After traveling throughout Southeast Asia for three months, I finally made it to incredible India. I ended up travelling over 6000 kilometers on land via 7 trains, 3 buses, and dozens of auto rickshaws/taxis. Beginning in Kolkata, I moved on to Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Mumbai, South Goa, Mysore, and finally Bangalore.
At first I was very nervous to travel India solo, but I soon became comfortable and quickly fell in love with the country. As long as you are aware of your surroundings, keep your guard up against thieves, and can come to grips with the poverty, intense noise and large herds of people, I have no doubt that you will also fall in love with India.
Through the countless friendly locals you will meet, the intense aromas and flavours, and the beautiful sites you will gaze in amazement at, you will gain loads of incredible memories that will last a lifetime.
Below are some important travel tips that I learned from the advice of locals, travel blogs and fellow backpackers. These tips will no doubt save you time, money, and many headaches.
Do your Research.
As India is such a large country, it would be difficult to see absolutely everything in one trip. Unfortunately I was only able to get a one month visa, and decided to set a goal of seeing as many cities as I could. Now as amazing and unforgettable as my trip was, I wouldn’t recommend my travel plans to everyone, especially if you are budget traveling via trains or buses. Instead, for at 2-6 week trip around India I would suggest choosing 1 or 2 neighbouring regions and explore as much as they have to offer. I would highly suggest studying Lonely Planet’s guide to India. I also tended to use Trip Advisors website as a great tool to get some inspiration on things to do and places to eat at.
Buy a SIM Card.
To obtain a SIM card in India, you will need an unlocked phone, photocopy of your passport, visa number, and contact details of your guesthouse or hotel. The SIM card costs rs.100. Initially, you’ll have to load the card with rs.150. After that you can add as much data as you want. I purchased an rs.1100 plan which gave me 5 GB of data, and almost lasted me the entire month.
Having a SIM card really comes in handy when you’re traveling to new cities. I highly suggest Google mapping and saving the locations of train/bus stations and hostels you are planning to stay at ahead of time. That way you won’t get ripped off by rickshaw and taxi drivers. It’s much easier to negotiate a fair price when you have the distance and directions to where you need to go.
The best service providers are Airtel and Vodafone. Apparently Airtel has the fastest 3G speeds and widest coverage, but they require at least a 2 month Visa stamp in your passport. Since I only had the 30 Day E-Visa, I was only eligible to sign up with Vodafone. They are a great alternative as I never really had any issues with speed or coverage, other than during long overnight trains through the desert in Rajasthan.
Travel via the Indian Railway System.
The Indian Railway system is the largest train system in the world, sprawling 115,000 kms of track, and servicing over 23 million passengers throughout the country every day. It really is the lifeline of the country. With that being said, you can quickly feel overwhelmed, confused, and frustrated when it comes to booking your tickets. Due to the demand, almost every train ticket is booked 3 months prior to departure – when the tickets initially become available. But don’t panic, there ARE ways around this, and I managed to book all 7 long distance trains that I needed.
First, you need to understand the ticket system. Assuming that you’re a “normal” backpacker, and haven’t booked your train tickets over 3 months in advance; you have 2 options. The first one is “Foreign Tourist Quota Tickets.” I’m not going to go into detail about this options because I myself never booked a ticket this way, and because it involves going into the train station to book, which is a major hassle. The second option (which is the way I recommend) is to book a TATKAL ticket (essentially emergency tickets). They do cost a bit extra (about an added 10-15 % on top of the original ticket price plus a nominal fee if you book it through a third party) but in my opinion, the added convenience is worth the extra cost. Each class on every train have a certain number of allocated TATKAL tickets available. The beauty of TATKAL is that they’re available to purchase online through the Indian Railway Systems booking website (IIRT). They become available on-line through the IIRT at 11:00 am on the morning of the day before your departure date, no matter what time it leaves. Unless you already have an account, the best way to go about booking these tickets is to arrive early at a travel agent at 10:45 to ensure that you’re first in line, as the tickets sell out rather quickly. A fair price for a booking commission is from rs.50 to rs.200. I liked to pop into several different agents a couple days in advance and ask them their prices, so I could save a couple bucks here and there. Many hostels and guest houses also offer the TATKAL booking service, but they are just a middleman, as they will generally go to a travel agent friend, and charge an extra couple hundred rupees for their own pockets. Click here for the website that I constantly used to plan my trip itinerary. It allows you to search your proposed departure and arrival locations, and receive a list of all the trains that run throughout each day.
NOW, about the trains themselves. There are a few different classes you can choose from. The most expensive is First Class AC, where you have your own entire berth to yourself in a private room. The next best are Second Class 2 or 3 Tier AC, which means for each berth, there is either 6 or 8 people. Then you can opt for Sleeper Class 3 Tier Non AC, which is what the majority of the middle class in India take. It is essentially the same car as the Second Class 3 Tier AC, except no AC, no bedding is provided, and the cars are much older and shabbier. Then for the daring adventurous, there is General Third Class Seating, which is by far the cheapest method. Apparently it is very uncomfortable, as you sit on crowded wooden benches, and can be very dangerous, as lots of theft can happen if you are not protecting your baggage. I preferred the Sleeper Class 3 Tier Non AC as I was mostly in the northern half of the country and can get extremely cold at night, so there is no need for AC. But if opt for Sleeper Class, make sure you have some sort of blanket, or sleeping bag. I always travel with a homemade sleeping bag that my Mum made out of Queen sized cotton bed sheet. Click here for some super detailed information about train travel around India.
Stay with Zostel Hostels.
After reading countless reviews on overpriced guest houses and hotels that were in horrid conditions, I thankfully came across rave reviews on a new chain of hostels in India; Zostel Hostel. I ended up staying at 6 of their locations and can’t say enough positive things about each of my experiences.
They are a relatively new company which has grown immensely in the last 3 years, from their first location in Jodhpur, to currently 14 locations spanning across the country. While I was talking with the manager of the Jodhpur location, he mentioned to me that the company was in the middle of of being purchased buy a large Hotel chain based in the UAE. He went on to tell me that there are plans in the works on adding an additional 12 locations over the next 12 months, making an impressive total number of 26 locations throughout India. Stay tuned for a future post on Zostel Hostels, where I will go deeper into each location, explaining the pros and cons of each one! (Photo courtesy of Zostel)
Communal Room in Jaipur
Learn to Haggle.
Even after spending months in Southeast Asia prior to arriving in India, my haggling skills were still sub par. I always felt like an asshole after trying to haggle down prices, which when converted into Canadian dollars would only save me a couple quarters here and there. Now it may not seem like much to us, but those extra dollars can go a long way for working class families in Asia. With that being said, 50 cents here and there over 6 months does add up very quickly, and can blow your budget if you are not careful.
I was told by multiple backpackers that India was extremely cheap, and was delighted to hear that due to my dwindling funds. But as soon as I arrived, I found myself immediately taken advantage of by my first taxi driver, who charged me over double the going rate (which I found out later). During my first few days, it turned out that the prices I was being quoted for different goods (ex. water bottles, fresh produce, souvenirs), converted to a higher price than even the most expensive places in SEA. After talking to several tourists I met, I was informed that vendors immediately charge at least double the price of what they offer to locals, and what they would actually take, aka “The Indian Price.” Needless to say, becoming comfortable with haggling was crucial to my travels in India.
Experiment by Eating Vegetarian.
As a chef and food lover (not to be confused with ‘foodie’ haha), I have always thoroughly enjoyed cooking and eating animal proteins. I have always found it very difficult to reduce my meat consumption. We were surprised at home difficult eating vegetarian had been in Southeast Asia. In India on the other hand, it was extremely easy to eat vegetarian (as you would expect). After eating a couple different chicken and mutton dishes during my first couple days in Kolkata, I decided that I would try something that I have never done in my life; go without eating meat for more than a few days.
By the end of the remaining 26 days of my trip, I was very surprised by how easy it was and how little I even noticed the absence of meat in my diet. I even ended up losing weight! I wasn’t planning on it, but through regular light exercising, and clean eating, I ended up losing 13 lbs of excess body fat. The best part of it all was how delicious the food was. I have to say there really wasn’t one meal where I wasn’t completely satisfied after. There really is no reason to not give vegetarianism or pescatarianism a go while in India, at least for a few days per week. You’ve got nothing to lose but weight!
Learn Some Hindi.
One of the the most amazing aspects about travelling foreign countries is becoming immersed in the beautiful culture. I find it incredible how many bilingual speakers I’ve met in virtually every country I’ve travelled to. On top of that, English is usually one of those languages. So I made it a personal goal, out of respect to the people who have put their time and effort into learning my native language (even despite having extremely limited resources), to learn at least a few words and sayings in theirs. I can’t really describe how awesome the feeling I get is when I recite a memorized saying as simple as “it was nice to meet you, I hope you have a nice day” or “thank you very much, it was delicious”. Almost 100% of the time their face lights up, and is clear that they appreciate my effort in learning their language. So go ahead, spend the 15 minutes a day trying to learn some words. You’ll be glad you did!
Keep your Guard up.
As friendly and hospitable as almost every local I came across was, I still can’t stress enough how important it is to keep your guard up, to protect your possessions and ensure your safety. I have heard many stories about backpacks and purses being snatched from rickshaws, trains, buses, and even off of your arm. Always make sure you have your arm wrapped around the strap while on rickshaws or buses, because once it’s grabbed, chances are you will not catch up to them. I suggest buying a lock and cable for train travel, and for staying in Hostels/Guest Houses. As the old saying goes, I’d rather be safe than sorry. Do a quick google before you leave for your trip about common scams so that you can prepare yourself for the worst possible outcomes.
Get out of your Comfort Zone.
There are countless adventures and excursions to be had while travelling this amazingly diverse country. The north is perfect for the more “extreme” adventure seekers or for people looking to break out of their shell, with activities such as skiing in Kashmir, white water rafting in Ladakh, bungee jumping in Rishikesh, trekking in Arunachal, or even tandem sky diving over the Aamby Valley of Maharashtra. If you ever find yourself in Rajasthan I highly suggest you sign up for a camel trek. Check out our previous post where I talk about my camel trek experience through the Thar Desert in Jaisalmer!
India is a land of many different cultures, traditions, landscapes, and climates. Depending on where you are planning on visiting, different dress codes will be expected. If you are planning on visiting Rajasthan, and the northern states in the high season (Nov-March), I would highly recommend bringing or buying locally, warm clothes for the night times. A couple times while i was taking overnight trains through Rajasthan in sleeper class (no bedding), I woke up in the middle of the night shivering from the steady stream of cold air entering the train compartments. A thick sweater, or a blanket can easily be purchased for cheap in any city you visit.
If you plan on visiting many temples on your trip, especially if you are a woman, it is advised that you wear clothing that covers your shoulders and knees. Now, I did see many women and men with tank tops on in temples, but i also saw the looks that they were getting. We may not agree with their traditions with regards to the disparity in equality between the genders, but we are visitors in their country and I feel that we should all show respect to their culture. Do your research depending on where you are visiting. Some states are very strict while others are very lenient!