Culture shock is definitely a "thing" in India. It's particularly hard on first-timers who arrive unprepared, but knowing a few India travel tips beforehand certainly helps.
The first days on the ground in India are considered by many travelers to be the most challenging. Sensory overload combined with jetlag and the chaotic pace of urban life in India can be overwhelming.
Don't despair! Although understanding India would take a lifetime of devotion, you'll quickly catch on enough to find a travel groove. After arriving, consider getting out of the busy city and rest in a quieter place to collect your wits until jet let subsides.
The Traffic and Crowds
With well over a billion people calling the subcontinent home, India is the second-most populous country in the world. You'll be keenly reminded of this factoid after you arrive, particularly in cities such as New Delhi where overcrowding is a problem.
Many Indians grow up without the luxuries of privacy or personal space; don't be offended or surprised when people lean on you in the subway or stand too close when they speak to you.
The overcrowding problem is especially prevalent on the streets; clogged traffic is the norm, and the soundtrack is usually a cacophony of horns honking. Overindulgence of the car horn isn't as rude as you may think; it's actually blown as a safety measure and even out of courtesy to hopefully prevent accidents.
Dealing with Extra Attention
Western travelers often receive a rock-star amount of attention in India, usually friendly but sometimes in the form of staring. You'll probably be asked to pose for photos with locals.
Female travelers will inevitably be the target of lots of staring. Returning a man's gaze could be misconstrued as flirting; instead, ignore them completely or wear sunglasses. Solo women may also want to turn down photo requests to eliminate the chance that photos are later used inappropriately for bragging rights.
Unfortunately, getting stared at while traveling in India is part of daily life — consider it a small price to pay for enjoying the exciting subcontinent!
Is Delhi Belly Real?
Unfortunately, the infamous "Delhi belly" is a reality. Locals deal with it, too. The tap water in India is generally unsafe to drink. Even if you stick to bottled water, you may still get a bad stomach from dirty ice, fruit and vegetables washed with dirty water, or water droplets on plates and utensils. Even a cook who fails to wash hands could wreck your stomach for a week.
Traveler's diarrhea affects many people and is an unfortunate part of life on the road. While tourist restaurants are usually safe, who knows what goes on in the kitchens. Food handling and cleanliness are often issues in India behind the curtain. You can reduce your risk of a bad tummy by avoiding watered-down drinks and by peeling fruit that you eat. Simple washing fruit or salad is not enough to eliminate microbes embedded in the skin.
India Travel Tip: Always check the seal before paying for bottled water in shops and restaurants! A loose lid could mean that a bottle has been refilled with unsafe water.
Dealing with Beggars in India
Despite lots of economic growth, the wealth divide and caste system are very prevalent: you'll encounter beggars of all varieties — particularly in urban areas — throughout India. Unlike other parts of Asia, the beggars in India can be extremely persistent, sometimes even grabbing your arms and legs.
Encountering the young children begging on the streets is heartbreaking, but you are contributing to the problem when you give money. Many children are kidnapped, mistreated, and exploited by "bosses" who force them to beg in organized gangs. If you give, the whole vicious circle continues to be profitable to those on top and will never end.
Even giving out pens or trinkets can encourage children to beg for items from foreign tourists. Better to lend your support through established charities, volunteering opportunities, and trustworthy NGOs.
Like other places in South Asia, the rules of saving face loosely apply in India. Strive to never lose your cool in public, you'll likely make matters worse for yourself rather than solving whatever challenge you're facing. Doing so isn't always easy, but try to stay calm!
With well over a billion people squeezed onto the subcontinent, you'll have to get used to crowds of people. Don't be surprised when people often bump and shove their way through a queue. Stepping in front of others in line is common. Hold your ground and be polite — but not too polite — or you may never get service! Use those elbows a little.
Patience is the key, particularly when dealing with the overwhelming bureaucracy often encountered. From the time you begin your Indian visa application to checking in at your first hotel, someone always seems to be pondering over paperwork. Consider the mass paperwork a small price to pay for visiting a fascinating place.
India Travel Tips for Female Travelers
Female travelers often receive a lot of extra attention from local men in India. Sometimes boundaries are pushed beyond staring — shameless groping and touching can happen in public in the middle of the afternoon.
Female travelers can reduce some of the unwanted attention by dressing more conservatively. Avoid tight-fitting clothing; consider wearing ankle-length skirts and covering the shoulders. The beautiful local shawls sold everywhere are an excellent investment and easy to carry.
Here are some ways female travelers can potentially reduce harassment:
- Cover up with a shawl.
- Avoid physical contact — even shaking hands — with men.
- Don't agree to pose for pictures with men.
- Realize that even a warm smile could be taken the wrong way.
- Consider staying somewhere else if you are the only guest in a budget guesthouse.
- The staff in budget hotels can be bold; always keep your door locked while inside.
- Avoid being alone with wandering sadhus (holy men) or "gurus."
- Try to sit next to other women on public transportation, particularly on night buses.
- Make use of the female-only train carriages.
As you travel through India, locals will often ask to pose for a picture with you. Several may be taken so that all men can be photographed with your group. While this practice is usually harmless, female travelers do often get clutched or grabbed while standing still for the photo.
Petty Theft and Scams
Although armed or violent muggings aren't too common, being vigilant makes a difference. Plan ahead so that you don't have to walk alone at night, keep your valuables close at hand in busy places, and never leave your bag out of reach (e.g., in a chair at your table nearest the street). When using an ATM, be conscious about anyone who may be watching or could follow you.
People in India are exceptionally outgoing. Differentiating between random friendliness or an elaborate scam beginning to unfold can be difficult, even for experienced travelers! In general, be wary of any stranger approaching you in crowded areas — particularly in transportation centers and outside of popular attractions that attract tourists.
Wandering sadhus and babas — you'll recognize them wearing robes and carrying water pots — are not always genuine. Many of these "holy men" make a living by selling hashish or scamming tourists who often think of them as gurus.
Pickpocketing is a problem on public transportation and in crowded urban spaces — pretty well throughout India. Don't allow yourself to become too distracted by someone; thieves often work in teams.
Count your change carefully in restaurants and shops before walking away from the counter.
Cigarette Smoking in India
Although smoking is common in guesthouses, hotels, and many restaurants, you can receive a fine for smoking on the street or in public throughout India. Look for the presence of ashtrays or ask the owner to be sure before you light up.
Drugs in India
Marijuana and hashish are smoked openly in many Himalayan tourist centers such as Manali in Himachal Pradesh, but both are illegal. Getting convicted of possession carries a minimum prison sentence of 10 years. Even if you are not convicted, you may wait in jail for months until your case is heard.
Undercover policemen are known to approach tourists for bribes during random shakedowns.