To be honest, India is the destination we had the most fears and apprehensions about. We had long hesitated to include this country, known as being able to be difficult to approach, in our tour of the world. However, we were very curious to discover the wonders of India and to immerse ourselves in Indian culture.
On our way around the world, we met a lot of travelers who had already visited India and the opinions were very mixed. We felt like they fell in love or hated their stay.
Finally, the results for us are mixed and our trip took place between difficulties and wonders. We were unlucky and had a hard time at the start of our stay (although we encountered very few problems on the rest of our round-the-world trip), which however ended in style. There is no question that India is not an easy country to visit but it is an amazing trip that we 100% recommend.
Here are our tips for approaching a first visit to India with peace of mind, what worked well for us, and what we wish we had known:
1. Plan a significant budget to be comfortable
If we tried to save money throughout our trip around the world, we also decided not to be too close to our money in India. In retrospect, we even think that we should have budgeted even more, or even saved this trip for another time.
Indeed, the easiest way to get around easily and feel completely safe is to book a driver and a private guide. This option is especially relevant if this trip makes you anxious. Most of the tourists we met had opted for this option and were very happy. They had had no problems as we had encountered and had never felt insecure.
This option was completely off-budget on our world tour, so we approached our visit to India in backpack mode as for the rest of our world tour. On our way, we also met many budget travelers who loved their time in India. For our part, we have been careful to increase our usual budget for the following points:
Choosing good hotels, we avoided the first prices and took the time to read the reviews and study the photos to be sure to choose safe and clean accommodations. Also watch out for noise, a recurring problem in Indian cities. We have booked two classic hotels. By targeting the mid-range, we had the good surprise of having very comfortable and clean accommodation.
For our long journeys, we prefer to take the train. Once again, we put the price to book the higher classes. In particular, for our overnight trip where we were in first-class / First AC (and it was still very dirty) and for the shorter trips we opted for the AC 3 tier class (the class above first class and AC 2 tier but above the sleeper and air-conditioned).
In town, we used the metro when we were accompanied. For our trips alone we preferred to turn to private transport rather than public transport and tuk-tuks. Taking a tuk-tuk is an experience not to be missed, but beware of scams.
Activities and excursions
Finally, we were very happy to have a little budget to take part in guided tours, a point that we will develop in number 2.
2. Take guided tours
Cities like Dehli or Jaipur can be extremely intimidating in the early days. We strongly advise you, at least for the first half day, to book a tour with a guide. In some of these tours are included (where you can ask for): to take public transport, learn how to buy tickets, avoid scams and choose where to eat. It helped us enormously, and in Jaipur, we did two full days with a guide.
Again, if you can afford it, you can book a guide and private driver for all or most of your trip. These bookings are usually made through agencies, either in your home country or with Indian companies by phone or email (again, as with any remote transaction, beware of scams). Another option if you are very nervous is to take part in a fully organized group trip. This option leaves little freedom on the program, but it can also be very interesting.
3. Book in advance
This advice is especially valid if you go to India during the most touristic period (which extends from May to June) and in the most popular places for tourists.
First of all, it is imperative to make your visa application online before your stay. The upper classes of trains are very quickly booked, we advise you to make your reservations several weeks in advance. For hotels, there are two schools. Some prefer to visit hotels on-site, ask to see the rooms before making their decision. Be careful though, you risk finding the best hotels that are already full. It is also risky if, like us, you have a train delay and arrive at your destination at night. We preferred to make our reservations in advance, and nothing prevents you from changing hotels if you are not satisfied there. We advise you, in India more than any other destination, to spend time researching accommodation recommendations online, reading reviews, and looking at pictures.
4. Dress respecting the dress codes
In the end, for us, the most difficult to endure during our stay in India was the persistent stares. We were often the only tourists and sometimes had dozens of faces turned towards us staring at us without blinking.
For women in particular we advise you to respect the dress codes. It won’t save you stares, but you will definitely feel more comfortable. Cover up as much as possible, long skirts, loose pants, shirts, or long-sleeved T-shirts that are wide enough too. We have adapted our wardrobe in Asia and in particular in the forecast from India and were very happy that we did.
We haven’t tried it ourselves but some travelers even recommend covering our hair in an attempt to go more unnoticed.
5. Prepare for noise, chaos, and dust
The recurring clichés on India are: it’s dirty, it attacks the senses… It would be difficult to say that this is not true and it is better to go there knowingly. India is beautiful, it’s colorful, it’s alive but it’s also noisy, exhausting, and sometimes bad smells.
Always be alert and walking can be very difficult due to the traffic, the lack of sidewalks, and people who can approach you for various reasons.
Visiting cities and tourist sites will not be a relaxing vacation, but there are also beautiful heavenly places especially on the beach in India.
6. Don’t be afraid to enjoy the gastronomy
We haven’t yet mentioned the best of India: the cuisine! Each of our meals has been absolutely delicious and we have never eaten the same thing twice whether it was cooked at home, in a restaurant or on the street. There are so many flavors to discover, each region and community has different specialties. The real problem is knowing how to stop. Especially when you see the disappointed faces of the cooks when, on the verge of a liver attack, you have to tell them that you are really not hungry anymore! We have mouth-watering just while writing these lines.
Another cliché of travel to India is sick travelers because of the food. We didn’t have a single problem during our two weeks in India. We tasted everything, even street food. Of course, it is possible that after nearly a year of traveling around the world our stomachs were then stronger than that of a tourist who has just arrived from home. However, if there is one country where it would be a shame not to take a few risks to eat locally, it is India!
If you have any doubts, the easiest way is to follow the locals. As explained in our point number 2, book a guide, at least for the first day. Ask him for all the good addresses in the city and street food specialties. The guides know the restaurateurs whose levels of hygiene are adequate for our sensitive stomachs of strangers. Each region, district, family (depending on beliefs and religions) cooks its own specialties. We advise you to taste as much as possible. Do not deprive yourself of going to the restaurant, the prices are not high and the portions always huge, you can order a dish for two without fear of running out.
Here are some tips that an Indian friend gave us: “About food, a few sentences won’t do it justice. I will need an entire book just to give a brief description of the different varieties of cuisines that can be found here. It depends where you go and what you prefer to eat, even the pickiest will find something incredible for them and vegetarians and vegans will not be left out.
No dish will be the same as another. There are a million colors and flavors when it comes to Indian cuisine. It’s not just butter chicken and the westernized versions of Indian food. Try local foods and you will hit the jackpot. ”
Our principles to avoid getting sick
As everywhere we have respected our principles. First of all, we always filter our water through our reusable bottles to filter the water. There are many brands of filets these days, do your research, it’s great and so much better for the environment. Beware in India of water bottles sold on the sly. We never eat raw vegetables or unpeeled or washed fruit by ourselves.
We were in India during the rainy season which promotes the risk of bacteria, we hardly ate meat. It is also in accordance with our principles, and it is a country where it is so easy to eat vegetarian (or vegan for Clementine who is allergic to lactose). There is a huge choice and all the dishes are varied and delicious.
To choose the restaurants we relied mainly on recommendations from the hotel, guides, or friends. We have always checked that we are reasonably comfortable with the hygienic aspect. However, like everywhere in Southeast Asia, we do not recommend that you look into the kitchens where you will not eat anywhere. For street food, we only relied on trusted recommendations. As a rule, we avoid raw vegetables, meat, and fish in the street, we choose stalls popular with locals where the food is cooked in front of our eyes.
7. Make beautiful meetings while remaining vigilant against scams
Of course, you may face many demands in the streets and near tourist sites. Watch out for scams! However, stay open to meeting people, in India, you will be able to make friends very easily with incredible people.
We ourselves were invited by one of our guides to eating with his family. But above all, we were lucky to be looked after by friends of friends. They took us on tours, invited us to eat at their house, and even sleep there for a few nights. Indian food is even better among Indians, shared with family!
As for language, more than 200 different mother tongues are spoken in families. The official language is Hindi and English is the second official language. In the street, almost everyone speaks Hindi. It’s always good to learn some basics. However, Hindi is difficult and we ourselves found it difficult to go beyond “Namasté”. English is widely spoken in all tourist spots, hotels, and restaurants. If you do not speak English at all it may be more difficult, and if you are worried then we advise you to hire a guide for your entire stay or to go on an organized trip.
Our journey in India
As we only had two weeks to travel from North to Delhi to South to Mumbai we only made two stops en route: Agra and Jaipur in Rajasthan. These destinations are far from the easiest, in particular Delhi. We stayed in very big cities and tourist spots. However, in the countryside of villages, the atmosphere is much less stressful.
You should also know that the South has a much better reputation than the North, and the welcome there would be much warmer. Already in Mumbai, we have seen a huge difference. Everything was easier there, starting with walking the streets alone. Indeed, there were sidewalks, a little better-organized traffic and we were less the target of insistent glances. The southern regions also offer magnificent beaches (more or less known such as Goa) and even superb diving spots.
Here is advice from an Indian friend: “In addition to the obvious tourist attractions of Rajasthan or other parts of northern India, visit the south. There are some of the quietest and most beautiful beaches in the south. If you prefer to relax and stroll through the tea gardens and coffee plantations, I recommend Coorg.
Besides the quiet, calm, clean, and disciplined south, you can also venture to Leh and Ladakh. Although Kashmir is incredibly beautiful, it’s not the best place to visit right now. You can also visit places in Himachal Pradesh like Darjeeling. Fairly inexpensive and easily accessible by government transportation. A steel stomach however is highly recommended with the buses going up the hills upside down but the views are absolutely stunning. Also, take some time for North East India. A truly unique experience. Most people don’t venture there and sometimes it’s not even considered part of the “mainland”, but it is beautiful there: rolling hills and green fields and also very rich in history. ”