What to Expect in India

What to Expect in India

We went to several places in India, but there are some general themes across the country about what you might expect.

  1. Have multiple options for getting cash

    Getting cash was a little more difficult in 2016 because of efforts to move to a cashless economy. Cash circulation and ATM withdrawals were limited. Though it had been significantly improved as of the time of our visit (January 2017), many vendors did not accept credit cards and some ATMs quickly ran out of cash. While we normally try not to exchange currency because the better value is to use credit cards or withdraw from ATMs (using cards with no foreign transaction fees), you should be prepared with back up plans when traveling in India. Make sure your credit cards and ATM cards have a 4-digit pin (and you know how to modify it if a 6-digit pin is required). (As of our visit in January 2017, ATM limits were Rs. 10,000 per day and 24,000 per week.)

  2. Book trains in advance (and help may be required)

    Using India websites to pre-book a train for travel was futile. You need to have an India Railway ID (IRCTC) to book through Cleartrip. Seats are also booked far in advance. We were requested to send a copy of our passport via email to secure an ID but never got the appropriate ID to book the train tickets before they were sold out. We suggest contacting your hotel for help well in advance if you plan to travel by train.

  3. Have accommodation and exit flight information accessible when arriving

    Upon arrival in India, we were asked to provide proof of our hotel accommodations and plans to leave the country. Be sure to have easily accessible printed or electronic copies.

  4. Apply for an electronic tourist visa early

    We spoke to many people from other countries who said getting a visa was cumbersome, but we applied for eVisas. The website was temperamental and we didn’t know which bank to use when we were asked to make a payment, but we had no issues using the the e-Tourist Visa (https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/tvoa.html) and paying via SBI (State Bank of India) when options were presented. HOWEVER, we had trouble trying to complete the transaction from our mobile device and on certain browsers, so if you have an issue, try a differnt browser.

  5. The traffic is insane and it is acceptable to consider multiple persons on a scooter as a proper mode of transportation

    There truly is nothing to prepare you for the traffic of India. As soon as we got in the vehicle, Chris asked if my seatbelt worked. By worked, he meant “existed,” which it did not. We were involved in and witness to several minor accidents over the course of only two days. Don’t plan on driving. Also, confirm the type of travel arrangements that will be provided to you (we booked transportation somewhere for the two of us and arrived to find a young man with a scooter – for the three of us).

  6. Know customs/duty regulations when shipping in and out of the country

    We had a very rare but bizarre situation with customs when trying to ship something to ourselves in India. We accidentally left our laptop at security in London and had it shipped to ourselves at a hotel. Customs in India wanted to impose an almost $500 penalty because used electronics are now allowed to be imported to India. If you are shipping anything in or out, understand the duty regulations.

  7. Follow all the rules for not drinking water and avoiding food-borne illness

    We drank only bottled water and ate at well reviewed hotels and restaurants. We’ve heard that in some places, locals will go as far as refilling water bottles with local water and remelting the plastic caps to make it seem new. Buy water at places whose reputation depends on its visitors’ health and experiences (such as quality hotels).

  8. Don’t trust local estimates for start times or travel times

    It is culturally acceptable to be late, and time estimates provided for important things (e.g., how much time it takes to get to the airport) may need to be adjusted to provide an appropriate buffer. Do adequate research to get to the airport early, plan enough time between flights, etc. Security is often separated into different lines for men and women (in some cases women are searched behind a curtain without visibility to their belongs, so plan accordingly), and the process can be painfully slow. Additionally, when you have a connecting domestic flight, it is common to have to leave the terminal and go back through security after arriving from the first flight.

  9. Check in online for flights to avoid getting bumped

    If a flight is overbooked, travelers who have not yet checked in are first to be bumped. We arrived 3 hours before our flight (with Air India) to check in, but were bumped because another flight had been canceled and passengers from that flight were giving priority over those who hadn’t checked in.

  10. Look out for extra fees

    When booking flights, luggage, seat selection and/or meals or drinks (even water), may not be included. Review the airline rules before booking. If you need to pay additional fees, for example to check-in luggage, it is generally cheaper to do it in advance on line (in one case it was 1/5 of the cost). Also, some tours and other bookings fail to mention extra costs (entrance fees to sites, meals, etc.). Ask how much money you will need extra and what costs are not included. We had a friend book a tour guide, but the rate quoted did not include that they were expected to pay for hotel stays for the tour guide.

  11. ALWAYS carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you

    You’ll find different toilet situations throughout the country. ALWAYS carry toilet paper. There may be an expectation that it not be flushed (it should be thrown in the trash can), but it isn’t always available. Hand soap and hand towels were a luxury not often available.

  12. Don’t eat or pass food or other objects with your left hand

    The left hand is often used to wipe (see Always Carry Toilet Paper above). As such, it is not used to eat. It is considered rude to eat or pass food or objects to others with your left hand.

  13. Hit and miss cell service with T-Mobile

    You’ll see our recommendation to use the T-Mobile international cellular plan if you travel a lot. Expect it to be slow or non-existent in some areas. A back-up SIM card may be appropraite. Also, we found T-mobile’s twitter to be a good way to get quick answers to questions or issues we had.

  14. Spotty wifi

    Even in a place like HITEC city in Hyderabad, we found wifi service to be unreliable, slow and sometimes non-existent. Prepare accordingly. If it’s very important to you, you’re more likely to have success in more expensive hotels.

  15. Noises and smells

    Sounds of honking, music, cars, construction, parties, outdoor speakers playing announcements or the Muslim Azan (prayer call) and smells of curries, trash and pollution can be an assault on the untrained senses. Bring earplugs for sleeping and be prepared for sensory overload. Even in mid-range hotels, we spent many sleepless hours listening to electronica dance music and the partying locals until the wee hours of the morning.

  16. Heat

    It’s hot. It’s humid. And in many cases, women are expected to wear a lot of clothing to cover up. It is the reason so many people visit in winter. Protect yourself from the sun and hydrate.

  17. LOTS of people

    There’s no way around it. It’s crowded almost everywhere.

  18. Lack of personal space and assertive (even aggressive) beggars

    There is a lot of poverty in India. And while the people are generally extremely nice, even those who aren’t impoverished tend to hover over your table when providing service or ask questions that would be considered overly personal in western cultures. Those who are selling things or begging tend to be assertive to the point of sometimes being aggressive. On the beach, children would try to start putting things on you or massaging you. Money or tips are requested for nearly everything (taking a picture, entering a temple, etc. Ask how much something costs before getting into a vehicle, entering a building, or accepting anything that can be construed as a service.

  19. Always carry small bills for tips

    See above

  20. Nearly everything is considered negotiable – even when you think you’ve been direct in your request

    Bargaining is almost always expected and the initial price quoted is generally not what is expected. As such, the locals also tend to believe that perhaps you can be persuaded to change your mind. For example, you may get into a taxi and state your destination to have the driver try to convince you to try his brother’s cheaper hotel/restaurant instead. It also isn’t uncommon for them to try to change their rate or add-on other services. Asking a reputable hotel to secure your taxi is generally the safest route. Always negotiate rates before getting in a taxi or rickshaw, and be sure any price you are quoted includes EVERYTHING (see above regarding looking out for extra fees).

  21.  You’ll be able to get by with English

    There are 22 major languages in India, Hindi being the national language (not Hindu, the religion), but English is commonly spoken in India. It may be more difficult in some areas than others, but you can certainly get by. It’s still helpful to know some common phrases and don’t be afraid to ask people to slow down or repeat themselves. The following were very helpful for us:

    • Don’t ask “yes or no” questions. Rather than asking “is the store that way,” ask “which way is the store?” (Saying “no” is often viewed as impolite, so “yes” often didn’t really mean yes)
    • Use as simple and as few words as possible
    • When something isn’t available, it isn’t uncommon to be told it will happen “in 5 minutes” – which is NEVER actually five minutes
    • Don’t be afraid to seek clarification – even small misunderstandings can be viewed as an opportunity for negotiation to convince you to change your plan
  22. Understand the Indian head nod/shake/bobble

    While it can be confusing, I find it endearing. Google “Indian head bobble” to learn about this behavior that is sometimes used for I understand, yes, or when they don’t want to say no. There are some very humorous videos and comedy skits about it (such as https://youtu.be/Uj56IPJOqWE)

  23. Indian eating times are not on a western schedule

    Indians eat dinner late; many restaurants don’t start serving dinner until 7:30 or so. Plan accordingly.

  24. It’s not all Chicken Tikka Masala and naan

    As in most countries, the food and culture vary by region. The meat is served differently than in the US (fish with heads/bones or meat with bones). It’s also important to note that the bacteria in the food and water is different than in the states, so your body may not process it the same. We took probiotics and selected vegetarian options in most places (while not all Hindus are vegetarian, enough are that vegetarian options are available nearly everywhere). Restaurants seemed to be very conservative about serving “spicy” food to westerners. Our “white people spicy” was often mild, occasionally medium.

  25. Animals are everywhere

    Expect stray dogs (don’t pet them), animals (such as cows) roaming the streets and markets, and various types of animals making themselves visible and heard. We saw camels and goats in market places, snake charmers on the streets, monkeys outside cafes and on bridges, and a general free-roaming of the many animals among the people. (Be careful, the monkeys are definitely comfortable coming near people if they think they have food.)

  26. The Hindu religion and its culture are central in most parts of the country, learn and be conservative

    While India is home to many religions, Hinduism shapes the style and culture of the people. We enjoyed hearing the views of locals regarding conservative clothing, family values and arranged marriages. By listening to the locals, you’ll learn things like that most arranged marriages involve the couple getting to know each other and having the right to say no to the proposed partner. Many locals feel that this process is more successful than western marriages because individuals are committed to making the relationship work for themselves and their families. While mostly Hindu, there are some areas where other religions are extremely prevalent (for example, India was once a Mughal empire, and some areas have large Muslim populations. Additionally, the architecture has a strong Mughal influence). Visiting the temples and participating in religious ceremonies was very educational and spiritual. The energy is incredible, and ceremonies and festivals are not to be missed! Most temples require women to have their shoulders and knees covered, so bring a shawl and dress conservatively to show respect.

  27. It’s safe for women, but proceed with caution

    While it’s true everywhere that women should be careful traveling alone, it’s only more recently become safer to do so in India. There are many women-only hostels (and even transportation options). If you are stared at, don’t stare back (it’s considered flirting). I would highly recommend traveling with guides if you are traveling alone as a woman.

  28. Avoid local buses and trains

    They are overcrowded and unreliable (local trains are different than express trains, but even with those, use an agency or hotel to confirm that it’s a good option). Overnight trains may not be especially safe.

  29. Expectations at guest houses are different than in western countries

    I read somewhere that your personal fear factor (fear of danger, unsanitary conditions, etc.) and travel style should help determine where to stay. When in doubt, avoid the guest house in favor of the mid-range or luxury resort. Peace of mind will help you enjoy the trip more. We stayed in guest houses, mid-range and five-star resorts. Oddly, Chris got sick eating at a four-start hotel. The guest houses generally had very little luxury – a pretty hard bed, a shower with maybe a little warm water, and unreliable wifi. But in Goa and Kerala, there were really inexpensive options on Airbnb. We suggest splurging for the AC.

  30. Guides and tours are very helpful options

    Guided tours can be booked for a single day or site, or multiple states and locations. They are a great way to visit tourist attractions in an all-inclusive fashion (rides, accommodations, education, etc.) Be sure to determine what costs do and don’t cover, and have money for incidentals, tips, etc. Our tour guide’s van was comfortable and had wifi.

  31. Plan for Dry Days (i.e., no alcohol for sale)

    If you are interested in cocktails with umbrellas on the beach, you’ll undoubtedly find the southern part of India accommodating. However, in 3 weeks, we encountered one town and 7 additional days where alcohol was not being served. There are locations where it isn’t served, as well as holidays. Additionally, alcohol is not served for several days during an election. I would suggest a simple Google search for dry days in India during whatever month and year you’ll be there, as well as a search for any elections in the state in which you are staying (for example, we encountered an election in Goa, so alcohol wasn’t being served there, but was available in Kerala and other states). You can buy some in advance and/or bring in your own, but if you want to be able to drink whenever you feel like it, you’ll want to be prepared.


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