Hanging out in Kerala at a backpacker’s guesthouse, I met a good number of backpackers who were in their first few days of their first trip to India.
Alleppey in Kerala
These are some of the tips I found myself repeating, and a few more tips are included as well.
Whether you’re traveling in Kerala, around South India, or around North India, these tips below can be helpful for planning your first trip to India, in particular if you’ve just booked your flight to India with minimal research!
Panjim in Goa
Is travel in India hard for foreigners?!
India seems to have a reputation for being a hard country to travel in.
Well, “hard” is relative I guess, and it depends on what type of things you consider to be “hard.”
Personally, I think that once you’ve learned the basics (many of which are below!) India really isn’t THAT hard of a country to travel around.
This isn’t to say that you won’t have challenges, but much of it has to do with your attitude!
Yes, India may require a different kind of attitude compared to travel in other countries. Definitely, it’s not like traveling in a western country, and maybe there are more things to think about and learn about before you go to India.
And yes, the longer you’re in India, the more likely there will be moments that will stress you out.
But when that happens, just think… THIS IS INDIA!!!
And also think… the stress you’re experiencing… a lot of other foreigners have experienced too! Just think of it as part of the completely normal Indian experience. 😉
But despite all those stressful moments in India, there are many places that you can completely CHILL in India too. So also be sure to include some chill time in your India itinerary.
Walking from Alleppey to Marari in Kerala
Varkala in Kerala
The India travel tips when planning a backpacking trip to India for the first time!
There are many ways to travel around India, and there are many opinions about travel around India.
These tips are based on my experiences! Most recently, I have been to India in 2017, 2018, and 2019. My first trip to India was over 10 years ago. I’m American.
What airport in India to fly into?!
So depending on where you’re coming from, you’ll probably find the cheapest flights to India to be into New Delhi airport (North India) or Mumbai airport (South India).
If you’re coming from Southeast Asia to India, like from Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, maybe you’ll fly into Chennai (South India). (Make a side trip to local islands in the Maldives when you’re coming from Southeast Asia!) If you’re coming from Sri Lanka to India, maybe you’ll fly into Madurai (South India). These are often the cheapest cities to fly into from these destinations. If you’re coming from Japan to India, there’s even a budget airline with flights to Cochin (South India) from Osaka! That’s with a layover in Singapore.
Where to go in India?!
These are the top places to know about in North India
- Golden Triangle (Delhi / Agra aka home of Taj Mahal / Jaipur aka Pink City)
- Rajasthan aka the land of past royalty with lots of royal palaces and royal forts to explore
- Varanasi aka one of the holiest cities in India
- Indian Himalayas (for example Manali and Leh)
These are the top places to know about in South India
- Mumbai aka home of Bollywood
- Goa aka India’s prime beach destination
- Hampi aka home of boulders and ancient ruins
- Kerala aka home of India’s famous backwaters
You need to apply for a visa BEFORE you get to India!
Visa information can change frequently but unless you’re from Japan or from South Korea, you will probably need to apply for a visa before you arrive to India!
More on visas a little later, but for now, see how much the India tourist visa fee is. (partner website.) Select your country and then just look at “visa cost” there, and then see more about applying online for a tourist visa on your own.
The general class train is fine to travel!
If you’re going short distances during the day (like say a few hours), then you can just show up to the train station and buy a ticket at the ticket counter, and then get on the next train that’s going to your destination.
There IS a chance that you’ll get a crowded train, but it can also give you an ultimate India experience if that’s what you’re looking for!
But general class tickets make it nice when you’re not a fan of booking things in advance!
When you’re traveling in general class, you’re looking for the train that says “second class.”
Don’t worry, you won’t ALWAYS have to push your way onto or off of the train. 😉
Pretty empty train in general class! Train from Kerala to the southern tip of India.
Train in Kerala.
It will depend on how far you go, but there’s a good chance your general class train ticket will cost less than US$1.
For examples of general class train travel, see:
How to figure out the train schedule
There are 2 apps that I mainly use for train travel in India:
- Trainman (there’s also a website)
- Where is my train
Trainman is great to see the train timings, as well as train seat availability (if you don’t want to travel in general class) and the cost of the train ticket.
The trainman app
The where is my train app is great on the day of travel to check for delays, as well as to give you an idea on the estimated time of arrival with consideration for delays. No data necessary, you just need your GPS on. The only thing is this app seems to sometimes be different on different phones… or something! I’ve looked at it on other people’s phones and have been disappointed! But if it shows you the time delays and you can track the time when you’re on the train, it’s the right app, and it’s GREAT!
The where is my train app
The local bus is fine to travel short distances!
Local bus in Goa near Palolem Beach
If you look at a map (like on google maps) and it looks like your next destination is 1 or 2 kind of big cities or towns away and it’s just a few hours of driving time, chances are there’s a bus that will take you there!
Sometimes going by bus might require a transfer depending on where you’re going, but the thing is that you likely CAN get a bus to get there!
Once again, traveling local means that you do have a chance of a crowded bus.
Local bus in Hampi. Again, you won’t ALWAYS have to push your way onto the bus. 😉 When you’re having a miserable experience, just remember – THIS IS INDIA!
Local bus in Kerala hills to Munnar tea plantations.
And if you’re traveling with luggage, you can usually place your big backpack at the front of the bus near the driver, or on some buses you might have room to put it under the seat too.
For regular local buses, you just hop on the bus you want to take, and then someone will come around once the bus starts moving to collect the ticket fare.
It will again depend on how far you go, but you can expect a local bus ticket to cost US$1-2.
Ticket for bus to Goa airport.
For examples of local bus travel, see:
- Udaipur to Chittorgarh (North India)
- Hospet to Hampi (South India)
- Pondicherry to Mahabalipuram (South India)
- Palolem to Goa airport (South India)
How to figure out the local bus schedule
Inquiry booth in Kerala at Cochin bus station.
Bus stations have “station master” offices or inquiry booths.
Bus station master office in Kerala at Alleppey bus station.
This is the best place to ask for scheduled bus times. (But don’t be surprised if there are delays.)
The people working in these offices sometimes may not pay attention to you and they may seemingly be ignoring you. But once you get their attention, they will give you the information you need!
You’re not going to find these local government bus schedules online! Well, I have never searched for local government bus timings online anyway. Even if they are online, I would think their accuracy is questionable.
In general, if the distance of travel is just a few hours, and you’re going between major cities, you can expect that there will be frequent bus services.
If you’re going between 2 cities that have a bit more distance with more limited timings throughout the day, I think it’s best to either ask the staff at the place you’re staying once you get there, or go to the station master office.
For Kerala, I have sometimes consulted this non-governmental website just to get an idea for what kind of routes might be available, and the general frequency of timings to expect. From this, I can determine if I can just show up to the bus station because the route looks like there are lots of buses (for example like this). Or if it’s a route that seems to have more limited timings (for example like this), I’ll look to verify timings with someone in-the-know at the place of departure.
Overnight bus travel is a thing and it’s not so bad
This is more when the distances are longer.
There are also local buses that do overnight travel, but I personally would not go for local buses for these kinds of trips.
Instead, I would go for the private bus companies.
That’s because private bus companies have sleeper buses – you can actually fully lay down on the overnight trip!
Now, maybe you shouldn’t be expecting to get the best sleep ever on a moving bus even when laying down, but I’ve been able to get a few hours of solid sleep on these types of buses.
For examples of overnight bus travel, see:
- Pondicherry to Madurai (South India)
- Madurai to Kerala (South India)
- Mumbai to Udaipur (South India to North India)
How to book overnight bus tickets
You can search for bus timings on redbus, and you can book your bus ticket that way too.
Overnight AC buses might cost around US$10.
Overnight train travel also isn’t bad
For overnight train travel, you’ll want to book in advance so you’ll have a seat that you can lay down.
For comfort on the train (well, as comfortable as regular trains in India get!), you’ll want to book a train ticket in AC class – 1AC, 2AC, or 3AC. (The numbers indicating how many berths/sleeper seats are on one side.)
But sleeper class (which is non-AC) can work out fine too, and it’s cheaper.
To see more of what a train looks like inside, have a look at this AC train ride.
A non-AC sleeper class overnight train might cost around US$5. An AC overnight train might cost around US$15-30.
Long distance trains do tend to book up in advance, so it is better to buy tickets as soon as you know your dates.
For examples of overnight train travel, see:
- Jaisalmer to Jaipur (North India)
You can book long-distance train tickets at the train station
Mysore train station
Booking train tickets as a foreigner can be a pain.
Well, the part of creating an account with the India government railways website (IRCTC) is a pain. You need to register an account with IRCTC in order to book tickets online with any Indian booking company.
So in the case you want to not deal with the hassle of creating an account, you can also book train tickets at any train station in India.
Pondicherry train station
Every train station has a “reservation” ticket counter, which is different from the same-day booking ticket counter that you’ll buy your general class ticket.
You’ll go to the reservation counter and first ask for the paper to fill out information for the train ticket you want.
Once you’ve filled out that paper, then you’ll go back to the reservation counter to get the ticket.
It’s best to know in advance what tickets are available, along with the specific train number and train class you want. (Check this on trainman.)
There is also a “foreigner quota” available on some train routes, which means that even if normal tickets are showing up as sold out, you might still be able to get a ticket under this quota.
I have bought tickets under this quota a long time ago so it has worked, but I’m not aware of any easy list to refer to that tells you which train routes offer extra tickets for foreigners!
The easy way to book train tickets online as a foreigner
Or if you want to book train tickets online without having to take the time out of your day to go to the train station, or you want to buy train tickets before you get to India…
You can also book with 12goasia (partner website) without needing an Indian railways account. There are India online booking sites but those require you to have an Indian railways account.
I have used 12goasia to buy an Indian train ticket and had no issues at all. There is a convenience charge (around US$5), though, and the cancellation policy isn’t as flexible as booking directly.
Big cities have Uber
Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, and more, even Cochin has Uber.
This 30 minute Uber ride in Kerala cost around US$3.
Another ride sharing app in India besides Uber is called Ola.
Rickshaw in Goa’s Latin Quarter.
You can expect places all over India to have rickshaws.
How much you pay for a rickshaw will completely depend on the distance you’re going, but you might pay something like US$1-3 for a single rickshaw ride.
Rickshaw in Gokarna.
Rickshaw in Hampi.
Other times, simply walking might be a good way to get around a city!
And depending on where you are… you might be walking alongside cows too. 😉
There are local ferries in India too
Local ferry in Kerala.
You can also take vehicles on some of these local ferries too.
Local ferry in Goa.
For the shorter ferry rides that are just a small river crossing, it might cost you like US$0.10 for a ticket. You pay once you’re on the ferry.
Ferry ticket for Ernakulam to Fort Cochin in Kerala.
Domestic flights can be a reasonable way to get around the country
Okay, one more about getting around India.
It might be reasonable to consider flying within India too.
There are lots of flights daily between the major cities in India, and the prices aren’t that bad.
I usually look at makemytrip to check for cost of flights within India and then I book direct with the airline.
India has hostels with international standards
India’s backpacker culture is expanding, and this means that there are now a good number of hostels in India to choose from.
There are many hostels with AC dorm beds, and these might be around US$7 per bed.
You’ll also find nice common areas at many hostels.
Some hostels also offer group activities.
Gokarna beach trek.
If you want something a bit more luxurious, India has that too.
Buy ODOMOS once you’re in India to protect against mosquitoes
There have been recent stories of foreigners getting dengue fever (which can be miserable), so it can be best to protect yourself. And this is also why it’s best to get travel insurance for India, just in case!
But there’s no need to load up on DEET from home when you come to India. Maybe you want to have a small spray bottle to hold you over until you make it to a street shop in India (which are everywhere) but otherwise, wait until India to buy mosquito repellent!
There is a mosquito cream (or lotion or spray) called odomos, and I have found it to work out quite well!
Of course, your experience may vary, but I think there’s a good chance it’ll work out.
Sunset and just past sunset is when mosquitoes seem to be the most active.
Sunset in Kerala on Alleppey Beach.
You will probably get sick from food or water
This doesn’t mean you can’t eat any food that’s being sold on the street, but it is better to be selective.
There will be foreigners who say “I’ve been to India 20 times and I’ve never gotten sick!” but honestly I think these people are in the minority.
I’ve talked to many foreign travelers in India, and well, and it’s definitely NOT uncommon to hear of stories of people getting sick.
Sick from water, or sick from the food. I’ve heard of stories of both massive vomiting out of the side of the train, as well as diarrhea.
So you might consider carrying activated charcoal tablets.
I have had the unfortunate experience of having to test these things out, and I can say at least it works! I have taken these when I had diarrhea on a travel day (because you don’t want to be on a bus with no bathroom with a sudden urge to go!) or a day out and about and it’s been effective for me.
I’m no medical expert, but it has something to do with absorbing toxins or something like that, so the important thing is that it makes it so you have diarrhea no more, and it’s more of a “natural” thing, unlike imodium.
Common words of advice you’ll hear in regards to food is don’t go for ice in your drinks (you don’t know what type of water that ice has been made from), and only eat fruits or vegetables that can be peeled (you don’t know what water the produce has been washed with). Also don’t eat food bought at the railway station… unless it’s Domino’s. 😉 (Yes there’s Domino’s in India!) Never drink tap water!
And there’s plenty of good food to enjoy in India… with good views!
India tourist visa fees have gone DOWN!!
India is becoming friendlier to foreigners.
It used be that everyone who needed a visa would need to apply for a paper visa in their passport in order to go to India.
It’s only in the past few years that e-visas for travel to India were introduced.
At first these e-visas were 30-day visas… and then they became 60-day visas… and now it seems they are (at least) 1-year visas! (For longer visas you still can only be in the country for a certain time, like maybe 180 days, so it’s not like you can stay for 1 straight year – check the visa terms and stick to them – it’s not something to mess around with!)
And, e-visas used to cost like US$100.
Now (October 2019), it’s like $40 for countries that previously had to pay $100!
See how much the visa fee is for your country.
You DO need to apply for the visa before you go to India, though.
Also, often the start date of the visa is date of ISSUE, not the date you first step foot in India. If you’re planning to maximizing the amount of time on your visa, this might be important.
If you’re American and plan to go to India many times in the future, know that there’s a 10-year Indian tourist visa available to you.
Travel in India might not be as hard as you think
Whenever people ask me what I think of India, I say I think that generally speaking travel is convenient and easy… once you know the basics!
I’m not saying there’s no culture shock, or that there’s never any stress, or that there are never any challenges in traveling around India. There are all of those things – THIS IS INDIA!
But in general, I think that because there are soooo many people in India (a country of 1 billion people), people are always moving around, and this means that there are often plenty of transportation options! This is what can make travel in India convenient!
And, with an increasing “middle class” in India, as well as Indians in their 20s who have money wanting to travel more in their own country, it means that travel around India has an increasing number of travel options as well.
This is great for foreign travelers too, because it allows us to travel around India without having to plan so much in advance.
Travel in India really is about your attitude!
If you are expecting organization, everything to be on time, everything to be perfect, then well yes, it’s quite possible that you’ll end up leaving India thinking you had a miserable time.
But if you realize that THIS IS INDIA and arrive to India with an open mind, and don’t get TOO stressed when something doesn’t go as planned… you’ll be just fine! And also, recognize that it’s not just you if you do encounter a difficult or stressful situation! It happens to many foreigners!
Arrive to India with PATIENCE!
India is a country you can show up with having just a general plan and then figure it out as you go! (Well, maybe this is more so true if you have more than a few weeks in India!)
But it’s still India, so you’ll still likely find things different than you’re used to.
Delhi (the capital of India in the north) is basically thought to basically be the scam capital of India.
If you decide to fly into Delhi, I would say leave for another city immediately (maybe Jaipur or Udaipur) and leave the exploring of Delhi for when you’ve gotten used to India at least a little bit. I also think Varanasi (a popular city for tourists in the north and one of the holiest cities in India) is a big culture shock city and that also might be better to experience after you’ve had some time in India.
And finally, yes unfortunately it’s true that there are a lot of scams in India. If we are making generalizations, I’m sorry to say that people on the streets often can’t be trusted, especially in North India, but it can happen all over the country. Most recently I was scammed in Goa. (The guy was GOOD!) People seem nice, but then many times they are only being nice because they want something from you ($$). This is my experience. This is just a part of traveling in India. Of course there are good people everywhere, including in India, but unfortunately, it is necessary to have your guard up a little more when you’re in India.
Ready to get planning for your first trip to India?!
- Tips for planning your Golden triangle itinerary
- How to spend 2 weeks in North India
- How to spend 1 month in South India
- How to spend 1 week in Kerala
HAPPY FIRST TRIP TO INDIA!!
Experience the chill life in Kerala!!