It is very important to do your research — do not under any circumstances decide to ‘take it as it comes.’ Lurk on forums and look up places on the visitor’s guide to ensure that you will have the opportunity to experience the best of local culture without feeling disappointed after you get to your destination. A lot of small towns have regional festivals that you can only find by searching on forums and state tourism sites. Also keep in mind that each state has its own regional holidays, so make sure you do not end up traveling when shops, museums and monuments are closed to visitors. Have a rough itinerary at hand with things you absolutely want to do and then remain flexible for the those intriguing things that you might want to incorporate into your travel schedule, especially once you meet locals and fellow tourists who have been around the area.
For first-time solo travelers, be sure you book at least the first night of your stay at a decent and slightly more pricey place than you would normally book so you can use it as a base to drop off luggage and scout for hotels without bags on you.
Coming into a hotel straight from the airport and expecting to get a budget-friendly room immediately is a losing game. Since budget hotels can charge you as they please, the first thing you need to do is act and also actually be knowledgable about rates at near-by hotels. Homestays and Airbnb are another great option for those who are comfortable with living with a family.
It’s best to stay away from the main market/mall road and stay at a quieter place that is a small walk away — if you hold your sleep dear. Also, don’t pay extra for an attached kitchen if you are not likely to cook — local food is cheap.
If you do decide to make bookings in advance, be sure you call or have a local friend call the place to go over their list of services, particularly heating, Wifi and hot water availability in the rooms (not just in their café or lobby). As any seasoned budget traveler will tell you, booking budget accommodation on the internet is fairly risky as the rooms will often not look like the pictures and the hotel may not actually offer many of the services they list online.
It’s also wise to call the hotel after booking to ensure that they have received the reservation and are still affiliated with the travel site you booked them on (this is a serious problem in many parts of the country).
It is probably the most overstated travel tip for tourists in India, but almost every single price that is offered to a tourist is much higher than the ‘regular’/local price. You can take the smart road and start negotiating at half price and take it from there, but do it with a big old smile on your face because there’s nothing Indians love more than a good negotiator! Be wary of buying gemstones and real jewelry — it’s uncertified — unless you don’t really care about its value.
Get a map — and a printed one at that; these are easily available at the state tourism board counters near bus depots and at airports. Carry a flashlight at night if you are in town that shuts down after sunset (most of small-town India does). Google Maps for India are highly unreliable, and knowing how far you actually are traveling is of prime importance to following commandment number four. Also, carry a notebook with phone numbers of local contacts, the hotel manager, a couple of rickshaw drivers and anything that might be necessary should your phone battery run out (and you’ll be taking so many pictures that it most likely will).
Electricity is taken for granted while traveling in big cities. Most of small-town India has power outages, and budget hotels cannot provide any help when those do happen. Finding a charger may also be a task in certain rural locations; therefore, it’s best to carry everything with you and not think of ‘getting one on the way.’
Shopping in the areas right around the major local attractions guarantees two things: paying double or more for local items and also more importantly, not getting a look at how the actual locals shop. For an authentic shopping experience, ask a local where they would shop and get there quick! You’d be surprised at the difference in the experience — food in the touristy parts is tempered down to appeal to a more ‘continental’ palate, thus, robbing you of the pleasure of the actual authentic recipe.
There are two big reasons why carrying around an ID card is practical. One, it saves you the trouble of worrying about losing your passport. Two, you can rent a bike or car while walking around the city without having to go back and fetch documents.
ATM’s have sprung up across a majority of destinations; however, if you are likely to visit a small town or go off into the hills, carrying cash is one of the most important travel tips you will receive. A lot of ATM machines run out of cash or haven’t been serviced; therefore, relying on them is not the safest bet. An additional advantage is the ability to shop and eat at smaller places and mom-and-pop stores, which will not have a credit card machine.
It’s best to ask a diverse group of locals for advice on what to do and where to go in order to get as much unbiased information as possible; however, beware of blindly following a car driver or a guide around shops because you will end up paying a much higher price since the business owner has to pay commission on his earnings to whomever led you there. It’s better to always take a cursory walk around and put off purchasing things until a second or third visit, by which time you’ll certainly have a better idea of the average price and quality. Keep away from persistent guides, holy men who offer wisdom if you follow them around and anyone who seems too interested in your itinerary to ensure that you don’t fall victim to scams or conmen.
And finally, keep your eyes and your heart open to the kaleidoscope of experiences that budget travel in India will most certainly provide. Be prepared for surprises and welcome the chaos of budget travel in India, and you will be rewarded with humor, kindness and memories to last a lifetime!