There's no denying that travelling to India can be a major culture shock, especially on your first visit. It's a huge and bewildering country, with many different cultures and customs. The cities roar with traffic and bustle with activity non-stop. So how to prepare for this assault on the senses? Here are our essential India travel tips for newbies to help you get to grips with this fascinating country. For more tips, itinerary suggestions and more, take a look at the new edition of the Rough Guide to India.
1. Avoid burnout
By far the most common complaint reported by first-time visitors to India is fatigue - simply trying to do too much in too little time. India is vast, colourful and addictive, but have realistic expectations about how much you can see. An extensive trip to one particular area can deliver far more than a whistlestop tour of the whole country. And remember, India isn't going anywhere – you can return time and time again.
Houseboat on Kerala backwaters, India © Monisha Malli Sridharan/Shutterstock
2. Get out of the city
Though perhaps a cliché, the only way to get a true sense of India is to visit smaller villages. The real benefit is that it'll get you out of the sprawling and vastly overpopulated cities. Once you've cleared your head, say with a trip to the mountains or into the slower-moving land of Kerala in the south, you'll be far better placed to enjoy the famous hospitality of the Indian urbanites.
3. Watch what you eat and drink
Perhaps the most important India travel tip for first-timers! A dodgy stomach is pretty common on your first trip to India. There are ways to avoid though. Stay on the bottled water and avoid salads or ice – these are often the cause of stomach upsets. You don't have to rule out street food completely, but try to stick to peeled fresh fruit and foods that have been either boiled or fried.
4. Don't be too precious about your personal space
Personal space isn't really a popular concept in India. You will be squished on public transport and squashed in lifts. People will ask seemingly intrusive personal questions that you may find intimidating. Remember that this is a wholly different culture and the questions are merely indicative of the locals' polite interest in you.
Traditional sari costume © Szefei/Shutterstock
5. Dress appropriately
Be aware that India has a relatively modest culture. Covering arms and legs is a simple step toward respecting this. Indians are forgiving of those who aren't familiar with their customs, but you can quickly make a good impression by, for instance, removing your shoes before entering someone's home. This is particularly important when entering a sacred space, like a temple. At temples, you should also keep shoulders covered and make sure dresses and shorts reach your knees. Also, if you see shoes outside a shop, it's a sign to remove your own.
6. Watch your feet and hands
Feet are considered to be unclean in India, so if you touch something with your feet it's appropriate to swiftly apologize. Similarly, eating or passing objects with your left hand is considered unpleasant (Indians use their left hand for wiping after using the toilet). If unsure of local customs, keep an eye out for what others do and imitate.
7. Remember that Indian time is relative
You may well find yourself waiting half an hour in India when you expected to wait five minutes. Traffic and other interruptions can mean that getting around can take a lot longer than expected. One of our most indispensable India travel tips? Build in plenty of room for unexpected waits. Also, try and run any errands or shopping trips in the morning – many government offices and shops close in the afternoon for lunch.
8. Stay safe
While "don't go down dark streets alone" might seem a bit obvious, there are plenty of straightforward ways to avoid subtle dangers in India. Of course, carrying huge quantities of cash isn't a good idea anywhere. In crowded Indian cities, pickpocketing is a very present problem. Equally, haggling at a market can, at times, become an unpleasant, heated exchange. If you do find yourself in an exchange that's heating up, try to stay calm. Be pleasant but firm, and don't allow yourself to be irritated.
On the river Ganges in Varanasi © D'July/Shutterstock
9. Be prepared for noise
Cars, motorbikes, throngs of people, street hawkers and more – Indian cities are noisy. One way of ensuring you can have a bit of personal space, albeit in your head, is to have earphones with you to shut out some of the surrounding din. The sheer clamour of an Indian city can be overwhelming at times.
10. Avoid deals that seem too good to be true
Government-run shops are the easiest way to avoid running foul of scams, but simple rules can help you elsewhere. Consider paying for things with cash to avoid card cloning scams. This may save you a lot of unnecessary trouble later in your journey. You should also pay particular attention if you're arranging to have things sent home by post. Unfortunately, it's not unknown for shops to take your payment and send worthless items instead.
Read all of our India travel tips and ready to book a trip? Get in touch! We work with local experts in the country who can plan and book a fully customised itinerary.
Top image: Panorama of Agra city, India with Taj Mahal in the background © pzAxe/Shutterstock