So, is this your first time in India? Are you overwhelmed by the “chaos” described effusively by every western travel writer? Is it making you rethink your plan? It is not surprising but then, scores of people do travel to all corners of India every year. So, as a matter of fact it is not that difficult and you can make it easier by knowing a bit more about the country and getting the basics right. So, here are a few tips to begin with. These tips are targeted at budget backpackers such as myself.
Sort out your Visa
Getting visa for India has become considerably easier in recent times. In order to encourage tourism and business, the processes have been made simpler and bureaucracy has been reduced. Now, you can apply for your India visa online, which is the easiest as well as the fastest way to obtain a visa for India. There are 3 different e-visas for India, namely eTourist Visa, eBusiness Visa and eMedical Visa, depending on the purpose of your visit. The e-Visa remains valid for 120 days. You can enter India twice within this period (double entry). The second entry needs to happen within 60 days of the first entry. If you don’t want to go through the whole process yourself, UK travellers can contact a service like E-Visums while US Passport holders can try National Passport Service to expedite the whole process and deliver it within 2-3 days.
Know Where To Go
One thing that always makes me sad is that a lot of people end up having a disappointing India experience because they simply don’t know where to go. They end up at the crowded tourist hubs and have no clue how to go beyond that. I have met people who were going to Nepal for trekking but did not even realize that a significant portion of the Himalayas lie in India. Even in the plains, there are many historical, natural, as well as cultural delights to be had simply if you are willing to see beyond the obvious. For example, I once made a list of offbeat attractions in Delhi, which remains one of my best performing posts. So, don’t just limit yourself to the so called Golden Triang, or Goa. Visit the cold deserts on the borders of Tibet, reach the untouched frontiers of the Northeaster India, and dig deep into the heart of India in Madhya Pradesh. In short, take some time off, read more about the areas you are planning to visit, don’t blindly follow the commercial guidebooks and definitely don’t listen to those travel agents.
Get a local Indian SIM
India is going through a telecom boom. Both call and data rates within India are extremely cheap nowadays, so much so that you don’t have to look for Wi-Fi hotspots any more. Most parts of the country are now well-connected, except a few remote Himalayan regions in the frontier. So, if you get a local pre-paid SIM card upon arrival, it should sort out your connectivity issues, that too at a very reasonable rate. The process for getting a SIM for the foreigners is slightly more elaborate but once you manage it, life should be easier for you. You can walk into any store and provide passport and visa details, along with the adress of the place you are staying in. You may also need to provide a local reference number and for that purpose the bets idea will be to take help of your host. The Sim generally remains valid for only 3 months for foreigners.
Also, do note that while there are many service providers in India, not all work at every part of the country. If you are only visiting big cities and known touristy areas in the plains, most of them should work. However, in the remote regions and hilly Himalayan areas and the North East India, it may not be the case. The state-owned BSNL is present in most remote areas although the service quality is poor. On the other hand Airtel may be your best bet for most places including Ladakh and Northeast India.
Register IRCTC for train tickets
Trains are the cheapest ways to travel long distances in India and travelling on Indian Railways is an experience in itself. However, again the process is a bit more complex for foreigners. The official site for the same is IRCTC while you can also use secondary services. Some of your foreign cards may or may not be accepted by the system. So, it needs a bit of trial and error. Here is a detailed post about the same by a foreign traveller. Do note that you need to book tickets weeks and even months in advance to get a confirmed seat as the trains tend to be very crowded on most routes.
Driving in India
In a lot of popular tourist spots in India such as Goa, Hampi, Manali and Ladakh, it is possible to hire bikes and cars and hang out on your own. This gives you a lot of freedom, you can stop wherever you want, and explore the corners that are not touched by public transport. For this purpose you will need an international driving license that works in India. But don’t worry, this process is not as difficult as it sounds. You need to go to your nearest Regional Transport Office (RTO) with your passport, visa, your home driving license, and some other documents for the same. This is a good post that explains the process in a better manner.
Hostels and Homestays
While hotels are available everywhere in India, in order to cut costs, you can always opt for backpacker hostels and homestays where they are available. I am pointing this out because until recently, India did not really have the hostel culture and only in the last 4-5 years they have come up in large numbers. You can find them in big cities like Delhi, Bangalore & Mumbai, as well as major tourist spots such as Goa, Kerala, Hampi, Pushkar, Spiti, Manali, Leh etc. A hostel bed can cost as low as INR 200-400 ($3-$6) in most places. I especially recommend them in big cities where hotels can be expensive. On the other hand, I recommend homestays run by local families in the remote Himalayan regions, if they are available. For instance, read this post where I managed to find a homestay in Spiti for INR 300 (including 3 times meals). In such places you not only save money but have a great experience of local culture with local people and help them in a small way.
Food & Water
I am not an expert on food but I understand that a lot of westerners are wary of spicy Indian food. However, as far as I have seen, most of them get used to local food as they spend more and more time. Carry some basic medicines with you but in general, your system will get used to it within a week or so. As for water, bottled water are available everywhere. If you want to reduce the usage of plastic, you can refill your bottle at various places. For example, every major railway station nowadays has water refill joints where you can get purified water at dirt cheap rates (INR 2-3).