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 consolidated a list of frequently asked questions about travelling to India and hopefully answer all of them below, drawn from my own experience.
If you’re planning your first trip to India, this is essential reading!
How long to spend 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 so little time in India. I would recommend picking one region or state or particular interest and concentrating on seeing it well rather than rushing around to multiple areas. For example, concentrate 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.
When to travel to India
The best time to visit India is in the dry, mild winter 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.
The winter months are perfect for travelling to the Delhi, Agra, 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, which 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. This is the short time 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.
Where to go in India
India is a hugely diverse country and recommending places to visit in India is extremely tough. There’s such an incredible difference between the south and north, as well as the east and the west. Where you decide to go will depend largely on whether it’s your first time travelling to India, what you want to see or what you’re interested in seeing, as well as, what time of the year you’re visiting and how long you have.
I’ll try and break it down a bit here.
If it’s your first time to India?
Most people do the traditional route known as the Golden Triangle which includes, Delhi, Jaipur and Agra for their first 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. However, as much as the beauty of these places certainly warrants a visit, they can also be quite overwhelming cities to explore for first time visitors.
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
If you’re travelling as a solo female?
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 once again. Local people in the south are more easy-going and states like Kerala also have a higher literacy and education rate compared to 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.
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 the best destinations for solo travellers includes:
- 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.
If you want to get away from the crowds and off the beaten track?
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 sometimes non-existent tourist infrastructure. But if you’re up for it, it can be very rewarding.
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)
Read next: The Ultimate Travel Guide to Northeast India
India visa application and requirements
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).
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 is generally very good. Indians are some of the most beautiful and friendly people in the world and foreigners are usually 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 choice 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.
Travelling to India as a female
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 come 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 accept and it certainly makes you feel uncomfortable at first. However, for me, I just accepted it as part of travelling in India and mostly ignore it.
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 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.
What should you wear when travelling to 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 dress 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.
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 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 travel in India
India is one of the cheapest countries to travel to 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 region like Meghalaya, Assam and Sikkim, are generally more expensive because hostels are non-existent and transport options are limited. I lived on around $30-40 per day while travelling in the Northeast, for example.
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 make up the main transport.
Of course, you can spend much more than this if 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.
How to get around 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 is mainly by train and bus, with various options in terms of quality and comfort. Within cities, you can use taxis, Uber, tuk-tuks, cycle rickshaws, buses and metro systems. There is no shortage of transport in India.
Most people imagine romantic journeys on India’s expansive rail network, however, the reality, in many cases, is much different. The general experience is that the trains are crowded, often require booking days in advance and are very often delayed… like we’re talking delays in hours not minutes.
Timetables, live updates and seat availability is accessible on your mobile, with apps like IRCTC (the official Indian Railway company) and ixigo (an Indian travel agent). You can even book tickets online too, which is highly recommended to avoid the chaos and language barriers at the station counters. It sometimes takes a bit of time and effort to set these apps up, and you’ll need an Indian SIM card and number, but it’s definitely worth it if you’re going to be using trains often or as your main transport.
For long distance travel it’s best to splurge a little more on a higher class, where you’re more likely to actually get some sleep. Classes like AC1, AC2 or AC3 have air conditioning, fold down beds and even offer a pillow and blanket as well. They are more like private cabins, with lockable doors.
If you’re on a budget, however, then sleeper class will be your go-to, and what an experience you’re likely to have! They are open carriages with fold down beds and usually just fans screwed to the ceilings for air circulation. Sleeper class is crowded and intense, but one of the most eye-opening and interesting experiences of travelling India.
It’s also possible to use the trains for short distance travel during the day and trips can cost as little as a couple of dollars for a journey, if you opt for just a seat instead of a bed. These tickets, for some routes, can usually be bought on the day and don’t require much planning, but it’s always best to check the timetable and availability online before heading to the station.
Buses are surprisingly a good option, particularly if you’re a solo traveller. In fact, I much prefer them when travelling in India. They are more likely to be on time compared to the trains and if you’re opting for a private sleeper bus, you can even have your own compartment with a bed. It does mean you have to contend with India’s roads though, which are not always smooth, so don’t count on too much beauty sleep.
For most of these long journeys on private buses, you can book through an app called Redbus which is highly recommended, as you can even pick your seat/bed. However, some people have trouble using their foreign cards on this app and it seems to change over time, as I have used it before and other times it doesn’t work for me. The alternative is to go through any hostel or travel agent who can also book them for you
For cheaper options, there are non-sleeper buses with regular seats but the quality can vary remarkably. You usually have the option between private and public, with the public government buses often being in much worse condition although also much more affordable.
Government buses differ between states and are actually operated under a state transport corporation. For example, Himachal Pradesh’s government buses run under Himachal Pradesh Road and Transport Corporation or HPRTC and this is how you can differentiate between them and private bus companies.
Tickets for these buses are generally bought directly at bus stations although some states do have schedules available online. It’s best to check the latest at the station counter as timetables change frequently and the websites often aren’t updated in years.
Shared jeeps or sumos
The train network can’t possibly reach all places; especially in remote areas like the Northeast region, and buses are sometimes confined to the major cities. In places like this, shared jeeps are the best and quite frankly, the only way of getting between towns. They leave when full and your luggage is usually strapped on to the roof rack. Just be prepared when I say ‘shared’ because it means with at least 10 other people, unless you want to pay for the whole car, which is always an option.
Depending on the place, these shared jeeps either congregate together in one large parking lot or they operate from their own private counters. For popular and long distance routes, tickets can usually be bought the day before and it’s recommended to do so if you want a decent seat. They are generally well organised and require you to be there half an hour before departure. However, this is still India, so don’t expect it to leave on time.
It’s always worth asking what seats are available before purchasing a ticket and opt for either the front or window, never the back! There are generally multiple ticket counters competing for customers so you can always shop around.
Shared jeeps are sumos usually stop every few hours so you can stretch your legs, go to the toilet and get a meal or some snacks. You’ll most likely use them in Northeast India, North India and Kashmir.
Tuk tuks, taxis and ride hailing services
The quintessential local transport in India are the tuk tuks or rickshaws. Cheap, slow (unless you’re lucky) but always fun. There’s so many of them around that they’re probably the most convenient form of transport within urban places. Choose wisely and always agree on a price before you get in. Some of the drivers can be ruthless businessmen so its best to know how much the trip should cost before setting out to bargain.
Taxis are typically more expensive than rickshaws and ride-sharing services in India, but in cities like Mumbai and Kolkata they are iconic. The old taxis in these cities are remnants from the British times, so even if you choose to go with a cheaper type of transport they still make for a great photograph.
There are now a variety of ride hailing services available in India, with the most popular choices being Ola and Uber. It can work out relatively cheap, especially if you share with other travellers, and can also eliminate some of the language barrier by being able to enter your exact destination in the app.
If you have a local SIM the best bet is to download the app and book your own (you’ll need an Indian number though). It’s also a good way to check for prices before hailing a local taxi or rickshaw, so you know what price range you should be bargaining for.
Accommodation 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 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.
While I often don’t book accommodation in India, it can be a good idea if you want to ensure you get a room in high season or if you prefer to know exactly where you’re going when arriving at a new place. I use Booking.com to book any accommodation in India, as they usually have the best rates.
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.
Technology 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). I’ve heard that at the airport, you can expect to pay around 900 rupees (AUD $18) plus, for the same SIM and bundle!
Money in India
ATMs are very widespread across India. You’ll be surprised to find that most places, even in rural towns, have ATMs. However, cash is still king and very few places 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.
India packing list
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!
Health while travelling in India
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.