My Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in India

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India is my favourite country in the world. Around every corner there is something new, every moment a new surprise, every day a new story. India surprises you, it amazes you, it also may scare you, but most of all, it leaves you craving for more and has the power to make you fall in love again and again.

I stepped foot in India for the first time in February 2014. I arrived and instantly thought why have I come here? I was scared, I couldn’t handle the new smells, the heat, the constant stares and most of all the constant traffic and the hassling. 

Not for long though.

Despite those first feelings, I was filled with an excitement I had never had before. On my first bus journey in India I quickly killed my phone battery because I just couldn’t turn it off camera mode- I wanted to take photos of absolutely EVERYTHING and my eyes were continuously glued to the window! Everything was fascinating to me, and unlike most countries where this feeling wears off in a day or 2, this fascination continued for the whole 6 weeks I was there and ever since I left, I was planning my next trip back.

I have been asked lots of questions about India over the last few years, so I’ve put together a BIG list of essential things I believe all first time travellers to India should know before they visit. Here’s my Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in India!

Food & Drink

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  • Don’t be worried to eat the meat in India. I ate meat almost every day and I didn’t get food poisoning once from eating meat.
  • However, some foods should be avoided: For example it’s not always safe to eat ice cream, don’t drink the tap water and don’t order things such as salad that could have been washed in the water.
  • Street food is generally safe to eat, especially if you can see it cooked there right in front of you.
  • Eat with your right hand only.

Travel & Accommodation

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  • Trains get booked up quickly. You can register to use ‘Cleartrip’, this site is good to check train times or book trains in advance (particularly if you want a higher class). Or, just make sure you buy your train tickets at a station at least a few days in advance. You will have to queue up to check there is availability at the counter, you will then have to fill in a paper form, then take it back to the counter for you to be given your tickets. We usually asked for 2 top bunks on sleeper trains as it’s easy to lock your backpacks up there.
  • Mention the ‘foreign tourist quoter’ if you cannot get a train ticket. Try and talk to the station manager if needed, we found they will ‘usually’ be able to find you a ticket!
  • At some stations in big cities, such as in New Delhi, you can visit the ‘International Tourist Bureau’ to book your tickets.

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  • Bring a padlock with you to India or buy one when you are there. Then buy a metal chain from one of the guys at the train stations to tie up your backpack on sleeper trains. Then use your bag as a pillow.
  • There are various classes of train tickets in India. ‘Sleeper class’ is the lowest class for an overnight train and although basic, we found it completely fine. At first we booked AC2 (Air conditioned, 4 bunk beds instead of 6 in each berth, actual windows instead of metal bars, bedding, and a curtain for privacy) we then got sleeper class on our next train and it was honestly fine, plus you get to mix and chat with the everyday Indians that travel on this class of train regularly.
  • Make sure you bring a sleeping bag/ blanket or a bed sheet if you want to stay warm as sleeper class trains and buses don’t provide these. In some very cheap guest houses, we often preferred to use our sleeping bags anyway if the bedding didn’t look clean.
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Shaun on an AC2 Class train, with free bedding
  • When you arrive at train stations, look for the pre-paid taxi counter, particularly in cities such as Mumbai. We didn’t do this in Mumbai and guess what, we got scammed. Some cities (such as Agra, Jaisalmer or Delhi) it is best to arrange a hotel pick up through your hotel as scams can be very difficult to avoid, otherwise you could try and book somewhere within walking distance.
  • Don’t take a big heavy backpack. Backpacking in India can involve lots of waiting around or walking around trying to find places! I ended up having to throw half my stuff away!
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Me with way too many bags when I had just arrived in India!
  • Plan how you are going to get to your accommodation before you arrive at the destination, or at least have the name of the place written down on a piece of paper.
  • Buy a local sim card for your mobile phone. This will be useful for contacting accommodation if you are lost or for pre-booking accommodation, we found that a lot of the budget accommodation in India did not have the option to book online, so the only option is to call in advance or just turn up and hope there is availability.

General customs and traditions

  • Dress appropriately. Don’t wear revealing clothing and always cover your knees. For some temples, particularly in Punjab, you will need to cover your head and in most temples you will need to cover your shoulders, so carrying a sarong/ scarf can come in useful.
  • Always remove your shoes when entering a temple or mosque. It is also good manor’s to remove your shoes if you are welcomed into someone’s home.
  • Only eat and shake hands with your right hand, your left hand is considered unclean as it is what is used for visiting the bathroom!
  • It is traditional to eat with your hands, some places may not offer you cutlery: For example, if you visit a traditional home or if you visit the food hall at the Golden Temple. I carried a plastic ‘Spork’ around with me at first, but then felt a bit silly so I just learnt to eat with my hands!
  • Cows are holy in India. Don’t get in their way!

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  • Always haggle in markets or you will probably get charged more than you should, but our general rule was to pay whatever we are happy to pay, even if maybe it should be 50p cheaper. That’s a lot of money to the market stall owners, but nothing to us.
  • Learn to not be surprised by anything anymore. In New Delhi, we saw a man squatting having a poo on the pavement in a really upmarket area!
  • So the above is acceptable, however public display’s of affection are NOT. India is a very conservative country, avoid kissing and showing affection with your partner in public.
  • Be sociable! LOTS of people will want to talk to you and get to know you, we spent one afternoon sat in a park with a group of young students who asked us questions for about 3 hours straight then we all exchanged email addresses. We also spent many train journeys answering continuous questions, from ‘Why do you have holes in your jeans?’ to ‘what social class are your fathers?’ We’ve even been offered to get married in one guys home with all his family’s elephants!

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  • It is normal to be constantly asked if you are married and have children, if you are not and don’t have children, don’t be surprised when you are asked why not and when. It is just the culture in India to get married and have children young.
  • Don’t give money to street children, you could give them food instead. I carried around a packet of biscuits and gave these out whenever I was begged.
  • Don’t expect people to be punctual or for everything to run on time. In India, the concept of time is flexible.
  • People will stare at you, deal with it. People will take your photo, don’t be offended, they may be from a village far away and never seen a foreign tourist before. Afterwards, ask if you can have a photo with them too, they will LOVE this and makes for some excellent photos to look back on!

Safety and Hygiene

  • Be prepared to get sick, ‘Delhi Belly’, ‘Travellers Diarreah’ or whatever you want to call it. If you get sick, drink LOTS of bottled water, sleep it off, and avoid diorreah tablets as we found these don’t help, the bacteria needs to get out your body asap and these tablets made it worse.
  • Culture shock will hit you. It’s okay to be scared at first, you will learn to relax and take it all in

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  • Bring mosquito repellent with you and make sure it contains an ingredient called ‘Deet’. If you do a backwater cruise in Kerala, there are quite a lot of mosquitos so a repellent with a high amount of ‘deet’ is handy. Mine had 80% deet! Not great for the skin, but fine on a rare occasion.
  • Always carry toilet paper with you, this is rarely provided in public toilets.
  • Wear a money belt under your clothing particularly in big crowded cities.
  • Carry a hand sanitizer, apply it before you eat if there is not anywhere to wash your hands.
  • Travelling in India is safe for female travellers. I travelled with my partner Shaun but even the few times I left Shaun’s side I didn’t feel unsafe. Whether you travel in India alone or with someone else, female travellers should not be put off travelling in India. Places such as Kerala or Goa, however, may be a good place to start as the culture shock there is much less and areas there are generally more western.

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India is my favourite county for backpacking in, even if I didn’t love it from the very first moment. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with India and realise that maybe all the things I was scared about at first and all those things I found so different, are what made me find the country so exciting and are what caused me to develop an addiction to India that will stay with me forever.

So that is my big list of tips for backpacking in India! Have you been to India before? Are you planning to go and looking for further advice? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Hi, I'm Zoe. Welcome to Zo Around The World! Since 2012, I have travelled to 24 countries within 4 continents. Zo Around The World is a collection of my travel experiences – particularly writing about backpacking and budget travel. I am a self confessed over-organised travel planner, travel has become my favourite part of my life and let me show you how it can become yours too

45 thoughts on “My Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in India

  1. Great tips. The Mrs and I are umm-ing and ahh-ing over visiting India next May. It was always going to be our treat to each other for our 30th year, but we’re slightly torn in that we want a puppy too…! lol. Thanks for making our decision a lot harder.

    I have actually just planned a route and priced it up so watch this space! Great blogging! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes VERY true, I’m a big meat eater, but there were many great vegetarian options too! πŸ™‚ Infact next time I go back, I keep saying i’m going to try more vegatarian options as I didn’t try enough last time! Kinda stuck with chicken curries most days haha

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve often thought about traveling to India one day as a solo traveler, especially as that’s a place my parents both visited together. I’ve always been put off due to various horror stories from other solo travelers however. I’d love to one day, I’m just rather unsure whether it is safe for a lone female traveler.

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    1. I wouldn’t be put off by the horror stories, I know I travelled there with my boyfriend so I can’t say what it’s like as a solo female but I can say that I would feel confident to go back there alone. I heard horror stories from female travellers who were even there with their boyfriends! A lot of it is just down to common sense. However, I would definitely feel less safe in big cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. I would maybe start in smaller towns in Kerala, Goa or even in the Himalayas. I would also be confident going to parts of Rajasthan alone too – especially Udaipur, Pushkar and Jaisalmer πŸ™‚ I hope you get chance to go one day!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post! I’m hoping to go to India next year so will use this as a guide. That must be strange when places don’t offer you cutlery but also a great cultural experience! Where is your favourite place to visit in India?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awesome, I’m glad you found it useful! Haha yeah definitely, luckily most places do offer cutlery though πŸ™‚ just not all! Ah I loved everywhere, I loved Amritsar because the Golden Temple is amazing, I loved Alleppey in Kerala especially the backwaters and I also found Mumbai very exciting although it took some getting used to at first! Such a crazy place

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  4. I visited India as part of my high school exchange immersion program when I was 14 – didn’t get to see a whole lot so I’ve always wanted to return! Thinking I may do a trip after I graduate mid next year…
    Anyways – this is a perfect guide! Definitely gonna refer back to it if I end up going back to India πŸ™‚ Good note on giving food to the begger children. Never heard of the ‘foreign tourist quoter’ – how did yous come across this?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Caroline, I’m glad you like my guide! You should definitely return after you graduate, you won’t regret it! :).
      It was another backpacker who told us about that – they said to mention the ‘foreign tourist quoter’ if we ever struggled to get a train ticket and when we tried it it worked πŸ™‚

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  5. Yay great blog! I’ve just started travelling in India and hope to start writing about my experiences soooooon, definitely gonna have a peruse through your posts for some tips! Loving how cheap everything is here it’s pretty glorious…. x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Dulcie, thanks for your comment! I hope you enjoy your travels in India and I look forward to reading all about it πŸ™‚ it’s my favourite country ever, and yes it’s amazingly cheap isn’t it! πŸ™‚

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  6. Great post! Enjoyed reading it very, very much. Quick question: how much money did you spent per day? How much should I bring for lets say 2 weeks? Greats from Montreal πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! πŸ™‚ I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. I spent just under Β£14/ $17 per day in India (not taking into account my flights and visa) you can read more about how much I spent in my post here – https://zoaroundtheworld.com/2016/04/30/india-how-much-did-it-cost/

      In terms of how much you should take for 2 weeks, it largely depends on your style of travel, for example are you going to be staying in budget guest houses / hostels, eating street food and travelling on the lowest class trains? Or do you prefer certain luxuries? For Β£14 a day I stayed in budget guest houses and almost always travelled on the lowest class of train, but I ate in restaurants every day.

      It also depends where you are going in India – the cost of accommodation varies in different areas. For example, in Colaba, Mumbai our double room cost Β£12 a night and in Pushkar, Rajasthan it cost just Β£1.50.

      Let me know if you have any more questions, happy to help! πŸ™‚

      Liked by 3 people

  7. We are currently on the ‘indian leg’ of our round the world trip and couldn’t agree more with your suggestions, think we’ve even learnt a couple of bits! Thanks for the great post Zoe πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow…this is so comprehensive and most of it you have actually got it right!! A honest post I would say! ..Besides, you have traveled in sleepers trains, stayed in budget accommodations, that’s something but I have seen lot of backpackers I have met attempting that and they actually like it as an adventure! Though the part of left/right hand things is not that entirely true (maybe some Indians think crazy) haha..lol…and yeah people will be after you asking so many questions here and definitely ask you for a picture! Meeting a foreigner for some people here is like to meet some dream thing and they feel more pride in having pictures. I remember when I was a kid and my dad invited one of his French colleague in our family for dinner and I was so excited to know more about them because it my first time to meet someone from foreign country (or maybe I already had a travel bug then I didn’t know.lol) …I would still say that India has so many imperfections, even they frustrate me most of the time…but its still amaze me to see from travel viewpoint, people really enjoy there time here…My best places are the Off beat places here and that I always recommend to all the travelers!…well I think I wrote a fairly long comment…btw nice post and great pictures! keep up! πŸ™‚

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  9. Hello Zoe.. Happy to read that you loved India despite the culture shock and all the waiting and hassle you went through πŸ™‚ India is a land of diverse landscapes and cultures, with no end to exploring this country. If you ever plan to revisit the country, you can opt for Madhya Pradesh, which is very less touristy and under hyped, and nonetheless gorgeous and spell binding !!! You can learn more about two of the places – Orchha and Khajuraho from our blog link – https://vegancoupleblog.wordpress.com/

    Have a good day πŸ™‚

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  10. Ahh I’m so excited for my upcoming trip to India! I’m very worried about getting the dreaded Delhi Belly though, I have to admit. I’m hoping to spend 3 weeks in the south and then three in the north- thank you for this post πŸ™‚

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