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A First-Timer's Travel Guide to India

May 22, 2015
9 min read
A First-Timer's Travel Guide to India
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Traveling to India for the first time can seem daunting, but TPG International Contributor Lori Zaino — who recently took her own first trip to this huge South Asian country — wants to assure you that a vacation here will prove both fascinating and delightful. To help you stay healthy, safe and savvy during your own trip to India, she offers the following tips and advice.

India is a magical place — just prepare properly before you embark on your journey. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Obtain your visa. Visa rules for India have recently changed; it's now easier and cheaper to obtain a 10-year visa, while some shorter-term visas have been eliminated. Allied Passport & Visa can help you choose the option that works best for you.

Get vaccinated. Depending on the regions of India that you visit, you may need vaccinations (or other forms of disease prevention) for several different types of diseases. Don't skimp on your pre-trip health precautions, because a quick shot is far preferable to getting malaria, typhoid, etc.

Pack properly. Bring loose, comfortable clothing that's appropriate for heat but still modest. India is generally conservative when it comes to keeping your body covered, so rather than packing only shorts, short skirts and t-shirts, be sure to pack pants, buttoned shirts and blouses, along with long skirts and dresses. It's also advisable to bring comfortable walking shoes/sandals that can be easily slipped off and on at temples and private homes.

Other items to pack are:

  • Flashlight (especially helpful in a small village, beach or mountain area where it's extremely dark at night)
  • Earplugs
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Tums, Immodium and Pepto Bismol
  • Band-Aids and antibiotic oitment
  • Converter (note that India uses European plugs)
  • Hand sanitizer
Some typical roadblocks in India. Photo courtesy of Rachel Wasserman.
Some typical roadblocks in India. Photo courtesy of Rachel Wasserman.

Remember, Indians drive on the left side of the road — often in crazy traffic. In most urban areas of India, you're likely to encounter intense traffic caused by a general lack of proper traffic controls. Jams could include any combination of cars, motorbikes, tuk tuks, bikes, pedestrians, cattle, donkeys, dogs, cats and unsupervised children, so if you're planning to rent a car (or even a scooter), make sure you're aware of India's driving rules and are prepared for a human, animal and machine-based onslaught. If not, definitely leave the driving to someone else.

India can be totally crazy, but that's what makes it so amazing. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Be prepared for a major sensory overload, in both good and bad ways. It may seem as though everything about this country is overwhelming, so just remember to take your time, keep your wits about you and try to remain flexible and patient. Be ready for big crowds, frequent power outages, train and bus delays, loud noises, strange and potent smells and locals staring and asking many questions (neither of which are considered to be rude in India). There will be wonderful moments of peace, quiet, beauty and relaxation, so just hang in there.

Worried about traveling alone in India? Join a tour — or invite a friend. Photo by Lori Zaino.

If you plan on traveling alone, use common sense and have a game plan. While in India, I ran into several men and women who were having great solo travel experiences because they did a fair amount of research prior to their trips and used their common sense while on the road. They all suggested that it's best to stay away from areas that are known for violence, to be especially mindful of your surroundings after dark and to not be afraid of making a scene if you feel that you're in an unsafe situation. For instance, if you ever feel scared and find that a polite "no" isn't working, feel free to raise your voice and flip out a bit — a little erratic behavior is likely to force harassers to retreat.

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Make sure to bargain for goods at street markets. Photo by Lori Zaino.

Know how and when to bargain. My visit to Goa was toward the end of the high tourist season, and I could tell the restless, over-eager vendors were ready to unload their extra goods before closing up shop for an extended period. As a result, I was able to get some especially good deals on beautiful souvenirs. In addition to investigating high and low tourist seasons in the regions you plan to visit, be sure not to let vendors and shopkeepers know this is your first time in India; if you say so, they may charge you more than they would a more seasoned traveler.

Bring along a credit card, for sure, but also make sure you have rupees on hand. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Carry cash. While most hotels and some restaurants, shops and major tourist attractions will take credit cards, it's always good to have rupees (Indian currency) on hand for local and street purchases. If you do plan on using a credit card, make sure to use one with no foreign transaction fees, such as the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard or Chase Sapphire Preferred Card.

Do something cool, like an Ashtanga Yoga class at Little Cove Yoga Retreat with Nadia Moon Yoga. Photo courtesy of Rachel Wasserman.
Do something cool, like an Ashtanga Yoga class at Little Cove Yoga Retreat with Nadia Moon Yoga. Photo courtesy of Rachel Wasserman.

Dive headfirst into the local culture. India is full of wonderful cultural traditions, so consider taking a cooking or yoga class, getting an Ayurveydic spa treatment or even a henna tattoo, or going to see a musical or dance performance. One of the most interesting things I did was have my body's chakras (energy points) read in a local village, with the aim of determining my overall sense of spiritual, emotional and physical well-being; some may feel this is phooey or hocus-pocus, but for me, it was a heightening experience that gave me greater insight to the country.

The food in India was flavorful and delicious! Photo by Lori Zaino.

Be careful when eating, but don't be afraid to try local foods. I recently met someone who told me she'd eaten nothing but granola bars for three weeks during a trip to India. Boring! It may be a good idea to have a few non-perishable Western snacks in case you're stuck on a long bus ride or in an endless traffic jam, but definitely dig into the amazing cuisine in India. That said, take special caution with meats (which may not always be fresh) and water (go the bottled water route, making sure the cap is intact). Avoid ice and cold fruits in case they've been washed with tap water, and when all else fails, have a product like Imodium on hand.

Be sure to remain open-minded when traveling in India — but remain savvy and aware, as well. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Be aware of tourist traps and travel scams. Watch out for some of the most common travel scams in India:

  • Taxi drivers not telling you the truth. Especially in Delhi, taxi drivers may say they don't know the way to your hotel, and continue driving you around for ages; avoid this is by organizing airport pickups through your hotel. To skip the experience of a taxi driver tinkering with the meter in his favor, opt for booking a pre-paid government taxi, and don't give the voucher to the driver until you get to your destination.
  • Drivers or guides insisting that your preferred tourist destination is closed and offering to take you to another. This is rarely the case, and more often a scheme to take you to a place that will give them a kick-back upon delivery of tourists. Trust your instincts, and head on to your planned destination.
  • Gemstone scams. Stay away from anyone who offers to sell you gemstones cheaply which you can later resell for more money. These "gems" won't have any real value, so don't believe the hype. (Note that this is also common practice in parts of Southeast Asia.)
  • Avoid anyone offering to give you a holy blessing at a temple or tourist attraction — for a fee. If you really want that blessing, though, be sure to firmly agree on the price ahead of time.
  • Fake train ticket offices. To avoid having a scam artist bilk you out of money for a train trip you'll never take, try to book ahead and avoid relying on last-minute trains.
Have Star Alliance miles? Keep in mind that Air India is an alliance member.

Take advantage of low-cost airlines for inter-India travel. India is roughly 1.3 million square miles, so if you plan to see more than one region of the country, it's wise to consider low-cost flights between cities such as Delhi and Mumbai and major towns and resort areas. You can get great deals on Jet Airways, Jet Konnect, Spice Jet and Air Asia, and if you have Star Alliance miles to burn, know that Air India is an alliance member.

Have you ever traveled to India? If so, please share your own travel tips and advice in the comments below!

Featured image by Enjoy some of the local culture. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.