As an India Destination Specialist who recently completed my 12th visit to the country, I have had my fair share of cultural mishaps along the way. India has become my second home, with countless lessons learned about how to best acclimate and immerse. (Check out more in my Tips for Traveling to India with Children.) Here are five mistakes that travelers make in India:Overpacking
India may be a developing country, but many comforts of home are readily available. Chemist shops, for example, sell everything from malaria meds to sleep aids. Consider packing less clothing and buying local. Not only are the items affordable and fun to wear, but the fabrics complement the climate. In major cities, the markets sell snacks and comfort foods including trail mix, granola bars, peanut butter, and macaroni and cheese. The one item to definitely pack? Comfortable footwear - especially for travelers with larger shoe sizes. (As someone who wears a size 11, I have only found and purchased four pairs of shoes from India - in over a decade.) If your itinerary includes domestic flights, another advantage to packing light is the baggage fee. Most airlines only allow one checked-bag weighing 15kg, or 33 pounds.
Planning an itinerary in India is definitely a good idea. However, there is SO much to see, so don't try to experience everything in one visit. It is important to remember that traveling in India is not like other destinations. If you over-schedule, an enriching experience can quickly become exhausting and aggravating. Focus on your interests and be sure to add time at leisure. Traffic, crowds, and unexpected events (a cow giving birth on the road, for example) can cause massive delays. Always allow yourself a buffer and don't judge travel time solely on distance. A site may only be 5 km away, but this can take well over an hour.
Avoiding Street Food
Yes, you read that correctly. Sampling the local cuisine is an engaging way of experiencing the culture, and the food at roadside stands and cafés are particularly tempting. Travelers should exercise caution, as some of the items may not be cooked or cleaned properly. My philosophy? Follow the locals. The busier the establishment, the more likely the food is made fresh and not sitting out to accrue bacteria. Often, the gastro discomfort is not actually caused by the food, but instead by the water. Avoid any foods that are made or preserved with tap water. Additionally, check if dairy items and bottled juices are pasteurized. We recommend only eating fruits and vegetables that have a thick peel, including oranges, squash, peppers, mangoes, and bananas. With the exception of hotels, be wary of salad - the lettuce is often washed in tap water! As a precaution, some travelers pack an OTC digestive relief or grapefruit seed extract, which is a natural defense to unfamiliar bacteria.
I often hear that travelers did not bother bargaining in India because "the prices were already so cheap." Although India can be inexpensive, be sure to stay aware so you don't overpay. If utilizing a rickshaw or taxi, always use the meter. Uber and other ride sharing options are also a metered alternative. When shopping, bargaining is expected. As a foreigner, your price will automatically start three times higher than the locals.Try to have fun and understand that bartering is the cultural norm.
Note: It is customary to tip guides and drivers, as well as anyone who provides a direct service including spa therapists or a delivery service.
Clear away your expectations. India is unlike any other country in the world. Period. There is a common phrase from first-time visitors to the subcontinent: "India is an assault on the senses." The sights, sounds, and even tastes can be overwhelming, especially if compared to other destinations. However, what you resist will ultimately persist. If you dive in to the experience without any preconceived expectations, you will understand, appreciate, and perhaps even fall in love with the unity of color and chaos. Enjoy the journey!