“You either love it or you hate it”
The sentence of how most visitors describe India when you ask them about their experience. So with these few words and little knowledge of the culture, the country and its people I left England behind. Reflecting back on the past 4 months, I would now like to share with you the ultimate guide to travelling India.
FIRST TIME IN INDIA: WHAT TO EXPECT
Travel advice for India is full of cliches such as “expect the unexpected”, or even “prepare to lose yourself”. Unhelpful as they might sound, there’s a reason for these cliches. Over my journey through India, I’ve come to realise that life somehow seems much “larger” there – there’s the chaos, the bustle, the beauty, but also the sheer number of people somehow ensure, that whatever your opinions on what to expect from your first trip to India, you’ll never be quite right.
So here are my own versions of the cliches, based on this traveller’s experiences:
“You are never ready for India, but India is always ready for you” I can’t think of anything more true. Nothing will ever prepare you for the reality of India. It really is like no other place on this earth.
Leave your expectations on the plane. You can look at as many pictures and read about India all you want. No book will ever do it justice and you’ll never truly experience India until you are actually there. Prime example: the Taj Mahal (a must for any visitor, despite its overburdening popularity). No matter how many pictures of the Taj Mahal we’ve all seen, there is nothing that prepares you for the actual beauty of the place. Glistening white in the morning sunshine, rising from the misty river banks behind. Just like the Taj, first time India is an experience best enjoyed without expectations and pre-judgements.
Be prepared for lots of selfies. You’ll feel like a celebrity everywhere you go. I’m not even joking. You can’t even walk down the street without being stopped for a selfie. It’s quite flattering at first, but it soon gets annoying. It seems that as soon as you stop for one selfie, the whole of India start to form a que. The next thing you know their pushing their family members to get in the picture with you. It really is hilarious, I can’t help but wonder how many mantelpieces i am hanging above.
Be prepared for dirt, vile smells and pollution Sadly, India’s population of 1.2 billion + has taken its toll on the country and its not uncommon to see piles of rotting garbage, cows and dogs happily eating plastic in the streets, and railway lines strewn with trash. It’s easy to point fingers at the people throwing trash, but the truth is waste (let alone recycling) infrastructure is not at all up to scratch in many parts of India, as well as there being an education problem about what to do with garbage. Don’t let this put you off a visit, but it is something to be prepared for. Do your bit by avoiding single use plastic on your trip to India – tips on how to do that in our responsible travel section below.
Be prepared to get scammed A lot of the rickshaw drivers will try to scam you in India. They will try and charge you 500 INR for a journey that will cost you or a local no more than 50 INR. They will also try and make excuses such as “their is a protest going on so the journey will take longer” or they will try say that Uber and Ola cabs don’t work in that area. They will often lie and tell you that they have no change. So in that case just refuse to pay and they will magically have change in their pocket! Hotels will tell you that the card machine is not working so you have to pay in cash. The rooms are never like what they are advertised on the internet either!
Be prepared to lose your patience If India teaches you anything it’s definitely how to be patient. There is no such thing as queueing or personal space in India. Sending a parcel back home literally took us two visits to the post office, four hours of waiting and a whole packaging scam “we need to pack your parcel for you, it can’t be sent in a box” and being advised it would take 15 days to reach the UK, when actually it only took 3. Getting frustrated when you know you have been ripped off or something doesn’t go to plan doesn’t serve us well. Understanding that staring is not considered as rude, and that you will get stared at a lot on your trip,will help you keep your patience in tact too!
Be prepared for the culture shock Poverty is prevalent in many places and is heartbreaking, and it’s also a complex issue. In most of India’s towns and cities you’ll see people on the streets in a desperate state. Be prepared to be shocked as you will see things in India that you wouldn’t necessarily see in your average daily life. Some people don’t have toilets in their homes or running water. You’ll often see people urinating in the street or taking a dump! Manners just don’t seem to exist so don’t be shocked when your sat in a restaurant and the person next to you let’s out a massive burp! It’s gross but you can’t help but laugh. You’ll also hear a lot of loud snorting and see frequent spitting. It’s normal to them and you just get use to it. Local people especially in the villages, have limited access to water so they will often take a wash outside or in the river. They will also wash their clothes and kitchen utensils their too. Public toilets in public places will often be a hole in the ground. Children are walking the streets with no clothes on and families are living amongst the mountains of rubbish and the rats. You’ll often get stopped by beggars asking for money or food. It’s best to just ignore them because a majority of the time they are gang run street beggars.
WHAT DOES IT COST?
India is known to be one of the cheapest countries to travel in the world. Of course, the costs of travelling around India varies depending on your level of comfort and your style of travelling. You can travel dirt cheap, in pretty good comfort, or ultimate luxury for cheaper than most places in the world. To give you a idea of costs I want to break down the average daily cost. Obviously it’s going to be different for everyone.
Budget travellers: For those of you on the tightest of budgets, you could survive in India with a daily budget of £12 GBP per day. This would enable you to stay in low-end budget hotels, to eat simple local food and to utilize local and government buses, as well as 3rd class trains to get around.
Mid-range travellers: For those of you that prefer being comforable stretching your budget to £25 per day will enable you to eat in much nicer places and be comfortable in a nice bed.
Luxury travellers:For those of you that enjoy staying in nice resorts, eating in upper class resturants and taking the occasional 1st class train. You’ll easily get by on £60 per day or more
Location and comfort will play a big part when chosing your accomdation in India. Don’t expect to get what you see in the pictures online when you arrive at your accommodation. We found that most properties didn’t have half of the facilities that they offered online and the rooms looked nothing like the pictures! Whilst there are some hostels that offer dorm rooms for as little as 100 INR (£1.20) per night you probably wouldnt want to stay there! There are lots of diffeent inexpensive options for you to chose from.
In just about any town or city you’ll be able to find a private room for 300 – 500 INR which works out between £3-6 per night! In some locations you will find private rooms even cheaper and in big cities like Mumbai you’ll be looking at around 1000 INR per night (£12)
Below you will be able to have a idea of what kind of accomodation you can find in India:
Dorm Room: As cheap as it comes at around 50 – 100 INR per night, poor conditions, questionably clean toilet facilities, usually men or women only.
Budget Room: For 250 – 500 INR per night you get a large bed with thin (often hard) mattress, sparse furniture, dirty walls, plug outlets that spark, somewhat clean private bathroom, sometimes with hot water shower (available during set times) or hot running water with a bucket! If you are lucky you might get a really noisy ceiling fan!
Deluxe Budget Room: 500 INR – 1000 INR typically gets you a more spacious room, with 24 hour hot water, more comfy mattress, television, some furniture and more of a ‘hotel feel’ often they come with a fan or if your lucky air conditioning.
Deluxe Room: For 1000+ INR per night, you can get a nice room, usually still with some marks on the walls and less than sparkling bathroom, but with proper mattress, more furniture, perhaps a desk, large television, air-conditioning and hotel staff that are significantly more attentive with room service!
The food in india is mouth watering. If you love food then India will be a food paradise for you. You can barely walk two meters without facing another street stall or restaurant serving up some kind of delicious snack or dish that you suddenly want to devour. Whether it be samosas, pakoras, lassis or momos, whether it be North Indian or South Indian cuisine…it is all so very tempting.
And luckily, for the traveler, most of this food is quite economical and so you can try as much as you wish (at your own risk of course…I’m not responsible for cases of Delhi belly!).
Here is a idea of what it costs in India.
Budget – As a budget traveler you can eat for next to nothing if you stick to the local food. Food on street stalls can be as cheap as 20 INR and in local resturants you can get rice dishes for anything below 150 INR. A curry will cost you a little more at around 300 INR.
Mid-range – You can easily eat in clean resturants for around 150 INR – 400 INR per meal. You can even get yourself some western food such as pasta, french fries, grilled sandwich for that price!
Luxury – You can splurge out in a nice resturant and it wont effect your wallet. High end resturants nornally set you back around £25-£50 per couple! So yeah it’s still really cheap!
Indian cuisine varies quite a lot depending on the region and actually, what many of us know as Indian food is generally only found in the north of the country. The food of the south is of an entirely different variety, with items such as dosas, uttapams, idlis and more to be found on the menus.
For vegetarians, India is ideal with the majority of restaurants being ‘Veg-Only’ considering that a significant portion of the population is vegetarian. With that said, there is no shortage of restaurants that serve up chicken dishes and even mutton (lamb) can be found in most places as well.
However, with the incredible diversity of vegetarian dishes available in this country, few meat eaters that I know of actually end up missing meat while here as the vegetarian dishes are usually quite delicious and filling.
NOT EVERYONE GETS SICK
For a first time visit to India, I just assumed that i would get sick. Everyone warned me about “Delhi belly” and I read some horrific stories online. I’m actually amazed that I survived two whole months without a incident! Of course, there were times when I had a bit of a upset stomach. But that was purely down to the spices and my body adjusting to everything. My best tip – go vegetarian. India has such amazing food and a rich variety of dishes. Most of the Indian population don’t eat meat which means menus cater to vegetarians. Therefore, going veggie is probably a breeze. Eating meat in India is okay as long as you eat from a ‘clean’ restaurant and you are careful. At the end of the day you can get food poisoning anywhere in the world.
If you do get food poisoning just stick to plain food such as rice, potatoes, bananas and chapatti. You can also buy yourself some re hydration salts. They don’t taste very nice but they help! I did visit a doctor when I had food poisoning, it was very cheap around £2.50 and that included six different types of medication. One thing for sure, I wish I had visited the doctor sooner. As soon as I took the medication and had a decent nights sleep, I was better!
TRANSPORT IN INDIA
Trains: Train journeys in India are more than transportation, they are complete experiences that are usually a memorable part of any traveler’s adventure. Unfortunately, we found booking over night trains nothing but hassle. It’s not as simple as just rocking up to the train station and booking your ticket for that day. Sleeper trains are to be booked in advance. But it’s not as easy as just going online and booking your ticket. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible unless you are a Indian citizen. The only way to book a train ticket online is by signing up for a IRCTC account. However, trying to sign up for a account was nothing but a headache, so we booked through a third party agent 12go.asia. You can also find really useful information about booking trains in India here.
If you want to truly rough it, you could travel in 3rd Class (no assigned seat, unbelievably crowded, people sleeping on the floor or in the luggage racks) a trip of around 12 hours, for as little as 50 Rps. If you want to move up to the much more popular 2nd Class Sleeper (assigned seats and beds, but no compartments or privacy, full open cars), you could travel the same distance for around 350 Rps. And if you want to experience 1st Class, you could choose the lowest level – 3A – which comes with a more comfortable bed, sheets, pillow and blanket, air-conditioning, plug outlets and a curtain to block off each section) for 1000 Rps. You could pay even more for 2A and 1A, the highest levels of 1st Class.
Buses: Getting around by bus is probably the easiest option whilst traveling in India. For long distance journeys the overnight buses are comfortable and save you a ton of money on accommodation. However, don’t expect to get much sleep. The roads are bumpy, people are noisy and I don’t think you can drive anywhere in India without hearing a constant car horn. The best and cheapest way to book bus tickets is by using the RedBus app. It’s really as simple as downloading the app and booking your tickets online.
In some states, you can actually purchase a ticket for a ‘bed’ on long-distance buses. These beds are located above the seats and are small compartments that usually have a sliding window on the outside and a sliding door or curtain for privacy on the inside. While the single beds are ridiculously tiny, the double beds are a great value, whether for one or two people. There’s enough space up there for two people and two backpacks and you just might get some sleep during the journey. The cost of a 14 hour journey on a luxury bus is anything between £10-14 per person. I’m sure there were other buses for cheaper but they didn’t come with plug sockets, pillows and blankets. In other states, there is no option for a bed but you can book a reclining chair or sit up right for the whole duration. For short distance journeys around town expect to pay the local price of anything between 20 INR – 100 INR depending on the duration. However, the local buses are chaotic and you probably won’t get a seat.
Long-distance Taxis: Long distance taxis are possible in India. However, the bus was more convenient for us and a lot more comfortable. A trip from New Delhi to Agra cost us £28 each way for a 3 hour drive. If you did want to use a car then you might want to use a car and driver from a reputable local travel agent as they will be able to customise the journey and hopefully give you a good deal. However, it’s a lot cheaper and convenient to travel by bus or train.
Domestic Flights: Given the size of India, it’s not doubt that the domestic flight industry is booming. The number of budget airlines in India seems to be growing all the time and as a result, the fares are often remarkably low. You can catch a flight from one city to another for as low as £15. That would save a traveler about 20 hours of travel time. So, flights are worth checking, especially for long distances and if you want to save time.
Local Transport: When it comes to getting around towns or cities, you’ll basically have the following options…your feet, auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, taxis and local buses. And once you choose your method, it’s best to understand that you will almost always pay more than the local fare but with some confident negotiating you can usually keep the foreigner premium to a minimum. You might get lucky and find a taxi or auto-rickshaw driver who has and is willing to use their meter but chances of that happening are slim. The ticket collectors on local buses should quote you the normal fare, which should be very low, around 5 or 10 Rps per trip. And with cycle-rickshaws, you just reach an agreement and go from there…local fares on this method are absurdly low and even if you pay double that amount, it’s an inexpensive way to get around. In cities such as Mumbai and New Delhi, you can also use the metro to reach many destinations, or Uber making local travel relatively hassle-free.
As with everything else in India, entrance fees are all over the map. The Taj Mahal costs 1200 INR for foreigners, the Amber Fort in Jaipur costs 500 INR. One thing to note is that for many sites, there is a two-tier fee system where foreigners pay significantly more than Indians. Either way, the entrance fees are not too outrageous – almost always under £7 GBP – and I can’t think of any place that is so overpriced that it’s not worth visiting. If you have student ID it’s worth taking with you. We saved a ton of money on entrance fees having a student discount card.
INTERNET & MOBILE PHONE
Almost everywhere in India will advertise free WIFI. However, we found that it never worked or if it did the connection would constantly be jumping in and out. The best thing to do is to get a local SIM card. In fact, I wouldn’t travel around India without one. It made traveling around India a lot more convenient and google maps saved us from getting lost several times.
It’s not impossible for foreigners to purchase a local SIM card in India but it’s not as simple as other countries. You will need a passport photo and a photocopy of your passport. You can get set up at almost any mobile phone shop. We brought two SIM cards each, one being Jio and the other Vodaphone. It cost us 500 INR (£6.00) for the SIM cards, that included 3G of data per day for 3 months along with unlimited calls and texts. That’s not a bad deal at all. There was strong 4g coverage all over India apart from the remote areas, which is good as it enabled us to work online.
HOW TO DRESS IN INDIA
Dress conservatively when traveling in India. Men shouldn’t walk around with their tops off unless they are on the beach. As a female traveler covering up makes a huge difference to how you may be approached. In general, always cover your shoulders and knees.
A few do’s and don’ts for what to wear in India for woman:
- Take a few light scarfs with you – they come in useful to drape across your chest/shoulders you can even put it over your head if you are getting unwanted attention. They also come in handy to put over your face when the air outside is considered as “unhealthy”.
- Wear light weight, long trousers showing your legs is not something that woman do in India. Obviously if you are on a beach it’s all good.
- Cover your shoulders – as above 90% of ladies in India cover their shoulders.
- Indian woman often show their stomach so crop tops are fine – but with no cleavage.That’s where a scarf can come in handy!
- Wear clothes that are comfortable in the heat! India can get very hot especially if you visit in the summer. If you visit the North of India it can reach freezing temperatures so you might want to pack winter clothes!
OTHER USEFUL INFORMATION
Here’s a few more tips that I’ve learnt during my three months in India..
– Download and use Uber/Ola cabs in all the major cities! You will save a ton of money
– Buy a re-useable water bottle. Free drinking water is availabe all over India.
– Bring tampons if you are a female traveller, they are only available in major cities and cost a lot more than back home!
– Dont eat the street food it will make you sick.
– Always do you research on local transport as local transport is all over India. Dont be scammed by taxi drivers telling you that there is no other way to your destination.
– Bargain for literally everything. Unless the price is listed somewhere, you’re generally free to try and negotiate a better price.
– If you’re at a stalemate while bargaining, politely decline the final offer and walk away. You just might find that he’s suddenly calling you back, willing to sell you the item at the lower price that you asked for.
– Stay calm and friendly while bargaining as it wont get you anywhere otherwise!
– Keep a small amount of money in one pocket and a larger amount in the other so that you don’t have to pull out all of your cash when paying for items.
– There is no shortage of ATMs in India but do keep in mind that local banks charge 200 Rps per ATM withdrawal for foreign bank cards.
– Always carry cash with you as almost everywhere refuses bank cards including hotels.
– Credit cards are sometimes accepted at higher-end shops and hotels but they usually add on a fee of up to 5% so make sure you ask before handing over your card.
– When checking into a hotel, be sure to ask if there are any taxes or service charges added onto the final bill. These extra charges vary greatly among hotels and sometimes, you can negotiate to have all of those taxes/charges removed. (Some restaurants also add on taxes and a service charge.
– Remember that no matter how much you pay for something, you’re in India, and that you shouldn’t let a little overpaying ruin your trip! Its always going to be a lot cheaper than back home!
TOTAL COST OF OUR TRIP
This is our total cost for four months of backpacking in India for two people. Please keep in mind that we traveled mid-luxury range. The price below does not include our flights to India from the UK. But it includes some other things like laundry, SIM card, clothes, shopping, tiger safaris and a trip to the Andaman Islands…
So, for a couple:
Grand Total: £7732
Daily Average: £65
If we didnt go to the Andaman Islands, go clothes shopping, or go on several tiger safaris then the costs would have been as follows:
Grand Total: £6232
Daily Average: £51
As you can see traveling in India is cheap. It could’ve been a lot cheaper if we changed our traveling style. However, we didn’t really feel the need to travel for cheaper than we did. You can use these numbers to calculate how much it would cost to travel India for a month or a few weeks but remember, it all depends on how you travel. Everybody has a different style and likes different things.
If you’re alone for example and have no problem staying in dorms, I think £25 / day would still be a comfortable budget. We went slightly over that budget due to traveling in luxary. If we cut back on fancy resturants and stayed in cheaper hotels, we would’ve stayed well under the €40 or $50 daily budget…