Top 10 things I wish I knew BEFORE I went to India

Chaotic, polluted, dirty, smelly, poverty, culture shock, hot, noisy, crazy driving, spicy food, and even Delhi Belly, are all things I heard about India and somewhat expected to be true. Some were true and some, well actually they all characterized India to a certain extent. Regardless, It’s nothing a little mental preparedness can’t handle. However, some things would have made my journey through India a little more pleasant, had I known. Here is my list of the Top 10 things I wish I knew before going to India!

1. Uber is CHEAP and considered SAFE

Initially, I was told it was best to use a private driver from the airport to the hotel. I went to India on a travel blogger’s group trip and the host offered to book last-minute transportation but I never received an email confirmation with details. Due to delays in customs (it took me 3 hours to exit the airport) the driver left unbeknownst to me. I landed at 1:30 am so the host was sleeping and never responded to any calls, texts or emails. I wasn’t quite sure what to do but after an hour of waiting, I decided to chance the Uber despite what I heard.

It was easy to find the Uber pick up spot at the Delhi airport. A few signs led me right there in less than 10 mins. I found my Uber by checking license plates and hopped in. The driver didn’t say a word and didn’t lift a finger to help me with my bags, which was unusual from past Ubers I’ve ridden in. Regardless, I was at the hotel 50 mins later and it only cost $7.00 US dollars, without a tip option. I was shocked! The hotel wanted $50 US dollars to book their shuttle and the private driver our host booked was $25.00.

Side note: Yes Uber is sooo cheap. It was safe but it was not the easiest mode of transportation during the day traveling from place to place as roads are very chaotic, traffic jams are inevitable and a lot of city attractions are not walking distance to each other. My recommendation, hire a private driver if you can!

Tip: Some credit cards may not work with the Uber app overseas. In this case, you can pay cash BUT be careful and observant. A few times we did this the driver asked for more money than the agreed-upon amount in the app.

Also important to note Taxi’s in India are considered unsafe at night. If you do have to take a taxi, make sure they turn the meter on or expect to pay MUCH more than the cost should be.

2. The air quality in Delhi was REALLY poor

I didn’t know this was an annual thing. I arrived early in the morning and went straight to bed. When I woke up I was surprised to see so much haze. I was even more surprised when I noticed my eyes starting to water and a deep hacking cough set in after a few days.

Turns out in October/November farmers burn old crops and stubble, and mixed with the right weather conditions the smoke creates hazardous smog. It is illegal to burn crops but enforcing the law seems to be the real issue. The introduction of machinery to prevent the need to burn crops goes ineffective due to cost and time. It was mid-October when I went and air quality was rated poor, it is now mid-November and the air quality is considered hazardous.

Read More:

Delhi’s smog blamed on crop fires- but farmers have little choice |The Guardian

3. When haggling…always offer 1/2 of the initial price first and then if they don’t bite walk away

This is super handy Intel. Westerners and other tourists look like $$$$ in many shop owner’s eyes so of course, initial prices are going to be high. There are not many set price markets so expect to haggle in many areas. Before you start, make sure you know the most you are willing to pay and don’t feel bad for negotiating lower.

It’s amazing how many times I walked away and boom price drop- like drastic price drop. Our guide said the shops are still making a healthy living since labor and material costs are SO cheap…..hmmmmm, I wonder what those labor laws are like nowadays…

In most tourist markets the clothing, shoes, jewelry, and bags are not of high quality. As far as I could tell it’s all fast fashion (which makes me cringe). I looked at the finishes and stitching and the hand of the fabric (I studied textiles and apparel design in college and took some knowledge with me) and didn’t feel most market items were worth much more than a few dollars.

If you must buy from the fast-fashion markets expect to pay:

  • Sets of bracelets or earrings: $.50-$200 rupees
  • Shoes: $600-$800 INR ($8-$10 USD)
  • Scarves (depending on material): $100-$300 INR
  • Printed pants: $300 ($4 USD)
  • Saris (depending on beading and fabric quality): $1400-$8,000 INR ($20-100+ USD)

4. Most ATMs allow at most $10,000 rupees to be withdrawn at a time

I tried withdrawing money at the airport ATM multiple times with error messages each time. Panic sunk in as I thought my card was not working. The man before me had the same issue. I had no other way to get cash so I kept trying and on the 4th try I randomly put in 10,000 IND and it worked. Relief!

Uncomfortable with the man peering over my shoulder I decided not to do a second transaction right then and instead get back in line, that is until I saw how long the line was. I guess I was holding everyone up. oops! I thought I’d find my driver first then come back in and withdraw more money. If you read #1 and keep reading to #9 you’ll know how that turned out.

ATMs were also pretty elusive around town…plus are they safe? I suggest getting what you need at the airport even though their fees are higher (there was about a $5 ATM fee not including what your card/bank charges).

Even an ATM in a 5-star hotel wasn’t working for me. The only option was to do a Cash withdraw against my credit card (as the other ATM options were not working even with low withdrawal amounts) which would charge me an additional 24% on whatever I withdrew plus transaction fees.

I usually always order foreign currency from my bank before I travel but Indian Rupees are not available in the US so you are forced to do it once you land. I’ve since read that its illegal to bring rupees into India if you are a foreigner.

Needless to say, make sure you know where and how you are going to get $$ once in India! It’s no fun wasting time on this one!

5. Often times “I don’t have change” is a popular phrase, get small bills as soon as you can

The ATM only gives 2000 bills. Change was not popular in many establishments. Most upscale restaurants rounded up the bill and could give paper change but other than that “no change” was a popular phrase. You don’t want to be getting screwed when they also don’t take cards or the “reader” is down so make sure to get small bills (10, 20, 500) for street shopping and tips. I exchanged some with my hotel concierge. I’ve heard fast food restaurants usually have small bills as well.

6. How to handle the touts

Tout was a new word for me. It means, attempts to sell (something), typically by pestering people in an aggressive or bold manner. Which in India is VERY common. Being westerners we attract a lot of attention. At first, a polite “No thank you” I thought was the way to go. Now I know it’s better not to make eye contact, say nothing and keep walking. If you engage in conversation, or look at an item and don’t purchase it, touts are known to pressure you into paying them for “wasting their time.” It seemed like an acknowledgment was an open invitation for unwanted attention.

Amer City was the worst for this type of behavior. They were waiting for us at the bus parking lot and swarmed us before we could even set foot on the ground. They got close and wouldn’t let up. We escaped into another vehicle to take us up to the fort. While we were walking someone put a hat on my head. Later someone else held an umbrella over my head. Not sure what they thought was going to happen ( I guess hoping I would give them money) but just be aware of what to expect.

7. The Light-skin factor is a thing in India

As light-skinned Westerners we were warned we may be asked for photos when walking in the touristy areas. This was true. It was weird at first and I opted out for the most part but as the days went on it seemed easier just to take the photo especially if I wasn’t with the group and couldn’t escape easily enough. At times it became excessive and a crowd would gather. Even if I would say “no” most people snapped a photo anyways. Annoying. I’m not a celebrity guys, but at times I thought this must be what it feels like.

It seemed harmless for the most part but you never know where that photo will end up. Some just want to show family or friends back home, others want to post it on social media. I guess there is a popular #selfiewithaforeigner tag. I’ve heard some like to use apps to put your head on different bodies (sometimes naked) and others have seen their photo on ads or dating websites in India.

Most travel guides recommend you don’t entertain selfies. If you decide to, be aware some men use selfies as a ploy to get closer to women (or men) and may attempt unwelcomed advances like inappropriate touches, full-on bear hugs and even kissing.

Read More:

Rooftop of the Tigress Hotel in Ranthanbore India

8. Don’t give money to beggars, it can create a mob, and encourage the cycle of poverty

Ok so there are many opinions on this one, it’s definitely subjective but in my opinion, it’s better to ignore the beggars.  It sounds harsh and if you are a compassionate person seeing dirty children with no clothes and others who are disabled it is really hard. Yes, some people have no choice but to beg and others choose to beg because it’s easy money. But worst of all there is a large begging Mafia in India (as well as other countries) that are known to abduct children and intentionally disfigure them to gain sympathy. Yikes! When you give money it encourages this cycle of abuse to continue.

Begging is a topic of much discussion in India. Some states have adopted the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 which makes begging a criminal offense. There are also a lot of professional beggars and a lot of beggar scams. Karl Rock does a great job exposing some of these. Check out his YouTube channel for a ton of videos showing these scams in action.

While I was in India I never gave money to beggars, even when I wanted to. In the streets in Jaipur, I locked eyes with a woman who had a small child in her arms. I smiled and then she followed me persistently until I crossed the road. It was uncomfortable and I felt bad. But then about an hour later we ran into her again and she had a different child with her. I’m not sure if either one of them were her kids but it made me wonder about her situation.

If you do give money on the streets it rarely will go unnoticed. You may find yourself swarmed with onlookers all wanting money which may create a dangerous situation for you. Most of the time it will be impossible to give to all so just keep that in mind when deciding what is best for you.

9. In Delhi, you are not allowed back into the airport for any reason if you do not have a valid same-day boarding pass

Yup learned this the hard way. Once you exit the international terminal make sure you use the ATM, restroom, wait for all your bags and know where to find your driver (if you have one). There is a waiting area for drivers inside the airport right after the terminal exit and another outside of the airport doors. I wasn’t sure if I had missed my driver inside and attempted to go back in after failing to find her outside. That didn’t happen. The guard refused and as far as I could tell he wasn’t making any exceptions.

Before departing for a flight you will need your passport and ticket confirmation in hand before entering the airport as well. Make sure to at least have a screenshot of your confirmation email to avoid delays.

India Jaipur stair well

10. Print out the correct Visa page BEFORE you try to board the plane

Yes, you need a visa to travel to India. It’s only $25 for 30-day visa, you can only apply for a 30-day visa within 30 days of your trip. apply on the official website here https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/

One thing some people forget to do is print out the correct eVisa form. It’s NOT the confirmation email they sent. You have to log back onto the Visa website with your Visa number, login, and password you created to apply for the visa. Download the actual visa form with the barcode and photo. You have to have it printed out to board the plane to India so make sure you don’t forget. They weren’t accepting screenshots on phones when I went from Rome in 2019

There you have it, 10 things I wish I knew before going to India. I enjoyed my trip and would go back given the opportunity. It’s not on the top of my countries to return to list but the experiences, the unique culture and being out of my comfort zone made for an adventure I don’t think I’d get anywhere else.

If you found this post helpful or enjoyed it in any way, please let me know in the comments below. I’d love your support in helping my travel community grow so I can keep living my dream. Cheers!

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