Here’s all you need to know about travelling to India for the first time

Travelling to India has been a dream since I first learnt about this beautiful land. But travelling to India for the first time was not like I imagined it to be.

In February 2019, I finally managed to travel to India and fulfil a long-time dream. I bought my tickets without thinking too much because hesitation usually brings nothing good, and I just went with the flow. Then, one week before my departure, the reality hit me: How will I survive in India?

It was just then that I realized I had so many questions about my upcoming 3-week India trip, and I had no answers for any of them. Questions from “How to get an Indian Visa?” to “Will I get sick if I eat the food?” put me through some sleepless nights.

I started following Indian content creators and vloggers, watching obsessively every piece of content produced in India about the most ordinary things.

There even is a famous Indian who has a video on YouTube about Indians using the bathroom. This is no joke, and that was the moment I really realised I was about to see life with new eyes. Which indeed happened.

But for now, I want to dig in the many questions about India, which I had before my first trip to India, and I will try to answer them the best I can, after travelling through India for almost 3-weeks, and going off the beaten path.

The truth is you will never be ready for travelling to India for the first time, no matter how many videos you watch or how many blogs you read. The reality of India will strike you and shock you, days in a row.

In no particular order, here are all the questions I had before travelling to India.

Travelling to India: Visa requirements

Travelling to India requires a visa, for most countries. Fortunately, it’s an e-visa, which you get only after submitting an application and paying the visa tax. I got mine the next day, but they recommend applying for at least 5 days before travelling to India. You will need to print out the visa confirmation and present it to the immigration office.

Also, when you arrive, you will have to fill in a tiny immigration form. You will need to provide your address in India, so have the hotel address written down because your internet will not work as you arrive.

Why? Because not all service providers from across the world have an agreement with the Indian service providers.

To access the free wifi in the airport, for instance, you will need to receive a text message, which you will not receive because your network will not work in India.

Imagine me trying to explain this to the immigration officer, as this was the reason why I didn’t know the address of my hotel. Which apparently was a big thing.

We were taken to a special room, and this other officer got the address from our visa application and wrote it down for us. Don’t be stupid like we were! Have your papers printed!

Is it easy to travel through India by train and bus?

Yes. It is easy and you will find information on all kinds of websites, about buses and planes. The train was more complicated, as they have so many trains and the train stations are huge.

They have many different class tickets for trains and the ones with a seat run out fast. I’m talking weeks before. Also, many big cities, have a special office inside the train station, which is specifically for foreigners. They have a tourist quota, which they only sell to foreigners, but even those run fast, and they don’t have such offices in every city.

Also, It’s hard to purchase bus and train tickets online, as most websites will not accept your foreign card. They force you to go to a local agency, which will charge you more, for service. As no price is every displayed, be prepared to bargain, and even ask around, as you will probably get a much better price if you refuse the first offers. I’m talking about buses and tuk-tuks.

For the train, we only buy tickets from the train station counters, and the price is written on the ticket, so that’s going to be the correct one, but you have to buy it a week in advance, especially if you are going a long way with the train.

Of course, you can buy train tickets on the spot for shorter distances, but you will have no seat, and you will have to find a spot for yourself.

Trust me, India is crowded, and the trains are too. Usually, near the bathroom is where you will find more space, but everyone is hopping in and off the train and the stink… of, that’s something else.

Can I drink tap water?

NO! Except for the Airport, where you can find free potable water near the bathrooms, do not drink tap water.

Always buy bottled water, and make sure it is sealed. You can find it everywhere. As with most packed products, it has a fixed price everywhere.

Also, it’s not recommended to order salads or fruits at a restaurant, as they might use tap water to wash those. Stick to cooked food.

You have to make sure your food wasn’t made with tap water, or that is was boiled, that’s why cooked food is the best option. If it’s hot, it’s sure it was boiled. Even the tea they sell on the streets, make sure it’s hot.

You can buy fruits that can be peeled from the street (bananas, pomegranate, etc), but don’t eat fruits like grapes or anything that’s harder to wash.

Will I get sick if I street food in India?

This was the number one concern about India. I am also a vegan, and I was afraid of not knowing what I would be served.

If you follow your common sense, you will be fine unless you get really unlucky. The population of India is massive, and so are the places where you can get food.

Most streets are full of street vendors, and a lot of them sell food. With one exception, I didn’t eat anything bought from the street vendors. Because everyone will advise you against it, even the locals.

The streets are always crowded with people, cars and scooters, and they are dusty. Imagine all of that, plus the insects, on your food. Would you eat that at home? If not, then don’t do it in India.

I really don’t want to find out what the hospitals look like in India. Some say they are not bad, from what I’ve read online, but prevention is always better.

This is a real issue in India, as you can tell by the huge number of pharmacies all over. If you have any pain, you can always go to the pharmacist and explain.

They are used to this because not just tourists experience stomach pains and other pains, but locals do, too. They keep ibuprofen and other similar drugs right next to them, and after asking a couple of questions, he knows exactly what to give you. They have lots of experience.

Eating in a restaurant, where also locals eat, is the way to go. Most restaurants might not look like the ones you are used to but try to remember that you are in a different world, and that’s how things go around there.

What food is safe to eat in India?

If the place looks ok, the food looks and smell good to you, and if locals eat it too, it could be good. But you never know. Try to be as cautious as you can.

Eating in restaurants is more expensive, but we never had a problem afterwards.

How spicy is the food in India?

It’s spicy. I don’t usually eat spicy food, but I really enjoyed it and eating in local restaurants will give you a taste of real Indian food.

Also, I had the privilege of eating together with locals, in their home, thanks to Authenticook. That’s one experience I recommend to everyone thinking about travelling to India.

But food is spicy, and while I really enjoyed it, after about 2 weeks my stomach was sending me signals that it can’t have it anymore.

It was a new sensation for me. I was feeling like a burn in my stomach and I couldn’t even lay down in certain positions. It was affecting my physical and mental state. I was weak and hungry but everything is so spicy, and my stomach hated it.

Good thing we had some bananas and veggie fast food.

What can I eat as a vegan in India?

India is a vegetarian heaven. And that can easily be adjusted to a vegan menu. I am not sure about the number, but somewhere around 80% of the population is vegetarian and most dishes and restaurants are vegetarian as well.

Fast food like McDonalds and Burger King have more vegetarian options than any other, and that’s what saved me when my stomach couldn’t handle the spicy food anymore.

Will I get scammed in India?

Yes. India’s population is soon to be the largest on Earth and most of them are living in horrid conditions. Think about all the things we have around us, that they never even heard of. If they see someone with light skin they will assume you are rich. For them, all tourists are rich.

And that’s true. We just couldn’t compare our life standards to theirs. It would be unfair and simply not possible.

Over the past decades, India has become increasingly interesting for tourists and travellers and this is visible especially in Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. This is that they call the Golden Triangle and they are pretty close to each other.

Most tourists go to these places, and then fly to Mumbai or back home. So they will try to make some money.

But when I’m talking about scams, don’t be dramatic about it. They mostly overcharge you for services, like tuk-tuk rides and guiding you around.

The overcharge depends on how touristic the area is.

Imagine a tuk-tuk ride, which should be 50 rupees, and they will ask for 250 rupees. That’s 3.2 Eur instead of 0.6 Eur. Yes, the fact that they tried to charge you 5 times more is outrageous, and I tried to argue with them but trust me, that’s not a solution.

And of course, nobody is forcing you to pay them. But then again, India is big and the cities are big and the distances are big, and after some hours of walking, you will be tired and you will pay.

But again, don’t accept the first offer. Especially if you are busy with lots of people offering the same service.

Also, don’t expect to pay the same as the locals are, that just wouldn’t be fair, but somewhere between their price and double it would be acceptable.

Once you agree on a price, it’s expected that both parties will keep their promise.

If you hire a tuk-tuk driver, agree on a sum before the journey starts. In the end, he will give you change. Count the change, as some will try to cheat and give you less. They will immediately give you the rest of the money if you tell them.

Is it safe to bathe in the Ganges?

Absolutely not! Under no circumstance do I recommend this.

Of course, Indians love this river, as it is their holy river, and God himself created it, and all those things, but multiple studies proved it is the most disgusting water on Earth, and you should not swim/bat/drink it!! No, No, No!

You will see people bathing in the Ganges or even drinking water from the Ganges.

Most of them put the holy water in plastic bottles and carry it home. But after all the things you see on the internet, and what I SAW with my own eyes, I wouldn’t even touch it. Not even with my shoes. No!

They seem to be brainwashed into believing this holy water is purifying by itself, and there is an interview on YouTube with the person in charge of their waters, some sort of minister or something, and he is saying that the more dirt you put into the Ganges, the purer the water becomes! Insane, I know!

Also, if you look closer at the river in the mountain area, closer to where it springs from, the Ganges will look clean, and it will probably be.

In Rishikesh, it didn’t look that bad. But some hundreds of kilometres down the valley. But in Varanasi, it was just another world.

Travelling to India: vaccinations

If you are looking for health advice, a doctor is the one to ask.

Everyone asked me if I got my vaccines, but nobody actually knew which ones. It’s like a myth going on in life: if you are leaving Europe, you need to get vaccinated, or else something dreadful will happen.

I didn’t get any vaccines, but everything was fine. There are many opinions on the web, but many vaccines necessary are the ones we got when we were little.

So, there isn’t a list of required vaccinations if you are travelling to India. But you will find some opinions and guidelines.

They all say to ask your doctor, and depending on your country, your doctor may or may not freak out. Most doctors I know haven’t travelled that much, and everything is highly dangerous for them, and they treat everything with lots of pills. Something tells me not to trust them.

Some vaccinations might need to be repeated since they might have ‘expired’ by now, but I think the ones you can look into are the hepatitis vaccines.

I’m not sure how or where, but considering India is the dirtiest country I ever visited, I would consider hepatitis vaccines if I were travelling to India for the first time.

Again, I was fine, always taking care to wash my hands and not doing crazy things, so I don’t consider this a must, but it’s up to you. Your life and your health- nobody can tell you for sure what to do or what not to do.

Travelling to India: checklist

Honestly, You won’t need that much stuff there. You can buy almost everything from there. And probably it will be cheaper.

Considering you will probably land in a big city such as Delhi or Mumbai, you can find everything you need and more. Time is what you will need to go and find it. So I would suggest to not bring more than basic stuff, especially if you are backpacking in India.

Travelling to India alone and Travelling to India for the first time

Totally doable and safe!

If you are travelling to India for the first time, it will take a while, probably around a week, to get a grip on how things work around there.

It’s like India functions on a different set of rules, but once you get to understand it, everything will become much easier. At first, you will get scared, and you will be afraid of a lot of stuff.

Remember that most things from back home don’t apply there.

I’m talking about social norms and such. You will be forced to adapt, and that will happen. You will know not to wander off on the dark alleys, say in busy neighbourhoods after dark, and don’t get too lost.

Of course, it sounds scary, but it is mostly for your own comfort. Indian people are really friendly, and they all want to help.

It’s a special kind of help because sometimes they don’t know how to help, but they still try to understand what you want, although they don’t speak English.

So it’s a bit of a waste of time, but in essence, they are kind. I met lots of Indians with different social and cultural backgrounds, with lots of studies and fewer studies.

They all have one thing in common: they want to help you explain more about their culture and discover things from your culture as well. People are nice and friendly!

I would say it’s safe to travel to India alone but don’t let it be your first time travelling alone. I would say you need some practice travelling alone, before arriving in India.

Travelling to India: Money

The most talked about topics when it comes to India and money are the following:

  • India currency
  • Money exchanges in India
  • How much does it cost to travel to India?

Let’s dig a bit deeper into each one of these money topics when travelling to India.

Indian currency

The currency in India is called the Indian Rupee (INR).

In April 2019, 1 Euro = 78 INR.

It is illegal to leave India holding Indian currency, but I bet we all have some left. That’s why you will need to exchange Euros or Dollars at the airport.

Money exchanges in India

There are also some ATMs at the airport, but they charge a fee, and also the airport exchange hasn’t got the greatest exchange rate, but it’s ok for a few hundred rupees. You will need to buy the metro ticket, or pay for the taxi. Of course, you can take uber, but it’s just too crazy to go through all that.

Most places don’t accept card payments.

In Delhi, you will find plenty of ATMs and tourist places where they accept cards, but in other cities, not so much. So you will basically need to exchange your money for INR.

The exchanges look a bit shady, but they all look the same.

Check for the rate, ask if there is a commission (it shouldn’t be one) and ask if they can exchange your amount of Euros or dollars. He should show you the amount of INR that you would receive on a calculator.

They offer more for $100 bills and a lower rate for $50 bills. This is similar to the money situation in Argentina. Also, make sure your bills are not broken or in bad condition, as they might refuse it.

If you find a good rate, exchange more money, because you might find it hard to find an exchange later, especially if you will travel off the beaten path.

How much does it cost to travel to India?

Depends on you. It can be the cheapest trip you have ever taken in your entire life (so hurry before things change), or it can be the most luxurious experience of your life. If you will travel to India, you will discover a new dimension of life.

Unexpectedly, some palaces have turned into luxury hotels, and the prices are obscene. The range of prices is huge, so be prepared to be shocked.

You will discover that there is a huge discrepancy between the ordinary people, mostly poor, but also the middle class, and the very rich people of India. Basically, if you are looking for similar hotel standards to what you’re used to in Europe or in the U.S., you will have to pay more than you would pay back home.

How much did we spend in India?

It might be cheaper to travel in a group, as you can book a private room and split the cost in half or more. We spent 18 days in India and spent an average of $38 per day each (this was in 2019), not including the airplane ticket.

That includes everything, from transport to food to accommodation.

This was comfortable, and we did everything we wanted to. We moved every 2 or 3 days to a new city and stayed in hostels, but also in 4* hotels; we used Uber and a lot of private tuk-tuks. We only ate at restaurants and paid for some guides.

My boyfriends had a bunch of beers, which are expensive in India according to European standards. This was the cost of a relaxed backpacking trip in India.

We could have spared some expenses and also had a comfortable trip. It would have been easy to spend only $30 per day. But we didn’t set that goal. We wanted to experience everything a lot of stuff, and that’s what we did.

The most expensive things are transport and accommodation. It’s hard to find something that looks like back home, and if you want it, you will have to pay a much higher price.

Travelling to India: Hotels in India

But what struck me the most is that you will not get what you book. Many of the hotels on hotel platforms have fake photos.

Highly touristic places are full of accommodations, and not all of them are what they pretend to be.

For instance, in the old centre of Delhi, many will post false pictures of their hotels, and then when you get there, you will discover you have been scammed.

The best way to avoid this is to stay at hotels with good reviews. The problem is that some hotels have a lot of false reviews as well. And some have no reviews at all. Stay away from those.

So when you want to book a hotel, check the reviews and make sure they are from foreigners. Check their English. Some try to fake reviews from foreign tourists. This is what got to me the most. I found myself to be researching hotels for hours, and it was exhausting.

I used mainly Booking to book our Hotels in India, but it’s a good idea to double check the availability and prices on Agoda (this is more popular than Booking in Asia and has more hotels and sometimes far better prices).

Travelling to India: Sim card

Getting a sim card with internet data is essential in India! It will help you get around, and also call for Uber, when you find yourself lost.

If you arrive in Delhi, there will be an AirTel shop in the airport, from where you can buy your sim card. It will be more expensive, but I recommend you buy it from there. We had a really bad experience with Vodafone, and it’s just not worth searching for something else.

The thing is that they need to file an application with a copy of your passport, visa, and photo to activate your SIM card. And this will take some hours.

I applied at 6 AM and got my sim activated in the afternoon. You will not know when. Because you don’t get a message, but they say after 4 PM.

At 7 PM, I remembered about the phone and restarted my phone. And it started working.

However, some other shops promise the same for less money but will never charge your sim card, and your sim card will not work. This happened at a Vodafone shop. The Airtel at the airport was 800 IDR, while the Vodafone will be 300 IDR (but didn’t work).

Other AirTel shops will ask for 500 IDR, but you will have to provide a photo for the application. I’m talking about a real photo, like the one they take when you get a passport. And they need to handwrite the application and then stick the printed photo on the paper. Or at least that’s how things worked in 2019. It would take at least an hour, if not more, and this practice is consistent with everything else in India.

This highly bureaucratic process happens everywhere in India.

They always need your passport, the address of the hotel, and your visa; they take copies of your visa and ask you to fill out all sorts of details. Every. Time. Checking in at a hotel, buying train tickets, buying a sim card.

The good part of it is that they don’t seem to have these centralized. So basically, nobody checks them. So you can say whatever. I called my boyfriend as my husband in those hotel registers. Confused addresses, cities and all kinds of funny stories.

It’s just too complicated to explain or to ask questions, so just try your best and don’t argue. If you have a fake story, stick to that instead of trying to explain a more complicated situation or to argue. It will only take longer if you do.

How friendly are Indian people?

Indians are super friendly and always trying to help you.

Even when they don’t understand what you are saying, they will stop if they see you stopping in the middle of the road and ask if you need help.

Sometimes, they can get over-friendly and ask more personal questions. You might find this weird, but this is their culture. They try to be your friend and to get to know you.

It was not uncommon to stop on the street and have 20+ people staring at us, waiting for us to do something. You get used to it, kind of.

General advice about travelling to India

  • Try to blend it! I’m talking about clothes, behavior, don’t take too many pics, act like a normal person, not like a crazy tourist.
  • Keep your valuables safe, but no need to hide your wallet in your socks. Many European cities are far more dangerous than what I’ve seen in India. They will try to overcharge you, but far less people will try to steal. I haven’t seen anyone doing that. There was one man in a market telling me my money was about to fall out of my pocket.
  • Don’t argue; if there is something you don’t like, just walk away. They do the same!
  • Bargaining is a thing! Everybody does it, even locals, and it’s hard to get the correct price as a tourist. Expect to pay almost double. Some will refuse to lower their prices for you because you are a foreigner, so keep searching.
  • Ask to see the hotel’s room before checking in or paying. Some are not what you see on the internet.
  • Don’t give your phone to anyone. Always hold your phone firmly, even when you are showing something to someone else.
  • Always check the water bottles to ensure the seal is intact.
  • Eat only cooked foods.

As Indian food is a big topic, I strongly suggest you try to book a lunch or dinner with a local family, to have a taste of real Indian food, while learning how to cook them and possibly making new friends.

Iulia Vasile

Iulia is a travel expert, blogger, engineer, freelance copywriter, and a curiosity-driven personality. She sees travel as the ultimate tool for self-improvement and personal growth, and that's the main topic of her blog,

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