India is one of my favourite countries in the world. Around every corner there is something new, every moment a new surprise, every day a notepad of new stories. India surprises you, it amazes you, but most of all, it leaves you craving to travel there again and again.
I stepped foot in India for the first time in February 2014. I arrived and instantly felt wary because everything was so different, there were so many new smells, the heat of the sun was so strong, the constant stares were so intense, and the traffic just so loud.
Despite those first feelings, I was filled with an excitement I had never had before in a new country. On my first bus journey in India, I remember looking out of the window at a world so different to what I knew, everything was fascinating to me. I wanted to experience the culture, meet the people and learn more about India; a country that has always fascinated me from a young age.
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!
Note: This post was written based on my trip to India in 2014. Some things have changed since then – after returning to India in 2018/2019, I have amended some of the points to reflect this.
Food & Drink
- 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. Some people prefer to avoid meat and go veggie in India.
- 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.
Travel & Accommodation
- 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 if you are more flexible. 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 (during our trip in 2014, when travelling on the main tourist routes, we found they will ‘usually’ be able to find you a ticket!) otherwise you can try and take a bus. (Edit: we found it more difficult to get a ticket using this quota on our 2nd trip to India in 2019)
- At some stations in big cities, such as in New Delhi, you can visit the ‘International Tourist Bureau’ to book your tickets.
- 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.
- 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. (Edit: there is now Uber in India! We used this lots on our trip in 2018-2019)
- 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!
- 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.
- Cows are holy in India. Don’t get in their way!
- It is normal to 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 and expect the unexpected!
- Public display’s of affection are not accepted. 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!
- 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.
- Although difficult, it is best not to give money to street children
- 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 have never seen a foreign tourist before. Afterwards, ask if you can have a photo with them too, we found they 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
- 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.
- I feel that solo female travellers should not be put off travelling in India. Places such as Kerala or Goa, however, may be a good place to start.
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!