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Last Updated on March 21, 2023 by Sarah Puckett
India is an exciting and beautiful destination, but it’s hard to know what to expect. India can be a challenging place to travel, even for those who have plenty of experience immersing themselves in foreign cultures. After spending three weeks traveling the northern regions of the country, I learned so much that I wish I had known beforehand. I’ve made this list of what to expect on your first trip to India in hopes you’ll avoid some of the annoyances we didn’t!
Here’s what you will find in this guide on what to expect on your first time in India.
What to Expect in India for First-Timers
I developed this list based on my own experiences. I’m not an expert on Indian culture nor do I have academic knowledge of the impacts of income disparity, poverty, or overpopulation. I’m just a traveler who realized that India is different from any place I’ve ever traveled before – in good ways and in challenging ways. I don’t want to discourage anyone from traveling to India. There are dozens of great reasons to go! Being aware of the challenges will prepare you to better enjoy your trip. For this reason, I’m also including a few reasons why you should go anyway. Without further ado, let’s dive into what to expect in India on your first visit!
What to Expect in India – Challenges
We fell for this one hard, and immediately. We didn’t go to the official taxi stand when we landed at the Delhi airport. Three hours and 4 means of transportation later, we arrived at our hotel. Always go through the designated taxi services at airports, and use Uber for the rest of the time. These are by far the most reliable taxi services in India.
Do NOT believe any driver who tells you that there is a road closure or that your hotel is closed. If the driver says he cannot find your hotel and offers to call it to get directions, use his phone to make the call yourself. A common scam is to call a fake number and then make up some reason why they cannot take you to your hotel. Their goal here is to get you to agree to go to another hotel where they will get a commission.
Do NOT let any driver take you to a “tourist info center” to use the WiFi, make a phone call, or whatever. Again, their goal is to try to sell you a tour or accommodation in hopes of making a commission. Do NOT pay until you arrive at your desired destination! For more on this classic scam, check out this guide to scams in India.
If someone approaches you at a tourist attraction and offers to take a photo or starts sharing historical information about the place, politely decline unless you intend to pay. These unofficial and unsolicited tour guides capitalize on making people feel guilty or uncomfortable turning down their services. They may also tell you that a guide is “required” to visit the site. This happened to our group at the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi. Tim and I walked away, but the rest of our group got wrangled into a short but expensive tour of the mosque.
This one is important. Driving after drinking alcohol is not as culturally taboo in India as it may be at home. We even had a tour driver try to drive us across high mountain passes in the Himalayas while still visibly intoxicated. Anytime you arrange a driver through a tour company, ask the company if they have a policy about driving under the influence. We learned that some companies require their drivers to abstain from alcohol the entire time they are on a trip with a client.
Indian food is beyond delicious! But, your gut may not be ready to handle it, especially if you go for street food or meat. I recommend sticking to a vegetarian diet and eating only at recommended restaurants to avoid Delhi belly. Even then, expect to get sick at least once during your India trip. Pack rehydration salts and get an antibiotic from your doctor before you go to help offset the pains of traveler’s diarrhea.
As with many countries, you should not drink tap water in India. Refuse ice in your drinks, and only drink water that you know comes from a purified source. To reduce your plastic waste from water bottles, buy large water jugs instead and fill up your bottles with that.
Poverty and begging
Extreme poverty exists in many countries, but with such a dense population in India, the sight of it is much more overwhelming than you may have seen before. You will undoubtedly encounter begging, often from women with small children. Do not give food or money to these people – India is trying hard to reduce its begging culture, and there are many free community resources people can turn to. For example, in every Sikh temple, anyone can show up for a hot meal any time, no questions asked.
Pollution and litter
India is making great strides to become environmentally friendly, but plastic litter and smog still dominate the cities and small towns alike. On a train ride from Delhi to Varanasi, we saw a river of litter. People often throw their trash out the window on trains and in cars, resulting in more trash than you have likely seen before.
Cows are free to roam the streets in India, and not just in rural towns. Do not be surprised to see a cow crossing a highway outside of Delhi or blocking traffic at a busy intersection. The cows themselves are not dangerous (just don’t mess with them, obviously), but like any animal, they do poop. And no one cleans up this poop. This means you will see it, and probably step in it, at some point in your India travels.
Expect to be sitting in standstill traffic anytime you are in a car in India. When walking around, be careful – you are sharing the roads with cars, tuk-tuks, bikes, motorcycles, cows, and other pedestrians. It can be chaotic, loud, and very challenging to determine the safest time to cross the street. My advice is to wait until you see a local crossing, and follow them.
Squat toilets are the norm in Asia, and India is no different. The truth is, it’s hard to know what to expect in India when it comes to toilets. Practice your wall sits before you leave because chances are high you will have to use a squat toilet on your trip to India. Additionally, you will probably need to bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer into the bathroom with you. It can take a little getting used to, but after a while, they won’t bother you as much anymore.
Heat and humidity
It almost goes without saying that India is HOT. To stay cool, wear loose clothing and always make sure you have plenty of water available. Avoid being outside in the heat of the day. I would also recommend timing your trip to avoid the hottest seasons for the region you will be visiting. Unbearable heat makes everything harder, trust me.
If you are not of Indian descent or ethnicity, locals might be curious about you. Tim and I are both white, and we traveled with two black women from England. Many times throughout the trip, locals would take photos of us. Most of the time it was innocent, but sometimes it was creepy, racist, or sexist.
What to Expect in India – Why you should go anyway
I think Indian food is the most delicious in the world in my opinion. Do not miss out on paneer – a delicious cheese that makes a great meat substitute in butter curry, korma, palak, and masala dishes. When times get stressful, sit back and relax with a hot cup of masala chai tea, order a piece of garlic naan, and drown your worries in a steaming bowl of daal.
Only in India can you explore ancient and stunning palaces like the Amer Fort in Jaipur or the Taj Mahal in Agra. Despite the crowds, despite the heat, and despite the leg workout you get every time you squat over a hole in the ground to pee, these places are undeniably beautiful and you will be happy you saw them.
India is the birthplace of two major world religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, both of which are largely peaceful on the world stage. Both religions also revere animals and we can all learn from that. And then there, of course, is the unique intermingling of life and death along the mighty Ganges River.
India’s Spiti Valley is home to the highest concentration of the elusive snow leopard on earth, and in many of the nation’s national parks, you have a chance to spot tigers.
There is just no other place like it on earth
Although this is a guide on what to expect in India, it’s such a unique country that you are bound to be surprised by something. India currently sits right on a line balanced between ancient heritage and rapid modernization. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition. The Delhi subway system is one of the easiest ones I’ve ever navigated, but the streets are the most confusing.
All of the things I’ve discussed in this article, good and bad, are part of India. It’s an incredibly challenging country to travel in. It can also reward patient travelers with immense beauty and thought-provoking experiences. Even if you mostly dislike your time there, you can’t deny that it’s unlike anywhere else in the world. That in and of itself makes it worth visiting. I hope this guide on what to expect in India helps you avoid some of the challenges and fully enjoy the beauty of this country!
Want more tips on traveling in India? Check out my off the beaten path version of the Golden Triangle itinerary and, if you want to go way off the typical India track, my Spiti Valley itinerary!