Before coming to India, I did a lot of research about travel tips, scams, advice for women, advice for solo travelers, and anything else that I could get my hands on. From what I read, India is unlike any of the other Southeast Asian countries that are popular backpacking destinations. It’s loud, crowded, dirty, and unsafe, especially for women. At least, that’s what I read.
All of the articles and blogs that I read were making really nervous. Would I be ready for everything that India was going to throw at me? Would I be safe? How extensive are the scams? (I found out later that they can be intricate and very convincing.)
Now that I’ve been in India for a few weeks and have experienced much of what I want to write about, I would like to share some tips for travel in India.
You can get an e-tourist visa (eTV) if you plan on traveling to India for 30 days or less. This was the best option for me because I was applying from New Zealand and since I was moving around so much, couldn’t afford to be without my passport for more than a day or two to get the 10-year visa.
Visit https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/tvoa.html and complete the application. You can only apply for two eTVs within one calendar year and you will need your onward travel booked before entering the country. You’ll also need to upload a passport photo and a copy of your passport when filling out the application.
Bring photocopies of your passport and eTV letter to the airport. I thought that I could just show my visa application approval email to customs, but they wanted a printed version of it (just copy/paste into a Word document). I ended up frantically running around the airport to try to find a place to email and print my visa letter. Not fun, especially because I was trying to catch a connecting flight.
Indian SIM Cards
If you’re going to be in India for a while, I would recommend getting an Indian SIM card. This can help with safety as well as convenience for finding your hostel, making sure your taxi driver doesn’t drive in circles, etc. You can also use your number to buy train tickets online.
I read that it was really complicated to get an Indian SIM card, but I didn’t have any trouble. I just went to a nearby Vodafone store and brought a copy of my hostel’s business card (they acted as my “Indian sponsor”), my passport, and a passport photo. They filled out all the paperwork for me and I had my SIM card within the hour.
If you’re going to travel to different areas in India, make sure you upgrade to the roaming plan. It’s only a little more expensive and will keep the roaming charges to a minimum when you travel in other Indian States.
The most important thing when getting an Indian SIM card (and something that kept me in Mumbai for an extra day) is to activate your SIM card and ensure that it works before you leave the city that you bought your SIM card in. They say it will take a few hours to activate, but I met some people whose cards has taken 24 hours or more to activate. If you leave the city without activating your SIM card, it’s essentially worthless.
Dress very modestly. India is a predominately Hindu country and women are mostly covered up (long pants and skirts, long shirts, no cleavage). Not only is it polite to dress in a similar manner, but it will prevent a lot of unwanted attention.
Always bring a scarf with you when you go out because some temples require your head, arms, or legs, to be covered.
Buying tickets for trains and buses is an absolute nightmare. You can book at the station, but this process can take hours. You can book through your hostel, but they always add an extra commission onto the ticket, even if they say that they don’t. My hostel claimed that they didn’t add extra fees onto my ticket, but when I talked to the other people on my bus, I quickly learned that they did.
The real price for my train from Udaipur to Jaisalmer should have been 550 rupees. I paid 800 rupees. Another guy paid 700 rupees. Another couple paid 900 rupees. If you have to book a bus, go directly to the travel agency. You’ll still pay a commission, but at least you’re not paying two commissions.
If you’re taking a sleeper bus or train, bring a bike lock and lock up your bag to the seat so that your bag doesn’t get nicked while you’re sleeping.
Trains have special compartments for women. Use those if you’re a woman and you’re traveling alone.
Always use metered tuktuks (they call them “autos”) and taxis. If you’re going to agree on a price with your driver, stick firmly by that price when you pay. If you’re flying in for the first time, get in touch with your hotel and ask them how much a ride should cost.
I read in many travel blogs that it’s wise to wear a fake wedding ring if you’re a woman. This will help prevent unwanted advances since it’s like saying that you’re already “claimed by a man.” On the one day that I forgot my ring (and this could’ve been a coincidence), I was catcalled by a lot more men than uusal and had some extremely inappropriate things said to me.
Don’t walk alone at night or in unsafe areas.
Be wary when taking city buses and never take unmarked taxis. See also: Delhi gang rape from 2012.
Don’t drink the water or drink anything that is made with ice. Also, don’t eat any fresh fruits or vegetables that are washed in the local water because it is unclean. If you have a very sensitive stomach, you can also try to brush your teeth using bottled water. Personally, I don’t do this and I haven’t been sick (yet!).
I’ve read that groping will likely happen, especially in crowded, touristy areas (although this hasn’t happened to me). Men will supposedly rub their elbow against your breasts or blatantly grope you. If this happens, make a big scene about it and this will shame the perpetrator into retreating. Other people in the area will also come to your aid.
People will want to take pictures with you. It is said that some of these people will use those photos and will claim that you’re their girlfriend or that they have slept with you. If you don’t want a photo, just say no.
Cows are revered in India and they can be found in virtually every street or alley. I guarantee that you will step in cow poop. Or if you’re like me, you’ll step in a pile at least once a day. Stay alert and just accept the fact that cow poop happens.
Yes, India is crowded, loud, and somewhat dirty (when I asked where a rubbish bin was, a man made a broad, sweeping motion with his hand, as if to say ‘the ground is your rubbish bin’).
But I have never feared for my safety. I found that the Indian people are absolutely lovely and can be extremely helpful and friendly. If you decide to come to India, be guarded, smart, and safe, but don’t let that stop you from making unbelievable memories or experiencing something that is outside of your comfort zone (like being an extra in a Bollywood soap opera).
I am in love with India and I hope that one day, you too will find the richness and beauty that I have experienced in my short time here.