For the traveler – novice and experienced – India is a milestone. It’s a word that elicits surprise and a little bit of awe when uttered as a destination. Whether you’re at the phase of getting excited at the idea of traveling to India or have already started budgeting for airfare, this post is for details the “how” piece of planning a trip to India.
I’ve traveled to India on two Big Trips (and there will be a third, fourth,) and consolidated what others and I have learned on planning a trip to this amazing part of the world. If you’re reading this and have visited India – please, share your own tips in the comments section.
1. Decide Where You Want to Go/Do
It’s a big sub-continent with different experiences awaiting the traveler across every state line. There’s tropics and beaches in the South, tiger treks in the center, vibrant metropolises in the North, the heart of Hinduism and Buddhism along the Ganges plain in Bihar, serene lunar landscapes in Ladakh, and the tip of the world at Kanyakumari.
Other than the Taj Mahal, think about what you want your big trip to India to be. LP offers some suggested itineraries to cut across and around, but the great thing is, like any trip, a trip to India can be anything you want it to be other than the typical backpacker trail.
My first itinerary to India was all about opening my heart. To do so, I had these loose travel intentions: visit the Taj Mahal, touch the holy Ganges, volunteer, take a course in Buddhism in Bodh Gaya, lay on the beaches in the South, and a boat ride through the backwaters of Kerala.
2. Decide When to Go
It’s tourist season from October to February for a reason because the weather is temperate and pleasant. At this time, if you start in the north and finish in the south, the nice weather will follow you around the country, but the shoulder months avoid an influx of crowd and not too much heat or rain. Summer is best for the far North near the Himalayas.
Rivers run through Kolkata streets May to September. Jungle humidity slows movement in Kerala in April. Blistering heat scorches any face gazing at the wonders of the Taj Mahal in June. Those filmy cotton backpacker clothes barely warm you enough on the cold nights of January in Delhi.
Another reason to travel to India during this time – Festivals! Diwali, Holi, Durga Puja to name a few. Check out this Indian Festival Calendar for more.
Visiting India during these times will reward you with momentous experiences and a special opportunity to bond with celebrating locals.
3. Begin with a Tour
I know it’s against the independent traveler ethos to organize a tour. But the truth is, traveling to India can be a little chaotic and overwhelming for the first timers. In my experience the best way to ease into travel in India was through a grass roots, locally resourced tour. It’s what I did to a) make that commitment to go and b) ease into India with the support of a tour guide and other travelers.
My Tour Recommendations:
- Discover India Join G Adventures for an 15 days in Delhi, Jaipur, Varanasi, and more. Enjoy a guided tour of the worlds most magnificent testimonial to love the Taj Mahal. Visit the birthplace of Buddhism and Hinduism, spend a night in a traditional village, witness holy rituals on a sunrise Ganges cruise, and discover the hidden side of Delhi with a former street youth now taking part in a G Adventures-supported project. Don’t just see India; get inside its soul. See more about this trip>
- G Adventures Explore India and Nepal This tour is very similar to the one that I did on my first big trip. Take 17 days to discover northern India’s famed Golden Triangle and enjoy priceless time immersed in the heart of Nepalese culture. Explore the Taj Mahal and the iconic colors of Rajasthan. Spend a night at a Buddhist monastery and walk through the streets of Pokhara with one of the women from SASANE, a program that trains former victims of trafficking to become paralegals. From big highlights to intimate moments, this unique itinerary is truly unforgettable. See more about this trip>
4. Get the Plane Ticket There and Back, but Not in Between
The secret to traveling in India is to not plan too much. Planning is expensive and prone to stress. My recommendation is to book the to and the fro –your in and out of India and then wait until the rest of the trip develops to book the in-county travel.
It’s tempting to book all the hotels and train tickets ahead of time, I know, I’ve been there as a former super travel planner. In truth, it’s an expensive way to make you feel better and maintain control. In India, things change so much – why stress yourself with getting to a reservation in time when you want to sit on the Goa beach a little longer sipping that Fenny? Or there may be train riots and you’ll miss your connection (Happened to me!). Arrange the there and away and everything else will fall into place.
5. Get Your Visa
For US citizens, India requires a 6-month tourist visa before entering the country, which removes any thoughts of a quick escape to the country. Personally, it’s been that nice pause when I do want to run away a little form real life and think – oh I just want to go to India. Oh wait, I need a visa. As of this writing, you’ll have to send in a copy of your birth certificate and proof of your country residency. Remember, your visa is valid six months from the day you get it, not 6 months form the day of your trip. I recommend thinking/planning for it now. The Indian government says the do “visa on arrival“, but it’s really “Register online and provide us all documentation in advance and we’ll send you a doc to show at the airport.” It’s not the visa on arrival type where you can show up and buy one at your arrival airport like other countries. You can see more details at the government site.
6. Women: Work Those Conservative Clothes
Fellow traveler Joanne and I joked that the Lonely Planet description of women traveling alone in India sounded like you were going to get raped at any second unless you wore a full burka. The truth is far from that, but it is important for women to dress conservatively for their own safety. You’re a guest in a country with much different attitudes towards the role of women and cleavage, shoulders, and bare knees invites stares, comments, and unwanted attention.
- Overall loose, cottony clothing
- Capris and pants below the knee
- Shirts that cover your shoulders and are loose over the chest
- A sarong or swimsuit cover-ups for beach areas, especially outside of Goa
At the markets, you can always find the Salwar Kameez – a wardrobe staple of Indian women. I also recommend reviewing my post “Should I Travel to India? I Used to Say Yes.”
7. Pack For Bugs, Power Outages, and Overnight Train Trips
My friend B asked me, “what’s traveling in India like? ” There are many superlatives too describe the trip, but day to day, hotel to hotel on the backpacker trail, it’s like camping. There are bugs, electricity challenges, and a new meaning of “comfort” on long-haul bus or train trips.
I recommend that when packing think of camping and bring the following.
- Bug spray (recommend Burt’s bees) and malaria medicine and other vaccinations.
- Flashlights, batteries and candles for power outages
- Books/Kindle, iPod, and a sleep sheet for long train rides
- And no wheeled suitcases! Uneven streets, stairways to cross train tracks, and bus racks mean that the backpack is the only way to go.
8. Give your Friends and Family Your Itinerary and Important Docs
There were moments when your family members may question your decision to travel to India. My own parents thought I was a little nuts. Best friend B sent me an article about not getting crushed in a religious stampede. She had just read an article about one such happening. Leaving her with my itinerary showed her that I was not going in such an area and I would “keep my elbows up” to avoid being crushed.
Leaving them my itinerary and papers made them feel comforted at least by knowing loosely where I’d be and when. My mother used this information to monitor world news to make sure there were no earthquakes/storms of locusts/forest fires in my destinations.
9. Bookmark these India Travel Blogs and Web Sites
In my experience, these sites are an excellent resources for India information outside the typical backpacker/travel planning web sites for planning and on the road. Bookmark them because you’ll go back to them again and again – before and during your trip.
- India Mike: A huge message board made for India-bound and in-country travelers
- Breathe Dream Go: An excellent web site/blog that is a love letter to India. It has practical advice for women travelers and destination insights where the author’s clear love of this subcontinent comes through.
- Wanderlust and Lipstick: Another great blog by a women with a passion of travel to India.
- Train travel in India on Seat 61 This site gives a comprehensive overview of train travel in India – an experience all in itself. My advice is to read this site and then consider booking 3Tier AC when in country. It’s a little more comfortable than sleeper class and you’re definitely traveling local.
10. Arrange Your First Night Hotel and Airport Pickup
I’d been a seasoned traveler when I touched down in Delhi for the first time, but nothing could really prepare me for the hawkers, heat and odd burning smell upon arrival. Looking through the masses after a 15-hour flight from Chicago, I felt such relief when I saw a small, smartly dressed man holding a placard with my name on it.
At the Delhi airport, there can be a long queue for the official taxi stand and hawkers ready to take you out of that line and possibly into robbery central. I’d read horror stories of rip-offs at the airport – the tourism authority warns against taking rides outside that line. Arrive with this one thing planned – your hotel and transportation, which usually can be arranged through the hotel.
11. Read These Books and Get Into the “Traveling in India” Spirit
Between all this planning don’t forget that you are GOING TO INDIA…To keep the excitement going above all the logistics, check out these non-guide books. With the beautiful words, take the literary ride through different parts of the country with the authors:
Traveler Stories by Westerners
- Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure
- Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia
- Shantaram: A Novel
Traveler Stories by Indians
Excellent Novels By Indians
Admittedly, some are not all happy tales, but they are excellent stories. If you read them before or during your trip, the different areas of the subcontinent will come alive for you as they did for me. These are my favorite books, but in searching for links, I found this great list of on a blog about Indian literature for more book ideas. CNT has a great list of what to read and listen to before visiting India.
- My posts on traveling in India
- BBC: Reader’s Help Plan a Trip to India
- NYTimes Travel: 1, 2, or 3 weeks in India
- How to Make Friends and Not Alienate People…In India LOVE this article by Intelligent Travel on National Geographic Traveler
- @legalnomads review of her time in India
- Clear-eyed in Calcutta by Andrew McCarthy on World Hum
That’s a lot of things to do to bring your dream of traveling to India to a reality. The list can be as long or as short as you need and take heart – all this preparation will pay off with a Big Trip of a lifetime. It’s my hope that this post makes traveling to India seem all the more do-able.
Have more tips and planning advice to add to the list? Don’t see a tip that’s needed? Just want to say hi? Leave a comment and let’s get a nice little resource list going for our traveler community.