Do yourself a favor before going to India: be prepared! Get into the right mindset and you'll never forget the things you experience there. Knowing a few India travel essentials before hitting the ground will help you adjust more quickly.
Although India can be a challenging place to travel for the uninitiated, fortunately, the reward is well worth the time it takes to adjust to such a vastly busy, exciting place!
- See a few important India travel tips for staying safe and healthy while exploring.
The Indian Head Wobble
The quirky head wobble is fun but tricky to master for most Westerners. You'll encounter the all-purpose gesture all over India; it can mean "yes" or "OK," is sometimes used as a greeting, and can be used to acknowledge what you are saying. Don't be surprised if your question is answered with a silent head wobble! Try to take your question into context to understand the meaning of the wobble.
Squat Toilets in India
Although sit-down toilets can now be found in many guesthouses and restaurants, you'll still encounter plenty of sometimes-grotesque squat toilets in public places.
Carrying toilet paper is a very good idea -- but never flush it! Instead, put TP and other items into the bin beside the toilet. You may want to carry hand sanitizer or wet wipes as well; soap is rarely available in public toilets.
- See more about what to expect in Asian squat toilets.
Call it cliché, but yes: cows do wander freely throughout India, even in the streets of cities. Give them room and try not to be the stereotypical tourist who points, laughs, and takes obnoxious pictures of the respected animals.
- Use this guide for traveling to India for resources you'll need.
Money in India
You'll find Western-networked ATMs in all urban and tourist areas around India. Avoid using remote ATMs at night when you may be followed while carrying a large amount of cash.
When possible, horde your small change or enter odd amounts in the ATM to receive smaller denominations. Many places will have difficulty making change for 1,000-rupee notes. Oddly, a majority of the 500-rupee notes are written on; unlike other places in Asia that reject damaged or defaced currency, you shouldn't have too much trouble spending them.
- See more about managing money in Asia.
Power Outlets in India
Despite British influence, power outlets in India are of the round, two and three-pronged types (BS-546) used in Europe rather than the square plugs found in the UK. Power is 230 volts at 50 Hz. Check the chargers and transformers for your electronic devices to ensure that they work in this range and won't produce fireworks.
The power can sometimes be unreliable with surprise outages and surges. Be cautious about leaving electronics on charge when you leave your room: power surges when generators are switched on can ruin sensitive devices such as phones and laptops.
Don't be surprised if the wall in your room has more unlabeled switches than the Starship Enterprise: Having individual switches for controlling each light, outlet, and appliance is the norm throughout budget accommodation in India.
- See more about the power in Asia.
Many hotels in India do not have central hot water; you'll need to switch on the small hot-water tank in your bathroom to warm the water at least 30 minutes before you shower. The switch may be in the bathroom, outside the door, or even outside your room. Don't complain: the breakers save power and are also a safety feature.
If two people have to shower, cycle the unit and wait for a while between showers.
Tipping and Taxes
The prices displayed for items in shops should be inclusive of tax, however, that may not always be the case for restaurants and hotels. Hotel rooms above a cutoff price have additional government tax levied on them. Nicer restaurants may itemize additional charges for VAT (government tax), service, and alcoholic drinks -- all at different rates.
The service charge added in restaurants may go to pay the salary of the staff or just into the owner's pocket. If you want to ensure that your hard-working waiter is rewarded, you'll need to leave them a small tip in addition to what is already added to the bill.
- See more about tipping in India.
Checking into Hotels
Not as tough as completing the Indian visa online application but still very bureaucratic, checking into hotels and guesthouses often requires a good 15 minutes of paperwork due to government regulations. You'll need to keep your passport handy, even if you have the number memorized, for your India visa number and issue/expiry dates.
- See more of what to expect from budget hotels in India.
Time Difference in India
India has an interesting time difference: India Standard Time -- the massive country's only timezone -- is 5.5 hours ahead of GMT/UTC, making it 9.5 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time (New York City).
Water in India
Tap water is generally unsafe to drink in India, although some local residents will say otherwise. Even if the piped water is deemed safe by the government, the aged plumbing of each guesthouse or hotel must also be taken into account. Avoid taking home parasites along with your other souvenirs: stick to drinking bottled water.
Check the seals on bottled water before paying; an old scam in India, some bottles may be refilled with unsafe water and then resealed. Many cafes and tourist places will refill bottles for a small fee, a great way to avoid contributing to the rubbish problem. See more about responsible travel in Asia.
What Is Ghee?
Ghee is a clarified butter made from cow's milk; it turns up nearly everywhere in India. Although ghee is high in fat, it is considered more healthy than oils or regular butter. Unless rejected by particular religious sects, ghee is used in dishes throughout India. If you are vegan or suffer from dairy allergies, you may want to learn how to ask for food without ghee. Note: asking for your meal to be prepared without ghee doesn't always mean that it will be!
Interestingly, ghee is considered to be sacred and is used in blessings, as medicine, and to fuel lanterns.