The Biggest Mistakes Foreigners Make When Travelling In India

There have been many times in the last few years when travellers, colleagues, and friends from around the world have narrated horror tales of travelling in India, our home country. They have been mistreated, repulsed by the garbage, have faced harassment in hotels, fallen sick, and been conned. A Kenyan colleague of mine was harassed so much on the streets that she never left the hotel room. In fact, this holds painfully true for many African travellers who often get teased on Indian streets.

At the risk of inviting controversy, I’ll go as far as to say that travelling in India is quite a difficult task. The main reason it poses such high risks is the sheer variety of threats in a variety of places. Travellers have to protect their luggage, money, health, and body, all at the same time while trying to have fun.

Neeleshwar Hermitage in North Kerala
India is a land of complexities. It can be stunningly beautiful like this and equally frustrating.

Having said that, I also consider India to be one of the most intriguing travel destinations. It has unique culture and food, rich history and colour, mountains and sea, cities and villages, kings and queens, deserts and snow, cheetahs and rhinos, music and yoga, and most importantly it has a variety of people, good and bad, young and old, kind and harsh.

To some travellers, it impresses so much that they never go back while some others never return.

To some degree, the bad travel experiences result from the sheer construct of the country and there’s no denying that. However, a lot of the other bad experiences arise from uninformed and poor travel decisions.

This is not blaming the traveller but the travel industry as a whole that romanticises the chaos of Indian destinations without really describing the struggles associated with them. For example, pictures of Holi in Varanasi, view of the Taj Mahal from the river, ‘Sadhus’ of Haridwar have misled a zillion travellers who yearn for the same ‘nirvana’ experience. In reality, these experience are far from how they are portrayed and are often accompanied by large crowds, uncomfortable situations, and in rare cases, unsafe incidents.

My heart cringes at the mistakes I see many travelling in India make especially because most of these are easily avoidable with some guidance. 

Here, I give you ten mistakes that many (most!) foreign travellers make when travelling in India and how to avoid them.

1. Sticking to Cliche Indian Destinations Like Varanasi

Maybe it’s great marketing or the obsession with touristy places, Indian destinations like Varanasi, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Agra, Goa, Jaipur, Manali are on every traveller’s list. These places may excite a lot of travellers but the majority of the areas in these destinations are overcrowded, touristy, commercial and in my opinion, represents a one-sided perspective on India.

Instead, go to offbeat locations like Bhitarkanika in Odisha, Mechuka in Arunachal, Kasargod in North Kerala, Munsiyari in Uttarakhand, Khuri in Rajasthan etc. Not only will these be cleaner and safer but will put a fresh bent on a traveller’s perspective of India. Isn’t travel all about breaking stereotypes? Then, why not travel outside the box and discover what the internet hasn’t talked about already.

The longest drive-in beach Muzappilangada in Asia
The silent drive-in beach of Muzhappilangad in North Kerala, the longest in Asia.

2. Choosing Delhi Over Other Indian Cities

Most of us (including myself) who have lived in Delhi have a love-hate relationship with it. There’s great food, music, history, and brilliant connectivity to other destinations. But, it is brutal, rough, and very nasty at times. The crazy pollution Delhi is infamous for is NOT a lie. One cannot expect a great travel experience in a city that even its residents find discomfort in.

On the other hand, cities like Bangalore, Pune, and Chennai are easy to handle especially for first-time travellers. They offer a variety of things to do, have equally good experiences to learn about India’s culture and its cities, and feel more welcoming. It’s not a new concept to skip the most ‘famous’ city in a country. We usually follow this in other countries we travel to, as well. Madrid over Barcelona in Spain, Porto over Lisbon in Portugal are some examples. Perhaps, apply the same principle when travelling in India as well?

On a heritage walk of Bangalore, we discovered the famous (and gorgeous) flower market

3. Staying At Dodgy Budget Accommodations Over Home stays

Unfortunately, India lacks the option of budget accommodations that offer a high value in return. Even though there are a large number of budget hotels and accommodations, the ones that are safe and offer good services are few. This is especially true for smaller towns that haven’t really caught up with the competition in the market.

Therefore, we think that accommodation is what travellers should spend the most on when travelling in India.  Even though we never really spend too much on accommodations in most other countries, in India, we make it a point to spend and find good accommodation options which make for half the travel experience itself.

Choose home stays, highly reviewed hotels, and experiential stay options that have a character. Besides, avoid walking into a hotel without having read reviews of it. India is not a place to be impulsive. 

Homestay in India
Our Homestay in Nathuakhan, near Nainital (now moved to a new location), was an experience in itself.

Of course, there are many luxury accommodations in India that you could choose from but if you are always on a tight budget like we are, you may instead want to do a thorough research and find those rare gems that are affordable (if not cheap) and of high quality. Example, check the cool concept of ‘pay as you like’ that Goat Village has come up with and you will know what I mean. 

When in cities, another great option is Couchsurfing. We learnt from one of our couch surfing guests that they found India to be very hospitable to Couch surf. Again, follow many restrictions on who you choose to stay with. 

Beyond the listings on Airbnb, you can also find private homestay or vacation rental options on SaffronStays and India Untravelled.

4. Trying Many Adventure Sports In India

When travelling in India, trying adventure sports at a whim in touristy destinations is calling for trouble. Bungy jumping in Rishikesh, Scuba Diving with random operators in Goa, paragliding with inexperienced operators in Manali are some examples of what to avoid. Frankly, I’m not suggesting that something always goes wrong but this is definitely not India’s strong suit.

At the same time, there are some well-known operators for safaris, mountaineering, and hiking. Read up enough about an operator before you choose AND never choose one before reading about them – that’s the golden rule.

Trying Adventure Sport While Travelling in India
White water rafting in Dandeli. Lot of Indian rivers offer rafting opportunities but it’s ideal not to book on a whim.

ChaloHoppo comes highly recommended as far as hiking in North-East goes. For safaris, Pugdundee Safaris is among the leading operators that Google search may not throw up but comes highly recommended from a lot of leading Indian bloggers, like the well-travelled Neelima. There are tons of trekking routes in the Himalayas but not all operators run it responsibly, please do extensive research before booking one.

5. Celebrating Festivals With Large Groups And Neglecting Other Festivals

The idea of celebrating Holi in large gangs gives me the creeps. Celebrating festivals on streets and in large groups in India is an unsafe idea that is best avoided at all costs. You will rarely find locals doing that as well. Choose to celebrate famous Indian festivals like Diwali, Holi, Durga Puja with your host family instead of going on streets of Varanasi, Haridwar et al. This is a common mistake made by many travellers when travelling in India, an experience that can get very awkward.

Read tips for foreign visitors on ‘How to celebrate Holi in India’ as suggested by Mariellen. 

More importantly though, there are tons of lesser-known festivals that will not only be safer to partake in but also offers a different facet into India’s unique culture. Consider going to the Hornbill Festival In Nagaland, Onam in Kerala, Lohri in Punjab’s countryside, or Rann Utsav in Gujarat. Again, staying at home stays would be a great idea to participate in these festivals closely – some of them may not have any public celebrations at all. 

Theyyam Festival of North Kerala
Theyyam – A ritual form of Worship in North Kerala – hardly sees any tourists.

6. Reading Only Western Perspective On India

The web is obviously filled with western perspectives not only about India but about many other countries. Not only is it sad for the obvious reasons, but it presents such a lopsided view of a massive country like India. A lot of pieces on India written by those from the West are repetitive and linear in nature. 

On the other hand, the Indian travel bloggers are writing and travelling better than ever before (at least some of them are). The Shooting Star by Shivya, ReDiscovery Project by Ambika and Hoshner, SandeepaChetan are very well written blogs focussed on parts of India that not even most Indians have heard of or ventured into.

Having said that, if you prefer a western perspective, then read bloggers like Rachel from Hippe in Heels and Mariellen from BreatheDreamGo who made India home and write extensively about travelling in India.

7. Using Old-School Commercial Travel Operators

If you haven’t been paying attention, India has grown and so has its travel companies. Instead of booking experiences via the conventional companies that seem to do the same old – pick you up in a fancy taxi, take you on a standard memorised tour, have you look at the poor, and make you buy handicrafts. Instead, look for new-age operators that offer a different take on Indian destinations and culture while being responsible. 

A bit of hand holding in the first few weeks of travelling in India is a good idea especially if that is with an experiential travel company. For example, Blue Yonder runs experiential tours with responsible tourism at its core. Youth-led Chalo Hoppo runs small group local tours focused on the North East of India where you’ll camp in some of the most picturesque locations in the country. AuthentiCook lets you arrange a meal at a local’s house and so on. 

Our friend and India’s leading travel blogger Shivya has a curated a whole list of India’s best offbeat experiential travel companies.

8. Listening to All Local Opinions. And, Not Listening To Enough Local Opinions

Yes, the locals know the best but not always. Before you roll your eyes at me, bear with my argument.  Like in any other country, an average local in India, when asked for ideas on travel destinations, would probably direct travellers to the most ‘famous’ spots of the city. ‘Offbeat’ and ‘experiential’ aren’t concepts that most locals make sense of. In the same way, for food, they may direct you to a chain restaurant that they like the most or assume a traveller would prefer over Indian food. Therefore, when travelling in India it becomes extremely important to choose whose opinion you pick.

Found this homestay suggested by a fellow passenger in my bus who was well traveled himself. 

One of the best ways to do so is to find friends of friends, bloggers, travel writers, experiential travel companies, and ask them questions. Even if you don’t couch surf, find highly rated hosts and ask them your queries. A colleague of mine had her entire Kerala itinerary run through Vikas. What’s better than having an ardent local from the state advise one on the itinerary. It may take some effort to find these people but who said travel is an easy affair!

9. Ignoring The Use Of Internet And Useful Apps

Phone and internet connectivity in India is literally growing every month and becoming cheaper than it has ever been before. One can buy a 60GB data for less than 13 USD and stay connected everywhere in the country. This also means that a lot of apps are now an integral part of our (city) lives. It comes as a surprise to me that most foreign travellers we meet in India never use the internet connectivity to their benefit that many locals use frequently.

Apps like Uber and Ola for taxi services work in large number of Indian cities/towns now and you can use your credit card to pay. Zomato is another very common app to use when looking for restaurant ratings. Besides, there are many other apps like Live Train Status to check the status of your train, Bookmyshow to book movie and events etc. India is among the most tech savvy nations in the world with a bubbling start-up scene, so leverage these apps and services to make your experience more smooth.  

10. Planning Without Keeping Weather In Mind

It’s a common assumption that India is a hot country and all parts have the same weather throughout the year.  When my hometown in the far north freezes in January, Vikas’s hometown in Kerala literally melts with heat. The variation in temperatures is vast in India and many times travellers fail to acknowledge it or make use of it.

Visiting Delhi in May/June, the hottest months of the year is a horrific travel decision. At the same time, it’s a pleasant time to be in Karnataka or Kerala which gets it calm monsoon in June (before it becomes wild in July). In the far north, Himachal and Uttarakhand get snowy in December while Tamil Nadu in southern coast gets cyclones. Therefore, base your travels on the weather and understand the weather of each region well before you plan a trip. Needless to say, pack accordingly. 

Goa Blue Tokai Coffee
The wet season in Goa calls for coffee, not beaches.

There’s a reason why the Lonely Planet for India is the fattest of all. India is vast, varied, and complicated to make sense of in a short time. Given its complicated nature,  many travellers fear to come to India and when they do, they stick to the conventional path mostly laid out by a travel agent. It breaks my heart to see travellers limiting themselves into the ‘mainstream’ Indian experiences. Perhaps, its time to change that.

If you are planning a trip to India, we urge you to make an attempt to go off the beaten path and see the India that lies beyond the crowded streets and famous spots. For any questions, queries, or ideas, write to us. We are on a temporary mission to fix mistakes that travellers make while travelling in India. 

Note: This post has many external links, none of which are either sponsored or affiliated like in any other post on our blog. The companies, blogs, and websites that we have included are the ones we love using. No hidden meanings there, as always 🙂

One thought on “The Biggest Mistakes Foreigners Make When Travelling In India

  1. Great post. I haven’t been to India but I find your perspective really refreshing and honest 🙂 i wouldn’t know where to even start when it comes to traveling in India, your alternative cities to the top destinations is a great start

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