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What to Expect in India for First-Timers

India can be a challenging place to travel, even for those who have plenty of experience immersing themselves in foreign cultures. After spending three weeks traveling the northern regions of the country, I learned so much that I wish I had known beforehand. I’ve made this list of what to expect on your first trip to India in hopes you’ll avoid some of the annoyances we didn’t!

I developed this list based on my own experiences. I’m not an expert on Indian culture nor do I have an academic knowledge of the impacts of income disparity, poverty, or overpopulation. I’m just a traveler who realized that India is different from any place I’ve ever traveled before – in good ways and in challenging ways.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from traveling to India. There are dozens of great reasons to go! Being aware of the challenges will prepare you to better enjoy your trip. For this reason, I’m also including a few reasons why you should go anyway.

Without further ado, let’s dive into what to expect in India on your first visit!

Taj Mahal Agra India

The iconic Taj Mahal

What to Expect in India – Challenges

Scams

Taxi rides

We fell for this one hard, and immediately. You can read the full story here, but in short, we didn’t go to the official taxi stand when we landed at the Delhi airport. Three hours and 4 means of transportation later, we arrived at our hotel. Always go through the designated taxi services at airports, and use Uber for the rest of the time. These are by far the most reliable taxi services in India.

Do NOT believe any driver who tells you that there is a road closure or that your hotel is closed. If the driver says he cannot find your hotel and offers to call it to get directions, use his phone to make the call yourself. A common scam is to call a fake number and then make up some reason why they cannot take you to your hotel. Their goal here is to get you to agree to go to another hotel where they will get a commission.

Do NOT let any driver take you to a “tourist info center” to use the WiFi, make a phone call, or whatever. Again, their goal is to try to sell you a tour or accommodation in hopes of making a commission.

Do NOT pay until you arrive at your desired destination!

For more on this classic scam, check out this guide to scams in India. 

Tour guides

If someone approaches you at a tourist attraction and offers to take a photo or starts sharing historical information about the place, politely decline unless you intend to pay. These unofficial and unsolicited tour guides capitalize on making people feel guilty or uncomfortable turning down their services. They may also tell you that a guide is “required” to visit the site.

This happened to our group at the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi. Tim and I walked away, but the rest of our group got wrangled into a short but expensive tour of the mosque.

Jama Masjid mosque Delhi

Colorful robes visitors wear inside the mosque grounds

Safety

Drunk driving

This one is important. Driving after drinking alcohol is not as culturally taboo in India as it may be at home. We even had a tour driver try to drive us across high mountain passes in the Himalayas while still visibly intoxicated. Anytime you arrange a driver through a tour company, ask the company if they have a policy about driving under the influence. We learned that some companies require their drivers to abstain from alcohol the entire time they are on a trip with a client.

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Spiti Valley in India’s Himalayas

Food

Indian food is beyond delicious! But, your gut may not be ready to handle it, especially if you go for street food or meat. I recommend sticking to a vegetarian diet and eating only at recommended restaurants to avoid Delhi belly. Even then, expect to get sick at least once during your India trip. Pack rehydration salts and get an antibiotic from your doctor before you go to help offset the pains of traveler’s diarrhea.

Typical Indian Meal

Our first meal in India – divine!!

Water

As with many countries, you should not drink the tap water in India. Refuse ice in your drinks, and only drink water that you know comes from a purified source. To reduce your plastic waste from water bottles, buy large water jugs instead and fill up your bottles with that.

Confronting sights

Poverty and begging

Extreme poverty exists in many countries, but with such a dense population in India, the sight of it is much more overwhelming than you may have seen before. You will undoubtedly encounter begging, often from women with small children. Do not give food or money to these people – India is trying hard to reduce its begging culture, and there are many free community resources people can turn to. For example, in every Sikh temple, anyone can show up for a hot meal any time, no questions asked.

Pollution and litter

India is making great strides to become environmentally friendly, but plastic litter and smog still dominate the cities and small towns alike. On a train ride from Delhi to Varanasi, we saw a river of litter. People often throw their trash out the window on trains and in cars, resulting in more trash than you have likely seen before.

Cows

Cows are free to roam the streets in India, and not just in rural towns. Do not be surprised to see a cow crossing a highway outside of Delhi or blocking traffic at a busy intersection. The cows themselves are not dangerous (just don’t mess with them, obviously), but like any animal, they do poop. And no one cleans up this poop. This means you will see it, and probably step in it, at some point in your India travels.

Cows on the street in Varanasi, India

Cows on the street in Varanasi, India

Annoyances

Traffic

Expect to be sitting in standstill traffic anytime you are in a car in India. When walking around, be careful – you are sharing the roads with cars, tuk-tuks, bikes, motorcycles, cows, and other pedestrians. It can be chaotic, loud, and very challenging to determine the safest time to cross the street. My advice is to wait until you see a local crossing, and follow them.

Chaos of the streets of India

Chaos of the streets of India

Squat toilets

Squat toilets are the norm in Asia, and India is no different. The truth is, it’s hard to know what to expect in India when it comes to toilets. Practice your wall sits before you leave because chances are high you will have to use a squat toilet on your trip to India. Additionally, you will probably need to bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer into the bathroom with you. It can take a little getting used to, but after a while, they won’t bother you as much anymore.

Heat and humidity

It almost goes without saying that India is HOT. To stay cool, wear loose clothing and always make sure you have plenty of water available. Avoid being outside in the heat of the day. I would also recommend timing your trip to avoid the hottest seasons for the region you will be visiting. Unbearable heat makes everything harder, trust me.

Photobombing

If you are not of Indian descent or ethnicity, locals might be curious about you. Tim and I are both white, and we traveled with two black women from England. Many times throughout the trip, locals would take photos of us. Most of the time it was innocent, but sometimes it was creepy, racist, or sexist.

What to Expect in India – Why you should go anyway

The food

I think Indian food is the most delicious in the world in my opinion. Do not miss out on paneer – a delicious cheese that makes a great meat substitute in butter curry, korma, palak, and masala dishes. When times get stressful, sit back and relax with a hot cup of masala chai tea, order a piece of garlic naan, and drown your worries in a steaming bowl of daal.

Indian thali meal

Indian thali meal

Heritage sites

Only in India can you explore ancient and stunning palaces like the Amer Fort in Jaipur or the Taj Mahal in Agra. Despite the crowds, despite the heat, and despite the leg workout you get every time you squat over a hole in the ground to pee, these places are undeniably beautiful and you will be happy you saw them.

Agra Fort, India

We may never be royals, but we can dance in the palace!

Spirituality

India is the birthplace of two major world religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, both of which are largely peaceful on the world stage. Both religions also revere animals and we can all learn from that. And then there, of course, is the unique intermingling of life and death along the mighty Ganges River.

Holy man at Chet Singh Ghat

A holy man walking along the Chet Singh ghat

Wildlife

India’s Spiti Valley is home to the highest concentration of the elusive snow leopard on earth, and in many of the nation’s national parks, you have a chance to spot tigers.

There is just no other place like it on earth

Although this is a guide on what to expect in India, it’s such a unique country that you are bound to be surprised by something. India currently sits right on a line balanced between ancient heritage and rapid modernization. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition. The Delhi subway system is one of the easiest ones I’ve ever navigated, but the streets are the most confusing. All of the things I’ve discussed in this article, good and bad, are part of India. It’s an incredibly challenging country to travel in. It can also reward patient travelers with immense beauty and thought-provoking experiences. Even if you mostly dislike your time there, you can’t deny that it’s unlike anywhere else in the world. That in and of itself makes it worth visiting.

I hope this guide on what to expect in India helps you avoid some of the challenges and fully enjoy the beauty of this country!

Old Delhi masala chai

A man making masala chai tea in the streets of Old Delhi

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33 thoughts on “What to Expect in India for First-Timers

  1. Jayashree Sengupta says:

    From India myself, great post for first-timers. But I am really surprised to find travelers regime always stick to the northern parts of the country. May be because Delhi International Airport is in the North, try the other Int. Airports which being Jaipur (North), Mumbai (Central), Kolkata (East), Guwahati (North East) and Bangalore (South). And yes India is a huge land to be traversed in one go. But I would definitely suggest to visit the South, East and North East as well (somehow I find poverty is less exaggerated here) . I myself have much ado over Varanasi even if most of the country people choose to call it the “spiritual capital”. and choose to avoid it.

    • Ben says:

      I think that mostly has to do with the tourist triangle of Delhi, Agra & Jaipur, which can be easily done in a handful of days and transport is easily arranged. I agree with you that many of the other parts are quite worth the visit, but once I left that area, I did find local transport much more difficult.

      • our21stcenturyodyssey says:

        Great point, it is a relatively easy itinerary to follow for first-timers.

    • our21stcenturyodyssey says:

      Thank you so much! I’m so grateful to have someone from India reading it as it helps me guage how accurate my portrayal is. When we eventually return to India, we’ll be heading south 😊

  2. Daisy says:

    Beautiful post and great advice! I lived in Delhi for 4 months- having traveled around a bit, I definitely agree with that India can be a bit difficult to get used to. I had to escape to the mountains every couple of weeks because of the complexities of the city. But like you said, Indian food is one of the most delicious in the world! Just for that alone, it is worth a visit :))

  3. Jane Dempster-Smith says:

    Great article with so many good tips for travellers. Don’t you just love the scams, thank goodness for Uber these days around the world. My favourite cuisine in Indian food and as a vegetarian it is perfect for India. Your photos make me want to run to our local Indian.

  4. Sinjana Ghosh says:

    Being an indian i completely enjoyed reading your experiences. Your analysis of the impact of income disparity and overpopulation is quite apt i must say. The taxi and tour guide scams are such a shame. Next time pay a visit to the north east and south. You will be shocked to see how different they are (not better or worse, just different)

    • our21stcenturyodyssey says:

      Thank you so much for reading and validating my impressions! I always try to be fair and respectful when talking about cultures that are foreign to me. When we visit India next, we’ll be heading south 😊

  5. Marcia says:

    What a great post. I’ve been considering India for a while and had heard of some, but not all of these warnings. I especially did not know about the taxi/hotel scam. I plan to follow your advice (and the advice of others who have gone) to go with my eyes wide open and with an open mind.

  6. Family Globetrotters says:

    Excellent post and you have managed to touch on all the concerns and reservations I have about visiting India. I grew up in Kuala Lumpur so some of the things are not exactly foreign to me although I know it would be much worse in India. The drunk driving through the high passes of the Himalayas would have freaked me out. And all the reasons you have stated about why one should go are also reasons I use to justify why we should go. Trying very hard to convince my partner. India is a place like no other and definitely a once in a lifetime experience. BTW, that photo of the Taj Mahal is stunning.

    • our21stcenturyodyssey says:

      Thank you! Yes, the drunk driving situation was one of the most difficult we found ourselves in. We liked our guide a lot, but just didn’t feel comfortable getting in the car with him that morning. We ended up waiting at camp for a few hours and then setting out. Even then, it was a tense day. That said, we’ll definitely go back to India at some point, and next time we’ll be a little bit wiser!

  7. Clarice says:

    My cousin also experienced the same scam you mentioned. She was brought to another hotel because apparently the one she booked is unknown.

    It is very unfortunate that this is happening especially for places who can benefit from tourism. It is a prime reason why India is not a very popular tourist destination. Hope the government can do something about this. We would love to visit Taj Mahal in the future.

    • our21stcenturyodyssey says:

      Yeah, I still can’t believe we fell for it. We’re normally really good about sticking to the official taxis and just didn’t do that this time, to disastrous results.

  8. Sarah says:

    Wish I had seen this before my first trip to India. It’s certainly a challenge but I loved every minute. Sorry you were fleeced by the arrival taxi, fortunately for me I had heard about that before I arrived. Didn’t realise Uber was there now, would definitely use them on my next visit. And as for the food, that’s why I keep going back lol.

  9. Annick says:

    I’ll admit that I’ve been on the fence about India because of some of these cons. As long as you’re prepared, it makes for a better experience. I do love their food and I would love to visit places like Jaipur or the Taj Mahal or Bangalore. But I really worry about the scams, the begging, the heat, and being out with a stomach issue. One day I’ll be give it a go since it seems like the positives outweigh the negatives.

    • our21stcenturyodyssey says:

      I think definitely opt for going with a guide or on a small group tour. That will help you avoid the scams and generally make logistics easier.

  10. Sandy N Vyjay says:

    India is massive and the area it covers is mind-boggling. Every few miles the landscape, language and culture changes. So even for people living in India when they travel across the country they face challenges. I do understand and appreciate your view-points though.Hope you get better experiences the next time you are here.

    • our21stcenturyodyssey says:

      It’s certainly massive, and very diverse. Just going from Rajasthan to Himachal Pradesh, it was like visiting another country entirely.

  11. curiouseeker says:

    Great! Being an Indian I feelt his pretty much sums it up 🙂. Although you might get to know more about our diversity (literally in every field from ranging from culture to climate) if you explore the lengths and breadths of India.
    You can look at one of the sites I recently visited in southern India which is ranked 2nd by NYT in must visit global destination for 2019.
    https://acuriouseeker.wordpress.com/2019/01/06/historic-hampi-hippie-hampi/

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