India is a country of extremes. Its figures speak for themselves: 1,326 million souls (the second most populated country in the world), and home to one of the world’s greatest cultural diversity (at least 9 religions and 22 official languages, most f them using a different alphabet). Cradle of spirituality, this country is a source of both fascination and fear. Traveling to India is a troubling experience: be ready for a cultural shock that will challenge your beliefs. A 1000 miles away from your Western comfort, you’ll feel overwhelmed by the country and its intensity. But this is part of your personal path… Just leave any bad feelings apart and let its spirituality and energy of transform you.
Take it for granted: India will not leave you indifferent! Actually, every single person I have met who experienced India reached the same conclusion: India, either you love it, or you hate it!
To be prepared for the trip of your life, here are some useful tips based on my personal experience in India (I went there twice for a total duration of about 5 months).
When to travel?
The very first question… and its answer: it all depends on the region you plan on visiting!
Thus, as regards the southern part of the country, make sure to avoid the extreme heat of summer and the torrential rains of the monsoon (from March to August).
I was in Rajasthan, Goa, Hampi, Mumbai and Gokarna during the winter months (between January and March) and the weather was great.
In Uttar Pradesh (Varanasi and Taj Mahal among others), winter months are often foggy (which may cause train services cancellation).
The southern heat becomes unbearable from March/April and floods are frequent in most of the country during the monsoon.
The hill stations (below 2,000 m high) such as Manali, Macleonganj and Darjeeling enjoy a pleasant climate in summer but are pretty busy. In April, Macleonganj was quiet but it was raining a lot.
Finally, Ladakh is the perfect place to go when it’s hot everywhere else, between June and September. On the other hand, during the rest of the year, temperatures are negative and the road passes are closed.
How to get there?
India has very competitive flight connections from Europe. I paid my return ticket from Brussels $500 (Finnair). You can find even more interesting offers (as from $350 during the off-season).
Flights from the US are also very cheap (return flights from New York starting at $550). As regards Latin America, it is much more convenient to grab a flight to Europe or the US and fly to India from there.
Finally, there is an infinity of connections from Asia with flights starting as from $70 from Dubai, Thailand, Malaysia, etc.
A visa is required for most citizens traveling to India. The process is more or less laborious and costly if you want to get it from the Indian Embassy in your country. US citizens can be granted a 10-year visa (with a maximum stay of 180 days per visit).
Be careful the validity of the visa runs as from the date of issue and not the date of entry into the country!
For travelers staying less than 60 days, the Indian government introduced an electronic visa procedure. You “just” have to fill out an online form (several pages of weird questions but it’s better than the Embassy!) and pay $50 (+1,5$ fee) and you’ll get your confirmation within 48h. Watch out, this E-visa is only valid on arrival in one of the main airports.
A visa for an overland border crossing is to be obtained from the Embassy of the country you’re in before traveling to India. I’ve made it twice in the popular Indian visa issuing place of Katmandu. Be patient (Indian bureaucracy!) and stay calm (embassy staff completely lacks empathy). After 6 days, 3 visits and about $80, you’ll get your reward!
Where to go?
Exploring all India would require years of travel and I’d rather set realistic goals in accordance to the time you have.
The choice of the area to visit depends on your personal preferences.
Here are some suggestions (I’ll publish an article about my top 10 in India very soon):
- Hiking and mountain Landscapes: Ladakh, Sikkim, Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh (Spiti Valley)
- Holy places and cultural journey: Varanasi, Pushkar, Haridwar/Rishikesh, Laddakh monasteries, Sarnath, Bodhgaya, Kushinagar, Amritsar.
- Heritage and Architecture: Agra (Taj Mahal), Jeselmer (Rajhastan), Mumbai, Khajuraho, Ajanta, Elloa, Hampi, Pondicherry.
- Spiritual Retreats and Ayurveda: Ashrams are found throughout the country. The best Ayurveda Institutes are in the South (Kerala/Tamil Nadu)
- Relaxation and Beach: Goa, the backwaters of Kerala, Hampi, the Andaman Islands
For your first trip, more “relax” destinations can be privileged: Kerala, Ladakh… Or the classical tour: Delhi, Taj Mahal and Rajasthan
India is a very special country and it can take some time to get used to it. Moreover, the country is huge and ground transportation particularly slow. So the more time you have, the best. I would consider 3 months as a minimum if you really want to get into its culture and spirituality. But fortunate the one who can afford several months traveling! So if you’re facing a tight schedule, my advice is: avoid trying to see it all and stick to a region. Traveling fast in India can be really stressful: bureaucracy is everywhere and everything is complicated. Keep some time margin!
How to get around?
It depends on the budget and time available. I recommend avoiding bus trips as much as possible as they’re pretty uncomfortable, exhausting and more expensive than the train. Flying is obviously the fastest/most comfortable way, but also the most expensive. There are flights connections between the main cities of the country (some airlines: Indigo, Air India, Jetstar, etc.).
Whatever transport you choose, you should try at least once the ultimate travel experience in India: the train. Having one of the world’s most extensive networks and unbeatable prices, the train is the preferred mean of transport of Indian people. You’ll meet great people while enjoying beautiful landscapes.
There are several categories (hereafter from the best to the worst): 1st AC (2 bunk beds per compartment with food included, bed sheets and air conditioning), 2nd AC (2-level bunk beds in a 4-bed compartment that can be reclined. With air conditioning and bed sheets included), 3rd AC (3-level bunk beds, in a 6-bed compartment, that can be reclined. With air conditioning and bed sheets included), Sleeper class (3-level bunk beds with neither separated compartment nor air conditioning) and 2nd Class Unreserved (a wooden bench seat without reserved seat).
The price difference goes from single to double between each category. If it’s worth giving a try to the second class unreserved for a popular trip, I would not recommend it for an overnight trip. I traveled using sleeper and 3AC class, and even if 3AC is quieter and more comfortable, the Sleeper class was my favorite one (I like popular ways of traveling).
Golden advise: try to always get the upper berth bed, as the lower and middle ones will be reclined in a seated position around 6 am (whether you are on it or not).
Reservations: The Indian reservation system can be very confusing. I remember my first attempt: no seat available for the forthcoming 4 months! Dubious agencies then offered their “services” (but charging double price). Later I discovered the “Tatkal” which allows you to get your seat the day before departure paying a 10% extra. But it was still necessary to get to the station at 9 am the day before departure (and even if the “tourist” queue is quieter, it’s still a painful job to get through it).
Fortunately, mobile data has arrived and made life easier: today it is possible to book online. Please note that in order to book online, you’ll need an Indian telephone number. It’s completely worth it as it makes it much easier!
For online Reservations:
- Either directly on the site of the Indian Railways: indianrail.gov.in
- Either via make my trip (more intuitive use and low Commission): makemytrip.com
Finally, for transport within the cities: the rickshaw (tuk-tuk) is the reference. But be ready for a harsh bargaining. Expect to pay about 20 rupees for the first kilometer and 8 to 10 rupees per additional km.
What about accommodation?
You’ll find the best and the worst. Prices vary according to the area. You should expect to pay between 300 and 500 rupees for basic rooms (i.e. $5 to $9), 500 to 1200 rupees for middle range ($9 to $20) and as from $20 for higher standards. Accommodations in cities like Leh, Mumbai, Delhi and Agra (Taj Mahal) are more expensive than in the rest of the country.
Let’s face it: Most of the budget hotels in India are crappy, especially in cities. You should review the options available beforehand (check comments on booking and Hostelworld). When choosing on the street, beware scams. Take your time and don’t rush into the first lodging. Moreover, local people will insist on showing you hotels (in order to get their commission… paid by your increased rate): just ignore them!
What to eat?
Feel lucky: India is a true festival of flavor!
Indian food is as the country: varied and intense. Its flavors are particularly sublimated in the south, but you’ll find excellent restaurants all around the country. Most menus include small items, to be served with Chappattis (also called “roti”) or Naans. Try the classical “Thali”, a mix of typical Indian food (rice, lentils, yogurt, sauce in Curry, Chappattis).
Don’t miss: Palak Paneer (cheese made from clarified butter with spinach), Malai kofta (vegetarian version of meatballs in a spicy sauce), tandoori chicken/tikka masala (baked in a special oven), garlic butter Naam (flatbread with butter and Garlic), Aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower), Samossa (meat and spicy stuffs wrapped in a dough and fried), masala dosa (a mixture of flours served as a pancake and filled with potatoes), etc.
Expect to pay between 100 to 300 rupees ($1.5 to $5).
Don’t miss the street Chai : small stalls sell “masala chai” (sweet milk tea with various spices). Have it the Indian way!
India is one of the cheapest places in the world, although everything has increased sharply between my two visits (start of 2014 and end of 2017).
Example of a daily budget:
- Accommodation: 500 rupees
- Food: 500 rupees
- Transport: 200 Rupees
- Miscellaneous: 200 Rupees
So a total of approx. 1,400 rupees (about $22)
Your budget will depend on what you visit (the entrance of the Taj Mahal costs $20), how often and how you travel (airplane vs. train), and extras (India is not alcohol friendly and beer is expensive: more than $2 a bottle).
Finally, the good news is that you don’t have to worry about bargaining daily products: M.R.P. (maximum retail price) is indicated on every single product. It makes it so hassle-free!
Beware hygiene in India: The country is home to so many bugs and your trip could turn into a stomach nightmare (I had a hell of a train journey!). Follow the locals and avoid remote restaurants. Do not drink tap water under any circumstances.
It is strongly advised to get vaccinated against typhoid, hepatitis A & B, tetanus (and rabies if you plan on staying a long time in rural areas).
Indians can be insistent and bothersome. Remember that the population is dense and poverty everywhere: you’ll have to give up on your private space but make them understand they cannot cross the line.
As regards women traveling alone: unfortunately India doesn’t consider women properly, especially in the countryside. The strict dress code of the Indian woman and the fact that she doesn’t usually talk to strangers may cause a mistaken perception of the western woman by the Indian man. Be vigilant but not paranoid. Enjoy your trip keeping your guards up. In case of suspicious behavior, shout or react strongly and you will be helped instantly (I witnessed situations where a man was literally thrown away from a train or bus after misbehaving).
Another important tip: Behave like locals, pay attention to your outfit and use a shawl. This will show respect for the culture of your hosts and should ensure your tranquility. Fake wedding rings have also proven to be useful…
Aside from that: relax, let it be and enjoy this country and its 1001 shades… It will most certainly be the trip of your life, as you will learn as much about yourself as about others!