India is one of the most popular countries in the world for anyone looking for memorable travel experiences without spending too much. The affordability factor is a major draw but it can be a challenging and at times frustrating country to visit. By following some of these tips for travelling around India on a budget, you’ll maximise your chances of having a positive experience.
10 Tips for Travelling in India
1. Understand India’s Visa Policy
India is relatively unique in that all foreign citizens need a visa to visit. In the past that usually meant having to go in person to your nearest Indian Embassy or Consulate but things are a bit easier these days with the introduction of the India eVisa (you can find out more with an online visa service such as Byevisa).
Somewhat confusingly though, there is also a Visa on Arrival (VoA) although this is part of the same process rather than a separate option. Essentially you will need to already have your eVisa in order to get the VoA when you land.
Exact requirements and visa lengths vary a bit depending on where you’re from but make sure you have done everything you need to do before heading to the airport to jump on a plane to India otherwise your dream trip could go badly wrong before it has even begun!
2. Travel by Train
India has a vast train network that covers virtually the whole country and it’s certainly the best way to get around if you’re travelling on a budget. It covers all of the best cities to live in India and almost all of its top travel destinations.
If you are willing to opt for one of the cheaper coaches, it’s extraordinary how little it costs to cover large distances. For example, a trip from Delhi to Mumbai (almost 1500 km) is as little as 615 Rupees ($8.40) in the cheapest sleeper class. Tickets from Delhi to Agra (the location of the Taj Mahal) can be found for as little as 160 Rupees ($2.20).
3. Expect & Plan for Delays
While travelling on Indian Railways is cheap and often great fun, you should accept that trains do often show up late, with multiple hour delays not uncommon. The best approach is often to expect and plan for delays. This will reduce the disappointment and frustration when you find yourself spending hours on the platform of a busy Indian railway station.
If you’re the kind of traveller who likes to cram a lot of destinations and different activities into a short space of time, you may wish to rethink your strategy in India as your plans for the week can quickly go up in smoke as the result of one delayed connection.
4. Barter for Things
In many countries bartering over the price of something in a store or the cost of a room is completely out of the question and would come across as rude. In India it’s completely normal in many settings and it’s just one of the many cultural quirks that you’ll need to get used to.
Its origins lie in a past where there wasn’t one common currency and people honed their negotiation skills when it came to buying or exchanging goods and services. These days, India may have the Rupee but bartering lives on and if you’re on a really tight budget, you’ll want to try and learn how to do it properly too.
Truth be told, you will still end up paying a bit more than a local would in most situations but if you barter well, you should be spared the tourist prices.
5. Don’t book Accommodation in Advance
This follows on from the previous point to some extent. There may be some times when you want to book accommodation in advance, such as for your first couple of days in the country or when visiting one of the megacities such as Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata.
However you can usually get a better deal by researching a few accommodation options in advance and then just showing up without a reservation. This enables you to demand to see the room before agreeing anything and potentially barter for a lower price. Unless it’s peak tourist season, few hostels and guesthouses are ever full and you should be able to get a better price this way.
6. Drink Chai
If you’re a coffee drinker or just somebody who likes a quick burst of caffeine, drinking chai is the way to go in India. Made from brewing black tea with a mixture of aromatic spices and herbs, chai is found all over the Indian subcontinent and is the drink of choice for many locals.
It’s also very cheap, costing as little as 7 rupees ($0.10) in street stalls.
7. Research where to Eat
While having a Chai in the street is generally safe as it’s made using boiling water, trying to save a few rupees by buying food from street stalls is much less advisable. Even eating in clean looking restaurants, there’s a good chance you will at some point get a stomach upset in India and regularly tucking into food in street stalls is a pretty good way of guaranteeing it.
Therefore, it’s advisable to do your research and use google reviews or trip advisor to help you select somewhere to eat. There are many well-reviewed restaurants in towns and cities across the country that do excellent curries for the equivalent of just a few dollars.
Even if you’re on a shoestring budget, it’s worth spending that little bit extra to eat better prepared food and reduce your chances of getting sick.
8. Rest & Recover with the odd Hotel Stay
India is a hectic country and it’s fair to say that it is not one of the most relaxing travel experiences in the world. While the sights and sounds make it one of the most fascinating countries to visit, every now and then you’ll need a day or two to just get away from the intensity and madness of Indian cities to relax and recharge your batteries for the next stint of travel.
In some cases, it’s often only a relatively minor increase from the price of a hostel or budget guesthouse to find a decent hotel with a pool. Every now and then, it’s well worth the extra expense.
9. Don’t be too Ambitious
If time is a limiting factor, then focus on one or two regions. India is a huge country and even if you had six months or more, you’d still struggle to visit everywhere worth visiting. Instead do your research and decide where it is that you really want to visit.
Rajasthan is seen as India’s cultural heartland and combining that with Agra and Delhi for example would make for a good itinerary for a couple of weeks. If you have a little bit more time but are on a tight budget, you could maybe add another region such as Kerala or Goa.
10. Carry Cash
India’s ATM situation isn’t great and many don’t work properly with foreign cards or are simply out of cash. In the larger cities, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty finding a functioning one, although this can be more of a challenge in smaller towns or more rural destinations.
Therefore it’s advisable to always have a reserve stash of cash for emergencies and always carry cash if you’re heading out for the day or evening as many places won’t take cards.
This article was published in September 2020.