7 Things to Know Before Traveling to India

On camel safari in Jaisalmer

Tired, frustrated and probably confused are how you will feel many times in India. Either from interacting with the complex culture formed uniquely and richly over thousands of years or from some modernity struggling to integrate within that context. Of course you will feel happy, delighted, surprised, welcomed, curious and a plethora of other positive emotions too which is why India is sooooo worth traveling.

I spent six weeks in India over winter in late 2018 and early 2018. Over which I visited Rajasthan, the Kashmir Valley, hill stations such as Amritsar and Dharmashala, Agra and the two big cities of Mumbai and Delhi. This is like 5% of the main attractions of an area so large and rich as India so this information might not work everywhere but most of it will. In an effort to ease frustrations and set expectations I want to share several of these essential learnings.

(To get a more cultural insight into my experience read this)

1. Your Money is Not Welcome Here

Just kidding, it totally is welcome. It’s so welcome people will be charging you 2-10x the price of any item outside of fixed restaurant menu prices my gora friend. However, they only want your rupee notes.

Your credit cards may or not work in India. I found that in person, most places wouldn’t have a credit card machine or my USA cards worked so infrequent that I stopped asking. Online they will almost assuredly not work and when they fail there will be no clear error message or explanation. This is due to restriction on foreign money coming into India to combat funding terrorism. It seems more likely these restrictions were enacted to make it difficult for tourists to buy Indian train tickets than to hamper knowledgeable terrorists who can use the black market… but what do I know?

Your cards may not work in every ATM either. Mine worked in 30% of the ten or so ATMs I tried in Connaught Place, Delhi. I found that for regional banks (Union, Punjabi Bank, etc) the ATM was likely to show a black screen or some line of code requesting an image before timing out when I tried to withdraw. The good news is I could withdraw consistently out of ICICI, SBI (State Bank of India), HDFC and even J&K Bank.

My friend from Indonesia had a lot easier time with this cards, so your mileage may vary. However, in the all likelihood you will encounter this problem you will thoroughly benefit from using this trick to essentially get an Indian credit card / net banking account by loading up your Airtel Bank Account with cash in person at any Airtel Store (not possible at affiliates). Online money is soooo useful in big cities to pay cashless for ride share apps since taxi drivers won’t ever negotiate down to the price I can get on Ola. Also online cash makes using transportation booking apps for advanced bus and especially train possible.

Note: It was not possible to get a prepaid debit card from a bank any other way with a tourist visa. At least that is what Access Bank told me.

2. SIMs are Life

Get an Airtel SIM and don’t get it at the airport. Everything in India works off having a phone number. You won’t be able to do anything online with Indian companies without one. It is so much easier to figure things out, give yourself time to delay decisions and WhatsApp people later using one.

Furthermore, WiFi almost never was very good at hotels and 45 days of fast 1 GB / day costs less than $10 USD. Airtel had vastly better coverage than Vodaphone and, as explained previously, you can use Airtel Payments Bank as an Indian credit card.

The reason to not get your SIM at the airport is that your experience will likely be being told to wait 24 hours for it to activate, call some number to activate it and then it will work. What will actually happen is it will take 30 hours until you can activate it and then it still won’t work because the person who sold you this SIM hasn’t applied the plan you paid for to the account. Then you’ll have to go into the store to fix this. That experience happened to me two separate times on Vodaphone and Airtel.

If you get your SIM at the airport you only have to wait 8-10 hrs but you wont be able to go to the store you bought it from easily (since its at the airport). Also, at the airport they just took a picture of us for the application, outside the airport I was forced to acquire a physical passport photo for the SIM application. Whatever you do make sure to get a receipt, name of the person who sold you the SIM and a phone number to reach them at. I was given the personal phone number of the guy who sold me my Airtel SIM.

Note: Prepaid SIMs purchased outside of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) Provence (ie the rest of India) will not work inside J&K.

3. In India You Must Ask

Old Delhi Street Market. Taking a couple alley turns we wound up in the paper and pens section for twenty minutes.

“In India you can’t just look stuff up on the internet you have to ask people”. These were the words of advice from my Delhi born friend after I had been expressing some frustration about finding places. Even local taxi drivers ask on the street or call your destination for directions (another reason to have a SIM). This is normal so you should do it whenever you get close to where you think you should be on Google Maps or maps.me.

Additionally, if you are friendly you will most definitely make friends with and exchange WhatsApp numbers with a local Indian. Don’t hesitate to ask these people for help if they offer to be of any assistance to you when traveling. Asking things of friends is a lot less of a deal here where people continuously support and look after their communities. People will tell you if you are asking too much and more likely you’ll have to turn down more offers of help than visa via. If I’m looking for a bank, restaurant, headphones, whatevever, I typically just ask people off the street at storefronts. They are typically super helpful, might strike up a conversation and likely have a vested interest to send you to their friend who sells what you need.

Note: People around Connaught Place in Delhi are a bit more suspect in their friendliness as they are all trying to funnel you to one “government” tourist information center or another. They are all private, not government offices, but can be useful for some basic information gathering although some are more helpful than others.

4. People Help but Are Not Always Helpful

Triple riding to our in-home cooking class by this helpful mustachioed man

I talk a bit more about what this means in my cultural write up. However, people are typically nice to you. Calling you sir, asking if you need anything, inquiring about how you like India, etc. However, people also have a habit of telling you something deflecting when the answer isn’t going to be what you want.

When having trouble asking whether a hospital administered immunizations the staff eventually gave up and told me to call back later and hung up. When explaining the WiFi wasn’t working in a hotel I might be told it will be working later. In Delhi people liked to pretend getting change in reasonable quantities (less 100rs) wasn’t possible. I kept asking people around Kashmir if there was snow in Gulmarg to ski and everyone would tell me yes lots of snow. Until I got there and the Gulmarg staff said no, not much snow.

The trick is to ask lots of specific questions and assume nothing will get done unless you check in on it. How much snow is there in ft, when will the WiFi work, what are you doing to fix it, how much change do you have, etc.

5. Transportation is Always Late

Our first overnight train smiling about our train snacks. (2AC train top sleeper bunk)

It seems whomever makes the bus schedule has never ridden one because even without any obstruction or extended stopover, they are an obligatory two hours late. This is pretty good however compared to trains which are also on average two hours late but can be up to 20 hours delayed.

Trains can be more comfortable for longer journeys but the tickets can be difficult to get, especially last minute. Whereas bus tickets for the sometimes nice sleeper buses are easy to get the day before. Often the best you can do for a train is get on a wait list. This is where using an online app to examine timetables and percentage likelihood your waitlist will become a real ticket is quite helpful. I really liked using the “ixigo trains” app which always kept me up to date on my train both beforehand and on the way so I knew where I was and when I would arrive at my stop. There are no announcements on the train and due to the delays you don’t know when you will reach a station so this helps a ton (one more reason to get a SIM).

ixigo app showing likelihood your waitlist will become a ticket

If you are waitlisted you will know whether you have a ticket around four hours before departure when they finally prepare the “chart” or passenger manifest. We were advised by a friend to only book second AC seats and up for our western sensitivities so this next advice relates purely for those seats: Side berths are the most private for getting sleep because they have a personal curtain and top bunks the best if you don’t want to share your seat with the entourage of all the other passengers in your berth area.

There is this strange idea of quota and indeed a tourist quota to visitors help get tickets. However, I never saw the tourist quota available for where I wanted to go or figured how to book it in advance so I used the general quota.

A train sign cycling through the trains and arrival time for each platform

When in cities I was never given a reasonable price when negotiating with taxis. I finally gave up even trying and just exclusively used the Ola app (#deleteuber). This was way cheaper than any negotiated price. The downside is Ola’s estimation for how long it takes to get somewhere is typically not accurate and similarly the cars normally take 2-3x as long as estimated to reach you. Lastly, I think only once did a Tuk Tuk driver actually accept my request for a ride in the app so it seems Ola has a lot of work to do for motivating those drivers. Micro and Mini rides were great though.

6. Drugs Come Easy

35rs Cipro for fighting travelers sickness.

No I’m not talking about Kashmiri hash or Bhang Lassis. India has a reputation for causing Delhi Belly or travelers sickness to its visitors. I was quite worried about this after being sick for three weeks of my entire Peru trip in 2016, but in India it was much better. I was very healthy until my fifth week. I always purified water, ate places I saw locals eat and eased my way into street-ish food. However if you do get sick drugs are super cheap here. It cost me 50 cents USD to buy a 5 day supply of ciproflauxyn antibacterials to fight my travelers sickness and felt better in eight hours.

Similarly, when considering traveling it can be daunting when faced with the prices for vaccines. For a few of these we decided to have administered in India. Rabies costs like $300 per shot and requires three shots. Japanese Encephalitis was something similar with $350 per shot requiring two shots in United States. Alternatively in India we went to a travel clinic and paid $30 a shot for rabies and $40 a shot for Japanese Encephalitis. This can be a huge cost savings of around $1500 USD in our case without sacrificing health risk.

Note: If you want to try street chat food without the risks, visit a Bickanervala or Haldirams store for hygienically prepared and reasonably priced food.

Amazing Raj Kachori chaat made at Haldirams

7. Traveling as a Woman is Much Different

For one, women are much better than me at Yoga. (Sadie at Taj Mahal)

Traveling to India felt a bit different for my female partner than for me as a man. Looking around on the street in North India the people would be 90% male (more balanced in Bombay) so there were few Indian women to outwardly reach out to befriend Sadie. Likewise men would approach me but never her since she was considered my wife. People would speak to me first and sometimes even look to me after Sadie spoke to confirm.

Traveling as a woman you will constantly be asked if / when you are getting married, if / when you will have kids and where your husband is if you are alone. In our six weeks Sadie was on her own for 1-2 days and it only took that much time for people to start yelling things like “you be fucking me” from a passing bicycle while she was walking alone. Needless to say you will feel much more comfortable dressing modestly. Even only dressing modestly she got this attention.

Sadie wearing a provided full body jacket and covering her hair with a beautifully acquired scarf at a mosque

In India foreigners get a lot attention and solo foreign women even more so. A lot of it from people trying to help you since you are an alone woman. Simply for the ease of getting things done and limiting the amount of negative attention (of which there was none when she was with me) it can be helpful to travel with a man and to say you are married. It hurts the feminist in me to say so, but it can be helpful. Sadie’s advice is to not take things personal and be firm to get what you want. She never felt unsafe just uncomfortable at times.

One More Thing…

You may really enjoy reading Shantaram as a great introduction to Indian culture and also a hilarious and interesting story. I was recommended the book by several Indians so it is authentic and maybe my favorite book of all time.

I also enjoyed most of the short stories in No Full Stops in India despite it getting a little preachy about colonialism. The book talks more about challenges, conflict and caste in India. I am currently reading City of Djinns which is about Delhi as opposed to Shantaram being about Mumbai.