India can certainly be overwhelming for first-time travelers. It’s complete sensory overload—loud noises; bright colors; various smells ranging from beautiful to horrid; enough spices to last a lifetime; and crumbling ruins, beautiful silky saris, and more. Despite all of that, there are several things you can do to ensure you stay safe, stay cool, and don’t get sick while in India.
Traveling in India can be a bit intimidating, especially if you’re a woman. The news seems to inundate us with stories of rape, acid attacks, and many other types of violence against women. While India is certainly behind the times regarding women’s rights compared to more westernized countries, things are getting better there.
The advice for staying safe in India is similar to staying safe in other countries, with the addition of a few things. You should always keep an eye on your bags and pockets, especially in large crowds and in tourist hotspots. Because you’ll stand out, people may follow you around to take photos with you or shove their babies and kids at you to take photos with them. Be sure to mind your things then.
As already mentioned, you’ll stand out quite a bit just because of being a foreigner. To ward off some of the stares, be respectful of local traditions and customs. If you’re a woman, wear clothing that covers your shoulders and your knees. Be sure to pack a scarf with you as well to cover up when you may feel some unwanted attention. Also try not to smile to men, as this can sometimes be misinterpreted.
Lastly, when taking public transportation, be sure to work things out up front with the driver. Be specific about where you’re going, negotiate the price, and know beforehand about how long it should take to get there. If you’re unsure about hailing a tuk-tuk on the street, pop into a hotel or a shop and have someone there call a driver or get one for you. Also be sure to have close to the exact monetary value in your pocket, ready to hand to the driver upon arrival.
If you’re not spending time in the mountainous areas of India, chances are you’ll be somewhere warm. The temperatures, even in the northern cities, can top out over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime. Also bear in mind that the humidity can be unbearable in some cities!
To stay cool, avoid jeans! Jeans always seem like a good idea in theory, but when you’re in a country as hot and humid as India, all they do is stick to you in the most unpleasant way imaginable. To stay cool, pack light cotton clothing. T-shirts, maxi skirts or dresses, and ankle-length pants are great. Plenty of foreign men can get away with shorts, but it’s not the same for women. If you want to try something local, buy a kurti (a long tunic-style top that most women wear with leggings), shalwar kameez (a long shirt with loose-fitting pants), or, if you’re a bit more daring, a sari!
Also be sure to take along a hat or a scarf to block your head from the sun. It’s also a good idea to always carry a large bottle of water with you not only to cool you off, but to ensure you stay hydrated. You may also want to consider buying a folding fan or a handheld battery-operated fan for those really unbearable moments. And one perk to those pesky water heater outages is that you’re sometimes forced to take a cold shower! I found India to be one of those two-to-three showers a day kind of place.
It seems like everyone who visits India has one of those Delhi belly stories. Unless you’re dying to add that to your travel bucket list or are looking for a “good” story, there are several ways to protect yourself from getting sick.
First and foremost, don’t eat uncooked vegetables or fruits that don’t have peels (bananas and oranges, for instance, are fine to eat). If they’re washed in local water, you’re likely to get sick from it.
Speaking of water, do not drink the water in India. Bottled water is ridiculously cheap and easy to come by. If you’re a green traveler, purchase a filtered bottle to refill or pack some water purification tablets.
Do not drink out of glass bottles—they are typically recycled and could have harmful germs on them. Request a straw or a cup to pour your sodas or beers into. If you get a bottle of water that has already been opened, request one that is still sealed, as it may have been refilled with tap water.
When it comes to cooked foods, your safest bet is to eat primarily vegetarian while in India. Don’t worry—it’ll be delicious. There are plenty of vegetarian dishes, making it difficult to get bored easily. If you want to have meat, my recommendation is to order it from a hotel or a higher-end restaurant. You might be fine eating it from other places, but I wouldn’t risk how they keep their meats (in a refrigerator?) or how long they keep them around.
I encourage you to eat street food, but again, make sure you’re careful where you get it. You can see people cooking, so always ensure that the food you order is fresh and is still steaming—that way you know it was cooked to a high enough temperature to kill germs and that it hasn’t been sitting around with bugs getting all over it. Also, drink the chai from street vendors and dhabas—it’s probably the best you’ll have in your life!
As far as sweets are concerned, do not purchase from street vendors. Find a reputable shop where they are encased and refrigerated. The last thing you want to do is eat some milk sweets that have been in the sun all day with flies crawling all over them. Reserve those sweets for your gifts to the Hindu deities.
Most people worry solely about the foodborne illnesses, but also keep in mind that there are other ways of getting sick. Don’t risk dengue fever or other mosquito-related illnesses—wear bug repellent, long sleeves and pants, and the color blue (apparently they hate it!). Be sure to carry hand sanitizer with you everywhere as well and use it as frequently as possible. It’s hard not to touch your face or your mouth and you don’t know what type of germs you’ve picked up as you’ve been touching things in the country.
One last tip: have medicine on hand for if you do get sick. Pack plenty of Advil, Tylenol, or pain killer of choice. For stomach issues, activated charcoal pills are great for taking immediately after eating to ensure you don’t get sick. You can also take Immodium or Pepto Bismol for when things really get bad. Another good thing to have on hand are rehydration/vitamin packets. Pour them into your water and chug it to feel better!
I hope all these tips help ensure you have the best trip ever to India!
Meganotravels is Megan Smith, a travel enthusiast who spends all her spare moments gallivanting around the globe. She packs in as much travel fun as she can while working a full-time job, running a blog and a non-profit organization. To follow along on her adventures, check out her blog, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.