India is a vast, teeming, and colorful country with a rhythm entirely its own. Though you will see the rapid pace of modern change in the metropolises of Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, India’s heart still beats to an ancient rhythm.
For many foreign visitors, India travel can be daunting at first. The combination of crowds, chaos, and culture shock is both exciting and overwhelming. The result can be unsettling if you’re not adequately prepared for it.
After spending 3-6 months in India numerous times over the past decade, I’ve learned how to prepare for and adjust to the radical changes-of-pace this remarkable country presents. These simple India travel tips should help you arrive with the right knowledge and mindset, enabling you to experience more of the magic of India (and less of the hassles).
Go With the Flow
The number one thing you must bring to India is the right attitude. It really can make or break your trip. India has a population of 1.2 billion people. It’s crowded, often very hot, and the infrastructure is under intense pressure. Things simply do not always run smoothly or efficiently, at least in the western sense.
Trying to control or change India is futile. You will exhaust yourself, make everyone around you uncomfortable, and miss out on magic moments. The best approach is to go with the flow. India is not the place to be goal-oriented. It has been rightly said that you don’t visit India, you experience it. So slow down, let go of all expectations, and adopt the Indian mindset that everything that happens was meant to happen.
If the train is delayed, for example, do what the Indians do: Enjoy the moment. Look around you. Drink chai. Take the opportunity to relax and let the world flow by. You might find that it is in these unexpected moments that India reveals her true warmth, uniqueness, and special magic.
Dress for Success
India is still largely a traditional society, and you will be much more comfortable if you’re properly dressed for it. Even when it’s hot, most people still drape themselves in light cotton. Typical clothing includes a sari, or kurtah (long tunic-style shirt), or salwar kameez (also known as a “Punjabi suit,” it’s a three-piece tunic, pants, and scarf set for women). The key thing is to not wear tight, revealing clothing, and to cover your shoulders and legs.
You can buy colorful, inexpensive kurtahs and “suits” in India at chain stores like FabIndia and Anokhi. When you’re suitably attired, you’ll be ready for any adventure, including visiting a temple, mosque, or private home.
Of course there are some exceptions to this rule. In Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, and on the beaches of Goa and Kerala, a more western style of dress is acceptable. But it’s always a good idea for women to carry a long scarf, which has a multitude of uses (including adding an additional modesty layer).
Bring the Essentials
You can buy most things in India, but there are a few essential things you should bring with you, as they are not as readily available. Sturdy walking shoes are number one. A closed pair, plus walking sandals and good quality flip-flops, will meet most of your needs. Here are a few other essential items to pack:
- Heavy duty earplugs
- Deet-based mosquito repellant
- Sportswear, such as a Goretex jacket (it’s particularly hard to find sporty clothes for women in India)
- Bathing suit
- Sun hat
- Electrical adapters
If you’re planning on taking a lot of photos or visiting wildlife parks, bring binoculars, camera equipment, and all the peripherals you need. These items are expensive in India due to very high taxes and import duties.
Do Your Research
India operates very differently from the west, so it’s a good idea to become familiar with the local traditions and etiquette. Foreigners are naturally forgiven for not knowing many Indian customs. But it will make a good impression—and ensure you receive an extra helping of warmth and welcome—if you know and observe the basics. Here are a few to keep in mind:
- Use your right hand for eating and passing food, and when accepting or giving anything in a temple or spiritual center.
- Take your shoes off to go into temples, mosques, and gurdwaras. Most Indian homes are also shoes-off zones.
- Be aware that India is a hierarchical society in which the genders relate differently. Carefully watch and observe how to address people. For example, women and men don’t usually shake hands. And people in the service industry are not used to overly friendly or casual behavior from westerners.
Be Prepared on the Road
One of my favorite India travel tips is to always carry a small bag with you that contains hand sanitizer, a tissue pack, mosquito repellant, and small bills (10, 20, and 50 rupee notes). This pack will come in handy several times a day as you encounter washrooms with no toilet paper (and sometimes no soap or water).
Mosquitoes are a danger in India, where malaria is less of a threat than Dengue Fever and Chikungunya. So always be prepared with repellant, and spray yourself liberally if you see any.
It’s sometimes very difficult to get change in India, and worse in the wake of the sweeping demonetization policy that took place in November of 2016. Carrying small bills will help you pay for things like water, auto-rickshaws, etc.
Know What to Eat and Drink
India is known as a challenging, but extremely rewarding, travel destination. One of its most famous difficulties is the gastrointestinal distress known as “Delhi Belly.” Sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw; but if you observe a few simple tips for staying healthy on the road, you can hopefully avoid this unpleasant affliction.
Water is the likeliest carrier of the squigglies that cause Delhi Belly. So the most important thing is to ensure that the water you drink is clean and hygienic. This includes ice cubes, juices, and water-based sauces (which are used in street foods like golgappa). If you’re buying bottled water, make sure the seal is not broken. A more eco-friendly choice is to carry a stainless steel bottle and refill it with RO (reverse osmosis) water, otherwise known as filtered water. You can get filtered water at most restaurants and guest houses, and it is generally very safe.
When it comes to food, stick to the "cook it, wash it, peel it, or forget it" rule. Generally, it’s best to avoid salads, raw food, and food that’s been sitting around for a while. Look for places that are clean and have a high turnover rate of customers.
Look Beyond the Poverty
Many people are reluctant to travel to India because they don’t want to face the poverty, or they feel it’s unsafe (especially for women).
But most travelers find that Indian people are among the warmest, friendliest, and most helpful in the world. Even the simplest “chai walla” (tea seller) will beam you a mega-watt smile. And many solo female travelers, myself included, say that they feel just as safe in India as in most other countries.
In fact, you may find it’s not the poverty that pulls at your heart strings, but the joy that is amply found in traveling among the people of India.
Mariellen Ward is an award-winning travel writer and blogger. Though Canadian by birth, she considers India to be her "soul culture" and has spent many years immersing herself in the culture. Mariellen writes for leading publications around the world and publishes an India-inspired travel blog, Breathedreamgo.