covered by health insurance. After many trips I still can’t tell you for sure if it works or not, because it’s hard to assess cause-and-effect on the times rare times that I did get sick. But if you have the budget, I say go for it.
As well, ask your doctor to hook you up with some antibiotics to keep handy in case you get sick in the field. Cipro and Levaquin are the two typical anti-bacterial drugs prescribed, and are usually covered by any decent health plan. Again, just talk to your doctor and they will know best.
5) The people are generally friendly and curious. Tourist places in India are another story
I’ll be brief because this topic is an entire book in itself. In general, people in India are super nice and helpful to tourists, especially for simple things like asking for directions, inquiries on a good restaurant to eat, the closest chemist or ATM, etc etc. On a deeper level, many are quite happy just to have interactions with travelers to understand our different perspectives, and may even invite you over to invite you to dinner with their family all the way up to wedding party invites. It’s a little different that travelling Europe, that’s for sure.
Some are also so curious to the point when you will perceive it as super-nosy (e.g. “What is your salary?”), especially if they’re never really interacted with a foreigner before. But this is all usually just harmless, as people there are really are just curious. And in India secrets are rare and your business is everyone’s business whether you like it or not.
Of course, the generally exception to all of this friendliness is when you are in tourist places in India like Agra, Rishikesh, Goa etc. Then it just turns into tourist trap mayhem.
Typical tout conversation:
“Taxi?” “No thanks.”
“Taxi?” “I said NO dude.”
I’m usually on my guard with locals in touristy areas because in many cases they just want something from you. Sometimes it’s direct, and sometimes they use pleasant conversation as a roundabout way to get to the punchline (sales 101). So I just avoid random unsolicited conversations in these areas and keep walking. It helps to just treat everyone as an annoying sales person. That way you won’t feel as bad to be rude. I know, this is a totally generalizing and unfair at times, but you’ll see what I mean when you get there.
6) You can book internal flights, buses and taxis pretty easily. Trains are another story.
If I had the choice, I’d ride the railways in India wherever I go. Especially to book overnight sleeper cars on long journies. Unfortunately, everyone else in the country has the same idea which is why train tickets on popular routes sell out well in advance. To be honest, I still haven’t fully mastered an easy, online way to book train tickets in India. I will admit I only do so through over the phone with an India-based travel agent with whom I’ve developed a great relationship over time. In general, there are 2 ways to book train tickets: through a travel agent (recommended), or showing up to the train station and buying one (usually a total gong show). Best bet is to ask your hotel or hostel on a reco for a good local travel agent, and they will take care of the rest.
While the majestic experience of the Indian railways is unparalleled, flying isn’t so bad either. I always fly on longer routes, because it’s efficient and cost-effective. The domestic air network has developed very well over the years, mimicking the European model of having last-minute discount carriers like SpiceJet and GoAir. You can usually start with Skyscanner or Google Flights to search for domestic flights. However, I find these two sites don’t always follow SpiceJet’s or GoAir’s routes. So if you don’t find the flights you want on the aggregate sites, check out Spicejet or GoAir directly. Also, in any “apples-to-apples” situation, I always take Jet Airways (one of my favorite airlines ever), and leave Air India last on the list.
Flying and the railways won’t get you everywhere you need to go of course, and sometimes road is the only option. Booking a private taxi is always good, and definitely more cost-effective when you’re travelling in a group (or at least joining a shared taxi with randoms). A private taxi is also pretty fun experience because you can just plug in your music, and stop whenever you like. If you’re going solo, however, this option can get quite expensive.
So all you solo travelers, sorry but you’re going to have to rough at times and take buses. They aren’t all that bad, and in some cases a great way to meet some lovely people. There are two types of buses in India: public and private. The public government buses are super super cheap and go to pretty much every village in India. Private buses are more plush and comfortable (i.e. better shocks), and usually available on popular routes. They’re typically 2-3 times the price of a government bus, but still pretty cheap by western standards. Some private buses even have overnight sleeper “luxury” options – although don’t exactly expect to arrive to your destination well-rested. Just like trains, local travel agents can help you book these private buses. In general, I take government buses on short trips (1-3 hours), and private “luxury” buses for longer hauls.
7) In major urban areas, you can buy pretty much anything you need. Otherwise, plan ahead.
Gone are the days where you would need to pack rolls and rolls of toilet paper before travelling to India (of course, it still never hurts to have ONE roll on you, just in case). In fact, most chemists shops in India carry pretty much everything that I’d get in Canada. For example, I ran out of contact lens solution the other day, and I found my exact brand here in India!
As for prescription drugs: well, you’re in the hotbed of generic drug manufacturing my friend, so shop away for that year’s supply of Lipitor. Toiletries? Same deal. Johnson & Johnson and Proctor and Gamble setup shop in India many many years ago, and the burgeoning middle class has exploded demand for all things “western”. Electronics: same situation. Phones, cords, memory cards, camera lenses, Bluetooth speakers, all the mainstream stuff you can get here. Amazon has also expanded to India, so as long as you have a permanent address for a few days you can get pretty much anything they carry.
In the smaller towns, the variety of specialty items diminishes greatly of course. So just be sure to plan accordingly while in the a major city, and stock up on any specifics (toiletries, electronics, comfort foods, clothing, etc)
8) SIM Cards, Wi-Fi, and Banking during india travel
As a tourist, you can get an Indian SIM card. But due to Indian regulations, it’s a bit process: it can take anywhere from 3 to 7 days to activate a SIM depending on the carrier (and what mood they’re in). Of course, there is a form to fill out as well as a fair amount of documentation to submit such as your passport, your tourist visa, and your local address and phone number where you are staying. I’ve gone through this process once and it works, despite the hassle.
Like everything else during India travel, there are shortcuts if you’re willing to pay a little extra. Some mobile activation shops – especially in tourist areas – will waive the application process, charge a “foreigner activation fee” of around 300 rupees ,and give you an instant SIM card activation on the spot. I’ve done this twice in my travels: once in Rishikesh, and once in Goa. In Chennai, I did something a little different: the concierge at the hotel offered me his SIM card for 500 rupees (including some airtime). I gladly took the offer. To me, the price of having instant communication at my fingertips was worth the US$8 fee. Think about it: at home, how often would you wander into a cafe and buy a $2 coffee, just to use their Wi-Fi?
Speaking of Wi-Fi, I’m sad to say that as of 2016 the Wi-Fi in India – while good in major urban areas – can still pretty sketchy in other areas. It’s really a crap shoot on which hotel or cafe you are at, and if they have invested in a proper wired connection and routers. Remote areas don’t even have the luxury of wired broadband and go based on Wireless 3G availability, which is why you need to do some serious research on which telecom carrier has best coverage in which area you’re going to. For example, in Rishikesh, Vodafone’s mobile data network is absolute garbage, while Idea and Airtel have amazing high-speed HSPA+ coverage! Being in India for 6 months, I actually carry 3 different SIMs that I can tether from my phone: Vodafone, Airtel, and Idea. You can also just get a data stick and plunk in whatever SIM you like. Maybe it’s excessive, but whatever. #digitalnomadlife
As for banking, banks and ATMs are everywhere here (Indians being excellent savers!), and most of the ATMs are on the PLUS, Cirrus, and VISA systems. Even India’s government owned national bank, the State Bank of India (SBI) has reliable international network coverage and an ATM in pretty much every village in the country. At times, you may find yourself doing a mad scramble from ATM to ATM because the PLUS connection is down or whatever. But overall I’ve rarely had any problems in India withdrawing money from ATMs, exchanging foreign money at banks, or using AMEX traveler cheques at reputable places.
9) The country is massively different by region. RESEARCH ahead on weather, remoteness, and Festivals
It’s unfair to lump India as one massive country (it’s only so because the British went and made it that way). India is really a lot more like Europe: languages, cultures, landscapes and weather can vary massively from region to region. For example, you would prep very differently between a week in Delhi, Dharamsala, or Orissa. Keep this in mind and do your research on where you are going (Wikipedia is never a bad place to start). Definitely check out the average monthly temperatures and climate, and try to assess the remoteness of the area. In Delhi, you can get pretty much anything you want and pack only urban wear. In remote parts of Orissa, good luck on finding toilet paper.
Also, festivals in India happen on a daily basis. Some are national, many are regional. While it can be great to be in the middle of one, don’t expect to find any last minute hotels or transportation. Do your research and plan accordingly.
10) Get a Hindi Phrase book and learn the basics
Learning the Hindi basics for “How much is this?”, “Which way to Saharapur Street?”, and “But we already agreed on 200 rupees!” can go a long way. As a foreigner, it will also earn you some serious brownie points with the locals. Just imagine how fun it would be to get into a hard-core negotiation with a shop keeper over a pashmina shawl…in Hindi!!!
As for English, it’s widely fluent in the major cities. Remote villages? Good luck. I’d say most of the country is somewhere in between, and roughly 1 out of 2 people in India can speak at least broken English (enough to help you get by).
While reading and writing Hindi will take months of effort due to the massive differences in alphabet (I’ve tried and failed multiple times), learning conversational basics is actually quite easy, as long as you put a little bit of effort into it. Like French or Spanish, there are some hard and fast grammatical rules to learn. But from there its just a matter of learning the vocabulary, because there are few exceptions in Hindi to the overall grammatical rules (unlike English!). It’s really not that hard…give it a shot!