A first-timer's guide to holidays in India
If you've never been to India before then it might seem like a daunting destination. You may have heard things about the crowds, the heady mix of nose-tingling spices, the fairytale architecture surrounded by packed, chaotic streets. Planning a holiday to India may feel like a challenge, so what are the need-to-know facts? Here's a simple travel guide for first-time holidays here to help you plan the perfect trip.
Keep reading for trip itinerary inspiration, with suggested routes through the north and south of India.
When's the best time to go to India?
As a general rule, April, May and June are hot, with average temperatures reaching 33°C, and December to March is cool and pleasant (high teens low 20s) and could be considered the high season. The latter is a great time to visit the terrific beaches and backwaters of south India; you could head off from Mumbai, down the Konkan coast to Goa, then to Karnataka and finally to Kerala. From April to June it gets really hot here, so if you're planning on travelling through the south at this time of year be sure to schedule a few stops at the foothill stations in the area. Built with coolness in mind, these ex-colonial outposts were where the British went to escape the scorching heat, and you should too. It’s best to go north from April onwards; the cool, refreshing air at the foot of the Himalayas is perfect for exploring without running the risk of heat exhaustion. Is there such a thing as an Indian winter? You might be surprised to know that yes, it can get cold here: temperatures in December and January can be bitter around and north of Delhi, dipping to lows of 7°C.
How to get there
Getting to India has never been easier, with many direct flights now available from London to Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai. Birmingham also offers direct flights to Delhi. Otherwise, look for flights to Kochi, Ahmedabad, Amritsar, Goa, Chandigar and Thiruvananthapuram, and make land-based connections or domestic flights from there.
What should you pack for a trip to India?
First thing's first: what type of suitcase should you bring? As a general rule, if you're spending two weeks or less in India, touring mostly between cities, a wheeled suitcase is fine. You might be able to even squeeze everything into your hand luggage; pick the right carry-on case with the maximum space allowance from this round-up of 11 of the best bags on the market right now. If you're heading out to the beaches and more rural areas of India, a backpack might be better.
Getting around by train and bus will require a lot of research (and patience) so stock up on books and podcasts for lengthy journeys, and those inevitable delays. Sanitary and safety basics like mosquito repellent, antibacterial wipes, a pad lock and a torch are a must. You’ll find most major brands on sale in the shopping districts (eg. L’Oreal) but India has plenty of regional, often Ayervedic products for sale. Check out the work of Himalya Herbals, and grab a bottle of Odomos, one of the the best mosquito repellents out there. For more on what NOT to pack, check this out.
What wardrobe essentials will you need? If you plan to cover the north and the south of the country in one trip, you’ll need to pack for extremes. For the south, November through April, include cool cottons or linen clothes to protect from the heat. During these same months up north it gets chilly, so merino wool, cashmere or down-type clothing will come in handy come nightfall once temperatures start to drop. For women, dressing modestly is always a consideration. You’ll find scarves on sale everywhere, but make sure you bring one to cover up where needed and a wrap-around or long skirt to cover up those pins.
Do I need a visa?
Yes. If you're travelling from the UK to India on a UK passport you will need a Visa. The UK Foreign Office's website has a great section on foreign travel advice for India which includes visa application details (and also reliable safety and security advice, local laws and customs, entry requirements and heath precautions.
What apps might be useful for planning?
WiFi is very common all over India, even in smaller cafes in remote locations, and in populated areas you’re never far from an internet cafe. A few apps that could save you a lot of time and make booking travel and accomodation a lot easier include IRCTC (for buses in india), Zomato (for food and nightlife information) and of course the Skyscanner app, which you can now use to book flights, hotels and car hire.
What is there to see and do in the south of India?
Start your Indian summer in the south and discover amazing architecture and colonial vibes in Mumbai, the best place to start your southern adventures. Imagine unspoiled beaches and wild forest all along the Koncan coast to Goa; choose to relax on the pristine sands you stumble upon, or try a spot of kitesurfing or even just some regular surfing. The spectacular ruins of Hampi, a village in northern Karnataka, will introduce you to the world of the Hindu god Hannuman, as you clamber through what's left of the ancient temples scattered across the this World Heritage Site. The dry, barren landscape surrounding this village is like something from a Star Wars movie - the exact opposite of the lush Konkan coast you just left behind. From Hampi head even further south to Kerala, the richest state in India, thanks to its plentiful supplies of spice and silk. Kerala's ex-colonial port city, Kochi (sometimes also pronounced Cochin) sits on India's south-west coast and is the best place to watch traditional Chinese fishing nets being cast at sunset, to taste delicious rice dishes (including but by no-means limited to masala dosa, idly and sambar) and to laze in gently swaying coconut trees.
What is there to see and do in the north of India?
When temperatures in the south soar, we recommend heading north to the mountains. If you're looking for a fascinating entry point, try Dharamsala with its intertwined threads of Tibetan and Indian culture - you may know it as the home of the exiled Dalai Lama. From the hill station of Manali in the state of Himachal Pradesh - widely regarded as the adventure capital of India - you should definitely check out paragliding in the Himalayas if you've got a head for heights. Manali is base camp for a lot of different activities, and a common stop en route to renowned scenic attractions and Buddhist ex-kingdoms nearby, such as Leh and Ladakh. Passes to Ladakh and the high Himalaya open from July to September. You'll also find plentiful trekking options, mountaineering courses and rafting. Once the snow arrives, ski resorts open and you can take advantage of the ski lifts to get the best views of the Himalayas. If you're feeling more 'shanti', head to Rishikesh, well known as a hub for yoga and meditation with temples and ashrams aplenty.
Looking for more top tips for Indian trips? Check these out:
Fish curries and colonial forts; keep your cool and check out these top things to do in the Indian state.
If you’re taking off to India, start in Mumbai. It’ll give you a flavour of the continent without the potential culture-shock.
photos © Lezaan Roos