Top Tips For First Time Travel In India
They say India is the graduate school of travelers and after our first visit we can see why! India is like a sour patch kid, first its sour then its sweet. The culture, food, people and environment of India is something like we have never experienced before. It engages all your senses at once and will forever leave you with a lasting impression!
Our first experience in India started off on the wrong foot due to the location we settled in at our arrival in New Delhi. Little did we know that Paharganj was one of the worst places for a first time India traveler. Even our New Delhi tour guide mentioned he initially refused to come get us at Paharganj because of how unsafe it could be. We read a few blogs that must have been from seasoned travelers in India as they highly recommended the traveler’s ghetto as a good place to stay for a cheap price. What they forgot to mention was how ghetto, dirty and unsafe some areas in Paharganj may be. (This area might be suitable for some, but we would not recommend it as a place to stay if it is your first time visiting India.) If you are a first time traveler to India, you should understand what you are getting into. Being an educated traveler will help you enjoy and make the most out of your time.
We want to share our top tips learned from our first visit to India.
1. SETTLE IN A GOOD LOCATION
Do your research! Settling in a good location can start your travels on the right foot. India is NOT an easy country to travel and get around in like London or New York. Find out the places you want to visit, create an itinerary and establish a good location for your stay. Saving yourself a few dollars is not worth risking your time or your safety.
2. KNOW HOW YOU WILL GET AROUND
Getting around from town to town is not a piece of cake! Since India is still a developing country, they don’t have easy ways for tourists to get from one place to another. We wanted to visit New Delhi, Taj Mahal and we had a few other towns in mind. The following were the transportation options we found:
A) The cheapest way to get around is by train or bus, but this might end up being a headache. If taking the train, it is recommended you purchase your tickets in advance since they sell out quickly. If you are trying to purchase from outside India, the only way to purchase tickets is online. You have to create an account with the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation and then you are able to purchase tickets. I recommend trying to create an account a month or so before your travels to India as you might run into a few roadblocks.
B) Another way of getting around is by hiring a car and driver. After we realized the train was a bit too complex for us, we started researching this option. We looked online and received a few quotes. Most of the drivers charge you per day and can take you to multiple cities if you wish. Keep in mind, the driver is just driving, he is not a tour guide. At an additional cost, you do have the ability to hire a tour guide along with the car and driver.
C) Researching hiring for car and driver led us into looking at a complete guided tour. After much research on how to get around in India, we decided to hire a company that put together a full 14 day tour for us. (The complete guided tour included; hotel, car, driver, and tour guide in the 9 cities we visited in the northern part of India.) We did extensive research and selected a company that gave us the best value for our money. We price compared doing the tour on our own vs with the tour company. After the comparison, the hassle of planning this on our own vs having the company do it for us was very little. Since it was our first time visiting this country we also felt safer hiring a company that took on the planning for us.
3. BE AWARE OF SCAMS
India is the 2nd most populated country in the entire world. Everyone is trying to make a living. You will have to haggle with the rickshaw drivers to the merchants in the markets. Be patient, be kind, but also be smart! Do not be afraid to walk away from an uncomfortable situation. As one of our tour guides put it, “I can understand trying to milk the cow, but it’s a problem when they are trying to skin the cow!” Not everyone is bad, but some will try to take advantage of you so just be aware.
Here are some examples of scams we personally encountered:
- Be aware of individuals lying about your hotel! When we arrived at a hotel in New Delhi (which was already booked via Expedia), the manager told us “there had been an electricity failure” in the floor our room was going to be in. He told us they were moving all the guests on this floor to nearby hotel. This seemed very unusual and caught us off guard. We reviewed the proposed hotel and it was a downgrade from the hotel we booked. The manager wanted to charge us the same price regardless of the downgrade. We decided to take a look at the “new” hotel before making a decision. As soon as we walked in, we noticed the hotel building was very empty. There was no reception area, they only had an office desk with an unplugged computer, a few chairs and about 5-6 men sitting on the floor of this “lobby”. We quickly decided to walk out and find another hotel. This was obviously a scam. If something does not feel right, follow your gut and get out of the situation.
- Taxis and rickshaws will be the most common way of transportation in the city. Some taxis/rickshaws will want to charge you more or take you through a longer route because they got lost or claim to not know the way. To avoid this, make sure you either establish a rate before agreeing to ride with them or make sure the meter is on before you start the ride. The other option which is more expensive, but will give you peace of mind is getting a prepaid taxi. We also recommend turning on your GPS to make sure they are taking the best route available. If they are not, do not be afraid to speak up.
- If you decide to travel via train, make sure you are careful with touts outside train stations. When we were on our way to purchase tickets at the International Tourist Bureau Office in the New Delhi Train station, we got stopped by touts. They told us the office had moved location. This was a lie! Do not believe anything anyone says. Most of the people that approach you in the train station are not looking to help, but to divert your route so you purchase tickets at another office in which they will get commission for sales. The worst that can happen is that you end up going to a fake office and buy fake tickets. At the New Delhi Train Station, you will see signs that point towards the International Tourist Bureau, follow those. The office is on the 2nd floor of the train station and they can assist you with purchasing tickets. It is very full at times and you can spend an hour or two waiting. It is open 7 days a week 24 hours a day.
- Our tour company driver took us to “official company stops” in which the food and souvenirs are outrageously priced! (This is not necessarily a scam, but something you should watch for). According to him, the travel company plans the stops at these particular stores because the food and souvenirs are of the best quality. We never bought or ate anything there due to how pricey everything was. If we needed water or got hungry along the way, we made the driver take us to the little shops on the side of the road for some snacks to help us get through the drive. You will see a lot of items doubled if not tripled in price. For souvenirs, we waited to shop until we arrived at the local markets in town.
- Every tour guide will try to take you to a textile, marble, miniature painting shops amongst others! The ultimate goal is for you to buy things in which the guide will receive commission. Some guides gave us the option to go to these shops, others did not. None the less, we never felt pressured to buy anything.
4. USE MOBILE INTERNET TO STAY ON TOP OF YOUR GAME
Having mobile internet will give you a sense of security. We used the GPS a lot! It saved us on our first night in India when our taxi driver stated he was “lost” and stopped our taxi in an abandoned alley full of rickshaws at 2am. We also used our mobile internet to determine exchange fees, verify hotel costs and staying connected with family members.
5. GET TRAVEL INSURANCE
India unfortunately is not the cleanest country. The chances of getting sick might be higher than if you were back home. India has a problem with having access to clean water, dengue fever is an epidemic, and the food might not sit well with your stomach. Point being, there are many things that might make you end up at a doctor’s office. Getting travel insurance is one of the best investments you can make. It will give you peace of mind knowing you are covered if anything happens. It also doesn’t hurt to bring basic medicine for common colds, allergies, headaches, or stomach aches. Take plenty of hand sanitizer for those times you will not have access to water to wash your hands and don't forget the mosquito repellent!
6. ONLY DRINK BOTTLED WATER
As mentioned before, a lot of places in India do not have safe water. You can easily find bottled water for 20-30 INR ($0.30-$0.50USD). Always make sure your bottle is safely sealed before drinking. A good way to check is by hearing the top crack when opened. Make sure to buy your water bottle from a trusted source. The best brands of water to drink in order of best are: Bisleri, Kinsley, and Aquafina. You can find these everywhere in your hotel and small shops. Also, use bottled water to brush your teeth!
7. INVEST IN A GOOD INSECT REPELLENT
Dengue Fever has been an epidemic in India for the past few years. This year being by far the worst during Monsoon Season. You will still encounter these dangerous “tiger” mosquitos even after Moonson Season is over. We purchased Jungle Formula Spray (4) for only 160 INR ($2.50USD) and it worked great! Another good brand is Odomos.
8. DRESS APPROPRIATELY
India is a very conservative country and is full of beautiful temples you will want to visit. Make sure you dress appropriately and respect the local customs. Many temples and mosques will require you to take take off your shoes before entering. In India, it is important to cover the legs and shoulders. Although the heat is intense, tourists are highly recommended to cover up. Bring light colored clothing made of light material to bear the heat. Do NOT be that person wearing short shorts or short skirts. The local women will not be too fond of you and you WILL get glaring stares from men. As a woman, I recommend you follow the simple etiquette to prevent putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation you might later regret. If you are like me (shopping addict) you will be able to shop until your heart (or your wallet) desires in India. The local markets and bazaars are full of nice and cheap clothing items for you to pick up along the way!
9. BRING YOUR STUDENT I.D.'S
Many attractions accept student ID’s! This can save you a couple rupees when trying to get into attractions. Not all will accept them, but a good amount of them will. Make sure you ask for student discounts!
10. SIGN UP FOR THE SMART TRAVELER ENROLLMENT PROGRAM (STEP)
This program is a free service that allows U.S. citizens traveling or living abroad to enroll with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. When you enroll in this program, you will receive the latest safety and security information for the destination you will be visiting. This will help you make important decisions on your travel plans. You will also give access to the U.S. embassy to contact you in case of an emergency, wether natural disaster, civil unrest or a family emergency. You will automatically receive the most current information about the country you are visiting. We created an account with the STEP program and we keep it up to date with our travel plans.
11. INDIA WILL MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE A CELEBRITY
You will get stares, get use to it. You will stand out due the color of your skin, clothes, or hair. They are also very curious and will not hesitate to approach you for a selfie! If it makes you uncomfortable, don't be afraid to say no, but do so in a kind manner.
12. GO WITH THE FLOW...KIND OF
You will hear this or read about this a lot in India. There will be some things that might not turn out as expected, plans might change at the last minute and your patience will be tested but this is all part of the experience. Embrace these road bumps as they are part of what India has to offer. The people for the most part are very kind, hospitable and welcoming. Be open to the experiences and the things India has to teach you. On the other hand, also use common sense. If something does not feel right, step away. Do not feel pressured to put yourself through uncomfortable situations if you are able to walk away. Like we stated before, people can be nice but you will also experience a lot of people trying to take advantage of visitors.
After all, if you are the type of person who travels to discover new cultures, food, seeing people’s way of life then India offers you all this plus much more! Although I will admit India is not for everyone, if you are looking for a 5-star experience with little to no hassle then you might be better off at a Ritz Carlton in the Caribbean.
India is an incredible country and will leave an imprint in your heart like it has for us!
Have any other recommendations we might have missed for a first time traveler to India? We want to hear them, share below!
First time here? Thank you for stopping by! We invite you to join our journey as we immerse ourselves in new cities, cultures, ideas and spontaneous adventure. In this space we show you how we are traveling the world, maintaining a budget and visiting countries and cities that at one point we had only dreamed of. Leaving everything behind to travel the world and indulge in a travelmoon. We are no expert travelers...yet, but we are happy to share all of our tips, tricks and experiences in hopes the information you find here inspires you to buy that plane ticket! We are firm believers that traveling is one of the best investments you can make!