Travelling around in India is part of the experience. The subcontinent is a vast land, full of contrast and difference, and it can feel not very comforting, especially to the first time visitor. We're here to help you make the most of your time but helping you answer the question you need to have an incredible experience. Common misconceptions abound, too, such as whether the food is safe or not, the availability of alcohol and even the prevalence of poverty in modern India.
It is worth preparing yourself with all the information you need on travelling in India considering which transportation methods or types of accommodation could suit you best. Trains in India are an excellent option, if well planned, though we'd generally hesitate to recommend most sleepers to all but the hardiest of travellers. Planes now are a quick and easy option, though a driver skilled in the ways of Indian roads offers flexibility and insight that you'd otherwise miss. India is a world to itself in terms of hotel types and food – with so many brilliant options unique to India.
It's worth considering what question you might have and ask us. We'd love to answer, and we know we always hear new ones on India. Here are just a few of the most common.
What is it like for first timers?
For the first time visitor, the bustling crowds, the colour, the noise, the sheer and hectic vibrancy of an Indian city can be somewhat daunting. At ETG, we strongly believe that you shouldn’t let that put you off exploring this wonderful country. We approached the design of our holidays and itineraries within India with your enjoyment and comfort front of mind. Time spent in more rural areas is usually the antidote and the ability and skill of the fantastic guides we use in explaining and putting into context Indian life can make all the difference. The key to enjoying India is to try not to fit too much in, allow time for spontaneous moments, relaxation and to simply absorb the sights, smells and colours. We always endeavour to plan itineraries that take this into consideration.
We understand that our guests want to see the main sites – there is a reason that they are famous after all. However, there is a balance to be struck between that and spending time further afield. Some of the lesser knowns sites are just as striking and they are fascinating places which feel timeless and peaceful. We’ll give you advice and together we can find the balance that suits you. Sometimes a busy day needs to be offset by a lovely hotel to return to in the evening – and there are plenty of them.
Spicy or unhygienic food - Am I safe?
Probably the number one question we get is regarding food. India is developing all the time and education about hygiene is now common practice around most of the country. Far fewer people suffer from the infamous ‘Delhi belly’ than they did in times gone by. The range of cuisine available will now suit most tastes, and simple, safer options tend to be available if you feel the need. General practices like avoiding complex options and perhaps meat in remote places, and fish/shellfish away from the coast are sensible. If eating street food or from local restaurants (and there is no reason why not), take advice from your guide; choose places where there is a high turnover of freshly cooked food and definitely stick to vegetarian options. If in doubt, any form of uncooked salad or vegetable that could have been washed in tap water is an area for concern in a local restaurant too. Drinking bottled water and using the same for brushing teeth is advised. And washing hands before eating and carrying hand sanitizer is recommended. Mild stomach upsets are extremely likely as your body adapts to the different bugs in the area. Nonetheless, you are highly unlikely to get ill from eating at a hotel as excellent care is generally taken on matters of hygiene.
On the subject of spice, many places will ask you as to your preferred level of heat and even if you ask for it super spicy, it’s still probably not going to blow your head off! Many meals are made up of a range of dishes, so if you are eating in an environment where it’s harder to modify the dishes, then there will always be a few options that are not spicy. One of the main dangers is in eating too much rich food so we would urge that you take care!
Do you need a visa?
How should I dress and behave?
Despite recent exposure to different cultures, India remains a very conservative society steeped in tradition. Religion and family are at the core of Indian society closely followed by national pride. Hospitality is right up there though, so if Indians feel you are making an effort to adapt, they will be very forgiving hosts.
Greeting people with a verbal ‘namaste’ at the same time as pressing the hands together at chest level will be an excellent start. Men should not try and shake hands with Indian women, unless they offer their hand first.
Tight, revealing clothing may offend locals who are not exposed to the western world. Adapting your clothing to suit local tastes is the best way to be sensitive, and a simple long scarf, tunic or sarong is always good to carry with you. In temples and some monuments, men and women are expected to cover their shoulders and knees and you may be refused entry if you do not dress appropriately. Elsewhere, as a rule of thumb, women should cover their knees and shoulders and not wear revealing clothes, whilst men should not go topless, though standards are generally greatly relaxed within hotels.
In villages you may be offered local chai (tea), or food and, although it can be difficult to decline, sometimes you may feel it is appropriate to do so. Do it as politely as you can; you could indicate towards your stomach, suggesting that you may not like it and they will understand. We would suggest that drinking chai is safe as it will be freshly boiled and, like anywhere in the world, eating or drinking together is taken as a sign of friendship.
The Indian famous head wobble can seem baffling to us, and can mean anything from yes, no or really I’ve got no idea. It’s quite something to watch, so try to enjoy it, as opposed to getting stressed. It’s as confusing to them seeing us nod our head up and down to say yes!
Indians generally are extremely hospitable people and helpful to foreigners. They will ask what we perceive to be personal questions about family, marital status and even earnings but it is not meant to cause offence.
Will I be able to drink alcohol when I am there?
Yes you will. Indian beer, gin and rum are readily available in most of India; imported spirits and wine, where they are on offer, are expensive, so we recommend that you check the price before ordering.
If you are travelling to the South, it is worth noting that there are restrictions in some states, notably Kerala. Here, alcohol licences are restricted to five star hotels (and note that a licence permits the sale of beer and wine but not spirits). Unlicensed hotels are happy for you to bring your own alcohol as long as you consume it in your room, so if you like to have the odd tipple every night it is probably worth buying some alcohol at the airport to travel around with. Also, Southern Indian states regularly change their policies so that on certain days of the year, more or less without warning, alcohol may not be allowed. We try to keep abreast of the latest situation so that we can advise you. Other less-visited states, such as Gujarat, also have restrictions in place. Talk to your consultant for the most up to date information.
What is train travel like? Is it worth it?
Train travel in India is one of the most exciting ways to get around. It's the country's lifeline, and the rail network's extent is pretty mind-blowing. It's often said that the Indian railways are the world's biggest employer, and we see no reason to doubt this! There are journey lengths and styles available to suit all travellers, and we recommend including at least one journey during your visit as we think it gives a fantastic insight into the country. For day trains, we tend to book 1st class, which has comfortable forwards/backwards facing seats in a carriage with air conditioning and non-opening windows. For shorter journeys, you may like to take 2nd class for a really immersive experience (locals will definitely want to chat to you constantly!), but this is not recommended for over 3 hours. Toilets are usually at each end of the carriage, with one western and one Indian. Food served is commonly local Indian snacks, or biscuits and crisps. Otherwise, you can take your food and drink on board. Our local representatives will ensure you find your seat on the train and then meet you again at the other end.
1st class sleepers for more extended journeys are usually booked for overnight trips. There are four berths in each cabin, and we can only book the berths that we need (i.e. we can't make the cabin private – you have to have a passport to book a berth, so if you booked a phantom seat, it wouldn't confirm and would get sold on). The berths will either be a pre-made ‘bed’, or seats that convert. The door can lock, and communal toilets are at the end, one western and one Indian. You will get clean sheets and pillows. There is plenty of storage space, and our guide is there to help assist with settling in (although they will not travel with you). You may not have the best night's sleep with lots of rocking/rolling and stopping, but this truly is an experience not to be missed and a great way to cover long distances at night!
Transport in the city - Isn’t it too much hassle?
With most of our trips, you’ll have a driver who will be with you while you ‘tour’ and he will be available day and night. He’ll take you from place to place and even wait around by the car whilst you have dinner. This may seem strange at first, but it’s a way of life. Taxis are available in major cities and come in a range of sizes and forms. Depending on the size of the city, there will probably be a meter system in place, but it will be at the discretion of the driver as to whether he turns it on! The best way is to barter before making your journey and set a fee. It can be a fun process and part and parcel of travelling in India.
Should I be worried about crime?
Petty crime can be experienced in some of the major cities, like anywhere in the world, but it is no worse in India and indeed, crime involving visitors is rare. Normal precautions with belongings should be taken and women should be very careful alone after dark.
Isn’t India just too poor for visitors to enjoy their holiday?
One of the things that most people come to realise after a first visit to India is that whilst there is extreme poverty, it’s not everywhere or as widespread as is commonly believed. Poverty exists in isolated pockets on a large scale, but like any country in the world, where people less fortunate see opportunity, they flock to the cities and live together in the best way they can. Slums are present of course but you see them very occasionally and the organised nature of them is often surprising and inspiring to foreign visitors. Rural villagers may not have money for the consumer items which we are accustomed to in the western world (and Indian cities), but this doesn’t mean they are poor; they have a huge amount of pride in their surroundings and their houses are spotless. Some of the most hospitable people you meet will be in these villages, they'll be delighted to share the way of life of which they are often so proud.
How do I get my head around tipping etiquette?
As in pretty much all of Asia it is customary to tip in India. However, it's fair to say that if you are nervous about how to tip, you are not alone! Almost all our clients ask us for advice at some point - we are very happy to share with you what ETG staff tend to tip on their travels. We provide guidelines to all our clients and your consultant will also be able to answer any questions you might have.
It pays to keep a supply of change for tipping small services such as carrying bags, looking after shoes etc. However, you shouldn't feel you have to tip every time or give more than a small note. In many hotels, there is a tipping box so you might find it easier to put something in here for the staff at the end of your stay than tip as you go along. When it comes to guides and drivers, you'll often have the same person for a few days and, again, it's perfectly acceptable to tip them at the end of their time with you rather than every day.
We're actually exploring the idea of tipping-inclusive holidays, so if this is something you'd be interested in do let us know.
Is driving safe?
Your first impression will be one of chaotic roads, incessant horn blowing, erratic driving and a complete disregard for any traffic rules. However, be reassured that although the rules may not be evident to most travellers, they do exist and your driver knows them. Our drivers are experienced and reliable and their vehicles are checked for compliance with safety standards. We can also produce backup vehicles quickly and easily if necessary. It's worth bearing in mind that average speeds tend to be low (around 50-60 km/h) and the only effective rule is ‘might is right,’ with the one exception that cows have absolute priority. It is also normal for drivers to stop frequently to ask directions. They do not usually have maps as the ones available are not detailed enough and the construction of so many new roads makes keeping up to date difficult. Away from the main highways, signposting is erratic.
Please note that we arrange decent accommodation for our drivers. The accommodation offered by hotels is sometimes sub-standard and if this is the case, we pay for your driver to stay somewhere he can be assured of a decent night’s sleep. We will also always pay for overnight accommodation for a driver if he has an early start from a far off destination.
What is a homestay?
Homestays are run primarily as homes, along informal and family lines and are always owner-occupied. They are pretty unique to India, though could perhaps be best likened to a family run B&B in the UK and generally are houses owned by older members of the former landed gentry, who supplement their income by taking in paying guests.
When you stay in a homestay you are a guest in a private home. You will have your own room, normally with an en suite bathroom. They tend to be lovely, spacious houses or converted havelis (traditional mansions) and are often elegantly furnished in a traditional style. The service is always warm and friendly, though often the staff will have very limited English and will rely on the family to translate. Some have separate accommodation for guests rather than rooms in the family house, however the overall experience will be still be more immersive than in a hotel so, if privacy is an issue, a homestay may not be for you.
Meals will usually be enjoyed with the family (with conversation in English) which can be wonderfully enriching. You have a chance to take advantage of your hosts’ local knowledge, to share experiences and to enjoy delicious and authentic home-cooked food. It is also not unusual for guests to be invited to join the family to attend a small local festival or take a trip to the market to buy the ingredients for dinner. As you are a paying guest, you are not expected to clean or contribute to the running of the homestay. If the service you receive is good we would encourage you to leave a tip for the staff at the end of your stay as is the norm in other styles of accommodation.
To stay in a heritage homestay is a treat for most people and we feel that they have a unique charm and romantic atmosphere which makes them well worth considering, at least for part of your holiday.
Why not read Matt's personal experience here?