Travelling budget in India is a shitstorm.
It’s sad to say, but for all the amazing things you’ll experience in India, the amount of negative things you’ll have to deal with on a daily basis can be overwhelming.
If you are travelling cheap, and backpacking India, like we did, then you’ll be getting the real local experience. Not the positive cultural one that we normally, actively seek out in most countries. It’s the doing-it-local-style whilst being attacked for money from every side.
You may also end up crushed, unable to move, inside a second class train. Scared and alone in the middle of the night. Or in fear of being attacked/harassed by Indian men – even if you are male yourself.
We spent 14 months in Asia, but the 2.5 months we visited India were the toughest.
But, this did give us time to develop some solutions to all the daily problems we faced.
If you are going to India, which for all its difficulties, you should, here are 12 India travel tips for budget backpackers that may, quite literally, save your life. At the very least, they’ll help you be prepared for some of the tougher challenges of travelling in India.
Online hotel bookings don’t mean shit
If you turn up after reserving a hotel online, don’t expect them to have held your room, have any idea you are coming or have all the facilities they claim to.
If you book directly by email or phone you have a higher chance of the room being ready for you, but still an equal chance of false advertising of room quality and facilities.
We’ve even seen stock photos of rooms from a 4/5 star hotel used to represent budget accommodation.
Always phone the hotel the night before arrival to confirm the hotel room. If you made a last minute booking using Cleartrip or Makemytrip phone the hotel directly straight after to inform them to contact Cleartirp and get your booking secure.
Or find the best hotels in India at the best price using Hotels Combined. It’s the site we use to find hotels because it compares multiple major booking sites all on one screen making it easier to see which site has the best price.
As for missing facilities… Welcome to India. You won’t get a discount or refund from the hotel and putting in a complaint to the booking site (we tried), even if just to update there incorrect information, will yield few results.
If the room you get is filthy, you may, and I mean maybe, get fresh sheets if you kick up enough of a fuss. Depends on the owner. We suggest travelling with your own sheet to avoid this problem.
NOTE: If you Pay more than 2000+ rupees ($40) a night and you may not be so affected. It’s all depends on your own budget.
Trains are booked out weeks in advance
Tickets are released two months in advance. All the best tickets sell out fast, some routes sooner than others. This leaves you in general class or basic sleeper (Which is generally dirty and very crowded).
- If your trip has a set itinerary, book your tickets 2 months in advance, or as soon as your plans are fixed.
The easiest way to do this is through Cleartrip. Hit “register” in the top right. The process is a little tricky for foreigners. Although clear trip helps you through it, a complete guide is available here.
- “Tatkal” tickets are released at 10am the day before travel, at a surcharge of 10-30%.
These cannot be booked on Cleartrip until after midday, so to increase your chances of getting one, you’ll need to drop into a station or booking agent.
- If getting a last minute ticket at the station, always ask for sleeper or a higher class.
If you get a “general” ticket, ie. cattle class, you are in for a shock.
When stuck with a cattle class ticket, we boarded sleeper class anyway and, on occasions where inspectors check tickets, we offered to pay extra to upgrade our ticket (maybe 100 rupees or so for a 6 hour trip). We only got asked to leave the train one time – So, not a full proof method, but pretty good odds.
This may sound illegal/immoral to you. But once you have been crushed in general class, actually scared for your life and aware that people die of being crushed in these carriages regularly in India, you may come to the opinion that the immoral action is on the part of the train companies expecting Indian people to travel this way.
Alternatively, you can approach the train conductor when the train arrives. He’ll normally be wearing a grey suit and holding reams of old style paper printouts. Ask him which carriages have spaces that you can upgrade to.
You may get a negative result from this. Hence it is probably better just to get in a sleeper carriage and then plead ignorance.
Rickshaws will charge you triple
As a foreigner you are a walking dollar sign to all rickshaw drivers. It is rare for a taxi to offer you a local price or to run the meter – though some cities are starting to enforce use of the metre now, like Mumbai.
Any quote you get will likely be triple the local price. Our record was about 8 times the price. Suffice to say, we said no to that offer…
If you are actually willing to sit down without negotiating first, expect an empty wallet by the end of the trip.
There are so many scams and so many possible solutions that I wrote a whole article just on this topic: 16 Asian Taxi Scams (and how to beat them)
Anyone who is looking to make money from you is a liar
There are rare exceptions to the rule, but on the whole, lying is part of the Indian business ethic.
Something as simple as asking where to find a certain hotel can result in being told it has “burnt down, but my friend has a hotel you can stay in”. When you do finally find your hotel, it is, of course, fully intact.
So, sadly, cynicism about any new “friends” you meet should be your default position until they have proved that they are genuine.
Always ask at least three different people the same question before you decide what the real answer is. Police are generally quite helpful and tend to be more honest. But, If they ask for money, don’t trust them.
Solo female travel is genuinely dangerous.
India, more so than any country we’ve visited in Asia, is more dangerous for women.
We wrote a whole article about how the media is creating a fear of travel. Instances of rape in India are widely reported. In that previous article we pointed out that, statistically, India is no more dangerous than the USA.
Statistics are nice and all but… having now travelled there, it’s fair to say, even if instances of rape are lower than the newspapers would have you believe, India is not a place that makes women feel safe.
One reason the stats are not higher may be because India takes many precautions to protect women. Female only train carriages for example. Use these options if you must travel alone.
Sadly, the main precaution is simply, don’t travel alone. Especially late at night. Everything starts to shut down in India between 10 and 11pm. If you are getting a taxi home alone, make sure you are back before the streets empty out.
Want to experience India but you’re not to certain about travelling independently? We recommend Intrepid travel, they have some great India itineraries and 3 styles of travelling – so there’s something for everyone.
Don’t trust the bottled water / Don’t drink tap water
Indian shop owners are well known for taking used water bottles, filling them from the tap and re-sealing the little plastic cap.
It goes without saying that the tap water in India is unsafe to drink.
There is no 100% guarantee to getting genuine mineral water. But, there are a few ways to avoid the worst of the water.
- Hold the bottle up to the light, give it a shake and look for floaty bits or discolouration.
- Avoid worn/damaged looking bottles
- Check the bottle seal. If it seems a little loose, even though the plastic is still in tact, it may be a scam bottle.
- Go with your gut. If you have any doubt about the look or taste from any bottle, get a different bottle.
NOTE: A lot of visitors to India get food poisoning. We ate street food for most of our trip and did not get sick. Read our 9 tips for eating street food safely for practical ideas on avoiding vomiting on your poop whilst in India.
Check the bathroom: Squat toilets & showering from a bucket
This isn’t a scam, it’s just incorrect expectations on the part of travellers. So it’s worth being aware of.
If 24 hour hot water is advertised, firstly, “hot” can mean anything from tepid and up. Secondly, it does not mean the water will flow from a shower. It is typical Indian style to have a bucket and a tap only.
In very budget places, squat toilets are common.
If they speak good English you can ask them to clarify if it is a western toilet and shower. If you have the chance, it is best to check the room and bathroom before agreeing to take the room.
Dry Days / Towns
India has state/country wide alcohol bans during elections, and other events. Some places have dry days at the start of every month. Although this is understandable during religious events, as a mark of respect, it seems strange for non-religious events.
As one Indian man explained to us “Indians get emotional about politics. If they get drunk they argue, fight and even stab each other. They blame the alcohol as an excuse to get away with the crime. So the government ban alcohol on those days to avoid any excuses”
This may not be the only explanation of political alcohol bans. But, it certainly reinforces the view we found across India that outside influences, such as booze or women as temptresses, rather than men themselves are to blame for bad behaviour.
I don’t care how drunk you are, if you think it is acceptable to stab people over a political disagreement, YOU are to blame. If you act like that when drunk, you shouldn’t drink in public, ever.
In addition to dry days, there are dry areas of India where alcohol is not available at any time. This is typically for religious reasons though.
For dry days you can find information online. Laws vary state by state so getting reliable info often involves some in-depth research. Assume that if it is election time, dry days may happen unexpectedly.
The Indian solution to this problem is for hundreds of men to line up outside liquor stores on the night before and stock up. Join the line.
Some restaurants will serve you stealth beer in a teapot. It won’t be on the menu but you can ask before you sit down if they serve “beer”.
Promised services are a pipe dream
These are instances that happened to us and many other travellers at hotels and restaurants across India:
- If they say they have wifi, it’s actually “broken today” and the next day, and indefinitely…
- If they claim the room includes a free bottle of water, expect it to be a bottle of tap water.
- If they offer you a welcome drink, expect it to come up as a charge on your final bill.
- If they offer a transfer from the station, it won’t be free and it will be much more expensive than if you had negotiated your own.
- If they offer a double room, it could be a twin or a double – even if you say “one big bed”.
- If they offer a certain discount price on a meal or drink, check the bill as they won’t always put the promised discount on unless you ask again.
Have low expectations, be vigilant and always clarify if something is actually free before taking it. Don’t be shy about complaining.
You are the tourist attraction
If you are not of Indian descent you will be on show 24/7. You will be pointed at. People will stare. Comments will be made. If you are not dressed appropriately, you will be given rude looks.
You will be approached multiple times each day if you are out in public. About 75% of the time, people just want a photo with you or to shake your hand and ask you “which country?”.
The rest of the time you might get into a nice conversation and then after a minute or so there will be a sales proposal or a request for money. Don’t be pressured into saying yes. When you say no they sometimes become rude. It’s rare for them to get physical in public, so just walk away.
For women, shoulders and knees should be covered.
Being a minor celebrity can be a novelty for a while. Once you get tired of it, it is fine to just say no to photos. You may get a mixed response to that though. Most people will just take stealth photos of you anyway. You just have to accept that is part of the India experience.
Be aware that sometimes Indian men will want a photo with a white girl so they can tell their friends that they hooked up with them. Its best to only have photos in a group and not one on one.
Guides will not agree a fixed price
Commonly, someone will start talking to you when you are at a tourist attraction. Either they will just follow you for a while and then ask for money or they will actually tell you they want to be your guide.
When a guide service is offered they will normally say you can pay what you like, what you think it is worth. If you press for a fixed price, they often won’t give one.
If someone starts telling you facts about an attraction, or offering directions without being asked, it is important to confront them immediately. “We do not need a guide” or “How much will you charge to be our guide?”
If they will not agree a fixed price, it is important to tell them that they may be disappointed with what you pay.
100 rupees per 20 minutes is ok for a decent guide. More, at your discretion, if they are really good.
After you pay up, they may act insulted in order to get more money. Remind them that they said you could pay what you want and that in future they should ask for a fixed price as that makes it easier for tourists.
At major attractions official guides and prices are normally available near the ticket booths. It is better to use these than the unofficial guides.
Bars are not safe for Women / Women are not allowed everywhere.
We were told specifically by one patron, “you shouldn’t bring your wife to the bars here. When men drink they may bottle you and take your wife.”
Things escalate quickly. We had to leave restaurants and bars in a hurry on a few occasions when the local men become a bit too “friendly”.
The idea of going to a regular bar, anywhere other than Goa, as a solo female is generally a flat NO.
Many bars won’t let women in anyway, even if accompanied by a man.
There are family restaurant-bars where children and women can visit safely. It will normally say “Family” on the sign, so it is easy to spot.
In major cities like Delhi and Mumbai, some bars have implemented areas where single men cannot go: Women and couples only. These are much safer and designed for adults rather than having kids running around.
I’m not Indian, and I don’t fully understand Indian culture. But, I am shocked that men think it is acceptable to act like animals once they arrive in their beer cave. It’s not a universal problem but it is far more common than you may think.
The Final Word
You can travel extraordinarily cheaply in India if you know what the prices should be and how to barter for them. Or, you can save yourself a lot of stress by just opening your wallet and over paying.
Social attitudes and health & safety can be a shock to the western system. The caste system, the poverty, the trash, the scams, the damn right scary driving that puts other Asian countries to shame.
No matter how tough travelling India can be, you’ll find amazing food, outstanding history, festivals of colour and excitement and many, very kindhearted people who are thrilled and proud to show you their country.
The more prepared you are to deal with the 12 things I’ve listed above, the more you can take it in your stride and enjoy the good sides of India.
What other strange tricks and scams have you found on your travels? Do you have any other India Travel Tips?
Leave us a comment.
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