India Travel Guide: 21 Smart Tips to Prepare For Your First Trip to India

by | May 22, 2024 | Destinations, Latest Posts, Travel Tips | 0 comments

Before you get on that plane, it’s a good idea to do some careful planning and preparation for your first trip to India. I listed my 21 smart tips to help you prepare logistically and mentally for your first trip to India. Most of them are based on my very recent travels to South India, which included a missed flight connection and lost baggage (well, let’s say, VERY delayed). In this travel guide are tips on booking, international airport customs, currency, and carry-on essentials for the “what ifs”. I hope this will help you minimize travel stress and allow you to enjoy everything Incredible India has to offer! 

Riverbank view in Mandrem, Goa

After years of dreaming, hoping, and planning, I finally made my first trip to India last month. I’m Indian by blood, but I was born in Europe, grew up in Canada, and then relocated to the U.S.. I finally found a one-month gap in my life and work and almost impulsively booked the flights to make this happen. If I kept overanalyzing the magnitude of logistics Indian travel can require, I may not have pulled the trigger. 

Even if I didn’t plan this adventure on such short notice , this first trip would have still taught me these hard lessons about travel and life in India.

Whether You Are a Tourist or a Yoga Student for Your First Trip to India

I had five intentions for this first trip to India: to explore the like a tourist, try the local cuisine and healing treatments for my business, experience a yoga retreat, advance my training in Ayurveda, and explore my roots and meet family for the first time!

That was a lot to tackle in four short weeks, minus the days I was out of commission due to illness. But I accomplished them! The trip kicked off on the wrong foot from the moment I transferred at JFK airport in New York, missing my connecting flight and as a result, then not receiving my luggage.

South India is quite different from the busy, bustling areas of Delhi and Mumbai. Despite the laid-back vibe, you will still encounter some traffic and bump around inside a tuk-tuk on noisy, busy city streets. You will also find yourself walking the streets with cows, goats, and stray dogs in the coastal towns, and also on the beach.  

If you read the following smart tips while you plan your first trip to India, you could reduce your travel stress and prevent unwanted events. Travel to India is a big investment and it is a challenging country to visit for first-timers. But with reasonable expectations and a slow pace, it will be a very rewarding and memorable experience.

1. Get Your Tourist Visa First

Get your tourist e-visa before you buy your plane tickets. Check for any limitations and special requirements for your country. Once approved, print multiple copies, take a photo of your visa, and save it to a folder in your phone gallery (in a folder) plus email it to yourself, your travel companion (if any), and a local contact at home. You will also want to do this for your passport and other types of ID. Keep the printed copy tucked into your passport. I was surprised how many times I was asked to present it in addition to customs on arrival. For example, some hotels, even small beachside properties will want to see that you entered their country legally.

2. Research The Weather Beforehand

I was warned how hot Goa is in April. I live in Arizona so it didn’t bother me. But coupled with the massive humidity and lack of air conditioning in some accommodations, I did struggle a bit. Monsoon rains typically start in June, so be prepared if you plan to go during the prior months when the temps are at their highest. Plan to do most of your sightseeing in the mornings and venture out towards the evenings!

3. Be Aware of Seasonal Businesses and Closures

If you are planning your first-time travel during the low season (June to September), keep in mind several stores and small restaurants, in South India, start preparing to close in April. Last month I was watching several shopkeepers packing up in Goa. You may find limited activities in local areas, however near the beaches, some restaurants and hotels remain open to accommodate tourists. Likewise, some bigger hotels with pools are open year round and may host swimming lessons for local children during the summer. This may leave you with restricted access or peaceful enjoyment of the pool when it’s too hot to go to the beach. Always ask the hotel before booking. 

4. Get Some Rupees Before Arriving

Especially if your flight is arriving in the middle of the night you may want to exchange some currency for rupees at your departure or transfer airport. Foreign exchanges at your destination airport will have higher rates but just exchange a minimal amount then use an ATM. It’s a good idea to have local cash on hand and in small denominations in the event you need it for a taxi (better fares with cash) or any incidentals such as water.

5. Book Your Airport Pick Up in Advance

This is especially important if you are arriving in the middle of the night or you are a solo female traveler. You can use your hotel’s taxi driver or shuttle or schedule an Uber or local rideshare. Ask what their cancellation or rescheduling policy is before you commit.  I learned when using Uber, choose the option to pay in cash versus your credit card on file. You will get a lower price. I had my pick-up at Cochin International Airport pre-arranged with the Health Village’s private driver which was a nice reassurance after my adventure getting there from America.

A beautiful bridge at Ashiyana Yoga Retreat

6. Use a Travel-Friendly Credit Card with Benefits

Try to pay for your flights with a credit card that gives you travel protection benefits such as lost or delayed baggage, rental car coverage etc., and zero foreign transaction fees. If they have an annual fee, the benefits of points and rewards usually pay for these fees depending on your usage. I used my Chase Sapphire Preferred for almost all purchases. When a vendor swipes your card, ask them to choose the option to pay in your local funds, in my case U.S. funds to avoid any potential fees. ATMs are hard to find in certain parts of Goa so it’s a good idea to get a checking account paired with a debit card with zero ATM and foreign transaction fees. My favorite which I have been using for years is the Charles Schwab card which reimburses your ATM fees at the end of each month.

7. Record ALL Your Itinerary and Booking IDs

Enter all your IDs and phone numbers for each airline and airport in your phone notes and contacts. Write them down on a piece of paper or small notebook and store them where it is easily accessible. If you are running late for a connection or you miss it (like I did), in your state of panic, you don’t want to be shuffling through your bags looking for this info. The first thing the airline will ask you is for your booking ID. If you are in a foreign airport your apps may not launch fast enough (or at all). Remember, you will be in unsecured, free Wi-Fi, and inside some airports (such as Doha) Wi-Fi calling is blocked. In this case, go to a transfer desk and ask them to call your airline for assistance.

8. Protect Your Personal Information and Browsing History

Internet hackers are everywhere and India is no exception. Airport terminals I learned are notorious hot spots for hackers.  I chose the Swiss-based provider, Proton VPN for its high-level encryption. It was also recommended by a friend who is a cybersecurity expert. Considering the chaos during my travels to India and my plans to use several public Wi-Fi spots, I wanted the added protection and peace of mind. They have a free version (without ads) but I upgraded to the Plus plan for faster speeds and the ability to use it on multiple devices. 

9. Don’t Forget to Bring Adapters

It is a good idea to have at least one before you leave your home country. In case your phone is dead on arrival and you can’t locate your power bank, having an adapter to plug in is a nice reassurance. I had a set of three but packed two of them in my checked bag (which did not arrive) so depending on this one adapter, which sometimes didn’t work, was not fun. You may be able to borrow one from your hotel but I chose to buy a local phone charger in Kerala which bypassed the need for an adapter. 

10. Take Photos of Your Luggage and Carry On Bags and Their Contents

When inquiring about the status of my lost baggage, Air India asked me if I had taken photos of the luggage and its contents. I thought it was a crazy idea but in hindsight, photos would’ve made it easier for me to provide details on the report. After long-haul travel and landing in a foreign country jet-lagged, you won’t remember everything about your missing luggage. They will ask for markings, labels, ribbons, etc. I recommend doing this at home and this is going to sound ridiculous but take a selfie with your luggage, too. I need not explain this one.

11. Buy an e-SIM or a local SIM card

Most of India communicates through What’s App including hotels. Having a local number on your phone, or a second phone and data eliminates the need to rely on Wi-Fi and ensures you won’t miss important notifications (such as OTP codes).  I purchased an affordable Airtel SIM card for 2 months of data for less than $10 USD. There are a few SIM card providers but keep in mind, that your SIM card may not have service in certain areas. For example, some parts of Agonda Beach in Goa have no Airtel service so I had to rely on public Wi-Fi.

12. Download These Apps Before You Leave

Apps such as XE for currency exchange calculations, Uber, WhatsApp, Telegram, airline and hotel apps, and local Goa Miles for finding a taxi are good to have on all your devices. Flight Aware tracks commercial flights worldwide and includes “MiseryMap” which shows you which airports are experiencing problems. (I didn’t know about this one until after my trip). Keep these updated and store your passwords separately in case you lose autologin capability when you arrive in India. Many vendors accept Google Pay however this one is retiring in early June and being replaced by Google Wallet. I am not sure if local South Indian vendors will be accepting Google Wallet. Google Translate is also good to have. If you are bringing a second unlocked phone to use with a local SIM card, download the apps before you leave home because you may need them when you are not in Wi-Fi. 

13. Put These In Your Carry On

Anything you do not want to replace (or can’t) in case your checked bag is lost or delayed should be in your carry-on. These may include contact lenses, medications, eye drops, snacks, empty water bottle, starter stock of hand wipes and toilet paper, your favorite skin care products, and all your electronics especially power banks (which are not allowed in checked bags). Pack one or two outfits for the local weather just in case you need to build a wardrobe for a few days while waiting for luggage to arrive.

park bench across Periyar River in Kerala
Periyar River in Kerala. View from the Kerala Health Village

14. Bring These In Case You Get Sick

Don’t be surprised if you get a gastro-intestinal illness or other infection. Bring a supply of anti-diarrheal over-the-counter meds, motion sickness tabs, rehydration formulas, and digestive enzymes, especially if you are not used to eating dairy and legumes (lentils and beans). Local pharmacies are affordable and provide many options for remedies, however, if you are truly concerned about your symptoms it is best to consult with a local physician. Look out for my travel health kit, which will available soon.

15. Airport Security Checkpoints: Know Before You Go

If you are taking a domestic flight within India, or departing from one of their international terminals, security requires you to remove the following from your carry-on: wallet, keys, watches, belts, coins, all metal items, power banks, phones, and laptops/tablets. 

Pack these items strategically in your bags so you can remove them quickly and efficiently then put them back. You are not required to remove your shoes. Many of these security areas can be congested and hectic with a lot of shouting and noise so it is easy to get distracted and lose items. Always keep your passport and boarding pass in your hand when walking through the body scanner or entering the private booth for a pat down or scan. The last thing you need is to leave it behind in a tray as you start running for your gate.

16. Accept That You Will Lose Things

India travel is busy, hectic travel. There is so much energy, activity, noises, distractions, and excitement no matter where in the country you visit. It’s important to stay alert, focused, and accept that you may lose an item or two, especially if you are moving around the region. I don’t recommend bringing any valuable jewelry, favorite clothing items, or anything else that would freak you out if you lost them. The good news is that things are so affordable there and you may want to make room in your bags for traditional clothes, souvenirs, and spices. There are also comfort items and necessities that are typically hard to find in South India so I will include them in my India Packing List when it is released.

Dr. Melanie on a beach in Goa with stray dogs
Arambol Beach, Goa with Local Dogs

17. Purchase Travel Insurance Immediately After Booking Your Flights

As soon as you buy that flight, purchase travel medical insurance that also has coverage for trip cancellation, trip interruption, baggage delay, and lost/damaged baggage. If something comes up such as an illness or family emergency and you need to cancel or postpone your flight, your insurance will cover the costs (up to their policy limits). If you fall ill while you are overseas and need to extend your stay to continue medical care there is additional benefit to cover the cost of airline change fees, for example. The peace of mind and customer support are worth the investment.  I purchased Allianz for this trip and other overseas trips in the past. At the time I write this I am waiting for three claims to be processed.

18. Prepare for Regular Power Outages

It’s a normal thing in India. I walked into Dabolim Airport in Goa to catch my flight back to Kerala and the power went out twice in 10 minutes. No one seemed phased by it. Power can go out anytime day or night, sometimes for a couple of minutes, sometimes longer. Keeping your phones and gadgets fully charged and having a small travel flashlight are smart ideas.

19. Be Aware of the Cultural Differences

Loose, flowing clothing on the conservative side is the norm and appreciated by the locals, the exception being the beaches in Goa, of course. In many places, you are required to remove your shoes before entering, including small mini-markets and cafes in the beach areas. Purchase cheap flip-flops (they call them slippers in India) when you arrive as a backup in case yours suddenly disappears from a public entrance. There were times when I carried around a lightweight pair just in case.

When visiting temples and other sacred places, you must cover your shoulders and knees so a sarong, beach wrap, or scarf does the trick. You can find one for as low as 200 rupees ($2.40 USD)  at the clothing stalls. Play down your enthusiasm and affection with others. This can be misinterpreted by the locals. Be polite and less informal, especially with professionals in the tourism and hospitality industry.

20. Use a Travel-Safe Personal Item or Bag

Depending on where you go, you can be a fresh target for pickpockets or have little to no trouble. I felt pretty safe walking and traveling around alone in Goa and Kerala, but I never let my guard down. In the crowded tourist areas, I used my security messenger bag. My Travelon messenger bag has RFID protection, a wire-based shoulder strap to prevent slash and grab, and secure lock zippers with enough room to hold necessities including passports, two phones, my mini power bank, and a small bottle of water. You can find a waist-pack version and men’s shoulder bags with the same features.

21. Just go with it. This is India.

This is not a relaxing destination, but it is an exciting one. And there will be ups and downs during your adventure. I can’t tell you how many times expats and locals including my family grinned and said “Welcome to India ”, every time I pointed out something that surprised me. India moves at its own pace, especially in South India where the vibe is so laid back. It’s a bit of a culture shock, especially for Westerners with a Type A personality.

Slow, conscious travel is the best approach to savor the culture and appreciate this beautiful country. The kindness of the locals will be refreshing. The language barrier in some places will be frustrating. Your body will need to adjust so don’t be surprised if you get sick or suffer heat exhaustion. Just embrace the adventure and know you will return with epic memories and stories to share for a lifetime.

Do you have any more tips for first-time travel to India? Please post a comment below and thank you for joining me on this restorative and informative journey! If you enjoyed this post, please consider signing up for my newsletter and following Restorative Travels on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube

Resources:

Apply for your Indian e-Visa: https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/evisa/tvoa.html

Travel Insurance: https://www.allianztravelinsurance.com/

Proton VPN: https://protonvpn.com/

Charles Schwab Checking Account: No minimum to open, no monthly service fee, ATM fees are reimbursed at the end of each month, and zero foreign transaction fees on purchases.  https://bit.ly/getschwabfortravel

Chase Sapphire Rewards Card: Visit this link to see the current sign up offers

My Travel On Security Messenger Bag: https://amzn.to/4apy148

This article contains affiliate links from which I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Please see my affiliate disclosure for more information. 

Riverbank view in Mandrem, Goa at Ashiyana Yoga Retreat
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