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How To Plan a Trip to India
Visiting India is something many people dream of: It’s the land of mystery, intrigue, amazing food, beautiful architecture, beguiling culture, the seat of civilisation, home of spiritualism… and so much more.
For some, travelling to India is a once in a lifetime experience. For others (like me) it becomes an infatuation or even love – we keep going back again and again for more.
And yet, travel in India is not always easy. For one thing, India is a subcontinent. There’s so much to experience here, where to even start? Then there are the crowds, the unique food and culture, concerns like will I get sick (spoiler: probably not), and then there’s the good old Indian railways booking system.
It’s hard to just show up and get the best out of India – unless you’re extremely attuned to your intuition, anyway! India takes planning, research, and some good allies to show you the way if it’s one of your first trips to India.
Still with us? Great – let’s get started on how to tackle your dream of travelling to India! First things first: Join our supportive & helpful community on Facebook to get some tips for your India trip!
How to Travel in India – Different Travel Options
When it comes to how to travel in India, there are a few different options which will affect your experience of India significantly, and each have their advantages and disadvantages.
#1 Take a (Group) Tour of India
This is the easiest option, especially for first time travellers to India, and there are options at different levels of comfort and price point. We recommend scrutinising tour companies carefully, making sure you know what’s included, and read the trip notes carefully.
Pros of group tours: If you like company, group tours are perfect for meeting like-minded fellow travellers, you’ll have a guide on hand, and everything is done for you – leaving you free to enjoy your holiday. On these trips you’ll experience very little hassle and it can be a great way for first time visitors to India to dip their toes in before deciding if they want to travel independently in India.
Cons of group tours: Group tours always involve an element of compromise, sharing a room is not everyone’s cup of tea, and they can seem hurried at times. It’s also much more difficult to get away from all the other tourists when you on a tour yourself.
The following are all companies that we have experience with first hand and recommend for different styles of travel:
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A little more about the companies included in this chart and the styles of travel they offer:
Intrepid Travel offer small group tours (maximum 12 people) which are mostly budget – midrange, the ‘basix’ trips are more budget with less inclusions, the ‘classic’ trips stay in 2-3 star hotels and have some inclusions such as popular attractions and some meals, and the ‘comfort’ trips are a step up in terms of hotels and more inclusions (attractions & meals). Rooms are on a twin-share basis which means if you’re travelling alone, you’ll be paired up with another traveller of the same sex, unless you choose to pay a single supplement.
Their trips combine must-see attractions with a few off-the-beaten-path villages, towns and experiences.
Transport is often by local transport (e.g. trains) and sometimes private minivans. We love these trips for the public transport they include – the perfect way to sample local life in India without the hassle of having to work it out yourself, and Intrepid’s Responsible Tourism philosophy which includes pioneering all-women trips in India and supporting local initiatives. Intrepid will always hold a special place in my heart as they’re who I first travelled to India with (I had an amazing time).
G Adventures are similar to Intrepid travel in that they offer small group adventures along similar lines and itineraries, but they have a few different trip styles. We love their National Geographic style itineraries which offer an upgraded experience, as well as their “India by Rail” family of trips. Some of the G Adventures trips visit Planeterra projects, which are social impact projects supported by G Adventures.
As with Intrepid, rooms on G Adventures trips are twin-share.
Both Intrepid and G Adventures attract people from various countries with a range of ages – I’ve been in groups with mostly 60 year olds, and groups with mainly 30 year olds, and lots with a mix of everything in-between. G Adventures also run some 18-30’s trips for younger travellers.
Trafalgar Travel offer well known large group tours around the world, and also offer some trips in India. Their trips are great value and include everything you need – from flight transfers to lots of meal inclusions and access to museums & monuments included. Expect higher end international standard hotels such as Hilton and Le Meridien.
Trafalgar’s primary traveler group tend to be travellers in their 50’s and above, and we’d suggest them as an option if you’re in that age range and looking to get a taste of India for the first time, travelling in a comfortable way.
We also like Trafalgar’s ‘Make a Difference’ programs which the tours often stop at to see the projects that are supported.
Insight Vacations offer a high-end experience for those looking to enjoy the luxury of India, in a small group, complete with a travelling concierge! Insight Luxury Gold run several different trips to India, which vary from high end to wow palaces. If you’ve dreamed of sleeping in a palace, then these tours are for you. They offer luxurious India at a lower price than a bespoke luxury package for individual travellers, and run trips around north and South India.
Insight Vacations travellers also tend to be in their 50’s and up, particularly those that have time to travel and enjoy the finer things in life, from good service and food to learning about new cultures.
#2 Tailor Made Travel in India
If you’re not into group tours and want to determine your own itinerary, but would like some guidance in planning, booking, and / or a guide and driver with you during your time in India, then tailor made travel might be the best option for you.
There are 101 companies out there offering tailor made travel to India and their services vary, from putting together an itinerary for you and letting you do the rest, to managing all your bookings, to doing all of that plus sending a ground rep to meet you and providing guides and drivers for your entire trip. Needless to say, costs vary widely.
We’ve had good experiences with and recommend Better Places Travel for customised travel planning. Better Places Travel are a social enterprise committed to responsible and authentic travel experiences, and they work with India travel experts based in Delhi to put together your perfect itinerary, whether you want to visit India’s highlights, or unwind at a homestay or eco lodge. They are reasonably priced and we’ve had great experiences with them during my trip to Ladakh that they organised.
We highly recommend this option for travellers who haven’t travelled in India before and want some guidance on planning their trip but don’t want to join a tour, particularly if you don’t have much time in India.
We don’t recommend using general travel planners who aren’t India experts. A regular travel advisor sitting in New York has no idea how Indian Railway tickets work unless or know the best areas of a city unless they’re an expert in India travel.
#3 Independent Travel (aka Do it all Yourself)
The option many people choose, especially if they are well travelled or have been to India before. If you’re normally an independent traveller but are feeling nervous about India, we suggest looking at the options above.
If you want to do it under your own steam, here are some tips for what you need to plan and when.
Know that India is much less of a destination where you can “wing it” and “book as you go” than other asian countries. Due to the number of people travelling here, India gets busy, guesthouses get booked up during popular times, and don’t even get us started on the trains. It’s also essential to research ahead of time to know which areas of town you want to be in, what tourist scams to be aware of, etc.
- Work out a rough list of where you want to go in India so you can make an itinerary. You don’t have to have dates, but once you have a list, you can work out the best route. Transport connects some places much better than others, so this will minimise having to go back on yourself.
- Expect long travel days and try to give yourself rest days where you can take it easy. Travel in India can be hard going in the heat, and if you’re jet lagged, you want to be able to have some time to settle in and acclimatise. Otherwise the temples and cities may all start to blur into one!
- Book day tours and activities in cities, especially at the start of your trip. These can be a great way to meet fellow travellers, get some extra insight into the places you are visiting, and support local guides. We recommend booking online via trusted sites such as Get Your Guide and Klook – don’t hire guides and touts who say they know you at monuments, no matter how smooth their sales pitch is…
- Book major trains 3-4 months in advance if you can, at the latest 1 month out from your trip. 25 million people travel by train in India per day (yep) so you can imagine that trains get booked up. Book them here on 12go.asia with no need to set up an IRCTC account! Or if you want the full detail, read our essential guide to train travel in India here…
How Long Should you Spend in India?
It’s easy to underestimate, how large India is, and how long travelling can take. One of the most frequent mistakes we see travellers making is not having enough time to see all the places they want to, and so cramming too much in to a tight itinerary. Which – when combined with the culture shock – does not make for the best trip or happiest travellers.
- To get a good taste of India we recommend you plan to spend at least two weeks in India. We know that holiday time is a luxury, but we promise India is worth it. Two weeks in India will allow you to see 5-7 different places in one region of India, but is not really enough to cover both north and south India, unless you are prepared to see only a couple of places in both.
- Three to four weeks in India allow you to get to know India a little better – either through exploring one region at a more leisurely place and heading off the beaten tourist path, or by combining different parts of India.
- One month plus and you’ll be able to explore much more of India, at your own pace.
- Anything less than 10 days in India will mean that you can see 3-4 places, and focus your efforts on one state of India. If you are flying long haul, we strongly recommend pushing yourself to 2 weeks if you can for a better experience.
The more time you have to spend in India, the easier travel in India becomes as you adjust to a different culture, pace of life, climate, food and everything else.
Where to Visit in India
Probably the hardest question of all! There are so many places to visit in India you could fill a year with travelling India, and still not be done 🙂
Here are a few of our thoughts on the most commonly visited areas of India by first time travellers to India and some alternatives.
The Golden Triangle – Is it right for you?
Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, collectively called as the “Golden Triangle” are what the vast majority of first time visitors to India come to see.
It’s no surprise given the rich cultural offerings of these three cities: Delhi is home to beautiful architecture, markets and cuisine from around India and is a convenient entry/exit point from India; Jaipur is home to Rajasthan’s pink city and is home to princely palaces, colourful textiles, forts that will make your eyes water with their grandeur, and havelis galore. Agra is home to the Taj Mahal: Enough said.
BUT. There’s a major downside to the Golden Triangle. And that is that it’s the most (over-)touristed place in India, and it’s also the highest hassle. The scams that you no doubt will have heard about / read about online, all focus on this area of India, as the Golden Triangle sees an influx of cash-rich-time-poor tourists who don’t mind paying 500 Rupees for something that should cost 50 Rupees. These cities are also the more conservative areas of India which tend to see more hassle for foreign women. Not least, everyone goes to the Golden Triangle.
We understand that as a first time visitor to India you probably don’t want to miss the Taj and Jaipur – and definitely Delhi. So this is what we suggest.
- Finish up with the Golden Triangle, don’t start with it. If you have, say, 2 weeks in India, start further south, or wherever you want to go first and then finish with Jaipur, Agra and Delhi. By that time, you’ll know what the going rates are for things, how to find your way around, and by much better prepared for any “optimistic” sales pitches.
- Take a Golden Triangle tour that stops in smaller towns along the way so that you can see more of India beyond Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, such as this one (8 days) by Intrepid which includes a rural heritage stay or if you have more time, one that takes in a larger area of India and includes the golden triangle such as this 15 day one that covers more of Rajasthan + Agra and Delhi.
- Travel the Golden Triangle more Slowly. The other thing that creates mass tourism in the Golden Triangle is that most travellers whizz through here in just 3-5 days. If you want to enjoy this part of India more, we suggest staying longer – you could easily fill 5 days in Jaipur with all the forts, palaces, cooking classes, browsing & haggling in markets, visiting museums… etc. Delhi could fill a lot of time too, see our tips for how to enjoy your time in Delhi here. When it comes to Agra, we do not recommend a day trip. The best time to see the Taj is at sunrise, which means being there before 6am when the gates open, which means spending at least the night before in Agra. Click here to book skip the line, pre-timed, tickets to the Taj.
A much more leisurely and serene alternative to the Golden Triangle, is starting in, or focusing your exploration on southern India. Kerala is a favourite on traveller itineraries – and for good reason, but its neighbours Karnataka and Tamil Nadu see only a fraction of the visitors, despite being just as beautiful.
Some of our highlights of southern India include:
- Kerala Backwaters – but not on a houseboat (which are a bit of an environmental nightmare). Watch the sunset over Lake Vembanad from Coconut Lagoon, or at overlooked Kollam at Ashtamudi Villas.
- Wayanad, north Kerala – Homestays galore, community tourism and coffee plantations
- Pondicherry – Like nowhere else in India with its French charm and colourful houses.
- Goa Backwaters (yes Goa has backwaters too) – go Kayaking through mangroves or stay in a Portugese style villa that’s a world away from the crowds on the beaches.
- Hampi – the “Angkor Wat” of south India.
- Bandipur & Nagarhole in Karnataka have just as much wildlife as the parks in north India.
- Mumbai – everyone flies into Delhi instead, but Mumbai is much, much nicer (yes, we’re biased)
The “land of kings” Rajasthan is another favourite option for travellers to India. Rajasthan is India at its biggest, most diverse, grandest and colourful. Rajasthan can’t help but impress, and is one of the best parts of India for history-buffs as well as anyone who wants to see its grandeur.
Given that Rajasthan is almost as popular as the Golden Triangle, read our tips for how to get off the beaten path in Rajasthan here.
Here are some of our highlights of Rajasthan:
- Bundi – A quieter town of Rajasthan with a blue city to rival Jodhpur’s
- Chandelao Garh – A royal homestay outside of Jodhpur
- Pushkar – People watching over chai at the ghats of Rajasthan’s most holy town
- Udaipur – Getting up early to watch the sunrise over magical Lake Pichola
Less Visited Options aka Off the Beaten Path
Fortunately, it’s really easy to get away from tourist crowds in India. Outside Rajasthan, the Golden Triangle, Varanasi, Goa and some parts of Kerala, India sees relatively few foreign tourists compared to other asian countries. Here are some of our top picks for exploring somewhere a bit different.
- Kolkata. India’s third city is often overlooked but the culture here is rich, the architecture is amazing, and Bengali food is unlike any other in India. For extra wow factor, visit during the Durga Pooja in Autumn each year.
- North East India. Remote and culturally separate from much of the rest of India, the North East Indian states may be hard to get to, but they are rich in tribal culture and heritage, are home to one of the best national parks in India (Kaziranga) and are a wonderful place to connect with nature.
- Gujarat. With step wells that are more beautiful and less visited than Rajasthan’s, its own salt desert and asiatic lions, it’s a bit of a mystery why people don’t go to Gujarat much. So take our advice and go!
- Maharashtra. Outside of Mumbai, Maharashtra doesn’t get much consideration from foreign visitors. The beaches and coastline of southern Maharashtra close to Sindhudurg (known as the “konkan coast”) are every bit as beautiful as Goa’s but with nobody on them. Or go on a beautiful drive through the mountains (western Ghats) to one of the state’s hill stations.
India Countdown – Your Travelling to India Checklist
Based on our own and our readers’ experiences, here are some handy markers for what to do, when for your trip to India! To grab a copy of our free, full India travel checklist, enter your email in the box below.
Book Flights – You may be asked to show proof of your plans to leave India, so for that reason we don’t suggest one way tickets.
Buy your Travel Insurance – Essential for any trip to India. Get a quote with World Nomads here (who we use).
Plan your Itinerary – (3-6 months out), and / or book a tour / enquire with travel agents
Visit your Doctor – (2-3 months out) and check for any vaccinations / medications they advise for travel to India, and prepare any prescriptions you’ll need while travelling.
Book Hotels, Trains & Internal Flights – (1-3 months out). We recommend booking hotels in busy destinations, or at least your first night in a new place in advance. Trains get booked up so don’t leave these to the last minute – there’ no such thing as turn up and go train travel. Be aware that internal flights often have different (lower) baggage allowances than international flights. We use and recommend Booking.com for booking hotels & accommodation.
Visas – (1-3 months out, depending on the type of visa). Some visas can only be applied for 30 days prior to travel. India paper visas start from the date of issue, not when you say you are entering the country, so avoid applying un-necessarily early. The official site for everything visa related is here.