How to Plan a Trip to India

With a heart deeply rooted in the diversity of my homeland, let me empower your journey with insights that go beyond the ordinary, ensuring your visit to India is not just a trip but a transformative experience.

Of course you don't expect to see an elephant or a snake charmer or a naked sadhu as you land in one of the major cities in India. You have stopped believing in these colonial projections of India.

You won't have to sit on the roof of a train while you traverse the country nor will you have dysentery the day after you arrive. You don't have to eat rice and spicy food but enjoy a cuisine suited to your needs.

The Taj Mahal isn't the only tourist attraction. To me, it is a sorrowful reminder of a king overthrown by his son and relegated to a cell until his death.

English is used widely spoken across India. Because there are 22 official languages and hundreds of dialects, even an Indian would face a language barrier in a remote village. When we say, "Your good name," we aren't implying you have a bad name too. We simply want to know whether your name is Sherry or Shannon or Dan.

You should know that the Australian, Canadian, or U.S. Dollar, Dinar, Euro, Yen, etc., will buy more than you are used to.

If you feel a bit intrigued about planning a visit to India, wait, there's more! This Pxley story isn't the stereotyped take on a visit to India. When you finish reading this story, you will know why.

Note: I don't receive kickbacks from any of the businesses mentioned in this story.

What to Expect

You will need a visa for India. It will provide you access to most parts of the country but the state of Arunachal Pradesh and certain regions of Sikkim require a Protected Area Permit.

A 2-week stay is ideal to cover a region in depth. Similarly, a 2-week stay will allow you to visit the major cities and a few locations near the cities you visit. While helping a friend plan for a visit to India, he said he would prefer to experience the country rather than just see things. I believe that is an excellent way to plan, but plan according to what you wish to do, see, and explore. India is amazingly diverse!

Try something different when it comes to food. There are no specifics that can be called “Indian food.” Curry isn’t a dish; blame the British if you thought it was. Each state has its own cuisine. A good way to introduce yourself to an Indian meal is a thali, a meal served on a platter with different dishes. Depending on where you are, you can try a Maharashtrian thali, Punjabi thali, North or South Indian thali, etc. Drink bottled water and unseal the cap yourself at a restaurant. Skip the ice. Refills for a tumbler of Coke or Pepsi are not free.

Familiarize yourself with the Metric system. Indians don’t talk about the weather, but it will come in handy with regard to planning your days. Indians write dates in the DD/MM/YYYY format. 

As Indians, we somehow don’t seem to always follow directional signs. For example, we don’t stand in one line while boarding a flight and create a new branch according to our convenience. If you happen to take a city bus in Mumbai, everyone stands in line! Another example is a monastery with a “Silence Please” sign and a parent screaming across the hall to tell the kids not to climb a chair. We litter but are getting better at following this civic sense.

If you happen to be white skinned, people may stare at you. Don’t be alarmed because we don’t see the likes of you in our everyday lives.

Privacy is a luxury in India. It isn’t uncommon for Indians to ask personal questions—are you married, where do you work, how much do you earn, what car do you drive, etc. Another contrasting feature is that most US homes won’t have a fence yet you may not know your neighbors whereas most homes in India have a fence or wall and we know almost everything about our neighbors! I don’t mean to imply one is right, and the other is wrong. These are cultural differences. However, irrespective of what The Guardian, New York Times or Washington Post sell to you as sensational front page coverage, a funeral pyre for Indians is a sad, solemn, private moment not to be shared with a general public.

How to Get There

If you are coming from the US, there are a few direct flights to India and several with layovers in Europe. I prefer a layover because a) I don’t like a 14- to 16-hour non-stop flight, b) a 4-5 hour layover allows me to shower, get a bite to eat, do a bit of Duty Free shopping, and get set for the second leg of the journey. 

Depending on what you wish to cover in India, plan on your arrival city—Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai. For example, if you plan to visit Bengaluru and a nearby state, Bengaluru is the obvious destination. Delhi should be your destination if you plan to visit Jaipur, Udaipur, Leh, and others.

Immigration and Customs will take an hour to clear. It is easy to find your way to a baggage carousel since signs are in English. Baggage carts are free; yay India!

If you have made a reservation with a major hotel chain, they can arrange for a pick up at the airport. If the hotel does not provide an airport pickup, ask about a reliable taxi service. Prepaid taxis are available at airports. Be aware of several individuals that will approach you to exchange currency or provide a prepaid taxi service. It is best to avoid such offers. Follow the signs for prepaid taxis or approach a policeman for assistance. There are no extra charges for a prepaid taxi, but you can give a tip of Rs.50 to the driver for handling your baggage. Don't let anyone else handle your baggage at the airport. I would not recommend taking the airport shuttle because its stops are limited.

When you do get to India, try to get an Ayurvedic massage at a reputed spa on the day you arrive. It will help you in several ways—relax, refresh, and rejuvenate.

When to Visit

I recommend the winter months of December to February to visit India. This is also a high season for tourists. Expect crowds. 

I have recommended friends to visit during the summer months of June and July because the weather is pleasant in Bengaluru. Furthermore, if you happen to be in a hill town like Munnar in Kerala, you will need a sweater or jacket. If you are in the mountains of Sikkim and Ladakh, the weather will be pleasant to cool during the summer months and cold to freezing during the winter months.

In general, the summer months are hot and humid, or much drier. Air conditioning is not common. In winter, bring warm clothes because central heating is unheard of in India. Weather varies depending on which part of the country you visit. Plan ahead by reviewing online resources because in January you can ski in Gulmarg while others scuba dive in The Andamans.

What to Pack

Pack lightly. Pack comfortable clothes. Pack a sweatshirt or light sweater.

You can wear shorts and tees during your travels in India but I recommend light khakis or travel pants for comfort. Sleeveless tops and capri pants for women are fine but you might need to cover your arms if you happen to visit a place of worship. Pack a couple of jeans, polos, and shirts. Bring a hat or cap as protection from the sun. A universal adapter is necessary.

Good walking shoes are recommended. Mind your step wherever you go.

Carry some Indian Rupees, if possible. Higher denomination foreign currency is good for local currency exchanges at a bank. Credit cards are accepted at major hotels, airlines, malls, restaurants, and medium to large department stores.

How to Travel

I recommend air travel. Book before you leave for India. Air travel will save you time. Some of the airlines you can use for your travels within India are Air India, IndiGo, SpiceJet, and others. 

Some hotels provide their own taxi service. There is safety in this option. A sample cost estimate for a taxi can be 150 USD for 7 hours and not exceeding 50 miles. Ola and Uber provide rideshares. Remember to download their apps.

Expect heavy traffic and crowds in the cities and tourist attractions. As Indians, our definition of personal space is different or nonexistent. You are visiting a country of over a billion people.

There are no rest areas along the state or national highways of India. This is a challenge.

Although train travel is a fascinating way to see India, I have not recommended train travel to my friends. Train services are improving, but it doesn’t compare to its counterparts in Japan or Europe. If you wish to splurge, you can try the following guided train journeys that cover specific itineraries: Deccan Odyssey, Golden Chariot, Maharaja’s Express, Palace on Wheels, or Royal Orient Train. A 4-8 day journey can cost approximately 3,500-10,000 USD. Visit their websites for detailed and current information.

I would not recommend driving in India. Navigating traffic is challenging because we don’t understand personal or vehicular space. Did you say “what about traffic rules?” I don’t know what you’re talking about. 

Indians don’t give directions in north and south or east or west. Instead, we ask you to look for a tree, make a right at that landmark, go straight [on a winding road], and then ask the fellow at the store with a big signboard how to reach your destination. Warned you.

Where to Stay

There is a wide range of accommodations available in the major cities—from luxury to budget. 

Select a major hotel chain—ITC, Leela, Lemon Tree, Oberoi, Residency, Taj, etc. No matter where you plan to stay in the city, there will always be travel involved—to and from the major attractions. Make your hotel reservations before you leave for India.

Major hotel chains have modern amenities and you won’t have to squat to go potty. Toilet paper quality may vary from what you are used to back home—comfortable, soft, triple ply, sustainable, with a touch of lavender.

What to See

There is so much to see in India and you can’t expect to cover all the sites during your visit. Therefore, plan ahead for your experience or what you wish to see.

I highly recommend exploring temple architecture in southern India. The intricate stone carvings are mind-boggling. When in southern India, we wobble our heads to the left and right when we understand what you said. It’s not a neck exercise. 

Visit a local market. It is one of the best ways to get a feel for India.

If you plan to visit Leh in Ladakh, you will need to spend a day or two acclimating yourself to the high altitude. Leh is popular for tourists during the summer months. You will need to book your flights before you leave for India. If you plan to visit a monastery in Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh, check online for festivals that are held at a monastery.

Beach resorts in India aren’t like the ones in Cancun in Mexico or Benidorm in Spain. There are five star beach resorts in Goa and Kerala. I prefer a smaller beach resort that offers a traditional hut with modern amenities, small private pool, and food. 

Contrary to what Bollywood may project in their films, young Indians aren’t running around trees singing and courting. We swipe left too. 

Poverty is visible. You cannot save a kid on the street by giving her/him money. If you feel obliged, donate to a reputable charitable institution.

What and Where to Buy

I recommend khadi, cotton, and silk textiles. When you buy handloom products in India, you celebrate our heritage and culture. Explore traditional designs on cotton and silk fabric.

Handicrafts of wood and brass can be good gifts for your family and friends. Traditional art on canvas or silk is a gift to yourself, if you wish to add to your collection. Gold jewelry is an option.

Visit a State Emporium store for your handloom purchases. For example, visit the Cauvery Handicrafts Emporium in Bengaluru or Lepakshi in Hyderabad or Utkalika in Bhubaneswar. If you happen to be in Assam, I recommend buying Assam Tea for yourself or your friends.

I highly recommend looking into stores that sell goods from the tribal regions of India.

In case you forgot to buy a gift for someone, the major airports have handicrafts stores where you can pick up a last-minute gift.

A Few Things to Remember

I tell prospective visitors to India that the country can be challenging for a tourist but less so for a traveler.

There are stark differences in earning and livelihood, which make cities a contrasting reality of rich and poor. Old traditions and customs exist within an ever-evolving society. Pollution and poverty can hit you hard. In spite of it all, we are quite content and thankful for what we have, even though we might appear to be an unhappy lot. We just don't show our emotions. You will return with a different outlook on India, Indians, and life in general.

As Sarojini Naidu, an Indian activist and poet, impressed upon us in To India:

"Thy Future calls thee with a manifold sound
To crescent honours, splendours, victories vast;
Waken, O slumbering Mother and be crowned,
Who once wert empress of the sovereign Past."

We don't need a Hollywood hero to save one child from a slum in Mumbai or from a brothel in Kolkata. We ignore media outlets that haven't gotten over their colonial and Oriental outlook. We are flummoxed by a group of elitist and classist liberals in India that aren't open to a different point of view. What we need is for you to look at India through your educated eyes.

Come soon! We need to ask you a few personal questions. As we say in India, "God promise, we won't eat your brain." Meaning, we won't bother you. Come, okay?

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