Here are some things I learnt and noticed during my (admittedly short) 5-week trip to Kerala, Chennai, Pondicherry and Mumbai. This is not a definitive guide to India at all, it's just things I learnt and noticed which hopefully might help you.
I think it's important to note that my experience of India was incredibly positive. People were kind and very welcoming. I saw no crime, no aggression and actually heard no stories of crime from any of the other travellers I met. That said, there are clearly cultural differences to be aware of. If you're a female traveller, don't miss the section at the bottom.
For more general tips about all kinds of things, check out my Travel Tips page.
- 'Pure Veg' is a vegetarian restaurant (no egg), 'Non-Veg' is meat/fish/egg.
- Being vegetarian in India is incredibly easy and delicious. Although I found Mumbai to be much more meat-focused than I expected.
- Veganism doesn't really exist in India. Ghee can be almost impossible to avoid so you may have to accept that if you want to eat local food, you almost definitely won't be able to stick to 100% veganism. Ask for no curd or yoghurt when ordering. For a country that worships the cow, they really use a lot of dairy.
- 'Mutton' seems to always be goat.
- How to eat a thali? Take most of the metal dishes off the plate, empty out the rice and eat with your right hand.
- Beef is eaten in the south, especially in Kerala, but it's still pretty rare (unusual).
- Food at homestays was almost always excellent. But they will over-feed you. You'll have to politely say no repeatedly so you don't explode.
- Everyone eats with their right hand, except for a few dishes like chaat which are eaten with a spoon. Every restaurant has a "hand wash" area.
- Try all the fruit and check what's in season. Mango, jackfruit, sapota/chiku, coconut, etc.
- Strangers might sit at your table in restaurants if there's space. That's normal in the more local places.
- Fennel seeds (mostly sweetened) are often eaten at the end of meals. A bowl might be brought to your table or a packet of seeds given to you. If it's a bowl, use the spoon to tip a few in to your right hand and then tip in to your mouth.
- Bottled water seems to always be 20 Rs for 1 litre and 30-40 for 2 litres, whether it's a little shop or a local restaurant. The only exceptions are supermarkets where it might be slightly cheaper and more fancy restaurants where it can easily be double or triple.
- Most restaurants will ask you if you want bottled or filtered water. I regularly drink the filtered table water and haven't had any issues. The only time I go for bottled is if I wanted a bottle to take with me anyway (and it's cheap) or if I'm eating somewhere where I really don't trust the other water.
- Tea and coffee will almost always come with milk and sugar unless you specify otherwise. Even then, it might not be possible or they might think you're really weird.
- Drinks can be very sweet in general. Sometimes they'll use other sweeteners such as jaggery or honey.
- Chai, obviously.
- Most people are incredibly friendly and welcoming. More than pretty much anywhere I've been.
- If you give your phone number to a local, prepare to get a lot of messages.
- You'll have to get used to the head shakes, especially the one for yes. When asking a question (for instance at a restaurant), it might take you a while to stop your brain from processing the shake response as a "no" automatically, instead of ok/yes.
- I didn't experience many requests for photos - but I didn't visit the north and I'm not female. But still, I expected it to be much more common. It wasn't even close to being like my experience in (non-Bali) Indonesia.
- Some hotels won't have toilet paper, so get your own or embrace the bum gun. Although it might be worth asking for some if you want it as some will have toilet paper but won't automatically give it to you. I expect this won't be an issue in the more expensive hotels.
- Some hotels (especially OYO) are for Indian nationals only, so make sure you check.
- OYO has some great promo codes which are worth finding if you end up using OYO hotels as much as I did.
- Agoda is often the cheapest for hotels but I've found it best to use Google to find the cheapest price.
- Every private room I stayed in had at least one bolt lock for added security.
- They sometimes use weird round plug sockets that I've not seen anywhere else. Your international adapter may struggle to stay in properly.
- Almost every hotel room had curtains that were so thin they barely made any difference. You might want to bring an eye mask.
- I usually found a hotel with A/C for about 700 Rs per night, but some areas (like South Mumbai) this wasn't possible.
- Hotels often include free breakfast and some will bring it to your door early in the morning. So if you want to avoid being woken up, make sure you tell them beforehand.
- Ola and Uber are used for booking taxis. Uber seems to mostly be cheaper but isn't always available.
- Ola didn't work with my credit card but cash is fine. When you get in the taxi, you need to give them an "OTP" code from the app.
- Ola and Uber both offer inter-city rides if buses aren't your thing. It's cash only.
- Uber and Ola drivers often cancel on you, sometimes after 5-20 minutes which is incredibly frustrating. In some locations it happened more often than not. It was very normal for a driver to not move for 5-15 minutes after accepting your trip, so I learnt to watch the map and if they weren't moving soon, I would sometimes cancel and try again - this seemed to improve things.
- I learnt to order my taxis 5 - 10 minutes before I was ready.
- Tuk tuks are called "autos". They're very cheap but it might be hard to get the real price. The best options are to either use Uber/Ola (which has an option for autos in some cities) or to ask the driver to use the meter (but they might so no or not even have one).
- Most taxis don't have working seat belts in the back seat, even with Uber. I often sit in the front because of this (and to get better A/C).
- Renting a scooter or motorbike might require an international license, especially if renting from a larger, more reliable business. Although I'm sure you'll always be able to find a smaller business who won't check. I imagine police won't check you if you're a foreigner, except for maybe in Goa.
- Bicycle rental might be available in smaller towns.
- Airport security is more strict than I've seen anywhere in the world.
- There are a few good budget airlines for domestic flights if overnight buses and trains aren't your thing. For instance, I flew from Chennai to Mumbai for about £30.
- Mumbai airport (and I assume other airports) had pick-up spots for Uber and Ola (separately) which made it much easier.
- Vehicles love to press their horn at every opportunity. It can be deafening at times.
- I recommend keeping toilet paper in your bag.
- From what I've seen and heard, theft and mugging is extremely rare - but still be sensible.
- You might bump in to some cows along the way, which often roam the city streets.
- There are lots of street dogs but most seem very docile.
- I found that on busy narrow streets it was safer to walk on the right-hand side (opposite to the traffic) because people and vehicles will sometimes appear from the side of the road (without noticing you), so if you are on the right-hand side, you will be aware of oncoming traffic and can more easily avoid hazards from the side of the road. Whereas if you are walking on the left, you might end up stepping in the way of a vehicle coming up behind you. But of course, it all depends on the road.
- Roads can be pretty chaotic, especially in the cities. Less busy than somewhere like Saigon, but also less predictable. So be careful when crossing.
Phone & Internet
- It takes up to 24 hours to activate your sim card and you need to take your passport and fill in a form when purchasing. It might be best to get your sim at the airport as the sooner you register, the better.
- I've heard it might be possible to get a pre-registered sim (probably illegally) which you can use instantly but I didn't find any shops that offered it.
- Airtel's 4G is fast but unreliable, yet it's apparently the best national coverage. I found it very frustrating and it would regularly cut out but I may have just been unlucky. Next time I will opt for Vodafone or Jio - or I'll buy multiple if I plan on staying for many months, to give me more coverage given how cheap it is.
- First time buying the SIM with a decent package was around 500 Rs and after that it was around 150-200 Rs per month. I chose to have 1-1.5gb of data per day.
- The local sim card might force your phone's camera sound. It did for me, like it did in Japan and Korea.
- I think Federal Bank and SBI don't charge for cash withdrawal at their ATMs, but most others do.
- I could only take 10,000 out at one time but if it's a free withdrawal then you can always just do multiple withdrawals in one go.
- I had problems with many ATMs and a few times I had to try 5+ ATMs before finding one that worked for me.
- Some ATMs give you your card back first (or require you to take it) which is often not really explained and can be a little confusing.
- Credit cards can often be used in the cities, but even then the more local places will be cash only.
- Almost every man in India wears a collared shirt.
- Vans/lorries/trucks are usually painted colourfully, often with some kind of stop or horn message on the back.
- I never once had to use a squat toilet. Actually the general level of hygiene with toilets is higher than you might expect.
- Printing out the e-visa wasn't obvious at all. I had to go back to the website to view it and then click to print. It has a big QR code. So make sure you've printed the right thing.
- Cricket is a huge deal here. Bigger than I ever realised. Try to see a match!
- Munnar is in the mountains and most famous for all the beautiful tea plantations. It can also be a much-needed break from the heat. If you hire a tuk tuk to take you around Munnar, take spare bottled water with you in case you come across tea workers - they don't get water breaks.
- Toddy shops are a must visit. Toddy is a mildly alcoholic drink made from the coconut tree. It's made free every day and the alcohol content is less in the morning than the afternoon. Toddy shops are known for their food too, which is more spicy and possibly harder on the stomach but absolutely delicious.
- The backwaters are a good place to visit and do a tour. Houseboats are available but they're expensive so I didn't do it this time.
- It's huge and it can take a long time to get anywhere by taxi, mostly due to the crazy traffic. So choose your accommodation location wisely. It might be best to stay in multiple areas during your visit.
- Uber is very very cheap in Mumbai.
- There are no autos (tuk tuks) in South Mumbai.
- Colaba is a popular area for tourists to visit and I enjoyed it but it's a bit more expensive.
Female traveller tips
My friend Rosie recently spent 7 months travelling around India, mostly solo. Here are some of her notes and tips:
- Familiarise yourself with Indian culture. e.g. for the most part hugging (or even physical contact at all) is not at all common, especially between men and women, so if you hug an Indian man, even if it's him that initiates it, it can very easily be taken the wrong way. Even eye contact or smiling at men is very easily taken the wrong way; just watch Indian women on the streets and you'll see that they rarely interact with men.
- Unfortunately many Indian men have a certain idea about western women that they are provocative and, essentially, ready for sex. This is easy to understand considering a lot of indians are only exposed to westerners through Hollywood movies and through porn... Neither portray women in a very accurate sense and Indian men will very often view you as 'easy' and try it on. It's important to be aware of this and not to fuel those ideas, but also don't be too afraid when Indian men flirt with you, especially in cheesy Hollywood fashion, just make it clear if you want to say no, and be confident about it!
- Indian men can be VERY persistent (it's expected that a lot of women, including Indian women, will play 'hard to get' - just watch some bollywood music videos and see for yourself!) so again, just be confident and keep saying no, and no, and no.
- If you ever are in a situation where you do feel unsafe, enrol the help of anyone around you, man or woman, and the person making you feel uncomfortable will soon be dealt with!
- Everyone will ask you for photos! This applies to men as well but it's incredibly more common if you're a woman by yourself! If you feel comfortable taking photos, go for it, but be aware of people using it as an excuse to put their hand around your waist, and know that it will potentially end up on their Facebook page captioned 'my new girlfriend'!
- Be respectful with how you dress! In most places, with the exception of big cities which have become more westernised, and touristy areas, women will almost always be covered up, the general rule being that your shoulders and legs should be fully covered. This may seem a little oppressive and there are many debates to be had, but for your own safety and to risk not offending people, it's best to stay covered! (I've also heard a story that it's a sin for men to see shoulders, legs etc and so many will actually feel really bad about themselves if they lay eyes on you by accident as you walk down the street! So again, out of respect for them, keep covered!)
- A lot of people will ask you if you have a husband or boyfriend. For the most part it's genuinely just because they are curious (they tend to ask guys too), especially if you're travelling by yourself, but if you reply that you're single, many will become noticeably more flirtatious!
- It's generally advised not to walk around by yourself at night, for obvious reasons, and you'll notice that Indian women rarely walk around alone after dark either, which means you'll draw even more attention to yourself than usual. However it does depend where you are, so just use your common sense to judge the space!
- It's quite common to be invited to people's houses for chai, as indians are generally very hospitable. That being said, a single Indian man inviting you to his house will potentially then expect something more than chai. Use your common sense to judge character and don't put yourself in any danger if you're by yourself !
- Being able to say no, persistently, is very important, not just to men asking for photos or flirting with you, but for tuk tuk drivers and generally anyone on the street! Maintain your position and stay confident, and if someone makes you feel uncomfortable, remember you have no obligation to explain yourself to them (as they will for sure ask questions if you say no etc), just walk away!
- You will meet a lot more Indian men than you will women, simply because men are out and about a lot more whereas women are often, unfortunately, much more confined to the house, so take the opportunity to make friends with people you meet and learn about Indian culture! Just use your common sense and be clear if you just want to be friends! It's often useful to tell people you're married or have a boyfriend, and then it's easy to see who genuinely wants to talk to you and who just wanted to flirt!
- If you give someone your number they will text you... Relentlessly... For weeks. (Even if you don't respond.)
- Generally, you will get harassed more in cities, and more in the north than you will in the south.
- Situations change completely depending on where you are, for example if you're in an area that isn't at all touristy, many people won't have been exposed to westerners very much and will have very skewed ideas about you. Here, try to copy how Indian women act as much as possible!