First Time India: A Complete Guide to Travel in India.
Updated August 2018
I’d dreamed of travelling to India all my life.
I’d wake up from fitful sleep on flights to Asia whilst flying over the subcontinent. Not once, or twice—but every single time.
In 2015, back when I was on sabbatical from my corporate job in tourism (and pre-blogging days), the only country I knew I absolutely had to go to was India. It took me months after my first trip to India to write about it – not for want of enthusiasm – but for the daunting task of trying to put my first trip to India into words.
The sub-continent to me stood for a land of energy, mystery, spirituality, colour and love. I fantasised about riding around on trains and smelling the heat and energy of the place. Of seeing elephants and tigers, colourful saris, prayer ceremonies on the banks of the ganges, chaotic streets blocked by slow moving cows and so much more.
But beyond that, Incredible India has just always held an inexplicable draw for me. It has tugged at my heart strings. And I know I’m not the only one.
Nearly three years on from that first time visit to India – and many subsequent solo trips to India, this is what I’ve learned. Over the last three years I’ve spent a total of 10 months travelling and staying in India. India has even become a part of me – and the other half of this blog is, after all now… Indian! I’ve come to learn a little of what to expect travelling India and how to prepare for travel in India – whether it’s for the first or tenth time.
What's In this Guide:
- First Time India: A Complete Guide to Travel in India.
- First Time India: What to Expect.
- How to Prepare for Travel to India.
- Should I Travel Alone to India?
- Best India Tour Itineraries
- Mysteries of India – Two Weeks, Rajasthan, National Geographic Journeys
- Essential India – 2 Weeks, Classic North India Tour Itinerary
- Golden Triangle Tour – 8 Days, Delhi, Jaipur, Agra
- India Encompassed – 28 Days, North and South India
- North East India & Darjeeling by Rail – 13 Days, Delhi, Varanasi, Kolkata and North East India
- What to Wear for Travel in India.
- Further Resources for Travel in India.
First Time India: What to Expect.
The Average travel advice for India is full of cliches such as “expect the unexpected”, or even “prepare to lose yourself”. Unhelpful as they might sound, there’s a reason for these cliches. Over my journeys to India I’ve come to realise that life somehow seems much “larger” there – there’s the chaos, the bustle, the beauty, but also the sheer number of people somehow ensure, that whatever your opinions on what to expect from your first trip to India, you’ll never be quite right.
So here are my own versions of the cliches, based on this traveller’s experiences:
Boarding my flight from Bangkok to Delhi, I posted on my Facebook page “Ready for India… I think” one of my friends wrote back “You are never ready for India. But the good thing is, India is always ready for you!”. I can’t think of anything more true. Nothing prepares you for the reality of India. It really is like no other place on earth.
Leave your expectations on the plane. It’s one thing to read about India in books and see pictures. It’s another to be there. Prime example: the Taj Mahal (a must for any visitor, despite its overburdening popularity). No matter how many pictures of the Taj Mahal we’ve all seen, there is nothing that prepares you for the actual beauty of the place. Glistening white in the morning sunshine, rising from the misty river banks behind. Just like the Taj, first time India is an experience best enjoyed without expectations and pre-judgements.
India will teach you patience. This is one of the few things you can be certain of. Getting frustrated when things don’t go to plan or you discovered you’ve been ripped off in some transaction does not serve us well. Understanding up front that ‘staring’ is not considered particularly rude by many, and that you may attract quite a few stares during your trip, will help keep your patience in tact too. In short—in a country where the lateness of trains is measured not by hours late but by quarter, half or full day late—adapting an open, go with the flow attitude makes travel in India a lot more enjoyable. Which brings me to my next point…
Psst… Want to avoid Delhi’s “famous” scams? Check out our survival guide to Delhi.
You have not experienced India until you’ve taken a train. Despite the recent growth in domestic airlines in India, 90% of India’s population travel from place to place by train. Passenger trains extend for up to half a kilometre long, run distances such as Mumbai to Kolkata (2,000 Kilometres, taking 1.5 days) and Indian Railways is the largest employers in the world.
Trains are relatively comfortable in India (providing they’re on time that is!) and often make the most convenient and interesting option for inter-city journeys. For more comfort go for 2 or 3 tier AC as opposed to the non AC option, and enjoy the opportunity to meet and talk to people—you’ll find that many Indians are happy to have an opportunity to converse in English and are curious to know more about you. Trains can fill up quickly so advance booking is recommended and booking can be a challenge—if you’re tight on time and need to get to specific places on a schedule it is well worth looking into using a travel agent to book trains, as trains do sell out. Trains are also a good option for solo female travellers.
Be prepared for dirt, pollution and poverty. Sadly, India’s population of 1.2 billion + has taken its toll on the country and its not uncommon to see piles of rotting garbage, cows happily eating plastic in the streets, and railway lines strewn with trash. It’s easy to point fingers at the people throwing trash, but the truth is waste (let alone recycling) infrastructure is not at all up to scratch in many parts of India, as well as there being an education problem about what to do with garbage. Don’t let this put you off a visit, but it is something to be prepared for. Do your bit by avoiding single use plastic on your trip to India – tips on how to do that in our responsible travel section below.
Poverty is prevalent in many places and is heartbreaking, and it’s also a complex issue. While wealthy Indians are undoubtedly getting richer and more numerous and the middle class is growing too, there is still a large section of society who do not have access to clean water or even toilets. Many of the rural poor flock to India’s megacities in search of work and opportunity, but they find harsh conditions and often the most vulnerable are recruited into begging rings, criminal gangs, and worse.
In most of India’s towns and cities you’ll see people on the streets in a desperate state, and railway stations are ground zero for professional beggars. Whether you decide to give is up to you, but know that most temples do offer free food to those in need and many involved in begging are addicted to drugs and alcohol.
We recommend supporting charities who aim to help with the various problems. We strongly advise against giving pens, sweets, money or anything else to begging children as it sets a precedent for other visitors, and the gifts they are given are often exchanged for money afterwards, amongst other problems.
Not everyone gets sick in India. For first time India, I’d just assumed I would get an upset stomach in India, and so was amazed that I managed a month there without incident. As did many of the other travellers I was with. My best tip—go vegetarian. India has such amazing food and a rich variety of dishes and menus catering to vegetarians that going veggie is a breeze. The best place to experience Indian Cuisine to its fullest (and at its most hygienic) is in an Indian home. Filtered water is plentiful, fine to drink and usually available free of charge (take your re-usable water bottle with you to reduce plastic waste). That said, swim in the Ganges at your peril…
You don’t have to go it alone. See our tours section below! India is not always the easiest place for travellers, but there are plenty of alternatives – from meeting up with other travellers in major tourist hubs in India, to joining an organised tour. I used Intrepid for my first trip to India and had an amazing experience. G Adventures, who we have also travelled with offer similar trips around India. Our transport and hotels were pre-booked, cutting hassle, and we got to see places that were off the beaten path as well as some of the top attractions in India such as Varanasi.
How to Prepare for Travel to India.
Here we need to remember that India is not just a country, it’s a sub-continent! To travel any distance in India and to see more than one area of the country you need time. We love to encourage slow travel wherever possible here on Soul Travel and in this India travel blog, and in our humble opinion there’s nothing quite like taking a train ride alongside locals, vs taking domestic flights and missing out on the beautiful Indian landscapes. Read on for how to do this!
Almost ready for India? Grab your Lonely Planet Guide to India here.
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Planning Your First Trip to India
The seventh largest country in the world, India occupies more than 3 million kilometres of landmass on the globe. That’s a lot of travelling. Assuming most first time visitors to India have 1-3 weeks to travel around, we recommend sticking with one area of the country.
Many first time visitors to India go for the Golden Triangle, which is made up of Agra, Delhi, and Jaipur, plus a bit of Rajasthan added on, time permitting. The reason is simple: Agra is home to the Taj Mahal and is just 3 hours from Delhi, Jaipur is home to stunning Mughal Arhitecture and palaces galore, and also within easy reach of Delhi too.
The fact that most travellers do just this, is the reason we suggest not to just to the Golden Triangle when visiting India first time. These are India’s most touristed (and to some extent over-touristed) destinations in India, and naturally are where you’ll find the tourist crowds. Because of the high level of (foreign) tourism to these areas, it’s also where you’ll find most hassle: partly from enthusiastic vendors who are used to cash-rich-time-poor tourists who aren’t used to bargaining, and partly from men who hope to catch a glimpse of less-than-well-covered skin. It’s not that we don’t like Delhi, Agra or Jaipur (ok well actually sorry Agra, we really don’t like you), but in our view they aren’t the best places to kick off your first visit to India with: especially if travelling alone.
Where to Go on Your First Trip to India.
This really depends on your preferences and interests, and what you want to experience on your travels to India. India’s North is diverse from the South in many ways – from architecture, to language, to food and landscapes.
Those in search of mountains and trekking head north to the peaks of Himachal Pradesh and the Indian Himalayas in Ladakh. Beach lovers head south to Goa and Kerala, and Rajasthan is hard to beat when it comes to princely palaces and sheer impressiveness. Food and architecture connoisseurs are spoilt for choice as the whole country is awash with tasty thalis and faith-inspiring temples.
Spiritual seekers, yogis and would-be-gurus head to the life-changing cities of Rishikesh and Varanasi. When I planned my first trip to India I knew that I had to see Varanasi: one of the oldest cities in the world. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Varanasi is quite unlike any other place on earth. This beautiful video gives something of a flavour:
You can read more about some of the top Pilgrimage sites in India here.
South India (usually taken as meaning Mumbai and below) is seen as having a more relaxed, easy going vibe, less conservative than the north, and so is often taken as a better option for solo female travellers to India. The reality though is a bit more complicated than that. Laid back Buddhist-influenced Ladakh in the far north of India is every bit as safe as Kerala for women, where more conservative areas still exist. While in some ways the differences between North and South India may be blurred the differences in landscape could not be more stark. While the south is home to swaying palms, heavy monsoons and lush, thick green grasses and rice paddies, the north is a sandy bowl, exposed to extreme heat each summer. If you like to get truly off the beaten path then East and North East India may be just the thing for you.
Local Transport: How to Get Around in India.
Domestic Flights. Given the size of India, it’s perhaps no surprise that India’s domestic flight network is booming and becoming increasingly popular. We’re not fans of flying and frankly think that any other means of transport is more interesting (as well as being more carbon friendly), but we also recognise that there are times when one needs to fly. Of the domestic operators, Jet Airways and Indigo are two of our favourites (Jet Airways has good food and a good reputation for being reliable). On the other hand we usually try to avoid Air India who have a habit of getting delayed…
Note that it is possible to get to most places by train instead of flying – you just need time. There are popular routes that many choose to fly on – such as Mumbai to Goa – where the train ride only takes 8 hours and takes you through beautiful, lush scenery.
Trains. Indian Railways is a huge part of the infrastructure of India (as well as the third largest employer in the world) and to travel to India without taking a train is to miss India completely. Booking tickets can be a time-consuming process / require a little patience so if you’re in a hurry and want to book your tickets from abroad, we suggest using a travel agent.
For all you need to know about train travel in India, read this post. Some of our favourite journeys to date have been: Mumbai – Pune (get the early morning train for full effect of sun rising over the mountains); Delhi – Kolkata and the Rajdhani (express trains); Kochin – Goa and Ajmer – Udaipur in Rajasthan. For more inspiration on Indian train routes, read this article.
Buses. Buses and even pick-ups and mini-vans form a key part of local transport infrastructure and are the best option for getting to and from smaller towns that don’t have railway access. These are a mix between state-run buses and private buses. Depending on the state you are in, you can search for that state’s “State Road Transport” or buses: For example “Kerala State Road Transport Corporation” runs in Kerala, known as the KSRTC will get you bus schedules and information.
There are also plenty of over-night sleeper buses on longer distance routes – these tend to all be AC, and many travellers prefer to opt for Volvo buses which are considered high-end and safer. We prefer travelling by train for overnight journeys as we find it more comfortable, but buses are easier to book than trains and can be a good option if trains are sold out. Read more about bus journeys in India here.
Should I Travel Alone to India?
This is an important question, as it determines to some extent the type of experience you will have. Particularly for (solo) female travellers. On my first trip to India, I travelled as part of an Intrepid Travel tour group. I had an amazing time. I got to experience plenty of India (their style of tours include travel on trains and other local transport, eating with local families, and plenty of cultural activities) so I felt that in many ways I got the best of both worlds.
On my subsequent trips to India, however, I’ve travelled without tours or groups, and for significant amounts of time by myself.
So Should you Travel to India Solo for the First Time?
It really depends on you. India is a beautiful country filled with many kind, compassionate and generous people.
On my first solo trip to India I was definitely nervous. I was reassured by the fact that i’d already been to India and so knew a little of what to expect. I’d been warned away from travelling India for the first time solo, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Unfortunately there’s a huge amount of negative press around solo female travel in India – and an equally large number of naysayers to solo female travel there – which can put a damper on any intrepedista’s plans.
To thrive in India as a solo (especially female) traveller, you need:
- A good level of confidence and guts (or fake it til you make it – what I did!)
- Some experience of travelling in developing countries is helpful
- To have your wits about you – or do as in India and rely on intuition
- To be willing to adapt to local customs – which may mean not going out after dark, putting up with men talking over you, covering up / dressing conservatively – to name but a few things. Even if you do not agree with such customs, measures such as covering up and towing the line are essential in some parts of India.
- To be willing to keep an open mind
- To be willing to deal with stares, many a chat-up line, and possibly the odd grope. It doesn’t mean you have to “put up” with them – you can react as you please! But these things *can* happen and should not ruin your trip.
As a solo or independent traveller you get to run your own schedule, move at your own pace and have plenty of conversations with new friends over chai. Enough said.
With a group or on a tour, you have less freedom but more feeling of security, ready-made friends, and in the case of a tour most of the pain of organising things is done… leaving you to enjoy your holiday.
Best India Tour Itineraries
If you’d prefer to experience India with some travel companions, and/or have some of the organising work done for you, a group tour of India is a great option. Group tours in India are generally good value for money, provide a good level of comfort (depending on the trip), and are a great introduction to India travel. Choosing the best India tour itinerary for you depends on your budget, how much time you have, and your preferred travel style.
We have travelled with G Adventures ourselves, and have heard very positive reviews of their India trips from fellow travellers. Plus we love that they have a whole India by rail category! #bucketlist.
Here are some of the itineraries we’d recommend based on our travels in India:
Mysteries of India – Two Weeks, Rajasthan, National Geographic Journeys
Best for a Great Rajasthan Experience
This is a classic India tour itinerary that covers quintessential Rajasthan (Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer) plus an opportunity to get off the beaten track and experience local culture in Rajasthani villages too. The trip is run by G Adventures under the National Geographic Journeys label which means upgraded accommodations, authentic local experiences, and guaranteed adventure. I bumped into a group on this trip during my stay at Chandelao Garh homestay and both the group and tour guide were amazing. The trip visits two G Adventures Planeterra not for profit projects and includes meals with local families and overnights at homestays for a more local, responsible experience.
Essential India – 2 Weeks, Classic North India Tour Itinerary
Best Value Introduction to North India
This is a classic North India itinerary covering the highlights: Jaipur, Varanasi, Agra (including the Taj), Orcha, Khajuraho (hello “Karma Sutra” temples) as well as some smaller places. There’s plenty of train travel involved, and this itinerary offers excellent value for those looking for a comprehensive introduction to Northern India as well as the opportunity to get off the beaten path a little.
Golden Triangle Tour – 8 Days, Delhi, Jaipur, Agra
Best for those who only have a week
There’s no denying that these three cities will leave you breathless. Jaipur’s pink city and palaces combined with Moghul might in Delhi and the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal are three of India’s most visited and best-loved treasures with good reason. These are also not the easiest parts of India to visit (solo) so an organised tour here can cut the hassle factor significantly, and these places are noisy, dusty and sometimes challenging cities to handle – especially if you’re tight on time! That said, if you can stretch a few extra days we do recommend seeing quieter parts of India too – they may just help you fall in love a little more with Incredible India.
India Encompassed – 28 Days, North and South India
Best for those who have a month and want to experience both ends of India.
South and North India are incomparable – when it comes to food, climate, scenery, language, and lots more! If you’d like to mix swaying coconut palms, Kerala’s backwaters and the once French town of Pondicherry with sailing the Ganges and looking for tigers in northern heartland of India, this trip is for you! This is a much more representative introduction to India for those who have time 🙂
North East India & Darjeeling by Rail – 13 Days, Delhi, Varanasi, Kolkata and North East India
Best for Rail Geeks (like us) and getting off the beaten tourist path.
Kolkata is one of our favourite Indian cities, yet far fewer foreign visitors make it here than Delhi and Mumbai – which we feel is reason alone to give it a try! Filled with colonial architecture, cricket pitches and yellow taxis, Kolkata is home to the literati of India as well as where the Ganges meets the ocean. This trip takes you down the Ganges through Varanasi and then up to beautiful North East India for a ride on the World Heritage-listed Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which with its strong indigenous cultures and tea plantations a plenty, is guaranteed to give you a different taste of India.
What to Wear for Travel in India.
This is much more for the ladies – lads get off lightly and in general men will not have to make many adjustments to normal clothing.
Bear in mind that it can get cold in the North of India – the whole of India is not always hot! In Delhi and the North temperatures regularly get down into single figures, and a coat might even be necessary – it gets cold at night or out of the sun. The south of India is generally warm-hot and humid the year round.
Many people prefer to stick with closed shoes for travel around cities in India – as streets are not that clean. After some time though, you may decide that constantly tying and un-tying shoes to enter houses and temples is a pain and revert to your sandals/flip flops. Forget any idea of high heels unless you’re going to be mingling with the who’s who in the big cities 😉 .
What to Wear in India for Male Travellers
You’ll see the vast majority of Indian men in t-shirt and jeans, shirt and jeans, or work-shirt and smart trousers. That’s about the variation. Kurta Pyjama / Salwaar Kameez is all but reserved for formal occasions or worn in some rural societies, and is not needed for visitors. Shorts are becoming more common in India but long trousers are still the norm. Avoid walking around top-less and you won’t offend anybody!
What to Wear in India for Female Travellers
As a female traveller, covering up makes a huge difference to how you may be approached: in general always cover shoulders and knees, and investing in Indian dress (not a saree, which is not usually appropriate for non-Indian women to wear, but a tunic or salwar kameez is) can help you to blend in a little more.
A few do’s and don’ts for what to wear in India for women:
- Take a light cotton scarf or two – these are really useful to drape across your chest/shoulders or your head if you’re getting unwanted attention! I’ve used scarves to hide myself on buses and places where I wanted to be inconspicuous! You’ll find plenty of beautiful of scarves to buy though so don’t take too many.. 😉
- Wear light weight, long trousers – showing “leg” is not really the done thing in India (unless you’re on the beach in Goa or in a trendy Mumbai nightclub that is).
- Cover your shoulders – as above, 90% of ladies cover their shoulders. Cleavage or any hint of chest is a no-no.
- In general, in the cosmopolitan areas of Mumbai and Bangalore you can be more relaxed (the same does not apply for Delhi), and the more rural and remote you go the more conservative you need to be with your dress. If going off the beaten track local clothing is great to fit in!
- The above applies for all women but the more obviously “un-Indian” you look (think blonde hair) the more you’ll need to make an effort, sadly – as eyes will already by naturally curious.
Safe travel for women in India is a topic of its own right, but i’ve found a couple of things particularly helpful: getting a mobile phone with a local number has been great for checking my location and avoiding “detours” in rickshaws from enterprising drivers. A book is a great decoy for avoiding eye contact from would-be-romeo’s. It’s worth noting that meaningless chit chat with strange men is not the norm in Indian society, and engaging in conversations with young strangers can be taken as a sign of “interest”.
Further Resources for Travel in India.
This site contains a lot of India travel blogs about different places to explore and things to do in India. For an overview you can browse the India section, or find a few articles that may be handy here, together with other resources.
- Safety tips for solo female travellers in India (specifically for train travel but many apply in general too)
- Our Comprehensive guides to beautiful Goa, Rajasthan, Kerala and Delhi.
- Have spiritual growth / a spot of yoga in mind? Read more about Rishikesh, India’s yoga capital.
- We use Lonely Planet travel guides and love that they include sustainable suggestions. Get the latest India guides here.
- For train times, information and pictures, we love the man in seat 61 rail blog.
- Stock up on books to get your Indian Odyssey started. How about Shantaram, Passage to India or Midnight’s Children?
“The Indians are the Italians of Asia. It can be said, certainly, with equal justice, that the Italians are the Indians of Europe, but you do understand me, I think. There is so much Italian in the Indians, and so much Indians in the Italians. They are both people of the Madonna – they demand a goddess, even if the religion does not provide one. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is music inside the body, and music is food inside the heart. The Language of India and the language of Italy, they make every man a poet, and make something beautiful from every banalite. They are nations where love – amore, pyaar – makes a cavalier of a Borsalino on a street corner, and makes a princess of a peasant girl, if only for the second that her eyes meet yours.” ~ Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts.
Have you been to India or are thinking about planning your first trip there? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!
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A Londoner by birth Ellie has lived in the UK, Netherlands, India and now Canada. Prior to blogging, she worked for 12 years in hospitality and online travel. Ellie started this blog during a sabbatical trip in 2015 around South Asia, to help conscious travellers find the best inspiration for their next sustainable trip. When not travelling, she is happiest with wine, pasta and a good (travel) book. Ellie is also Founder of Soul Travel Consulting which helps travel brands communicate their sustainability initiatives.