A first timer’s guide to India

India can be an overwhelming place – especially for first time travellers. I’m not going to sugarcoat it – India is intense. It’s loud, dirty, polluted and chaotic. But there is a certain charm if you can handle navigating the hectic streets, block out the background sounds of constant horns and enjoy roaming forts.


I’m the first to admit that India was overwhelming. Perhaps it was the culture shock after coming to India straight up after two pandemic years in comfortable and clean Australia or that I got sick on my third day – but India was a little intense for me.

But if you do plan to venture over to India, here’s some practical tips to help you pack, plan and know what to expect when you arrive.

Taj Mahal, Agra.

1. It doesn’t matter what dish or cuisine – your meal will be spicy

India is a land of spices and everything seems to have some sort of spice in it whether it be a seasoning or a secret sauce. Be prepared for lots of spicy food no matter if you order typical Indian fare, or Western-style food. Even salad sandwiches had a spicy secret sauce, and not all chais are the same – some masala teas are spicier than others.

Market in Jaipur.

2. Don’t be surprised if you get sick on your trip

Gastro, Delhi belly, whatever you want to call it – you’re probably going to get it at least once on your trip. I lasted a whole three days before I got a severe case of gastro in India. Pretty sure it was a rogue milkshake I bought on the street, definitely my own fault for thinking I could trust milk in India on a warm day!

It was pretty bad the first night, and then the nausea and loss of appetite lasted a whole week and I needed a couple rounds of antibiotics to shake it. And then my stomach couldn’t handle any spice for the rest of my trip so I was pretty limited what I could eat and pretty much had a diet of bananas, rice and Coke for the rest of my stay.

So a few lessons from me – best to avoid the shakes and lassis especially from street food stalls on a hot day! Come prepared to India with antibiotics for gastrointestinal bacteria, Gastro-Stop and anti-nausea tablets. Also, make sure you’re up to date with any travel vaccinations before you go, such as typhoid and tetanus.

Red Fort, Agra

3. You’re going to have to bargain with tuk tuk drivers

Tuk-tuk drivers will always give you an inflated price so you’re going to have to bargain with them. You’ll learn pretty fast how much you should be paying for each ride based on distance. Between 100-200 rupees would be expected for most rides but all depends on how far you’re going and how long it will take.

Mehrangarh Fort, Jodphur.

4. Buying tickets is not easy – not even for the Taj Mahal

I thought buying tickets for buses, trains and attractions would be like any other country that you can buy tickets on a bus or at a ticket office. I’m not sure if this is a post-pandemic thing, but my friend and I were unable to find a ticket counter for foreigners at train stations as expected and weren’t able to buy tickets at other ticket counters.

Taj Mahal – same deal, we were told we had to buy online but of course foreign cards don’t work on the ticketing website.

In the end, we got train, bus and Taj Mahal tickets through local travel agents or travel brokers at our hotels. They charge a small commission, usually 50-100 rupees, but it seemed to be the only way to buy tickets as independent travellers.

Taj Mahal, Agra.

5. Train travel can be comfortable and efficient

I was actually surprised that train travel was pretty comfortable and seemed quite efficient in India. All the trains I took departed right on time and arrived either early or slightly after the scheduled time – however I heard this is not always the case but this wasn’t my experience.

There’s a few different style of trains – ones with chairs and ones with bunks so you can lie down. Sleeper trains all had the bunks but some day trains also had bunks you could lie down on. You may want to bring a sleeping bag liner or travel sheet to use on these style of trains. Sometimes sheets will be provided but not always. You could also choose from air-
conditioned or non air-conditioned cabins. Of course, air-conditioned cabins were more expensive but worth every cent.

Taj Mahal, Agra.

Be warned though, train toilets aren’t the cleanest. Make sure you pack your own toilet paper and hand sanitiser.

Buses on the other hand were less comfortable and ran to their own schedule. While they had scheduled departures, they would leave when they were full and pick up people as they left the city so usually any bus ride would be one to two hours longer than the expected journey time. Buses were a variety of air-conditioned or non air-conditioned. You’ll pay a slightly higher price if you want an air-conditioned bus – again, totally worth it.

6. You’ll need 100 Rupee notes all the time

India is a cash economy but everything is relatively cheap so you’ll need 100 Rupee notes all the time to pay for everything from street food to tuk tuks. Try to keep a good quantity of smaller notes on hand otherwise vendors may not have change for you.

Also, you’ll need small notes for the New Delhi metro system. Tickets can be bought at machines at the entrance. 20 and 50 Rupee notes will come in handy most often here. A side note on the metro as well – you have to hand over your bags to go through an X-Ray machine as you enter the metro.

Taj Mahal, Agra.

7. Don’t be surprised by the pollution

Nothing can prepare you for the pollution and smell in India – particularly on hot days.

I knew India was polluted but I didn’t realise how bad it was. I hardly ever saw blue sky most of my time in the Rajashtan region – it was just a grey haze all the time. I did try and do a sunrise once, but it was a bust – all you could see was a hazy golden glow as the sun rose above Pushkar.

If it’s a hot day, the rubbish on the streets is stinky! Prepare yourself.

A hazy sunrise over Pushkar.

8. Crossing the road looks hectic, but traffic will go around you

While the streets are very chaotic, India drivers are certainly skilled. Crossing the road isn’t as hard as it looks at first – traffic will go around you.

The Blue City (Jodphur).

9. Closed in shoes are a packing essential – watch out for all the poo

I refused to go anywhere in India without enclosed shoes as there was rubbish and poo everywhere of the cow, goat and dog variety. So my recommendation is bring a good pair of enclosed shoes – and watch where you step! Again, another reminder to make sure your vaccinations are up to date before you come to India.

Amber Fort, Jaipur.

10. Women should cover shoulders and knees

India is a conservative country and it’s best for women to cover shoulders and knees. During my stay in India, I usually wore long skirts or light cotton pants paired with T-shirts.

Lodi Gardens, New Delhi.

11. Your bank cards may not work in ATMs

Most people I met in India had trouble getting money from ATMs as only a few worked with foreign cards. I could only withdraw cash from HDFC Bank ATMs. If I found an ATM that worked, I would try and get a couple of hundred dollars out each time so I didn’t have to search for ATMs all the time.

A street market in Jaipur.

12. Supermarkets are hard to find

Unlike most other countries, it’s really hard to find supermarkets in the city centres throughout India. There’s plenty of corner stores and some market areas, which are great to get basic snacks, water or fruit, but you might have to do your research to find a supermarket if you want anything beyond the basics.


13. You can’t drink the tap water

Like many Asian countries, you cannot drink the tap water in India – so unfortunately, you’ll be stuck buying bottles of water every day. Bottled water is available at most corner stores throughout India.

Mehrangarh Fort, Jodphur.

14. Make sure you go visit the forts

India’s many forts were the highlight of my trip. While unfortunately only small sections of each fort are actually open to the public, I still thoroughly enjoyed roaming these grand buildings. Among my favourite forts were the ones in Jaipur and Jaisalmer.

Jaisalmer Fort, Jaisalmer.

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