Backpacking India was the first item on my itinerary what was supposed to be this year and a half trip around Asia and South America. At the time of writing this it’s been almost 4 years I’ve been away now and I haven’t even yet left Asia.
I’d only been to Asia once before when I decided that backpacking around India for 2 months on my own would be a great idea. My plan was to start in the north of India and then travel to the south of India.
Traveling to India for the first time, especially as a solo female is somewhat daunting.
I did A LOT of googling beforehand about appropriate clothing to wear and agonised over what clothes to bring to “help ensure my safety” for days. Just in case anyone is wondering why, I’m sure you’re not, India isn’t exactly know for being the safest place for a solo female backpacker. Or just for females in general really. Beyond clothes to keep you safe as a female here are some other tips on what to pack for your India travels.
I think India is an absolutely beautiful country and I loved my time traveling there. But it does have a problem with rape and sexual assault on women.
So much so that one of my good friends, who I met traveling over 10 years ago in Costa Rica in fact, on hearing my plans to start in the north on my own said she’d come join me for the first week. She didn’t really ask, she told me she was joining me for the first week.
She’s from Texas but her parents are from India and at the time she happened to be living in Bangalore in the south of India working as an international English Teacher so she said, “I know you’ll be fine, I know you’re traveled a lot and are sensible but I’m just gonna come join you for that first week. Just while you’re getting your feet”.
Well I wasn’t going to argue with that. She’s a wonderful travel companion and honestly I was a bit worried about traveling in the north of India on my own. I assumed I was making the situation out to be worse than it was in my head since the media always blows things out of proportion as sensational news stories make for more attention grabbing headlines.
It turns out I wasn’t.
I met up with my friend in Delhi and we stayed at her cousins’ house that first night so I didn’t actually get a chance to explore the sites of Delhi (if you do get a chance to explore be sure to check out the Old Delhi tourist sites, report back to me please!)
The plan was to get a train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal the next day but it turns out there’s a little piece of information it’s important to be aware of with the trains (which we weren’t) so we ended up having to get a taxi there. Getting a taxi 4 hours across a country isn’t exactly how I imagined my time backpacking India to start but it really wasn’t that expensive considering.
This is where I got to know how dangerous India really can be for women though.
Our taxi kept getting delayed and lost on the way to pick us up, this happens a lot in India (it’s why you’ll want to get yourself a SIM card). As we were sat at my friend’s cousins’ house waiting for the cab to arrive her cousins told us that if it didn’t arrive within the next 30 minutes we weren’t going today as it would then be so late that part of the journey would be in the dark and they weren’t ok with that for safety reasons.
The taxi did eventually arrive in time for their cut off and as they took us down to the car they said to the taxi driver very clearly and forcefully in Hindi
“You drive them straight to Agra. You don’t go down any side turnings or make any unplanned stops. They will be calling me every 30 minutes to let me know they’re ok throughout the whole journey.”
Then he took a picture of the taxi’s license plate and got his number (all phones in India have to be registered to ID) and we drove off.
Now bear in mind there are even two of us and my friend looks Indian and speaks some Hindi.
But her cousins’ who live there perceive the danger to be so high for women traveling there that these precautions were needed.
I don’t say this to put you off. I just say this so you can be prepared. If you’re planning to travel India as a solo female please make sure you check out the top tips on this page, just below, before you head off backpacking India.
Sort your visa – You will need to have a visa organised for India before you can travel there. Most airlines won’t event let you on the plane to travel if you can’t prove you already have it. Luckily for a lot of countries now you can now get an e-visa for India rather than having to go to an embassy.
Learn how to say “No” and be firm -No in Hindi is “Nahin” pronounced “neigh-he” (the first part is said in the same way as you say the word to describe the sound a horse makes). Learn this word and use it liberally. Just shaking your head won’t cut it in a lot of situations and can be easily misunderstood to be the India Head Wobble.
Autos – Autos are the name for tuk-tuks in India (the little carts with a guy on a bike driving at the front). The full name being Auto Rickshaw. In a lot of places these won’t have meters so you just have to haggle the price, but in some they do although a lot of drivers will refuse to use the meter. Just keep flagging them down until one agrees and then give him a tip for being decent. If you try to get in an Auto in front of a fancy hotel they almost guaranteed won’t agree to use the meter and will charge you way over the going rate. Just walk down the road a little.
Taxis – Given the prevalence of sexual assault on women, if you are a solo female traveler be on your guard when tacking taxi’s alone especially first thing in the morning or at night. To be on guard about taking taxis feels completely backwards to me as in England taking a Taxi is the way to ensure you get home safe. That’s not the case in India but sometimes you have to take them on your own first thing or late at night.
To help prevent anything untoward happening, when you get a taxi take a photo of their license plate and ask for their phone number. Then pretend, or actually do, send it to a friend. Since all SIMs in India are supposed to be registered the driver will assume someone else you know now has all his info and he will get in trouble if he does anything illegal.
There are taxi apps in India such as Uber (although my friend who lived there recommended Meru cabs over them,) but bear in mind Uber doesn’t vet their drivers. These are just random people’s cars you’re getting in so although it may feel safe it really actually isn’t and you should be just as much on guard in them.
Always Have Small Money – Really small money. If you take a taxi or an auto anywhere, they won’t have change. And that is your problem. Always make sure you have the smallest notes on you possible or you’ll end up spending a lot more money than you should on all of your journeys.
Get a SIM Card – To get a SIM card in India it has to be registered to your ID and you need to submit a lot of documents to do it legitimately such as a photocopy of your passport, visa, proof of address in home country, proof of where you’ll be staying in India and give the vendor 2 passport photos. Alternatively you can ask an Auto driver or someone else maybe at your hotel where you can get a SIM card quickly and they’ll probably show you a dodgy way to get one much quicker (I of course did not do this ?).
You do want to get a SIM though as more often than not when you get in an auto or taxi they will have no idea where they’re going. I even had a taxi driver turn round to me at one point and not just ask where we were going but where we were. Get a SIM so you can give directions when needed.
Watch Out at Train Stations – Whenever you get off a train a swarm of people will surround you trying to get you into their Autos and taxis. This is when you need to bust out that Hindi no and be really firm. Don’t let anyone pick up your bag who you don’t want a lift with and don’t be afraid to even put out your hand in a stop signal while saying no if you need them to back off a bit. It can be overwhelming to stay the least and if there’s somewhere you might get your possessions stolen, it’s likely to be in one of those bustles.
Trains – What with the reputation of India I was a little bit anxious about taking trains, especially sleeper trains on my own. I’ve heard some proper horror stories about things that have happened on them. The only sleeper train I’d ever taken before I started backpacking India was in Vietnam and there 1st class was a closed room with 2 bunk-beds in it.
I therefore decided to take 2nd class for my sleeper trains in India. The reason for this being the 2nd class sleeper train is a whole long carriage with the bunks in(or berths as they’re called on trains). This feels more comfortable to me as if I was in 1st class and got one of those little rooms with one other person who turned out to be a creep then I would be freaked out and I think that would be a much more dangerous situation as the rooms can be locked. In a whole carriage there are loads of people around and you can freely move away from someone.
The trains are actually lovely in 2nd class. You get a bunk bed and frequently a day seat as well (bear in mind India is HUGE so some train rides you take may well be 16 hours long like the one I did from Bangalore to Kerala and back).
You can book tickets online for Indian trains but a word of warning:
- You either need to have an India bankcard or an Amex card to pay online. They don’t accept any other cards.
- If you get a booking confirmation but you ticket says (WL) you don’t actually have a booking or a seat yet. WL means waitlist. WL will usually have a number next to it which denotes how many people are before you in the waiting list, i.e. (W1L3) would mean there are 13 people on the waiting list before you. It’s unlikely you’re getting on that train. But they don’t make this obvious when you book and then send you a confirmation as if you have a ticket which is how my friend and I ended up in a cab from Delhi to Agra.
Private Cars – As well as messing up a train with the WL thing above we also managed to miss a train of our ours one morning. We were at the station but they changed the platform at the last minute and we didn’t realise. Thankfully there are lots of methods to travel around India, we therefore ended up taking a private car from Jaipur to Udaipur instead of the train we’d planned to. Since we needed to go back to Jaipur afterwards anyway for my friend to go back to Bangalore and me to Rishikesh we hired the driver for the whole duration. I can’t remember how much it was but for him to drive us to Udaipur, be there 2 days, be at our disposal if we wanted to use him while there (you don’t really need a taxi in Udaipur though) and drive us back with ridiculously reasonable. If there’s more than one of you hiring a private driver can be a really good way to get around and save a lot of hassle.
Flights – There are a lot of cheap domestic airlines in India which are certainly worth making use of for larger bits of travel across the country. When I went from Rishikesh to Goa it would have taken me about 3/4 days overland. I just flew instead. I personally used SpiceJet a number of times who are really cheap but flying with them wasn’t a particularly enjoyable for me since, while I love flying, I get a little bit scared of the small planes with the propellors (what I affectionally like to term “wind up planes”) after a terrifying journey in Costa Rica years ago and those are the type of planes they have. They were very cheap though.
Accommodation – For a long time India was really lacking in the hostel department but when I first traveled there in 2015 their first chain of hostels, Zostel, had just opened up and theey’re wonderful. They’ll set you back anything from about $5 to $8 a night for a bunk bed in a dorm. Even if you get your own room somewhere it won’t set you back that much more. We even stayed in a much nicer hotel with pool in Kerala and that was only $30 a night which between 2 especially really isn’t so bad. India is by far one of the cheapest places in Asia to travel around.
Food – Oh my god the fooooooood ?. I still dream about all the wonderful curries and naan bread. I love Indian food. Street food will set you back a dollar or two and normal restaurants or bars/restaurants will still only cost about $5 a meal. India is veggie heaven, I even know a lot of meat eaters it’s converted. It is one of the countries in Asia to be the most careful about food poisoning though. I, thankfully, managed to last 2 months there without ever succumbing to it. If you want to find out how check out my top tips for avoiding food poisoning here.
Backpacking India Itinerary – 1 to 2 Month Route
See the map below for the route I’d recommend and the key reasons you’d want to visit each place in the list below. Click on any of the links for full details of that location, where to stay and how to get to the next destination on the list.
India is BIG and it takes a long time to get between places. To help you manage your trip round India, it’s probably best to chunk your journey into two parts, the north and the south. The north is best for visiting all the famous tourist sights of India. Although you can branch out of the famous golden circle routes by going to Udaipur like we did or if you have even more time these are some other month long India itineraries for the north. It’s also great if you want to learn to teach yoga or go on a yoga retreat for a bit. The south is perfect for a bit of beach time (it’s also warmer in the south). Goa is the best place to go to party but will also position you close enough to go see some natural sights such as Hampi or to travel down to Kerala and the backwaters afterwards. If you can, try to time your trip for one of India’s big festivals such as Diwali or Holi. I wish I’d had more time in the region so I could have headed up to Nepal to travel around there before moving on or East to go to Kolkata and see the mangroves and bengal tigers at Sundarbans National Park.
- Northern India – The Golden Triangle, Sightseeing, Taj Mahal, Forts and Palaces
- Southern India – Beaches, Kerala Backwaters, Hampi, Parties in Goa
Or click on one of the images below to go straight to the specific destination you’re interested in.
Duration: I spent 2 months in backpacking India but one of those was at Yoga Teacher Training in Rishikesh therefore technically it would be possible to do this route in approximately a month if you cut out the Yoga Teacher Training.
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