India is the most intoxicating, mesmerising, overwhelming and rewarding country I’ve ever been. Although it’s a relatively popular place to go, there is still a lot of apprehension about travelling to India, especially for first-timers and solo female travellers. After spending nine months in India over three different trips, I’ve decided to put together this comprehensive and honest blog post on what you need to know about travelling to India.
I often get asked questions, especially around what it’s like as a solo female traveller and how to go about planning a trip. So I’ve consolidated a list of frequently asked questions about travelling to India with comprehensive answers drawn from my own experience.
I hope this post answers all your India questions!
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Places to go
Where should I go if it’s my first time to India?
Most people do the traditional route known as the Golden Triangle of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra for their India trip. If they have more time, they’ll usually head further into Rajasthan which is where you’ll find incredibly beautiful palaces and hilltop forts. As much as the beauty of these places certainly warrants a visit, they can also be quite overwhelming cities to explore.
If you’re nervous about being overwhelmed by the persistent crowds, hassling touts and the sights and smells on the streets, then these places might not be ideal for your first time in India. I know that the Taj Mahal is likely on your bucket list, but the reality is that Agra is a crazy city to navigate, especially if it’s your first time travelling alone and/or to India.
I always recommend first-time travellers to India visit the south, especially Kerala. South India is much more relaxed and there are some beautiful beaches, tea plantations and stunning temples. It’s definitely the best place to get a feel for India without being too overwhelmed. My favourite places in the south include:
- Fort Kochi – an old colonial seaside port city (and gateway for the Kerala backwaters)
- Hampi – an incredible UNESCO site of scattered temples and ruins
- Mysore – interesting architecture, old markets and an ashtanga yoga hub
- Varkala – a pretty beach town on the west coast
- Munnar – rolling green hills and tea plantations
- Pondicherry – former French colony on the east coast
Which places are the best for a solo female traveller?
You can travel anywhere in India as a solo female traveller. However, if you’re nervous about safety and prefer to go to places where it’s easy to meet other travellers, then some places are better than others.
In terms of safety and exploring a region that feels a little more comfortable as a female, then South India really wins out again. Local people in the south are more easy-going and states like Kerala also have a higher literacy and education rate than northern parts of India. This means that you’ll generally find a more positive attitude towards gender equality and women’s rights in the south.
I also found that the Northeast had a different perspective on women too. Although many Indians consider the Northeast to be somewhat backward, the region is home to interesting tribes which have strong female roles. In particular, the Khasi tribe and Garo people in Meghalaya are matriarchal and I could instantly feel the different vibe when I visited the Khasi hills around Cherrapunji.
For solo travellers, it’s often important to spend time in places where you can easily meet fellow travellers too. India has some particularly good places that have turned into traveller hangouts. Some of these best destinations for solo travellers include:
- Rishikesh – the yoga capital of India, on the banks of the Ganges north of Delhi in Uttarakhand
- Dharamsala/Mcleod Ganj – the home of the Dalai Lama and a favourite hill town for travellers to spend time in Himachal Pradesh
- Hampi – a beautiful rural setting with ancient temples and a great backpacking community in Karnataka
- Varkala – a chill village on the coast in the far south in Kerala
- Pushkar – a popular traveller haunt in Rajasthan, that is also a very holy place for Indian pilgrims.
What are the best places to go in India to get away from the chaotic cities and tourist hotspots?
If you’re looking to explore India away from the popular destinations, then there’s plenty to choose from. India is a huge country and it’s surprisingly easy to get away from the crowds and explore places most people have never heard of. However, not all of these places are ‘easy’ to travel to and they usually present transport limitations, language barriers and basically non-existent tourist infrastructure.
Most of the best places for a real adventure in India are in the far north towards Kashmir and Ladakh and in the far Northeast region.
If you’re ready for adventure, here are my favourite off the beaten track places in India:
- Srinagar, Kashmir – the capital of Kashmir and a really interesting city to visit despite its bad reputation in the news
- Leh, Ladakh – Not completely off the beaten track but still far less visited than other places in India, Ladakh is a Buddhist enclave amidst stunning Himalayan landscapes
- Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh – an incredibly high altitude valley close to the Tibet border
- Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh – the second largest monastery in the world far out east close to the Chinese and Bhutanese border
- Majuli Island, Assam – the largest island on the mighty Brahmaputra River and a beautiful relaxing escape
- Kolkata, West Bengal – the former Indian capital is an immense and chaotic city, but few travellers decide to venture there and I think it’s a real shame (just be prepared for an intense experience)
How long should I spend travelling in India?
How long do you have? You can explore India for days, weeks, months and even years and you would never see everything in the country. There really is so much to explore and depending on what you like to see and do, you can easily fill up any India trip itinerary.
If you have two weeks, you could easily do a quick trip that takes in a few major sights and big cities. If you have a month you could explore a bit further afield and with even more time, you can potentially expand your visit from south to north, or even out to the far east.
Many people get trapped in wanting to see a lot with little time in India. I would recommend picking one region or particular interest and concentrating on seeing it well rather than rushing around. For example, concentrating your trip on just the forts and palaces of Rajasthan, or just the far south in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, or just the mountains of the far north around Ladakh This is much easier than trying to see multiple parts of the country in a short time.
Safety and solo female travel
Is India safe?
This is a huge question and likely the main one on most solo female travellers minds. Safety in India has a dubious reputation. On the one hand, the country is quite a popular place to visit and behaviour and attitudes towards tourists, in general, is really good. Indians are some of the most beautiful and friendly people in the world and foreigners are generally welcomed with respect.
However, one thing you need to know about travelling to India is that it grapples with some serious social issues that affect travellers, especially females. India is a conservative society and issues of gender inequality and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities are widespread.
Unfortunately, sexual assault against women is on the rise, despite media coverage and harsh penalties also increasing. It’s not uncommon to hear of some instances involving foreign women. It’s an unfortunate reality that you need to be cautious of your choices of clothing and behaviour as you travel around as a solo female.
On a slightly more positive note, petty theft and crime are not as common and Indians are generally very honest people. Although poverty is a pressing issue particularly in large cities like Delhi and Mumbai, tourists are usually treated with respect. Still, you should keep your valuables close to you at all times and be aware of your belongings on public transport and in crowded places.
What is it like travelling as a female in India?
I’m going to be honest and say, that solo female travel in India is not easy. But, it’s also not as difficult as you might expect either.
The main problem is unwanted attention from men. Staring is the most common and, unfortunately, it’s something that you have to expect when travelling in India. You’ll be stared at constantly and there’s not much you can do about it. Some women find this hard to get over and it certainly makes you feel uncomfortable at first. However, for me, I just accepted it as part of travelling in India.
Another common incident is wandering hands and groping. This, unfortunately, happens mostly in crowded places like markets and bus stations, but also at festivals like Holi. Although this behaviour should not be condoned, there’s not much you can do to stop it from happening completely. Wearing conservative clothing and avoiding crowded places are the main travel tips to reduce the likelihood.
There’s not necessarily a correct way of reacting to such instances when they do happen. However, when this has happened to me, I’ve reacted quite forcefully and publicly. I haven’t been afraid to tell someone, “Don’t do that,” or, even more bluntly, “Don’t fucking touch me.” I’ve even shoved men away if they were invading my personal space. I know this sounds alarming, but making it known that you will not tolerate such behaviour is usually enough for men to steer clear of you. The tougher you are, the more scared they’ll be.
It’s important to know though, that this is not ONLY a problem in India. Similar things happen in other countries, even in my own country, Australia. If you are stern and strong and portray the vibe that you won’t take any crap (even if you’re nervous on the inside), then this is usually a good deterrent.
On the other hand, as a solo female traveller, I’ve had numerous positive experiences that far outweigh the bad. Most Indian people are extremely hospitable and helpful. For me, being a solo female has meant that people have often gone out of their way to help me. There are also benefits of being a solo female in India, such as having meaningful conversations with local women, getting front seats in transport, shorter queues at stations, having chai paid for by a random stranger, and the list goes on.
Isn’t a tour a better and safer way to travel in India?
Whether or not you decide to go on an India tour really comes down to what kind of traveller you are. Some people prefer tours because they take care of a lot of the logistics and decision making that you would otherwise need to do yourself. Tours also generally mean that you squeeze a lot more into a trip because they utilise things like private transport and pre-booking certain experiences.
However, for me, travelling independently in India is one of the best ways to really appreciate the country. The public transport system of buses, trains and shared jeeps usually add so much more to the experience and it means you get to see the real local way of life in places you go. It also provides a greater level of freedom meaning that you can make decisions at the last minute and extend or cut your stay short in places whenever you feel like it.
In terms of safety, although having a guide and being in a group means that you are viewed as a less vulnerable target for pickpocketing or inappropriate behaviour, it doesn’t mean that you are immune. If you travel in a tour group, you should still exercise the normal degree of caution for your own belongings and yourself.
What should I wear as a female traveller in India?
My main tip for female travellers is to wear culturally appropriate clothing. Although I completely agree that women have the right to wear whatever they choose, unfortunately, what you choose to wear can have a big impact on how you’re treated in India.
The best thing is to observe how local women are dressed and follow a similar line. This usually means covering your legs and sometimes your arms. As a general rule, I always have my legs covered in India, even in the more tourist-oriented places. Good items to wear are loose-fitting pants and long skirts, which you can easily buy in most markets in India.
I often wear t-shirts though and I have never felt that a t-shirt is inappropriate (unless you’re going into a particularly holy place). I rarely wear a singlet, tank top or sleeveless top, but I do make some exceptions for this, like in Goa for example.
A scarf is one of the best items you can possibly carry with you and I never go anywhere in India without one. This means that if I’m wearing a t-shirt I can cover up if I feel that I should, or if I want to avoid any attention, then I can cover my head. It’s also required for entry into many holy places such as temples and mosques.
Budget and trip planning
How cheap is India to travel?
India is one of the cheapest countries to travel around the world. It really is a budget travellers’ paradise. You can easily live on $20 per day if you want. This usually means a hostel dormitory bed, public transport and a couple of local meals or street food. A cheap meal can be as little as $2 and a dormitory bed in a hostel can be around $5.
I generally stick to this kind of budget when I’m travelling in places like Rajasthan, Delhi, Mumbai, Goa, Hampi and Kochi. These popular places are extremely easy to stick to a tight budget with plenty of cheap transport and food options.
Areas of India that tend to break this kind of budget are in the far Northeast and in the far north. States in the Northeast like Meghalaya, Assam and Sikkim, are generally more expensive because hostels are non-existent and transport options are limited to shared jeeps and some buses, which are more expensive. I lived on around $30-40 per day while travelling in the Northeast.
A similar budget would be ideal for the far north in Ladakh and Kashmir and some parts of Himachal Pradesh like Spiti, as there are fewer hostels there too and shared jeeps and fewer buses make up the main transport.
Of course, you can spend much more than this is you want a bit of luxury or more comfort. India has plenty of good mid-range and luxury options to suit all types of travellers.
What is the transport like in India?
India has one of the greatest transport networks in the world. From buses and trains to shared jeeps and rickshaws, there is always an option available and usually multiple. Intercity and regional travel are mainly by train and bus, with various quality and comfort options. Within cities, you can use taxis, Uber, tuk-tuks, cycle rickshaws, buses and metro systems. There is no shortage of transport in India.
One of the most difficult things about travelling in India is navigating the various transport options. For budget travellers, buses and trains are the best and can be very cheap if you’re willing to give up certain comforts.
If you want to read more about different transport options, including how to book them, then check out my blog post on navigating transport in India.
What kind of accommodation is available in India?
Accommodation in India ranges from couch surfing to luxury palace hotels, depending on your budget. My favourite kinds of accommodation in India are homestays and hostels.
India has some of the best quality hostels I’ve ever stayed and there are usually plenty of options and price ranges amongst them. India is also home to some big hostel chains, which often have a hostel in each major tourist destination. It usually means that you get a discount if you hop from one of their branded hostels to another. They are generally quality assured with a certain standard of comfort and facilities too. Some of the most popular hostel chains include GoStops, Moustache Hostels and Zostel.
Homestays and family-run guesthouses are another great accommodation option in India. They are often not much more than a dorm bed in a good quality hostel. However, my favourite part of homestays and small guesthouses is that you often get a real insight into local life and Indian hospitality can be incredibly good.
Find the latest prices for accommodation in India here:
What is the best time of year to visit India?
The best time to visit India is in the dry, warm season from October to March. This is an all-round good time to visit most places in the country. However, there are various climatic zones present on the subcontinent and the weather is different from north to south.
These months are perfect for travelling to the Golden Triangle, Rajasthan, down to Goa and further south to Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It’s also a good time to visit the east towards Varanasi and Darjeeling as well as most of the Northeast region.
However, these months are not the best time to visit the mountains and the Himalayas are usually completely snowed in with very limited access to some parts of northern India. The summer months from June until September are the best months to visit the Himalayas in India. These are the short few months when roads are open to Ladakh and Spiti Valley in the far north. However, most of the rest of the country succumb to intense heat, humidity and monsoonal rains at this time.
What resources should I use for trip planning?
India is not a difficult country to navigate with plenty of information and websites available to help plan your trip. The best resources for planning a trip to India include:
- Booking.com for checking the latest prices and available accommodation
- Viator for looking up and booking possible day tours to join, as well as longer multi-day tours around different regions of India
- IRCTC is the official India railway website where you can look up timetables, check the current status and ETA of a train and book tickets
- ixigo is my preferred Indian travel company for booking internal flights and trains with a foreign card (they’re not always accepted directly on company websites in India)
- Redbus is great for checking bus schedules and booking tickets for major routes including overnight sleeper buses
- Uber is popular in India, especially in the cities, and it’s good for checking prices before bargaining with tuk-tuks and other taxi drivers
I’m also still a fan of guide books. I know, weird right? But I like to have all the basic information in one place and they’re also good if you go offline and are unable to Google anything. Although paperback books are precious, I shamefully prefer an e-book when I’m travelling, simply because it’s less weight that I have to carry. Lonely Planet is basically the bible of travel guides and I usually go with them. You can purchase a paperback or Kindle version of the latest India travel guide on Amazon here.Lonely Planet India (Country Guide)
What is the visa application process like?
All nationalities require a visa before entering India and there are two different visas that you can apply for. The e-visa can be applied for online and is usually used for a shorter stay. The regular tourist visa requires a more lengthy process of sending your passport to a consulate or embassy and paying a bit more money. However, this India visa can allow for a longer stay and multiple entries across all borders.
Depending on your nationality, the price, visa validity and permitted length of stay vary. Some nationalities can get an Indian visa validity for up to 10 years with a regular visa, while others can get six months.
You can check the visa requirements for your own nationality and what you need to apply for an e-visa here.
For a regular visa, you need to search for the Indian mission in your own country for the specific requirements.
A regular visa for India is best if you are unsure of how long you want to stay in India and if you have plans to cross any land borders (some land borders require a regular visa rather than an e-visa).
Do Indians speak English?
English is actually widely spoken in India and is one of the official languages. You’ll be surprised that most people speak some English, especially in the cities. However, in more remote and rural areas you’ll find that Hindi is the preferred common language people have along with their native tongue. Still, you’ll hardly find it too difficult to communicate and almost all young people speak basic English.
What should I pack for a trip to India?
One of the best packing tips for travelling to India is to bring a scarf or shawl. In fact, it’s even better if you wait until you arrive and buy one in a market. A scarf or shawl is an essential item to carry as it has multiple uses. It can be used to cover yourself up if you need to, as well as acting as a blanket or pillow on long journeys on transport.
Loose-fitting clothing is ideal for India because they are cooler, less restrictive and more culturally appropriate. Clothing that covers your legs is usually most appropriate, even for men, as shorts are rarely worn by any gender.
In terms of footwear, comfortable sandals are my favourite for travelling in India. The streets are often dry, dusty and hot and sandals are most practical to keep yourself cool. However, it often means your feet will be dirty by the end of a long day of exploring!
Can I use my card or do I have to carry cash?
ATMs are very widespread across India. You’ll be surprised to find that most places, even in rural towns, have accessible ATMs. However, cash is still king and very few places outside of fancier hotels and restaurants will accept payment by EFTPOS or card. It’s easiest to carry cash and pay everything in Indian Rupees.
It’s best to just bring your own foreign card and withdraw money from ATMs once you’re in the country. Most ATMs in India have zero or low fees for cash withdrawals.
However, there are some places in rural areas where there might be just one ATM servicing a large area. This often means it can run empty or break down. If you’re going to remote areas, it’s safer to withdraw extra cash to take with you.
What is the internet like in India?
One thing you need to know about travelling to India is that the internet is surprisingly good. Almost all accommodation will have free Wi-Fi and generally, I’ve found it to be high speed.
If you like to stay connected at all times, you can easily get a local SIM card. Airtel is considered the local company with the best coverage. SIM cards for tourists expire after three months of use but they are pretty cheap to arrange. India has some of the lowest prices for phone calls and data in the world.
It’s possible to get a SIM card at the airport, but this is usually more expensive and most people get ripped off. The best thing to do is wait until you can find an official retail store on the street and get them to do it for you. These stores can generally be found in all cities and most towns. You’ll have to have your passport on you as they take a copy of it and sometimes they’ll need to take a photo of you.
A SIM should cost around 50-100 rupees (AUD $1-2) and a basic bundle that includes 1.5GB per day for a month is around 250 rupees (AUD $5). At the airport, you can expect to pay around 900 rupees (AUD $18) plus, for the same SIM and bundle!
How do you avoid Delhi belly?
What you need to know about travelling to India is that getting sick is almost inevitable. Most people get ill in India and this is usually a case of Delhi belly or traveller’s diarrhoea. It’s often considered just another part of travelling to India but I’ve so far been pretty lucky and only been sick a couple of times over my time there.
The best ways to avoid getting sick are:
- Go to restaurants that are busy with locals (this is how you know they’re good)
- Wash your hands before eating (most restaurants have wash basins because local people like to eat with their hands)
- Avoid local water, ice and salad or fruit that has been washed in local untreated water
- Don’t drink water straight from the tap (even while brushing your teeth)
I ate at extremely cheap places and plenty of street food stalls without a problem. I also ate meat and fish while I was there. You don’t have to be paranoid and in fact, if you avoid all the small, dodgy-looking restaurants you’re likely missing out on some of the best food in India! Don’t be afraid to eat from a street food cart, most local people do on a daily basis and this is one of the best ways to keep your budget down as well.
I recommend carrying a LifeStraw filter water bottle with you too. This means that you don’t have to continue purchasing plastic bottles for drinking water and you can ensure that you’re drinking clean water during your trip to India.LifeStraw Go Water Filter Bottle with 2-Stage Integrated Filter Straw for Hiking, Backpacking, and Travel, Blue (LSGOV2CR45)
How do you navigate culture and not offend people in India?
Indians are pretty forgiving people and they won’t be too harsh if you are unintentionally offensive. Indians are also not afraid to tell you if you’re doing something wrong. For example, if you’re meant to remove your shoes or cover your head inside a holy site, someone will soon inform you. The responsible thing to do as a traveller is to respect any local custom or rule.
Another important thing you need to know about travelling to India is to be careful about pointing your camera and taking photos of people without asking. You should always ask someone before taking their photo, and you should ask a parent or guardian before taking a photo of a child. Some people can find photographs offensive, so you should always be respectful if someone declines a photograph.
Why do people say that India is overwhelming?
India is an overwhelming country for many reasons. For some people, it’s the enormous crowds and sheer number of people. For others, it’s the poverty and stark inequality that can be quite confronting in many areas of the country. It’s also easy to be overwhelmed by the various sights and smells in the markets and bus stations that you are not used to seeing in your own country.
However, many of these aspects of India also make it the incredibly unique and mesmerising destination that it is. If you don’t like crowds and being outside of your comfort zone it can be a tough place to explore. However, if you can step back and observe without judgement and without allowing yourself to get too overwhelmed, it’s incredibly rewarding.