If you’re about to embark on your first journey to India, no guide will truly prepare you for the singular experience at your fingertips. Your first encounter, impressions, and takeaways will be something uniquely your own. That said, there are a few things that can enhance your first visit.
1. Prepare for your journey
Visas and vaccinations are important things to check off your list (preferably not last minute), but that’s not what we mean. We’re talking about the purpose of your journey (emphasis on your). India is an enormous and diverse country with plenty to offer so approaching your first visit with a little bit of mindfulness goes a long way.
What draws you to India? What do you hope to leave with? Keep the answers to thoughts in your back pocket. They will be your rock in moments of frustration, confusion, or indecision. They will also certainly help you choose between India’s myriad regions, cities, and experiences, each one beating with its own pulse and flavour.
The other imperative word is journey. You don’t need to subscribe to fridge magnet travel quotes, but going to India to knock off checklist items would be entirely missing the point. By considering the journey itself, things easily perceived as annoyances — crowded alleyways, bustling chai stands, the symphony of bumper to bumper traffic — can evolve into the things you’ll want to savour.
2. Be generous with your time
When it comes to logistics, always leave plenty of room for delays. This applies to all transportation including buses, planes, and trains. If you think travelling by car will be faster… think again. Delays also apply to highways, particularly the two connecting Delhi to the northernmost regions of Ladakh and Kashmir. These land routes are covered in snow for several months of the year and waiting for the big melt (plus requisite road repair) can put a damper on motorcycle or road trips heading North.
Be sure to factor in travel time between destinations with your trip’s overall length. Give yourself ample time to avoid being spirited away from a place that resonates. Also, consider paying a little extra for flexible bookings. Otherwise, it’s relatively easy to book things as you go. Many shops and roadside kiosks are on standby for your business. You will find no shortage of options — India is home to 1.36 billion people who seem to be in constant motion.
3. Unlock your phone
We’d hate for you to be glued to your phone but when it comes to navigating or troubleshooting in India, data can be a lifesaver. You can make last minute bookings, call an Uber, or binge Netflix on an eight-hour overnight bus. Or take advantage of one of India’s amazing food delivery apps (Swiggy, anyone?).
SIM cards with data plans are incredibly affordable, especially purchased from a local operator instead of airports. You can expect to pay around ₹300 ($6) for an Airtel or Vodafone plan with 3GB of LTE data (per day), unlimited calls, and a validity period of 28 days (easily renewed). Keep in mind that vendors commonly request a copy of your passport, visa, and passport photograph. Even so, the transaction shouldn’t take more than ten minutes of your time.
4. Mark Indian holidays in your calendar
Indian holidays are a wonderful window into local cultures and traditions. Experiencing Diwali, the festival of lights, or Holi, the Hindu festival of colour, will quite literally add a vibrant splash your holiday. If crowds fluster you, you may want to consider the opposite plan your trip outside of national holidays. Indians enjoy a trip to the Taj Mahal just as much as we do. Many also make yearly pilgrimages to ancient and religious points of interest.
5. Strike a balance between bartering and piece of mind
There’s a good chance locals will charge tourist prices when you try to take a taxi or auto (the Indian tuk-tuk). This practice also extends to everything from bottled water to hotel rooms. To avoid frustration, do a little research and equip yourself with a rough idea of how much things should cost as well as knowledge of common scams.
If you plan to take taxis and autos, request the meter or agree on a price before you hop in. Watch out for drivers requesting to make a “quick stop” at a business partner’s shop. Know that it’s common for drivers to refuse the meter during peak hours (evenings and weekends). Using an offline app like Maps.me to track your route is useful, even if it provides nothing more than a little peace of mind.
You’ll find yourself in constant price negotiation. When you seem to lose out, differentiate between paying tourist prices and getting scammed. If you do end up paying inflated prices for something, chances are you’ve lost out on thirty cents. It’s not worth dwelling on (or launching into heated debates over).
6. Think regional, go veg
Get your hands on the specialty of the region you’re in. Whether its the rich tandoor-cooked meat curries of the north, coconut-covered dosas of the south, Tibetan-influenced momos of Ladakh, or Portuguese-inspired cafrael of Goa, feast your heart out.
Whatever your diet is, India is a great place to enjoy vegetarian food. Going vegetarian may save your tummy from trouble, while also packing some serious punch (you can thank spice and ghee later). Over 30% of the population is vegetarian, consuming vegetables and eggs. Some restaurants will also make the distinction of being pure-vegetarian, meaning they either have an exclusively vegetarian kitchen and menu, or do not serve egg-based dishes. The majority of the Indian population has no clue what veganism or “gluten-free” means but an app called Happy Cow can help.
7. Escape the cities
The vibrancy and colour of India may be best observed in ancient cities, such as Varansi, or metropolitan centres, like Delhi. However, India also contains many natural wonders worth considering. Explore the Great Indian Desert or Hampi’s boulder and temple-strewn landscape. Feast your eyes on the sheer giants of the Garhwal Himalayas. Or trek across the surreal landscape of Ladakh, which means land of high passes. Shake things up with activities like trekking, rock climbing, camel riding, motorcycling, and of course, yoga.
8. Pack the essentials
You’ll know what you need best but in addition to the usual travel gear (like sexiest money belts that money can buy) also consider:
- A water bottle with a built-in filtration system — because illness and single-use plastic are equally uncool
- A pollution mask — it’s the only thing that will stand between you and 10/10 air pollution
- Charcoal tablets, Immodium, or their equivalents — pharmacies are easily accessible but some things are better kept within reach
9. Leave the door open in case spirituality comes knocking
Your religion and stance on spirituality is a deeply personal choice but if you’re remotely curious about eastern religions and philosophy, India is a treasure trove. It bears a complex history involving various Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism. Islam and Christianity are also well-represented. For this reason, India has long been a destination for those seeking something more.
India is home to a broad spectrum of beliefs and practices, not to mention many pilgrims and ascetics. You can observe a variety, from the lavish aarti ceremonies to a modest puja prayer at a family restaurant. You can dip your toes with a visit to Dharamshala, or dive into an immersive 10-day vipassana meditation course. Either way, religion is deeply woven into the fabric Indian culture and worth considering.
10. Brace yourself for selfies
Whether or not you pack your selfie stick, you’re destined to be the subject of a few selfies. In our experience, these requests are often good-natured though that doesn’t mean dropping your guard. You may not want to draw attention to yourself. Also, rather unfortunately, India is the leading country for selfie-related accidents so watch your footing. We do NOT want to see you go out like that.