Backpacking India: Top experiences
- Watching the sun set over three seas in Kanyakumari
- Searching for wild elephants in the mountains near Munnar
- Exploring the back streets and great eats of Kolkata
- Riding a camel to a campsite in the sand dunes of the Thar Desert
- Playing “find the X-rated sculpture” at the temples of Khajuraho
Jump to the list of posts from India, or read on for my comprehensive India travel guide.
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India itinerary ideas
If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this India travel guide, it’s this: India is a gigantic country. You cannot possibly see it all in one trip. Your best bet is to pick one or a handful of regions and explore thoroughly. The itinerary options are endless, but here are a few short-trip ideas:
The classic one-week India itinerary is known as the Golden Triangle. This trip brings you some of the best India has to offer in a bite-sized area — you’ll never have to sit on a train for more than a couple hours. Land in Delhi and spend a couple days exploring the Red Fort and other historical landmarks. Then take the train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and iconic fort. Finish up in Jaipur (the “pink city”) with some exploration of the markets and forts, with a day trip to Amber at the end.
With two weeks, you could extend this trip deeper into Rajasthan. From Jaipur, venture west to the likes of Pushkar, Udaipur, Jodhpur, and Jaisalmer. This is the tourist heart of the country and has everything — both good and bad — that you’ve heard/imagined about India.
Alternatively, fly into Mumbai for a couple weeks of exploring the south. Mumbai itself is a fantastic city to explore for a few days before you hop on an overnight train to Goa. Rent a motorbike to find the deserted beaches near Palolem, check out some of the more offbeat things to do in Goa, then party the night away at a “silent disco” on the beach. Then, bus down to Mysore to see one of India’s most spectacular palaces and one of its most spectacular markets. Continue south to Hampi and spend at least three days exploring the ruins. Finally, end your trip in Kerala with a night or two to explore the backwaters of Alleppey, with an overnight stop in Kochi if you have time.
More interested in trekking? Head north into the Himalayan regions. Leh-Ladakh is a popular region for Himalayan explanation, and you can see it in a week. Other options are the area around Darjeeling or the Kullu Valley.
These are just a few of the possibilities, though. My favorite parts of India aren’t even on any of these lists — personally I loved the entire state of Tamil Nadu (although it’s short on typical tourist attractions), Varanasi, Khajuraho, and Kolkata the most. 1 month backpacking India would allow you to see more of these out-of-the-way destinations.
India weather and when to visit India
India is geographically huge, and has a corresponding diversity of weather. The best time to visit depends very much on what activities you want to do.
In most of the country, tourist high season is December-March. You’ll find huge crowds in Rajasthan and Goa at this time. Indians also travel en masse in December, which can drive up prices and make it difficult to book train tickets. The advantage is the weather is generally pleasant, especially in the south. North of Varanasi the weather is fairly chilly at this time of year (warm fleeces are essential at night), and in the Himalayas it’s downright frigid.
The weather heats up starting in April, but spring is still pretty dry. If heat doesn’t bother you this is a great time to visit. Tourist crowds are lower than in winter.
If you’re visiting the mountainous regions in the far north, the only time of year you can access the high passes is June-August. Unfortunately, this is monsoon season in the rest of the country. The north dries out by September, but south India stays very wet until December.
Overall, unless you really want to trek in the Himalayas, the best time to go backpacking across India is March-April. This time of year offers a good balance of weather and crowds.
One word of caution — climate change is causing unusual weather patterns in tropical areas, and previously predictable rainy seasons are now more in flux. When I was in Trivandrum in December (dry season), the city was hit with a massive, surprise typhoon. It was not pleasant.
Language in India
India is one of the most language-diverse countries on the planet. It’s estimated that nearly 20,000 languages are spoken across the country. Many of them use their own scripts as well.
The good news for travelers is most people in urban areas speak English extremely well — in fact, many children grow up speaking English at school and are nearly-native speakers. Indian English has some eccentricities and accents that may not be familiar to Americans, especially since it resembles British English most closely, but it’s very easy to understand. You generally won’t have a problem communicating in English anywhere in India.
If you have to pick one additional language to learn, Hindi makes the most sense. It’s spoken as a first language in much of the country and as a second or third language elsewhere. You’ll find Hindi to be the most common language in Delhi, Mumbai, and Rajasthan.
If you’re venturing further south, it’s worth picking up a little bit of Tamil, especially if you’ll be traveling in the less-touristic state of Tamil Nadu. Learning what the numbers look like is especially useful for reading restaurant menus. You may want to learn some Bengali if heading to Kolkata.
Budget for backpacking India
Backpacking through India is accessible to all budgets. In fact, it may be the single cheapest country in the world to travel in.
At the low end, a budget of $10-15 per day would buy you reasonably okay hotel rooms, three good meals a day, transportation all over the country on government buses and third-class trains, and a handful of entrance fees. Increase your budget to more like $25 a day and you’ll be able to stay in less-grungy hotels or take the occasional A/C compartment on a train. A top-end budget of $50+ a day would even allow you to fly around the country.
One downside of the extremely low cost of travel in India is that your sense of normalcy gets horribly warped. You may find yourself arguing with a shop-keeper over pennies, or declining to visit a key attraction because it costs a whopping $5. Try to keep some perspective (it’s hard though).
Private room in a hostel or simple guesthouse: 500-1,000 rupees
Street-stall meal: 50 rupees
Sit-down meal at a typical South Indian restaurant: 100 rupees
Cup of tea: 5-10 rupees
Museum or historical site admission: 100 rupees
Third-class train ticket from Kolkata to Varanasi: 400 rupees
Two-day camel trek in the Thar Desert: $25 USD
India visa requirements
Nearly all travelers need an India visa to visit the country. Luckily, what used to be a bureaucratic headache has become a very easy and straightforward process with the advent of an e-visa system. Citizens of more than 150 countries are eligible for these 60-day double entry visas.
Most people pay $80 for an e-visa, but Americans and a few other nationalities pay $100. Pay all fees when you apply.
You can apply for your Indian e-visa online here. You need a passport photo, scan of your passport, and proof that your passport is eligible for at least 180 days after entering India and has two blank pages. Most approvals come in within 72 hours. Print your confirmation and show it to customs officials when entering India.
You can only use the e-visa system if you’re flying into India. If you’re crossing by land, you’ll need to visit an Indian embassy to obtain your visa in person. This can take anywhere from two to five days, depending on where you’re applying. I applied in Cairo and the process was hassle-free — I had my visa for backpacking India within four days.
Accommodation in India
There is no reason to stay in a dorm when backpacking in India. In local hotels, private rooms (with their own bathrooms) are outrageously cheap.
In touristy areas like Rajasthan and Varanasi, you’ll find social guesthouses catering to backpackers. They still tend to have private rooms rather than dorms. But local business travelers or families on vacation vastly outnumber backpackers in India. Amenities like travel information, free WiFi, and social common areas don’t really exist at hotels catering to these markets.
At the $2-5 a night price point, you’ll generally get a large room with a cold-water (sometimes bucket) shower and (usually squat/bucket) toilet. Many rooms have unusual quirks like a hose instead of a sink. Be sure to look at the room before agreeing to book it — you’ll want to make sure the door locks (it doesn’t always). The cheapest hotels usually don’t have websites or email addresses, but pay phones are still common, so you can call hotels a few days in advance to reserve a room.
Hotels in the $8 a night range are a significant step up in comfort. For this price, you’ll get a comfortable bed, warm shower, and Western toilet. You’ll usually get a TV and sometimes A/C as well.
Typically you pay for your room when you check in, and you rent it for 24 hours. So if you arrive in the morning, you have to check out in the morning, but if you arrive in the evening, you can use the room until the next evening (really convenient for overnight trains).
Accommodation books up around Christmas. I learned the hard way that if you head to destinations popular with Indian tourists, you’ll have to resort to sleeping in a spare room in your tuk tuk driver’s mom’s house. Reserve as far in advance as possible if traveling in December.
Food in India
There is nowhere else in the world where you can eat as well on as tight a budget as you can while backpacking India.
If you enjoy Indian restaurants at home, you’ll probably find northern Indian cuisine familiar. It includes tandoori dishes, naan, biryani, and bhuna gosht (a spicy lamb curry). You’ll also find vegetarian-friendly curries like palak paneer, potatoes and pees, and lentils. A meal at a simple local restaurant, with rice and chapati/naan, typically costs around $1.50.
The food in South India is completely different. The three staple foods of the south are idly (rice pancakes), vada (fried lentil dough — like savory donuts), and dosa (stuffed crepes). All three are served with sambar (lentil broth) and chutney (usually coconut). Coconut rice with sambar is another insanely cheap, filling, and healthy meal. Alternatively, try a thali — rice with a bunch of small servings of curries, of which you often get unlimited refills. Be careful with the pickles — they’re extremely spicy! You’ll also find coconut-based and fish curries in coastal areas like Goa and Kochi.
Street snacks, such as samosas, bhel puri, and vada pav, cost pennies. In Kolkata, try a kati roll — a chapati stuffed with your choice of meat or paneer, veggies, and spicy sauces. You can pick up all the usual tropical fruits at the markets as well.
Many people backpacking around India worry about getting food poisoning. But it’s avoidable if you stick to places popular with locals. Many street food stalls are excellent, but make sure you can verify that the food (especially anything fried) is still hot. Adopt the Indian method of eating with your hands — you can always wash your hands with soap right before eating, meaning they’re less likely to be contaminated than utensils washed in stagnant tap water.
For a complete list of common Indian foods, check out this guide. Spelling/transliteration is often different (for example, peas can be written as “muttur,” “mataar,” “matter,” or a half-dozen other variations).
Drinks in India
The most ever-present beverage in India is tea, locally known as “chai.” You can get it at any street stall, in any restaurant, or even on any train in the country. It’s milky, sweet and spicy, and safe to drink. The milk and spices are blended with the tea during brewing so it’s not usually possible to get black tea. Chai costs as little as 2 rupees (5 rupees is more typical).
If you’re more of a coffee drinker, your best bet is to, well, adapt to tea. Alternatively, spend some time in Tamil Nadu, where coffee is the more popular beverage. National chain Cafe Coffee Day is a welcome respite from Nescafe — it has a full espresso bar and great third-wave coffee (for Western prices).
The other popular drink in India is the lassi. This curd-based beverage is blended with fruits such as passion, banana, pineapple, and mango to form a delicious yogurt-like smoothie. It’ll do wonders for a bit of Delhi Belly and is super refreshing on hot days.
Some places in north India serve “bhang lassi” — lassi laced with marijuana and/or other drugs. Many travelers try it, but my advice is to steer clear. You don’t really know what you’re getting (and it’s probably not the same as what the locals are getting). If you’re really committed to trying it, go to one of the government-approved shops in Varanasi.
When it comes to alcohol, Indians prefer beer. Kingfisher is the national brand. You can get craft brews at some higher-end bars and restaurants. All the usual international spirits are widely available. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, try the local rice liquor. Women drinking alcohol or going to bars alone will raise a lot of eyebrows.
Activities you can do while backpacking India
Travelers come to India for its spirituality, its trekking, its beautiful beaches, and its unique culture. All of this is accessible at low prices.
Some of the best activities in India are free. My best memories of the country include watching the sun set over three seas in Kanyakumari, wandering the ghats at night in Varanasi, and exploring the back alleys of Kolkata — none of which cost a dime.
Visiting temples is one of the most popular things to do in India. Temple architecture is fascinating and you’ll get up close and personal with some of the most traditional aspects of Indian culture. You can often enter for free, but occasionally you pay a small entrance fee, with additional fees for photography. Non-Hindus are never permitted to enter the inner sanctums. For a local perspective on proper temple etiquette, read this article.
India has lots of archaeological and historical sites — from the Taj Mahal to the ruins of Hampi to the temples of Khajuraho. Bring a guidebook so you can learn about the places you’re visiting, as most aren’t signposted.
When it comes to outdoor activities, India has a wealth of them. You can trek in the Himalayas for less money and with fewer crowds than in Nepal. You’ll find more low-key hiking in the hill stations of the south like Munnar and Ooty. Alternatively, spend a night on a houseboat in the Kerala backwaters, or go on an overnight camel trek into the Thar Desert.
Goa is India’s main beach resort destination. Some beaches are accessible by bus, but you may need to rent a motorbike ($5 a day) to get to the best of them. I based myself in Palolem and took day trips up and down the coast.
Many tourists opt to do some kind of meditation/yoga retreat while backpacking India. Beware of false promises, especially if booking from overseas. Do your research and make sure the place is legit. Costs vary widely.
Transportation in India
Transportation while backpacking India ranges from total nightmare to miracle. There’s little rhyme or reason to when things work and when they don’t. But if you’re trying to see much of this huge country on a short trip, you’ll have to learn to love India’s trains and buses.
Trains are the best way to see India. They cover most of the country, they’re fast, and they’re comfortable. Prices vary depending on distance, route and class.
The main question is which type of car you want to travel in. There are open sleeper cars, basic closed cars, and more luxurious closed cars — most travelers opt for one of the first two options. There are also hard seats, but these are only practical for daytime travel. As a solo woman I felt most comfortable with a top berth in open sleeper cars where there were plenty of people coming and going at all hours. They were also the cheapest option.
Once you choose which class you want, you can try to get a seat in the tourist car or go with the local cars. Tourist cars are the best places in India to meet fellow travelers if you’re not staying in hostels. They cost the same as local cars, but they book up far in advance. Local cars are great places to meet locals and the occasional tourist.
Usually, you need to book tickets as early as you know you want to travel. If you wait until a couple days in advance, especially for overnight trips, they will be sold out. You can book any ticket for any rail journey at any train station — i.e. if you’re traveling from Delhi to Agra, you can book in Jaipur or anywhere else.
If you prefer to be spontaneous in your travels, you’ll often have to wait a day or two for the train tickets you want. But sometimes, tickets that were previously sold out materialize out of thin air for no conceivable reason — it’s always worth a shot to show up at the station a few minutes before the train you want departs to see if you can get a ticket. At smaller stations, the staff will also help you plan connecting trips if the direct ones are sold out.
In some parts of the south, in the mountains, and in remote parts of central India, buses are more common than trains. In many respects, they’re easier — you can always just show up at the bus station and get a bus.
As a woman alone, I preferred to avoid private buses. They’re poorly regulated. Driving standards are poor. There are frequent reports of women being sexually assaulted. And they’re more expensive than public buses.
Government-run buses are in terrible condition, but they’re cheap and safe and they’ll get you anywhere. Turn up at the station and tell the operators where you want to go. If there isn’t a direct bus leaving soon, the drivers will figure out a quick transfer you can take instead.
I never waited more than half an hour for a bus while backpacking India, but I did have to deal with some confusing transfers. Prices are about $0.25 an hour, and if you can tolerate the discomfort, you can even travel overnight.
Safety when backpacking India
Solo backpacking India presents some risk, and there is quite a bit of hassle. But the travel industry tends to blow them out of proportion. I spent two months backpacking on a bare-bones budget, sleeping in the dodgiest hotels (or, more often, bus station benches), wandering around after dark, and befriending local men all over the place and I felt safe 99% of the time.
Violent crime is low in India, but it does happen. Be careful walking in unlit areas and on beaches at night. Women should be doubly careful.
Crime of opportunity is much more common. If your wallet is visible, or if you have valuables easily accessible, they will disappear. If someone “spills” something on you and then moves to clean it up, spin in the opposite direction to check if anyone is reaching for your wallet.
One reason to keep your guard up a little higher than normal is because once a crime is initiated, other people may not intervene due to the high risks of being associated with a crime in India. But if you can spot a bad situation ahead of time, locals are very, very willing to help prevent it.
For instance, one night I was walking around after dark and I got the sense that someone was following me. I ducked into the first shop I could find and told the shopkeeper, and he sent his brother to walk me back to my hotel. On another occasion, a friend and I were walking along the ghats in Varanasi at 2 am and a couple guys gave us the creeps. When another man approached us trying to get us to buy weed, we told him about the creepy guys. He laid off his sales pitch and made sure we got back safely.
Overall I would not consider India a dangerous place to travel. Simply take the same precautions you would anywhere else in the world and stay aware of your surroundings.
There are more scams and hassles in India than it’s possible to list in this section. Rampant overcharging of foreigners is common, and it’s accepted to the point where even government-run entities do it. You have some bargaining power, but maybe not as much as you’d like.
If something sounds too good to be true, whether it’s ‘cheap gems’ or an incredible yoga retreat, it probably is. If you’re offered an opportunity to do an activity you want to try, check it out independently before signing up.
Rickshaw drivers will honk at you, salesmen will try to lure you in, and pretty much everyone will want you to give them money. Try to keep your cool and just let it bounce off of you. When it gets to be too much, pay the $2 for a coffee at Cafe Coffee Day just to have an hour of peace and quiet.
The good news is scammers tend to back off pretty quickly if you’re clear that you’re not interested in what they’re selling. Unlike in Thailand, where I’ve had tuk-tuk drivers follow me for miles, in India a simple ‘no thank you’ usually does the trick. And sometimes the touts can be pretty helpful — like when you can’t find a hotel room and you need the assistance of a ‘fixer’ who knows all the families who rent rooms to tourists.
Many people experience culture shock while backpacking India. This can range from reacting with surprise to the poverty, to becoming so paralyzed by the unfamiliarity that you can’t even leave your hotel.
There’s no way to predict how you’re going to react to India. The fact is it affects people deeply, and in very different ways. But to prevent culture shock, it’s worth reading everything you can about travel in India in advance. Talk to people who have been before. Try to get different perspectives — what’s it like to visit family versus going to a friend’s wedding versus backpacking? The more you know when you step off the plane, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with it.
Most travelers seem to react one of two ways: Either they hate India at first and then it grows on them, or they love it immediately and it wears them down (common on month-long or longer trips). I fell into the second category.
I would suggest flying into Mumbai or Kolkata, rather than jumping into Delhi right away. Even after seven weeks in India, I was slightly overwhelmed by Delhi.
Of course, many travelers backpacking India never experience culture shock. And I don’t want to scare you — despite being burned out by the time I got to Delhi, I don’t regret spending seven weeks in India at all. The reason so many people feel culture shocked is that India is so different from what they’re used to. It’s good to challenge yourself when traveling — as long as you don’t end up locking yourself in your hotel the whole time!
India travel advice for women alone
India is not the easiest country to travel in as a solo woman — but it’s not the most difficult either. I felt very safe walking around until about 10 pm. My most uncomfortable male encounter in India was with another tourist. Most solo women have trouble-free trips backpacking India.
Before you go, I recommend reading the great guidebook Wanderlust and Lipstick: For Women Traveling to India. It’s a helpful introduction to many common awkward or dangerous situations.
India is conservative, especially in rural areas. Shorts and sleeveless shirts will invite more hassle. Stick to long, loose clothes — or better yet, buy local clothes (trousers and tunics, not saris). They’re great conversation starters with women and protect you from street harassment. Remember, you don’t have to agree with the local dress norms, but your trip will be more pleasant if you respect them.
I mostly encountered respectful flirtatiousness from men. The biggest challenge was avoiding sending the wrong cultural cues — things like smiling and friendly conversation served to “lead people on” more than I intended. You’ll get cat-called and lots of men will take your photo without permission, but it rarely escalates beyond that.
A few simple steps you can take to protect yourself: make sure your hotel rooms lock, don’t hitchhike, don’t go to bars alone, stick to government buses, and use third-class train compartments to avoid being locked in a windowless compartment with three men.
Finally — locals in India are super friendly and curious about travelers! Don’t let fears of a dangerous encounter stop you from connecting with people you meet in safe environments. Talk to that guy next to you on the train with his new puppy, or the chef at the restaurant you have lunch at, or the guy manning the front desk at your hotel, or the bus drivers while you’re waiting to depart. You’ll learn so much about the fascinating landscape of cultures.
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