Hampi- overlooking the lake at sunset
As a long-time visitor, I’m often asked for travel advice for women in India. 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 a few hard-won lessons and travel advice for women in India that will make your travel easier, save you some drama, money and stress.
I have lived and travelled solo in India, and some of the best experiences have been when I’ve been out of my comfort zone- but still safe. A quick disclaimer: while many Indian men can be problematic, I have met amazing men here, many of who have become close, trusted friends. Don’t judge them all by the bad press.
1. 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, confusing and illogical things happen, just take a deep breath and remind yourself that this will make a great story when you’re safely back home.
2. Don’t pack a lot (but remember the essentials)
Pack light. I only travel with my backpack. The weather is fairly consistent and services like laundry are common. I will sometimes wash clothes in my hotel sink and they are dry the next morning.
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 if the hotel sheets are not.
Some lower-end hotels don’t provide towels, so a travel towel is essential.
Pack 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 highly recommend starting a course of pro-biotics and taking one each day. This would be one of my essential tips for travel advice for women in India; even now, two years later, I find if I stop taking a probiotic, I start to feel very below average.
Remember travel adaptors for any powered devices.
Make sure you have insurance. I use World Nomads but any comprehensive plan will be fine. I also recommend getting all possible vaccinations for India- including the rabies vaccine. I’ve never had a problem but all it takes is one dog bite (and there are many, many dogs here) and you’re in trouble. While you would still need medical treatment, it gives you time to find a hospital with the appropriate anti-rabies treatment.
3. The best footwear for India is sandals
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.
4. Look around for cues about what to wear
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. If you’re unsure, look at what the local women wear, it’s an accurate barometer for what is accepted in that part of India. For instance, on the Goan beaches, a bikini is fine, and in Mumbai or Delhi a pair of jeans is good (if not quite hot).
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 head-covering for entry into temples and mosques. I wear a headscarf when I’m in the hot sun. I’ve used them as a mosquito barrier (those buggers can be persistent, even if you’re wearing repellant). 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.
5. Mentally prepare yourself for the bathrooms in India
Brace yourself, ladies. Toilets (‘washroom’ is the commonly understood word here) in India can be horrific. Cheaper hotels won’t provide toilet paper, only the spray gun. Public toilets definitely won’t. I used to carry toilet paper with me but got used to using water, it’s clean and easy.
Squat toilets are common in smaller villages or older buildings and I actually find them cleaner to use than ‘European’ toilets- less to have to touch. Feminine hygiene products are easy to find in supermarkets but I found it simpler to use a Moon Cup (and less environmental impact too).
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!
6. Food & drink safety in India is crucial
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. This is where I reiterate- take a probiotic every day. This helps so much.
Only drink bottled water. If you go to restaurants, don’t drink the water in the cups on the table, at least not on your first week. I started only using bottled water, then used tap water to brush my teeth, then gradually built up a tolerance. That said, locals rarely, if ever, drink from the tap and I never have. DO NOT DRINK WATER FROM THE TAP. I read a blog where a young lady did and unsurprisingly, she got very sick.
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 – 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.
7. Specific travel advice for women in India
I have found India a safe place. People from the North, notably Delhi and Utter Pradesh, are said to be more aggressive and violent, but I’ve had no problems, although I’m not sure if it’s luck or good management.
You will be stared at. Not just a glance, but stared intently. It’s not dangerous, they mean no harm, but simply are curious. 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… it’s up to you whether you smile at them or not. If I feel safe, I do.
If it seems to escalate and turn into ‘eve-teasing’, don’t be scared to be aggressive with them. Don’t try to be polite. You can tell them to leave you alone, or raise your voice and make a fuss. I’ve found that other Indians will come to your aid if you get a bit loud.
You will also be asked for selfies. Many selfies. At first I was dubious but then I realised I love the feeling of being a rockstar. However I have turned down individual young men, groups of young men, and also people in crowded places where I feel like my handbag might be grabbed. Often one selfie leads to others asking and you get stuck in this infinite loop of selfies. Turn them down if you feel uncomfortable, it’s your choice.
Don’t go anywhere that smells like urine. This is a slightly hilarious but 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.
This blog has a story about a woman traveller who averted being raped in India but has come through that with five lessons she learned. I think the ultimate travel advice for women in India is to trust your instincts. If you are somewhere and your instincts are screaming at you to get out… get out.
8. Be safe and 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 three 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.
9. Choose safe accommodation: AirBnB, couchsurfing 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.
I would be very hesitant to stay with a CouchSurfer Indian man on my own. Read reviews, find out if you will have a separate room with a door that locks, and make sure you wont be staying alone with him. I went to one CouchSurfing meet up and had to leave as I felt like the men were using it as a dating opportunity and they were very persistent.
Whatever you decide to do, try to arrive at your hotel before dark. This gives you a chance to check it out, make sure it’s safe, and leave if you don’t feel happy.
10. Travel by train and bus is safe if you’re careful
There are a multitude of overland 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.
Final travel advice for women in India: Take time out for you.
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.
So there you have it: My travel advice for women in India. India is truly amazing and it will change your life. Don’t be scared of it, but go into this safely, prepared and ready for anything.