Staring at my ticket, one way to Delhi, my stomach fills with butterflies, anticipation and a tiny dose of excitement. I wondered why there wasn’t more of the latter, for India had been a place I had dreamed about traveling through all my life. I wanted to wander the blue streets of Jodhpur, sit on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, meditate with Tibetans in the Himalayas and soak in the sunshine beaches of Goa. I’d read so much, seen so many photographs, yet still; I had no idea what to expect.
For many solo female travellers, India is the scariest place of all. Why it has become this way is probably a mixture of the highly publicised Delhi rape case, and a mix of fearful stories they have heard from other travellers. Before my first trip to India, I spent a lot of time reading stories by bloggers on the Internet, looking for some reassurance that I was going to be OK. I didn’t know anyone else who had travelled solo in India, so I looked to the internet for some advice. There are many good experiences out there, but also many bad ones. There’s also a lot of bad advice on the internet, and a lot of advice which tells you either not to go at all, or to go instead with a tour group.
I wanted to share my experiences traveling in the country, over the two trips I have taken, one for two months and the other for almost four. I don’t know everything about traveling in India, which is why I’ve included links at the bottom to great articles around the Internet from people who have had their own experiences in the country.
My first trip
I was 22 when I first decided to travel alone in India. I was told by so many people (most of whom had never been to India) that this was a bad idea, and if the butterflies in my belly weren’t bad enough, I’m sure they were even worse in my mums, who was even more scared than I was. I pushed down that fear and went anyway. I flew into Delhi airport and spent two months traveling through the North of India alone.
That first trip was hard. It was the hardest experience I have ever had as a traveller anywhere in the world. I was young, naive, and although I had recently travelled alone in Nepal and Turkey, I wasn’t the experienced traveller I am now. I was unfortunate to get sick a number of times, something many travellers experience in India and one which isn’t pleasant for anyone. I also approached the country with a closed off attitude – something which was advised to me continuously on the internet (don’t trust anyone, always book everything in advance etc). I had many wonderful experiences – I spent three weeks in Dharamsala, volunteering with a Tibetan newspaper. I saw the Taj Mahal, the Golden Temple and fell in love with Varanasi. I also got ripped off too many times, had much too rigid plans and at one point, continuous food poisoning left me in hospital in Delhi. I left with a bitter taste in my mouth- I thought I’d never go back to India.
And I went back?
Fast forward just over two years and I booked yet another one way ticket to Delhi. This time, I booked nothing except a train to Jaipur. Was I afraid? Yes, of course I was. Yet I was also tremendously excited. For in the years since my first trip to India, I had realised just how much that trip had changed me and helped me grow as a person and a traveller. India had become my greatest teacher – the place I had learnt about loneliness and independence. I wanted to go back not only to see many of the beautiful places I had missed before, but also to prove to myself that this time, I could do it, I could enjoy it, and I could relish in the chaos of India. And I did.
This time I did India the right way, I booked almost nothing. I had few plans, an open ticket and a 6-month visa. I was confident, an experienced traveller and most of all I went to India with an open mind and an open heart. In return, India’s wonders and beautiful, friendly people opened up to me, and I had some of the best experiences of my life. I still got sick (but I managed it better), I still got ripped off (but I shrugged it off and moved on), and I also had one bad experience with a local man who had the wrong idea about my intentions of being in India (something which shook me up, but I was left unharmed and I knew I had to move on). But in the end, I fell head over heels for this country which I had once vowed I would never return to.
So those are my experiences and mine alone. But what about yours? I’m going to share with you some advice about traveling solo in India, the lessons I’ve learnt from my trips and I’m going to answer some commonly asked questions about traveling solo in the country as a woman.
Why Should I Travel to India anyway?
India is one of the most exciting, vibrant and contrasting lands on earth. It will also push you, challenge you and change you in more ways than (in my opinion) any other country on earth. It is a land of contrasts and variety. From the rich spirituality and tribal cultures in Varanasi and Rajasthan. To the sweeping and remote Himalayas, the Sikh cultures of the Punjab and the rolling tea plantations of Darjeeling. Head South and you’ll find pristine beaches, fishing cultures, lush backwaters, highlands and some of the best food in the world.
India has a bit of everything, it also has an abundance of languages, varieties of foods, religions and a mix of old and new. It is an exciting time to be in India, things are changing, developing and yet so much of that unique Indian culture is being preserved so well. People go to India for so many reasons, yet for everyone that travels there, there’s no doubt India leaves her mark on you, firmly in your heart.
So should I go alone?
The short answer is yes. I would recommend traveling solo in India to women, BUT I believe you have to be somewhat aware of what you are going to do. If you have never left your home country before, India might not be the best choice of places to go alone for your first ever solo trip. India is hard and I don’t think there’s anyone who has been there who doubts that (unless you only stay on a beach in Goa – that would probably be pretty easy and relaxing). Perhaps try another Asian country first, like Thailand or Nepal. If you are still adamant about going to India, perhaps start your trip with volunteering in Dharamsala, or start first with the South, which is generally much more relaxed, before heading to the North.
If you are an experienced solo traveller then I highly recommend India as your next trip. You’ll probably still find India challenging, but you’ll also find it endlessly rewarding, and as you already probably have a lot of travel confidence and experience, you will easily reap the benefits of your trip. I still recommend being well prepared, but also approaching the country with a relaxed and open attitude.
“The attitude you take when you travel in India will influence your experience, in my opinion.Try and have a positive and confident attitude. Be cautious, use common sense, but try and keep your fear in check.
For some reason, India seems to reflect back your inner feelings, expectations and judgments much more quickly and forcefully than other places. If you are afraid, you may have scary experiences. If you are open, trusting and positive (while remaining cautious of course), you are likely to have warm, wonderful experiences”
Top Tips for Solo Female Travellers in India
Don’t book everything (even better- don’t book anything)
Unlike some travelers I hate planning. I don’t even like booking train tickets or flights a few weeks in advance because so much of the time, my plans change, or I find somewhere I really like and want to stay a little longer. In India, this really works to my advantage, and I highly recommend arriving in the country with a flexible schedule which will allow you time to move plans around, follow advice from other travelers and most importantly- allow yourself a few rest days if you become ill or exhausted.
Traveling in India can be very tiring – trains are long, bus rides are very bumpy, you will get a lot of hassle, particularly in big cities and you must be prepared for things to go wrong. Trains are commonly delayed by several hours and buses commonly just don’t show up. Being flexible and relaxed with your schedule is one of the best decisions you can make when traveling in India. It will allow you time to think, relax, stay a little longer in places you love, and get out a lot quicker in places you don’t.
Don’t try to see too many places in a short amount of time
If you only have a month I recommend sticking to a certain state, such as Rajasthan, Goa or doing a short circle of the North, hitting 4-5 destinations along the way. Trying to cram too much in is a big mistake as India can be tiring and you’ll need some time to relax. There is so much to see in India, and you’ll never see it all in a month (or even 6 months), so don’t try to, instead, pick an area you think you’ll enjoy and really get to know the place, the culture, the people – you’ll find this a much more rewarding way to travel around the country.
If you are lucky enough to have a longer amount of time (and are traveling on a 3 or 6 month visa) then you have the luxury of being able to see a lot more and to be much more flexible with your time. This really is the way to do India if time and money allow it, and you’ll have a very rewarding experience in the country.
Do your research
I know I just told you not to plan, but research is different and I recommend you do lots of it. Read about different destinations, learn about Indian culture, history and each of the different religions. Buy a Lonely Planet Guide Book, it will become your bible. While it is important to be flexible, it is also important to know about the country you are in, and the customs and traditions of the country. I find guide books invaluable when I arrive in a new city for the first time, for it will tell me how much a taxi is supposed to be, where the bus/train station is and it will also give some recommendations for accommodation which is useful particularly in a big city where hotels are spread out. It is also important to know a little about what to wear and pack, as this is a question I’m often asked, I’ve answered it in a separate section below.
Be aware of your surroundings and use common sense, particularly on transport
One of the best advantages I find of traveling solo, is that I am constantly aware of my surroundings and on alert for anything unsafe or suspicious. This is often because I am not talking to anyone, instead I am taking everything in around me and observing everything going on. This is particularly important in India, where you are often in busy crowds and on over-crowded transport.
Make sure your train or bus doesn’t arrive at your destination in the middle of the night, arriving in a new city with 100 tuk-tuk drivers wanting your business is not the best situation to be in when you’re tired and alone.
Book your train tickets on an App, and travel in an upper berth and choose your class wisely
This is a good piece of advice for both men and women. Travelling in the upper berth of a carriage gives you much more privacy and that helps a lot with sleeping without being stared at for the entire night. I also always recommend traveling in either Sleeper Class or 3AC on overnight trains. These carriages often house lots of families whereas the more expensive coaches make it more likely that you are the only woman in the carriage.
Booking tickets through an App such as ClearTrip means you have control over where you sit, what time you arrive and it means you can shop around different trains for the best deal. It also prevents you from getting ripped off in a travel agent, something which I’ve heard happened to many other travellers before.
Stay in family run guesthouses and hotels
Men rule the roost in much of India, and many hotels are very male dominated, which if you are one of the only guests, can often feel uncomfortable. Choose instead to stay in a guesthouse run by a whole family, where there’s women, children and grandparents around. This makes for a great atmosphere and you might have the chance to talk with different generations of the family about life in India. I’ve had situations where I’ve walked into a guesthouse, felt very uncomfortable with the men running the place (often making inappropriate remarks and quickly inviting me to drink with them), and so I’ve simply left and found another place to stay. Sometimes it’s better to spend a little more money for somewhere you feel safe and at home.
If it’s your first time in India, choose destinations which will ease you into the culture
Arriving in Delhi or Mumbai can be particularly difficult, so instead choose to escape quickly to places where you’ll meet other backpackers, adapt slowly to the culture and find your feet. Later on in this post I’ve listed places which I think are perfect for first time travellers in India.
Dress appropriately for the culture you are in
Like with anywhere in the world, it’s appropriate to adapt your dress to the culture you are in. In India, much of the country is still fairly conservative compared to the West. It’s wise to cover up and respect local customs, particularly in the North of India. I’ve written more detail on how to dress in India and included a great blog post below.
Be prepared to fall ill with food poisoning, and bring all the correct medication to help you get through that
One of the biggest mistakes I made the first time I travelled to India was not being prepared for food poisoning. It strikes most travellers to India at some point, and can be easily dealt with and reasonably pain free if you treat it correctly. If you do fall ill, give yourself a few days of rest in a comfortable hotel room (ideally with an ensuite bathroom) . Take rehydration salts, drink plenty of water and eat plain foods. Take medication to ease stomach pains and if you really must take a long distance train or bus, stock up on Imodium. Also note that all trains will have toilets in each carriage, but buses do not and the infrequent toilet stops are often not the most pleasant.
Smile, laugh but be confident and assertive
Confidence goes a long way in India, if you look like you know what you are doing, and where you are going, then people will believe you do. Don’t be afraid to ask people questions, but don’t also be encouraged to ‘visit my cousins travel agent to book your train ticket’. Confidently say ‘no’ and walk away. Smiling can also go a long way, as it will make you look comfortable in the situation. Smiling at women or children in trains can often mean making friends for the whole trip who will look out for you and if you’re lucky – even share food with you.
Best Destinations for Solo Travellers
The easiest and one of the most beautiful and most enjoyable places to travel in India is Goa. Don’t just think of package holidays and bikini-clad tourists, Goa actually has a lot to offer for a traveller and it’s a great place to be solo. Goa (and Hampi) have a fairly South East Asian feel, they are laid back, there are lots of hostels around (although I found it was always cheaper to stay in local guesthouses), you motorbike everywhere and in general, you can dress much more relaxed.
More: 15 Things You Must Do in Goa, India
If you fly into Delhi and freak out at the crazy traffic, the extreme poverty and the pretty awful backpacker enclave of Praha Ganj, then hop on the first overnight bus to Rishikesh. Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, Rishikesh is an absolute dream. It’s beautiful, relaxed, with tons of things to do and a great mix of both Indian and Western (generally the vegan-raw kind) food. You can sign up to a yoga or mediation course, go trekking in the Himalayas for a few days, visit the old Ashram where the Beatles studied or simply chill out around town. Rishikesh is a great introduction to Northern India and a place you’ll probably want to stay a while…
More: The Travelettes Guide to Rishikesh and Haridwar
Dharamsala and the surrounding Himalayan hill towns
Dharamsala is a small Himalayan town, home to the Dalai Lama and a huge population of Tibetan refugees. It’s a great little traveller town, with a distinctly un-Indian feel. There’s lots to do here – like volunteer your skills to help the Tibetan people, attend nightly movies at some of the charity hubs around down, or head out into the hills around to enjoy the mountain views. I found it a great place to be solo, and the surrounding towns like Manali are similar in feel.
More: How to Spend One Month in Northern India
Another one of the South’s great backpacker gems, Hampi is located in Karnataka state and has one of the most breathtaking and unusual landscapes I’ve ever seen. The vibe here is similar to places like Pai or Koh Tao in Thailand (without the heavy drinking). You can live in a bungalow, explore the area by motorbike and meet hundreds of other solo travellers. Nearby Gokarna is also another hippie hangout in Karnataka.
More: How to Spend One Month in South India
Rajasthan is a state which is filled with some of the most interesting towns in India. It’s also one of the cheapest, and most popular places to travel to in India. Pushkar and Udaipur are particularly good places to start as both are very relaxed, beautiful towns with lots to see and a thriving traveller scene.
More: 6 Reasons to Put Pushkar on Your Bucket List
What Should I Wear?
One of the questions I get asked most commonly about traveling in India is ‘What should I wear?’ This depends a lot where you are traveling, as each area has a different climate and culture. In general you will need to be a lot more conservative than you are at home.
I would never wear anything which shows too much flesh, even if it is scorching hot. Think long dresses, loose trousers and kaftan tops, and scarfs around your neck. If you feel comfortable wearing a Salwaar Khamese (what most Indian women wear for casual dress) then this will help you to blend in, however, if you don’t want to, then clothes which cover the same areas of the body is your best bet. You can easily buy clothes all around India for very cheap, I recommend taking very little and buying things along the way. In general, I also found that tying my hair back took attention away from me (although I am blonde) . It is worth having at least one warm item of clothing like a fleece jacket and a pair of leggings to wear under hareem pants or skirts on night trains or if you head to the Himalayas.
Check out What to Wear in India by Brenna from This Battered Suitcase. It is a great example of how you can look stylish, appreciate all the wonderful things on sale at markets in India and still cover up and look respectful.
In the South, you can generally relax your dress a little more, especially in Goa and Kerela. In Goa, most Westerners will wear Bikini’s in the water, although I would take a cover-up such as a sarong for sunbathing. In towns that have a heavy backpacker population – such as Palolem, Arambol and Hampi, you’ll see many international and domestic tourists wearing short skirts and strappy tops. On long distance bus and train journeys and when traveling off the beaten track, you should go back to dressing in a similar way to the North of India.
Slip-on sandals or flip-flips are the best for day-to-day wear as you often have to take your shoes off to enter temples and restaurants. I also had a pair of hiking boots for when I went into the Himalayas and for places where it was cooler in the evening.
What Should I Bring?
First thing I should tell you is you can buy everything you need to travel in India IN India for a much cheaper price. Second, the best gift you can give yourself is a light backpack, it will make transport and getting around much easier. A few things which are very handy when travelling in India are…
A sarong/thin blanket/towel- I find it useful not only for the actual use, but also to use as a curtain on night trains. In Sleeper class, you will often find yourself in a carriage with a lot of Indians who might never have seen a foreigner before. They like to stare, even when you are sleeping. I find it very comfortable to hang something alongside my bed to cover me up, it gives me a lot more privacy and I can sleep easily.
Sleeping bag- I tend to stay at very cheap guesthouses, and often I have found in India they will only give you a very thin sheet or an unwashed blanket. I found a sleeping bag to be very useful, in both hotels and on overnight trains. It keeps you warm, clean and cozy. If you have the room and don’t mind the extra weight it is a very helpful addition.
Padlock and chain- As I always like to book the Upper Berth for more privacy and safety, I have to leave my bag quite a way away from me while I am sleeping. It gives me peace of mind to tie it up to a pole, knowing that no one will swipe it during the night (unfortunately this is common on trains in India, particularly on the way to Varanasi). I always sleep with my valuables under my pillow of course!
Mobile phone- This is not only useful for safety reasons, but also for booking trains and transport. When you arrive in India, it is simple and cheap to get an Indian sim card. Register with the Indian Railway Service and download an App like ClearTrip. It gives you the freedom to book your own trains, choose your seat and carriage number without having the pressure and commission of travel agents. I find this to be invaluable and use the app extensively in India. Many guesthouses also have Wifi that frequently cuts out, with a SIM card, you are able to surf 3G at a very low cost and you can top up all over the country.
More: The Ultimate Travelettes Packing List for India
Great advice from other women around the Internet
BreatheDreamGo- Is India Safe for Women Travellers
BreathDreamGo- My top tips for women travelling in India
Global Galavanting- My tips for women travelling in India
Hippie In Heels- 14 Tips for Solo Female Travel in India
Flora the Explorer- Happy, Safe and Solo: Travelling in India by Yourself
Nomadic Matt (piece written by Candace Rardon)- Is it Safe for Women to Travel to India?
This Battered Suitcase- What to Wear in India
Global Galavanting- Top Female Bloggers Reveal Why Women Love Traveling in India
“The most important thing I’ve learned for over 2 years of full time travel is that the world is not a scary place and people are inherently kind!
Sometimes we need to switch off the news and actually get out there and experience the world – it’s often a lot less scary than they make it out to be!”
Anna at Global Galavanting (an absolute GURU on the subject – check out her site for so much more!)
Happy and solo in Hampi, South India
Disclaimer: Please note that this post is in no way intended to cause any offence to Indian people or culture. The experiences I’ve had as a woman in the country are mine alone and I simply intend to advise others in order to be safe and happy travelling in the country. Of course like anywhere in the world, there are both bad and good people in India. I’ve found most men I have met in the country to be wonderful, kind and respectful people, however there’s no doubt that the culture and attitude towards women is complicated and not as equal as that in other parts of the world, something which is highly publicised.
Have you travelled solo in India? What were your experiences? Are you considering making the trip? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!