Last updated on September 7th, 2018.
When I was preparing for my first trip to India, I was confused between media news telling how bad your life in India might get and my future team’s advice that everything you might ever need is available on the spot.
If you have been on this blog for a while, you know that there is a lot of content about India. To help you navigate easier, I put up this guide for people who would like to travel India and don’t know where to start.
This post has some of the questions I had before arrival in India, some of the questions you have asked me and useful relevant knowledge I’ve gathered during a few years of living there. It is split into chapters and each one has a link to more in-depth articles on the topic if you would like to learn more.
This is a guide I wish someone shared with me before my first visit to India. Let’s dive into details – here is a menu for your convenience:
- When to visit India?
- Indian visa: purpose and types
- How long to stay in India?
- Arrival to India by air and road
- Documents, health, and vaccinations
- What to pack to India
- How to find accommodation in India?
- Food and Drinks in India
- Places to visit in India and how long to stay?
- How much does it cost to travel in India?
- Payments in India and which currency to bring?
- SIM Card for foreigners
- How to commute in India?
- Culture and travel tips
When to visit India?
India is very diverse and you will find interesting places and activities at ANY time of the year. If we set aside mountains and deserts, there are three main seasons in rest of India: winter (November – February); summer (March – June); monsoon (June – September). October is a disputed month, I would say it feels like summer in larger part of the country.
Unless you plan to visit mountains, the high season for rest of India is from November till April. If you have a plan for South India December to February are the best months to travel there. Moreover, North India gets quite chilly at night during the same months. In my opinion, North Indian states are comfortable in November, February and March.
If you plan to visit upper Himalaya (Spiti Valley, Jammu & Kashmir, etc.), the best time is from April to November. Lower Himalaya gets monsoon, so if you are not a fan of torrential rains, avoid July and August.
If you are on a budget, try to visit during low-season. The weather might be less comfortable (more hot or humid), but some prices will be almost 50% off. Low season in major part (except mountains) is September – October, March – April.
Read more: best time to visit India – a guide to Indian seasons. Here you will learn more in detail about different Indian seasons and when to visit to see snow in India, trek, best months for beaches, etc.
Indian Visa: purpose and types
Most of the travelers need Indian visa (except Nepal and Bhutan citizens). Let’s start with the type of visa as it is more important that many people think. Why are you coming to India? I’m part of many Indian communities where almost every week a foreigner tourist cries that he/she was volunteering at NGO/working in a hostel/just wanted to help/money is not important and other types of arguments and the immigration told him/her to leave the country within X days.
In many cases, such people don’t get caught. Nevertheless, if someone reports the misuse of law, you are going to taste the best of Indian bureaucracy. There are numerous types of Indian visas, choose the one that suits your purpose.
Most of the nations can apply for e-visa online for tourism, business or medical purposes. It is valid up to 60 days from the date of entry. If you intend to stay more than a month, you need to submit documents to the embassy and pick up the passport from there.
I strongly recommend calling the Indian embassy (consulate) in your country or visa center (if your country doesn’t have a diplomatic relationship with India) and following all the application requirements according to your citizenship.
Note: 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.
Read also: How to get an Indian visa in Bangladesh? – Here is a step-by-step experience report on how to apply for Indian tourist visa in Bangladesh as a foreigner.
How long to stay in India?
While we know that one life is not enough to explore the whole India, let’s be realistic and plan for limited holidays. I recommend spending at least 2-3 weeks to get an overview of a few states but focus on one area.
I get numerous messages like: “Natalia, I have two weeks and I would like to visit Delhi, Taj Mahal, Jaipur, Mumbai, Goa & Kerala. Where is better to start?” or something on the same lines. That might be possible once time-machine is invented, but even after this, you will need another vacation to take rest from your Indian holidays for sure.
India is huge and the distances are much longer than they seem on the map. Less is more and slow travel is the way to go about in India! If you have 2-3 weeks, I would focus on either on North India or South India.
If you would like to spend a winter half a year in India or more to feel this country better, I strongly recommend to base yourself in one place (or two) for a long period of time and take short trips from there. This way you will also have a chance to form a certain circle of local acquaintances, get to know the neighborhood and some peculiarities of living in India as an expat.
How to reach India: by air and by road?
Most of the visitors arrive in India either by air or by land. Flying into India by far is the best option: easier to get a SIM card, all major airports (e.g. Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, etc.) are connected by public transport with the main city, opportunity to be in an English-speaking and more developed environment.
If you are a more experienced traveler, go on and enter through the neighboring countries by land. Nevertheless, it might be rather an overwhelming experience, especially for the first-timers.
Currently, it is possible to arrive in India by land from Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. While as a citizen of India or one of the above-mentioned countries you have numerous borders, as a foreigner (non-citizen of India or other above countries) you need to double check if the border is international and let foreigners come through.
Further guides to read:
Documents, health, and vaccinations for India
If you follow mass-media, you might be scared to visit India with all the news coverage. In fact, most of the extreme cases on TV occur to people who don’t have an access to proper food/water and living conditions, unfortunately.
Getting sick in India is real, especially for long-term travelers, but in most situations, you will be fine if you will follow the advice of local travelers for food/stays/experiences/etc. There are millions of people who visit India and nothing happens to them.
There are common health issues such as cold (especially during AC season) and indigestion (for people experimenting with the food they don’t know). The scary diseases (malaria, dengue, typhoid, etc.) don’t occur once you land in the country. You actually need to visit certain areas during a certain time and even then you might be just fine. E.g. mosquito diseases occur during monsoon season but only in certain areas.
This is a question you should be discussing with your doctor (not on popular Indian Facebook groups). Your requirements will depend on the time of visit and itinerary. While some mosquito viruses are circulating during the monsoon in some areas, in high-altitude mountains you might not encounter mosquito at all.
Double check the list. I don’t mean to challenge the medical system, but I’ve met several foreigners who got vaccines for malaria and dengue, while in fact there are none. There are pills though.
Documents I recommend carrying with you
Here I’m talking about something beyond your passport and visa (which I hope are obvious). From my experience, I recommend carrying the following documents:
- Travel Insurance – it’s a dodgy question. While it is a smart decision to purchase an insurance for your trip, you need to make sure it works in India. In my first two trips I purchased insurance for the sake of having it, but at the end, I was paying from my pocket for all the treatments.
In either case, check the reviews from people who made claims in INDIA specifically before taking the decision. While I haven’t found a budget insurance till date working in the country, if you have a bigger budget, check out World Nomads on the higher end. I personally know people who made claims through it, though it’s quite expensive.
- Photocopy of your passport and visa. Take a few of them. You will need one for the SIM card and you might need other if you stay in very low-budget guesthouses who don’t have a photo-copy machine. Carry also a few passport-size pictures for the same.
- Driver license. If you have one and you intend to drive in India, carry it with you.
- Student ID. If you are a student, bring your ID with you. Prices to famous heritage sites are quite expensive for foreigners, you might try your luck with a student ID for discount. I have some people who reported that it worked.
- E-copy of your tickets in your phone. People at the airport/buses/trains are very specific about it. You don’t need print-out, but security will not let you in the airport without e-ticket. (e.g. You arrive in International Terminal in Delhi airport and have to take a domestic flight from terminal two).
What to pack to India
Here is a brief overview of what to take to India and what you don’t need really:
- Clothes. Try to take the minimum required clothes and take care that they suit the local & cultural norms. You can always find good quality and affordable clothes on spot.
- 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).
- 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, shawl (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 general specter medicines (for headaches, indigestion, etc.) for every possible “just in case” situation. Take ones that you are prescribed to take and specifically help you. You will find different pharmacies (Medical, Ayurveda, Homeopathic) in India everywhere.
- 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.
- 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 hotels and cafes.
- Headphones and earplugs. Sometimes it gets really noisy in India, especially in big cities.
- Light 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 not be 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 a higher SPF than Indians.
- 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.
- Sleeping bag: if you travel on a tight budget, you won’t regret having one. It’s useful for sleeper trains (where they don’t give linens, they do only in AC classes). You can as well consider an airy travel pillow for the same purpose.
- What to wear in India: travel outfits, what to wear on daily basis, office clothes, how to dress for a wedding and other functions.
- Shopping in India – types of shopping, popular sites for online shopping in India, bargaining tips, prices and souvenirs to bring home.
How to find accommodation in India?
You can find accommodation deals either on spot after arrival or online in advance. I strongly recommend booking online for the first few days. If you are new to India, there is a high chance you will be tired and overwhelmed by just stepping a foot out of the airport.
Nowadays, online deals are mostly of better value than on spot ones. The rule is simple: if the stay has good service and conditions, the hosts will register it online to get more business for themselves.
Try finding homestays (average range 600 – 1000 INR/day) especially on the first visit. You will be able to get a deeper insight into the local culture, try home-cooked food and experience daily life in India. Nowadays, many of them are already on Booking.
If you are a backpacker, India has plenty of chains and individual hostels (approx. 200 – 600 INR/day) in every popular city/town. You can find them both on booking or hostelworld.
Tip: If you are a foreigner, carry always passport and visa with you whenever you need to check-in to guesthouses, hostels and hotels. They will not be able to check you in with an ID card or another document.
Read further: How to find accommodation in India – here I share major local and international companies in the hospitality sector that are popular on Indian market (from universal platforms to niche ones like renting tents), pros and cons of choosing each of them.
Indian Food & Drinks
India is a paradise for vegetarians, nevertheless, there are many famous non-veg national dishes as well (think of butter-chicken and everything fish in Kerala or West Bengal). There are also several international cuisines (Italian, Chinese, American, Thai, Russian, etc.) but they all will be adjusted to the local market (I mean spicy).
I recommend sticking to Indian cuisine while in India – it’s affordable and diverse. While each state (there are 29 of them) has its own peculiarities, you can split food into North Indian and South Indian.
North Indian is more about breads (paratha, naan, puri, kulcha – you name it), creamy and rich flavors and paneer. Some dishes are insanely tasty and buttery – eating them on regular basis might bring you double happiness and double chin.
South Indian food is more about rice and rice products (dosa – pancake; uttapam – thick pancake; vada – healthy rice donut; idli – steamed rice cake), light and liquid gravies. That’s one of the reasons South Indian food is considered to be a healthier choice (absence of butter does play a role).
To get a broad introduction, choose combo or thali. This is a plate of several dishes served in small portions. As a bonus, they have free refills if one person orders a meal. Realistically, it’s almost impossible to finish a thali yourself, but if you do, the waiters most probably will offer you seconds.
Tip: Carry your bottle with you. In India, water is free, unless it’s packed. You will see filters in most of the hotels, hostels, restaurants. You can as well refill it on the water stations for a nominal price of 5 INR per liter.
- Food in India – introduction to eating in India, different snacks, street food, how not to get sick, local drinks to try and other tips.
- Famous food festivals in India – some of the famous annual foodie festivals held in India.
Places to visit in India and popular itineraries
India has 29 states and you will find interesting places and experiences absolutely in each of them. As a rule, people on a short vacation (~2 weeks) make their first visit either about Taj Mahal or beaches.
Golden Triangle of the North: Delhi – Agra – Jaipur. This is a good one week to 10 days plan, which some travelers extend either into Varanasi (Holy city) or Rajasthan tour (Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, etc.) It gives you a broad impression of three different states. People usually land in Delhi and continue their itinerary from there.
Golden Triangle of the South: Mumbai – Goa – Hampi. People seeking beach experiences start in Mumbai, then enjoy beaches and heritage sites in Goa ending up in architectural wonders of Hampi (a town in North Karnataka). This itinerary also gives you a broad impression of three states.
There are people who come to India specifically for Kerala – it’s one of the most authentic and touristy states famous for tea, spices, beaches, and backwaters. If you are a solo traveler visiting India for the first time, I would probably start here for a “soft landing”.
India is all about unique experiences rather than places: take Thar Desert safari, or spending a day in a houseboat in Kashmir, navigating through Alleppey backwaters, attending an Indian wedding. There are numerous memorable experiences, but you need to choose what suits you best.
It’s hard to suggest the universal “must-go” places in India without knowing your preferences. Despite Taj Mahal is a world-known monument, a trek in Ladakh can be an equally exciting experience for you if you are a mountain lover.
Also, as a person who writes mostly about underexplored places in India, I can go above and beyond advising picturesque Nubra Valley, Tibetan settlement in Bylakuppe, jaw-dropping temples near Mysore. Nevertheless, these places might raise an interest among Indians or in foreigners who have been to India before and are comfortable in taking less developed routes.
Read also: Most popular places to visit in India – here I share a few popular states and itineraries people choose.
How much does it cost to travel in India?
A great thing about India is flexibility in the travel budget. You can manage it from 600 INR (~9 USD) to 15000 INR (~230 USD) per day. If we split traveling in three categories: backpacking, mid-range and luxury travel, the daily expense will look approximately the following:
|Type of traveler||INR/day||USD/day||EURO/day||GBP/day|
600 – 1000
|9-15||7.5 – 13||
6.8 – 11.3
1000 – 2000
|15-30||13 – 25||
11.3 – 22.6
|30-85||25 – 76||
22.6 – 68
|85 – 145+||76 – 127+||
68 – 113+
Numbers above were formed by connecting to over 50 travelers with different budgets and noting their expenses and style of travel.
Read more: Cost of travel in India – detailed guide and breakdown of each budget category mentioned above and what this money can get you in India. E.g. how will accommodation for 300 INR and for 3000 INR look like, how much is transport, food on the street vs reputed restaurants, entertainment, etc.
Taking money to India: which currency to bring and how to pay?
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 the 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 don’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.
SIM Card in India for foreigners
SIM Card in India gives you an access to many important local services: ordering taxis, food delivery, internet, maps and many more. Due to the market competition, the rates are quite attractive and affordable. For instance, in 200 INR (~2.9 USD) you can get a package of 1 GB of 4G network per day, local calls, and SMS.
Getting a SIM Card in India might be a challenge if you start from a less touristy town. Nevertheless, the network providers mostly will ask you for the following documents:
- Original passport and visa
- Photocopy of passport and visa
- A picture (2-inch x 2-inch)
- An application form (it will be provided on spot)
Some offices might also ask for a local reference number and ID card which has a local residence address in your country. You will not be ask these additional details if you get a SIM Card at big airports and some tourist points (e.g. CP in Delhi). The SIM Card remains valid during the validity of the visa. After the visa expires, the card will be blocked automatically by the operator.
Personally, I recommend getting a SIM Card in India for people staying more than 10 days or those who need permanent connectivity for work or other purposes. Also, calling from Skype to Indian phone numbers is affordable, if your friend/relatives from abroad want to be in touch with you.
Read more: Guide on getting a SIM Card in India
Transport in India: how to commute?
India by train
Train is by far the best way to get around the country (except the mountains). The network is immense and coach types cater to different budgets: AC, Non-AC, Sleeper, Seater, etc. Unlike western countries, you need to plan tickets in advance. Some of the train tickets are sold months before the journey. As a rule, you can find places 2-3 weeks before traveling. If you are sure about your itinerary and places, make the bookings in advance.
Foreigners can buy tickets on a foreigner quota on the popular stations (Delhi, Mumbai, Varanasi, Jaipur, etc.) or by registering online with their local SIM number or through a tour agent on spot.
Read also: Advanced guide to train travel in India – here you will learn about different train types, IRCTC Corporation, how to book tickets, what is Tatkal, train apps, how to get tickets when there are none in the system and other useful tips.
Car travel in India
If you would like a bit more independence in moving around, consider hiring a car with a driver. Note, you can hire the cars independently from ZoomCar or similar companies. I strongly don’t recommend driving in overcrowded cities in India unless you are familiar with the local style of driving.
For city rides, you can choose Ola or Uber if you are looking for comfortable AC experience for honest rates. Alternatively, you can opt for Auto rickshaw or cycle rickshaw for shorter distances. Autos should go by meter (but except Mumbai and a few other cities, they usually don’t).
To estimate a price for an auto (three-wheeler), calculate ~ 10 INR/km. If an auto driver capitalizes on your lack of knowledge and gives unreasonable rates, negotiate or leave (even if it’s cheap for you).
India by bus
Buses can offer you more a feeling of spontaneity. As a rule, you can get tickets up to 2 days before the journey if you go by RedBus partners. Alternatively, you can opt for local buses (non-AC, government vehicles) where you can get tickets on spot without pre-booking.
Read more: Transport in India – here you will learn about different companies in the transport sector in India as well as types of transport mostly used in the country.
Cultural and travel tips for 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 the 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.
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 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!
Thanks for making it till here! Hope this post was a good starting point in planning your trip to India. If you found it useful, share it with others. If you have any other questions or doubts, don’t hesitate to drop a message or get in touch. I will be happy to help you and share an opinion!