My biggest tip for someone backpacking through India: Be open to new experiences and learn to let your guard down. It won’t be easy. The most frequent word you will say is ‘no’, as you duck away from rickshaw drivers and merchants trying to sell you things you don’t want. There are people who will try to take advantage of you, especially in the heavily touristed places where you’re likely to start your trip. But once you get past that, you’re more likely to find genuinely hospitable locals who just want to spend time with you.
There is no scam when they offer you food, ask you personal questions on the train, invite you over for dinner, teach you to play cricket, share their religious ceremonies, or if you’re really lucky, attend a wedding. It took us too long to realize it, but once we did we met a lot of amazing people, and we got a wedding invite, but it was unfortunately 3 days after we flew home.
We also learned some more practical tips useful for anyone going on a multi-month trip through India.
You can’t bring everything you will need, so don’t. Most items are cheaper to buy in India than at home anyway. Clothing, toiletries (although we never tried to buy deodorant or feminine hygiene products), laundry soap, and food are all cheaper in India. That said, there are a few essential items you will want to bring from home.
Sleeping bag liner
Although it’s not essential, I’d recommend taking a few bills and coins from home. The Indians we met loved seeing Canadian money. Luckily we had $5 and $10 Canadian bills on us. I wish we would have brought some small coins to give to the kids.
We bought water in plastic bottles as we went, but hated all the waste that was produced. The one thing we wished we had packed was a travel water purifier like the SteriPEN.
Expect to do a lot of bargaining. We initially found it intimidating, but it gets easier as you learn what the prices should be. You will overpay at first. Packaged goods have a maximum retail price (MRP) labelled on them, which acts as the price tag. For negotiable items, like things you buy in the market, expect to be offered inflated foreigner prices.
Rickshaw drivers are the worst offenders for trying to gouge foreigners. There are some techniques to keep prices reasonable. If you’re at the airport or train station, look for the government regulated prepaid stands, but make sure the driver you get knows where you’re going. You should almost always ignore the drivers who meet you at the train and try to snag you before you have left the station. If they’re targeting foreigners, they charge way too much and often sell “sightseeing tours”.
We only had a rough idea of where we wanted to travel when we arrived in India. It’s a big country and every corner offers something unique to see. It’s a good idea to pick your travel itinerary based on the weather. There is a big difference in temperature between the north and south and the monsoons start and end at different times. We got really lucky with weather, starting in the south in December and slowly making our way north, with Rajasthan in February and ending in Delhi in April. There are also hill stations (like Darjeeling and Shimla) to check out if it gets too hot, but they can be frigid the rest of the year.
Here’s a summary of all the places we went.
Having a cellphone and a local SIM card is extremely useful. Getting a SIM card is a great introduction to Indian bureaucracy and the country’s love for paperwork. We got ours through Vodafone. I just show up at one of their stores with a copy of my passport and visa, a passport-sized photo, and an address from my hotel. It shouldn’t take long, but it does. The rates are super cheap, and 3G internet (2 GB for less than $5) was often faster than the hotel WIFI. The only annoying thing is the SIM card will only work for 3 months (Indian government regulation). After 3 months, your phone will stop working, any money on your account will disappear, and you will have to start the whole process from the beginning.
The best way to travel in India is by train. You can’t beat the combination of speed, price, and entertainment value. However, booking your first train ticket can be intimidating. You can visit a travel agent and pay a commision to have them do the work, but we prefered to book tickets ourselves online. Really short routes we went unreserved, medium length trips we booked about 2 weeks ahead, and most of the long distance routes we booked a month ahead. It is very difficult to get a reservation on and around holidays.
There are three invaluable sites when figuring out the train system – India Mike, India Rail Info, and Cleartrip.
India Mike has the best guide to the Indian Rail Network, amongst other things. Some of the content on the website is getting old and stale, but it’s still one of the best resources for foreigners in India. Any question you may have about traveling through India has probably been answered on this website.
The best website for figuring out the train schedule is India Rail Info, which also has an excellent app. The user interface is intimidating at first glance, but it’s packed with essential information – like the average delay (some passenger trains are routinely 6-8 hours late), how many tickets are available in each class, and it will let you search for foreign ticket availability.
Some extra information we figured out as we travelled:
– For overnight trains, you can choose between Sleeper (SL), 3 level air-conditioned (3A), 2 level air-conditioned (2A), or a private compartment (1A) with prices close to flying. We spent most of our time in very affordable 3A compartments, but also booked a number of super-cheap tickets in Sleeper class. Even though Sleeper and 3A officially sleep the same number of people (8 per compartment), you will find more people cramming into Sleeper (with families often sharing a single bed). 3A is generally more comfortable and the beds come with a pillow, sheets, and blankets (in Sleeper you have to bring your own). 3A is temperature controlled, so it is more comfortable when it is both hot and cold outside.
– Trains are given priority on the tracks based on their type. The fancy, express trains (the Rajdhani and Shatabdi Expresses) go the fastest and are hardly ever late. The slower passenger trains stop at more stations, have to pull over and wait for faster trains to pass, and are frequently several hours behind their schedule.
– Most trains reserve 2-10 seats for foreign tourists, which are great when you’re making last minute travel plans, but can be a real pain to book. They can only be booked in person at the major train stations. Again, India Mike has the best guide to Foreign Tourist quota tickets and a list of train stations where you can buy them.
– If the train is full and you can’t buy a Foreign Tourist Ticket, the next option is the Waitlist. We tempted fate on the waitlist twice and got lucky both times, but it was very stressful. If you are near the top of the waitlist, you might get a ticket when someone cancels, but most tickets are handed out 4-12 hours before the train leaves, allocated from unused quotas in special classes. You best have a good backup plan. There is also last-minute Tatkal tickets that go on sale at 10 am the day before the train leaves. The train station reservation offices are madhouses in the morning as people push and shove to get a chance at these tickets. We never bothered.
India has a great network of private bus operators that provide comfortable Volvo bus connections between most cities. Unlike the train, which can sell out weeks in advance, the buses were usually easy to book last minute. You can search and book tickets for most operators on a single website – Redbus. Some of routes are served by “sleeper buses”, which have horizontal beds (doubles and singles). Depending on the road conditions, the sleeper buses can be just as comfortable as the train and a great way to travel. There are government buses, which are cheaper and less comfortable than the private Volvos, and in some states they are the only option.
India has a great selection of budget hotels, but don’t expect Western cleanliness or service. Many hotel rooms won’t have towels, sheets, or toilet paper when you check in, but if you ask they will provide them. You won’t find a clock, telephone, hair dryer, or daily room cleaning but most hotel rooms will have a shower in the middle of the bathroom with a bucket to wash clothing, a Western toilet, and a fan or A/C. Sometimes you will find a TV, mosquito nets (especially in the south), and included breakfast.
We spent around 3000 rupees/person/day (full breakdown).
Almost all of our spending was in cash. Using a credit card was rare, especially outside of the major cities. Luckily there are a lot of ATMs that accept foreign cards. The best were the State Bank ATMs, which don’t charge any fees and are plentiful throughout the country.
The best source of reliable reviews was TripAdvisor, especially for hotels and attractions. For food, Zomato was the best for finding great restaurants – the curated “Legendary” lists never let us down.
Luckily most Indians speak good English, so you can get by without learning any other languages. We learned some tourist Hindi, but its usefulness was limited. Many states, especially in the South, have their own languages (Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, etc.). However, it’s always nice to be able to greet and thank people in their own language.