Through my 200 blog posts on India, I have given these tips randomly. I thought it would be nice to have it all my tips for first time travel to India in one place for people who are just visiting my website.
First of all, if you are traveling to India- YAY! You’re going to love it and I’m sure you’re really pumped. Let’s get started.
Side note: be sure to download a copy of my India Guide ebook which will plan out your entire trip to make sure you have the best time in India (it’s 100,000 words from my 6 years traveling here organized by section like visa or itinerery options) these Popular FAQ for travel to India and the 10 mistakes first time travelers make in India.
Before You Go to India
- If you haven’t booked your tickets yet, I highly recommend Kiwi for finding the best, cheapest options. Depending on your budget, you can skip the trains altogether and fly to the cities you want to see with Kiw’s multi-city tool. Check here to for the costs.
- Please, make sure you don’t forget your visa! You DO need a visa in India, even as a traveler. I use iVisa for everything. You can see what you need to do here.
- Get travel insurance! While India is cheap, something as simple as a broken arm can cost you quite a bit. I highly recommend World Nomads.
- If you have an unlocked phone, you can get a SIM card. If not, use Trabug. They’ll deliver right to your hotel too!
- If you’re looking for tours to join, Gadventures does long term tours while I use Viator for day tours.
10 Tips for First Time Travel to India
1. Just drop all your expectations.
I don’t think you’ll be able to guess what India will be like as a foreigner. You’re either going to be let down, or if you’re like me it might exceed your expectations. Either way, it’s a waste of time because India is absolutely bonkers. Instead of daydreaming about what India will be like, spend more time looking up places you want to see so you can make the most of your time.
2. Take a good think about your budget.
India is cheap as a destination in comparison to well, almost anywhere. But cheap is not free. A room might be 5 dollars (at it’s lowest), your food may be two bucks (eating 3 meals a day= 6 bucks), and transport each day may be at least a dollar on average (some days you may spend more and some days none). So let’s just say with no shopping, entrance fees, or any extras you need at minimum 12 bucks a day. That comes to about 360 bucks on basics for one month.
Now you have all your train and bus fees to add, any flights, any snacks, shopping, and Wi-Fi. Plus, you probably aren’t going to find a room for the lowest of 5 bucks more than once or twice on your trip unless you’re with a friend. Go ahead and double that just in case 720 and you’ll be safe as a budget traveler. You’ll be sorely disappointed if each day you’re over budget and that’s something you don’t want to ruin your trip. Read my budget breakdown of India for more specifics.
For good deals there are Indian websites but to keep it simple, Agoda has equivalent or lower prices and is a more universal website (takes payment cards from anywhere). Your points from India travel then won’t go to waste.
While I usually pay around $1200 for a roundtrip flight, you can get it as low as $700. Use Kiwi to find the best deals; it’s my favorite.
I had this view in Pushkar for 500 rs per night
3. Feel free to “wing it” but do a little research, at least.
India is gorgeous everywhere and even if you don’t have a plan (I didn’t have much of one)- it’s good to know which areas interest you. In two years I haven’t seen even half of India’s main attractions so at least make a list of the places that interest you most. Here’s a backpacking bucket list of India that has all my dreams on it (some I completed). It can give you some ideas of the awesome opportunities of adventure in India so you can write it in your travel journal. Don’t over plan because you’ll be let down. Even in six months you just can’t see it all. Read more on traveling with no plans on my previous post. If you want an amazing trip but no planning and you want to go with a tour company, the only one I recommend is G Adventures.
this is a google doc I would add things to as I read
4. Indian people are so friendly but they are shy.
You absolutely can try to talk to them on trains and buses and most times they will be happy to do so- they’ll even let you take photos of them. They might stare sometimes, but it’s just curiosity and isn’t as rude in their culture. On the other hand, if you try to chat to an Indian businessman, you might be surprised to see that he spends half his time abroad and looks down on you, you silly backpacker!, and might not give you the time of day. Just because you’re in India doesn’t mean all the Indian people you meet are from some small village and haven’t seen a white face. Hell, most of my Indian girlfriends are far more cultured than I and have traveled more place- and speak more languages!
5. Know the basic words in Hindi
It will get the shop keepers to laugh a little. I’m surely not spelling these right because I only learn from hearing but here are some that will help:
Acha na-he- not good
Tike hay- right, yeah or say ha/ haji -yes
Bus- stop (for a rickshaw driver is handy. You can add yaha-here)
Kitna rupia- how much?
Krupiyah- please & shukriyah- thank you
Mutlub- meaning? Apka mutlub ho? (what do you mean?)
Ek bottle Pani dedo- give me 1 bottle water (krupiyah- please!) or if you want a hot shower ask, “garum pani?” when checking in, they’ll know what you mean. Want to know if the water is clean, ask “yay pani sof hay?”
1, 2, 3, 4, 5- ek, do, teen, cha, panch
6. Packing is KEY.
I won’t go into detail here because I’ve written so much on the matter. Here is the ultimate packing list for backpacking India as well as the do’s and don’ts for how to dress in India as a girl and examples of what I’ve worn. It’s important to pack well so you don’t have to buy as much on the road, you’ll be respected more, and you’ll feel more comfortable. It’s also important not to pack things you don’t need. India is not the wilderness- you don’t need a whistle and compass (yes, I totally brought these my first time to India… went a little nuts at REI). Here are my India travel essentials below:
7. Don’t panic if you get sick… and you will get sick.
It’s pretty much a guarantee at some point you’ll have a belly ache (Delhi-belly) but don’t panic and think “oh my god, I’ve some Indian parasite!” It’s just a bacterium your belly isn’t familiar with. Most times it’ll pass. Don’t pop antibiotics each time you’re sick, which is just what a chemist will tell you to do and DON’T take Imodium or other stoppers unless it’s absolutely necessary for a bus or train ride. Better out than in. As a nurse, I’m pretty stuck on passing on that tip. Read what I pack in my travel medical kit (which is not much) and what vaccinations you need for India.
Again, get travel Insurance! It is so important.
8. Don’t hop around too much.
Unlike Europe where you can go from London to Paris to Vienna all in a week… in India that will just wear you out to the max. To fully enjoy India you need to RELAX, and they do not make it easy on you considering what a chaotic country they are.
When you go from city to city you’ll have an annoying fight with a rick driver about cost, a sweaty dusty ride to the bus or train station, a long LOUD overnight ride with people watching you sleep, on a bus possibly a stop in the middle of the night to get a snack and use a horrible toilet, on a train you’re stuck with the squat one that is very dirty, then you have a fight with another rick driver to your hotel, where you’ll be told a price higher than agreed. Once you get to your room you’ll be beat!
So, try to at least stay in the city you land in about 3-4 days. Any less than that, and you’re just going to be burnt out and become one of those people that hate India by the end. Read up on tips for train and bus travel in India.
9. Don’t wait until the day of to book your train or bus to the next city.
The perfect way to travel for me is to arrive in, let’s say Delhi, and while I’m at the train station I book my ticket out of Delhi on to say Jaipur. Now I have my ticket and I know where to go in a few days. If you wait, seats sell out very fast. Most times there are buses but in smaller towns like Pushark, Manali, and other frequented by tourists the buses will fill up. It can delay your trip. Read up on how the trains in India operate so if you’re in a pickle you can try out the tourist quota for a seat saved just for your emergency!
Most often you’re going to arrive at night. Sometimes in the middle of the night. You can ask your hotel to pick you up and often times they will at a great discount. Cheap guesthouses know you have options and are usually open to picking you up. You should book ahead and be ready for late night transport. If you go the Airbnb route which is in some places in India, use this link to get $25 off your first booking (or you can use it anywhere in the world).
10. Come to India at the right time and visit each state at the right time.
This might be the most important tip, although last on this list. India is so seasonal. There are two monsoon seasons and they hit different areas at different times. The mountains in December in the NW are hard to travel and many passes are closed. You won’t get to Leh! Goa in May is desolate, bare, and has no parties.. and in June and July, it’s pouring rain with nothing even open! The Taj in peak season of December will be so packed and is the worst time to go. Read my Guide to India’s Seasons for specific information and plan accordingly. Overall, India’s season is October to March.
Once again: DO NOT FORGET YOUR VISA. You would be surprised how many people email me saying they showed up without one and got sent home.Click here for visas from any country, less than 60 days. If you’re coming longer than 60 days, click here if from the USA, and here if from UK (I have guides for those two countries).
PS: If you’re coming to India and will spend a week of more in Goa, check out my ebook the Insider’s Guide to Goa. After five years of living here, I’m sure this 170-page book is the most comprehensive guide to Goa on the market. Click here to buy it.