People often ask me for advice about traveling to India, how to stay safe and healthy. Just like anywhere else, there are no guarantees but, by using common sense, most people can and do have a great time when visiting India.
India is one of the most fascinating places on earth, where your senses are constantly being filled with every imaginable experience. While India moves forward to take its place in the modern world, much of it remains as it has for thousands of years. This of course gives India its great charm but also means that some of its standards and customs are not always what many of you are used to at home. If this is your first time in India you may feel as if you’ve arrived on a different planet but don’t worry you’ll soon adjust.
Please enter into the spirit of India and enjoy its multitude of delights but use your common sense. I hope the following recommendations will help make your stay as comfortable, enjoyable and trouble free as possible.
Arrival from Home
Many international airlines fly into India, with direct flights from many major European, Asian and Middle Eastern cities and a few direct from the US.
Choose your port of entry as the one most convenient to the area in which you first plan to visit. You will probably have had a long flight so the least amount of travel you need to do in your first days will allow you to rest and adjust.
Departure to Home
Most international departures from India leave early in the morning. When making your reservation, check that you have chosen the correct date for your departure.
Indian airport security only allows ticketed passengers to enter the terminal four hours prior to departure. If you arrive too early you might have to wait outside.
Your first experience of India will be the Immigration Hall. The lines at India’s international airports can sometimes be long and slow so this is an excellent time to practice patience. You are required to complete an arrivals form and hand it to the immigration officer, along with your passport and visa. Some airlines hand these out before landing or they are available as you enter the immigration area. Choose the line for the type of visa you have.
After immigration continue to the baggage claim area to collect your checked bags. Luggage carts should be available at no charge in this area. Once you have your luggage, proceed through Customs. Use the Green Channel for ‘nothing to declare’. There are places where you can change money in the baggage claim area.
Transportation from the Airport
If you have arranged for a hotel to pick you up at the airport, immediately on exiting customs (still within the terminal building) you will see the crowd of people waiting to meet flights. Your driver should be there to meet you, holding a sign with your name.
If you have not booked a ride or cannot find your driver, go to the Pre-Paid taxi booth inside the terminal and have them arrange a taxi to wherever you need to go. Once you leave the terminal building, you will not be allowed back in.
You will need a passport valid for 6 months and an Indian visa to enter India. Unless you are planning some other activities, apply for a tourist visa.
Citizens from many countries (including the US and Mexico) may now apply for a 30-day “Tourist Visa On Arrival”. Currently, information regarding this visa can be found at www.immihelp.com (search under Indian Tourist Visa On Arrival).
Applications for this type of visa can be made at www.indianvisaonline.gov.in. You will need to upload a current photograph and pay the visa fee by credit/debit card. The eTourist Visa will be emailed to you. You must take a copy of the emailed visa with you to India and present it on arrival to the immigration officer.
You must apply for this visa at least 4 days before your intended date of departure for India however, I strongly recommend not waiting until the last minute.
This type of visa is only valid for 30 days from the date of your arrival in India and cannot be extended. It is valid only for a single entry.
If you plan to stay in India longer than 30 days or travel to any neighboring country and return to India, you should not use this type of visa.
Citizens from countries not covered by this service or who need a longer or multiple entry visa must apply for a regular Indian visa through Cox & Kings Global Services in.ckgs.us . India regularly changes its rules but currently, a US citizen will be granted a 10-year multiple entry visa. The Cox&Kings website will guide you through the application procedure, requirements, fees, etc. Please begin this visa process at least a month before your departure date. Non-US citizens applying within the US will only be granted a 6 month visa. Residents and citizens of other countries should contact their nearest Indian consulate for their county’s guidelines.
Indian visa guidelines and requirements change periodically. Please check you options well in advance of your travel.
It is always advisable to carry a photocopy of your visa and the information page of your passport separate from your passport. If you should lose your passport, this will make it much easier to get a replacement.
Vaccination is generally a personal choice and if you have questions we suggest you contact your own physician or public health authority. Citizens and travelers from the US, Canada and Western Europe do not require vaccination certificates or inoculations. Travelers originating or transiting through Yellow Fever endemic countries should carry their Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificate. In general it is advisable to be up-to-date with your tetanus shots and you should consider vaccination against Hepatitis A and B. Malaria still exists in India and, there are plenty of mosquitoes in some areas and at different seasons. There is no guaranteed protection against malaria however, anti-malaria tablets can significantly reduce the possibility of contracting the disease if you are infected. Again it’s a personal choice so please discuss with your healthcare provider.
We recommend that you check with your insurance agent to make sure your health coverage applies for travel in India. If it doesn’t or if you don’t have medical insurance, you might consider taking some temporary coverage. Other insurances you might consider are Medical Evacuation, which covers the extra expense of bringing you home if you require special medical assistance. Trip Protection is something else to consider, which covers any expenses you incur due to cancellations, interruptions, delays, etc in the trip. Your insurance or travel agent should be able to advise you on these coverages or searching the Internet under “travel insurance” will give you several options.
What to Bring
Checking luggage onto flights, hauling it on and off trains and buses can be tiresome. I recommend that you travel lightly, limiting your luggage to one medium suitcase plus a small carry-on bag. Additional, inexpensive bags may be purchased in India, if necessary, to carry your shopping home!
Domestic airlines within India only allow 15kgs (33lbs) of checked bags before making over-weight charges.
Depending on where you will be traveling in India and the season, the weather can vary from very hot and humid (summer everywhere) to cold (northern India December – January). The monsoon usually moves up and across India June- August. In the early Spring and Autumn, it is often warm, mostly dry and sunny during the daytime but evenings and early mornings may be cool. A shawl, light jacket or sweater is useful at these times. Laundering is widely available and inexpensive throughout India although, except at deluxe hotels, can be hard on delicate fabrics. I recommend packing plain cotton clothes or cotton synthetic blends. Part of the fun of going to India is wearing local clothes. Inexpensive, Indian-style cotton clothes are sold in every bazaar. Modesty rates highly in India and so, except in the confines of the hotel, shorts are tolerated for men but not acceptable for women. T-shirts are okay for casual wear. When entering a holy place (temple or ashram), a long skirt, dress or long pants should be worn and the shoulders should be covered.
For protection from the sun, I recommend bringing a light hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. Sneakers and sandals are the easiest footwear and, if you plan to be visiting holy shrines, shoes/sandals you can easily slip off and on will be the most practical. Basic toiletries are available in India but bring any special needs. Most hotels provide the basics but, if you are a budget traveller, I recommend bringing a little soap and shampoo. Wet-wipes, hand sanitizer and a small roll of toilet paper for emergencies is good idea. I also recommend bringing a good insect repellant. The electrical current in India is 220 volts, 50 cycles AC, wall outlets take plugs with two round prongs. If you are bringing electrical items make sure you have the correct converter and/or adapter.
The unit of Indian currency is the rupee. The exchange rate varies but has currently (2018) is in the lower 60’s rupees to the US$. The rate of exchange is set each day and will be used by every official moneychanger throughout India. Larger banks and most good quality
hotels will change traveler’s checks and bank notes in internationally recognized currencies. It is recommended to change money in no more than one or two hundred dollars at a time. Coins and small denomination notes are useful for tips or giving to beggars. On arrival, you can change money in the baggage claim area of the airport or at your hotel.
Credit cards such as American Express, MasterCard and Visa are widely accepted in the tourist area hotels, restaurants and shops. ATM machines are becoming more available in India but please don’t rely on this as your only source of spending money.
Cash and Travelers Checks
Travelers Checks are the safest way to carry your money but can only be exchanged at banks and some hotels. Larger stores will sometimes accept Travelers Checks in payment for goods and often even smaller businesses will accept US currency at the regular rate of exchange.
Most hotels have international telephone capabilities. If you will be using a phone calling card, contact your home service for the access number to be used in India. If you will be using your own cell phone, make sure you have your provider activate it for India before leaving home. Hotels always apply a surcharge to phone calls making them expensive. There are many calling booths on the street where you can make local and international calls (many have internet/email service too) for cash. These are the cheapest way to make international calls.
If you know where where you will be staying in India. It’s a good idea to leave a list of the phone numbers with family/friends at home who may need to contact you in an emergency.
Most larger hotels in India have Wifi service, although often for a fee. Internet cafes are also common in most towns and are relatively inexpensive, although vary considerably in quality.
Your First Days in India
Most of you will have had a long journey, passing through many time zones and perhaps experiencing a dramatic climate change. Get plenty of rest the first few days to allow your system to adjust to the rhythms of India. The food in India may be richer and spicier than you are used to, so eat lightly for the first days allowing your digestion to adjust.
Food and Water
The most common problems people have in India are stomach upsets. Although these are generally mild, there are no guarantees that you won’t get sick. Taking some basic precautions and using common sense can go a long way to keep you trouble free. The old colonial adage holds very good for India, “If you can cook it, boil it or peel it, you can eat it, otherwise, forget it”.
Please ask if you aren’t sure about something and, if in doubt, leave it. If you eat outside the top quality hotels, only eat cooked food and avoid salads, garnishes, etc. Only eat fruit that you peel yourself such as bananas and oranges. Generally drinks that are boiled such as tea, chai and coffee are fine to drink. If you use milk on cereal, in tea, etc, make sure it has been boiled first. I recommend that you do not buy food from street venders, including ice cream. Eating a vegetarian diet is much safer in India, if you do eat meat make sure it is thoroughly cooked and avoid pork and heavily fried foods.
Tap water is NOT safe to drink anywhere in India. Some hotels will provide drinking water in your room. Outside of a hotel, only buy bottled water and check that the cap seal is still intact. If you buy soft drinks, always ask for them in the bottle, even in restaurants. Do not put ice in your drinks, it is often made from tap water. When you shower, remember to keep you mouth closed (no singing) so you don’t accidentally swallow any water. I recommend that you also brush your teeth using purified water. Avoid the temptation to touch stray animals or, if you do, wash your hands. Keeping your hands and fingernails clean is a good step towards staying healthy; always wash your hands before eating. A small bottle of hand sanitizing lotion or antiseptic hand wipes, could be carried in your pocket to cleanse your hands when washing facilities are not available.
Taking acidophilus and/or grapefruit seed extract during a trip can also be helpful in preventing mild stomach disorders. Both are available in health food stores. As a cure for mild diarrhea, I recommend bringing Imodium A-D or an equivalent. If you are concerned about more serious digestive problems, you could consider bringing a course of antibiotics such as Cipro. Your doctor or pharmacist will be able to advise you further in this regard.
You will probably be spending some time in the sun, visiting temples, sightseeing, etc. Please remember to put on sunscreen and wear a hat or some people like to carry a small umbrella for protection. If you are not used to warm weather, please minimize your time in the sun until you have acclimatized.
Indians are amongst the friendliest and most generous people you will meet, but India is a very poor country, so please avoid leaving tempting items unattended. Lock your luggage when in transit and in your hotel room if it contains any valuable items. Do not leave your passport, tickets, cash or travelers checks in your room unless there is a safe in which you can lock them. A passport pouch, which fits around your waist or hangs around your neck, worn under your shirt is the safest place for these items. Avoid carrying valuables in small hand baggage that can be easily snatched. Please make sure you lock the door and close the windows when leaving your room. Take extra care of your valuables in busy places such as airports, train stations and shopping bazaars. Do not leave your bags unattended at an airport or train station. Do not entrust your bags to anyone except an official porter or baggage handler.
Regular photographic supplies are widely available throughout India but it is always best to buy from a reputable dealer. Some temples prohibit photography, especially in the inner sanctums, if in doubt, ask. Other temples, forts and palaces may levy a small fee for bringing in
still and video cameras. Most people in India, especially the children are more than happy to be photographed but be sensitive particularly with women and holy men. Again, if in doubt, ask.
Visiting temples or religious monuments demands respect, the minimum of which means removing your shoes. Depending on your level of attachment to your shoes, you can pile them at the entrance or leave them in the custody of the ‘shoe minder’ for one or two rupees. It is not appropriate to carry your shoes (even hidden in a bag) into a temple. Some parts of some temples may be off limits to non-Hindus, this is usually signed but if in doubt, ask.
Pleased be properly dressed when visiting temples, ashrams and shrines – no shorts, legs and shoulders should be covered, remove hats. It is considered impolite to point your feet towards a holy person or deity. When sitting on the floor in a temple, shrine or in the presence of a holy person, it is best to be cross-legged or to have your feet tucked beneath you. When entering a traditional Indian home, it is also polite to remove your shoes. Any time you see shoes outside a doorway, you should take it as a sign to remove yours before entering.
In India the left hand is considered unclean and so food should be picked up with the right hand particularly if it is from a communal dish. Making offerings or receiving prasad (blessed items) in a temple should always be done with the right hand.
Overt displays of affection in public are generally frowned upon in India. Women visitors can sometimes attract unwanted attention, which can be minimized with proper dress code and by ignoring the offender. Men should always treat India women with respect, public hugging/kissing isn’t generally acceptable.
India is packed with beautiful things to buy and there will be opportunities for those of you who want to take home souvenirs. A few shops offer only fixed prices but elsewhere the cardinal rule is to bargain and bargain hard. In general, start by offering a shopkeeper half of his asking price and a street vender about 25%. Even though they may act offended, you’ll be surprised how close to this figure they will come if you stand firm. Make sure you know your product when buying expensive items such as jewelry, cashmere, carpets, antiques, gold, etc. or the bargain might not be such a great deal. If you are having items shipped home, make sure you understand how long the shipment will take and what costs are, and are not, included in your payment. Expect to pay more in the more popular tourist areas and in the shops within hotels. Beware of taxi drivers who want to take you to their “brother’s shop”, they are usually receiving a commission, which will be charged to you. Different towns or parts of the country have items unique to that area, you may need to do some research if you are looking for a particular item.
Many people in India rely on tips however, it is not necessary to over tip. In the more expensive restaurants 10% service charge is often added to the bill. In smaller places where tipping is optional, you need only tip a small amount, not a percentage of the bill. Hotel porters, doormen, laundrymen, etc. usually expect 10-20 rupees. Taxi drivers don’t expect tips unless they have provided an extra service. If you hire a car with a driver or a local guide, around 500 rupees for half a day is a standard tip.
You may also choose to make a donation at any of the temples and ashrams you may visit, many of them rely solely on donations.
Tipping and making donations is a personal choice.
India has a wide variety of animals that freely roam the streets. Some have homes to go to but many are semi-wild, some carry disease. Always take care when close to animals. It’s not advisable to feed them or pet them. Take extra care when monkeys are present, many are very bold and will attempt to steal anything they can, including, cameras, cell phones, glasses, food and small bags.
One thing you will notice immediately upon your arrival in India is the number of beggars. While you will want to help them all, the sheer numbers makes it impossible. Most beggars will just hold out a hand but be prepared for more aggressive ones to tug at your sleeve, a strong word will usually suffice to have them leave you alone. Carry a few coins or small notes in your pocket as one or two rupees can go a long way in India. Take care if you are approached by a group of beggars (usually children or women), as giving to one can lead to you being besieged by the rest. Unfortunately begging has become a business in some tourist areas and the beseeching child or woman with a baby is sometimes part of a well-organized group. Some people prefer to carry a few inexpensive pens to give to children, which they can use for school.
Please remember to take any medications you are currently using and will require in India. Most hotels will be able to locate a western-trained doctor should you have a medical emergency. If you wear glasses or contacts, bring your prescription in case you need to replace them. Bringing an extra, cheap pair of “pharmacy” glasses as a back-up is a good idea.
I hope this information will make your visit to India as comfortable and fulfilling as possible. However, these are just simple guidelines and no guarantee is made for their effectiveness. Again, please use your common sense and check with your travel agent, tour guide or hotel concierge, if you need more specific information.