Backpacking India… It’s a hell of an experience. I have visited India five times now, spending nearly two years backpacking across this crazy sub-continent. When I was nineteen, following a life-changing injury, I threw all of my shit into a battered pack and caught a one way flight to Delhi, I had just $2700 to my name and was able to make this last over a year whilst backpacking in India.
The wonderful thing about backpacking India is that pretty much anybody can afford it, especially if you don’t mind being a little uncomfortable. I jumped off the deep end and hitchhiked, couchsurfed and slept rough a lot to make my travel dreams a reality but, to be honest, backpacking in India is so cheap that you don’t really need to do this… A budget of just $500 a month will go a long way when backpacking India and it’s possible to do it for far less.
Since I was nineteen, I’ve been coming back to India again and again. Often I promise myself that this will be the last time… Like many India backpacking veterans, I have a love/hate relationship with India!
A lot of backpackers visiting India end up spending almost all of their time in the traveler hubs of Goa, Hampi, Manali and Rishikesh but, to be honest, this is not the real India…
The real India can be a challenge but, for adventurous backpackers, India offers some of the most incredible exploring in all of Asia…
Table of Contents
- Arriving into India
- Getting around India
- Train travel in India
- Travelling by bus in India
- Tuk Tuks in India
- Travelling India by Motorbike
- Hitchhiking in India
- Entry requirements for India
- Money in India
- Backpacker accommodation in India
- Best time to go backpacking in India
- Where to go backpacking in India
- Must try experiences when travelling in India
- Wildlife in India
- Backpacking Travel Costs in India
- What to pack for India
- Top tips for broke backpackers in India
- Female Travellers in India
- Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in India
- Living in India
- Staying safe whilst backpacking India
- Staying healthy whilst backpacking India
- Useful apps to download before travelling to India
- Books to read when travelling to India
- Backpacker Checklist
- Insurance for backpacking in India
Arriving into India
There are multiple international flights to dozens of cities in India but most backpackers arrive via Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore or Kolkata. You can also cross the Wagah border from Pakistan, cross from Nepal and Bhutan or with the correct permits, cross from South East Asia via Myanmar over the recently opened Tamu-Moreh border.
Getting around India
One of the biggest challenges facing backpackers in India is simply getting around! India is a truly vast country and sometimes the travel distances are absolutely massive. I once spent thirty two hours crushed into a third class steerage carriage on a long-distance train, it was an interesting experience… The most comfortable way to get around India is usually by internal flights but for backpackers on a budget, the trains are usually a better bet. There are also VIP tourist buses, super cheap local buses and, of course, hitchhiking is always an option.
Read this article for more tips on how to save money while travelling in India. When you are in the cities, try to avoid catching taxis or rickshaws as this is where you are most likely to get ripped off. Luckily, Uber has now come to India! Uber is hand’s down the best way to get around cities, the price is locked in on the app so you can’t get ripped off and it will always work out cheaper than travelling by taxi or rickshaw. Click here and your first three rides are discounted (plus my next ride will be too – cheers!).
Train travel in India
When backpacking India, most travellers opt to make use of the trains (you don’t have to go third class!). In general, most backpackers in India go for the 3AC class; these are six bed cabins with air-conditioning (which is usually fucking freezing; avoid the top bunk!). You can also opt to go for the non air-conditioned coaches but these are often rammed full of people; for short journeys it’s OK but for longer, overnight, train journeys I recommend going for 3AC. To book your train tickets, you should register online with IRCTC – avoid booking your train travel through an Indian travel agent; they will rip you off for sure. Train tickets tend to sell out really fast; book in advance if you can. When travelling on trains in India, take a padlock and chain to lock your backpack to something; you can usually buy one on the station from a tout for 100RS. Keep valuables in a day pack and use it as a pillow. Often when you book a train you will be put on a waiting list – provided you have booked a couple of weeks in advance and are in, say, the top fifteen you will almost always get a seat. You must book in advance though. If travelling alone I recommend booking a ‘side upper’ berth as it has a curtain and you won’t be bothered as much. When you book your train make a note of the train number, the time it leaves, arrives and the PNR number, you will need this to get your ticket off of the PNR machine at the station or from a mobile phone.
Travelling by bus in India
In general, buses tend to have fixed prices and you buy your tickets on board. There is a ton of VIP sleeper buses set up for tourists and these are the most comfortable way to travel when there are no rail-links; beware though, due to the hairpin bends, crazy driving and shitty roads, a good night’s sleep is rare unless you have a valium to hand. If you’re heading off on a proper backpacking adventure and leaving the tourist zones, local bus is often the only way to travel in India. Travelling by local bus is one hell of an experience; it can be frustrating, rewarding, enlightening and sometimes simply damn hilarious. You will meet a lot of Indians on local buses who will try to befriend you; it’s not every day they meet somebody travelling in India… Be mindful for some common scams that you might get pulled into.
Tuk Tuks in India
In general, it makes sense to get tuk tuks rather than taxis for short distances as they are usually cheaper. You must ALWAYS haggle when getting a tuk tuk or a taxi in India, otherwise you really will be taken for a ride; check out my haggling guide to learn how. I drove a multicoloured rickshaw across India, this is the best way to travel in style…
Travelling India by Motorbike
One of the best ways to see India is from the back of a motorbike and if you have a tent with you your options vastly expand… Suddenly it’s possible to get pretty much anywhere, to live off the beaten path and to camp out in some truly stunning places. The iconic Royal Enfield is the bike of choice for most backpackers in India and you can normally buy one for around $2000. If you are travelling India by motorbike it’s well worth taking a good backpacking tent.
Hitchhiking in India
I’m a huge fan of hitchhiking and have hitched rides in over seventy countries, India can be a great place to hitch a ride but it’s not recommended if you’re a solo female traveler. It helps to have a sign and a map so you can make it 100% crystal clear where you want to be dropped. Before you get in the vehicle, make sure you clarify that you are not going to pay for the ride – some Indians will expect payment as you are a ‘rich backpacker’.
Entry requirements for India
Important update for Indian Tourist E-visa, April 2017: The Indian government has rolled out new visa conditions for their E-visa scheme starting April 2017.
These changes include: extending the visa length to 60 days from 30, the possibility of receiving multiple entry and a widening of the window for visa usage. For further information visit the Indian Government E-vsia website . Getting into India can, sometimes, be a real pain in the ass… It’s gotten easier over the last few years and most nationalities can now get a sixty day E-visa online, prior to arrival but even sixty days travelling in India is simply not enough. Really, you want at least three months – assuming you can take the time!
Six month tourist visas can be arranged in advance but it can be tricky to get them outside of your home country; the exception is Nepal where it is still very easy to get a six month Indian visa. I managed to get an Indian visa whilst in Pakistan and oh boy… I would never try that again. Indians like bureaucracy, for some reason, and applying for a visa from a country such as Pakistan can prove very tricky indeed. I recommend iVisa for sorting your visa ahead of time – these guys are quick, efficient and not too expensive – a good shout if you are low on time and want to get your visa sorted in advance.
There are lots of international ATMS but they can be tough to find once you are outside of the cities and are in more remote areas. It’s advisable to avoid small ATM transactions and get out a bunch of cash at once – just make sure you hide it well. Check out the Travelex cash card – it’s usually the best value way of getting money out of ATMs.
You should always have some emergency cash hidden on you and I’ve written an entire post on the best places to hide your money. If you want to carry a fair bit of cash safely on your body, your best bet is to get hold of a backpacker belt with a hidden security pocket.
Backpacker accommodation in India
When I first went backpacking in India, hostels did not yet exist. Instead, there was mostly cheap hotels and guesthouses available. This is still largely true but there are now some backpacker orientated hostels popping up across the country, especially in Rajasthan and around Goa. Guesthouses and commune-style accommodation can be a great experience as well; I’ve stayed in some amazing places and ended up enjoying it so much that I stayed for weeks at a time. There is a lot of commune-style accommodation around; it tends to attract plenty of wannabe hippies but don’t give up if your first experience isn’t great, try a few of them to see if you can find a place with a vibe to suit you. Zostel is a decent backpacker hostel chain worth checking out.
|Delhi||Madpackers Hostel, Jugaad Hostels||Make your way to the Panchsheel area; this is where you can find the widest array of backpacker friendly accommodation. You can get a room for around $9.|
|Varanasi||Zostel, Stops Hostel, Roadhouse Hostels||If you want to be close to the action, stay in the kickass Stops Hostel in Bhelupur. For a more chilled pace, check Roadhouse Hostels over at Assi Ghat. It should cost you about $5 a night.|
|Khajuraho||Yogi Sharma Ashram, Zostel||Both are pretty awesome places to stay at for $5 a night.|
|Agra||Backpacker Panda, Big Brother Hostel||You can get super cheap acco in Agra for close to $3 a night!|
|Jaipur||Zostel, Roadhouse Hostels, The Moustache||Again, get really cheap accommodation here. If you’re lucky, for under $3 a night. And you can meet a ton of fellow travellers as well.|
|Pushkar||Zostel, Pappi Chulo||Pushkar is a hippie paradise so you’ll find a lot of cheap and chill places in Pushkar for like $3 a night!|
|Bundi||Rajmahal Guest House||I stayed in a lovely little guesthouse called The Lake View Guesthouse – it’s not online and you should try to find it. Rooms were at $6 for a huge double with bathroom.|
|Jodhpur||Cosy Guest House, Royal Heritage Guest House||At around $6 a night, the brightly painted Cosy Guesthouse is definitely worth staying in as it’s a backpacker institution.|
|Jaisalmer||Dylan Cafe and Guesthouse, Hotel Renuka||Get a bed in a 6 bed mixed dorm at a dollar a night! Yup, this was easily the cheapest place I stayed at, and pretty comfortable too!|
|Udaipur||Moustache Hostel, The Journey Hostel||Shop around for accommodation as it’s possible to find good rooms for $4. You could stay at Moustache Udaipur, which is a pretty cool hostel.|
|Bombay||Anjali Homestay, Bombay Backpackers||Its a nice little hostel to stay at especially if you’re using Bombay as a transit point between places. The dorm beds are priced at $10 a night.|
|Aurangabad||Hotel Avon International||This is a decent property to stay at. They can also help you with figuring your transport to Ajanta and Ellora caves. You can get a room for $12.|
|Nashik||DS Group Serviced Apartment and Guest House, Bramhagiri Resorts||I couchsurfed at Nasik as the properties were out of my budget but you can check these ones out- they are on the cheaper side at about $17 a night.|
|Bidar||Hotel Mayura||There are very limited accommodation options here – I stayed in the Hotel Mayura, right next to the bus station.|
|Bijapur||Hotel Pleasant Stay||The cheapest accommodation is next to the bus-stand – it’s fairly horrible so I recommend staying at Pleasant Stay.|
|Hampi||Murali Homestay||Most of the best backpacker accommodation is found on the far-side of the river. So cross over and shop around a bit for great deals. You can get a bed for as cheap as $5 a night.|
|Goa||Roadhouse Hostel, Zostel, Backpacker Panda||All good hostel chains in India have a hostel in Goa and give out dorm beds for as cheap as $4. Beware of backpacker assholes though, Goa hostels are full of them!|
|Rishikesh||Bonfire Hostel Rishikesh, Zostel||You can get dorm beds for $6 but I would advise you stay at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram which is built right on the ghats.|
|Amritsar||Jugaadu’s Hostel, Wow Backpackers Hostel||For roughly $5 a night you can find comfortable accommodation in a hostel in Amritsar – I like Wow Hostel.|
|Dharamsala||Backpackers Inn, HosteLaVie||You can also find tons of really cheap Tibetan family run places if you shop around a bit. We stayed at one of these for $4 a night.|
|Manali||The Lost Tribe Hostel, Born Free Hostel and Cafe||The Lost Tribe is a pretty chill hostel and a great property to just kick back and chill at.|
|Vashisht||Blue Heaven||I recommend the simple rooms at Blue Heaven – a double, with bathroom, is just $4 and the views are some of the best in town.|
|Kasol||Nomads Hostel||A pretty chill place, this is the only hostel I found in Kasol. You can look around for home stays and guesthouses for really cheap as well- sometimes for less than $2 a night.|
|Leh and Ladakh||Ecology Hostel, Tsetan Guest house||Get a comfortable bed for $4 a night and wake up to misty mountain views!|
|Srinagar||The Shelter Group of Houseboats||Forget hostel beds, rent a houseboat for $15 a night!!|
|Bangalore||Cuckoo Hostel, Electric Cats B&B||Good vibe, cheap hostels at $5 a night, where you can meet a ton of fellow travellers.|
|Kodagu||Homestay Kodagu||The best thing about Kodagu is arranging a homestay, I recommend Homestay Kodagu, and simply heading off into the hills on a hiking adventure|
|Mysore||Sonder, Comforts Hostel||Stay at one of these cheap hostels at about $5 a night and do short day trips to places around Mysore.|
|Cochin||Maritime, Adams Woodhouse||You can find a lot of really nice Dutch style hostels around Fort Cochin for about $5 a night.|
|Alleppey||The Wind n’ Waves, Artpackers life||You can either check these lovely hostels around $5 a night or check into the YMCA.|
|Munnar||Nakshatra Inn||There are not too many backpacker friendly places in Munnar, you’ll probably have to head there and look at homestays. The hotels start at about $26 a night.|
|Varkala||Sherin Cottage||This is a really great place to stay in Varkala! Very chilled atmosphere, it’s affordable, quiet & cosy.|
Best time to go backpacking in India
Below is a general guide to India’s weather patterns, but India’s massive size means you need to closely investigate the weather patterns for your specific destination at the time of year you plan to visit. For example, some careful planning could see you travelling just in front of the monsoon as opposed to travelling in it, it could see you hitting the hill stations in the heat and the plains in the cooler months….
The “best” time to visit India is generally October to March when the weather is warm, dry and sunny. The Himalayas are cold but clear. This is peak tourist season and the time when most backpackers visit India. Around April to May, the temperatures and humidity start to increase along with periodic thunderstorms so this part of the year is when it makes the most sense to head up into the mountains. From June to September the Indian Plains are scorching and many locals retreat to hill stations to escape the heat, eventually, the cooling monsoons sweep across the country.
Be aware of the very real possibility of heat stroke and dehydration particularly if landing in Delhi. Ladakh in the far north is generally only accessible between June and September by road, but careful monitoring of conditions is necessary if you are headed that way. Road closures due to weather changes can be instant, and last for weeks. My overland journey between Manali and Leh took a horrific 35 hours when an avalanche washed away part of the road.
Where to go backpacking in India
After nearly a total of two years backpacking in India, I reckon I’ve only seen about half of this truly incredible, truly massive, country. The country is so big that is really does make sense to plan your backpacking route before you rock up and to focus on seeing one part of India at a time. There are plenty of amazing spots to explore but you need to be sure you choose the right spots at the right time – you don’t want to be travelling in the Great Thar Desert during summer! To make things a bit easier, I’ve popped together five different itineraries for backpacking India; these can easily be combined or added together to create a truly amazing longer trip. Here you will see some of the best places to visit in India.
Backpacking India itinerary # 1 – Spiritual Extravaganza
Duration: 3 – 5 weeks
Best time to go: November – March
Suggested route: Delhi – Varanasi – Khajuraho – Agra – Jaipur – Pushkar – Bundi – Jodhpur – Jaisalmer – Udaipur (3-5 weeks). Rajasthan is a great introduction to backpacking India! This is an area that checks most boxes – There are plenty of chilled out sites well on the backpacker radar but if you dig a little deeper you can find isolated villages and hidden temples rarely visited by travellers. One important thing to note is that Rajasthan is damn hot… This means that you really, really want to try and explore this part of India during November to March; outside of these months it can be fairly unbearable.
Many backpackers arriving in India for the first time will start their adventure in Delhi, which is unfortunate. Delhi is probably my least favourite city in the world and whilst it may have some hidden charms, I have yet to find them despite visiting the city over half a dozen times. The traffic is crazy, and driving my multicoloured rickshaw through the streets was a truly nutty and hair raising experience. Delhi is not one of the friendliest places in India. When you arrive into Delhi’s main airport, catch a metro into town and make your way to the Panchsheel area; this is where you can find the widest array of backpacker friendly accommodation; I recommend Madpackers Hostel. In general, I recommend getting the heck out of Delhi as quickly as possible… There are plenty of much lovelier places within India to spend your time.
No trip to India is complete without a Varanasi experience… I say experience because Varanasi is totally nuts and will leave you reeling as you navigate through twisting alleys, passing holy men and funeral processions, stray cows and colourful stores selling silken saris. Make your way to the river and catch a sunset boat ride on the Ganges, the most holy river in Hinduism. If you want to be close to the action, stay in the kickass Stops Hostel in Bhelupur. For a more chilled pace, check Roadhouse Hostels over at Assi Ghat. Varanasi has to be seen to be understood… I recommend spending three or four days here. There are good train links between Delhi and Varanasi and I recommend catching a sleeper train – go for 3AC class.
From Varanasi you should be able to catch a train directly to Khajuraho. As always you should book your ticket in advance and try to get a night train to save on accommodation. This area is famous for its hilariously erotic temples. The Yogi Sharma Ashram Lodge is a lovely place to stay. Hire bicycles as some of the main sights are spread out and it is a great way to explore. Try to catch the temples at sunrise, they are amazing. It is possible to arrange a tuk tuk to take you to a lovely river where you can swim, ask around. Touts are persistent here and like to target fresh backpackers. I recommend staying for two to three days so you can get a well deserved break before heading onwards to Agra…
There’s only three things worth seeing in Agra. The first and best is ‘Jonie’s Cafe’ – it offers the best, and cheapest food in all of India. The second is the Taj Mahal, it costs a whopping 1500RS to get in and this will probably continue to rise for foreign visitors in the coming years. Finally, 26km outside of Agra is the ruins of Fatehpur Sikri which is interesting if you have time but is unfortunately filled with very pushy touts. Agra itself is a true shit-hole of a city and not to be dwelled in… From Agra you can catch a train to Jaipur but may have to change at Delhi. Two days in Agra is more than enough. You can stay at Backpacker Panda, another pretty cool hostel chain in India.
My second least favourite city in India is undoubtedly Jaipur. Try to spend just a day here. Ajmer Palace, 12km outside of the city, is stunning. Do not miss it. The Monkey Temple (Galtaji) set beautifully into the side of a hill, make sure you go all the way up and over to the other side of the hill to find it, is also really worth a visit. There’s little else worth seeing within the city itself. Jaipur is a great place to be during the festival of Diwali. Stay at the wonderful Zostel hostel. From Jaipur, you can catch an overnight train to Jaisalmer and work your way backwards towards Delhi across Rajasthan or jump to Pushkar.
Finally, somewhere to relax now that you’ve done the obligatory sights of India! You could happily spend a week in Pushkar, exploring the many temples and the gorgeous lake within the centre of the town. Pushkar is renowned as a town of religious importance and you can’t drink or eat meat here… meaning that, of course, you can but your beer will be disguised in a teapot and will cost more. Pushkar is a shoppers paradise and is filled with thousands of stores selling pretty much everything… There’s a strong backpacker community here, the town suffers from many a hippie-wannabe, and there’s lots of yoga and meditation classes available. Whilst exploring the lake, avoid the priest like the black plague – they are extremely skilled scammers. Do not let them place a wristband upon you, they will ask for a ridiculous payment. For a truly striking sunset, climb one of the nearby hills surrounding the town. Zostel is a great place to meet other backpackers in India or, if you want something a little less hostel-ey, check out Hotel Everest run by the friendly Bunty. Pushkar has great but, very strong, Bhang (marijuana) lassis; these will knock you out if you are not careful. Every year, the famed Pushkar Camel Festival comes to town – this is a totally insane event but well worth seeing if you happen to be in India at the time; book your accommodation in advance as everything tends to sell out. Four to five days is about right for a visit to Pushkar although its possible to linger for weeks. To get to Pushkar you must first catch a train to Ajmer and then catch a forty five minute bus onwards to Pushkar itself. From Ajmer you can catch a bus to Bundi, a logical next stop.
I loved Bundi. It’s well off the tourist radar and definitely worth visiting. I stayed in a lovely little guesthouse called simply The Lake View Guesthouse. Rooms were cheap, just $6 for a huge double with bathroom. The guesthouse is run by a lovely old man who reminded me of Yoda. You could also stay at Shivam Tourist Guesthouse – a nice and clean little place. Definitely visit the palace and the fortress atop the hill (take a stick to deter the monkeys) as well as Kipling’s house. Hire bicycles to go exploring outside the city, you will be utterly alone and this is a great chance to do some real exploring. Stay for at least three days in Bundi. For more information on Bundi, check out my Bundi destination guide.
Although there may not be a great deal of tourist sites to visit, Jodhpur is an excellent example of a Rajasthani market town, a good wander through streets to soak up the busy vibe and colours is a must during your stay. In the state where every town has a fort Jodhpur is no exception and it’s definitely worth visiting. It’s one of the most amazing fortresses in the world. Take the audio tour to find out plenty of awesome history about this amazing place. The brightly painted Cosy Guesthouse is definitely worth staying in as it’s a backpacker institution. I would stay for one or two days. You can catch a bus from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer.
A giant sandcastle rising out of the desert, Jaisalmer fort is one of my favourite places in all of India and the starting point for the annual rickshaw race across India. Even better, if you’re keen to go camel trekking and to spend a night camping out in the desert with fellow backpackers, this is the place to do it! Haggle hard… The prices vary wildly! The legal Bhang shop sells shakes and cookies – they can get you very high and are a fun way to while away an evening; as always, be careful if you’re experimenting with drugs on the road. Not including time for a camel trek, you only need two days to explore Jaisalmer. There are good train links out of Jaisalmer. I would recommend staying at Dylan Cafe and Guesthouse.
What a truly wonderful place. I lingered here for almost a month when I was on my first backpacking trip to India at the age of nineteen. There are wonderful restaurants, interesting cycle rides, captivating lakes and atmospheric temples. Try to stay somewhere near the central Jagdish temple. Shop around for accommodation as it’s possible to find good rooms for $4. You could stay at Moustache Udaipur, which is a pretty cool hostel. ‘Savage Garden’ and ‘Paradise Cafe’ are both worth visiting for top notch food. Five days is a good length of time to spend in Udaipur before catching a train back up to Delhi or travelling onwards to Goa or Mumbai. A train to Goa, via Gujurat, takes around 46 hours and I strongly recommend that nobody ever attempts this again… It was one of the most god-awful journeys of my life!
Backpacking India itinerary # 2 – Off the beaten track adventures and chilled Goan parties
Duration: 2 – 4 weeks
Best time to go: October – March.
Suggested route: Bombay – Ajanta and Ellora – Nashik – Bidar – Bijapur – Hampi – Goa – Gokarna. Backpacking India and keen to escape the crowds? India is a big place and full of untapped adventures… This is one of the best itineraries for explorers keen to see a bit of the real India before diving into the heady parties of Goa and Gokarna. This part of India is often ignored by backpackers due to the poor transport links and very limited accommodation options. For some backpackers however this is the real deal; this is real exploring and if you persevere you will be rewarded with holy ghats, cave temples and ancient citadels; all of which you will have totally to yourself. Unless you have already been travelling in India for a while I do not recommend starting with this itinerary. Consider exploring Hampi or Rajasthan first.
let’s start with the name. Nobody calls this sweltering city Mumbai anymore; the city is very much Bombay. Now that the name is out of the way, let’s get onto the city. Bombay is, in a single word, intense! If you survive Bombay you have done well! Bombay is not only dirty, crowded and full of touts, it is also the most expensive city in India and can quickly drain your bank account on account of the wild nights out… Tinder works well in Bombay. I loved Bombay and spent over 2 weeks hanging out but I was couchsurfing and had some great friends to show me around and help keep my costs low. I highly recommend trying to make a friend in Bombay as they will show you a side of the city that most backpackers in India simply are not aware of. You should definitely brave the local trains at some point, they are packed to bursting but are a quintessential Indian backpacking experience. Be careful with the police in Bombay, they are surprisingly hard to bribe. From Bombay, you can easily catch a train to Aurangabad; your next stop. I recommend staying at Anjali Home Stay.
Backpacking Ajanta & Ellora
The famed cave temples and dwellings of Ajanta and Ellora rival those of Petra… Huge temples and structures have been carved into the rock and occupied by holy sects for centuries, the history here is absolutely fascinating. To visit Ajanta and Ellora, you will need to make a base in Aurangabad; a quintessential middle-of-nowhere Indian town. The Hotel Shree Maya is a good place to crash and to eat, it’s a five minute walk from the train station. You’ll need a full day to visit the incredible cave temples of Ellora, travel by tuk tuk for 600RS. Be sure to make a stop at the truly awesome ruined fortress of Daulatabad, a place with a bloody and fascinating history. On day 2, take a taxi (1200RS) if in a group or a bus (150RS each way) if you are on your own to the Ajanta Caves; a collection of thirty Buddhist monasteries carved into a shoehorn of rock sitting above a lush green forest. On day 3, get the heck out of dodge (there really is fuck all to do in Aurangabad) and catch a train (6 hours) to Nashik.
The ghats, stone steps leading down to the river for washing and praying, in Nashik are truly mesmerising and, unlike in Varanasi, there are no pushy touts looking to make a quick rupee from backpackers. If you are into your photography, Nashik is one of the best places to visit some truly untouched Ghats and to capture scenes of Indian rural life. One day in Nashik is enough; besides the ghats there isn’t much to see. I couchsurfed here and found myself in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class in the evening… such is travelling in India! If you fancy spending a second day in Nashik, there is a pleasant day hike to Trimbak which is worth checking out. From Nashik you can arrange a sleeper bus towards Goa, or if you are feeling adventurous catch a train to Gulbarga and then onwards to Bidar and Bijapur, you may have to go via Bombay. I Couchsurfed in Nashik.
The epic fort in Bidar is probably one of the most untouched forts in all of Asia and, best of all, if you visit you will probably have it all to yourself. From Gulbarga, a bus (three hours) runs to Bidar, there is very limited accommodation options here – I stayed in the Hotel Mayura, right next to the bus station. Bidar Fort is filled with hidden, locked, passageways and epic buildings. If you find an attendant, you can tip him 100RS to wander around with you or, even better, simply give you the keys. The fort alone is well worth coming to Bidar for but the city itself does have some other interesting sites and is one of the most important places of pilgrimage for the Sikhs. From Bidar, it’s a seven hour, ass-bruising, bus ride to Bijapur.
Palaces, tombs, gateways, temples and minarets, all carved from solid basalt and covered in twisting vines and flowers. The architecture in Bijapur is simply stunning and it is widely renowned as one of the most important historical cities in India, despite this it attracts very few backpackers and you are likely to have it all to yourself. A couple of days is adequate time to see all of the sites, it could be done in one single day if you are tired of the heat and are keen to hurry on to somewhere a tad more relaxing. I recommend staying in Hotel Pleasant Stay, the cheapest accommodation is next to the bus-stand – it’s fairly horrible. From Bijapur, catch a bus to Hospet (3 – 4 hours) and from Hospet catch a thirty minute rickshaw to Hampi…
Hampi is hands-down my favourite backpacker hub in India. I’ve been a total of five times and, every time, it’s changed drastically as greedy Indian officials try to steal local land to cash in on the tourist boom here. Most of the best backpacker accommodation is now found on the far-side of the river. Hampi is famous amongst backpackers in India for it’s stunning paddy fields, incredible bouldering and climbing opportunities, sandstone temples and chilled vibes. It’s also a good place to settle down and meet other backpackers over a cheeky smoke. To find out more about Hampi, check out my Hampi backpacking guide. It is well worth taking a tent to Hampi; check out this post for a breakdown of the best backpacking tents. While you’re exploring Hampi you might also want to check out some other kickass places to visit in Karnataka that are off the beaten track.
Probably the most famous place in all of India and a magnet for hippie wannabes and all kinds of backpacker assholes, Goa is a complicated, chilled, paradoxical place that is well worth a visit no matter what you hear. The trick with Goa is making sure you find yourself upon the right beach! I’ve checked out almost every beach in Goa and my two favourites are Palolem and Patnem in the South… I recommend staying in Roadhouse Hostel on Palolem Both Palolem and Patnem are pretty relaxed and, assuming you have a motorbike or a scooter, within easy reach of some of Goa’s parties. You can arrange fishing, dolphin watching and kayaking from the beach. There is a huge range of accommodation options on offer – the nicest beach huts are at Roundcube Patnem but they are a tad more expensive. Another beach well worth a visit is Arambol beach in the North; be sure to check out the Cheeky Monkey Restaurant and, if you dig this kind of thing, catch the nightly yoga and tai-chi sessions on the beach. The Green Garden Restaurant in Arambol is super friendly and a great place to meet people – there’s lots of super cheap huts behind it.
For a taste of ‘Goa before the tourists’, many people backpacking India head to Gokarna. The main beach is quickly catching on and becoming more touristey, much like Goa, but there are plenty of smaller beaches which are only accessible by boat and are home to small communes of hippies. Some of these places don’t even have electricity so if you’re looking for something a bit more out there – this might be it. By day, play volleyball, explore the temples in the old town or fish upon the high seas. By night, discover the real reason that many hippies have moved to Gokarna; a better supply of mushrooms and weed. I would recommend staying at the Zostel hostel.
Backpacking India itinerary # 3 – Mountains and Yoga
Duration: 4 – 6 weeks
Best time to go: May – September
Suggested route: Rishikesh – Amritsar – McLeod Ganj – Bhagsu – Manali – Vashisht – Kasol – Leh – Srinagar – Jammu.
The Himalayas are unlike any other part of India, mountains have always held a special place in my heart and the Indian mountains are some of the best in the world… although not quite as incredible as neighbouring Pakistan! The welcoming Sikh province of Punjab, the mountaintop temples of Leh and the war-torn meadows of Kashmir are worlds apart and yet they are all easily accessible if you journey into India’s Himalayan provinces. Be warned; travelling in the Himalayas is uncomfortable, tiring and sometimes dangerous. It is worth getting to grips with your route before you go travelling in India, planning on the road doesn’t work so well in the Himalayas as the roads have a tendency to get washed away!
I suggest heading into the Himalayas when the rest of India becomes too hot to handle, I prefer to hang out in the lower Himalayas between May and June. July to August is the best time of year to travel in Ladakh and Kashmir. There are many, many more spots within the Himalayas that I strongly recommend checking out, this itinerary just covers some of the best options…
Famous since the Beatles first rocked up here and got stuck into an Ashram, Rishikesh is a popular stop with yogis backpacking India and is well worth checking out, even if you are not into yoga. Catch a train from Delhi to Haridwar and then catch a bus (one hour) onwards to Rishikesh bus station – from here, you will then need to get a tuk tuk to drop you near Lakshman Jhula, cross the bridge and find a place to crash. There are lots of cheap backpacker accommodation options around, I recommend staying at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram which is near Ram Jhula. You should definitely eat at the awesome Ganga Beach Cafe. Whilst in Rishikesh, hire mopeds for 300RS a day and go exploring. The foot-traffic within Rishikesh of thousands of pilgrims can be quite intense but once you are over the bridge and happily zipping along the mountains roads it’s a lot of fun. You can also arrange to go white water rafting in Rishikesh. I recommend three or four days in Rishikesh. There are loads of Yoga and Meditation courses available ranging from a matter of days to entire months. Oh, and “The Beatles Ashram” is now an urban art museum which is well worth checking out. From Rishikesh you can reach the incredible Valley of Flowers. I recommend taking around 3 days to make stops along the way. Trust me, it’s so worth it. From Haridwar you can catch a train to Amritsar.
The Golden Temple, the most sacred temple in the Sikh faith, is simply breathtaking. Sikhism welcomes all and you can stay for free in the golden temple dorms. Wander around until someone shows you where to go. Ask the temple guards if unsure. Keeping with the spirit of Sikh hospitality, you can also get free food at the temple all day long. You should visit the Wagah border ceremony in the evening and have a giggle at the ridiculous flag ceremony performed by soldiers from the Indian and Pakistani armed forces… It’s better from the Pakistani side! You can, if you already have your visa sorted, cross the Wagah Border from India to Pakistan. One full day in Amritsar is enough as it’s very hot. After a night in the temple dorm you can catch an early morning bus to McLeod Ganj. For more info, check out my amigos guide to Amritsar.
Backpacking McLeod Ganj
Home to the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan’s in Exile, McLeod Ganj (or little Tibet) is a chilled place to spend a couple of days among the Tibetan people and is a great place to pick up souvenirs. There are many interesting day hikes around the area. I would recommend staying at Backpackers Inn but you can find tons of really cheap Tibetan family run places if you shop around a bit. We stayed at one of these for 250RS a night. McLeod is pretty small and a few days here should be more than enough unless you are doing yoga or choose to get involved with a charity. There are several projects for volunteers here working with Tibetan refugees, be sure to check out Tibetan World where you can sign up for hour long language exchanges with the Tibetan monks, who are always keen to improve their english. The Black Tent cafe does a great Tibetan breakfast, for evening drinks check out Carpe Diem.
Backpacking Bhagsu and Dharamkot
Just a short twenty minute walk from McLeod Ganj is the backpacker hub of Bhagsu. Lower Bhagsu is pretty modernised and my advice is to keep going up the hill. Bhagsu is an Indian backpackers paradise with hand made crafts, tie-dye clothing and Didgeridoo lessons at every turn. The area is very popular with Israeli’s and there is even a Hebrew book exchange. In the evenings, head along the stone paths into the hills and follow the music and the scent of ganja, there are many little cafe’s and lodges along the trail where musicians jam into the early hours of the morning. Bring a torch as finding you way back after dark could be a challenge on a night with no moon! There are some great treks that can be done from Bhagsu without a guide; the most popular is Triund which only takes about three or four hours and is manageable even for newbie trekkers. You can rent a tent to sleep in at the summit, it gets cold so bring layers if you have them.
Backpacking Old Manali
Arriving into Manali, you will be dropped in the main bus station in the modern part of the town, whatever you do; don’t stay here! The real Manali is still a couple of kilometers away and you can choose between basing yourself in Old Manali or Vashisht. Old Manali is far busier than Vashisht and definitely the place to base yourself if you want to party. In Old Manali, The ‘Blue Elephant Cafe’ is a great place to catch breakfast. ‘Dylan’s Toasted and Roasted’ does great deserts and has a movie room. The marijuana in Manali is amazing and freely grows everywhere. Manali is an adventurer’s paradise and you can arrange white water rafting, paragliding, zorbing and canyoning… or, you could just get blazed all day. If you have plenty of time, it’s worth checking out both Old Manali and Vashisht, if you’re short on time, you’ll have to choose…
If, like me, you prefer to simply chill with a cheeky smoke and watch the mountains, Vashisht is the place to go. Old Manali is great but, recently, it’s become overrun with large hordes of party-orientated backpackers, usually from Israel. Vashist is just a fifteen minute, 50RS tuk tuk ride from Old Manali.
Vashisht is roughly set across the valley opposite Old Manali and is kind of like its little brother. The small town is much quieter than Old Manali and therefore a fantastic place to stay if you want some peace and tranquility. There is a hot spring at the top of town and daily religious processions where you can watch devout locals fall into a state of trance. The Rasta Cafe is a great place to hang out and is famed for it’s Special Lassis (be warned, they can be very strong). Accommodation can be found from between 200 – 400RS for a double room if you are willing to go door to door and haggle and you can sometimes even bag a room with a stunning mountain view. I recommend the simple rooms at Blue Heaven – a double, with bathroom, is just 250RS and the views are some of the best in town.
From Vashisht, you could consider getting hold of a Royal Enfield and exploring the Spiti Valley or, if you are short on time and funds, you can begin the epic journey to Leh in Ladakh. The overnight minibus is supposed to take at least eighteen hours but when I did it, it took closer to thirty six hours due to landslides… It was an awful journey but, ultimately, was so worth it. You can fly to Leh but, well, the bus journey is a rite of passage when backpacking India so you should do it, the views can be stunning if there is no cloud cover. Remember to take diamox with you to combat altitude sickness. Alternatively, from Vashisht, you can head to Kasol for some easy treks within the lower himalayas.
The town of Kasol can be reached by a five to six hour bus ride from Manali for 200RS. Kasol has soared in popularity in the last few years and is now rivalling Manali as the backpacker hub for Himachal Pradesh. Depending on how long you spent in Manali, it is definitely worth heading here for a few nights if you have the time. Kasol itself is largely popular with Israeli travellers and you will see many a hippie wannabe, from all nationalities, clad head to toe in hilariously impractical gear they have bought from the many stores selling hippy dippy shit upon every corner. If you’re into shopping, you will probably love Kasol. It’s a good place to pick up quality clay chillums – 120RS – anyway. Kasol itself is, like Manali, famed for it’s marijuana and it’s laid back backpacker vibe. There are many day-hikes and longer multi-day treks that can be attempted from around Kasol. For a full run down of chilled out places to visit in the area have a good look at the Kasol and Around guide by Drifter Planet.
Backpacking Kalga and Kheerganga
From Kasol, you can catch a minivan up into the mountains and trek for forty five minutes to reach the truly serene village of Kalga. It’s well worth spending a couple of days here, hanging out in the very chilled Sunset Cafe (RS 250 for a double) run by the unendingly friendly Nepalese manager, Hans – he is a man of many names. From Kalga, most backpackers head off on the six hour hike to Kheerganga where you can bathe in a hot spring said to be one of Lord Shiva‘s favourite places to relax after a hard day’s destroying. Kheerganga itself has, sadly, been hit with rapid unchecked development and is not a particularly nice place to stay – accommodation is crowded, dirty and overpriced. If you have a tent, bring it. Kheerganga might have some of the most disgusting toilets in all of India, no easy accomplishment. Despite this, it’s well worth spending one night in Kheerganga to see the stunning night’s sky at elevation; the lack of light pollution makes for some soul stirring star watching.
Backpacking Leh and Ladakh
Arriving into Leh’s main bus stand, make a beeline for Upper Changspa, home to the best value backpacker accommodation in Leh, I recommend crashing in the Samba Guesthouse. There is a huge amount to do in Leh; start off by visiting the striking palace and the massive Stupa and be sure to check out the Donkey Sanctuary as well. There is a lot of trekking in Ladakh although there is very limited information in the backpacking India lonely planet. There are many Buddhist sites around Leh that can be visited as an easy day-trip. Ladakh and Kashmir are truly fantastic places to have your own transport, i.e. a motorbike, but if you don’t, it’s possible to hitchhike in Ladakh relatively easily.
Two day hike from Leh
Keen to see some of the Ladakhi mountains, I thumbed a lift to Zingchen (which took forever because nobody was going that way) and spent six hours walking into the mountains towards Rumbak, crossing the river many times as I followed the frequently weaving, sometimes disappearing, path. Rocking up to Rumbak, I was able to arrange a homestay in a matter of minutes for 450RS per person which included plenty of food. The next day, waking early, I took some diamox and assaulted an endless switchbacking trail up to a 4800 metre pass. I spent a few frozen moments on top, watching the prayer flags flap fiercely in the wind and then made my way down the other side to Stok where I caught the 5pm bus back to Leh. I carried warm clothes, chlorine tablets for purifying water, diamox for altitude sickness and emergency food… Rumbak to Stok took me seven hours, I didn’t have a map and I was fairly lost on a couple of occasions.
From Leh, you can take a jeep for a whopping 2200RS per person to Srinagar or you can fly. I would recommend flying… or avoiding Srinagar all together! I visited Srinagar as one of the very last stops on my first fourteen month adventure in India and by the time I got there I was totally broke… Unfortunately, without cash, it’s pretty difficult to see Kashmir as you really do need your own transport or to book yourself onto jeep tours which tend to start at around 2000RS a day. In Srinagar, the one must-try experience, in my opinion, is to explore the lake by shikara. The lake is truly gorgeous and a peaceful place to spend an afternoon exploring. From Srinagar, you can catch a bus down to Amritsar or fly to Delhi.
Backpacking India itinerary # 4 – Exploring the South
Duration: 3 – 5 weeks
Best time to go: November – March
Suggested route: Bangalore – Kodagu – Mysore – Fort Cochin – Alleppey – Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary – Munnar – Varkala. Southern India is, for the most part, super laid back… The people are fairly relaxed and less interested in taking advantage of ‘rich foreigners’ backpacking India. There is a huge amount to see in Southern India; from elegant cities and backpacker beach communities to old colonial towns and teeming wildlife reserves. I recommend spending at least a month in the South of India, if you only have a short while in India you may want to consider flying into Bangalore and exploring the south for a couple of weeks before heading up towards Hampi and Goa.
It’s big, it’s dirty, it’s expensive but heck, it’s fast becoming famous as a crazy place to go on a night out whilst backpacking India. If you don’t have a couchsurfing friend here I suggest getting out fairly quickly. Mysore is just two hours away.
A six hour bus journey from Bangalore lies the largely unexplored Kodagu region. Although Lonely Planet claims to have been to Kodagu the information in the book is so point blank wrong that I find this hard to believe. This is real exploring territory. It is easy to arrange a homestay once you reach the administrative capital of Madikeri. From Madikeri it is worth taking the hour long bus to Bylakuppe to visit a Tibetan colony. Nearby to Bylakuppe is the Dubare forest reserve where you can feed and bathe elephants. The best thing about Kodagu is arranging a homestay, I recommend Homestay Kodagu, and simply heading off into the hills on a hiking adventure… A bus to Mysore from Kodagu takes about four hours. It is one of the most romantic destinations in India. Read this article for the top romantic destinations in India.
Mysore is a truly ancient city and it still has a real feel of the British Raj about it. You should definitely visit Chamundi Hill, climb the thousands of steps if you fancy a workout. The imposing Mysore Palace is well worth an afternoon and, if you can find them, there is word of underground parties in Mysore by night. Srirangapatna makes a great day trip from Mysore. Mysore is, hands down, my favourite city in all of India… Saying that, it’s still a city, in India and so you might want to do a runner after a few days to the more chilled out coast.
Backpacking Fort Kochi
Famed for the ancient Chinese fishing nets lining the short, Fort Kochi is a great place to chill out for a couple of days. To get away from Fort Kochi, you must first travel to Ernakulam so that you can catch onwards transport (two hours by bus) to Alleppey.
There’s only one real reason to come to Alleppey when backpacking India… to arrange a trip on a houseboat. A three day, two night jaunt is the standard and when haggling for the rental make sure food is included in the price. There are hundreds of houseboats so take your time choosing and make sure to haggle. Check out this list of awesome Houseboats on the backwaters. If you do end up having to stay in the town there is a YMCA. Just outside of Alleppey is a little known but very beautiful stretch of beach and some interesting villages easily explored by bicycle.
Backpacking Munnar and Periyar
By now, you’re probably a bit stressed and need some time out, never fear; simply get your ass to Periyar wildlife sanctuary. To get to Periyar you must first head towards the town of Kumily. Once there head to the Klaus Guesthouse, it’s a bit expensive but wonderfully relaxing and the lovely German owner, Klaus, will offer you a joint quite frequently. Alternatively, stay in the backpacker friendly Artpackers.Life. Bank to spend a week between Periyar and nearby Munnar as you cycle, hike and drink way too much coffee. There are buses to Periyar from both Ernakulam and Alleppey.
The very tip of India, Varkala is reachable by train from Alleppey (three hours) and the train line does in fact run all the way to Bangalore. Varkala is a lovely stretch of sand and restaurant shacks but sadly suffers from a crowd of rather pushy shop owners. Vedanta Wake Up is excellent value. If you have your own transport, you can explore some of the surrounding, quieter, beaches where it’s possible to camp without being bothered…
Must try experiences when travelling in India
India is a truly weird and wonderful country, travelling in India is totally unlike travelling anywhere else – this is a subcontinent comprised of 29 states, each of which could be, and once was, it’s own country. When backpacking India, you will be assailed on all sides by mind boggling sights, sounds, smells and tastes… Here are a few must try experiences whilst travelling in India…
1. Try the street food Eating plenty of street food is one of the best ways to stretch your budget and you can pick up meals for as little as 10RS in some places… Indian street food can be truly fantastic; I highly recommend Masala Dosa. Try to pick a vendor with lots of Indian customers, they usually have the best food. If you are a vegetarian, check out this article for top vegetarian street food to try in Delhi. 2
2. Visit a Hindu temple India is absolutely full of stunning temple ruins, my favourites are in Khajuraho and Hampi, but it’s not just the ancient temples that should appeal. For a taste of something a little bit different, check out a Hindu temple that is still running; some of the best ones are in Udaipur.
3. Couchsurf with the Sikhs Couchsurfing in India is a great way to keep your costs down and to get to know the local people. The Sikhs are some of the most hospitable people in India and whilst travelling in India I was frequently invited to stay by turbanned fellows sporting mighty fine moustaches. These guys were almost always unbelievably hospitable and kind. Turn to Couchsurfing to help keep your costs down whilst backpacking in India.
4. Attend a festival India is world famous for it’s truly amazing festivals, my favourites of which are Diwali, the festival of light and Holi, the paint throwing festival. There are tons of festivals in India, check out this timetable for more info, so be sure to catch one whilst backpacking India.
5. Travel India with your own transport The best way to see the real India is to travel with your own transport. I’ve motorbiked extensively across India and, more recently, drove a rickshaw 2500km across the country. Even if you just hire a scooter for a day, travelling with your own transport in India is the best way to peel back the layers and get to grips with this amazing country.
6. Try a real adventure
The backpacker enclaves of Hampi, Goa and Manali are always full of backpackers chatting shit about how much they love India… the only thing is; this isn’t the real India. The real India can be tough, it can be challenging but it is also one of the most rewarding budget travel destinations in the world and, if you take the time to get off the beaten track, to hit the road and to go on a proper adventure you won’t regret it. Best of all, when the real India has tired you out, then you can make a run for one of the backpacker enclaves… Click here for more ideas on awesome places to visit whilst backpacking India. India is a good place to have a tent as it really opens up a ton of off the beaten path options… If you really want to head off into the wilderness; take a backpacking stove.
Wildlife in India
India has an amazingly rich variety of wildlife. Apart from the endless hordes of cows, buffaloes and goats lining up on busy crowded streets, you can also find monkeys galavanting around many cities. There are a ton of wildlife intensive national parks, the most popular being Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan and Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh which is where Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book was inspired from. Ranthambore is one of the best spots in the world to spot tigers – India’s national animal.
At Kaziranga National Park in Assam you can spot giant Indian elephants, deers, tons of birds and if you are lucky, the super rare one-horned rhinoceros. Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand is home to tigers, sloth bears and peacocks, which are absolutely magnificent birds! If you’re feeling adventurous, you could also plan a trekking trip to Agumbe which is about 7 hours from Bangalore and spot giant king cobras- one of the world’s most poisonous snakes. B
e mindful of blood sucking leeches while trekking anywhere in India. Please respect the animals and do not litter when you go to any of the national parks. You could also take up volunteering in one of the National Parks if you want to stay a little longer or bring your camping hammock and sleep for free …
Backpacking Travel Costs in India
So how much does it cost to go backpacking in India? The good news is that India is one of the cheapest countries in the world to go travelling if you’re smart with your money it’s possible to travel in India on a budget of just $10 a day, even less if you haggle like a pro. The trick to super cheap backpacking in India is to travel slow. The faster you travel, the more it will cost. In general, it’s likely you will spend between $15 – $35 a day depending on how comfortable you want to be. Average room cost: $2 – $5 Average meal cost: $1 – $3 (less if you eat street food) Twelve hour train journey in 3AC sleeper class: $16.50 Entrance to a site cost: $3.50 for foreigners These prices are based on the current exchange rate of 68 rupees to the dollar.
On every adventure, there are five things I never go travelling without.
1. Security Belt with Hidden Pocket: I never hit the road without my security belt. This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off. This is hands down the best way to hide your cash.
2. Leatherman Multi-Tool: I’ve been travelling with my Leatherman Skeletool for years now, my current one is actually my third one as I’ve had one stolen and another is in a Pakistani ravine. This is hand’s down the best multitool I have ever owned and if you are going to be hiking, camping, wild cooking or going on any kind of adventure, I strongly recommend packing a multitool.
3. Microfibre Towel: It’s always worth packing a proper towel. Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if needs be.
4. Headtorch: I would never travel without a headtorch. Even if you only end up using it once, a decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must. Currently, I’m using the Petzl LED headlamp with red light (which insects can’t see).
5. Hammock: Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks) and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere. Right now, I’m rocking an Active Roots parachute hammock – it’s light, colourful and tough.
For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out my full backpacking packing list.
Top tips for broke backpackers in India
Normally, my top three tips for budget travel are to hitchhike, camp and cook your own food but in India, food, transport and accommodation are already so cheap that this is not really necessary unless you are backpacking India on a budget of just a couple of dollars a day. Don’t get me wrong – it is totally possible to travel in India with almost no money, I’ve done it, but it’s also possible to go travelling in India on a modest budget and still travel in relative style.
Local Transport: India is home to over one billion people and since this is a highly religious country and there are plenty of pilgrimages going on, many of India’s people need to travel great distances on just a few rupees. Indian local transportation is some of the best in the developing world and although journeys can be long and uncomfortable it is possible to get from the top of India to the bottom on the cheap. The sleeper trains are a great way to travel around India cheaply and the buses are a decent second option. Avoid buses and train carriage that are specifically for tourists; they will always cost more.
Couchsurf: Accommodation in India varies wildly in quality and cost but, in general, you can find a quality room for just a couple of dollars – especially if you are in a backpacker hub. It can be harder when you are out exploring the wild side of India but, as always, Couchsurfing comes to the rescue. I couchsurfed in India about twenty times and it was a great way to cut down on costs – just be careful when picking a host; you want somebody with plenty of positive reviews.
Haggle: India is the worst country I have ever been to from the point of view of people trying to rip me off… Even when the price of an item is clearly printed on the packaging, some unscrupulous motherfuckers will try to charge three times as much. India is a country where you simply must haggle for almost everything – accommodation, tuk tuks, street food, souvenirs… All can be haggled down. Check out the haggling section for more info.
Volunteer: If done properly, volunteering is an excellent way to cut down your costs on the road. I strongly recommend Workaway – you pay just $29 for the year and then have access to literally thousands of projects all around the world where you can help out in exchange for food and board.
Become an expert: Learn the secrets to unlocking sustainable long term travel.
If you are in North India, here are a few phrases that will help you get by:
Hello – Namaste (When talking to the younger generation, I would suggest you stick to a simple ‘hi/hello’ as these are used colloquially instead of a stiff, formal namaste which i usually reserved for the elders)
My name is ___________- Mera naam __________ hai.
How are you? – Aap kaise hain?
I’m fine. – Main theek hun.
I don’t speak Hindi – Mujhe hindi nahi aati.
Cold = Thanda/ Hot = Garam
Where is the bathroom? – Bathroom kidhar hai?/ Bathroom kahan hai? (Your stomach will thank you for knowing this.)
How much does this cost? – Yeh kitne ka hai?
I want water- Mujhe paani Chahiye
This is too expensive – Ye bahut mehenga hai
Make your price less – Bhaav (or daam) kam karo
Help! – Bachao!
I do not know – Mujhe nahi pata
Idiot/ Dumbfuck – Chutiya
Stop – Ruko
Okay/good/whatever – Theek hai
Please/ Sorry/ Excuse me/ Taxi/ Train/ Bus/ Plane are all things you can say in English and people will get you just fine!
Female Travellers in India
Time to touch on a touchy topic… Backpacking India can be challenging. This is a country where foreigners are perceived to have a lot of money and in some parts of India ripping off tourists is almost a national sport. This comes with the territory; India is one of the cheapest countries in the world to go travelling and it can’t, unfortunately, all be sunshine and rainbows.
One of the biggest problems with India is the attitude of many Indian men towards women, especially foreigners. I’ve met many female backpackers who have encountered some sort of problem at one time or another whilst travelling in India. A lot of Indians are simply fascinated by tourists and, for many, the ultimate dream is to snag a western girlfriend who can get them out of the country. Sadly, the average Indian’s seduction techniques appear to be limited to awkward conversation and the occasional attempted grope. Having some self defence skills when you’re on the road, or off it, is always worthwhile and in my opinion everybody should have a go at training in martial art at least once in their lives. I’ve met many kick ass ladies who have travelled India by themselves and I’ve asked a whole bunch of them for their advice on the matter… For even more tips on how to travel the world fearlessly as a kick ass solo female, check out my mate Teacake’s Top Tips for How to Travel Safely as a Women – she is a legend and I have a huge adventure crush on her.
Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in India
Marijuana is widely available across most of India and it’s also possible to pick up psychedelics in places like Goa. Tinder works in India and is a great way to meet people, especially in some of the bigger, more modern cities. Read up on drugs on the road before getting stuck in. Check out Backpacker Safety 101 for tips and tricks to stay safe whilst backpacking.
Living in India
Perhaps one of the best options for backpackers wanting to explore India long-term and experience living in this truly incredible country is to get a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course online. TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read my in-depth report on teaching english abroad. Alternatively, if you want to find a cheap way to stay in this incredible country for as long as possible, check out Workaway – for just $29 a year you get access to literally thousands of projects around the world where you can volunteer in exchange for food and accomodation.
Staying safe whilst backpacking India
The main danger with travelling in India is traffic… Be extremely careful when driving or crossing the road, especially in big cities. You also need to keep an eye on extremely friendly strangers appearing out of nowhere, backpackers in India are often perceived to have a lot of money and whilst forceful muggings are uncommon, pickpockets are not. Avoid leaving valuables unattended at all costs, they will go missing. A simple padlock is well worth taking with you and if you want to go all out, I recommend the PacSafe to protect your gear.
Recently, a friend of mine, veteran adventurer Justin Alexander, went missing whilst trekking around Kheerganga with a Sadhu of dubious intent. Justin was a real mountain man and a big inspiration for me, if he couldn’t get out of whatever situation it was that arose; nobody could. The Sadhus, wandering Hindu holy men of India, are a fascinating group of people but can be extremely dangerous, I do not recommend interacting with them if you are alone. Hiking into the mountains with them is not a good idea. Be careful with the police in India, getting arrested is not fun – trust me. You can bribe your way out of most situations fairly quickly but the trick is to do it fast; the more police become involved the more expensive it will become – get your ass out of the situation before you arrive at the police station.
Usually, it’s smoking weed that will get you arrested so be subtle to avoid problems in the first place. Avoid buying weed from tuk tuk drivers. Dogs can be a problem, especially if you are alone at night and walk through a pack’s territory; clapping your hands, making loud noises, retrieve (or pretend to) a rock to throw from the ground in front of you. Standing your ground is your best bet and although dogs may bark and appear to go nuts they are unlikely to actually attack. Do not let any of the above perturb you, India is, in general, a very safe country and there are a million reasons to visit; now that you know the risks, you are less likely to find yourself in any trouble. Backpacking India is an experience that easily outweighs these small dangers.
Check out Backpacker Safety 101 for tips and tricks to stay safe whilst backpacking.
Pick yourself up a backpacker security belt to keep your cash safe on the road.
Check out this post for plenty of ideas on ingenious ways to hide your money when travelling.
I strongly recommend travelling with a headlamp whilst in India (or anywhere really – every backpacker should have a good headtorch!) – check out my post for a breakdown of the best value headlamps to take backpacking.
Staying healthy whilst backpacking India
Travelling in India and totally avoiding traveler’s diarrhoea is pretty impossible. Be sure to completely avoid the tap water, even when brushing your teeth (use purified water!) to improve your chances of escaping… Many backpackers travelling in India tend to go vegetarian for the duration; not a bad idea considering Indian’s suck at cooking meat. Eating street food is fine; just make sure the food is well cooked and is cooked in front of you – you don’t want something that’s been sitting out for hours. Potato and egg dishes tend to be the safest.
You will need some vaccinations for India, speak to a travel nurse to find out what they recommend. Many doctors suggest you take anti-malarials in India but considering that the side-effects can be truly horrible and that the only risky malarial zones are Goa (30 reported cases a year) and Sikkim I personally don’t think it’s worth taking expensive anti-malarials whilst backpacking India. Use bug spray, something with over 40% deet, and a mosquito net if necessary. Craghoppers have a great line of mosquito-repellant clothing that I highly recommend investing in. Whilst travelling in India, be sure to carry and frequently use hand-sanitiser. Check out these travel workouts to stay fit.
Useful apps to download before travelling to India
There’s a few apps which I absolutely swear by when travelling the world. Almost all backpackers these days have a phone and you can make your travels that little bit easier by installing the following adventure friendly apps…
Maps.me: Hand’s down the best offline maps app on the market, and it’s free! I’ve used this baby in the mountains of Pakistan, the deserts of India and the jungles of Thailand; it works when all over map apps tend to fail.
VPN: Surfing the web with privacy is important and, in some countries, the government is watching your every move. In countries like Iran or China a VPN is actually required just to be able to get on to sites Facebook. I’ve used a whole bunch of VPNs around the world and I recommend Hide Me which is one of the fastest and most reliable options out there. This particular VPN allows for up to five connections which is handy for keeping all your devices connected without having to purchase multiple VPN packages.
Airbnb: Stay somewhere a little bit classy with Airbnb – here’s a cheeky code to get you $35 off your next stay. If you’ve stayed with Airbnb before, it’s still possible to use this coupon and get $35 off – read this article to find out how.
Skype: The cheapest way to get in touch with friends back home or your bank when they mistakenly cancel your card because you’ve been using it at 3am to buy a bottle of Rum in Absurdistan.
Xe: The best currency conversion app around.
Books to read when travelling to India
You will get so much more out of your backpacking trip to India if you read up a bit whilst out there… Luckily, India has to be one of the most written about destinations in the world and there are some fantastic books out there, here are a few of my favourites.
The Backpacker Bible – Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building a life of long-term travel with an online income. Shameless bit of self promo here but this book is basically my dissertation on backpacking, nine years of tips and tricks and your purchase helps keep the site going. If you’ve found the content on this site useful, the book is the next level up and you will learn a ton – if you don’t, I’ll give you your money back. Check it out here.
Shantaram: The first book I ever read on India, Shantaram inspired me to book a one way flight to Delhi and travel around India for 14 months. The book follows the possibly true, possibly exaggerated, story of an escaped Australian convict who finds his way to India where he falls in love, works for gangsters, fights the Russians in Afghanistan, gets imprisoned in Bombay, becomes a professional forger and an amateur doctor and experiences life in an Indian slum. The book is extremely well written and paints an accurate, although somewhat rosy, picture of life in India.
Last Man in the Tower: 21st Century Mumbai is a city of new money and soaring real estate, and property kingpin Dharmen Shah has grand plans for its future. His offer to buy and tear down a weathered tower block, making way for luxury apartments, will make each of its residents rich – if all agree to sell. But not everyone wants to leave; many of the residents have lived there for a lifetime, many of them are no longer young. As tensions rise among the once civil neighbours, one by one those who oppose the offer give way to the majority, until only one man stands in Shah’s way: Masterji, a retired schoolteacher, once the most respected man in the building. Shah is a dangerous man to refuse, but as the demolition deadline looms, Masterji’s neighbours – friends who have become enemies, acquaintances turned co-conspirators – may stop at nothing to secure their money. This is a really poignant read which I read in India, it changed how I viewed the country irreversibly.
The White Tiger: One of the first books I read whilst backpacking India, this is a really useful, often amusing, sometimes horrifying, tale which will help you better understand the caste system.
On a Shoestring to Coorg: This is the first travel book that tested the idea that a five-year old daughter makes for a decent travelling companion. A really interesting read on the now-defunct Indian state of Coorg, this book gives a fascinating insight into the origins of backpacker travel in India.
Nine Lives: A Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet – then spends the rest of his life trying to atone for the violence by hand printing the best prayer flags in India. A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend ritually starve herself to death. Nine people, nine lives; each one taking a different religious path, each one an unforgettable story. William Dalrymple is one of the best writers when it comes to offering an insight into Indian culture and I highly recommend reading everything he has written.
Siddhartha: A travel classic, Siddhartha is perhaps the most important and compelling moral allegory our troubled century has produced. Integrating Eastern and Western spiritual traditions with psychoanalysis and philosophy, this strangely simple tale, written with a deep and moving empathy for humanity, has touched the lives of millions since its original publication in 1922. Set in India, Siddhartha is the story of a young Brahmin’s search for ultimate reality after meeting with the Buddha. His quest takes him from a life of decadence to asceticism, from the illusory joys of sensual love with a beautiful courtesan, and of wealth and fame, to the painful struggles with his son and the ultimate wisdom of renunciation.
Are you experienced: An easy read and a funny satire on the whole concept of student travel and the backpacking India trail.
Full Tilt, Ireland to India with a Bicycle: Shortly after her tenth birthday, Dervla Murphy decided to cycle to India. Almost 20 years later, she set out to achieve her ambition. Her epic journey began during the coldest winter in memory, taking her through Europe, Persia, Afghanistan, over the Himalayas to Pakistan, and into India.
A gear checklist I swear by! Make sure you check this out before venturing out for a backpacking adventure…
Insurance for backpacking in India
Check out Backpacker Safety 101 for tips and tricks to stay safe whilst backpacking.
I strongly recommend travelling with a headlamp whilst in India – there are power outages, especially on the beaches, pretty frequently plus a lot of dark temples, caves and mysterious places to explore – check out my post for a breakdown of the best value headlamps to take backpacking.
Whenever you hit the road and go travelling, you need insurance. I have been backpacking for nine years and have had to claim a total of three times; if I didn’t have insurance I would have been utterly screwed on all three occasions. I recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance – they hands down have the best support and if you do need to claim they will help you get it sorted quickly.
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