India was at the top of my travel bucket list for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure why or how I became fascinated with this South Asian country, but the promise of a colourful adventure was very appealing. Rick Stein’s latest programme on India and its cuisine re-affirmed my desire to visit the country. I just had to go.
When my forced gap year took place – because I was unsure of what to do next – I applied for graduate roles endlessly whilst waiting on tables and serving cocktails (yes, I worked two jobs). Fast forward to Christmas and I was able to actually save some money. After my dream employer rejected me for a role in January, I knew what my next plan of action was.
I booked myself a trip to India and South-East Asia. Most people were not as excited about my adventure as I was, however. They’d ask: “why are you going to India?” with a look that suggested I may have been nuts.
I cannot explain it then, and I cannot explain it now. But now I understand. I understand when people write their simultaneous adoration and hatred for India. It has been amazing, frustrating, inspiring and confusing all at once.
I covered a vast part of India. I travelled during the low season/end-of-season mostly (March to end of May). Places I stayed at (and highly recommend) are in brackets.
Delhi (Stops Hostel, Delhi) – Jaipur (Zostel) – Pushkar (Zostel) – Udaipur (Bunkyard) – Jodhpur (Zostel) – Jaisalmer (Zostel) – Delhi (Zostel) – Vagator Beach (Jungle Hostel) – Palolem – Hampi (The Goan Corner) – Mumbai – Ganj Village (Friends of Orchha) – Khajuraho (Zostel) – Varanasi (Zostel) – Amritsar (The Golden Temple) – Macleod Ganj (Tibet World) – Parvati Valley (Kasol, Tosh, Kalga, Khir Ganga, Manali) – Rishikesh – Agra – Delhi (Stops Hostel, Delhi)
In fact, I conducted most of my train travel through India using the dusty, hot, and often over-crowded sleeper trains.
I started my travels (the Delhi to Jaipur stretch) on a 2nd class AC train for 6 hours where I was welcomed with warm linen and a substantial three-course Indian meal. It was an incredible experience where I had the greatest hospitality. I then proceeded with the rest of my travels down the scale, going to a 3rd class AC carriage after and eventually, the non-AC sleeper trains. In fact, I conducted most of my train travel through India using the dusty, hot, and often over-crowded sleeper trains.
It was the most humbling travel experience I have had. Yes, I have put myself into some rather gruelling and intense situations (21 hours on a sleeper train from Jaisalmer to Delhi, for example), but in these carriages, I was able to meet some fantastic people, eat some tasty (and cheap) bites, and witness the lives of many unfold between the tracks.
The men who call out for chai at unseemingly ungodly hours to the women – wives and daughters – kitted out in their colourful saris and wrapped in scarves. Train travel in India is a must-do. It’s the only true way to watch the vast country live and breathe in a slow-paced motion.
I have also had my fair share of budget flights and buses – both local and sleeper buses. I wanted to try and avoid flights to keep things fairly inexpensive, but it has been great in limiting travel time between places.
As for bus travel, I mainly used it when I was exploring the beautiful state of Himachal Pradesh. I have taken a variety of sleeper coaches (from standard to super luxurious with wi-fi), ranging from about 400 rupees to 1800 rupees. Most were very comfortable, with one or two exceptions when the AC was not working. Another qualm is the random times that they would stop for chai or food; no, I do not wish to eat dinner at 11 pm.
Local buses can be brutal. Long, windy roads in over-crowded, stuffy vehicles in 40-degree heat did not make for a relaxing journey. It can be stressful and painful – I have seen people sit on randomers’ knees before. For most of the north, however, this was the only reliable (and cheap) transport around. I particularly liked the Himachal Pradesh local buses; they were all very well-maintained.
Accommodation: hostels or guesthouses?
The old age question of staying in hostels or guesthouses. Guesthouses (or homestay) tend to be smaller, family-run establishments offering guests with private rooms. Similar to BnBs, these are often the cheapest option for accommodation across India. You’d often find great hospitality, too! In the less tourist-y parts of India (basically outside Rajasthan), guesthouses are more common than hostels.
Hostels are fantastic places to meet people, especially when travelling solo! They tend to be more expensive than guesthouses (what I found anyway), and they do not always include a free breakfast in their rates. I have been lucky enough to be in a partnership with Zostel, India’s largest branded hostel chain, so I am able to stay at some of their amazing hostels in India.
I’ve stayed at various hostels – see my itinerary above for my recommended places to stay! Hospitality in each depend on the management and staff around, but what is guaranteed is meeting many like-minded travellers during your stay.
You cannot venture out in India without trying the variety of food on offer. It was very easy travelling as a vegetarian as the country is a mecca for veggies. What was hard, however, was travelling as a vegan. Admittedly, a few times, I have been forced to consume non-vegan items (by choice) due to the inconvenience caused.
You’ll have to check out the local delicacies to try, such as kaju curry (cashew curry) in Rajasthan, Goan curry and pav dishes in Mumbai. Thalis and biryanis are good value meals, usually! Indian desserts are usually very creamy and heavy, so I was not the biggest fan. I usually prefer having various lassis and fresh fruit after a meal instead.
Many places do not always offer the healthiest option around, with curries often swimming in oil and usually salt-heavy too. If you’re health-conscious, it is best to stick to food you prepare yourself (such as porridge with banana), fresh fruits from the stalls or simply a bowl of steamed rice with dhal.
For my recommended places for food, check out my ‘India’ tab above under ‘Travel’ and it’ll be included in my blog posts about that area of India.
For vegan eating, I consulted Happy Cow. There certainly aren’t many places that offer vegan options, but steamed rice, naan/paratha (no butter), and dhal were usually safe choices. Many places in the backpacker areas would offer multicultural cuisines, and hummus plates were the norm – a great back-up when Indian food gets a little tiresome.
There are many great attractions in India, but being budget-conscious, I was weary of what I was spending my money on. The most I spent was about 1000 rupees for the entry into the Taj Mahal. I decided that this would be my highest expense during the entire trip. In other words, if I can get into Taj Mahal for 1000 rupees, why would I want to pay extra for a measly fort?
This way of thinking proved particularly useful when I was in Rajasthan. I visited and took photos of the Amber Fort in Jaipur, but gladly skipped Jodhpur’s magnificent fort due to its 600-rupee price tag.
One of the things I enjoyed most was taking part in a Tibetan cooking class for 400 rupees. In Macleod Ganj, I learned how to prepare momos from a Tibetan refugee. It was very enlightening, as an ex-Tibetan chef shared his stories about exile life and Tibet as we folded and ate momos for a couple of hours one Sunday afternoon. Experiences like that were priceless, and price becomes a non-issue if I were to have similar conversations more regularly.
Other activities that were a particular highlight include a yoga ashram for 5 days, the Friends of Orchha homestay and climbing up the Marble Palace in Udaipur.
If planned well, and haggled down appropriately, I think the activities on offer in India are very cost-effective.
Everyday living: sanitation, waste and bottled water
Tap water is not safe to drink. Thus, you’d have to get bottled water (annoyingly) or if you’re staying at one of the fabulous, eco-friendly hostels around like I have, they usually give you filtered drinking water for free, or for a very small fee anyway. This saved a lot of rupees from constantly purchasing bottled water.
Waste can be found everywhere in India. There seems to be little education in proper waste management. I avoided this by usually stuffing my bag with the rubbish I had created for throwing later, or throwing only compostable items (banana skins in my case) down the train tracks – which many use as their rubbish bin. However, it came as a surprise when I found posters promoting ‘clean up’ days around Rishikesh and Macleod Ganj. Tourists can partake in these for a couple of hours in the morning to maintain a waste-free city for the residents in that area. I did not attend a session myself, but it seemed to be rather popular.
Lastly: is it safe for women?
Yes, India is completely safe for women. Though, there may have been incidents when men, in particular, had been a little intimidating. I’m preparing a separate post regarding the ‘safety’ aspect from my personal experiences, but I say that using common sense and intuition (just as you would at any other foreign destination) was key. Meanwhile, have a read at Hippie and Heels’ post about safety in India for solo female travellers.
Tips and tricks
- For booking buses: I’d use makemytrip or redbus. I did not need an Indian bank account to use either.
- For reservaing train tickets: sign-up to the IRCTC website. You need an Indian number.
- For air travel: the local budget airlines are GoAir or IndiGo. Worth a check if you’re planning a last-minute flight within the country.
- Transport is cheaper if booked by yourself as no commission (or the bare minimum) will be taken.
- If you have to book it through an agent, it may be wise to look up prices beforehand, just so you know you aren’t being ripped off with their additional charges. Otherwise: haggle down.
- Overnight travel is very popular in India (and South East Asia too). Remember: the price you pay will be for your transport to your destination and a saving on a night’s accommodation.
- For buses and trains: it is very wise to book beforehand. I found travelling around Rajasthan can be spontaneous and last-minute, whilst venturing North to South and vice-versa proved far more difficult, with buses and trains being booked up days in advance.
- For tuktuks and taxis: use the Ola Cabs app or Uber app (get a free ride/£15 off on me for your first ride). Both work the same. I personally prefer Ola Cabs.
- Pricing for tuktuks and taxis: find out the prices per km or ask for the meter to be turned on. Latter was very rare – only very common when I was in Mumbai. It is best to ring your guesthouse/hostel beforehand to ask for the prices going to/fro the place.
- I personally preferred the Upper Berth (UB) option on trains as it means people will not be sitting on your bed or crowd around you. You’re able to lie in peace amongst the chaos!
- If you had a lovely tuktuk/taxi driver, don’t hesitate to obtain their number. It’s repeat business for them, and another safe and pleasant journey for you. Win-win!
- It’s obvious, but I will still re-iterate: sharing tuktuks and taxis make travel cheaper.
- Delhi-specific: a) metro is far cheaper and more pleasant than taking a tuktuk, and b) Meru Cabs is a reliable taxi company. More expensive than a pre-paid taxi from the airport but a hassle-free and safe journey is expected! (located just outside of Gate 6 in the International Arrivals).
- Hostels tend to be more expensive than the local guesthouses but are the perfect places for solo travellers. Hostelworld is the perfect place for booking. Lower rates when travelling off-season (like I did).
- When there are festivals around (such as Holi), book in advance. Some places may let you stay at their couches for free if you walk-in.
- Again, this is another aspect that makes solo travel expensive. Travelling as a group saves on accommodation. Sharing beds, rooms, or asking for an extra bed in a room works out far cheaper than a one person occupancy in a double room at a guesthouse.
- Travelling off-season may mean slashed rates, but it also means some establishments will be closed until trade picks up again at around October time. Be weary of this as there will be limited options.
- How to find the best guesthouses: word of mouth, turning up the day of, or consulting the ever-so-useful Lonely Planet India.
- Wi-fi in some guesthouses can be very unreliable, whilst hostels tend to have more consistent connections.
- It’s always a good idea to bring a sleeping bag liner, in case you’re roughing it or your accommodation’s beds aren’t up-to-scratch. Also very useful on non-AC sleeper trains.
- Indian food is amazing. Try the local delicacies wherever you go. Here’s a link to a generalised summary of delicacies to try in each region. Rachel from Hippie in Heels has a great post detailing the amazing South Indian dishes you should not be missing out on!
- It is important to realise your personal spice level, however. Upset tummies are common due to the spices in Indian food, and the regularity travellers would eat it – a frequency they would not have been used to back home.
- Delhi belly is a thing. It’s NOT just from ‘dirty’ food. Personally, I acquired it through heavy, spiced meals. So while it might be frowned upon by some people, I found taking a break from Indian food every now and then helped a lot.
- Avoiding Delhi belly by: a) clean hands at all times – carrying hand sanitiser around, b) drinking only distilled water, and c) when eating street food, ensure it is fresh and cooked/prepared right in front of you.
- India is vegetarian heaven! Try eating vegetarian for a while, and see if you miss meat at all. They have wonderful, rich and filling curries such as jackfruit curry and chickpea curries which are great meat-substitutes.
- Obtaining a sim card is the best thing I have done. Useful in contacting hostels and browsing the web for tips on things to do and accessing maps have been life-saving. Note: usually, sim cards bought from a place is local to that area only. Thus, going outside that state will be considered ‘roaming.’ So once you’ve topped up, note down the amount of data you get and the cost you’re charged… it varies state by state depending on the locality of the sim. Most likely: another state will not be familiar with the rates of YOUR sim. I was with 4tel.
- Leaning a couple of words in Hindi – especially if spending a long time in India – would come in handy.
- Shake and eat with your right hand only.
- Cover up! Knees and shoulders should really be covered for most of the time to avoid unwanted attention. Also when visiting temples and sacred places. Carrying a wide scarf at all times was handy.
- Toilet paper and hand sanitiser are your best friends. TP is not exactly zero-waste, so until there is a reasonable alternative (particularly when travelling), I will consider using it, being mindful of its disposal, however.
- Calling hostels/guesthouses when you are in a tuktuk/taxi at night to let them know you are on your way is a good habit to get into for solo travellers. This lets the driver know somebody is expecting you as well.
- Tuktuks are my favoured form of transport as the open carriage means you are able to get on/off easily, and can avoid being scammed or ripped off. Plus *if* anything were to ever happen, you’re able to make that escape quickly.
- Having something like a PacSafe backpack protector for use on trains and hostels is recommended. The chain/net structure allows you to tie your bag up onto stationary items (such as poles, table legs, etc.) making sure it is secure for when you sleep/leave your bags unattended.
I’ll be posting about my Zostelling experience soon! Have you been to India? What are your tips for solo female travellers?