Recently Greg, Friendly Planet’s Marketing Manager, traveled to India and picked up a few travel tricks of the trade along the way. Below he offers ten tips to consider before you book your own adventure to the subcontinent.
I’m in love with India, and I don’t care who knows it! My infatuation with the country started a few years ago when my wife and I backpacked from South to North. Recently I got another unexpected but entirely welcomed opportunity to head back for two weeks, and along the way, I picked up a few tidbits of hard-earned travel knowledge that might be worth imparting. Some of these tips are very practical. Some of them are slightly more facetious. But whether it’s seeing you through a common misunderstanding or propelling you into a deeper dive of the culture, all of them will be helpful on your next trip to India.
1. Embrace change
You might be expecting something about how spectacularly different India’s culture is from our own. Or some time ruminating on how this very traditional society is evolving on the cutting edge of the world’s urban, technological and entertainment landscapes. But no. What I really mean is…save your change! Small bills and rupee coins are at a premium in India, and it’s no fun paying 100 rupees for a glass of lassi that only costs ten just because the vendor doesn’t have any change. If you exchange your dollars for rupees before you leave, you’re likely heading to India stocked with ₹500, ₹1000 and ₹2000 notes. The ATMs over there offer the same denominations. But everyday necessities and small souvenirs won’t usually cost this much. So when you have the opportunity, get some change, and consider it one of your hottest travel commodities.
2. Don’t be fooled by the bobble
3. It’s negotiable
A lot of prices in India are negotiable. And though for many travelers haggling might feel awkward or uncomfortable, in many circumstances it’s widely accepted that the first price is not the final price, and you’re welcome to try and bring it down. You might even elicit some smiles along the way! If there’s a listed price, that usually means the cost is firm. You also typically don’t haggle in restaurants or street food stalls and corner sundry shops. But barter to your heart’s content at souvenir shops and street markets. And if you want to take a tuk-tuk out to dinner, make sure you haggle down and agree on a price before you get in and head off. Honestly, as a tourist, you will always pay too much even if you’re a ninja negotiator. So just have fun with it. And remember, you’re helping people who have much less money than you do.
4. Prepare for the paparazzi
Ok, so you’re not a celebrity. But you may be a bit of a novelty, especially in high trafficked tourist spots like the Taj Mahal where Indian tourists come from smaller cities, towns and rural areas that don’t often draw foreign visitors. Don’t be surprised if you’re approached by a family asking for a ‘selfie’, which basically means a family photo with you as the centerpiece. One time my wife and I were approached by 22 school kids who lined up and one-by-one and asked for a photo-op. Twice a baby was placed into my wife’s arms with the proud parents snapping shot after shot. This is a charming quirk of India travel and shouldn’t be avoided. It’s a great way to meet people and easily strike up a conversation with the locals, and you’ll also help school children practice their English.
5. Learn the language
But you’ve already done that, because it’s English! Most people don’t know that India has two official languages: Hindi, but also English. English is widely spoken among the upper classes and anywhere tourists will congregate. There are estimated over 1,600 languages spoken in India, so it’s difficult to target which local language or dialect you should actually learn. I recommend bringing some key phrases in Hindi, like ‘namaste’ (hello, pronounced [nuhm–uh-stey]) and ‘dhanyavaad’ (thank you, pronounced [thun-yuh-vod]) so that you are making an effort to immerse yourself in the culture. But then I also encourage everyone not to worry too much about language barriers, since English is such an integral part of the culture. Even the tuk-tuk drivers will understand things like ‘how much?’ and be able to respond in kind even if they don’t speak English well.
6. Turn on the TV
This might sound counter intuitive, but when you’re traveling in India, you have to watch some TV. During down time in the hotel, I strongly encourage you to pick up the remote for two reasons: Bollywood music videos and cricket matches. You can’t miss ‘em, and they occupy seemingly half the lineup. Not only are the Bollywood videos pure entertainment, but it’s fascinating to see how Indian cinema coyly navigates the deeply human but largely taboo topics of love and sexuality in this outwardly conservative society. Then there’s the cricket matches…full of fanfare and machismo, competition and celebrity. The TV matches seem more theater than sport. Even if you don’t understand the rules, you’ll surely understand the elation in the crowd when their team scores. Music and cricket are a great conversation starter over the breakfast table, and are sure to ignite your local guide into a passionate cultural explanation if you care to ask.
7. Don’t feed the cows
The cows in India are well documented, but you might not realize just how closely you’ll encounter our bovine buddies. They’ll block your way on the sidewalk and they’ll block your way on the road. They’ll even block your way when you’re shopping in the markets. Cows are holy, and they know it! So they’re in no hurry. And while they’re almost always docile, entirely unconcerned, and un-phased by a safe-distance selfie, do not feed them. There’s no reason to risk an irritated head butt or half-hearted butt kick for the sake of a photo. The same goes for monkeys by the way, which are also ubiquitous, and may get a bit more aggressive when faced with the prospect of free tourist food.
8. Dress light
India is hot. So dress light with linens and other breathable materials to keep yourself the most comfortable. For women, you may want to consider keeping your shoulders and knees covered and dressing a bit more modestly than is accepted at home simply to conform to the general standards of Indian women. For men, Indian men favor pants overwhelmingly over shorts, again, if you’re interested in dressing more like the locals. For both men and women, keeping your shoulders and knees covered makes it easiest to enter certain holy sites where this may be required. You may want to bring a handkerchief or shawl to cover your head if required at holy sites too. Long, light, breathable materials keep the sun off your bare skin and wick away uncomfortable sweat which may actually keep you cooler. They also help to prevent sun burn and can keep the bugs off. Finally, light and breathable usually means compactable and packable too. Trust me, no one has ever come home from India and wished they brought more bags!
9. Try the chai
10. Just go
I’ve been working in travel long enough to know that India’s reputation precedes itself, and that keeps many people away. It’s unfortunate, but I hear questions like ‘Will I get sick?’ or ‘Is it safe?’ far more than ‘Is the Taj Mahal as spectacular as it looks in pictures?’ (and to that I give an emphatic head bobble!). If you’re on the fence about visiting India, or if it’s been on your bucket list for quite some time….Just go.
India unabashedly encapsulates some of the absolute best, and admittedly some of the absolute worst, our world has to offer. But to me, this dichotomy of unparalleled superlatives makes the colors seem more vibrant and the smells more enticing. It helps the food discover taste buds you didn’t know you had, and the sites tip a grander scale as they unequivocally live up to the hype. It gives the people a warm hospitality and an undeniable pride in their culture. Even the poverty, which can at times seem overwhelming, reminds me of my blessed place in this world, of my social responsibility as an international traveler, and makes home seem that much sweeter when I return.
India absolutely will not change for you. But she’ll hold your hand as she encourages you to change for her. And for me, that makes the country a must visit. But of course, that’s just one traveler’s opinion, and I encourage all of you to head there and form opinions of your own.
We offer two small group tours to India: Taj Mahal Express and Best of India. Both of these also have an optional post tour extension to Nepal. We also have some special combination and festival departures to India too, which you can find right here.
#FriendlyFiles follows Friendly Planet’s adventurous staff as they travel the world. It is crucial that our team experiences first-hand the sites, hotels, food and transportation so that we know exactly how the trip will feel for our travelers—and to help us as we strive to provide experiences, not sightseeing!
I only visited India once on the Taj Mahal express and I loved it. Yes, beggars and street vendors sometimes bother you, but is you have a guide, seek their assistance. If you like to shop, this is a great place to do it!
The paparazzi comment only really applies to white tourists…like in most of the world, being white is the draw.
This blog by Greg about 10 tips for travel in India is absolutely spot on! I’m a US citizen originally from India and appreciate the humor with which the author has tackled some “sensitive” cultural issues. Loved it!