20 Things You Need To Know Before Traveling to India

“It is an assault on all the senses
in the best and the worst ways.”

– A Jaipur Local on the sensory experience of Indian street culture.

When I visited India back in 2015, I never expected a vacation to change my life as much as that one did. I was 23, fresh out of my college bubble, surprised and amazed at how different the world can be the farther you are from home. It was inspiring, feeling like I traveled to a different planet, with small cross-cultural similarities going unnoticed due to the overshadowing contrast of the new diversity of culture, technology, and architecture around me. My perception of my place in this world broadened and my motivation to see the rest of the world had skyrocketed to new heights. It truly is like no other place in the world. While in India, I would catch myself planning my next visit back, regardless of the reality of that possibility. Promising myself to come back to the place that assaulted my senses in so many unexpected ways- through new friendships with locals, freshly baked naan from a tandoor oven in the ground, the ever-tense drive or walk through busy and stinky poop-filled streets, to the endless symphony of motorcycle, car, and rickshaw horns, colorful wedding parties energetically parading and dancing through the streets, and witnessing the horrible and indescribable living conditions countless Indian citizens had to deal with on a daily basis. Needless to say, for most who will visit India, I remind you to be prepared for the greatest culture shock of your life. All of your comfort zones will be poked and prodded with a plethora of new, unfamiliar and eye-opening lifestyles clashing all around you.

When I came back home, nothing looked the same as I had left it. Everything back home looked cleaner, newer, and things everywhere existed in excessive abundance. Some things I thought I couldn’t live without, I no longer needed, and the urge for me to reach my helping hand out into the world grew evermore.

Even though I always believed it, I was able to witness firsthand- in such a unique, beautiful and personal way – that true happiness doesn’t come in shapes and sizes or quantities of things but, rather, the connections between people, place and circumstance. Happiness comes from community and from the feeling you get from experiencing true bonds with other people, of the likes you have never met before. It’s that giddy feeling you get after taking risks or going on a whim and everything turning out unexpectedly fine. It’s that surprised feeling you get when something turns out to be nothing like you expected it to be, but wonderful and life-changing nonetheless. It’s the energy that drives you to be better simply because it makes you feel better and makes the people, places and circumstances around you better.

Humans work best in groups. Whether some would admit it or not, we depend on each other to survive, to share ideas or feelings, to pick each other up when we fall or lose our way. In all of my travels, in all corners of the world, I have not met such welcoming and collaborative communities than the ones I came across on the streets of India. Locals feed off each others energy so fluidly and effectively, helping each other out when necessary, and making great use with what little is available to them. As you plan your travels through India, keep in mind that you will be distracted by everything around you the entire time. To side you in this wonderful problem, I made a list of essential things to do before or during your trip that I believe can make or break a great trip. These little preplanned conveniences will save you a lot of time and stress while planning your trip to India.

This list is for those of you out there needing a helping hand in deciding how to prepare for a different world you probably know little about-

Here is a list of 20 essential things you need to know before traveling to India:

    • Every day sightseeing in India tends to demand a lot of walking. It is important that you bring a comfortable and breathable pair of shoes for any day excursions, preferably closed-toe to avoid unwanted mosquito bites or skin contact with dirty street debris. Whether it will be weaving through the overcrowded, livestock poop-filled, dusty, uneven streets, or taking long strolls through beautiful ancient temples and parks, you will need comfortable and breathable shoes to get you through the long, hot, humid, smoggy days.
    • For many reasons, you should always exchange your money for your foreign destination’s currency before leaving your country of residence. Sometimes you have time to spare before your flight so take that opportunity to stock up on some foreign cash. It generally has a better exchange rate and saves you the hassle and lag of finding an exchange kiosk upon arrival. Always remember to leave the bulk of your cash locked safely in your hotel room safe while you are out venturing around. I recommend bringing a coin purse rather than a fold wallet, your day-to-day use of Indian currency will mainly involve coins rather than bills/notes.
    • We all make mistakes, maybe even while we are brushing our teeth. While in India, don’t make the mistake of dipping your toothbrush under the sink water, not even for a second to wetten the bristles before brushing your teeth. The tap water in India is unfit for human consumption (you can still shower, just don’t forget to keep your mouth closed!) so water can only be drank from treated water (at some restaurants and hotels) or by bottled water. To try and avoid making the mistake of drinking the tap water, leave a water bottle next to your sink in your hotel room and cover your sink faucet(s) with a towel to avoid accidental turn-ons. Trust me, it happens! So, since we all make mistakes because of our beautiful and unique fallible human qualities, bring a couple extra toothbrushes just in case you have to throw yours in the trash. Your hotel may have extra to give you, but just to be prepared, bring your own. Convenience stores that sell toothbrushes are not as easy to find as back home.
    • Make a copy of your passport and Visa and carry it with you. Leave your original passport & visa locked away safely in your hotel room. You never know what might happen once you leave your hotel for the day, so it is safe to carry identification on you just in case there is an emergency. For any other necessaryitems you must insist keeping on you at all times, make sure to put them in a pickpocket-proof Theft-resistant side bag or backpack.
    • Given that India is one of the most overpopulated countries in the world it is expected that the distribution of wealth is contrasted much more unevenly than many Western countries. The lack of good infrastructure and years of imbalanced government has left the locals to fend for themselves, developing a very wealthy upper class, miniscule middle class, and a struggling lower class. Out of respect for the large majority of the population that is forced to live in shanty towns or tents along the streets and highways, please leave all displays of wealth at home. India is known for their geographic advantage in the gem industry but most are seen in palaces, highend shops with luxury jewelry or exported globally, rather than locals wearing them. You will find new kinds of wealth in India, shown through their rich culture, unending hospitality, graceful tradition, ancient architecture and spiritual communities.
    • I understand that hiring a driver is not the most cost-effective way to travel around India, but from personal experience I believe it is the easiest, safest, and most comfortable way to explore the densely populated city centers. So, if you are able to give it a try, I highly recommend finding a safe and affordable option with good reviews and that speaks your native language. The half-day or full-day excursions typically start around sunrise to get the most of the cooler weather and to avoid crowds at major temples or monuments.  Upon hotel pickup, you can be greeted by an air conditioned charter bus, equipped with around 10 reclinable seats and large windows all around. Also with your driver, day guide, and a mixture of indian snacks and bottled drinks to enjoy along the way to and from your stops. There is no need to spend time looking for a parking space once you arrive at your stop, the drivers drop you off at the front entrance of every destination- maybe not legally, but quickly enough not to cause any issues and make a safe exit. You can design your day according to what you want to see or do and the drivers usually even suggest off-itinerary local stops that end up being the best part of the day- when you’re immersed in a local’s perspective of the culture.
    • Covering your head and shoulders with a head scarf (Hindu term: ghoonghat) or a long piece of cloth is a sign of reverence and respect for the religious practices of the Hindu temples you will visit. I can guarantee there will always be temple visits wherever you end up in India.
    • Taking off your shoes before entering a temple in India is not only the respectable thing to do, it is mandatory. Please respect their cultures religious practices and structures by taking off your shoes, keeping your voice at a minimum, avoid taking excessive amounts of pictures or videos inside and if you do take pictures, make sure you do not pose inappropriately. In recent years there has been a rising number of what some governments call “bad tourists” who will go to culturally or religiously significant sites and pose inappropriately or touch/climb on architecture that should only be looked from a respectful distance. Please be respectful. Don’t be a “bad tourist.”
    • Malaria is a deadly and growing problem in India and mosquitoes can be found anywhere during any time in the day. Dawn and dusk is the most popular time of the day for mosquitoes to come out and stretch their wings, especially near water sources like reservoirs, lakes, and rivers. While out and about, try to plan on wearing light-colored clothing because it is known that mosquitoes are attracted to dark colors. Stick to light-colored earthy tones and you should be playing it safe in the battle against the mosquitoes.
    • Waking up in a densely populated city in India is like waking up on Mars. The sky is orange and hazy, sometimes visibility stretching no farther than 200 feet in front of you. The most smoggy times of the day tend to happen around meal times, around sunrise and sunset, when street food vendors and locals living on the streets set up their cook fires fueled by handmade sun-dried cow pies (watch out for these drying on the sides of the roads!). I will never forget that smell.
    • If you are visiting from any area of the world where pollution is not a day-to-day problem, like many living in the Western countries (i.e. Europe and America), then you may be prone to a sore throat or some sinus pain and congestion while you’re there. To help prevent getting an sore throat by your second or third day, make sure to drink a lot of room-temperature water and hot tea whenever it is accessible. This will help you stay cool and hydrated while helping you cope with the polluted air by soothing your throat. Plus, if you feel like taking the smog check a step further, buy a mask before you leave your home country. Carbon or pollution masks are common and highly recommended for visitors and backpackers planning to walk the streets more than using a car.
    • Try to avoid wearing shorts during your outdoor excursions for several reasons. Women traditionally wear clothing that covers their legs, especially in temples, so it is good travel etiquette to do as the locals do in this situation. Also, the more clothing that covers your body, the more combatant you become in the constant fight against the relentless and malaria-filled mosquitoes of Asia.
    • Bring travel-sized hand wipes to carry with you on day excursions. You will have to take off your shoes for most temples so these come in handy for wiping off feet. But you can bring socks for this purpose as well. Also many places you may visit are very dirty and not regularly cleaned so hand sanitizer would also help. Health regulations for many business you will come across in India are close to non-existent so cleaning your hands with a sanitizing wipe after exploring some street vendors merchandise of fine textiles and traditional handmade crafts,  or strolling through the streets of one of the old and overcrowded cities can leave you feeling a little less than fresh.
    • Don’t get henna where it looks sketchy and you are the only one wanting henna done, instead opt for popular tourist spots that look more regulated and populated. Our local guide in Jaipur told us that some local henna artists will use unauthentic henna compositions that can cause allergic skin reactions or worse. I encourage everyone who visits India to get henna at least once. It is cheap and is a fun way to experience a popular indian art form first-hand. I loved it so much that I had it done few times! My skin was covered in intricate designs by the time I got home.
    • If possible, try to wear a crossbody zippered bag/purse across the front of your body while touring the busy streets or big tourist destinations, mainly for crowded situations. Although I must say that I NEVER felt in danger or threatened of pickpockets while out and about. Local Indians are the nicest people you will ever meet, but you can never be too careful while traveling in an unfamiliar place.
    • Sometimes, when modern technologies (like map apps on phones that need access to internet signal) are unavailable, a good old-fashioned street map could come in handy while trekking through the bustling city centers of India. I recommend you bring a foldable printed map (non-digital) if you plan on navigating the streets on your own just in case you lose signal on your phone and don’t remember how to get to your hotel or tour destination. Also, always have a course mapped out beforehand and have your hotel and country of residence embassy addresses written down for each city you plan to visit. The streets in india are inconsistent in length and directions so it can be easy to get lost. Although remember, most locals can speak english and are more than happy to point you in the right direction.
  18. BE PREPARED FOR LOCAL PAPARAZZI (aka Friendly Picture-hungry Locals)
    • This is an odd one, but it happened several times to several people in my traveling party, while I was there so I had to include it. If you’re fair-skinned, don’t be surprised if locals ask to take pictures with you. They don’t get as many foreign visitors as we do back home so if some get the chance to say hello to you, they will. Say hi, smile, they’re usually friendly and speak some english, but also feel free to decline, they aren’t pushy. It’s more of a light-hearted gesture of meeting an acquaintance and will be dismissed as such if you wish it. This is just another example of the wonderful level of friendliness that the Indian locals project onto others around them-  a sense of welcoming, inclusion, and acceptance.
    • If you are a westerner and had to get a few immunizations before your arrival, I would recommend only eating food at your hotel or prepackaged foods. Street food may expose unsuspecting travelers to illnesses that their bodies are not used to and could cause illness or worse.
    • Trekking through Indian cities can be quite overwhelming and dangerous if you aren’t paying attention. So, try to put your phones and cameras down and enjoy the people, scenery, and odiferous air around you because India is like no other place in the world!


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