Traveling in India, either solo or in organized group is definitely a challenging but still very rewarding experience. For first time travelers I would suggest little of handholding or spoon-feeding to get through initial contrast of typical “organized Indian chaos”. Open mind, common sense, self-confidence along with proper assertiveness should be your compass as definitely, if you are coming to India from a developed country, you are going to challenge yourself in many aspects. Daily. Which, from experience of almost 5 years of living here, I see as a good thing – nothing compares to getting out of your comfort zone and making you stronger and creatively resourceful to get things done.
Understanding Indian thinking
First, to make things clear, do remember that Indian culture is not for everyone. Specific smell in the cities, different food, pollution, heat. You can find it all there. Believe me, there’s nothing wrong in choosing other destinations, everyone is different and better not to land somewhere where you would get lifelong trauma. Strong roots of patriarchal society give a shocking feeling that, especially for solo women travelers, one might not feel comfortable and safe. It’s obviously changing nowadays, women are more independent especially in cities but the full approach change may happen in few generations’ time. That does also apply to other places obviously – being a foreign tourist in any country makes you being an unwanted object of attraction.
It’s always good to do our homework before landing in India. I do not intend to generalize but knowing a bit of culture customs will save you from troubles many times. As a foreigner, you can ensure that you dress modestly, cover your arms and wear long pants, don’t get friendly with any random man, ignore the unpleasant stares and embrace the respect and warmth.
I am very aware that attitudes especially towards women in India are completely different than we are used to have in western countries; women in India, mostly in less educated parts of the country, still have less respect and independence. On the other hand, I also see that due to government campaigns awareness in India for women empowerment, safety and development is growing. Times are changing, just it is happening slowly. Definitely you have to be cautious as you will be travelling in a completely different culture.
How do I personally manage traveling in India?
I’m a honest believer in the “when in Rome” school. Be prepared and nothing will surprise you does not fully work in India but still is quite helpful to enjoy your trip. Respecting local customs gets you away from risk of being unnecessary involved in cultural faux pas. Below few things that I always have in my bag 🙂
Scarf – I always wear a scarf on my head. Not only because it gives me protection from sun, pollution and dust but also keeps me away from staring. White skin easily attracts and Indian curiosity might be disturbing when you need some privacy or just need a peaceful walk.
Cheapest old model phone with local SIM card – this point makes me happy on every day basis. I do not provoke anyone giving wrong impression having trees with money growing on them, but I know that my battery will not die after one hour of browsing the Internet. Ask you Indian friends which network works best in your area – Vodafone? Airtel? Idea? They will help you, as not always same mobile will have equal network range in different parts of the city.
Torch – even in India Sun is not shining the whole day and due to often power cuts, especially evening timings, it’s good to have any source of light that will keep you on track.
Marriage ring – yes, I’m already married so I do not need to pretend anything about my marital status. But that’s the only jewelry I wear and that too, does not provoke anyone to attack me for gold chains, earrings or bracelets that are very popular Indian methods of showing (off) your social status.
Whistle / pepper gas. I have never used it in India but knowing it that I have it handy gives me this comfort of safe traveling.
Toilet paper / tissues / sanitizer – do not be surprised that Indians do not have it in toilets. Sanitary and hygienic conditions might scare you sometimes so prevent better that treat.
When India is calling and bringing you back again and again
No matter if you are a first time traveler or you visited India many times, keep in mind that each trip is different and each region is different. If, ie. you are a solo female traveler and want to start your adventure in India – I would recommend rather southern parts of the country. Kerala, Tamil Nadu states seem to be quite conservative as of Indian customs but more safe to explore. Karnataka and Telangana give more western freedom and still traveling is safe. To more you go to North, the more conscious about your safety you should be. Personally I have not yet visited popular tourist destinations such as Delhi, as per my observations northern states in India have more patriarchal culture than in the South. Wherever will be your first-or next destination, I’d be sharing top safety tips for travelers in India (whatever I write here, I always keep in mind: don’t compromise on your safety to save money under no circumstances).
- Pick reputed homestays. Either from first hand recommendations or from trusted guidebooks. Even if you travel on a budget and usually go for cheapest options, then it might end up asking yourself for trouble.
- Buy a local sim card and always have your mobile fully charged. Internet data is cheap here and would be helpful in case you get lost or you just need some online update.
- Share your new mobile number with people whom you are informing about your travel plans.
- Install applications used in the country you are visiting starting from transportation ending with local language dictionaries (for transportation in India applications such as Ola, Uber works perfectly).
- Know your quota. Most public transport has separate spaces for women. Do not be shy to ask a man to stand up and give the seat. If he insists to sit, call the ticket conductor – he will definitely help you. In buses or trains, you will also get special places for tourists / foreigners.
- Follow your common sense – in any country getting down in the railway station in the middle of the night or roaming around the places off the beaten track alone is obviously risky. And that doesn’t depend on the country. Don’t get drunk with strangers, think twice if you want to do hitchhiking, have contact details with your hotel / friends with you travel, stay connected with family and update them your travel plans.
- Copy your documents in 2 – 3 sets – tearing the papers, pouring water on them, or simply losing the copy doesn’t make any difference. You will have spare one.
- Get insurance – it does not cost a fortune but give you peace of mind.
- Put a ring on it. Literally saying a single woman attracts more attention than required. Indians will directly ask you about your marital status or your salary in first 2 sentenses if you start the conversation. Do not be too polite to men, stay rather assertive and turn uncomfortable questions into joke, as men might take it as flirting.
Rumors say that Indians may also be sometimes mischievous and there is no way to avoid scams and tricks, especially when you do not know local language, bargaining or you look little “lost” in Indian chaos. Yes, it happens. Local people live from tourists’ money most of the times asking ie. for 5-6-7 times higher price that the article is worth and no one can deny it. But also, without any doubt there are lots of good people in India too, who you can trust. Well, that all depends on our luck and following your guts.
And if all this sounds too overwhelming, do remember, all these tips are only mentioned to make you aware not to be scared but confident to overcome what may happen. The most important lesson I’ve learned especially here in India is that the world is not such a bad place. Sometimes all we need to do is simply get out there and experience it with open hearts. This type of journey gives strength to deal with all the surprises that fate brings. Indian or any other ones.
I would love to hear your comments on this! Have you traveled alone in India? How was your experience? Do you have any more tips for other women traveling in India or a question that I haven’t answered? Thank you very much for reading this article. I am curious if you have/had any experience of yours? Any comments? – please share your experience. And if you liked the article – share it, click “Like it” and subscribe to my newsletter.