In India, you will see things that will leave you profoundly changed. You will taste and experience things that you will never find in any other country. It can be a challenging country to visit but it’s totally achievable to travel as a solo woman. Don’t let negative stories stop you from experiencing one of the most amazing places in the world. India is worth being a little uncomfortable for. I have lived and travelled solo in India, and some of the best experiences have been when locals have gone out of their way to look after me due to my status as solo female traveller. I also have a few hard-won lessons that might make your life easier.
Lower your expectations
If you’ve lived in a ‘developed’ country, don’t expect the same here in India. The way of life is different and the living conditions reflect that. The best advice I could give you, is to embrace it. In a country of 1.3 billion people, there’s nothing you can do to change anything. When frustrating, illogical things happen, just take a deep breath and remind yourself that this will make a great story when you’re safely back home.
What to pack
Pack light. I only travel with my backpack. The weather is fairly consistent and services like laundry are common.
It’s generally too hot to sleep with blankets, but a silk sleeping bag liner is the perfect option. It keeps the mosquitoes off, and most importantly, is clean when hotel sheets often are not.
Some lower-end hotels don’t provide towels, so a travel towel is essential.
Sunscreen, insect repellent, and any medication or painkillers you might need. Most things can be found at pharmacies, but I’ve really struggled to find floss, and roll-on deodorant is not common. Dia-Stop tablets are important, in case something goes wrong, but I also recommend starting a course of pro-biotics and taking one each day. This helps with minor stomach irritations and might help dodge some of the bigger problems.
Remember travel adaptors for any powered devices.
I wear sandals every day. You will be required to take your ‘chappal’ off when in someone’s home, and sometimes even shops, so something easy to slip on and off is ideal. Make sure it’s sturdy, as footpaths and roads can be treacherous. High heels are definitely not appropriate! If you want to fit in with the locals, adorn your sandals with as much sparkle as possible.
Both Hindu and Muslim beliefs deem that clothing be ‘modest’. This leaves what you wear open to interpretation, and Western clothing is quite common in India. Generally, anything is accepted as long as it’s not short, low cut, or exposing your shoulders. I purchased some local attire- salwar kurta. The pants are long and flowing, or you can opt for the ‘MC Hammer’ pants. These are quite possibly the most comfortable item of clothing I’ve ever worn.
The kurta is a long tunic, usually knee length with elbow-length sleeves. They are the best thing to wear, quite aside from modesty. They keep the sun off so you aren’t reapplying sunscreen constantly. The cotton fabric is light and the cut loose, so they keep you cool and comfortable. You can buy these in modern malls, or at any number of small shops everywhere. They are of dubious quality but at Rs. 500, it’s not a great expense. However just be prepared to embrace the colour and pattern options- India is not a country that wears black. Even under those black burkas, you can see a flash of startling colour at the ankle.
I also recommend a scarf. These are multi-use. A shawl at night if it’s cool. A headcovering for entry into temples and mosques. I wear a headscarf when I’m in the hot sun. And finally, they are great wrapped over your mouth and nose to avoid pollution/ smoke.
I wear a cross-body handbag. It doesn’t look too touristy, and is easy for me to use. However it’s a bit of an effort for a thief to steal, and when I’m in crowded places I can easily rest my hand over the bag without looking obvious.
Cheaper hotels won’t provide toilet paper. Public toilets definitely won’t. Squat toilets are common in smaller villages and I found them cleaner to use than ‘European’ toilets. Feminine hygiene products are easy to find in supermarkets but I found it simpler to use a Moon Cup.
Cheaper hotels may not have hot water, or may only have hot water for an hour or two each day. They will likely have a geyser, which you turn on 15 minutes before showering, and then you’ll have a hot shower. A number of places I have stayed at have only had a cold tap and a bucket. Certainly this is a very quick way to wake up in the mornings!
Food & drink
Hygiene around food in India isn’t as bad as I anticipated. However, it doesn’t matter how many times you wash your vegetables when it’s highly likely no-one in the restaurant has washed their hands after going to the toilet! I carry hand sanitizer with me and use it if I feel the need.
Only drink bottled water. If you go to restaurants, don’t drink the water in the cups on the table.
Don’t order things like salads, or be tempted to buy the cut fruit they sell at tourist places. The ingredients have been washed in local water and you don’t know how long they’ve been sitting uncovered. Be wary of ice, or anything from stalls or carts. If it’s freshly deep fried or something steaming hot, it’s fine, but you’ll learn to trust your instincts. Also, if you’re in India for a while, you do become more resistant to bugs.
The food in India is INCREDIBLE. Each state has its own food culture. In the South, masala dosa and a coffee from a local hole-in-the-wall restaurant is a delicious breakfast for less than 100 rupees. There’s not much beef, unless you happen to stumble upon a Muslim restaurant, and it’s easy to be completely vegetarian here.
I have found India a safe place. People from the North, notably Delhi and Utter Pradesh, are more aggressive and violent, but I’ve had no problems.
You will be stared at. Not just a glance, but stared intently. It can be quite uncomfortable but I just ignore it. If you smile at the women, you will be rewarded with a huge grin, but smiling at men can be construed as flirting.
You will also be asked for selfies. At first I was dubious but then I realised I love the feeling of being a rockstar. However I have turned down groups of young men, and also people in crowded places. Often one selfie leads to other asking and you get stuck in this infinite loop of selfies.
A friend of mine has a rule: Don’t go anywhere that smells like urine. It’s a good rule. It’s an indication that the alleyway is quiet, poorly lit, and frequented by men. I tend to not go out after dark on my own unless I know the area or it’s a busy street. Some places and restaurants are less women friendly than others, but trust your instincts.
Buy a cellphone
Get a cellphone. Either get International roaming on your current cell, or the Indian Government now gives tourists SIM cards on arrival at airports. They only last 3 months, but if you’re here for longer, Airtel sells SIM cards. Take your passport, a passport-sized photo, and it only costs a few hundred rupees. I believe a cellphone is essential- calling hotels, getting Ubers, or just communication with home.
AirBnB or hotels?
I’ve had a number of positive experiences with AirBnB. I’ve stayed with families, and with solo men. Read the room descriptions and visitor feedback to ensure you know what to expect. In particular, families are excellent to stay with and immerse yourself in ‘real life’. Eat some home cooked meals, walk the kids to school, play a few rounds of cricket on the local street. I was lucky enough to stay in Mumbai with the former Mr India World, a pleasant experience and a genuinely lovely man.
There are a multitude of travel options available. Trains are amazingly on time and can be booked via the IRCTC website, and you can use ‘women only’ carriages. You can opt for local buses but prepare to share with goats and have children dumped in your lap. Tourist buses are cleaner, air-conditioned, and still quite cheap. Sleeper buses are great. You can choose the ‘solo female’ option to either get a single berth, or to share with another woman.
Around town, autos and Ubers are the best bet. Autos are excellent for short distances. Drivers often will only speak the local dialect, and may struggle to understand English and accented Hindi attempts. There SHOULD be a meter, but most of the time they are ‘broken’. Negotiate a price BEFORE starting on the trip and don’t let them bully you into paying four times more than you should.
Traffic in general is heart-stopping and is an experience in itself. If you want to cross the road, it’s traffic roulette which can be fun to play. Initially until you feel happy doing it on your own, find a local crossing at the same place and keep pace with them, using them as a human shield.
Finally, make time for yourself. India is intense, all the time. It’s an assault on your senses, with smells, noises, and jangling colour 24/7. From the wafts of slow cooking fragrant curries, clouds of steamy incense, to the stench of open sewers. It’s the constant ear-battering tooting, street dogs barking, children squealing. It’s intoxicating and exhausting. Find quiet places to chill out, do some yoga, or just read a book in your hotel. India is truly amazing and it will change your life.