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Red Fort, India | © Dennis Jarvis / Flickr
Red Fort, India | © Dennis Jarvis / Flickr
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A Backpacker's Guide to India

Picture of Poonam Binayak
India Writer
Updated: 24 May 2018
India has fixated backpackers with its beauty, adventure, ancient and modern wonders, as well as economical accommodation and commuter’s network. Without doubt, this land of diversity has everything to put the lust in wanderlust. So, if you’re planning on backpacking in India, here’s the perfect guide on how to do it on a budget.

Logistics

India is one of the least expensive destinations in the world, thus making it perfect for backpackers on a budget.

Getting to India

The major cost, however, is generally the flights. To save on the cost involved in getting there, it is best to travel off-season (January-May & September-October) or shoulder season (August & November 15-December 10). For those wishing to travel during peak season (December-January & June-July) and long weekends, it will be heavy on your pocket. Many flash sales are available; just keep your eyes peeled for them. Plus, midweek flights are cheaper, and also it is prudent to book tickets at least two to four months prior to your trip as this will reduce the airline ticket cost up to 50%.

Getting Around India

When travelling locally in India, flight, train and bus are the options available. Hitch-hiking is also an option, if you can.

Flights: The size of India is vast, so flying is a good option for traveling within the country provided you book at the right time and pick the right flight. For instance, instead of direct flights, take connecting flights; travel midweek (Tuesday to Thursday), plus travel at off-peak hours, like early morning or late night. Another must-know trick for backpackers to India is never reload the same flight booking page to know the flight fare because every website tracks the number of viewers and clicks on the page, so the next time you ask for the fare, you will notice an increase in price; it is best to use ‘incognito window’.

Put aggregators, such as Kayak, Skyscanner, Award Wallet, etc. to use for comparing airfares and getting cheap flight tickets. The domestic airline Air India has a ‘Discover India Pass’ (fly pass) that enables you unlimited travel on the Indian airline routes for around 15 or 21 days, and it costs around INR 32,000 ($500) for 15 days. Indian Airlines also offer ‘India Wonder Fares’ to foreign nationals, which enables unlimited travel in Economy class within four regions – North, West, East and South, with a stipulation that no region can be visited more than once. It costs around INR 20,000 ($300). Similarly, Jet Airways has an ‘Explore India Pass’ that enables tourists to fly to 46 domestic destinations using a single ticket in economy class.

Trains: To experience the real India, while keeping your pockets heavy, train is the best option. The train system in India is well-developed and the fare across different cities varies widely. For short distances, opt for general ticket or sleeper class ticket and for a little longer distance, opt for AC 3-tier. Senior citizens are eligible for a 40% discount in the fare. If it is an overnight journey, you can also travel on an RAC ticket (which means you’ll need to share your berth with another traveller). Use IRCTC App, it is much faster than the official website. Go for ‘Tatkal booking’ if you could not get through the normal train booking. Tatkal booking opens at 10 am as the seats get filled up quickly, so login on time and hit the seats as soon as the booking opens. Without any second thought, just go for train travel in India as it will help you save like no other. Tip: Carry a padlock and chains to secure your luggage!

Public transport: Buses and Volvos are cheaper options for inter-city travel. If wanting to travel within cities, like Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Jaipur, Chennai, Kochi and Gurugram, use Metro as it is cheaper and faster. You can buy Metro cards from the ticket counter at the metro station. If travelling within Mumbai, local train is your lifeline. ‘Shared Autos’, also called ‘Gramin Seva’ are available in India for shorter distances. If you have a valid license, you can rent a car/bike/cycle and explore the city like a pro. Other best options to get around within the city is book a cab. Download an app for cab agencies, like TaxiForSure or Ola and get first tow rides free.

Accommodation

India provides a host of accommodation options. To enjoy the best stay without burning a hole in the pocket, backpacker hostels are your best bet; plus you get to meet fellow travellers and swap stories of India travel. Many cities have backpacker hostels that are comfortable and economical, for instance Zostel (Pan India), Bonfire Hostel (Agra), Jugaad Hostel and the Madpackers hostel (Delhi), Bunkyard hostel (Udaipur), Wanderers Hostel and Roadhouse hostel (Goa), to name a few. The backpacker hostels cost around INR 300- INR 600 per person ($5-$10). Backpackers can also take refuge in a guesthouse or budget hotel, which cost around INR 650-INR1, 300 ($10- $20) per room AC or non-AC.

Food

Indian food is diverse, eclectic and scrumptious. Backpackers can enjoy a delicious meal for $1-$2, inclusive of a bottle of water. A three-course meal in a mid-range restaurant may cost around $5; beer in a bar/restaurant may cost around $1.50. Skip the posh cafes, bistros and restaurants and instead opt for local small eateries that serve equally delicious food without breaking your bank.

Activities

Needless to say, all the things you do and see will add to your trip’s costs. Most attractions in India cost between INR 200-INR 1000 ($3-$15), for instance a visit to Taj Mahal, Agra will cost INR 1,000 ($15) for a day; Amer Fort, Jaipur will cost around INR 200 ($3), Qutub Minar, Delhi will cost around INR 500 (approx $8). And, if you want to indulge in adventure activities, get ready to loosen the purse strings.

Daily Budget: On average, visitors can expect to spend approx INR 900-INR 1,200 ($14-$18) per day, provided you stay in backpacker hostels or low-budget hotels, use local transportation and eat out in cheaper eateries/restaurants.

Tourist Trails

With an incredible expanse, you will be spoilt for choice when it comes to seeing the many destinations in India. Moreover, you can practically travel for months in India and never run out of things to see and do.

The Golden Triangle: This trip encompasses the mesmerizing cities of Delhi (Capital of India), Agra (Home to Taj Mahal) and Jaipur (Pink City). Soak in the rich history, culture and colors while backpacking through this magnificent tourist trail.

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal | © Simon / pixabay

Southern Odyssey: This trail includes Karnataka (Gokarna, Goa, Coorg, Hampi, Chikkamagaluru, Mysore, Nandi Hills), Tamil Nadu (Kodaikanal, Madurai, Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Yercaud, Ooty, Valparai) Andhra Pradesh (Horsley Hills, Araku Valley, Tirupati, Rajahmundry, Vizag), and Kerala (Thiruvananthapuram, Thekkady, Alleppey, Kochi, Munnar, Devikulam, Vythiri, Ponmudi, Idukki).

Hampi from Rooftop
Hampi from Rooftop | © Poonam Binayak

Jammu and Kashmir (Heaven on Earth): This trail includes Jammu, Srinagar, Pahalgam, Gulmarg, Leh, Patnitop, Pangong Lake, Kargil, Pahalgam, Drass, Nubra Valley and Katra, to name a few. You will instantly fall in love with this piece of heaven on earth.

Dal Lake, Srinagar
Dal Lake, Srinagar | © Basharat Alam Shah / Flickr

Magnificent Himachal: This trail is synonymous with backpackers and trekkers. It encompasses Kullu-Manali, Shimla, Kasauli, Dharamsala, Bir Billing, Dalhousie, Malana, Spiti Valley, Kasol and Khajjiar.

Rajasthan – The Land of Maharajas: This includes Ajmer, Amer, Alwar, Puskhar, Ranthambhore National Park, Ranakpur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Udaipur, to name a few.

Seven Sister States of India (North East): This trail encompasses Sikkim (Gangtok, Yuksom, Pelling, Lachung, Darjeeling, kalimpong, ), Mizoram (Champhai, ), Arunachal Pradesh (Tawang, Ziro Valley), Meghalaya (Shilling, Cherrapunji ), Assam (Haflong, Majuli, Guwahati). You just can’t get enough of it!

Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh
Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh | © Vikramjit Kakati / Wikimedia Commons