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The Ultimate Guide to Preparing Your First Trip to India

Updated: Aug 15, 2023


Taj Mahal at dawn
The Taj Mahal at dawn

India can seem like a daunting destination, and it's known to be one of, if not the most, diverse country you'll ever visit. India is the first far-flung country we've ever travelled to, and we were filled with excitement, but also anxiety. What should we pack? What kind of visa do we need? What medications should we take with us? What will it be like for me as a woman to travel in India? These are all questions we asked ourselves before we left, and until you actually experience the country, you can't really know the right answers (aside from administrative things like visas). After spending a month travelling around the country and trying out a lot of things, I can give you the ultimate guide to preparing your first trip to India and avoiding unnecessary stress!

Preparing your first trip to India



What visa do I need for India?


Once you have the dates in mind, it's time to think about what kind of visa you need for India. The first thing I recommend you do to prepare for your first trip to India is get your visa papers so you can plan ahead. The most practical and reliable way is to apply for an electronic tourist visa (e-visa). You can choose either an e-visa for 30 or 90 days. This visa is valid for 1 year and is valid from your arrival in India. It is a multiple-entry visa and is available for French, English and many other nationalities. You can find the list here.


The whole procedure, including payment, is done online on the website indianvisaonline.gov.in (note, this is the official website of the Indian government where you can apply for the visa yourself, all other websites are agencies acting as intermediaries). I advise you to apply for the visa at least 10 days before your trip (officially it cannot be applied for more than 120 days before departure), and you should receive the visa by email within 4 days, which you must then print and present to the authorities upon arrival.


You will need to scan the info page of your passport (the double page with the photo, name, etc. in PDF format) and a recent colour passport photo in JPG format, in square format. Be careful with the size of the uploaded files: The application may be rejected by the Indian authorities if the uploaded documents are not legible or do not meet the requirements.


This tourist visa must be used within one year of receipt (entry into the territory) and is valid for entry into India by air and sea (in Cochin, Goa, Mangalore, Mumbai and Chennai), but not by land (for example, with this visa it is not possible to enter India from Nepal via the land border; however, it is possible to exit by land, i.e. travel from India to Nepal, on condition that you then return to India by air)!



When's the best time to go to India? For how long?


Since I have been to India only once, I cannot make comparisons with other trips to the country to say what is the best time to travel. That being said, we particularly enjoyed the weather and the atmosphere in March and April. We started in the south to avoid the wet weather and it was hot but pleasant. There were few foreign tourists as most of the tourists in the country are Indian themselves, and although there were quite a few, it wasn't overly crowded. It seems to me that it was a holiday season when we were there, so some places like Jodhpur and Jaipur were quieter than usual.

The length of your trip to India depends entirely on what you want, namely that India is very big and you have to take into account the travel time between destinations, which can be a day or two depending on your mode of transport. We have a more or less precise idea of our itinerary: we started in the south and drove north. Our friends we met there had already been in the country for two months, so one month was more than enough for us! If you have to take certain medicines for health reasons, remember to ask your doctor to prescribe a certain amount so that you can take it all on the trip, this is what we had to do for Ismail!



What's a good itinerary to travel India?


As mentioned earlier, we started in the south of India, Goa to be precise, and ended up in the north in Delhi. The weather was one of the main reasons to start in the south because from mid-April the monsoon starts in this region and we wanted to avoid it! There are many places to see in India, all different from each other: Beaches and high mountains, desert and rice fields, cities and small villages... but as with any trip, you can't do everything, but I think our itinerary allowed us to see a lot, and it's possible to adapt it to your liking!


Itinerary for preparing first trip to India

We started in South Goa for its beautiful beaches and relaxed atmosphere, then continued to the centre of the country to Hampi for its temples and rock sites, and then on to Bangalore to fly to Jodphur. From Jodphur, the blue city, we went to Jaipur, the pink city, and then to Agra, to see the jewel of India, the Taj Mahal. Finally, we spent one more night in Delhi before flying back to Paris.



What medication should I take?


It is the biggest fear of people who travel to India: the famous Delhi belly. And even if we had started well, we didn't escape it. I think we were a bit confident and went to India without taking much in the way of medication other than paracetamol. I think you should think about taking some anti-vomiting and diarrhoea medication as you are likely to get sick. The most important thing is to drink a lot of water if it happens to you, the biggest risk of food poisoning is dehydration. Having said that, I know people who have never fallen ill in India, you shouldn't become paranoid but it's still reassuring to have something to relieve the pain, the fever or the trips to the toilet!


How will I get around India?


Surprisingly, our travel within India was quite easy. We were a bit apprehensive about the transport, whether it was the bus or the plane, but generally speaking, it went well. India is big. Very big. There are many ways to get around the country such as buses, overnight sleeper buses, trains, taxis and planes.


Train

Unfortunately, we could not take the train in India and this is probably the only regret we have. If you wish to travel by train here's some important information :


  • First, booking a train ticket online is impossible unless you have an Indian credit card. You have to either ask someone to book for you and you pay them back in cash or you have to go in person to the station but the tickets are not guaranteed and you risk a long wait.


  • Secondly, even booking online, you're not guaranteed your seat. There is often a percentage next to the ticket prices, you will see the percentage chance of actually getting your seat, even if you have paid! On top of that, you have to book in advance depending on the destination, trains are often full weeks in advance.


Sleeper bus


Our most popular means of transport during our trip to India was the sleeper bus. A total discovery for us, who had no idea what it was all about. For long journeys, it is convenient to book these buses which offer real berths. Depending on the company, you will have more or less comfort, but for most of them you will have a duvet, a pillow, a bottle of water and curtains. Moreover, it is ideal for a couple as you can opt for a double berth. The bus stops several times, so there is no toilet on board.


It is possible to book the buses online this time with a foreign credit card. Once you have your tickets, you will be given the number of the driver who will contact you if necessary or vice versa. It is even better if you have an Indian number because it is not sure that they can reach you with a foreign number.



Plane


We were adamant that we would not fly domestically on our trip to India, but for practical reasons, we had to opt for this means of transport. As mentioned above, we were too late for trains and wanted to get from Hampi in the south to Jodphur in the north, a very long bus ride if I may say so. On top of that, one of us had an ankle injury and ended up on crutches, so it was deemed more sensible to fly from Bangalore. There are several Indian airlines that offer daily domestic flights, we flew with Indigo and it went really well.



Rickshaw (tuk-tuk)


An iconic mode of transportation when travelling in India. Convenient, cheap and always available, the tuk-tuk is the best way to get around Indian cities. Don't be afraid to negotiate the price, drivers are bound to offer you a higher price than the norm.


A tuk-tuk in Jodphur



Where to stay in India?


During our first trip to India, we stayed in an Airbnb and then in guest houses/hotels. It's easy to find good but cheap accommodation. We went through Airbnb and Booking for reservations. Note that guest houses/hotels only accept cash payments on the spot. We tended to pay for everything at the end of our stay.



What is it like travelling as a woman in India?


When we were preparing our first trip to India, one of the biggest apprehensions I had was what it would be like as a blonde, blue-eyed woman travelling in India. Yes, because it's no myth, being a Western woman already attracts attention but when you are blonde with blue eyes then it's times a thousand. In all honesty, I wouldn't travel to India on my own, purely because I wouldn't want the added stress of always being on my guard. Being with Ismail made me feel safe and secure, especially as people don't come to you as much if you're with a man.


Having said that, I didn't experience any big problems as a woman, so yes, you will be stared at, and they will probably ask to take your picture or sometimes film you without necessarily giving your consent, but in most cases people are nice and it's just innocent curiosity. However, you have to know how to say no to photos. If you allow yourself to say yes in a crowded place, then be prepared to be overwhelmed by photo requests! I was much more wary of men who wanted photos, I was more uncomfortable because the reasons were not so innocent in my opinion, especially if you are with a man they will tend to ask him if they can take your picture instead of asking you. Other than that, dress modestly, nothing will be said if you wear shorts or anything else, but be prepared to get stares from both men and women. Always carry a shawl with you for temple visits or to cover yourself if you are in a more conservative area or village. If you're planning on going to Goa, you will be able to wear a swimsuit and go swimming without being bothered because they are more used to seeing tourists there!



walking on Majorda Beach in South Goa
Me walking on Majorda Beach in South Goa


All in all, don't be afraid to travel to India if you are an accompanied woman, I say this because it is my personal experience. I did meet women who were solo travelling the country and it seemed to be fine, you just have to be careful and respect the customs.



What precautions should I take?


As with all travel, there are precautions to be taken depending on the country you're visiting. Here are some to take into account when preparing your first trip to India :


  • Never drink tap water. We start with a fairly obvious but serious precaution. The main reason for getting sick in India is water. Only drink bottled water and make sure it is tightly closed, listen for the little 'click' of the opening as sometimes vendors fill old bottles with tap water to save money. This goes for any water that isn't from a bottle. Avoid ice cubes and drinks like homemade ice tea and use bottled water to brush your teeth. You shouldn't become paranoid though, shower as you would normally, you can rinse the toothbrush with tap water etc.

  • Always have cash on you. Most places do not accept payment by credit card. Always carry cash with you, but be careful to be discreet if you have large sums on you. I advise you to withdraw as soon as you can, as it is quite common for ATMs to run out of cash or be out of order. As soon as you find a working ATM, withdraw!

  • if you can, try to get an Indian SIM card. One person in the group had one and it was very handy for online bookings etc. If you take the night buses, the driver may try to reach you only on an Indian number to give you information about their arrival time etc. This will also allow you to contact them if you are unsure about the departure stop or anything else.

  • Prepare yourself for a big culture shock. India is a beautiful but very intense country and you will inevitably be confronted with extreme poverty which can be difficult to see, a lot of pollution both in the air and on the ground (plastic etc) and unpleasant smells but this is part of the journey and obviously one should not summarise the country to that, India is a vibrant country with a lot of colours, kind people, beautiful scenery and fascinating culture and history.


Locals bathing in Hampi


So there you have it, now you are all set to prepare your first trip to India. If you have any questions about travelling to India, don't hesitate to ask me in the comments or check out my articles about our trip to this incredible country!











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