Traveling Through India: The Basics

by Leanne Vogel (Healthful Pursuit) on March 30, 2012

For more on my backpacking trip through India, check out Mumbai experience, Kallikadu, Sivananda ashram introduction, Indiathe basics, Sivananda ashram I, Sivananda ashram II, waterfalls and temples, the streets, and varkala posts.

When I booked my trip to India I searched high and low for information on what to expect when traveling to India, what to pack for a trip to India, what the food was like in India, but had a really hard time finding the right details. There was a bit of information here, a bit there… but it was all kinda sketchy.

Not only that, but I had multiple people tell me on just how crazy I was for doing this trip alone. As the days grew closer to my departure, I got more and more nervous about it. I wish I’d been able to find a blogger; or anyone for that matter, who had gone to India and had an amazing time.

I’m hoping that me sharing my stories will show that going to India; alone or otherwise, is an amazing adventure!

So without further adieu, lets get to your questions!

When did you decide that you wanted to go to India?

I’ve always been fascinated with India but thought it was too expensive to go, or that I needed to go with someone. I ended up booking my trip in October 2011, after I’d received my VISA and departed in February 2012. You can read about why I decided to go to India in more detail by checking out this post.

Weren’t you scared to go to India by yourself?

Oh yes, I was terrified. To read about just how scared I was, check out this post.

Once I got there and met the people I was instantly put at ease. At no point during my trip; even when I was walking the streets of Mumbai at 10pm at night, did I feel unsafe. Everyone was very helpful, kind, and gentle. Of course this isn’t to say ‘let your guard down and make silly decisions’. Use common sense and you’ll be fine.

Did you visit a travel clinic before you left? What sorts of shots did you have to get?

Yes, I went to the travel clinic 2 months before my trip. Alberta Health Care has multiple travel clinics throughout the province. The areas I was going to didn’t have malaria, so I didn’t bother with the pills. I was all up to date on my hepatitis shots, chose to get a flu shot, and had to get an update on polio. Rabies was another option but it was $600 so I was willing to take my chances. I’d taken a dose of Dukoral for Dominican which I believe made me very sick, so I decided against it for this trip.

What’s the process of applying for an Indian VISA? Did it take a long time?

I applied for my VISA before I booked my travel. If you’re in Canada, you can visit VFS Global and fill out your application online. I filled it out, got my picture taken, and booked an appointment with the Calgary office. I waited about 20 minutes for my application to be reviewed. The lady asked me to make some changes and come back the next day. I made the changes, went back in the morning, and submitted it. It took about a week to come back to me.

When I go again, I’ll wait 3 weeks before I’m scheduled to go and apply for it then so I have more flexibility. Many Canadian travellers I met did this and said it was fine.

How did you decide where to go?

I’d heard that the south was a beautiful place, so I just went off that. I’d always dreamed of going to Mumbai, so knew I had to stop there. I wish I could say there was a lot of planning on where I was going to visit, but there wasn’t. I just chose what felt right.

Who did you fly with and how much did it cost?

I flew from Calgary to Frankfurt to Mumbai with Air Canada and Mumbai to Trivandrum with Jet Airways. Jet Airways was amazing, Air Canada not so much. In total, my flights cost approximately $1,400CAD. My flights with Jet Airways were insanely inexpensive and I booked them the day before I left after all of my flights with Kingfisher were cancelled (without me being notified)!

What did you consider the necessities to bring?

For more details on healthy essentials for backpacking, check out this post.

I couldn’t have lived without:

  • Probiotics – I seriously believe this is why I didn’t get sick even after eating all the street food. These babies don’t require refrigeration so they’re perfect for traveling! They’re a bit expensive, but worth every single penny. Seriously. If I were only allowed to bring one thing with me, this would have been it.
  • Hair brush – my hair got matted so much.
  • Bug spray – the higher the DEET the better.
  • Vacuum seal bag – Originally intended for my clothes but I ended up using it for my food. It was a total lifesaver. The bugs eat through Ziplocs!
  • Wet wipes – very challenging to find antiseptic wipes and the liquid always spills everywhere. So happy that I brought my own!
  • Croc sandals – they’re so versatile. You can slip them on and off, walk in them for hours… I only used my running shoes once!
  • Mosquito net – the ones the ashram gave out were garbage and when I left the ashram it was harder to find a room that came with one.

Note: because I traveled with a backpack that had many straps, I wrapped my bag in 2 Air Canada bags to avoid the straps from being cut or wrecked. When you check into your flight, just ask the check-in counter for 2 bags. I ended up using the same 2 bags for the duration of my trip.

What do you wish you would have brought?

I actually wrote down a list of the things I wish I would have brought with me so I would never, ever forget again. Here are a couple:

  • Cold medicine – I searched high and low for Dayquil for an entire day
  • Bathing suit – Had I known I was going to be around water, I really would have brought one with me. Fail.
  • Leggings – I bought a lot of beautiful shirts that would have looked great with leggings, but I didn’t bring any!
  • After bite – the antihistamine cream wasn’t the best in India, although I did meet a very nice man; Richard, from the UK who lent me his, so it ended up working out!
  • More vegetable snacks – I was craving raw veggies like made, for an entire 1.5 weeks.
  • Foam roller – I must have dreamed about that thing daily. My muscles were so sore after all that yoga and an ayervedic massage just doesn’t cut it.
  • Variety of clothing – I packed a lot of the same stuff so I didn’t have much to rely on for the various things I ended up doing.

There were also a couple of things I wish I wouldn’t have brought with me including yoga pants, t-shirts, and toiletries. You can find all of this stuff SO easily, everywhere you go, and for a lot cheaper than you can get at home.

How much money did you bring with you?

Before I left, I took out the equivalent of $100 CAD in rupees. It lasted me a really, really long time. Most everywhere you go operates on cash but everything is just so ridiculously inexpensive! In total; not including my accommodations at the ashram or flights, I spent $400 CAD during my entire trip – food, clothing, gifts, tours, buses… everything.

I traveled with a Net+ Pre-Paid MasterCard and a VISA travel card from Citizens Bank. I wanted to bring a MasterCard and VISA because I wasn’t sure what my options would be once I got there. I ended up using the MasterCard only because the FX fee was only 1.5% and ATM withdrawals were $6CAD. Unfortunately this option is not available in the US.

There were ATMs in the village just down the hill from the ashram where I took out money once or twice. Then, when I got to Varkala, I found an internet cafe that did POS (point of sale) transaction cash-advances so I didn’t have to pay ATM fees.

Is it okay to book flights once I get to India? Is it easy to change travel plans?

Practically everyone I met was making up their travel plans as they went. It’s very easy to find internet and travel agents everywhere and book what you need to through them, or just show up somewhere and book your trip.

When I go again, I’ll get a return ticket home and plan the rest as I go. I know it sounds scary, but it’s so normal there!

How long did it take you to get there?

Total travel time from Calgary to Trivandrum (final destination) was spread over 4 days. I left home Sunday night, got to Mumbai Tuesday morning (local) and left for Trivandrum from Mumbai Wednesday morning.

To read about my travels to Mumbai, check out this post.

What were the meals like on the Indian flights?

They were awesome! All were gluten-free and vegetarian, except for the ride from Mumbai to London where there was semolina in my meal. I thought it was potato and gobbled it up, then asked the stewardess what it was. I didn’t make a big scene about it as I’d just finished a huge helping of gluten-filled street food hours before.

I made one gluten exception on my trip; fully knowing I may get sick, but I couldn’t pass up sitting on a street corner in Mumbai enjoying a couple vegetarian samosa with a 7 year old shop owner. Thankfully, I didn’t get sick at all!

When I get to India, what type of transportation can I use? Is it safe to travel in rickshaws?

They have signs all over the Mumbai airport urging travelers not to use the rickshaws. So, I went to the transportation desk (you cannot miss it, it’s RIGHT outside the terminal before you exit the airport) and pre-ordered a cab. From the Mumbai airport to my hotel only 10 minutes away was 300 rupees which I know now is ridiculously expensive. I would have bartered that down had I known it was too expensive!.

When I got to the Trivandrum airport I did the same. When I returned to the Mumbai airport on the way home, I got a 300 rupee cab for a 2 hour ride. Woot!

When I didn’t have a large bag, I took rickshaws and the bus and I was just fine. They are everywhere and the bus drivers are helpful so you never have to worry about getting lost or anything.

What are the hotels like in India? How much do they cost on average?

I stayed at 3 hotels, all varying in cost.

  • $$$$ Hilton, Mumbai Airport  – I’m happy that this was the first place I stayed. It was nice, clean, and reminded me of home but very expensive in India terms. It was a great way to ease myself into a new place… and the room service was awesome!
  • $$$ Hotel Supreme, Mumbai – a dive of a place. I’d booked it last minute through lonely planet, showed up at 9pm at night and they didn’t have the booking. Their terminals weren’t working so I had to pay in cash which left me with 50 rupees of spending money on my last day, hence the sitting on a street corner eating samosa… it was all I could afford!
  • $$ Believe Home Stay (previously named Kaithakuzhi), Varkala – I paid 500 rupees a night for my room. You can get cheaper, but I didn’t want to be in a dorm so this was the next price up from that. It was clean, spacious, on the second floor, quiet, and I had my own hammock. No hot water, but I was used to it at this point. No internet either which was kinda a blessing.

Do people speak English?

Yes, there are so many people that speak English you really don’t need to worry about not being able to find someone to help you. Many of the shop owners in smaller villages do not speak English, but it’s kind of fun that way! I was drawing pictures, dancing around shops trying to explain what I was looking for. It was fun!

Even when it came to ordering at restaurants, if a waiter didn’t know what I was referring to, I walked into the kitchen with him and pointed out what I wanted and what I couldn’t have.

How do you communicate your allergies to the people?

I didn’t have many issues when ordering from a menu. There was generally always someone in the restaurant who knew what I was saying. If worse came to worse, I’d go in the kitchen and point out what I could eat, and also carried around this list of flours that I couldn’t have. The document outlines wheat, corn and gluten allergens. Took me forever to put together… I only used it once though because I wasn’t too concerned about it once I got there.

I shed multiple tears sifting through my photographs and videos of the trip. I want to go back so badly!

Next up, we’ll chat about my experience at Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram.

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Angela @ Eat Spin Run Repeat

Wow, great Q&A Leanne! If I ever find out that one of my friends is going to India, I’m totally referring them to this post! I hear ya on the Air Canada thing. Some of my best travel experiences have been on much smaller airlines.. and some of my worst have been with, well, you know who. ;)

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Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

Ah they’re like a necessary evil, I very much dislike that!!

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Andrea

This is a great post and would be so helpful to someone planning to go to India… hopefully that someone will be me one day!

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Nadine

Great post Leanne! I love reading about all the details. Although I travel a fair amount, each place is different and having someone whose already gone there and can offer advice is wonderful. You might want to check out http://www.journeywoman.com because you’re advice would be great to post there – it’s a cool resource for woman travelling, particularly if they are going alone.

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Sophie

Thanks so much for putting this together – very thoughtful!

It seems like the anticipation is the worse…once you get to your destination…things just work out :)

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Averie @ Averie Cooks

This is pretty much the best post I’ve ever read on going to India. You should work for their Tourism Board because you just convinced me that yes, this needs to happen for me, too. Not this week or this year probably, but it has ALWAYS been a trip I have wanted to take; and now more so than ever!

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Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

That would be an AWESOME job! I’m happy my experience is getting you interested in going as I know you’ve wanted to do it for a really, really long time. I could totally see you there!

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Tiff @ Love Sweat and Beers

That’s so cool! I <3 Travel! (Oh, and I also love traveling with Crocs. Perfect lightweight and fine for most occasions)

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Jessica @ Dairy Free Betty

So awesome Leanne! I’ve always dreamed of doing this too!! SO I’m living through your posts!

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Amanda

Glad you found the probiotics as useful as I did! :) and thin leggings, yes! Those are essential under dresses in the heat. / I know I’ve mentioned this before via FB, but feel free to email me if you ever go back. My bf is from there and we try to go every year or so. My favorite trip there so far was to the tea plantations of Munnar. SO amazing! (Photos on my FB page.) I’m still kicking myself though for not buying more fresh vanilla beans and essential oils when I had the chance!

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Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

Just added you on Facebook, Amanda! I’d love to check out those pictures. I’ve heard great things about Munnar. Definitely on my list of places to check out next year. Also kicking myself for not buying more spices. I’m just about out of garam masala and it’s just not the same here :(

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Adina | Gluten Free Travelette

Ahhh I love reading these posts about your trip! I never thought I was interested in going to India but these posts keep peaking my interest!

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Mel

Wow!! This trip looks so amazing….I always thought I might be too scared to go to India alone, but after this I may just have it in me:) I can’t believe the bugs ate through your ziplocks!!! That is crazy, those are some hungry bugs:)

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Trisha

Where did you get all your traveling snacks?? I’m heading to Greece in 10 days and Want to bring lots of my own snacks. ( I have no dietary restrictions) . Also.. Did u happen to have one of those filtering water bottles? I’ll be in Athens for 4 then cruise for 4-5 days. I’m a stickler w my meals so I want to ensure I have plenty of go tos w me. Any further advice??? THANKS!

(still working on that email)

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Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

Many of them were supplied by the several companies but you can find most of them on amazon (I’ve linked to the ones that you can purchase there), health food stores, iherb or upaya naturals. I did bring a filtering water bottle with me but never used it. I purchased the bottle from magellans.com enjoy your trip!!

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Mansi

Wow!! That’s amazing!
You’re so brave! I would never go to India alone and I’m Indian!

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Misty

What a perfect post! I’m traveling alone to India in June for 28 days, and this post has been so enlightening to me! Thanks so much for all your helpful info! I’ve been to several India travel sites, and the information wasn’t laid out so clear and precise as your post! Thank so much, and thanks for the inspiration!

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Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

You’re most welcome, Misty! Whereabouts are you headed in India? Oh I wish I could go back right now!!

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Misty

I’m going to Delhi, then on to Dharmsala. I’m going to be volunteering in Dharmasala for 3 weeks, then doing a Vispanna Meditation 10 day course. I’m super excited, again thanks for your India words of wisdom! :)

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Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

Wow, that sounds amazing, Misty! Have a great time. I’d love to know how it goes. Will you be blogging while you’re there?

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amy

Hello! I discovered your blog a month or so back and have been very inspired – i feel like we are on similar paths, and it’s so great to see you documenting so much and sharing, i imagine you learn loads from it as well as all your readers :) yay!

Your India posts have particularly touched me – this time last year I was there – my first time, (though a lifelong dream!) I was there for four months, and unbelievably, didn’t get sick either! apart from a few minor, minor ailments, and a few bloated instances (so easy to indulge when you’re into learning about cuisines…)

Probiotics DEFINITELY saved me, as well as wormwood tincture i think (i didnt’ have any shots or malaria tablets etc, a practitioner recommended wormwood as a natural malaria preventative and also seemed to work for stimulating digestion, preventing other nasty bacteria, etc etc) basically i was loaded up with homepathy and supplements but NEVER ENOUGH GREENS haha though i took spirulina (and you can find excellent spirulina grown in Auroville, India, in some places). i also took a few miso soup sachets as i have found that if i get sick, it’s a really soothing way of having a light comforting meal without much digestion. i didn’t really need them but was glad i took them.
a friend who was travelling there asked me to bring some good quality chocolate from the UK (where i live) and i ended up carrying three bars of it for a few months, the willpower needed was huge, but it was worth it when we met in Rishikesh and shared it, just before he was about to leave for home, haha!
I’m so glad you got into the flow of it and can see how easy it can be to follow your intuition and plan ‘as
you like’…although there are always surprises in store, hey?

The pic of you in white with the girl is so cute :) looks like a very happy moment!

I also was kinda confused and majorly surprised at how walking round Mumbai at night was somehow fine!!! and actually quite alright! though of course, was on high alert at first… and never on no alert.
Though, by the time i’d been there a few months and had reached the magical north, i felt so at home that leaving was just STRANGE and painful! i cry now if i think about it too much or look through my pictures! India is definitely not finished with me yet!
Looking forward to reading about your time at the Ashram.
Maybe i’ll see you there ;) i loved meeting people from so many parts of the world :)

Hehe, India talk definitely gets me excited and rambling!!
Much love and thanks from Amy, in Brighton, UK

PS another essential i have found for this type of travel are silk sleeping bag liners – they look like this when folded up
http://i01.i.aliimg.com/photo/v0/112156417/Double_Silk_Liner_Sack_Sleeping_Bag_Liner.jpg
i got mine from ebay for £8, you can also get them made in india ;)
keeps you safe from bugs whilst sleeping (hopefully) are so comforting, nice colours, and somehow can keep you warm but also cool…the wonders of silk.

PPS i had an incredible experience with some ACTUAL organic KALE at Ramana’s Garden. . my body was soooo happy to have greens after 2months, that i practically had tears. was so interesting! i ended up volunteering in this cafe which supports an orphanage and school – i don’t know how it’s going there currently, or if the cafe is running, but it’s worth checking it out or asking around if you ever visit Rishikesh :) found this from this year http://solotravelerblog.com/yogi-yum-yums/
so many Gems to find in Indian lands..!

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Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

Wow Amy, so many things I want to comment on! Sounds like we are on very similar paths. Ugh, I know what you mean about crying when you look at the pictures. It’s hard to believe that today marks 1 months since I’ve been away from India and already I feel like my life just isn’t complete without her. I too have unfinished business and hope to take a 4 month journey next year to experience more! Thanks for the recommendation on the sleeping bag liners… I had NO idea what they were when I saw them during my trip but would have been really great to have. I’m planning on going to Rishikesh during my next trip, so I’ll be sure to check it out, thank you so much! You’re right though, never enough greens. I need to figure out how to bring more with me next time. My body was craving vegetables so badly when I got home. Thanks so much for stopping by and saying hello :)

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amy

You’re so welcome, thank you for all the amazing words and recipes and creativity :D
Yes, my sleeping bag liner really is one of my fave things :)
-Oh, and you reminded me to take LOTS of ROOBOIS next time too! hehe!
(I spent a short time sharing a small apartment with a friend who was also in India, we have a STOVE (!!) and made fresh veg and roobois chai every day) .
A few times, if I made friends with people who had a kitchen, i asked if I could find greens and cook them there. They all were so keen of course. I never actually did this though. I think I felt a lil rude. I guess its possible to find a camping stove and small pot to at least have cooked greens, if you were staying in one place for a while. Also, I occasionally bought cucumbers and cleaned them with citrocidol (grapefruit seed extract) and peel and eat them, seeing as they’re technically green and refreshing. I got lazy in the end though. I did eat many fairly good salads in restaurants. I just willed for my immune system to somehow deal with it. !!
Please feel very free to email me if you ever want to talk traveling alone in India, (i’m planning a trip next year too) or anything :) or if you ever want to know any UK info.
Feels fun to actually comment on a blog haha :) I shall definitely try some gluten free Indian adaptions mmmmm X
Ciao!

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Genevieve

This post, along with your post about packing for your trip, is so helpful – I wish I could have read them before my trip to India! I will definitely keep them bookmarked though in case I am lucky enough to go back again. Sounds like you had a great trip – I’m sure all your preparations and your positive attitude helped too!

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Madhu Nair

Hi Leanne,
I got here from Pinterest.
This is an excellent article on how to prepare for a trip to India.
I run a travel company out of California – we do tours exclusively to India.

I am going to bookmark this and send this out to all my clients from now on.
Thanks for taking the time out to jot down.

Cheers and Safe Travels,
Madhu

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Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

Hi Madhu, I’m so happy to hear that you liked this post! I’ve come out with several “how to travel India” posts since writing this initial one. If you’re interested in getting the links and feel they’d help your customers, feel free to shoot me an email and I’ll send them your way. Hope you’re having a great weekend.

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Moe

I would for sure visit a travel clinic before I left the country. Some people don’t do that and they get really sick. It looks like you had an excellent trip! I really wish that I could go to India. It would be so amazing! Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us!

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Leanne (Healthful Pursuit)

Oh yes, I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s a bit pricey, but totally 100% worth it!

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Alex

This was just what I was looking for! Thank you so much for sharing :) I’m getting excited/nervous for an upcoming trip… xx

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