This is my India Survival Guide – everything you need to know to stay safe and healthy during a trip to India.
Travelling around this vast sub-continent can be an intimidating prospect for foreigners. However, with a little preparation and some cultural understanding, there is little to fear in a visit to this colourful country. After spending 3 months in India this winter I have put together this India Survival Kit.
Incredible India is an intriguing country to visit. It can leave you thrilled, humbled, bemused, gobsmacked and utterly exhausted.
You will find cows strolling past sun loungers on the beaches of Goa, you will be welcomed to feast for free in the kitchens of Sikh temples and you will likely suffer hearing damage from the incessantly loud horns of impatient motorists.
In any case it will leave any visitor with a multitude of experiences that live long in the memory. Read on to discover my top 28 tips for travelling India.
- 1 Driving
- 2 Train Travel
- 3 Private cars
- 4 Visas
- 5 Public Holidays
- 6 Dress Code
- 7 Etiquette – tipping in India
- 8 What’s a walla(wallah)?
- 9 The Head Wobble
- 10 Anything is possible (or not as the case maybe)
- 11 Begging
- 12 Hassles and hussles
- 13 Photography
- 14 Haggling
- 15 Waving or flagging down the correct way
- 16 Hygiene and health basics
- 17 Languages in India
- 18 Consider a face mask
- 19 Holy Cow!
- 20 Squatting
- 21 Toilet rules
- 22 Use hands to eat…
- 23 Local Dhabas
- 24 Local Sim Cards
- 25 ATMs & Money exchange
- 26 Water bottles
- 27 Female travellers
- 28 Keep an eye out for ladyboys
- 29 Summary
- 30 Travel Insurance for India
Hmm where to start?! I spent 3 months driving an overland truck around India so I feel qualified to give you a run down of how driving in India works.
In summary, there aren’t really any rules for driving in India other than you drive on the left….. mostly. Here are a few unofficial guidelines to make note of before an India tour:
- Use of the horn is compulsory if you want to avoid a collision. Beep before you overtake, beep as you are overtaking and beep after you finish overtaking. Beep at pedestrians, cyclists, motorbikes and all other road users. Also beep at goats, dogs, chickens and cows that wander into the road. And especially beep at motorbikes who inevitably and casually pull blindly out into your path.
- Using indicators is not compulsory and they are mostly ignored, so you are better off flapping your arm out the side of your car if you want to make a turn.
- The use of mirrors is not compulsory and are mostly missing on auto rickshaws (tuctucs) – to combat this see point 1.
- Buses will overtake at any point they see fit, whether it’s on a blind bend or even if there is oncoming traffic. In this manoeuvre bus drivers will furiously honk their horn and flash their lights to inform you, the oncoming traffic who technically has right of way, that you should immediately stop or drive off the side of the road to avoid a head on collision. This is an intriguing game of chicken that you play at your own peril.
- On a dual carriageway expect to see oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the carriageway – Indians will take the shortest route no matter what and the concept of U-turns has not yet been learnt.
- Whoever has the biggest vehicle rules the road, so as a pedestrian you are way down the pecking order and should be prepared to jump into a bush at any given moment. The only exception rule to this is the cow. The cow has priority over everyone else on the road and must be respected, even if they choose to lie in the middle of a busy highway.
- Lane lines on the road are for decoration purposes only and are mostly ignored. Zebra crossings should definitely to be ignored and are a bemusing waste of paint.
- At junctions or traffic lights the aim of the game is to fill every possible bit of space, so that once the lights turn green it is impossible to move. This is especially true at level crossings where the biggest offenders are motorbikes, who like to line up on both sides of the road. Thus after the train passes and the barrier lifts no traffic can pass and a horn honking fury ensues.
- Reversing is only for the weak-willed. You must always be moving forward, even if it makes no sense to do so.
- Functioning headlights are optional, so driving in the dark is a terrifying experience and should be avoided at all costs.
- Functioning break lights are also optional.
- There is no such thing as an overloaded truck.
- Potholes on all roads are too be expected as are road works with occasional diversion signs. If no diversion signs are provided, just take your best guess and fully commit to your decision to plough on through, beeping as you go.
The answer to all of this mayhem? Take a train.
Have you considered a trip to neighbouring Pakistan? Take a look at my unique reasons for visiting this commonly misunderstood country.
Trains in India are quite a delightful experience….. as long as you are not in a rush and don’t need to arrive on time. Booking trains as a foreigner is a little complicated but can be done by visiting this website.
Sleeper trains are a great way to travel from one destination to the next, whilst saving on accommodation at the same time. Sleeper trains do get booked up in advance, especially the lower bunks, so it is best to plan ahead.
There are several carriage options on a sleeper train and I would suggest either a 2AC or 3AC option. The 2AC carriage has a lower bunk or an upper bunk, whilst the 3AC has lower, middle and upper bunks. Both have air conditioning. On the these sleeper trains sheets, blankets and pillows are provided. Sometimes a bottle of water is also included.
Regular seated carriages are also an option for shorter rides. Again there is an option to have AC or no AC. Choose a non AC carriage for a real local experience!
Since you cannot rely on trains to run on time and sometimes stations are not signposted, I recommend downloading the app, Ixigo Trains. This app shows the running schedule of a train, the route taken and where you can expect to find your carriage on the train. This is very handy if boarding a train at a busy station where the platforms can be over 1km long!
Another option for travelling short distances on an India trip is to hire a car, along with a local driver. This option isn’t as expensive as it might sound and is definitely a relaxing way to get around.
Always wear your seatbelt and don’t be scared to tell them to slow down or get off the phone!
In recent years India has introduced an e-visa system, which makes travelling to India a much easier and cheaper option. E-visas are only valid if flying into India, so is not an option if entering overland. You can complete your e-visa by following this link.
Indians love a public holiday! India prides itself on its inclusivity. This is a country where all religions are practiced and accepted. This conveniently means that the whole nation adopts all of their religious holidays too.
Eid; yup, Christmas Day; of course, Tibetan New Year; sure why not?
“While having so many government holidays is in line with the idea of peaceful co-existence of all religions, there have been demands from various public bodies that the system of a multitude of religious holidays is hampering economic activities to a great extent.” Wikipedia.
During public holidays domestic tourism sours and accommodation gets booked up fast. When planning your India travels be sure to check for national and religious holidays, particularly Hindu ones such as Diwali and Holi.
Read about my Diwali treat in Ranthambore!
The dress code in India is generally quite conservative. In the towns and villages ladies typically wear Saris and mean wear trousers or Lungis. In big cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata there is more of a western influence in clothing, especially amongst the younger generations.
But however locals are dressed it usually means the ladies at least have their shoulders and knees covered and as visitors we should respect this by dressing accordingly.
Of course there are exceptions to this, most notably in areas more popular with western tourists such as Goa and Kerala. On the beaches of these Southern States it is acceptable to wear strappy tops and above the knee shorts or skirts.
Be aware of the dress code for various temples and other religious sites. Some sites will required ankle length trousers or skirts and others might require a head scarf. Check with your hotel or hostel before heading out for the day.
Another important consideration is weather. Northern India has a bitterly cold winter and most of the continent is affected by Monsoon during the summer months. Make sure you pack accordingly.
If you’re thinking of combining an India tour with some trekking in Nepal, take a look at this packing list!
Etiquette – tipping in India
India has a tipping etiquette. Money greases hands and gets things done. If a doorman carries your bag to your room he will expect a tip. If a shoewalla guards your shoes whilst you visit a temple, he will expect a tip. For this reason it is always handy to have a selection of small bills readily available.
What’s a walla(wallah)?
A walla refers to a worker or occupation of some sort. So for example, a shoewalla looks after your shoes, a chaiwalla makes tea (remember in Slumdog Millionaire when the quiz master mocks Jamal about what he does for a living?), a dhobiwalla washes clothes and a dabbawalla is someone who delivers containers filled with food.
The Head Wobble
Ah the infamous Indian head wobble is as delightful as it is, at times, infuriating. In India there is no nod of the head for yes or shake of the head for no. Whatever the question and whatever the answer, there is always an accompanying head wobble.
It’s something that is hard to explain, but after a little time makes perfect sense.
I challenge you to spend any amount of time in India without finding yourself adopting this wobbly head technique.
Anything is possible (or not as the case maybe)
Indian people are, for the most part, beautiful people who aim to please. They want to be helpful and are kind at heart, so they will tell you want you want to hear. Even if what they tell you is not actually possible.
You will make the mistake of believing everything you are told initially, but you must soon become wise to the fact that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Pack a lot of patience and laugh it off – this is the best piece of India travel advise I can give.
There is a huge begging culture in India. Some beggars are legitimate whilst others are professional. In Mumbai for example, 80% of beggars are professionals which means that if you give money to them, that money is going directly to the person that is putting them to work.
As tough as it feels, it’s therefore best not to encourage begging. Instead, buy a souvenir from a local vendor.
Hassles and hussles
Be prepared to get hassled during your visit to India. Whether it’s from beggars asking for money or rickshaw drivers pestering you for ride, as a foreigner you will get hassled at some point.
But it is ok to say no. Be firm and be fair and try not to let it bother you. Always agree a price with the rickshaw driver before you get in.
Like most countries it’s ok to take photos of people as long as you ask first. Men usually love to have their photos taken whereas women are a little more shy. As a female, it’s easier to ask fellow women for a photo than it is for a man. Husbands may get a little annoyed by requests from other males.
Be aware of photography scams and offers of free gifts. Many holy men will ask you to take photos of them only to then demand money. Other scammers will give you trinkets saying it’s free but things rarely come for free.
India in general is fabulous for street photography. Check out my guide to the best photography locations in Kolkata!
When buying goods from anyone be prepared to bargain for a good price. Sellers will inevitably start at a high price. Haggling is part of a game you are expected to play, just don’t be an idiot about it.
If you find yourself haggling over 20 or 30 rupees give yourself a mental slap across the face!
70 rupees is equal to 1 USD (roughly), so don’t get hung up haggling over a nominal amount that will make no difference to your life, but might make a huge difference to someone else’s.
Waving or flagging down the correct way
In India, like many other Asian or middle eastern countries, there is a correct way to flag down a taxi or call someone over. The correct way is with your palm facing the ground rather than your palm facing the sky, as we do in the west.
If you call someone over with your palm facing up you might get more than you bargained for!
Hygiene and health basics
Avoid Delhi Belly by washing hands often and well, especially after handling money. I spent 3 months in India and managed to escape the squits by whole heartedly sticking to this rule.
I did things others might advise you not to do, such as eating meat from local street food restaurants, drinking cocktails with ice and brushing my teeth in tap water, but I always, always washed my hands well.
Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting that you should brush your teeth in tap water or have ice in your cocktails as I did. I travel for a living and have built up a pretty robust gut over the years. If you only have a 2 or 3 week holiday, it’s best to take as many practical precautions as you can to stay healthy for your trip.
It also goes without saying that you should never drink unfiltered tap water and although taking a dip in the Ganges might seem like a fabulously enriching life experience, I would strongly recommend against doing so. Why not I hear you ask? Read this article from Business Insider and you’ll understand!
I would also avoid eating too much spicy food as this will get you running for the toilet with a nasty case of Gandhi’s revenge!
Languages in India
Officially there are 22 languages in India with Hindi being the most widely spoken. Most places on the tourist trail around India will speak English, but if you plan to get off the beaten path, consider learning a few basic phrases of Hindi to get by.
Consider a face mask
Northern India during winter is notorious for high pollution levels. And although travelling by rickshaw is a fun way to get around, the fumes from other vehicles can be horrendous. The use of a high quality face mask is one way to overcome this.
Cows are sacred animals in India so be prepared to work around them. They wander freely amongst markets, along highways and across the beaches. They have not a care in the world and are to be respected by all. A very important thing to know whilst you are travelling India!
Squat toilets are common in public places and at budget hotels so if you’re planning a trip to India, be prepared to get squatting.
Unless otherwise stated toilet paper should be placed in the waste paper baskets provided. Most toilets are accompanied by a hand held jet wash which I refer to as the bum gun!
Without toilet paper a cleaning combination of bum gun and hand wiping is required. The left hand is the sacrificial hand in this instance. Make like a local and embrace the bum gun if you dare!
Use hands to eat…
…but only the right one – see point above for the reason why!
Don’t be scared to break away from the tourist restaurants and eat with the locals – as long as it’s busy and the food is being prepared fresh, you’ll be fine. Stick with the vegetarian options if you want to be cautious.
Local Sim Cards
Do yourself a favour and buy a local sim card. This will save much infuriation with poorly functioning or non existent Wifi.
I picked a SIM up for less than $10 with a package that lasted for 3 months. The package I bought with IDEA/VODAPHONE provided 1.6GB of data per day and a small amount of calls and text messages.
To purchase a SIM card you will need your passport and a decent amount of time to get through the whole process. Make sure it works before you walk away!
ATMs & Money exchange
ATMs in India don’t always work or are sometimes out of cash, so be prepared to try a few. Most ATMs have a maximum withdrawal limit of 10,000 INR per transaction. Also, they usually only spit out 2000 INR notes, which can be difficult to spend in small shops. Try and get change from these at your hotel or hostel.
Changing money in India is very easy, with money exchangers available all major cities and tourist hotspots.
Avoid contributing to the plastic pollution in India by using a water bottle with an inbuilt filter. I have a water to go bottle. I found the 50c bottle too small so opt for a bigger capacity bottle. I also recommend buying a spare filter if you are traveling for a long time. The filters typically last 3 months.
It is an unfortunate fact that as a female traveller in India you should have your wits about you, particularly at night. This might be true for many countries or cities around the world, but just be weary of wandering around by yourself after dark.
Make a friend at the hostel and take cabs where possible. As already mentioned, although most Indians are beautiful people it only takes one, so just don’t put yourself in potentially dangerous situations.
Keep an eye out for ladyboys
This isn’t a warning just an interesting observation. The existence of ladyboys might officially be denied by the Government but it’s a culture that definitely exists in India. They are quite fun characters to interact with if you ever bump into them.
Remember India doesn’t have to be scary, especially now that you are armed with this India Survival Guide. This guide is not meant to scare you, merely point out some facts.
The people are what make this country great so get out there and enjoy it! Oh, and be prepared for a selfie request or several hundred 🙂
Travel Insurance for India
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