A Guide to Family Travel in India
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India is a rich travel destination, but many US-based family travelers put it in the "too hard" basket, opting for other Asian destinations instead. This is a shame, because with the right expectations and open minds, India can be a rewarding place for the whole family. If you have experience traveling in other developing nations, either with or without kids, India is a good next destination.
One of the biggest barriers that potential travelers to India face is preconceptions. India seems to be subject to more stereotypes and misconceptions than other travel destinations, so an essential part of planning a trip to India is sorting fact from fiction or half-truths. For every sweeping generalization one can make about India (it's hot, crowded, polluted, stressful), the opposite is also equally true -- if you know where to look. India is so huge and diverse that a family trip there can be almost anything you want it to be.
A Note on Accommodations
Some international hotel chains with points and rewards programs operate in India, mainly in the bigger cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Jaipur, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad. Family travelers may want to avoid spending too long in these cities as they can be congested, polluted, and quite tiring, especially with young kids.
Family-friendly international hotel chains in India with points programs include Hyatt and the Marriott group (including a Category 5 Ritz-Carlton in Bangalore for 35,000 Marriott points per night). More information on points hotels in individual regions is given below. If you're on a tight budget, are looking for mid-range hotels with local flair or are visiting smaller towns, there's no shortage of comfortable, independent hotels and Indian chains throughout the country.
Focus On a Region or Experience
Any attempt to "do" India in a single trip will leave you exhausted, and isn't a good approach to family travel anywhere, let alone India. Consider your family's interests and hone in on a single type of experience. Here are a few family-friendly ideas:
Cruise the Kerala backwaters on a houseboat. Relax on a comfortable houseboat made from a traditional rice barge while cruising through the palm-fringed canals of Kerala. The fresh Keralite food prepared by your personal chef is a highlight for many travelers. Most people spend a single night on a boat, and combine this experience with time in Kochi and Alappuzha (Alleppey). Kerala experienced devastating floods in 2018, so visiting now can help the locals rebuild their economy. Houseboats range from basic to luxury (includes air-conditioning). You can rent a luxury houseboat for your family from around $275 (though rates can double and triple in the popular months of December and January). Rates include meals, prepared on board, and drinks.
Points hotels in Kerala include the Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty (from 5,000 World of Hyatt points per night), the Kochi Marriott Hotel and Le Meridien Kochi (both Marriott Category 2 properties, from 12,500 Marriott points per night).
Relax on the beaches of Goa. Although parts of this small state have a party reputation, the beaches of South Goa are suitable for families, with enough hotels, resorts and restaurants for convenience, and not too much development. For example, Utorda Beach has clean sand, so it's a great place for kids to play. Goa is small enough that wherever you base yourself, you're still just a short taxi or bus ride away from attractions in other towns, such as weekend markets or historic Old Goa. Points hotels in Goa include Grand Hyatt Goa (from 12,000 points, 17k for a room with club lounge access), the Goa Marriott Hotel & Spa and W Goa are both Category 5 properties where you can use an annual up to 35k free night certificate from the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card or Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card. The Le Meridien Goa Calangute is a Category 4 property, from 25,000 Marriott points per night.
Sleep under the stars in the deserts of Rajasthan. The deserts, palaces and forts of this western state make it delightful for kids and adults. Kids will especially enjoy seeing camels, as ubiquitous here as horses or cows elsewhere. The further west you go, the more arid the landscape becomes. The small city of Jaisalmer looks just like a sandcastle in the Thar Desert, and visitors can stay overnight at a desert camp and even ride a camel across rolling sand dunes. Another highlight of visiting Rajasthan is touring the many beautiful towns: Udaipur is a delightful small city on a sparkling lake, as is nearby Pushkar, a holy Hindu town. Jodhpur is quite a big city, but it's very picturesque with its old town that's painted almost entirely blue. There are many points hotels in the Rajasthani capital, Jaipur. Elsewhere, check out the Jaisalmer Marriott Resort & Spa (Category 2, from 12,500 points) and the Fairfield by Marriott Jodhpur (from 7,500 Marriott points).
Camping treks in Himachal Pradesh. Outdoorsy families with older kids and teens can enjoy a camping trek in the foothills of the Himalayas. Base yourself in or around the town of Manali, to start a fully supported multi-day camping trek. You can choose the trip length and altitude limit to suit your family. Trek through remote river valleys, forests and meadows full of wildflowers, and glimpse the snow-capped Himalaya Mountains on the horizon. Prices vary depending on the number of days you trek, when you travel, how many are in your party and the camp sites.
A luxury train journey. To combine your bed, transportation and sightseeing into one epic journey of up to a week, take a luxury train. These are not cheap but they're an unforgettable experience. Various trains travel on different routes, normally starting either in Delhi or Mumbai. Private and group guides are available for off-train sightseeing stops along the route. Some trains have limited suite accommodations, but most only offer twin and double rooms. Meals and beverages are included, as is butler service. Among the luxury trains operating throughout the country are the Maharaja's Express, the Deccan Odyssey, the Palace on Wheels and the Golden Chariot (under renovation until late 2019). To get a sense of pricing (we did say luxury), two deluxe rooms on a four-day, three-night Gems of India tour on the Maharaja's Express will set you back a little more than $10,000.
Tiger-spotting in the national parks of north and central India. There are many jungle national parks throughout Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh where visitors can spot tigers, rhinoceros, elephants and other wildlife. Where you choose to go may depend on where you're coming from and how long you have in India, as some are more easily accessible from the major cities than others. Among the best that are relatively easy to get to are Bandhavgarh National Park (MP), Jim Corbett National Park (Uttarakhand), Kanha National Park (MP), Dudhwa National Park (UP) and Pench National Park (MP). Accommodation can be as low or high-end as you wish, with safari lodges to suit a range of budgets. It's possible to hire vehicles and guides at the national parks. A guide may cost as little as a few dollars per person.
Consider the Climate
India is long, wide and ranges from sea-level desert to high-altitude plateau, so there's huge climatic variation. Most travelers come to India between November and March, when the places mentioned above are most pleasant. But many people with kids can only travel during school vacations. If you can only travel during the long summer vacation and want to avoid blistering hot temperatures and monsoon rains, check out Ladakh.
Ladakh is a high-altitude desert at the very north of India, in the Jammu and Kashmir state. In culture, language and landscape, Ladakh shares a lot with Tibet and the people are mostly Buddhists. While the rest of India boils and sweats its way through the summer, Ladakh is sunny but pleasant. Ladakh sits at more than 9,800 feet, so be prepared to rest up during your first few days there to avoid altitude sickness. In Ladakh you can enjoy sightseeing at cliff-side monasteries and turquoise high-altitude lakes, go on multi-day treks with comfortable home stay accommodations and try white-water rafting on the cold Zanskar River. You can even find Ladakh accommodations on Airbnb. (Here are tips for families using Airbnb.)
The only ways to reach Ladakh are to fly from Delhi (and a handful of smaller cities) to Leh or to travel the stunning but grueling overland route from Manali or Srinagar (and take it from someone who has made this journey three times: don't do it with kids!).
Practical Tips for Travel to India
There's a wealth of information out there on planning a trip to India. Check out these posts for more practical tips and background:
- The Best Ways to Get to India with Points and Miles
- TPG Readers' Best Tips for Visiting India on Points and Miles
- A First-Timer's Travel Guide to India
- India's Giving Out Free SIM Cards Upon Arrival in New Delhi
- 94 Cases of Zika Confirmed in India's Third Outbreak
- Best Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees
With the exception of Nepali nationals, everyone must have a valid Indian visa before arriving in the country. The processes and laws around getting an Indian visa change often, so make sure any information you have is up to date. At present, it's possible to apply for an electronic visa online.
Seek the advice of a travel doctor before traveling to India. Recommendations on vaccinations and medications vary depending on where you're going and for how long. For example, while malaria is present in some regions of the country, it isn't in others, so make sure your doctor is aware of your specific travel destination(s).
This article in Human Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics lists the vaccinations recommended by the World Health Organization for travel to India. While the list may seem daunting, keep in mind that many people are vaccinated against some of these illnesses in childhood and others are the standard vaccinations recommended for travel to many places -- so you won't necessarily need to get all of these at once.
What to Pack
India is a land of extremes, so there's no definitive packing list that will suit all itineraries. Assuming you're traveling to a combination of large cities and smaller towns (and not in winter), there are a few things you should definitely pack, or buy shortly after arrival.
Women and teenage girls should dress modestly, for their own comfort and as a sign of cultural respect. Men should also err on the side of modesty: above-the-knee shorts and tank tops are not suitable clothing for adult men to wear in India outside of beach resorts. Loose-fitting clothes that hide the shoulders, knees, and for women, cleavage, is recommended. Loose cotton clothes are generally more practical in India anyway, as they protect you from the sun and dust. It's easy to pick up cheap, attractive tunics (kurti) or tunic and pants sets (salwar kameez or kurta pajama) at markets and boutiques in India after arrival. If you want something stylish and are arriving in one of the big cities, look out for Fab India and Anokhi stores. Women should take a couple of loose cotton or silk scarves, too, to cover their hair and chest, especially if they plan on visiting temples and mosques.
Other necessary items include slip-on shoes (especially if visiting religious sites), toilet paper and packets of tissues (even many restrooms in restaurants won't have toilet paper -- always discard this in the bucket provided, never flush it, as the plumbing can get blocked easily) -- hand sanitizer, and a refillable drink bottle (reliable filtered water is available in many places).
A Note on the Dreaded Tummy Bug
It's practically inevitable that first-time visitors to India will come down with some kind of stomach bug, no matter how careful you are. A combination of different bacteria in the food and water and a lot of heavily spiced, oily food can upset even strong stomachs. If you take normal precautions -- not directly drinking the tap water, only eating well-cooked food from clean restaurants, peeling fruit and so on -- you probably won't suffer anything really major. A bout of dysentery isn't hiding in every morsel you put in your mouth, so don't forget to relax and actually enjoy the food, and don't stress if you forget to sanitize your hands before eating or accidentally brush your teeth with the tap water. You'll probably be fine. But bringing along some Imodium or Pepto-Bismol to lessen any stomach issues your family may encounter isn't a bad idea.
Kids may, of course, be more sensitive to tummy bugs than parents, so keep your itinerary flexible so you can stay "home" at the hotel for the day if necessary. Many mid- and high-end hotels will have a doctor on call if necessary. Pharmacies across India are well stocked and you'll easily be able to pick up stomach (and other) medication if a family member comes down with something. (Be cautious of taking antibiotics prescribed by anyone but a doctor, though. It can be a little too easy to buy medication over the counter in India.)
Traveling to India with a family for the first time takes research: Read up about the weather, accommodations, health cautions, necessary vaccinations and the best modes of transport. That said, it's one of the most incredible destinations you can visit. Exposing kids to the culture, landscape and history of India will no doubt impact their outlook on life, so take it out of that "too hard, too far" basket!