All photos below are my own and were taken in and around Kathmandu, Nepal
India has been at the top of my travel list for a long time now, but for some reason I still haven’t been able to make the trip. The main reason I’ve been putting it off is that I want at least a solid month to explore India and I just haven’t had the time. But deep down another part of me was worried: I’m little bit afraid of traveling solo in India.
I berate myself for feeling this way. Aren’t I supposed to be “adventurous”? Don’t I go on and on about the wonders of China, another “scary” destination? I’ve even heard from many people that traveling India was easier than traveling in China. I have plenty of blogger friends who have spent a lot of time in India, and a few that even live there!
While I’m not one to play into typical media fear-mongering, there are a few things that worry me about travel in India. However, after talking with my blogger friends about some solo female backpacker safety, I’ve realized a lot of my fears are completely unfounded.
I decided to make this guide because I realized keeping all this information to myself is a shame. We need to stop sensationalizing countries like India and China as incredibly difficult places to travel. While neither are easy destinations for first-timers, they’re not places you should cross off your list just based on what you hear on the news.
So here it is: How to Survive Traveling Solo in India!
Dress the Part
This is important for any country you visit, whether it’s Paris or Abu Dhabi. The more you blend in and respect the culture, the better you’ll be treated.
You know what’s great about dressing the part in India? Indian clothes are colorful and beautiful!
In India, you can adapt your style based on the part of the country you’re in, but with the exception of Goa you should definitely cover up. Dressing conservatively can be a bit difficult, especially when it’s hot. Thankfully, Indian clothes are perfect for the heat and very cheap. Grab a kurta (long top) or salwar kameez (loose fitting long top and pants), pair it with a cute scarf and you’re good to go.
Curious about the Do’s and Don’ts of how to dress in India? Hippie in Heels has you covered.
Be aware of common scams in India
Traveling in India can push you to your absolute limits. That’s why it’s always good to be aware of common scams and safety concerns in the places you visit. Being able to spot a scam in progress will help you feel more comfortable as a solo traveler, and will save you money and hassle as well.
1. Hotel Scams
One common scam is that a driver may either pretend not to know your hotel or say it has moved or closed. The best way to avoid this one is to know where your hotel is in relation to the train station, airport, etc. and have the hotel’s phone number on you. If you have a bit more money to burn, you can also opt to have your hotel pick you up.
This scam is pretty common throughout South and Southeast Asia (I experienced this in Nepal and Cambodia). The main reasoning behind it is that the driver will make a commission when bringing you to certain hotels or guesthouses.
Finally, some hotels may also claim you haven’t paid, even if you already have! To combat this one, be sure to save all your receipts as proof.
2. Fake Train Tickets
Cities like Delhi and Mumbai have fake train ticket and tourist information offices that may sell you counterfeit tickets. The best way to tell if an office is fake is to ask your hotel where to go beforehand. Some of these offices may also look a bit sketchy, without computers or functioning equipment.
Still concerned? Global Gallivanting has a full guide to buying train tickets in India.
3. The “Gift”
This one happens all over Asia. It’s even happened to me in China! The way it works is that someone will give you something as a “gift” and then demand payment and refuse to take the item back. Whether it’s a friendship bracelet in Cambodia, a rose in China, or tilak in India- this is always a good one to know.
4. Count Your Change
For a full list of Indian scams to be aware of, check out Asher Furgusson’s Top 27 Scams in India.
Pick Your Food Wisely
I think everyone knows that food is one of my passions (especially spicy food). One of the biggest things drawing me to India is the fact that I literally want to eat everything.
But if you want to avoid the dreaded “Delhi Belly”, you’ll need to take a few precautions. If getting food poisoning wasn’t already bad enough, getting it as a solo traveler is even worse!
My biggest trick is to go where the locals are. If there’s a long line, not only is the food tasty, it’s also clean and freshly made. While that tip works almost anywhere, there is still some India-specific food advice you need to know.
1. Stick to Vegetarian Street Food (most of the time)
If a stall is known for meat (shwarma), feel free to chow down, but if the stand is mostly vegetarian and only has one or two meat options, chances are the meat has been sitting in the sun all day. India has such good vegetarian options, it shouldn’t be hard to mostly stick to veggie street food.
2. Only Drink Hot Stuff
While Indian restaurants serve ice that’s safe to drink, street ice is probably not. Just because the locals can drink it doesn’t mean it’s okay for you. To keep yourself safe, stick to chai and other hot drinks on the street.
3. Beware the Sauce!
In addition to drinks, most sauce is also made with tap water (unfortunately), and it may have been sitting in the sun all day. If you’ve been traveling in developing countries a while, it might be worth the risk. Otherwise, skip it and carry a small bottle of tabasco around in your purse (please tell me I’m not the only one who does this).
For more street food tips, Hippie in Heels has you covered.
Avoid Being Alone at Night
This is an unfortunate reality of being a woman in the world. That said, you don’t have to hole yourself up in your guesthouse at night! My friends who have lived and traveled in India gave me plenty of tips to make sure you stay safe while having a good time.
If you can, avoid arriving in a new place at night. Bad things can happen anywhere, as you saw from my story about getting abducted by a taxi driver in Wuhan, China. If you do need to arrive at night, most guesthouses will pick you up for free. Tell them to use your name when they arrive, and then double check by asking them your nationality.
If you go out with friends at night, come back home together and use a cab company like Ola, that tracks your journey. If you need to take an overnight train, try to book a bed in a ladies carriage, or at least take an AC class train and book the upper bunk. If you’re on a sleeper bus, be sure to book a bed on the 2+1 bus so you can get a bed to yourself and won’t have to share with a stranger.
Travel Super Slow
I’m a slow traveler at heart, but I like to travel especially slow in developing countries that aren’t built up for tourism in the way that most of Southeast Asia is (cough Philippines cough). One of the easiest ways to ruin your trip and hate yourself is to try to travel India too fast. Go with the flow, and come with an open mind (and a sense of humor).
Backpacking India is exhausting in general. There’s no need to wear yourself down by moving every few days.
Consider a Group Tour to Get Off the Beaten Path
If you want to get off the beaten path but are worried about traveling there alone, consider taking a group tour. GoMowgli is a popular option for heading to places like rural Karnataka. Both Rachel of Hippie in Heels and Anna from Global Gallivanting have taken GoMowgli tours and have great things to say.
This tip is one I, and many other women, struggle with when traveling. How do you act assertive without being rude? What is someone is genuinely kind and it’s just a misunderstanding? Thankfully, there are clear social rules in India, so it’s perfectly fine to be a bit “rude” or assertive without offending anyone.
In India definitely do not be too polite, or you’ll be seen as an easy target. If someone is hassling, cheating or “eve teasing” you, call attention to the situation. “Eve teasing” is a common form of sexual assault in which men will graze their elbow over your boob. If this happens to you, be sure to make a huge scene and shame the man publicly. You can even go to the police for eve teasing!
It’s also better to completely ignore people trying to sell you things, because interacting with them may make them think you’re interested in their products.
Out of all of the advice, I’ve read on traveling in India, acting with confidence and assertiveness is the largest piece of advice for women traveling solo in India. Don’t look like an easy target. Even if you don’t feel confident, fake it till you make it!
On a similar note, women watch how you interact with the men around you. Even something simple like a smile, eye contact, or a casual conversation can be misinterpreted as sexual interest. It doesn’t help that because of stereotypes and porn, some Indian men think that Western women are especially promiscuous.
Prepare Yourself for Gender Inequity
Like China, India has major issues with female infanticide, where some families in rural areas still drown baby girls at birth. In India, this is mainly due to the dowry practice. India also has an extremely high child marriage rate, and in some cases, women are even forced to marry their rapists.
While these practices won’t affect you as a traveler directly, it is possible that some men may look down on you as a female traveler. Some men might cut you in line, yell at you, eye you like a piece of meat or even ask you to give up your seat for them.
While I know this will probably drive me crazy, there are two important things to remember:
#1: It’s not your culture. Every time I get frustrated in China, I take a deep breath and I tell myself “I chose this“. You don’t have to be in India any more than I have to live in China. You are free to leave anytime you want, unlike Indian woman who have to put up with this crap every day.
#2: For every man who demeans and insults you, there are plenty of men in India who are outraged by this behavior. My cousin’s husband is from India and he’s one of the nicest men I know and an amazing father to two little girls.
Put Your Safety into Perspective
“But… is it safe?”
Even I’m guilty of asking that question.
I recently read a post by Mariellen of Breathe Dream Go, and I completely agree with her statement:
But my biggest concern is that the sensationalizing of these crimes against women in India is skewing perception; and missing the big picture. I think it is making India seem more dangerous for travellers than it actually is, compared to other countries (in my opinion); and it is taking the spotlight away from the worldwide problem of violence against women.
There it is. Violence against women is a worldwide problem, not just an India problem. Statistically, I’m probably safer in India than on an American college campus.
What you don’t know can hurt you. I would rather know how to keep myself safe in India then have a safety problem catch me by surprise. I think the fact that India is in the news so much for gender inequity and violence is actually a good thing because it will force the situation to change. The more we talk about these things, the safer women will be, and the quicker the situation will improve.
I’m more likely to get hit by a car just crossing the street in China than die in a plane crash on Air Asia. I’m more likely to be shot in the US in a drive-by shooting than kidnapped in Thailand.
India isn’t unnecessarily dangerous for women if you play by the rules and follow cultural norms. Should we boycott an entire country as large, colorful, and diverse as India because of media sensationalization and gender inequity? I would say no.
You’re Never Really Alone
Just like China, India is a really, really, really crowded place. You’re going to have to actively try to be alone.
India is quickly creating a vibrant hostel scene, which is the perfect place to meet people if you’re traveling solo. Find another girl traveling on her own and travel together for a bit. Keep your schedule flexible, so you can make sure you never have to be alone unless you want to.
I’ve heard from my friends in India that “Guest is God” and many local women will take a special interest in you if you’re alone. The vast majority of Indian people are kind, welcoming, and proud of their country. They want to make sure you stay safe, and enjoy your trip. Since many locals speak English, you can have an amazing, immersive experience.
What do you think? Would you travel solo in India? Do you have any advice I’ve left out?