Are you visiting India for the first time? There are certain things you absolutely need to know before traveling to India, so as to better plan for your trip and – most importantly so – in order for you to know what to expect when there and mitigate the culture shock that you will inevitably experience.
India is a country that has lots to offer to travelers. Magnificent mountain landscapes; beautiful beaches; lively cities; unique temples and archeological sites; unique traditions; delicious food and lovely, welcoming people. What you need to understand, though, is that India is a country like no other; a country of extreme contrasts and contradictions that not even movies like internationally acclaimed Slumdog Millionnaire or books like Shantaram can prepare you for.
Worry not! I am here to tell you everything you need to know before visiting India and to share a bunch of India travel tips.
14 Useful Things To Know Before Visiting India
The best time to visit India
The first question you will be wondering about when looking to prepare for your trip will usually be about the best time for visiting India. Sorry to break the news, but there is no straightforward answer to this. Indeed, different Indian states are best visited at different times of year, as the monsoon season hits different parts of the country in different months. However, it is generally safe to say that the best time to visit India is between October and March, when the weather is mostly sunny, dry and warm without ever being oppressively hot.
Having said so, keep in mind that December and January bring in cold weather in the northern states, with lots of fog; while the Himalayas remain unaccessible in the winter (unless you want to experience snow, that is!). Ladakh, in the north of the country, is best visited between June and September, when the rest of India is going through the monsoons. The south of the country is best visited after November, once monsoon season is over.
I visited India between October and November and found pleasant, sunny days that were never too hot.
You need a visa for visiting India
The Visa on Arrival scheme for India is a bit complicated – and it requires an online application to be made between 30 and 4 days before your travel date. The visa lasts 30 days and it is valid from the date of arrival. The easiest way to get a visa for India is through a specialized agency such as iVisa. Another one, E-visums, guarantees an incredibly easy application process, and the visa is typically approved within 24 hours and delivered in 72, including during the weekend.
The India eVisa is granted for 365 days, with multiple entry and, depending on your nationality, a maximum of 90 or 180 days to stay in the country – so it’s the best one to get if you plan to spend more than a month in India. You can process the eVisa at the official website or with a specialized agency such as iVisa.com.
Make sure to read my post A Step By Step Guide To Getting The Indian Visa On Arrival.
Guided tours of India
You may prefer to travel to India independently, but honestly – and especially if you have limited time – it may be a good idea to join a group tour and save yourself the headache of planning the trip. The only thing you’ll have to worry, then, will be packing your bags – and even for that you’ll have plenty of guidance.
Many companies have excellent guided tours of India. G Adventures is one of the most reputable ones and has an incredible array of tours you can pick from, of varying duration and for different budgets. Here is a selection:
- Mysteries of India – 15-Day Tour
- Essential India – 15-Day Tour
- Golden Triangle Tour – 8-Day Tour
- Uncover India: Delhi – Goa – 15-Day Tour
- North to South India on a Shoestring – 21-Day Tour
- Ultimate India by Rail – 46-Day Tour
- Indian Odyssey by Rail – 54-Day Tour
Make sure to check out my post All The Benefits Of Group Travel.
You really can’t skip the Taj Mahal
India is a massive country and – as I said before – it will take you months or multiple trips to explore it properly. One thing for sure is that if you are visiting India for the first time, you really, truly, undoubtedly have to make it a point to go to the Taj Mahal and the nearby Agra, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. This is really one of the most impressive sites in the country, and you should not skip it.
Since the Taj Mahal can get really crowded, you are significantly better buying the entrance tickets in advance. You can also opt for a guided tour. These are some good options:
Stick to a few places in the same region
This is for those who insist on traveling to India independently. There are so many beautiful places to visit in India that unless you have months to explore the country and visit each and every state, you should pick one or two states in the same region and just stick to those. This will reduce the time spent commuting from one place to the other – which in a country where the road conditions are less than ideal is not something to keep in mind!
Now, if – like I have suggested – plan to visit the Taj Mahal, that means you will be likely flying into Delhi and will be better off visiting other places in Uttar Pradesh such as Varanasi, and then move to Rajasthan. You will be going on a loop that is typically referred to as “Golden Triangle” and which is a great itinerary for people visiting India for the first time.
GOOD TO KNOW: Goa and Kerala are other incredible states perfect for a first time visit.
You’ll be in for some serious culture shock
I wholeheartedly recommend not visiting India if this is your first trip to a non-western country – and even then, be prepared for the strongest case of culture shock you may ever get during a trip abroad.
The country is incredibly diverse – there are 1.3 billion people living in a relatively small place; 22 official languages; a plethora of unofficial ones; a variety of religions – Hindus of (I forget how many) casts, Buddhists, Muslims and Christian communities all live peacefully in India.
Such a massive country is also terribly dirty – like no other you’ll ever see, most likely.
The fact that there are so many people living in India, and that so many of those live below the poverty line, certainly doesn’t help. Seeing massive piles of garbage pretty much anywhere, along with cows and dogs, and their excrements – even when you visit the historical center of a city – is pretty normal. Add to that the exhaust smoke, the smoke of burning garbage, the dust and the terrible smell of urine coming from public urinators (literally just walls along the street) and you can imagine your stomach churning once or twice at least.
Another thing to keep in mind is that things run on a different schedule in India – or no schedule at all, in fact. I spent the first few days of my trip finding the delay with which we would depart aggravating, and eventually resolved to simply embrace the system and let it go. Just make to factor in plenty of times for delays – late departures, terrible road conditions (a 200 km trip may take you up to 7 hours!), and random stops will inevitably add up to your travel time.
Which is why – as I have said before – unless you have a few months to explore the country, you are probably better off visiting just a couple of states in the same region.
One important thing to know, however, is that despite the many frustrations that traveling to India brings, you honestly can’t help falling in love with it. India proves to be one of the most photogenic countries in the world; there is a special light to it, an aura of calmness despite the chaos.
Currency in India
The Indian Rupee is the only accepted currency in the country. ATM are scattered throughout cities but cards often do not work, so having a few different ones may be a good idea to avoid being stuck without cash. Only the best hotels and restaurants in India will accept credit cards. At the moment, the exchange rate is about 90 Indian Rupee to a Euro and 73 Indian Rupee to a US Dollar. Officially, it is illegal to take Indian Rupees out of the country so change any leftover currency you have before leaving.
India is a really cheap country
One of the perks of visiting India is that – by western standards – it’s a very cheap place to explore, and you will be able to afford a luxury or two.
The going rate for a decent hostel is $10 USD – and a $20 USD can get you a private room with your own bathroom in a nice guesthouse – though beware that the most touristy places such as Varanasi or Agra are more expensive. You can expect to eat a full meal for just $3 USD (even cheaper if you opt for street food). And if you actually buy food from local markets or grocery stores, your money will go a long way.
Transportation is cheap too – trains and planes cost much less than what they do in the US or in Europe, but keep in mind they have to be booked well in advance (more about that in a bit).
Safety in India
Rumor has it that India is a dangerous place to visit, especially for solo female travelers. I have traveled across the country, used the public transportation, walked around alone and hardly felt any danger.
The one thing you need to do is to always dress very modestly: large pants or long skirts, t-shirts or shirts that cover your shoulders and chest, and a scarf that you can put around your hair if needed are all useful. Don’t be surprised if people – women, children and more often men – stare at you. It’s usually harmless. Many will ask you to pose for selfies with them (I even had couples asking me to do that!) and honestly it is mostly harmless, entertaining and usually just cute.
Female travelers receive lots of attention in India, especially from men. If catch them staring at you, don’t stare back as that is seen as flirting. A good pair of sunglasses will help you avoid those stares, and if that doesn’t work you can just tell them off. You should also avoid traveling alone at night.
Stay tuned as I will be writing a more detailed post about what to wear in India.
One of the most important India travel tips is to also purchase a good travel insurance before visiting India. You can get yours here.
Scams in India
Scams in India are a daily occurrence. These are the ones you should look out for:
TAXI OR TUK TUK SCAM – Just expect tuk tuk or taxi drivers to raise the prices for tourist by at least 10 times; and if they tell you the meter is broken just get on another taxi.
ROAD FEE SCAM – While riding a taxi, the car will be pulled over by the police who may demand you to pay fee to move along;
ACCOMMODATION SCAM – A taxi driver will tell you that your chosen hotel has recently shut and will offer to take you to a good one he knows about;
SIM CARD SCAM – You may end up getting a used one and receive random calls by locals; or find your card has never been activated;
CHANGE SCAM – You may give someone a 1000 Rupees note, and they will bring you change for 100.
INFORMATION SCAM – Someone seemingly offering information and advice, but not out of the bottom of their good heart; they will demand money.
To read more about scams in India, make sure to check out this post.
Another thing to be aware of are touts. They are among the most persistent you’ll ever see in your travels, following you around a site to insist you buy whatever they are selling, inviting you inside their shop, suggesting that you visit the shop after you are done exploring the site (and rest assured they will spot you from a distance as soon as you make your way out). I’d love to tell you that a firm, polite no is enough to send them away, but it isn’t. You will have to practice the art of ignoring them!
Eating and drinking in India
One of the perks of traveling to India is the fantastic food that will tickle your taste buds on a regular basis. There is so much choice!
Curries, tandoori, and even lassi and chai are all must-eats when in India.
Vegetarians will have it easy as the vegetarian culture in India has deep roots and many local dishes are naturally vegetarian. The same can’t quite be said for vegan food – in my experience, it is hard to find dishes that have no dairy products. So if you vegan, or simply lactose intolerant, you will have to make do with a few choices such as tadka dahl (lentils), plain rice, plain naan, chapati or roti, aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower) and a few other vegetable dishes. This guide on vegan food in India is a helpful resource.
In my experience, good coffee is hard to come by in India – apparently drinking coffee is more of a southern thing. On the other hand, teas and infusions (such as ginger tea) are delicious.
You will get a Delhi Belly
I am probably the only person I know who didn’t get a case of Delhi Belly when visiting India – which is weird.
You see, water is not safe to drink in India, but it is still used to prepare food in certain places. Add to that the poor hygienic conditions in some budget place or for street food, and travelers’ diarrhea is a common occurrence for all those of us who are not accustomed to the local bacteria.
So here are a few tips to avoid and overcome a Delhi Belly:
- Get your stomach prepared to the new environment by regularly taking probiotics before traveling to India, during your trip and a few days after.
- Avoid eating street food, at least for the first week of your trip.
- Never drink tap water and avoid any food that may have been prepared for that – things such as raw vegetables or fruit that can’t be peeled are a no-no.
- If despite everything you still get sick, avoid taking Imodium – drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated, continue taking probiotic pills and you should be ok within two days. Imodium should be a last resort thing you take in case you can’t avoid traveling that day.
People are lovely
People in India are among the friendliest and generous you could possibly ever meet. My friend felt really sick one day, and she fainted in the middle of the street. Locals immediately assisted her, and a tuk tuk driver literally drove around town to find her hotel while she was in such a confusional state from being sick that she could barely remember where she was staying. And he refused to be paid for that.
The good news is that most people in larger cities speak English, so communicating with them is easy – and if you learn a few words of the local language (remember that there are many languages spoken in India) you will get by just fine.
But they don’t know the meaning of personal space
This is probably the most difficult thing to get used to when traveling around India. People have no concept of personal space – at all. I mean – how could they, when they live in such a crowded country? Expect any bus or train ride to be crowded, with people literally piled one on top of the other. But just as well, you may expect some attractions to be the same.
I tried to visit the City Palace in Udaipur but after pulled around, pressed by people, and literally only seeing heads in front or behind me, I gave up and decided to leave – only to find that the way out was just as bad. I found myself telling a group of students at the Taj Mahal to please stop pushing around and screaming as they were being annoying and they reacted with a look of surprise on their face, as if nobody ever told them that before.
Similarly, people lack personal boundaries in conversation and you may find that even people you have just met may ask you very personal questions – it’s really because they are genuinely interested in you, and not being rude. Remember that this is a completely different culture from yours!
Train and bus travel must be booked in advance
One important thing to know before visiting India is that local transportation – flights, but especially buses and trains – must be booked in advance. While larger cities are well connected and you won’t have shortage of trains to go there, there are fewer trains to smaller ones (mind you, “small city” in India has a different meaning to what you may be used to!) – which means that those will be crowded beyond belief.
You really can’t just swing by the train station, get a ticket and hop on a train – chances are tickets will be sold out. Or – if there’s still something available – you may end up having to travel in less than comfortable conditions.
Please beware that scams are common when getting train tickets in India, so you are probably better off booking your tickets online. The best site for that is actually the official Indian Railways website – you will beed to create a profile before purchase your train tickets. Make sure to also watch out for the right class for your train travel, as that will make a big different for your journey!
Do you gave any other tips for visiting India?
Further readings about India
Make sure to read my other posts about India:
- The 17 Best Places To Visit In India
- 28 Incredibly Beautiful Temples In India
- The 7 Best Cities In India
- 15 Beautiful Places To Visit In Jaisalmer
- Human By Nature Kerala: Why People Are Kerala’s Highlight
- Five Reasons To Visit Madhya Pradesh