India Travel Tips

How to Reduce Culture Shock and Deal with Traveler Challenges in India

India Travel Tips - Paharganj
••• You'll need these India travel tips for places such as New Delhi. Photo by Greg Rodgers

While violent crime is rarely a problem in India, you'll still face plenty of mild annoyances and challenges ranging from unsafe food to petty scams.

Use these India travel tips to stay safe, healthy, and happy in India!

Culture Shock in India

The first days on the ground in India are considered by many travelers to be one of the most difficult culture shock experiences to overcome.

Sensory overload combined with jetlag and the chaotic pace of urban life in India can be overwhelming.

Don't despair, although it could take a lifetime to fully understand India, you'll quickly catch on enough to get into the travel groove. If time permits, consider getting out of the busy city where you arrived and go to a quieter place to collect your wits.

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 will be keenly reminded of this factoid after you arrive, particularly in cities 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 a constant soundtrack of horns will accompany you while walking. Overindulgence of the horn is not considered rude in India, it's actually blown as a safety measure and even out of courtesy to hopefully prevent accidents.

Dealing with Extra Attention

Foreign travelers often receive a rock-star amount of stares and attention in India, sometimes friendly but sometimes not. You may be approached by strangers to be in photos; while usually harmless, stay on guard.

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 and locals will attest that they get 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.

Traveler's diarrhea affects many people and is an unfortunate part of changing continents. While tourist restaurants are usually safe, you have no idea what goes on in the kitchens.

You can reduce your risk of a bad tummy by avoiding watered-down drinks and by peeling fruit that you eat. Salads and raw vegetables should be soaked in a solution before preparing; simple washing is often 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!

Sometimes a bad stomach can turn serious. Don't even think about travel to India without budget travel insurance.

Dealing with Beggars in India

Despite exponential economic growth, a large wealth divide still exists: you'll encounter beggars of all varieties -- particularly in urban and tourist areas -- throughout India. Unlike other parts of Asia, the beggars in India can be extremely persistent, sometimes even grabbing your arms.

While the young children are heartbreaking, you are contributing to the problem rather than helping when you give money.

Many children are kidnapped, mistreated, and exploited by "bosses" who force them to beg. 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. It's best to lend your support through established charities, volunteering, and NGOs.

  • Find ethical and sustainable ways to help by first understanding responsible travel in Asia.

Practice Patience

The rules of saving face loosely apply in India as well. Strive to never lose your cool in public, you'll likely make matters worse for yourself rather than solving whatever discrepancy you encountered.

With well over a billion people squeezed into 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, if there is one at all! Hold your ground and be polite -- but not too polite -- or you may never get service.

Patience is the key, particularly when dealing with the overwhelming bureaucracy prevalent from the time you begin your Indian visa application. Remember to smile even when it's difficult to do so and that you are the visitor.

India Travel Tips for Female Travelers

Female travelers often receive a lot of extra attention from men in India. Sometimes boundaries are pushed beyond staring and flirting with shameless groping and touching.

You can reduce some of the unwanted attention by dressing extremely conservatively. Avoid tight-fitting clothes; consider wearing ankle-length skirts and covering the shoulders. The beautiful local shawls sold everywhere are an excellent investment.

Some ways to avoid harassment:

  • Dress down.
  • Avoid physical contact -- even shaking hands.
  • Some female travelers get groped when posing for pictures with men.
  • Realize that even small gestures of friendship could be taken the wrong way.
  • Consider staying somewhere else if you are the only guest in a guesthouse.
  • Avoid being alone with wandering sadhus (holy men) or self-declared gurus.
  • Try to sit next to other women on public transportation, particularly on night buses.
  • Avoid wandering around town alone at night.
  • The staff in budget hotels can be bold; always keep your door locked while inside.

Petty Theft and Scams

Although violent muggings aren't too common, being smart goes a long way. 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.

It's often difficult to differentiate between random friendliness or an elaborate scam beginning to take root. In general, be wary of any stranger approaching you in crowded areas, particularly in transportation centers and at the entrance of popular attractions.

Wandering sadhus and babas -- you'll recognize them in robes and carrying their water pots -- are not always genuine. More than a few travelers have fallen victim to fake gurus and holy men who promise to teach spiritual secrets.

Pickpocketing is a problem on public transportation and in crowded city spaces. Don't allow yourself to become too distracted by someone; thieves often work in teams. Count your change carefully in restaurants and shops before you walk out.

Smoking and Drugs in India

You can be fined for smoking on the street or in public throughout India. Smoking is common in guesthouses, hotels, and many restaurants. Look for ashtrays or ask to be sure before you light up.

Although marijuana and hash are smoked openly in many tourist centers such as Manali in Himachal Pradesh, both are still illegal and carry a minimum prison sentence of 10 years. Even if you are not convicted, bureaucracy may delay your case for months or longer. Sting operations target tourists who are then asked for a steep bribe.