Before travelling to one of the largest and most diverse countries on the planet, do your research! You’ll get a lot more out of your trip if you do!
There’s a lot of very helpful and free travel information online, but I would definitely also recommend investing in a good guide book – especially useful when you have no internet access or battery left on your phone.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t be spontaneous. There’ll certainly be a lot of opportunity for that once you’re in India. But with so much to see and do, you should definitely find out which areas you’re most interested in visiting and how long you want to stay in each place before you go.
You could spend years travelling around the country, but most likely you’ll only have a few weeks or months at best. It’s tempting to race around like a crazed sacred cow in a futile attempt to see everything in your allotted time. But remember: less is more!
India can be such a challenging and exhausting country to get around, even for the most seasoned traveller, so you would be much better off sticking to a handful of places and getting to discover them at a more relaxed pace.
We travelled in North West India for a little over two weeks and visited “just” five cities: Delhi, Agra, Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. Although we only got to see a small slice of India, when we arrived and were assaulted by: the heat, pollution, traffic, colours, smells, etc., our relatively modest itinerary seemed just perfect for us India virgins!
And remember, you can always come back as many people do – again, and again, and again!
2. Make Sure you have the Correct Visa Documents
Most visitors to India will need to apply for an E-visa in advance of their trip via the government website indianvisaonline.gov.in. Sit down to fill this in when you have plenty of time and patience to wade through the interrogation questions carefully. You’ll also need a square 350 x 350 pixel passport photo to be uploaded with a maximum file size of 1MB file. (More frustrating than it might sound!)
Once your visa has been approved, make sure you print out the right document! The majority of travellers (myself included) don’t realise until they get to the airport that the email containing your visa approval is not the required document.
In fact, once your visa application has been approved, you need to go back to the visa application site and click “visa status”. After entering your information, click “print status” at the bottom of the screen to download the correct documents. This will prevent you being denied boarding and having your holiday dreams go up in smoke. Read more about our heart-attack inducing near miss in my blog post India: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Part 2)
Top Tip: the form you need should have your photo and a barcode on it. If it doesn’t, it’s not the right document!
3. Pack a Scarf/Shawl/Wrap
If there’s one piece of clothing that’s a travel must, especially in India, it has to be some form of scarf. Scarves are relatively lightweight and so versatile. They can keep you warm on an overly-air conditioned plane, protect your shoulders from the scorching sun, cover you up when you’re visiting a religious monument, fold together to make a makeshift pillow and serve as a compact blanket. So even if you’re short on space, take a scarf!
4. Pack Modest Clothes (Especially girls)
Of course India is diverse, and I’m sure you can find some local girls wearing mini skirts in the big cosmopolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai, but trust me when I say that you’ll feel a lot more comfortable if you cover up. I know, I know, we’re independent, empowered women and we can wear anything we want, but really, now is not the time to get on your high horse. If you’re visibly foreign, you’ll attract a lot of attention anyway, so unless you want to feel like a purple elephant with bells on, tone it down. Plus, in some areas you could really offend people by showing a lack of respect for the local culture and religion, so just put some clothes on.
And it’s amazing how much India will change your idea of modesty. I packed some knee-length dresses and skirts, thinking they were very demure, but after a week in Rajasthan I had forgotten what ankles looked like and felt quite self-conscious walking around with bare calves. On the other hand, I’ve never seen so many naked bellies in my life!
So leave the mini-skirts and hot pants at home ladies. I’d recommend taking some covering clothes from home and then buying some Indian clothes when you’re there: they’re covering, colourful, cool in the heat and a good price. Read more about Indian clothes in India: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Part One.
5. Buy an Indian SIM Card
Not only will this help you avoid extortionate charges, it will give you Internet access on the move. We bought a prepaid Airtel Sim card from a little kiosk which gave us 1.5 GB of data per day and unlimited calls all for about 300 rupees (just under 4 Euros). What a bargain!
6. Download Ride-Share Apps
By far the easiest and cheapest way to get around India is by using apps like Uber. They’re quick, convenient, and save you from haggling every time you make a journey. Plus, the price is the same for everyone, so you know you’re not getting charged over the odds just because you’re a tourist!
We used Uber dozens of times in India, plus the Ola app in Agra (where they don’t have Uber), and we had absolutely no problems at all. The only words of caution I have are to select your pick-up point on a main road as we sometimes had difficulties on side streets. And don’t be too shocked by the inevitable lack of seat belts. India excels at having a flagrant disregard for international health and safety rules and we found only a handful of cars had serviceable backseat belts.
7. Arm Yourself with Pocket Tissues, Wet Wipes and Hand Sanitizer
These will come in handy in all sorts of situations! For example: long train journeys!
After a day stuffing my face with Jodhpur’s finest curries, it’s no wonder I needed the toilet on our train ride to Jaisalmer. To my dismay, I opened the door to find a wet and dirty squat toilet starting back at me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not too squeamish to use a squat toilet. They’re actually a very healthy way to poop, and the handy bum sprayers that come with them are way more hygienic than just using toilet paper. My issue was that the rickety train was hurtling at lightning-speed through the Indian countryside.
I had scarily vivid premonitions of toppling out of my stiff and precarious Westerner’s squat, falling into the toilet and onto the wet (probably urine-soaked) floor.
Big fan of the bum gun and this squat toilet looks considerably cleaner and, importantly, more stationary than the one I was faced with on the train.
I set off in my quest for a more inviting poop pit further down the carriage and to my surprise found a Western-style one. Before I could get too excited, my heart sank when I saw the lack of tissue paper and the out-of-service bum sprayer. (By the way, this is definitely not the technical name for them, but I think it should be!)
As I stood staring sadly into the toilet, wondering which of the two awful options was better, and indeed even contemplating if I could hold on another 6 hours until we reached our destination, I suddenly remembered – I had baby wipes in my backpack!
A packet of baby wipes had never felt like such a godsend.
Moral of the story: tissues and wet wipes are a must!
Not only will they save you from situations like the above, they’ll also help you wipe off the layer of muck and pollution that builds up on your sweaty face throughout the day. And hand sanitizer will keep your hands clean after visiting bathrooms with no soap, touching money, (after touching anything actually) and before indulging in delicious Indian delicacies. Which brings us to our next point …
8. You Should Definitely Eat the Street Food!
“Woah, woah, woah…” you’re probably thinking, “Isn’t that a recipe for a night on the toilet?”. Well, it could be, but the mouth-watering street food delicacies are worth the risk. Some of India’s best food isn’t in fancy restaurants but on the street!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you should go around eating anything – I would definitely steer well clear of salads, anything made with ice, and all meat. But if you opt for vegetarian dishes that have been deep-fried and are served piping hot, there’s not much that could go wrong. The same goes for steaming hot chai! You should of course also make sure the vendor and their stand looks relatively clean, and always wash your hands before eating. If you take these sensible precautions, you shouldn’t have any problems, but in case something does go wrong, pack some Imodium!
9. Learn Some of the Local Lingo
As a former British Colony, English is one of India’s official languages, so you can usually get around with few problems on the tourist trail. However, aside from middle-class Indians and people working in tourism, a sizable number of people don’t speak English. We were lucky enough to be travelling around with friends who speak Hindi, but when I took a solo adventure to find a supermarket one day, I realised I didn’t have a clue how to say anything apart from “Namaste!” (Hello!) and “pani” (water). Unfortunately, I didn’t have a clue how to ask for directions, what the word for “shop” was, or for any of the things I wanted to buy. It also turns out that supermarkets don’t really exist in India all that much, it’s all independent stalls and grocery shops.
So to really impress the locals, make everyone’s lives easier, and prevent yourself from feeling like a clueless moron, I would strongly recommend you learn some useful phrases and basic vocabulary. With thousands of languages spoken in India, do check what the main language is in the area you’re travelling to first. Food vocabulary is especially important when you’re eating out, otherwise you’ll have to spend half an hour asking what everything is.
Even if you’re used to travelling a lot, I don’t think anything can prepare you for India. The food, crazy driving, pollution, customs, colours, and smells are all likely to be fundamentally different from what you’re used to. It’s a continuous unexpected slap in the face and you can make yourself quite miserable if you keep comparing it to your home country. Don’t do it! It will be totally different and you can’t change it. In fact, it’s these differences which make India such an appealing destination and keep people coming back time and time again. So be prepared to get out of your comfort zone and just accept things the way they are.
If you bring an open mind and have patience, you’ll find that India is equally fascinating as it is frustrating.
I hope these 10 Practical Tips prove useful and thank you for reading my last India article. (For now anyway, I’m already dreaming of my next trip!)
Sending you sunshine and positivity, Chelsea!
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