India is a bit of an intimidating destination, even for the seasoned traveller. It’s chaotic, intense, busy and overwhelming at times, but it’s also beautiful and fascinating.
Arriving in India for the first time is a steep learning curve and it takes some time to get used to this bewildering country.
Lee and I spent a month travelling around India and we learned a lot in that short time. We have compiled the tips we have learned into a list of advice that will hopefully make your travels in India safer and more enjoyable. If you have any questions about India, please feel free to comment and we will do our best to answer.
1. Get a SIM card
SIM cards and data in India are relatively inexpensive but can save you a lot of time and hassle, whether you choose a local or international SIM card. Having quick access to information in India helps a lot when trying to avoid scams, as well as always being able to find directions to specific places with Google Maps. Many of the free public wifi hotspots also require you to have a mobile number, they text you a “one time password” or “OTP” so you can log in.
2. Ladies – Dress Conservatively
Walking around in short-shorts and a low cut tank top in India is a big no-no, even though the temperature may be boiling. It’s quite a conservative country and if you expose a lot of skin, you’ll unfortunately draw a lot of unwanted attention to yourself which can result in anything from catcalls from the men and looks of disapproval from the women.
I usually wore long pants (nothing above the knee) and a long sleeved shirt or t-shirt that covered my shoulders. I used a lightweight cotton sarong to wrap around my shoulders to cover any cleavage.
Of course, as a foreign female you will still attract interest even if every inch is covered. However, the less you draw attention to yourself the better.
3. Be Wary of Anyone Approaching You
In India you will become accustomed to people approaching you, asking questions or offering advice. As a rule of thumb, always be a little cautious of any advice given to you by someone who approached you.
They may appear friendly but the chances are they are after giving you advice that benefits them. You will get used to the type, they often use the same sort of conversation starters such as “Hey, where you from”, “Where are you going” or “Welcome to India.” If you engage, it’s often not long before they are giving you recommendations for businesses such as travel agents or restaurants.
In the holy town of Pushkar, a traveller will be given some flower petals to throw in the water, just accepting the petals indicates to them that you do not know the scam and they will start to try talk you out of your money. So even if something seems genuine – if you didn’t ask for it, just use your instincts.
If someone approaches you on the street, don’t feel rude if you don’t answer them. Shake your head, wave your hand and keep on walking. On some streets you might have to do this many times.
4. Watch Out for Bogus Extra Hotel Charges
I encountered this when I was checking out at our hostel in Delhi. We had stayed for four nights at 1,000 rupees per night, so when the bill wasn’t 4,000 rupees I knew something was amiss. I looked closer and noticed that 30 rupees extra per day had been added on as “Luxury Tax.” I had never heard of such a thing and my bullshit detector was going off, so I questioned what “Luxury Tax” actually was. The hostel receptionist looked a bit sheepish and quickly deleted it off the bill.
Many hotels seem to try their luck with adding extra taxes and service charges, perhaps hoping that guests will simply pay the extra without questioning it. If something odd shows up on your bill, usually asking about it will be enough for them to remove it. Even better, when you are booking a hotel ask up front if the price that they have quoted you includes everything.
5. Look Out for Extra Charges in Restaurants Too
This could happen in a restaurant as well. The price next to the dish you order may not correspond to the final price on the bill. Examine the menu, it will often tell you “Prices do not include service charge or tax” which will often be up to 20% more. It’s normal for a restaurant to have a service charge, just don’t feel the obligation to tip if it does
6. Sidewalk? What Sidewalk?
In many streets, there is no such thing as a sidewalk. The street will be a chaotic free-for-all where rickshaws, motorcycles, people, stray dogs, cats and cows compete to get where they are going without crashing into each other. While you are walking it is crucial to be completely aware of your surroundings – daydreaming will get you angrily honked at, bumped into or run over.
7. Don’t Trust the Blankets
This goes for hotels, trains and wherever else you need a blanket. While the sheets may be fresh daily, even the cleanest guesthouses use blankets that don’t get washed often enough. They are often dusty, musty and generally stale.
To give you an indication, the blankets used on trains are washed every 3 months. In a hotel we recommend asking for an extra sheet to substitute for the blanket. If the room is hot enough (as it often is in India), a clean sheet will more than suffice.
8. Agree a Final Price Beforehand
When you approach a tuk tuk and tell the driver where you want to go, he will nod and tell you to jump in the back right away. Don’t listen to him – make sure that you agree the price first before his wheels start turning.
Also, always haggle with tuk tuk drivers. We found that the first price they offered us was usually four times what the price should have been, but with a little negotiating we could get it down to something reasonable.
9. If You Are Ill, Treat It ASAP
I know it’s a bit nerve wracking to seek out medical treatment in another country, but if you have any sort of illness it’s important to get it dealt with right away rather than leaving it to get worse.
Going to a pharmacy in India is very easy and cheap. You will be able to get the drugs you need and many of them are available without a prescription, including antibiotics. Also, if you need to see a doctor don’t be afraid to – they are helpful, affordable and good quality.
If you are really ill and can’t bring yourself to get out of bed, ask the hotel staff to help you. Indians are generally warm and compassionate and they will usually go out for you and get the things you need. I’ve heard many stories of travellers who have been looked after by friendly and accommodating hotel staff when they were sick. Make sure that you give them a little extra tip as a thank-you for their help.
10. Products in the Little Shops have Prices On, Check Them
Nearly every food or drink product you buy in a store or vendor will have the price printed on the label, it’s usually accompanied by a batch number and date of production. These are the prices, they include tax, so don’t let the shopkeeper overcharge you.
11. Do Your Own Math When Buying Things
I went to a local shop to buy a couple of bottles of water, a few bags of crisps and a chocolate bar before a long bus journey. The items were piled on the counter and the shopkeeper said “150 rupees.” I almost handed over the money, but then I looked at my collection of snacks. It seemed like too much for what I was buying.
I went through each item, checking the prices. Crisps were 20 rupees each, so were the bottles of water. I added the items up in my head and I said, “No, the total is 80.” With a dismissive head waggle and a wry smile he just said “Okay.” I paid my 80 rupees and left, slightly annoyed.
He was hoping that I wouldn’t pay too much attention to what I was buying and he could make an extra 70 rupees from me. To avoid this, pay attention to the price and if it doesn’t seem to add up – don’t be afraid to do the math yourself and check.
12. Go With Your Gut
When something feels wrong, investigate further – especially if you are being asked for money. There is nothing rude about asking questions. India is not the kind of place you want to “just go with the flow” especially as a tourist. You can easily be railroaded into scammy or unsafe situations. If you are too shy or don’t speak up, you can easily spend a sightseeing day in rug stores because your guide thinks he can make commission.
13. Be Wary Of Religious Scams
At Fatapur Sikri, a religious site near Agra, we were encouraged to buy a piece of cloth to give as a donation within the tomb, so that we could be blessed and make three wishes. As nice as it sounded to be blessed, it became quickly apparent that the cloth was being sold at inflated prices and the entire thing was a scam for tourists.
People will try to use the fact that you are trying to be respectful of the local religion and emotionally manipulate you into making donations. There’s nothing wrong with donations if you choose to, but if someone is charging you money for something be skeptical. If it sounds like it would be expensive for a local to do, it’s probably not a spiritual thing.
14. Just a Tip on Judging Someone’s Honesty
If you are not sure if someone is honest, ask them a similar question you already know the answer to. A good example is travel agent. Lee asked a travel agent about a bus price, it seemed quite high, so he asked the price to the place we had come from a few days earlier, it was double what we had paid for the same class. It indicated that this guy was inflating his prices and we chose not to use him.
Another had told us a certain service was not running, we asked about a service we had already been quoted for and he said that was also not running, he wanted to steer us towards his preferred bus company. It was only obvious he was lying when he contradicted something we knew to be true.
15. Get Some Loperamide – Before You Need It
Delhi Belly is a very real thing and there is a good chance that it will happen to you. No matter how careful you are about what you eat, your body just won’t be used to the different bacteria in the Indian food and water.
Make sure that you have some loperamide with you. It’s a medication that helps to deal with traveller’s diarrhea by slowing down the movement of the gut, so it can help you to reduce your symptoms. You can buy it in any Indian pharmacy for quite cheaply. I would advise picking some up before you need it, because when you need it you won’t want to leave the vicinity of your toilet in order to walk the streets searching for a pharmacy.
Note that loperamide only treats the symptoms of your stomach problems, not the cause. If you are ill for more than 3-4 days you might need to take a course of antibiotics.
16. Count your Change
Yeah, this is universal, just do it though. Some people will count on your inexperience with the currency. Just show them it’s wrong, they will almost always pay up.
17. Don’t Accept a Torn or Worn Note as Change
Indians can be fussy about the state of a banknote you are trying to pay with. If you accept a note in bad condition, you could find yourself struggling to spend it. Also, for this reason you should keep notes flat in your wallet rather than crumpled up in your pants pocket.
18. Do Tip the Hotel Staff
However, it doesn’t have to be much. 20 rupees is fine for bringing room service or carrying your bags.
19. Find a Rooftop Bar or Cafe
I love rooftop restaurants so much. We found them in every city we went to. Even in the crazy midst of Delhi there are some nice places high above the hustle and bustle where you can escape to a chilled out atmosphere.
Also, there seems to be a lot of restaurants in India that have a bit of a nightclub atmosphere with dim lights and booming music. Maybe we are just getting old, but we prefer to eat a meal in an environment where we can hear ourselves talk and see our food. Rooftop bars and restaurants are great for that (as long as your legs and lungs can handle the climb up the stairs).
20. Use Your Instincts On Street Food
If it has been sitting out in the heat, don’t go there. If it is cooked right there in front of you, that’s a good sign. Also, if locals are going there and it’s busy that is also a good sign.
21. Be Careful With Your Meat
Chicken isn’t always cooked as thoroughly as most Westerners would feel comfortable with. Stay away from beef. Cows are holy in India and most people don’t eat it, so the beef is not good quality and not cooked very well. Unless you are in one of the nicer restaurants, sticking to vegetarian food is sometimes the better option. Fortunately, vegetarian Indian food is absolutely delicious.
22. Guys, Use the Barbers
Haircuts for males and females are really cheap and you can usually find someone who speaks English. Lee didn’t shave himself the entire time as it cost less than 1 US dollar to get a barber to do it. You will also be offered a head massage, which mainly consists of getting slapped on the head pretty hard, it’s basically paying to get beat up.
23. The Train System is Very Good
For getting around India, the train system is very very good. Most people have the expectation of overcrowded cabins with people riding on the roof, this is not the case anymore. All seats are allocated, it’s worth paying more for a better class for longer journeys. Overall, we had no uncomfortable experiences on the trains.
While general tickets for trains are often sold out, there is also a tourist allocation. You have to buy them in person at the tourist offices of the major train stations, but the process is not too hard. The sleeping cabins are very comfortable for overnight trains. You can check train times and prices with an app called Cleartrip, you can also book on here but you need to connect it to an account on the Indian railway website.
24. Use Overnight Sleeper Buses
Lee and I are big fans of overnight buses. They get you to where you are going without wasting a day in transit and you also save the cost of a night of accommodation. The overnight sleeper buses in India had little pods that were really comfortable. We rode a guide to sleeper buses in India, so give it a read before you go.
The RedBus app lets you see which buses are leaving from where, making it easy to plan your journey. You can see the times, prices, class of bus, drop off/pick up points and how full they are. The only trouble is you cannot book without an Indian bank card. However, the app will tell you the travel company who runs the service. Most hotels and travel agents will book these buses for you while adding on a little commission (Usually around 50-100 rupees per ticket).
25. Watch Out for Pickpockets in Crowds
This tip applies to anywhere in the world, but in India you will be often squeezing through crowded spaces while moving through the streets. This is the perfect opportunity for someone to reach into your pockets and take your wallet. Be very aware of your surroundings and never carry anything of value in a back pocket.
26. Holy Cities Aren’t As Dry as You Might Think
In holy places like Pushkar the city is technically dry, but there are some restaurants that will offer to serve you beer on the down low. Usually it will be in plastic cups or mugs so that it isn’t obvious that you are drinking alcohol. If you are lucky enough to find a place like this, enjoy it respectfully because the restaurant is bending the rules to accommodate you. Don’t get absolutely hammered and became a nuisance, just enjoy a chilled out beer or two.
27. Don’t Hide in the Hotel Room
When you first arrive it will be overwhelming and a little bit exhausting. The heat, the busy atmosphere, the sheer amount of people, the smells, the street sellers trying to get your attention – it’s enough to make you want to curl up in an air-conditioned room and watch Netflix all day.
However, try not to hide in the hotel room. You will get used to it and after only a few days you’ll find it much easier to get around. Do take refuge in your room to rest and recharge every now and then, but make sure that you get out there.
28. Be Assertive in the Queue
If you politely wait your turn, you might never be served.
29. When Haggling, Try Walking Away
Haggling is an art form that feels strange at first if it isn’t part of your native culture. It should be done with a smile on your face. Many people get frustrated with haggling as it can feel confrontational, but it shouldn’t be. Chances are they have added a huge markup. If they won’t come down to the price you desire, don’t be afraid to walk away. You will often find that as soon as you start to leave, the price will instantly become lower.
You will also probably notice other stalls have the same items, so you can gauge the price by how low others will go. If you walk away, but regret it, just go back and take the lowest they were willing to offer or find a compromise. I have found a nice, friendly smile with a “come on dude” look can often bring them down a few more rupees.
30. What Does the Head Waggle Mean?
You’ll notice right away that Indians will do an odd little wobble of the head, like one of those bobblehead dolls that people put on the dashboards of their cars. It’s a very complex gesture without one defined meaning. Depending on the context, it can mean, “Yes” or “I don’t know” or “don’t worry about it” or many other things.
You probably don’t have an equivalent gesture in your culture, so it’s hard to understand what an Indian person means when they do this. Here’s a good reference that will help you to understand the head waggle a little bit more.
31. Take a Deep Breath
India has a lot of amazing experiences to offer, but it can be overwhelming at times. Things will go wrong, situations will defy logic, there will be stressful moments – so be prepared. If you expect everything to go smoothly, it will be much more frustrating when things go wrong.
Instead, be prepared for there to be delays, confusion and annoyances. The bus will take longer than it should, the tuk tuk driver will try to overcharge you, asking for something simple at your hotel will create 30 minutes of work for seven people. Expect that this will happen sometimes and when it does, try to remember to take a deep breath.
32. Open Up
A lot of these safety tips have been about how to use your gut instinct to avoid getting scammed and to figure out who is untrustworthy. However, you can also use the same gut instinct to find the people who are genuinely warm and friendly and whom you should trust and open up to.
We have had amazing experiences with Indian people who have welcomed us with big smiles and generous hospitality.
It seems like once an Indian person becomes your friend, they will give 120% to the friendship. Don’t be afraid to open up and trust the people who give you that good feeling – the kindness and heart they show you will become a lasting memory of your time in India.
Is India on your travel wishlist? Have you travelled India and have a tip that you want to add to the list? Share it with us in the comments below!