“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance.” – Cesare Pavese
I was prompted to write this post after receiving a few emails on how I dealt with the challenges of travelling in India. Many were interested in things like how I avoided (for the most part) the dreaded “Delhi Belly” (traveller’s diarrhea). Some of the pitfalls of travelling through India I prepared for before arriving, but many of the following tips, I learnt on the fly while travelling in India. Without further adieu:
Avoid getting sick (traveller’s diarrhea)
1) Be in control of your water source.
This tip was given to me by the young lady who set up my travel insurance back in Canada. She had lived in New Delhi for 2 years and avoided any type of serious stomach illness during that time. The most important thing she said was to only drink bottled water and always open the cap yourself.
Waterborne pathogens are considered one of the main causes of traveller’s diarrhea. My water consumption was limited to only bottled water that I opened myself. The following is a list of precautions that I took regarding water while in India:
- Brushed my teeth with only bottled water.
- Avoided salads, vegetables or fruit that may have been washed with tap water.
- Avoided drinks with ice cubes.
- Checked bottle caps for a clean and untampered seal.
- Wipe down plates and utensils that have water on them.
Note: I did get a little “runny” twice as I got a little bit careless with eating raw vegetables that were used as garnishes; so don’t get lazy! Other than these 2 minor stomach disturbances, I avoided getting violently sick during my 5 weeks in India (unlike my time in Sri Lanka in 2012).
2) Drink only “name” brand bottled water.
Okay, this tip may seem like overkill and paranoia. However, I primarily drank bottled water that was from recognizable national and international brands: Kinley (Coca Cola), Aquafina (Pepsi) and Bisleri (India’s leading brand of mineral water). Drinking only these 3 brands soothed me psychologically as some of the local brands had caps that seemed suspect and most of the plastic bottles felt thin and ready to fold like paper origami.
After drinking a couple of sips from a lesser known brand from the train station, my stomach started to “gurgle” a bit about half an hour later. Despite not having further complications to my stomach other than a stomach ache, I decided to play it safe moving forward with my choice of bottled water.
3) Avoid eating meat and become vegetarian while in India.
This tip was suggested to me by my niece in Canada as she had previously spent a few months in India volunteering and travelling. Food preparation procedures and refrigeration facilities seemed precarious as I travelled throughout India. The thought of raw meat simmering in the sweltering heat of India seemed too much of a gamble. However, cheer up all you carnivores, the vegetarian food is absolutely delicious and makes being vegetarian in India very easy. Another plus is that my intestines got a good cleaning with all the extra fibre I was getting in my diet from the vegetables.
4) Only eat food that is cooked.
Along with waterborne pathogens, food hygiene and parasites are the other major causes of stomach illnesses in India. This tip was recommended to me by all my friends that had previously travelled to India before. One of my favorite travel pastimes is eating street food. However, I completely avoided eating from street vendors during my first 2 weeks in India. While in Varanasi, tired of depriving myself this pleasure, I took a leap of faith and started eating street food with the only condition being that everything I ate was cooked. I’m glad that I took the chance, as India has some of the best tasting street food that I’ve had during my travels; and extremely inexpensive as most of the dishes I ate ranged from 20 to 40 Rupees (about $ 0.40 – 0.80 CAD).
Note: I did stray a little when it came to dairy. Despite not being sure how well the dairy is pasteurized in India, I simply had to try the lassi’s (a yogurt based drink/dessert). I compared it to visiting Thailand and not eating the tom yum soup or going to Singapore and not eating the chili crab. Fortunately, the lassi’s had no adverse effects on my stomach; if anything the probiotics in the yogurt may have helped my stomach. And yes, they were delicious!
Eventually, I realized that avoiding every little germ and bacteria would be impossible. Experience all that you want to try; just be smart about it and have a little faith.
Dealing with India’s heat
5) Stay hydrated: drink lots of water.
This is probably an obvious one. Drink lots of water and then continue to drink lots more water. While I was in India, some days exceeded 40 degrees Celsius. I’m lazy when it comes to water consumption and by the time I noticed my urine turning a dark yellow, it was a bit late. Dehydration starts to set in by then and I’m feeling ragged and weak. Playing catch up with my water consumption at that point felt like an uphill battle. Get into the habit of drinking lots of water and don’t let up!
6) Bring packets of powdered electrolytes.
I initially packed some Hydralyte electrolyte packets just in case I and had to recover from dehydration due to an acute case of traveller’s diarrhea. However, I started to get heat exhaustion. Feeling weak, dizzy and dehydrated with a headache, I started mixing the powdered electrolytes with my drinking water. I was feeling better within a couple of hours. These packets are a bit more expensive than a bottled sport drink like Gatorade, but without all the sugar and much better tasting in my opinion.
7) Pack toilet paper.
I always pack one roll of toilet paper with me for emergencies; to preserve space, remove the cardboard centre and squash the toilet paper roll into a Ziploc bag to keep it dry. I take having toilet paper for granted back home in Canada, but in India and throughout Asia, toilet paper is a bit of a luxury item. In all my travels, I’ve never actually had the need for this emergency roll until I came to India. My guest house in Rishikesh didn’t provide toilet paper or towels. As I arrived late at night on the eve of Holi, a major Indian holiday, all the stores were closed and would be all day the next day.
When my bowels came calling, that roll of emergency toilet paper in that moment redefined the phrase: “Worth its weight in gold”.
8) Pack a small travel towel.
A few years back, I was given the Adventure Towl, a small travel towel made of an anti-bacterial microfibre that rolls and packs neatly into a small and convenient case. I’ve carried it for years on my travels but haven’t had the need to use it until I arrived in Rishikesh which I previously mentioned in tip #7. With no towels provided by the guest house and stores being closed the next day for a major holiday, this little towel was a Godsend. Apparently, competitive swimmers use a similar type of towel, as these small towels absorb water extremely well and dry quickly which I found to be true on both points.
9) Carry a scarf or large handkerchief.
I found India to be a very dusty country with a lot of dirt roads and pollution. While in Jaipur sharing a tuk-tuk with a couple of travellers from my guest house, they pulled out a scarf and handkerchief to wear as ad hoc face masks to protect themselves from the dust. They mentioned they previously had headaches and coughs while sitting in tuk-tuks and the masks seemed to help. The tuk-tuks have the added peril of exhaust fumes given off while driving. You may look like a bank robber, but your lungs will thank you for it.
In addition, many people used scarves to wrap around their heads to get a little reprieve from the intense Indian sun.
10) Bring a small headlamp instead of a flash light.
My niece, a seasoned traveller bought me a small head lamp made by Petzl as a gift for my year of travels. I told her I didn’t need it as I was going to bring a small flash light for emergencies. She insisted that this is one of her “must have” travel items. I’m glad that I eventually gave into her generosity and accepted the gift as virtually every hotel and guest house that I stayed at in India had a power outage at some point during my stay.
Some power outages lasted only a few minutes while others lasted a few hours. When the power outage lasts that long, you’ll be happy to have a head lamp over a flash light as it allows you to keep your hands free to do things such as brush your teeth or go to the bathroom much more readily.
11) Pack a small medical kit.
It’s a good idea to pack a bit of medicine that you think may be difficult to find in India. My kit was primarily geared at dealing with the possibility of a severe case of traveller’s diarrhea like the one I experienced in Sri Lanka in 2012. I used a small pouched pencil case that I bought from a dollar store to carry the following:
- Ciprofloxacin (“Cypro”): Antibiotic to fight bacterial infections (I usually pack Azithromycin but went with the Cypro based on a nurse friend’s recommendation.)
- Hydralyte: A brand of electrolyte replacement powder that you mix with water.
- Loperamide (Immodium): To manage traveller’s diarrhea. It’s normally best to let the diarrhea run its course (no pun intended) but if it’s a travel day and you have to be mobile, the Immodium can give you some temporary relief until you reach your destination.
- Tylenol and Paracetamol: For fever and headaches.
- Malarone: For malaria. (Just in case I entered malaria infected regions; have yet to use it.)
- Loratadine: Antihistamine for hay fever and allergies.
- Dramamine: For sea and motion sickness.
- Bandages: For cuts and wounds.
- Ear plugs: Depending on your hotel or guest house’s location, traffic literally honks around the clock in India.
12) Pack a golf ball.
I wish I could claim credit for this travel hack, but I read it in an article awhile back. I generally wash my own clothes in the hotel or guest house sink when travelling as it saves money and depending on where I am, laundry service isn’t always available. Most places that I stayed at were often missing sink plugs, and a golf ball generally fits most sink holes. Moreover, after a long day of travel or site seeing, you can roll your feet on the golf ball for a foot massage. Remember the golf ball: practical and takes up little space.
13) Avoid accepting 1000 Rupees (Rs) bills at money exchanges.
Before leaving Canada, I exchanged a little bit of Canadian currency for Indian Rupees to have on hand when I landed in New Delhi. I was given mostly 1000 Rs bills and soon realized upon landing in India that large bills like that are rather impractical. Most of my purchases were food, convenience store items and transportation (tuk-tuks and taxis); large bills were difficult or impossible for some vendors to make change for.
Some ATM bank machines only issue 1000 Rs bills. If this is the case, you can go to a money exchange or bank and they will generally change those big bills into smaller ones as a favour. I used all my 1000 Rs bills to pay hotels and guest houses.
Keep lots of small notes (10 and 20 Rs) for tuk-tuks and taxis. Paying for a 60 Rs tuk-tuk ride with a 1000 Rs bill and expecting change will be a nightmare.
14) Bring an unlocked phone.
Having the use of a mobile phone provides added convenience and freedom. I personally use the Oneplus One phablet smartphone which has virtually has the same specs as the leading Samsung Galaxy Note 4 for about half the price. The ample 3100 mAh battery gets me comfortably through most days without having to recharge the phone.
Some of the hotels and guest houses offered a pick-up service from airports and train stations. It’s a good idea to call ahead to confirm the pick-up times as I met a number of travellers that had been left stranded upon arrival due to incorrect or mistaken pick-up times and dates. Ask for the name and phone number of the driver; you can call the driver if your arrival time is delayed or if you’re having trouble finding your driver.
I pre-booked all my accommodations before arriving at each city, however if you like to travel on a whim, I met many travellers that would phone a guest house a day or two ahead and simply reserved a room over the phone.
15) Don’t buy your SIM card at the airport.
Admittedly, I got hosed on this one. After sleeping overnight at the Guangzhou airport, I was extremely fatigued upon arriving in New Delhi. My fatigue, lack of patience and need to set up my phone “now” cost me 1600 Rs ($32 CAD) for a new SIM card. This was through a Vodafone dealer at the airport for 3 gigabytes of data and 50 Rs of talk time for 30 days. Oddly, I had to wait until 8:00 pm later that day to call the Vodafone call centre to have them activate the SIM. I still can’t explain this, but all SIM cards should be active immediately after being installed in the phone. The fact that the dealer quoted me a package price without showing me a price list should’ve been a red flag. At the time, the price seemed reasonable as it was about half of my monthly rate in Canada.
I later told my SIM purchase story to the front desk worker at my hotel in Bodh Gaya and he nearly choked on his cup of chai. He showed me a price list of phone plans on the hotel’s ipad. The SIM card should be about 300 Rs and whatever additional data package that’s added on. The total price for a comparable package as mine should be around 800 Rs not 1600 Rs! My only consolation was that another traveller paid 2500 Rs for his SIM. P.T. Barnum was right: “A sucker is born every minute”.
If you don’t have friends or family in India that you need to contact as soon as you land, wait until you reach your hotel or guest house. Someone working there will be able to assist you in setting up your SIM card for your phone.
Travel and local transport
16) Tuk-tuk rides: it’s not over until it’s over.
The easiest and most available means of local transport in India are the 3-wheeled tuk-tuks. The controlled recklessness of the drivers is an experience not to be missed. However, negotiating the cost of the rides had me pulling out my hair most of the time. The initial quote will be about 2 to 3 times what the ride should cost. You can negotiate down to a price that you’re comfortable with. To get a bench mark, you can ask someone at the hotel or guest house that you’re staying at as to what a fair price is for to a particular destination.
Even when the price is established, the shenanigans aren’t over yet. When you arrive at your destination and you don’t have the exact fare amount, some drivers may claim to not have any change in the hopes that you won’t care and just overpay to avoid the hassle.
Lastly, most tuk-tuk drivers will tell you that they know where your destination is even if they don’t actually know. The competition for fares is fierce and drivers will do anything to secure a customer. I found this very common as I left train stations looking for transportation to my guest house or hotel. On more than one occasion, the driver would say that the guest house was a lot further than he thought and wanted more money than originally agreed upon. I’d always call my guest house and have the owner speak with the driver. The owner generally was able to smooth things out and in one case the hotel paid the extra amount asked by the driver.
We’re not talking about a lot of money, but the negotiated fare being a moving target eventually got under my skin. Just be aware that the tuk-tuk ride isn’t over until it’s actually over.
Lastly, many tuk-tuk drivers will try to convince you to go shopping and take you to a shop with inflated prices as he gets a commission out it as well.
17) Beware of the taxi shenanigans.
In large cities like Mumbai, taxi fares are theoretically supposed to work off a meter. Many drivers will say the meter is broken and try to negotiate a fare. The one time I ran into this, I simply said no thanks and looked for another taxi. This scam isn’t exclusive to India, as I’ve run into this scam in Thailand often.
If you know your destination or landmark and you have a smartphone, it’s a good idea to monitor your ride one the phone’s GPS to see if your driver is taking you for an extended joy ride to pad the fare. As with the tuk-tuks, taxi drivers will also try to conjure up any excuse to pit stop into a store or restaurant where he can make a little extra commission for bringing you there.
18) Book train tickets in advance if possible.
Before arriving to India, I was under the impression that train tickets could be bought on a whim without any trouble. Not true as I found out while trying to buy a train ticket with a travel agent. The trains that I wanted were booked full for almost the entire next week. I suddenly had to carve out a loose itinerary for the next couple of weeks to ensure tickets on the routes that I wanted.
I found out later in my travels that the Indian railways set aside a few seats daily as a foreign tourist quota for next day travel. However, this is a bit of a gamble, so if you’re not tied to a time schedule and don’t mind travelling by the seat of your pants, you can always enquire about these tourist quota seats at the train station or with a local travel agent. Otherwise, I’d suggest booking your train tickets as far in advance as possible. A great resource for train travel in India (or anywhere else for that matter) is www.seat61.com
19) Use your smartphone to check and update train schedule.
Use your smartphone to find the schedule and status of all the train routes in India on this website: http://www.indianrail.gov.in . I downloaded a couple of India train schedule apps on my smartphone but they both linked back to this government website for the schedules.
This website will give you a live update on the status of your train. However, if there is a delay, you may get demoralized seeing the delay get longer and longer as you refresh the site. During my train ride from Tundla to Mughal Sarai, the indicated delay online went from minutes to hours as I continually refreshed the site. Sometimes, you’re better off just “going with the flow” and accepting your circumstances.
20) Leave early for airports and train stations.
Regardless of what city I was in, the traffic in India was atrocious. Leave yourself a good buffer of time to account for the dense volumes of traffic that you will encounter in India. Whatever drive time that the hotel or guest house recommended, I always added an extra 30 minutes to be safe.
21) Print a copy of your e-ticket or itinerary in order to enter airports.
Before even entering the airport there will be armed security to check that the details of the ticket is correct and it matches against your passport. You will not be allowed to enter without proof of your flight details. If there is any changes in flight details such as flight times make sure you print out the confirmation with the updated information otherwise you won’t be allowed into the airport. I had a flight that had a new departure time as well as a new flight number assigned. The guard disappeared for about 10 minutes and then returned with a copy of my itinerary with the updated details thus enabling me to enter the airport.
22) Remember to get ID tags for your carry-on luggage when checking in.
I never put the airline issued ID tags on my carry-on luggage when I travel. However, luckily I was in a “monkey see, monkey do” mode when I arrived at the New Delhi airport. I noticed everyone grabbing and filling out these ID tags at the check-in counter and simply followed suit. Later, when you go through the airport security check point, they will stamp the tag after you’ve been checked. Don’t throw away the tags as more security guards will check the tags again when you finally board.
23) Remember, there are separate lines for men and women at airport security.
My first time through airport security, I instinctively went to the shortest line hoping to sail through security. I suddenly noticed that I was the only man standing in a line of women. I played “dumb” hoping to get through anyways, but was sent to the back of the much longer men’s line. Get in the right line from the start and save yourself a few minutes.
24) Travelling by bus in India.
25) The gift and guilt scam.
I experienced this scam the most during my time in India. The scam basically involves quickly “gifting” you an item or service and then guilting you into immediately paying for it.
I first ran into this at India Gate in New Delhi where a woman came up to me and pinned a tiny paper national flag of India on my shirt and then immediately asked me for 100 Rs. After I protested and said that there’s no charge for visiting India Gate, she claimed that the money was to be used for charity in the education of children. I countered with saying that I left my wallet in the car with my driver and started walking away from the venue. Realizing, that she wasn’t going to get any money from me, she feigned leniency and “allowed” me to visit India Gate for free. Note: she took the paper flag back.
Some of the palaces and forts that I visited were quite large and complex and I found myself lost a few times. If you ask one of the security guards working there for directions or help, be prepared for them to ask for a tip afterwards. This happened to me in one instance where I gave the guard 10 Rs for his troubles.
At the Taj Mahal in Agra, there are numerous men loitering in the buildings flanking the main mausoleum showing people the best spots to take photos of the Taj with interesting vantage points. They’ll expect a tip for showing you these “secret” photo angles.
In Rishikesh the scam artists really seem to play the religious angle whereby a sadhu or “holy man” approached me and quickly painted my forehead with a red spot (tilak) and then proceeded to wrap my wrist with white string and then blessed the string with a chant. Too polite to say “No thank you” initially, I hoped that it was a kind gesture. However, I was quickly asked for a 100 Rs. I was caught a bit speechless and just quickly walked away without paying.
The same scam was run in Varanasi but with children at the busy Aarti ceremonies that take place nightly. Despite my experience in Rishikesh, I fell prey to this one also as the children are really cute and sweet. As soon as the little boy put the red tilak dot on my forehead, he demanded 100 Rs. I wasn’t afforded an easy escape this time as the little boy began screaming “100 Rupees!”. After a couple of shouts, he quickly moved on to the next unsuspecting tourist.
26) Count your money carefully at money exchanges.
I’ve experienced this scam in other countries as well as India. During one money exchange, I was shorted a 1000 Rs bill but the clerk claimed it was a “mistake”. I’ve had this happen a few times in Thailand as well. If the clerk counts your bills back to you in a close or tight handed fashion, be aware that you may be short changed. Always count your money immediately afterwards in front of the clerk in order to resolve any issues right away.
27) Beware of the Varanasi hospice scam.
In Varansi, while trying to find the famous Blue Lassi yogurt shop, I meandered into the Manikarnika Ghat where the cremation ceremonies of the dead occur. I was immediately approached by a friendly Indian man that wanted to “educate” me on the ceremony. He claimed that he didn’t want any money and started to explain the specifics of the ceremony. As soon as I engaged in the conversation, he had his hooks in me. He turned around and pointed at two decrepit and abandoned buildings claiming that they were hospices. Then he lowered the boom and asked for a 2000 Rs “donation” to the hospice to pay for the wood they use in the cremations. He was relentless and continued to harass me for a donation for another 200 yards as I backtracked away from the Ghat. And all I wanted that day was some yogurt.
28) Don’t book tours for the Taj Mahal on Fridays: It’s closed!
Remember that the Taj Mahal in Agra is closed on Fridays for worship. I knew this before hand and arrived on a Wednesday. I have a close friend that hired a driver to visit the Taj Mahal driving from New Delhi to Agra. Half way to Agra, my friend was informed that the Taj Mahal was closed on Fridays and then was suggested other tourist sites to visit instead. Anyone involved with tours of the Taj Mahal will know this. Don’t waste your time trying to get into the Taj on a Friday. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t get into the Taj on a Friday when he visited Agra.
The two most important India travel tips
29) Have a boat load of patience.
Having patience is indispensable when travelling throughout India. The country seems to run on its own schedule; so expect lots of delays. Passing through airport security is tedious and painstakingly slow. There is no sense of personal space: in line ups, you will feel the chest of the person behind you on your back. If you’re not a patient person, you will be if you travel in India long enough. Let go of your controlling urges and “go with the flow”.
30) Have an open mind.
All the previous tips may not be worth very much unless you have an open mind when travelling in India. Without question, India was the most challenging and yet enriching countries that I’ve travelled to thus far. The sooner you can accept and embrace what India is, the sooner you can experience what India has to offer.
“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” – Clifton Fadiman
I hope these tips will help you in your travels in India (or anywhere else). Have you been to India? What other travel tips would you add to help someone have a better experience?