When I was preparing for my first Indian experience, I was confused between media news “how bad your life in India might get” and my future team advice that “everything you might ever need is available on the spot”. India is the most diverse and mind-blowing country I’ve been living in till date.
The media is often so not helpful in making a comprehensive view about this country rather than showing the extremes. In this post, I would like to share advice and experience about visiting, living and backpacking India that I’ve learned during my stay there. I hope this post will help you in planning your trip to India and improve your experience in this country, especially if you are visiting it for the first time. Since this post is longer than usual, here is a menu for your convenience:
- When to visit India?
- How much does it cost to travel in India?
- Places to visit in India and how long to stay?
- Arrival to India by air and road
- Payments in India
- Documents for safety and vaccinations
- SIM Card for foreigners
- How to find nice and cheap accommodation
- How to commute in India
- Food and Drinks
- What to pack to India
- Travel tips and advice
When to visit India?
The general tourist season in India is from November to March. However, to choose the best time for your visit, you need to think about the itinerary. E.g. January does not feel comfortable in Delhi and above if you move towards Himalaya.
If you are looking to save some bucks October and March are the months of certain discounts before and after the general season. If you are interested in traveling to Himalaya area, I recommend September – October, April – May, depending on the region. The lower Himalaya will be already hot from May onward, while the upper Himalaya will be just on time.
Is it possible to travel in India in monsoons?
Of course and many people do so due to the vacation policy constraints. BUT: consider, that there will be showers almost every day, sometimes all day long, depending on the state. There are many great things about monsoons: they make nature look fresher, the air becomes cleaner, there are many fruits available only during this season.
I do love strong showers when I work on the terrace and listen to the rain. However, if you plan an active traveling, it will be quite hot and humid. It will be also quite tough to make a certain plan as during monsoons the traveling is pretty much defined by rain.
The monsoon season is from the end of May/June till the mid of September/October. Unless you don’t have any other option, I recommend choosing a different time for a visit.
How much does it cost to travel in India?
The great thing about India is flexibility in the travel budget. You can manage it from 5 USD to several hundreds of dollars per day. Assuming you choose the basic comfortable conditions, the price break-up should be somewhat:
- Accommodation – 2 – 15 USD/day. 2 USD(140 INR) for a hostel bed in the common tourist cities. 15 USD(~1000 INR) – a room in the guesthouse in the Himalaya area.
- Food – 1-5 USD (60-300 INR) per meal.
- Intercity transport – 5-20 USD(300 – 1300 INR) depending on the distance and bus/train
- City transport – auto 7-11 INR/km (~0.15 USD) depending on the city. Metro and buses are cheaper (on average 25 INR (0.4 USD) per ride irrespective of the distance).
- Entry to the tourist places – 100 – 500 INR(1.5 – 7.7 USD) on average. There are few exceptions that are much more expensive, e.g. Taj Mahal.
You need on average 20 USD per day to travel on a tight budget. Tight budget means you give preference to simple rooms, public transport, basic food, few attractions. It might be cheaper for you if you travel not alone since in many areas you will be renting out a room of the guest house. You can significantly cut your expenses if you stay in one place for a longer period of time. In my opinion, 30 USD per day is a very comfortable budget outside big Indian cities.
Let me give you an overview of staying in the capital city. I was based in Delhi due to my office work. For some time, I was getting my monthly expenses to 250 USD(15k INR) per month. I was sharing a room, either cooking or getting home-made food, going by metro, taking two short trips per month. For a few months, my monthly expenses came to 26000 INR (~400 USD), because I changed the accommodation and the rents in Delhi are exorbitant. If you base yourself out of the most expensive Indian cities, you will get better living conditions for a cheaper cost overall.
You also need to take some small daily amount for miscellaneous costs that will happen initially. E.g. you got scammed, there was a delay or change of plans, etc. Look at the INR prices as the dollar rates might be changing.
Places to visit in India and how long to stay
This is the most common question I receive. You will find the experience for any time-frame you are available: from a short visit to the city of Taj Mahal to years of pilgrimage around the country. I’ve been staying in India for two years and I hardly scratched the surface. If you are planning a few weeks up to a few months stay in India, check out the most popular India itineraries for the first-comers.
Irrespectively of your length of stay, I advise not to do the whole India in one go and to choose your experience. India is overwhelming, secondly, the distances are much longer than they seem on the map. I recommend slow traveling for any type of stay. If you would like to spend half a year in India or more to feel this country better, I strongly recommend to base yourself in one place for a long period of time and take short trips from there. This way you will have a chance to form a certain circle of local acquaintances, get to know the neighborhood and some peculiarities of living in India.
Regarding choosing your experience, it’s hard to suggest the universal “must-go” places in India. Despite Taj Mahal is a world-known monument, a trek to Ladakh can be an equally exciting experience for you if you are a mountain lover.
Arrival to India
There are many airports all over India, though most popular are in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. If you decide to come by air, check out how to find cheap flights to India to save your money on airfare.
You can also come to India by road from Nepal, Pakistan or Bangladesh. It will take you a bit longer than a flight, though if you are planning a journey around South Asia, it might be an option too.
Taking money to India
Money is one of the core concerns for any traveler. In India, you can pay via Credit Cards, Debit Cards, Travel Cards, Money wallets, Cash and online banking (for some services). After the demonetization reform in November 2016, a big part of Indian population had to switch to digital payments.
Local tip: according to the law, people can take a limited sum of Indian Rupees from India. If you are a foreign national, you are prohibited to import INR back to India. I have seen a few tourists trying to exchange INR on social networks after leaving India. Though I haven’t heard about the cases of foreigners caught with INR cash, it’s good to know the law.
Credit and Travel Cards
There are many ATMs spread across the country in big cities as well as in small non-touristic places. Unless you are planning to go to a remote offbeat village trek in the North, you will find ATMs everywhere.
There is also a possibility to open a travel card if your home country offers such option (this option is available for US, UK, Australia. About other countries you will have to check with your banks). It will give you a chance to escape constant search for good currency exchange rates. There are few Indian banks that provide the facility of preloading INR in their travel cards, like ICICI Bank Indian Rupee Travel Card, Axis Bank Travel Card etc.
Basic tip for debit/credit cards: confirm with your bank that your card is enabled for international use and will work in India. It might sound quite obvious, though one of my cards haven’t worked in India for some reason.
If you are planning to take some cash from home, give preference to dollars rather than pounds & euros. In Asian countries, as a rule, people set US dollar as an international currency standard. In India, few famous tourist sites even accept entrance fee in small dollar notes, though, in any case, you want to carry always Indian Rupees with you. There are many small expenses like transport, water, snacks, sightseeing and others, which you can pay for only with cash.
Local tip: don’t give money to beggars approaching your car or you while walking. Don’t help them sustain their business. You will see many people in India living below the poverty line, but you will notice that many of them do hard work to earn for living. If you feel pity and want to help someone – take the amount you wish to donate and buy food products for the person/family/group of people with this money. Don’t buy anything that can be resold back.
Check up the monetary conversion before you leave. You will be surprised how many unauthorized people are exchanging money in India. There are money exchange points in the airports, however, they won’t offer competitive rates. You can exchange some nominal amount in the airport that will cover you up for initial 2-3 days.
In the city, you can exchange money in some banks, separate exchange points or some travel companies like Thomas Cook. There are plenty of other local dealers who exchange money but not officially. I wouldn’t recommend going with them as they might take a higher fee plus you might be part of a scam scheme.
Some travel agents started disinformation that travel insurance is mandatory for India. Though there are no specific checks anywhere, I recommend getting an insurance to eliminate rather personal emotions about something that can happen. Moreover, there are many insurance companies that cover not only health issues, but also ticket cancellation, loss of baggage and other cases. You might want to look into top travel insurance reviews before taking the decision.
Before you go with any insurance company, check their policies and validity in India. Though I had an insurance I mostly ended up going to private hospitals for not serious cases like cold, food poisoning, fever. The reason was the queue system and relatively not expensive cost.
What vaccinations do I need for India? This is one of the top questions travelers ask me. I haven’t done any special vaccines before coming to India except those standard ones made back in childhood. Dengue, malaria and other diseases are real in India, though get better informed about the cases before taking the decision.
If you decide to do vaccinations, I got to know in India that there is no vaccination from malaria so far. It’s in the progress during many years, though as of now only pills are available. I’m sharing this info as I met some people who have received “vaccination” from malaria. I do recommend consulting a doctor in your country about the special requirements.
- Carry some photocopies of your passport. You will need them for booking accommodation, some intercity transportation, SIM card, etc. You do need to carry a passport with you while traveling within India for hotel registration, ticket check in the trains and so on.
- Passport size pictures. I would advise to click them in India as they come at a good price.
- Registration. If you come to India not on a tourist visa for more than 180 days, YOU NEED TO REGISTER IN FRRO within 14 days after your arrival. Trust me, you don’t want to mess up with Indian migration system.
- Print-out tickets
Airport tip: Download tickets on any digital device and print them just in case. Back in 2013, it was not possible to get inside the airport without the printed tickets. Nowadays, you can present it on phone, though I still print just in case. You can’t leave the airport building without a special permission of the flight member. When my international flight got delayed by one day, the passengers who wanted to leave the airport had to approach the guards with the representative of the airlines and fill the form. To sum up, keep the tickets with you and enter only when you are 100% sure you don’t need to come back.
Best SIM Card in India for foreigners
If you stay in India for a longer period of time, I strongly suggest buying a SIM Card. It makes things so much easier. For starters, skype calls to Indian numbers are affordable. This makes your communication with friends and family back home much easier.
Another point is the access to services. There are many apps and online services that can save you plenty of time and money. In addition to this, Indian call rates are so cool. In some packages, you can talk for one hour within a state for 1 USD or so (I have no idea, why would someone need to hang on the phone for so long, but it’s a nice option).
There are 4 main players in India in this industry: Airtel, Vodafone, Reliance and Idea. I have had experience with Airtel and Vodafone. They have connection pan India basis. Vodafone sometimes has a weak or no connection at some hill stations in the north. In the other states, where I’ve traveled it worked perfectly fine. With Airtel I didn’t face connection issues so far.
Documents required for SIM Card in India
To register a SIM card you need to submit the following documents:
- A photocopy of your Indian Visa.
- A photocopy of the passport page with personal data. Take the original also with you for verification.
- Photocopy of your home address in the country of residence. Take the original too, just in case. (*Remark: I made it as a separate point as home address comes in Indian Passports by default. This is not the case for many other countries).
- 2 Color passport photographs.
- The address proof in India (where you will be staying? a confirmation of a booking should suffice).
- An application form, that you will receive from the operator.
The SIM card is generally activated within 24 hours after submitting all the documents.
You can buy a card directly from the Airport after arrival or in one of the phone stores in the city. I would suggest buying your card in the city/state where you plan to stay the most. To use the card in other states, you will have to activate Roaming option.
The price of the SIM card includes some talk time. You can add the credit in some local shops selling phones, operator stores or on websites like paytm.
According to Indian regulations, your SIM card will be valid for a period of time your visa is valid. After your visa expires, the SIM card will get automatically deactivated. If you visit India quite often, you might consider taking help from local friends in registering a card on their name.
If you are coming for a month or so, in my opinion, it still makes sense to have a SIM card. There are some nice plans for local and international calls as well.
How to find cheap accommodation in India?
In India, you can find accommodation for any taste and budget: from a broken backpacker to a luxurious royal stay. I’ve covered a separate post about how you can find both comfortable and budget accommodation in India. I’ve included some insider tips and local companies that you might not get in google top results unless you are in India (mainly because of search localization).
Local tip: Carry always passport with you whenever you need to book accommodation. Guesthouses, hostels and hotels will not be able to check you in, without your passport and visa.
Road transport in India
India can be challenging when it comes to the transportation. There is a great network of trains and buses around the country, however, due to the high density of the population, often you can’t be spontaneous with your plans and you need to take care of your tickets in advance.
The most common intercity transportation is the train. It has many compartments depending on your budget. 3AC has the best value for money and it’s the most popular train class among backpackers. For people who are broke and on a strict budget, check out the sleeper class. I don’t recommend “sleeper” for women traveling alone in the east of India. There is a huge network, where you can check and book your tickets – IRCTC. Note, you will need a local number for that. Whichever class you choose, keep an eye on your luggage.
There are also different types of buses from local to luxury. I recommend choosing Volvo AC buses. During overnight trips, the bus quality matters less if the road is bumpy.
I’ve covered also a separate post about urban transport in India and companies that work in this sector. Whatever option you choose, remember that India is a car-oriented country. In most of the cases, there are many bikes and rickshaws riding in pedestrian areas. Even if you live close to the station, consider taking a lift for your convenience.
Indian Food & Drinks
Despite, I’ve covered a separate comprehensive post about traditional Indian food as well as famous food festivals in India you might be interested attending, I would like to share a local tip I super like about Indian restaurants. There are several things that come for free in many restaurants: water, onions, spices/sauces (chutneys) and some additional portions. E.g. If you order combos (several dishes in one), in most of the cases waiters will offer you seconds. Though I have never manage to finish even one combo because of its quantity many of my local friends were taking curry seconds.
Out of all “warnings” about India, the most important one is about water: you can’t drink water from the tap. Try to choose bottled water of the known brands like Bisleri, Bailley, Aquafina etc. You can easily purchase water bottles for an accessible price almost on any corner. Avoid ice cubes whenever possible – my colleagues got a food poisoning in a reputable and expensive restaurant.
Personal remark: I think your Indian experience depends totally on you and your luck. For instance, I drank often water from jars in cafes and ate outside with clients in the meetings since it was part of my marketing job. Sometimes I traveled to remote and not touristy areas and everything was totally fine. From the other hand, I know quite a few people who were living in posh areas, eating from branded restaurants, washing fruits and vegetables with filtered water and still were sick with food poisoning or other spread diseases in India.
During my first month, I was also following super precautions in everything. When you live in India (it’s quite different from traveling) there are many situations when you just have to trust locals. I’m just making a point, that isolating yourself in good hotels will not save you from the fears you have about India. I generally suggest treating India as any other country, where anything can happen to anyone. I also suggest making local friends, they will help you discover a different side of this country.
Paradox: During the whole stay in India, I got only one very severe food poisoning and it was from a costly dinner in a good restaurant where were many foreigners. The person who ate with me had a bit of stomach ache, while I was taken to the hospital after 2 hours with high fever and trembling. Same food, different reactions.
As delicious as it may look, don’t eat random street food. Though many local people eat street food on daily basis, your digestive power can’t compete even closely with Indian one. If you stay for a longer period of time and your stomach had got used to local spices, consider taking some trusted street food tour.
What to pack to India
Clothes. Try to take minimum required clothes and take care that they suit the local & cultural norms. Read more about what to wear in India. You can always buy anything you might require during the traveling: you will find good quality clothes for a cheap price there. Read more about shopping in India.
Footwear. Don’t take with you nice and light colored shoes made from fabrics. India is very dusty even in big cities! The most practical footwear should be washable and prone to rains (if you are traveling in summers). I would definitely advise taking slippers (flip-flops). Firstly, you will need them for taking shower, and secondly, they are generally convenient for Indian climate.
Daily Backpack. There is some standard stuff you will have to carry every day that will not fit into the purse. E.g. water bottle because of heat, stole (for religious places), anti-mosquito spray for evenings, wet wipes, sanitizer, camera and so on.
Tip: If you are coming for a monsoon season get a waterproof bag at least for your camera and documents.
Medicines. Don’t take medicines with you for every possible “just in case” situation. Take main stuff that specifically helps you. You will find different pharmacies(Medical, Ayurveda, Homeopathic) in India everywhere if you need. I would strongly advise taking something from Diarrhea and charcoal. It’s helpful during food poisoning. By the way, India is also a popular destination for medical tourism.
Toiletries. If you are planning to stay more than one month maybe it makes sense to exclude hygienic cosmetics like shampoos, gels, conditioners. I met tourists who take several sets of cosmetics from their home. I would advise taking only stuff that specifically suits you. L’Oreal, Unilever, P&G and other famous brands are accessible in India everywhere. Same works for toilet paper. Even if you have read that most of the Indians use water in the toilets, don’t bring a monthly paper pack with you. There are many shops where you can buy it on the spot. You might consider carrying some with you on the daily basis as it’s not available by default in many HORECA.
Headphones and earplugs. Sometimes it gets really noisy in India, especially in big cities.
Towel. If you travel on a budget, take a towel with you. It might not be available in cheap hotels and hostels or you might be not happy with the one they provide you with.
Sun protection. Whether you are going to the seaside or not, you will need a solution to protect your skin in hot weather and also some cap/scarf for your head. You can buy it on the spot. If you have fair skin, I would suggest bringing the sun protection with you. You will require higher SPF than locals.
Insect repellant. In addition to the huge number of mosquitos (especially during monsoons), there are many other bug species. You will find many interesting insect repellant products in India, thus it’s up to you whether you take it from home or purchase on the spot.
Plug adapters & voltage converters. Your adapters might not fit in local charging points, thus you may have to buy the adapters. After one of my phone chargers got burnt, I also learned about the requirement of a voltage converter.
Travel tips for backpacking India
Negotiate. Always agree on the price before taking the service. E.g. if you know that the route between stations should cost 100 INR it doesn’t mean an auto driver can’t charge you 400 INR. If you don’t agree in advance, you might end up harassing each other for a long time in the end before you find some common solution.
Advanced tip – CARE: Connect to the person – listen to his story, ask questions, there are many interesting stories behind everything in India. When you actually care for the person and show some respect, most people will answer you with the same. I have many stories of warming hospitality of locals. I had a case when people were chasing me to return my sweater I forgot in the shop or when a bus driver with whom we talked on the station got the extra blanket for me (though I haven’t asked for and he told I can return it to his partner who was driving a bus to Himalaya that day).
Yes, I was also scammed during the first months. I’ve noticed, most of the times, I was overcharged by a person who lives on the edge. If you take a closer look, you will see how much these people need care and respect instead of shouting and orders. I’ve lived in a PG for girls for quite a long time. Our cook, Santosh bhaiya was a really nice and kind person, though landlord often used to scold him for trifles. When my roommates were bringing sweets from the shop, they were always considering people who worked in the guesthouse. Just for this simple fact bhaiya always used to keep food for girls even long after breakfast hours when they used to wake up late. Just care and you will see the difference in the attitude.
Beware of the gender-specific places. In India, there are many gender-specific places – e.g. places in public transport, dressing rooms, many queues, etc. In some cases, there is a fine for breaking this rules. E.g. if you are a man traveling in ladies coach in Delhi Metro, you will be publically scolded and fined.
Be careful with YOLO tag in India. India always has many interesting experiences for its visitors. Limits are quite relative here. Be careful with the offbeat tracks especially if you travel without local friends. It might be a lifetime experience to visit a slum area or villagers, though don’t underestimate your subconsciousness. The culmination of your experience might happen long after your stay in India.
Don’t do stuff just because other people do so. Whatever “jugaar” works for locals, might not work for foreigners and vice versa.
Check the smoking and alcohol rules. There were two situations that made me warn you:
- I brought a bottle of wine as a gift to my host, though security didn’t allow me to enter the metro with a gift packed bottle in my bag. Security people scan all your bags in the metro.
- Security didn’t allow my friend to enter the mall, when the scanners have identified a bottle of beer in his bag. Yes, you are going through the security check while entering a mall.
There are plenty of public places where you can’t smoke. If you are a smoker, double check.
Learn about the temples. Each temple has its own requirements for visitors. In addition to dress code and specific behavior norms, there are temples that allow only Hindus or men. These are very specific cases, though it’s always good to read more on this topic.
The local accent is equally weird as yours. As much as you might struggle to understand Indians initially, they go through the same process with you. They are also not habitual to your accent.
Don’t go for the agents (Personal advice). There will be many info offices especially with representatives of “Ministry of Tourism”. Beware of this popular scam. Startup wave is so hot in India that you will find a company serving your niche needs. If you think something is missing in the local market, drop a comment here :D.
Take it easy. Nothing is certain in India. There are delays and cancellations at every step. Try to enjoy and embrace this randomness.
If you travel to small towns or some big cities, you will get extra attention as a foreigner. Indian people will stare at you and will ask to take pictures. Nothing personal, they are just genuinely curious.
Don’t stereotype. When you choose a destination for traveling, you might go to some weather website, Wikipedia to know general information, news channels and some forums looking for reviews by people who’ve been there before. In my opinion, travelers who’ve been there for a longer period of time and suggestions from the locals are the most valuable source.
Don’t make strong opinions, by following news about India. In western media, India is popular for some rape cases, poverty, Goa, Taj Mahal and political meetings. Somehow media channels mostly communicate extremes rather than common cases. Come, see, experience and create your Indian story 🙂 India opens to everyone differently!
Hope this post was a good starting point in planning your trip to India. If you have any other questions or doubts, don’t hesitate to get in touch. I will be happy to help you and share an opinion!