Streek Market in India

Travel Tips for India - simple advices to follow

May 04, 2015

For some, India is a challenging country to travel. Be it the bustling madness of India's traffic, the pollution in the cities, or the hordes of people clamouring around you - it can make you feel uneasy at times. Amidst all the fascinating history and beauty is also a sad concoction of inconveniences, especially when locals trying to take advantage of foreign tourists. Here are some tips to follow to make your better prepared when travelling across India.

1. Clothes women should wear

India is a conservative country. Add to that is the unfortunate reality that some parts of the country are worse than others when it comes to safety for women. The most common advice handed out to women traveling to India is 'cover up'. Yes, much of India can be quite hot, but keep the string tops and revealing attire for coastal states like Goa and Kerala. Elsewhere in India, it's better to wear sleeved tops and pants or long skirts - just to avoid unnecessary glares from the locals. Many foreign women end up buying kurta tops. Kurtas are ladies tops (usually made using cotton) that come in an array of Indian designs and patterns. The tops often extend beyond the waist and can be mixed and matched with leggings, jeans and even skirts. The kurta tops also make for good souvenirs from India to take back home, which a lot of women do.

2. Cultural sensitivities

You maybe asked to remove footwear when entering someone's house or a religious institution like temples and mosques. It's the general custom in India. So it's sometimes best to wear sandals which can be easily removed instead of wearing socks and shoes when on a tour. When dealing with traders or agreeing to something, asking "Okay?" and a giving a thumbs up with will often reciprocate the same if it's a 'yes'. If you disagree, just shake your head or wave your hands to say "no". The locals will get it.

By the way, "namaste" is a formal greeting which means "hello" - so don't make the mistake of saying "namaste" when you intend to say 'goodbye'. We have seen a lot of foreigners doing this. If you want to say goodbye, just wave to them and say "bye". The locals will respond with the same (and add a bit of the Indian head shake too). Also, it's not customary to hug local women when greeting them (unless they make the move first). In fact, it's a big no-no.

3. Bargaining is a must when street shopping

Beautiful India Sari - traditional dresses for women
If a pashmina shawl or a pearl set comes down to less than 50% than what was originally quoted by the salesman, then you know it's neither genuine nor worth that much anyway.

In India, most branded goods have an Maximum Retail Price (MRP) labeled on the packaging. This means, a bottle of branded mineral water costs the same at a supermarket as it does at a corner store. The MRP is printed on the bottle. That said, tourists have to be careful when buying things like souvenirs or goods largely found at tourist emporiums. Bargaining is a must. Chances are, 'white people' will be charged more than other races. It's an assumption that foreigners have more money to spend than domestic tourists. Also, you maybe paying much more for something that actually costs much less. If a pashmina shawl or a pearl set comes down to less than 50% than what was originally quoted by the salesman, then you know it's neither genuine nor worth that much anyway. The vendors make huge profits off of gullible tourists. So be careful and don't hesitate to bargain.

4. Insist on knowing the prices beforehand for services

This applies to places like local barbershops and not high end salons. The local shops may charge 100 rupees for a haircut, but if you don't ask the price beforehand, they may spring a surprise and demand three times as much! Same applies to specials at restaurants for which prices are not listed on the menu. A good way to know prices for certain services is to look online on travel forums or just ask the hotel staff before stepping out.

Use online websites such SnapDeal.com, Flipkart.com or Amazon.in to check prices for retail goods and even Indian clothes. This will educate you about prices for certain goods to avoid sticker shock and scams at physical stores who may try to overcharge you.

5. Take photos of rented vehicles before setting off

To be on the safer side, when renting any vehicle - be it a scooter, a motorbike, a car or even a jet ski - before setting off, take photos of the vehicle from all angles in front of the renting agency. This is to prevent the renting agency to make claims that a scratch that you never noticed before was made by you upon returning the vehicle. If you find it hard to dispute that claim, they may pressure you into paying for damages. Although this scam isn't rampant in India, it can happen, and it is better to take precautionary measures right in front of them so they can't accuse you of a damage you didn't commit and extort money from you.

6. Carry photocopies of important documents

Make copies of your passport, tickets and other identification documents, and carry the copies instead of having the originals with you when outside of your hotel. Avoiding handing over your passport to anyone that may claim to require it. For example, to purchase a local SIM card for your phone, you only need to submit a copy of your passport along with a photograph. You needn't present the original passport, so do not believe anybody who demands to hand over your original passport.

7. Taking photos of saints or decorated animals isn't really 'free'

Sadhus in Varanasi, India
In spiritual hubs such as a Varanasi you may often find saints posing for photos. Chances are they will expect a tip in return for taking their photo.

In spiritual hubs such as a Varanasi you may often find saints posing for photos. Likewise in Jaipur, locals posing with decorated animals or young children wearing all sorts of fanciful makeup. Chances are they will expect a tip in return for taking their photo - something they bring up only after you have taken the shot. To be easier on the pocket, simply ask permission for a photograph first, and after that, tip a small amount (less than ₹100). Walk away if they demand anything more. They will not physically harm you because they know the "business" they are in isn't legal.

8. Get a data plan for your smartphone

If you have a smartphone, purchase a local SIM and sign up for a internet plan from any authorized office of Airtel, Vodafone, Idea, etc. who are some India's biggest mobile carriers with a nationwide presence. A smartphone can really come in handy when travelling. Like using Google Maps to see if you are on the right course, or using search terms such as "name of business + scam" to see if tourists have complained or reported a bad experience about an establishment. For restaurant reviews, Zomato.com and Burrp.com are the Indian equivalent of Yelp.com and have user reviews of restaurants across several India cities.

9. Airport taxis

When exiting an airport, if in case you haven't arranged for a pick up from your hotel, it's always advisable to hire a government authorized pre-paid taxi service from the airport itself. Avoid taxi drivers outside who will approach you offering a much lower rate, because by the time you reach your destination, the driver will make excuses to charge much higher.

10. Touts and taxi driver's recommendations

In case you are approached by random touts, auto rickshaw drivers or taxi drivers offering to take you to a "recommended" souvenir shop, hotel or restaurant, please know that these touts often get a commission for every customer they bring to the business establishment. The businesses such people take you to have a higher chance of being disappointing than living up to their promises. Again, be cautious.

11. Food and water

Indian Street Food
If you wish to sample street food, first check the surroundings the food cart vendors are preparing the food in. If the surroundings look unhygienic, then it's wise to avoid it.

Drink bottled mineral water from well-known brands like Kinley (by Coca-Cola Company), Aquafina (Pepsi), Bisleri, Kingfisher, etc. Always check the seal of the bottle to ensure it hasn't been tampered with. Crush the bottle after use and dispose it properly.

You can ask restaurants to tone down the level of spice in the food, especially if you aren't used to too much spice. If you wish to sample street food, first check the surroundings the food cart vendors are preparing the food in. If the surroundings look unhygienic, then it's wise to avoid it. Another tip is to look out for is how crowded a street stall could be. The busier the better, as it guarantees the food is fresh and is safer for consumption. As a tourist, it's best to ask the price of dish before ordering it as not all vendors display prices.

As for tipping, it is expected at restaurants and hotels. Although there is no general rule when it comes to tipping, 5%-10% of the bill is the norm.

12. Languages

One thing tourists must understand is that, India is a very diverse country and languages vary from north to south, east to west. Although Hindi is widely spoken and understood across north and central India, the languages spoken in the southern and the north eastern states are very different. You can get by with English in the cities as it won't be hard to pass by a local who does speak English fluently.

13. Different rates for foreigners at attractions

Don't be surprised by higher entry ticket rates for foreigners at various archeological and historical sites across India. Unfortunately it's the norm in India that locals pay far less as entry fee compared to foreigners. There may also be an extra charge for video cameras (not pocket cameras). The excuse given for charging for video cameras is this notion that the footage may be used for commercial reasons and thereby the authorities lose revenue. Just know that all official rates will be listed at the ticket counter at the entry gates.

14. Beware of scams

Quartz Stones Gem in India Market
Don't fall for the gem scams that are rampant in cities like Agra and Jaipur, where touts claim they can ship "cheap" gem stones to your home country bypassing hefty export duties.

Don't fall for the gem scams that are rampant in cities like Agra and Jaipur, where touts claim they can ship "cheap" gem stones to your home country bypassing hefty export duties. It is against the law and in most cases, anybody who offers to do it for you is going to scam you by charging a hefty deposit and never delivering the stones. A simple rule to follow for scams: if it sounds too good to be true, then it's most likely a scam.

Just avoid giving money to beggars. Sadly, begging in India has turned into a 'profession' for some and worse, an organized crime for gangs.

15. Cash vs. credit

The Indian currency is called the Rupee (symbol: ₹). There are currency exchange centers at top hotels and most banks offer foreign exchange services as well. Just make sure you convert your money at authorized and licensed currency exchange dealers, and always insist on a receipt.

When it comes to credit cards, Mastercard and Visa cards are accepted far more in India than American Express and Diners Club. Credit cards are widely accepted in the cities and at high end hotels, shops, etc., but you may have to rely on cash in smaller towns and in the street markets. So it is advisable to always keep enough spare change with you when travelling.

ATMs are plentiful in the cities and towns, but check with your bank about international withdrawal fees. Generally the withdrawal fee charged on foreign ATM cards by Indian banks for using their ATMs is ₹150 ($2.5/€2) per transaction.

16. Personal safety

If you have a travel guide escorting you, always keep his/her phone number with you for any assistance, especially with communication. Ask the hotel staff about venturing out late at night, especially in remote towns. It may not be safe. 100 is the standard number for police across India, but it is better to confirm with your guide or hotel staff for the local police station.

General rules while travelling across India

In conclusion, the general rules are to be well aware of your surroundings, keep your valuables safe and be better educated about the cultural norms and practices. Follow the above guidelines and you should be better prepared to handle the situations you encounter when travelling across India.

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