A trip to India is on a number of people’s bucket list, but the pre-trip jitters can be very real. To avoid sugar coating it, let me just say that India is an enormous country, more diverse than any you’ve likely visited, and brimming with people.
You DO need to be mentally prepared to make the most of your visit and navigate the multicultural melting pot that epitomizes the everyday existence of the country. I’ve tried to put together my top tips for you from the perspective of a local, but feel free to comment below if you still have questions!
What to eat (and what not to eat)
This is the first thing that comes to my mind because it’s often at the top of everyone’s list. So I’ll break it down for you here – DON’T eat anything uncooked. Stick to cooked foods, and no, a salad at a 7-star hotel is still not 100% safe. Curries, papadams, cooked vegetable dishes, lentils – are all good to go, and really, are the centrepoint of good Indian cuisine, so embrace the cultural vibes and eat the good stuff.
I’d personally avoid street food or chaats as far as possible, unless it’s at someone’s home and you know they’re making it right. Even so, be careful, what tourists can handle is nowhere near what locals can.
Drink bottled water, ALWAYS
Rule #2 and as important as the food. Water in India isn’t always filtered and cleansed correctly, so your safest bet is sticking to bottled water. However, if you’re in a hotel or someone’s home and they serve up water in a glass, there is NOTHING wrong in checking if it is the correctly filtered water – most people now have filtered bottles at home, which yes, is OK. Don’t feel guilty about double-checking, you’d rather know than wreck your vacation.
Don’t be afraid of the new experiences – Most importantly, ride a rickshaw!
This isn’t your classic ‘don’t.’ India can be overwhelming but don’t forget that you’re on vacation to experience the culture of the country. A rickshaw ride is such a core part of our everyday lives, and really, you can’t miss this. It might seem daunting and very unbeknownst to you but it’s a must-do, so embrace it!
Stay at hotels
India is not the country to go backpacking in, particularly if you’re a girl or group of girls traveling alone. Spend the extra cash (it doesn’t come to much, thanks to the exchange rates) and stay at good hotels – some of my favourites include the Taj, Oberoi, Marriott, Hyatt, and Leela. Enjoy the hospitality Indian hotels are world-famous for, embrace the luxury, and most importantly, the safety!
Bazaar Bargaining – How To
If you’re shopping in any bazaar (which you should!), you need to know how to bargain. If you’ve got a friend with you who’s a local, even better! If not, here are my most handy tips :
Don’t park your car / let the driver drop you too close to the bazaar where the shopkeepers can see you, they won’t play along and negotiate with you
If you don’t hit the price you want, DON’T fold, just walk away. Nine times out of ten, they will likely come running to you when they see you moving to the next store.
Know when to bargain – this is an important one, so please don’t bargain for the sake of it. Make sure you check with your hotel what the correct price for an item should be, so you know what your benchmark is. Storeowners get particularly angry if they see tourists trying to bargain for the sake of it, even though their prices are reasonable.
Start lower than you want to pay : Negotiation 101, start aggressive so if you eventually manage to negotiate up to the price you actually want, it will look like you’ve relented a bit, and storeowners will be a lot more receptive to you.
How to tip
Indian hospitality is such that they will rarely if ever ask you to tip or expect you to, but you must. Certain restaurants will include a service charge, and if they have, you’re in the clear. However, don’t confuse service charge with service tax – if you’ve got the tax on your bill, then leave a tip!
The nice quirk about tipping in India is that it isn’t a 12% of 15% rule like in the rest of the world. If it’s a mid-range restaurant and you tip INR100 – INR150, you’ve been generous. If it’s a luxury restaurant, then yes, shell out about 10%-12% of your bill, or about INR200 – INR500 depending on what your bill comes to.
What to wear + Personal safety
Ladies, this one is for you. Stay covered. India is one of the most modern countries in South Asia, but you still need to stay covered. Think about it like this – you’ve got more leeway in a city like Bombay, but the further North you go, the more conservative you dress. The South isn’t quite as particular and relatively laid back, but I would still be careful – lay off the beach shorts and tank tops, and if you need to wear it (I know, it gets hot), then wear a light scarf to stay covered.
Ignore the staring
This will be one you can’t avoid, but learn to ignore it. Don’t be afraid or perturbed, as, honestly, if you’re anything but brunette, you are likely going to attract a LOT of attention. Ignore the staring and continue with your travels, it’ll pass.
Don’t be overwhelmed!
The country has a population of nearly 2 billion people, places ARE going to be crowded. Don’t feel submerged and just embrace the chaos because it’s all part of the country’s everyday. Leaving monuments you WILL have rickshaw drivers all yelling out to you to catch a ride with them, which might border on seeming aggressive, but IGNORE them and continue on your way, don’t let the chaos scare you.
Transport – Another 101 on safety
This is important, so I’m going to close with it. Yes, take a rickshaw ride, but choose carefully where you do. Most times, rent a car and driver from the hotel because they tend to be the most reliable. Cities like Bombay, Agra, Delhi and Jaipur are safe to take rickshaws a short distance, for the ride.
But the cardinal rule, as a tourist – DON’T walk anywhere alone, even if it’s a short ways away. Your hotel will give you an idea of where it’s safe to walk and where it isn’t, but if you don’t know, don’t risk it, especially if you’re alone – ladies, I’m looking at you.
All in all, let me just say this – India is a GORGEOUS country and the people are incredibly hospitable. Yes, it can be overwhelming but you need to embrace that and push your mind past it. It isn’t unsafe unless you put yourself in harm’s way, so follow the guidelines and pay the extra cash to stay safe, travel safe, and eat safe, and you’ll have the time of your life.