I Answer My Own India Travel Questions – Visas, Budget, Safety & More

by Carly | Fearless Female Travels

Travel in India Questions and Answers

April 2019:  Hey everyone!  It’s Carly here, and if you’re reading this post it means that I’ve been on the road for more than four months and have already visited at least eight countries on this trip.  This post is kind of unique, because I actually wrote the first part of this India travel post in April, or about seven months before I even arrived in India.  I wanted to document all of my own pre-trip thoughts and questions about traveling to India, so that I could accurately answer them based on my own experiences traveling in India.

October 2019: I’m back!  It’s the end of October and I’ve been in India for nearly a full month now.  I’ve focused most of my travels on the North, but I’m due to travel south to Goa in just a few days!  Over the past month I’ve met so many other solo female travelers and I’m hearing the same story again and again (and again!): before traveling to India we were apprehensive but excited, and now, after being in India for a few weeks, we’re feeling comfortable, confident and enamored.  Yes, travel in India is very different from traveling in most other countries (I think I can say this with some confidence as I believe I’ve now been to more than sixty different countries!) but it is absolutely achievable and worthwhile.  At the same time, the questions I had back in April were absolutely valid, and I’m glad that I can now share the answers with you!

India Trip Planning Questions

Do I need a visa to visit India?

Question: I know that I’m going to need some kind of travel document to enter India.  Will an e-Visa be sufficient for my trip, or will I need a traditional tourist visa?  Can an e-Visa be used for multiple entries?

Answer: You probably need a visa, unless you’re from the Maldives.  If you’re from Japan or South Korea, and arriving at one of the main airports in India, you can obtain your Indian visa on arrival.  Otherwise, yes, you do need a visa to visit India and you need to get it before you arrive.  When it comes to getting general visa information, my first stop is always Wikipedia’s visa policy page.

Can I get an Indian visa online?

Question: Do I need to apply for a visa or e-Visa through my local Indian consulate, or can I go through the whole process online?

Answer: Travelers from many countries can (and should) obtain an e-Visa online, rather than applying through their local consulate.  The official Indian eVisa site explains the information and documents that you need to obtain your e-Visa.  At the time of my application, I just needed to know general demographic information, and have two scans: a square passport-style photo in .jpg format (I took mine on my phone) and a scanned copy of the “bio” page in my passport (in PDF format). 

Technically speaking, I am affiliate for a website that handles Indian e-Visas for travelers and I could make money by recommending that you pay them a fee to handle your visa application for you.  However, I am not recommending that you use their services, as my application was pretty easy.  I was able to fill out the application on my first attempt, but I did have to re-load the site and log back in a few times before I could get to the payment portal page.

Make sure to write down the confirmation code you get after completing the application, but before paying, as you’ll need this for each payment attempt.

If you’re having trouble paying the e-Visa fee, some recommendations include using a different browser, using your phone with WiFi turned off (so, using your data) and choosing the “SBI Bank” option then clicking on PayPal (which seems to be accepted more often than foreign credit cards).

Do I need to book Indian train tickets in advance?

Question: I want to travel around India by train.  Can I book tickets on the day of travel (or shortly before), or do I need to plan this months in advance?

Answer:  Maybe.

Sorry, I know that’s not the most helpful answer, but it’s the truth.  Personally, I am traveling in India for Diwali, the biggest festival in the country.  It’s almost impossible to find any train tickets for the days immediately before and after the festival, in any category of travel.  If you’re traveling during a major festival you must book your train tickets in advance.  Most long-distance trains go on sale 120 days before departure.

In slower periods, you may be able to buy a ticket with much shorter notice.  Indian Rail sets aside a certain number of tickets specifically for foreigners.  Locals actually prefer that tourist book these seats first, as that leaves more general class tickets available to them.  However, if you started your search looking in general class, and didn’t find a seat, repeat your search under the foreigner quota tab.

There is also a fare class called tatkal.  Tatkal tickets are for last-minute travel, and are generally released at 8:00 am, one or two days before the train is scheduled to depart.  You can buy a tatkal ticket through the official IRCTC website by changing the quota option to “Taktal”, through third-party sites like MakeMyTrip and in person, at the railway station.

How do I book Indian train tickets online?

Question:  I tried to book tickets on the official Indian railways site and it was so confusing.  I know some of the routes and dates that I want tickets for – do I seriously have to wait until I arrive and then queue at the station to buy these tickets? 

Answer: Oh, sweet child.  Trying to book an Indian railways train ticket is likely to be your first introduction to Indian bureaucracy.  Personally, I spent more than six weeks trying to register for the official IRCTC.co.in website.  I spent hours setting up the account and waiting for a text message with an access code to reach my Canadian phone number… only to find the code was invalid?  Although IRCTC had taken money out of my account (foreign registration costs about $2 USD) their email and Twitter support was completely unhelpful, and it took almost two full months of requesting an access code every day or two for me to actually receive a valid code.

However, once I registered for the IRCTC account, it was smooth sailing to book my train tickets.  If you know your travel dates in advance, it’s easy to book a regular train ticket (click on Trains – Book Ticket).  Available trains, times and fare classes are clearly displayed, you can pay with your foreign credit card, and showing your confirmed booking on your phone or tablet is sufficient for travel (in fact, they specifically request that you don’t print tickets).  I was surprised to discover that buying one ticket resulted in three charges on my credit card: one for the ticket, one for the tax, and one for the service charge.

If there are no spots available on the train that you want, you can check to see if there are any seats left under the foreign tourist quota (see above).  Click on Trains – Foreign Tourist Booking to access these reserved spots.  If you book one of these tickets then you’ll only see one charge on your card.  Why?  I have no idea.

Indian Food Questions

Indian Vegetarian Street Food is Chole Kulche

Will I get sick from the food in India?

Question: I want to be an adventurous eater and try all of the food in India – yes, even the street food in India!  Am I going to get food poisoning or other stomach problems?

Answer: I will update this answer after I’ve spent more time in India, but during the first two weeks of my trip I did not got sick from eating Indian food.  I sampled tons of different restaurant foods (including raw vegetables and even the water they bring to the table – I’ve just assumed it’s purified in the places I go) and ate street foods under the guidance of local guides, and I felt a million times better than I did in Central Asia last month.  I think that one reason I’m feeling so good is that I’m a vegetarian traveler and therefore I’m not eating sketchy meat products.  However, during my third week in India I did take a “risk” by eating a massive fruit salad.  Although it only contained peeled fruits, it left me feeling a little uncomfortable for the rest of the day (no diarrhea though!).

Is it safe to drink the water in India?

Question: What are my options for drinking water in India?  I don’t want to get sick from drinking unsafe water.

Answer:  I didn’t even think about drinking the tap water in India, and my stomach thanked me for it.  Although some travelers feel confident using a portable water purifier like a LifeStraw, I felt more comfortable sticking to bottled water, or purified water from trusted sources, for both drinking and brushing my teeth.

How spicy is the food in India?

Question: I’m a wuss!  My biggest Indian food fear is actually that Indian food will be too spicy for me to handle!  Is the food in India seriously that spicy?

Answer: Again, I will update this answer a little bit later, but so far, I’m pleasantly surprised by the spice level in Indian food!  I’ve focused my travels to date on Rajasthan, and the food here has a bit of a kick, but nothing too crazy.  I even asked for the spiciest snack available from one vendor and still found it tolerable!  The good news for spice lovers is that most restaurants, and many street vendors, can customize the spice level for you, so don’t be afraid to ask for more or less heat when you place your order.

Can I eat raw fruit and vegetables in India?

Question: I’m a wuss… and I’m a vegetarian.  I know that India has lots of great vegetarian food, but I’m worried about eating raw fruits and vegetables in India. Is it safe to eat the fruits and vegetables?

Answer: As I mentioned above, I regularly ate raw fruits and vegetables in India without getting sick.  I wouldn’t recommend eating them in the street, but if you go to a restaurant that caters primarily to tourists it is likely that they will wash the vegetables using purified water.  It’s always okay to ask about how they wash their produce before ordering anything with raw fruits and vegetables in India – don’t feel embarrassed or uncomfortable!

What are the best Indian vegetarian foods?

Question: I’ve been a vegetarian for fifteen years, and visiting India to eat its “pure veg” food has always been a dream.  What are the must-try dishes and where can I find them?

Answer: My biggest recommendation for vegetarians in India is that you do a street food tour!  You can usually book these through local hostels or through Airbnb experiences, and a street food tour in India is definitely the best (and safest) way to learn about the country’s most authentic vegetarian dishes.  Some of my favorites are chole kulche (chickpea curry with fried bread – shown in the photo above), kachori (fried balls of dough filled with lentils or potatos – best served doused in sauce and topped with crunchy bits!) and paneer tikka (firm cottage cheese marinated in spicy sauce then cooked on a grill).  In restaurants, my go-to vegetarian Indian dishes are palak paneer (paneer cooked in creamed spinach) and dal makhani (black lentils and red kidney beans cooked in a rich and creamy sauce).  For more information about vegetarian food in India, head over to my list of the thirteen Indian vegetarian foods you absolutely have to try!

What are the best vegan Indian foods?

Question: I often try to eat fully plant-based or vegan foods.  What plant-based and vegan foods can I find in India?

Answer: It is harder to be a vegan in India, as most meatless dishes are prepared with paneer, butter or yogurt.  However, most Indians are familiar with the idea of veganism and you can often have a dish modified to be vegan if you’re eating in a restaurant or guesthouse (not on the street!).  In areas that are popular with tourists you will likely find restaurants that clearly advertise their vegan options, and trendy coffee shops are introducing house-made plant-based milks to their menu.

Travel Health in India Questions

Do I need vaccinations for India travel?

Question: Do I need specific travel vaccinations for India?  Which ones?  How do I get them?

Answer: Yes, you should get vaccinations before you travel to India.  As part of my pre-trip travel health planning I visited a travel health clinic for a consultation about my trip to India.  The doctor there recommended that I ensure I was caught up on my normal vaccinations (like Hepatitis, tetanus and MMR, or measles-mumps-rubella) and then consider a few travel-specific vaccinations.  I took all of her advice and got a booster shot for typhoid fever, the full course of rabies vaccines (which I’d requested previously at another clinic and been denied) and Japanese encephalitis (again, which I’d previously requested elsewhere and been denied).  The typhoid shot was one dose (administered on day zero), Japanese encephalitis took two (day zero and day twenty-eight) and rabies took three (day zero, day seven and day twenty-eight).  In total, it took three visits to the travel clinic to get all the vaccinations.

Do I need to take medications during a trip to India?

Question: Do I need to bring any specific prescription medications to India?  What about over-the-counter medicines?

Answer: In addition to the vaccinations noted above, my travel doctor recommended that I pack two prescription medications for my trip to India.  Specifically, they prescribed a daily dose of doxycycline, an anti-malarial medication.  They recommended that I begin taking doxycycline two days before arrival in India, and continue for a month after departure.  For more information about malaria in India, I recommend checking the UK’s NHS’s India Malaria Map.  The other medication that I was prescribed is azithromycin, a powerful antibiotic that is used for severe travelers’ diarrhea.  I have been prescribed this for past trips and never needed to use it, but it’s good to have on hand “just in case”.  My doctor gave me twelve pills, which is two, three-day courses of treatment.  If I take the pills for three days and don’t see improvement then I’ll need to head to a local hospital.  Otherwise, the only recommended medications were those I take normally (for me, that’s an occasional puff on an asthma inhaler before strenuous hikes).

Do I need travel insurance for India?

Question: I’ve heard health care in India is super-cheap.  Should I just pay for any medical expenses as they arise, or should I purchase a travel insurance plan to cover me during my trip to India?

Answer: It’s true that health care in India is much cheaper than in Europe or North America.  However, services at public hospitals are often very limited, and most foreign embassies in India recommend that travelers with a medical emergency seek care at a private hospital.  These clinics are primarily located in larger cities and the average cost of treatment at these facilities is over $1,200 USD for local patients (according to the Wall Street Journal).  It’s reasonable to assume that hospitals may charge higher fees to foreign travelers who are perceived to be more affluent.  The cost of professional medical care, the wide variety of health risks associated with India travel and the widespread availability of comprehensive, affordable travel health insurance plans together mean that travel insurance is essential for your trip to India.  I am currently insured by World Nomads, one of the most experienced insurers for backpackers, RTW travelers and gap year explorers, and suggest that you get a quote from them before your trip to India.

What feminine hygiene products are sold in India?

Question: Personally, I use a combo of tampons and a menstrual cup.  But if I need to buy extra feminine hygiene products in India, what can I expect to find?  Where can I find the best variety?

Answer: The best place to shop for feminine hygiene products in India is at a major hypermarket.  In Rajasthan, I looked at both Reliance Smart and Big Bazaar.  These two chains had a large assortment of pads (mostly bulky) and, sometimes, one or two varieties of tampons (never larger than super).  If you’re staying somewhere for a while, you can order tampons from Amazon India, where there is a better selection.  You can, of course, avoid all this hassle by packing a menstrual cup.

India Travel Budget Questions

Is India cheap to travel?

Question: I’ve heard that India is really cheap, but is that true even for a solo traveler in India?  What is a realistic budget for India travel?

Answer: India isn’t as cheap as it used to be, and that’s only fair as the country modernizes and develops. I recommend planning to spend about 2000 INR per day for budget travelers staying in dorms and eating on the street, 3,000 – 10,000 INR for travelers staying in private hostel rooms and eating in affordable restaurants, and significantly more for luxury travelers.  All of those estimates would exclude inter-city transportation, which can add up quickly.

How much does a hostel cost in India?

Question: Sometimes I like to stay in hostels, mostly to meet other travelers.  How much do hostels in India cost?

Answer:  On average, I would recommend budgeting about 600 INR per night for a dorm room with air conditioning in a comfortable hostel.  You can get cheaper rooms, but they are likely to be cooled by fan (which can be fine, depending on your location and the season) and/or they might be in less-comfortable hostels (no English-speaking staff, no organized activities, fewer common areas and potentially less security are possible).

How much does a hotel cost in India?

Question: I also like to stay in hotels for a little bit of privacy and personal space.  How much do hotels in India cost?

Answer: On average, I paid about 1,500 INR per night for a room in a hotel-style guesthouse or a nice private room in a hostel, and about double that for an upper-tier room in a mid-price, locally-owned hotel.  At that price, you can expect a clean room with air conditioning, hot water and an included breakfast.  Room prices spike around Diwali and other festivals, so book in advance to secure an affordable room.

How much does food cost in India?

Question: How much does food cost in India?  In a restaurant?  From a street vendor?

Answer: Street food in India is still one of the country’s cheapest surprises.  You can easily find a samosa, katchori or skewer of paneer tikka for less than 30 INR from a street vendor.  If you go into a restaurant, a basic meal like a masala dosa (lentil crepe stuffed with spicy potato) should be just under 100 INR, while a meal with more ingredients (like curry and rice) would probably cost between 200 and 300 INR.  If you’re open to trying many different things at the chef’s discretion, a thali, or plate including small portions of many different dishes, is usually about the same price (and much more interesting!).  Western foods are more expensive – for example, the place I went to for breakfast this morning had spaghetti dishes on their lunch menu and the prices were closer to 400 INR.

How much does transportation cost in India?

Question: What should I expect to pay for buses, trains, taxis and rickshaws when I travel in India?

Answer: Since I’m on an eight-month trip, I’ve been trying to avoid travel fatigue by booking more comfortable transportation options for my long-haul journeys.  So, my inter-city travel costs have been slightly more expensive than your average backpacker (but I think the comfort has been worth it!).

At the time I’m writing this I haven’t personally taken an inter-city bus, but all the travelers I’ve met have been using the Red Bus app to plan and book their bus travel, so go ahead and check it out (link goes to website, not app).

I have taken three relatively-short train trips so far: Delhi to Agra, Bharatpur to Jaipur and Jaipur to Udaipur.  I always booked a bed or seat in the equivalent of a second-class air-conditioned car, and the average price so far has been about 7,000 INR per trip.  You can use the IRCTC website to price out (and book) potential train trips.

Whenever possible, I have used “ride-sharing” apps like Uber and Ola (a local alternative) to book taxis and auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks) for travel around a city.  In other countries I would walk the same distance, but India has very few sidewalks and walking in urban areas means dodging cars, scooters, cows, dogs, goats and piles of poop.  I’ve never paid more than 100 INR for an auto-rickshaw ride within a city, and never paid more than 200 INR for a taxi ride within a city.   If your destination is outside the city, obviously the price will be higher (and you will be responsible for paying any tolls or taxes associated with your journey).

How much do tours and excursions cost in India?

Question: I want to do some organized tours in India.  What are the standard prices for day trips and tours in India?

Answer: You’re always going to pay a foreign tourist upcharge when you book a day trip or driver in India.  Let’s just get that out of the way.  In general, a full-day organized tour outside of the city (for example, from Delhi to the Taj Mahal and back) is likely to cost about 3,000 INR, excluding any ticket prices.  Similarly, if you want to piece together your own itinerary, you can likely hire a car and driver for a full day for about the same price (including mileage).  If you’re not traveling outside of the city, you can likely hire an auto-rickshaw driver to take you around town for a full day for about 600 INR.

Are there any hidden costs when traveling in India?

Question: Remember, I wrote these questions in April!  Now that it’s October, what has surprised me about money and costs in India?

Answer: One thing that I didn’t expect about India is that at the major attractions, the entrance costs for foreigners is often much higher than it is for locals.  In fact, I’ve seen prices up to ten times higher for foreigners than locals.  I think this is fair, but it was definitely unexpected.

Another surprising expense has been the cost of alcohol. In fact, in three weeks in India I’ve only had two drinks: one cocktail in a trendy bar in Delhi, and one beer in a hostel in Agra.  Both drinks costs more than I would feel comfortable paying back home in Canada!

Solo Female Travel in India Questions

Is India safe for solo female travelers?

Question:  I am going to be a solo female traveler in India.  Is India safe for solo female travelers?  How can I stay safe while I’m traveling in India?

Answer: Unfortunately, India is currently ranked the #1 Most Dangerous Country for Women.  However, that poll was based on information collected from local women, not from tourists.  So yes, there is a lot of work to be done to improve the safety and equality for Indian women, but the issues that local women face may be different from the challenges you’ll face as a tourist.  What I can say is that after three weeks in India, I have consistently felt safe and generally felt respected.  Here’s what’s helped me to feel safe as a solo female traveler in India:

  • Carry a cross-body purse that zips closed.  Keep values in a second, zipped pouch inside the main compartment.
  • Consider dressing conservatively.  I have seen local girls wearing revealing, Western-style clothing, so it’s not like it’s completely unheard of… but those girls are also getting unwanted attention.
  • Do not accept food or drinks from strangers, including rickshaw drivers.  I had a weird experience with a rickshaw driver offering me drinks (and not accepting no for an answer) and I spoke with a guesthouse owner who had recently helped a tourist who had been drugged in a similar situation.
  • If a single seat or single bed is available on your bus or train, book that.  Avoid the double bed on an overnight sleeper bus (yes, that’s a real thing!).
  • Always be aware of your surroundings.  Look around, make eye contact, know where you can “escape” if you need to.  If you think you’re being followed, join a group of women or duck into a shop (or office).

Are there any destinations or activities not recommended for solo female travelers in India?

Question: I’m “fearless”, not stupid.  Are there places that I should avoid as a solo female in India?  Are there any activities that are too risky for a solo female travelers in India?

Answer: Taking drugs (including bhang, the form of marijuana that is legal in much of India) and getting drunk are potentially more risky in India than in some other parts of the world.  Personally, I’m avoiding both, and I’d recommend you do the same.  If you do choose to get drunk or take drugs, make sure you’re with someone you really trust (preferably someone you met before you arrived in India) who is staying sober.

Other things to avoid (or at least consider very carefully) are getting massages from male “therapists” (local women would never do this!), wearing expensive clothes and jewelry and walking alone in isolated areas (especially at night).

The safety and security situation is always changing, so I recommend you check with your local government to see which areas of the country are currently unsafe for travel.  I’m from Canada, so I check this site for information, but the UK’s travel advisory site here is also a good resource.

Do I need to wear a fake wedding ring in India?

Question: For years, I’ve been hearing that solo female travelers should wear a wedding ring to discourage men from hitting on them or harassing them.  I’ve never done this before… is India the place where I need to start?

Answer: I am not wearing a fake wedding ring and I can’t imagine it would really make any difference.  Anyone who would be in a position to see your ring and change his behavior as a result of seeing it would be someone you’d already spoken to, and you can always just say your friends or boyfriend are waiting for you at (the hotel, the restaurant, the train station, whatever).

Is there street harassment in India?

Question: I couldn’t walk from my hotel to the closest restaurant in some other regions without getting hollered at, harassed and even groped.  Is India going to be just as bad?

Answer: So far, so good.  In three weeks in India I haven’t had any real or threatening street harassment.  Yes, many local men will say hello and attempt to strike up a conversation, but I choose not to engage beyond a polite smile.  Some have continued for a few steps or a few more attempts at conversation, but so far, nobody has invaded my physical space or been verbally threatening.

My Most Random India Travel Questions

Cows Pigs and Monkeys in Jaipur India

But really, how many cows will I see in the streets of India?

Question: Cows, cows, cows.  Are they really as ubiquitous as the media would have me believe?

Answer: Yes!  There are cows everywhere in India.  In general they keep to themselves and are more focused on munching on garbage than on harassing anyone, but I did see a young bull head-butt a local man who didn’t get out of his way quickly enough.  Cows, and their poop, are one reason why most locals use auto-rickshaws to travel short distances that, in other countries, would be perfectly walkable.

And what about monkeys?  Are there monkeys in the streets in India?

Question: I’m kind of obsessed with monkeys.  In fact, my #2 reason for visiting India (after the vegetarian food!) is to see monkeys, after watching them leap around Jaipur in Planet Earth II.  Will India fulfill my monkey dreams?

Answer: Yes!  There are monkeys everywhere in India!  I have seen monkeys in every city I’ve visited so far.  The main species that you’re likely to see in the city are macaques (like in the Ubud Monkey Forest in Bali) and common lemurs (longer and lither, with striking black faces).  If you look at the photo above, you’ll see cows, monkeys (macaques) and pigs all on one street!

How can I send a postcard from India?

Question: Sending postcards home is one of my favorite things to do when I’m traveling.  What’s the easiest way to send a postcard from India to my friends and family in other countries?

Answer: There are post offices all over India, and the staff there are happy to help foreigners buy stamps to send mail abroad.  The cost of a stamp for a foreign-bound postcard is (at present) 20 INR.  The hardest part is finding a postcard.  Outside of major tourist attractions like the Taj Mahal, postcards can be hard to find.  I’ve been in Udaipur for three days now and still haven’t found one!

Is shopping in India really that affordable?  What should I buy?

Question: I’ve heard that clothes, jewelry and other products are super-cheap in India.  I’m limited by the available space in my backpack, though.  What is truly worth buying in India?

Answer: Shopping in India is an absolute pleasure, if you can stand the crowds.  Markets in the major cities generally have shops grouped by product, so you’ll find one area with lots of shoe vendors, one with lots of sari vendors and another with lots of jewelry vendors.  Most of the products are made locally (if not directly in the shops) and you don’t feel like everything has been imported from China.  For me, I’ve focused on buying fair-trade fashions (mostly from FabIndia – they ship globally!) and locally-inspired jewelry (though I’m sticking to the cheap stuff as I don’t know much about precious gems and metals).  If you’ve got space in your bag, or the time and energy to ship things home, there are also gorgeous linens like sheets and towels made from luxurious Indian cotton and silk.

Did I answer all of your India travel questions?  Is there anything you’d still like to know about traveling in India? 

If so, let me know in the comments below, or check out my social channels to follow my solo trip across India as it happens: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

India Travel - Questions and answers about solo travel, solo female travel and backpacking in India, asked and answered by a fearless female traveler. Includes health, safety, budgeting and transportation tips.The truth about solo female travel in India - includes your most pressing questions about food, transportation, budgeting, health and safety, all answered by an experienced solo female traveler currently backpacking in India.

 

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