India on a Budget (Travel Guide 2020)

Indian people in front of temple for post: Planning a trip to India on a budget

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Namaste India! All You Need To Know About Tackling This Beautiful Behemoth Country!

India is the land of a thousand colours; from temples and saris to festivals, it’s hard to think of India without picturing bright, vibrant hues. Then there are elephants! Bollywood! Samosas! Wow, India has so much to offer any traveller who sets foot on its special and sacred soil. Or maybe I should say dirt, dust, pavement, or jungle floor? 

India sure has a lot of biodiversity and different land to cover. Thirteen times bigger than the UK, there is room for a lot to happen. Let’s spend some time investigating how to get the best out of this beautiful country! Look no further; your perfect guide to India is here!

India is pure magic. Truly. With a hundred people greeting you with the word “Namaste,” and holding their hands in prayer as they offer the greeting and blessing, it’s easy to feel you’re in the land of beauty. 

Of course, India can be intimidating for first-time travellers. The large, chaotic cities filled with poverty, garbage, and insane traffic can be a lot to handle. 

I want to share with you how to travel India in a safe and fun way that offers you the most magic. 

PLANNING A TRIP TO INDIA

If you are planning a trip to India and you’ve never been before, you will surely have a number of questions about the country. We aim to answer every single question you might have about India in this post, so you’ll feel totally on top of everything before you go.

Even if you’ve been to India before, you’ll be sure to find golden nuggets of information sure to make your travel around the country is easier and will help you find more weird and Wonderful things to do in India.

I’m going to show you how to plan a trip to India on a budget with minimum hiccups and maximum awesomeness!

What You Need To Know About Traveling To India

When heading to India, it’s best to pack light, because you’ll probably buy a lot of affordable, beautiful bits and bobs. 

You’ll need to dress appropriately for the culture, which means loose-fitting clothing that goes past the knees and covers the shoulders. While you can pick these garments up in your home country, buying them in India for a few pounds is the preferred way to do it. You’ll be drooling over the clothes anyway, so plan on buying! 

It’s easy to buy a vast range of things in India – from power adaptors and SIM cards to peanut butter! India has pretty much everything you’ll need, so don’t worry about packing your bag to the brim. I would love to plan a trip to India right now to stock up on more gorgeous outfits and accessories, so if you’re currently planning your Indian travels, I’m super jealous!

Language in India – Since India is vast, there are many dialects; however, the national language is Hindi. Generally, in large cities, you won’t have difficulty finding people who speak English. If you’re visiting any kind of tourist destination, English will be everywhere! 

However, if you’re going remote, knowing a few basic words and phrases to prepare yourself for your off-the-beaten-path Indian travels is recommended!

We’ve got a good list of Hindi words with English meanings for you; scroll down a bit to see. 

Indian Visa – If you’re wondering if you need a visa for India, the answer is yes. Luckily, the e-visa process online is super easy! You can complete the Indian tourist visa application form online in around 15 minutes, and your visa may be delivered to your email address within a day or two! 

E-visas are generally suitable for 60 days. If you want to stay longer, you’ll have to visit the Indian embassy in your home country. Many scam sites say they’ll take care of your e-visa for extra fees, but please avoid the scams and go straight to the Indian government e-visa site via this link.

Indian Currency – The currency in India is rupees, and it comes in 2000, 500, 200, 100, 50, 20, 10 notes. And then there are the annoying, practically useless coins.

It’s always good to have rupees on you, as most restaurants, markets, shops, and stalls don’t take credit cards. I found that only the larger, fancy hotels and restaurants accepted credit cards – practically no one else does! For Indian travels, always carry rupees.

ATMs in India – There are ATMs everywhere in India, but if you’re in remote Himalayan villages or cities, such as Dharamsala, it can be a good 45-minute walk to an ATM… up or down a mountain…so brace yourself; it’s one of the glories of North India travel. 

My favourite ATMs in India are HDFC, HSBC, IDBI, ICICI Bank, and Citibank India. These have the lowest transaction fees. Fees on ATMs vary between 150-500 rupees per transaction, but you’re usually given a notification of the charges. Typically, the maximum amount you can withdraw in one transaction is 10,000 rupees. I used an ATM about once a week in India and had no problems.

Safety in India – Is India safe? Like really? This is one of the biggest questions travellers to India have, especially solo travellers. 

My answer? Yes, it is. However, I will qualify that by saying that India isn’t the place to take risks. It isn’t the place to take the dark alley, to arrive at an airport at 2:00 am and jump in a random taxi, or to leave your iPhone sitting on the table while you use the restroom.

India is a place to take extra precautions, to pay a little more to stay in a nicer place or take a better bus. India is safe if you keep your wits about you and travel smarter. 

LGBT Rights in India – September 2018 was a big month for the LGBT community in India; it was when the Supreme Court of India finally decriminalised homosexuality. While same-sex couples are not legally recognised, it is no longer a criminal offence to be openly gay.

Also, since 2014, transgender people can change their gender without sexual reassignment surgery. They have the constitutional right to register themselves under the gender of their choice. Statistics reflect that there are 4.8 million transgender people in India.

However, I wouldn’t say that all of India openly accepts people of the LGBT communities. There is more tolerance, but discrimination and difficulties still exist for the LGBT community. 

Electricity in India – If you’re travelling from the UK or USA, you’ll need an Indian travel adaptor, and it never hurts to grab a converter that features surge protection!

Electricity in India isn’t always the most reliable, so it’s good to have a surge protector to safeguard your electronics, as well as a power bank backup! 

Electrical Sockets – If you want to get technical, the power plugs and sockets in India are type C, D and M. Standard voltage is 230 V, and the standard frequency is 50 Hz.

Transportation in India

Indian transportation is safer than you think. I know, you’ve heard horror stories. But trust me, if you spend a few extra pounds, you can travel in comfort and safety. Those extra pounds – or rupees – will make all the difference.

Taxi

Taxis in India are not ridiculously expensive. Usually, you can take a taxi for five hours for less than 30 pounds. It’s a bit of a luxury to be in a private car, with your own driver. You can always have your hotel send a taxi to pick you up from the airport if you’re concerned about safety! 

Bus

Most local buses in India are insanely cheap, mega cheap, embarrassingly cheap. But these buses are the sources of the horror stories. You’ll feel like a sardine on horseback, with bumpy roads, no air con, and a hundred people in a tiny tin can. 

It’s best to take the tourist buses, which are reasonably inexpensive compared to other countries and can take you 10 hours for around 20 pounds. Usually, they have air con and will stop every 2-3 hours for bathroom and food breaks. 

Aeroplane

There are some cheap airlines in India that make getting to major cities as simple as pie. I fly Spice Jet most frequently, but they do have awkward kilo requirements on their baggage, so I’m always prepared to drop a few hundred extra rupees at the airport on excess baggage fees. Other good airlines are Air India, Air Asia, and IndiGo! 

Train

The train system in India is pretty incredible, running regularly and reliably. However, there are different types of train tickets and classes you can buy. There is third class, second class, and first class – or some variation of these labels. 

It is one hundred thousand percent always better to buy the most expensive ticket and travel in the first class section. Indian trains are also where crazy things can happen. Travelling in first-class sometimes means your section of the train is locked and cannot be accessed by other parts of the train; there’s also usually a guard on duty. 

USEFUL PHRASES IN INDIA

India is the world’s second-largest English-speaking nation (with 125 million English speakers), after the United States. You won’t have much trouble getting around this country using only English, that’s for sure!

But, as always, we recommend learning a few words in Hindi, since 43% on Indian people speak this as their first or second language. You never know how much fun you can have knowing a few words, or what doors it could open up for you! Here is a useful list of Hindi words with their English meaning.

Namaste – A common and respectful greeting 
Chalo – Let’s go
Nahi – No
Haan – Yes
Dhanyabad – Thank you 
Bathroom Kahan hai? – Where is the bathroom?

Paani – Water
Chai – Tea
Cheeni – Sugar
Nahi Chahiye – I don’t want
Yeh kitne ka hai? – What is the cost?

BEST BOOKING RESOURCES FOR INDIA TRAVEL

The following is a list of the best booking agencies for India travel planning. I use these companies over and over again when I travel to India and I have found they consistently have the best prices and great services. Most even have their own apps which make the booking process even easier.

Booking Flights to India

Skyscanner – I love the ability on their website to search by month. You can then get an overview of the cheapest flights within the whole month on a calendar layout so you don’t have to manually look at each day separately. I always use Skyscanner to plan my flights.

Google Flights – Another good flight search option. If you hit the grid button during your search you can see a layout similar to Skyscanner with a whole month view. I always check Google Flights to see if they have different or cheaper options to Skyscanner.

Booking Accommodation in India

Booking.com – Are always my first option when searching for accommodation. They consistently have the best prices, a lot of the time their prices are even lower than walking in off the street! Trust me we tried doing that several times. Plus they have great loyalty discounts, so after you have used them a few times you will see those amazing discounts pop up. If you aren’t already signed up to Booking, here’s $25 off your first stay.

Airbnb – If you prefer the comfort of staying in a home when you travel or like the idea of living with local people, Airbnb is a great alternative. I use them a lot when I travel, especially for long stays where I would like access to a kitchen. If you are not already signed up to Airbnb, here’s $30+ off your first stay.

Hostelworld – The best booking website for hostels out there. They have a huge number of hostels listed with a great interface. They are easy to use and cheap.

Couchsurfing – This is a website that puts you in contact with local people at your destination and you can stay in their home (couch or spare room) for free. The intention is that you then offer your couch to other surfers once you are able to.

The idea of it can be scary for some but my first ever Couchsurf was in India and then I stayed with locals at least 10 more times and loved every second of it! Just be smart and only stay in places with 40+ good reviews (and no bad!).

Booking Tours in India

Get Your Guide – This website a search interface for a large range of local tours offered in your destination. Whether you want to hire a guide to take you to off-beat locations or show you around some archaeological sites, Get Your Guide is the best place to look.

Viator – Viator is the tour booking company associated with TripAdvisor. If you prefer using TripAdvisor while planning a trip to India, Viator can help you book those experiences.

Travel Insurance

World Nomads – The best travel insurance for long term travel which covers medical and property. They are also great because you can insure yourself once you are already overseas, which most companies do not offer.

SafetyWing – Another backpacker favorite and are often cheaper than World Nomads. However, they only offer travel medical insurance at this time.

Clements – This is more expat insurance than traveler insurance as you need an overseas address. They offer really good coverage for personal property, especially for items that aren’t fully covered by your general travel insurance.

SEASONS IN INDIA

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: India is huge! Since it’s such a big country, the weather really does vary dramatically. It could be snowing in the north while the south is getting hit by tropical monsoon rains! It’s best to do your research about where you’re going, when you’re going, and what type of weather you’re in the mood for. 

The best time to visit India is dependent on where you’re going! Generally speaking, I can say that the north is cooler, the centre is hot and dry, and when it comes to the south, you can expect tropical weather. There are also three seasons in India: winter, summer, and monsoon.

Summers in India: March to May

Temperatures rise around the end of February each year. By April, you can expect temperatures to shoot up past 40 C in the north and central parts of the country. In the south, it’s a bit cooler – around 35 C – but expect crazy humidity. May means some of the highest temperatures, and more humidity because the monsoons are on their way!

Monsoon Season in India: June to October

There are two monsoons that show India their rainy wrath! The southwest monsoon travels up India’s west coast in early June. Then by the middle of July, almost the whole country is blanketed in buckets of rain. You can expect the rains to stop around October. 

However, if you’re in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala, the northeast monsoon hits around November and December. That’s their rainy season. A good thing to note about the monsoons is they usually involve a torrential downpour followed by sunshine; it’s pretty intermittent, so there is some respite! But it sure is humid, though!

Winter in India: November to February

Winter in India is usually a favourite of tourists as it doesn’t have the rain or the searing heat. Expect bright, sunny skies and pleasant days! However, the nights can be very chilly, especially in the north!

You will need a hat, gloves, and cosy coat, as temperatures can drop below zero. It’s the mountains, people! In the south, though, it never gets really cold. If you stick to south Indian travel, you get to skip the heavy winter coats!

THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN INDIA

Experience the Beaches of Goa

Goa, oh, Goa! Goa has been described as the Ibiza of India. It’s a place full of parties, casinos, and tiny, charming beach shacks. Goa is synonymous with beaches. Whether you’re looking for a quiet, remote beach like Miramar Beach or a huge party beach like Baga Beach, Goa has the spot for you!

Do a Meditation Retreat Near the Dalai Lama’s Temple

The Dalai Lama’s Temple is located in North India in Dharamsala. It’s definitely worth checking out his website and the schedule for his talks.

You might catch one of his free, open to the public talks that are extraordinarily special. You can also stop by his temple any day of the week to sit, meditate and enjoy the views. It is a rather simple and plain structure, but you can feel the peaceful energy there permeate the very air.

If you’re interested in learning more about meditation, sign up for a meditation course. I strongly recommend Tushita.

Get an Ayurvedic Treatment

Ayurveda is the ancient Indian system of medicine that focuses on healing the body through plants, minerals, and diet. Ayurvedic Treatment centres are gaining popularity and are places where you can receive panchakarma treatments such as massages, sauna time, mud baths, and more.

While you can schedule panchakarma treatments all over India, Kerala is known for being the place to do it!

Take Part in a Yoga Retreat or Teacher Training Course

If you are interested in yoga, India is the place to be! Rishikesh in Northern India is commonly referred to as the ‘Yoga Capital of the World.’ There are likely a thousand different yoga studios there offering daily drop-in classes and teacher training courses.

There’s practically no cheaper place in the world to do your yoga teacher training or take place in a yoga retreat. I highly recommend Punyah Yoga in Rishikesh. It’s a state of the art yoga studio and teacher training facility that blends Eastern teachings with Western Comforts. Plus, they speak English fluently!

Go Hiking in the Himalayas 

If you’re in the north of India, you can’t miss the Himalayas; you’ll be surrounded by them. There’s nothing like it. No trip to India is complete without a trip to see these amazing mountains. Even better, go hiking in them! You can do day hikes (just a couple of hours here and there), or hire a guide and take on a more serious trek. However you want to do it, hiking in the Himalayas should be on your India bucket list!

Take a Cooking Class

India has some earth-shattering dishes. There’s no better way to figure out the mysteries of Indian cooking than by taking a cooking class. It’s usually very cheap, less than 10 pounds on average. And you get a huge, delicious meal out of the cooking class. Two birds, one stone!

Explore the Temples

India has some absolutely mind blowing temples. There are thousands of temples in the middle of cities or carved into mountains and caves. You can’t visit a city without checking out a temple or two. Many are active centres of devotion too, so you can also take part in or witness a ceremony.

There are generally puja ceremonies happening daily, which are pretty cool to sit and watch. Chanting, sacred fire, flowers, and rice – so many curious things to bear witness to at temple ceremonies!

Get Adventurous!

If you’re doing India on a budget, you can still take part in some incredible adventure sports and activities! From rafting and paragliding to hot air ballooning, there are so many things to do in India if you’re looking for an adrenaline rush.

Take A Ride In A Houseboat!

If you’re in the south of India, taking a houseboat along the backwaters of Kerala is a hugely popular thing to do. You get a unique view of the landscape and wildlife, and it’s a unique way to travel. You can do overnight trips or just a little sunset cruise.

Meet and Bathe an Elephant

A word of caution here: please do not go to just any old elephant reserve and climb on top of one of these giant, peaceful creatures. Ethically speaking, please don’t ride elephants and don’t support companies or reserves that mistreat their animals! 

That being said, there are a few ethical elephant sanctuaries to visit, such as Wildlife SOS Be careful and selective. Many ethical elephant sanctuaries will allow tourists to feed the elephants and give them a mud bath. Done correctly, elephant ecotourism is a fantastic way to appreciate these highly intelligent sentient beings.

HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS IN INDIA

Diwali 

Diwali is the Festival of Lights and is celebrated all over the country. The date for this festival depends on the moon cycle, so it either falls in October or November each year. There are lovely light displays and shows, delicious food, and sacred puja ceremonies.

Don’t know where to go? I recommend Varanasi or Jaipur. The festival in India runs for five days, so you have plenty of time to enjoy all that Diwali offers.

Holi 

The bright festival of colours that you may have heard about is called the Holi festival. It’s a pretty wild festival filled with pranks and a rainbow of colours! In addition to neon paint and powder being tossed around, water is usually in the mix, with water guns, balloons, or buckets of water thrown from rooftops or in the streets. 

In my opinion, there’s no better place to celebrate Holi than Mathura. Holi happens each March after the full moon.

Shivratri 

Shivratri is the Hindu festival that celebrates Lord Shiva. It is an entire day where people flock to Shiva temples and pray, chant, and do puja ceremonies. I recommend Rishikesh for this festival celebrating the Hindu destroyer god. Shivaratri is celebrated in February or March. This is one of the most epic of all the religious celebrations in India!

TRADITIONS IN INDIA

Namaste

Namaste is the universal greeting in India that means, “I bow to you,” or “The light in me bows to the light in you.” Every day, probably a hundred times a day, you will be greeted with ‘Namaste’ by people. Fold your palms together in a gesture of prayer and place them near your chest while you say “Namaste.” It’s one of my favourite traditions in India. Namaste isn’t just for yoga classes, friends!

Holy Cows

The cows in India wander the streets and the cities freely. They are considered to be holy in the Hindu religion. It’s hard to walk too far in most cities without being confronted with a cow lumbering along the road. Most people and restaurants will feed the cows and make offerings to them. 

Eating with your Hands

If you’re going to eat in a Western cafe, you will get utensils that you’re used to. But if you are dining off the tourist path, expect to eat with just your hands. 

In India, people eat food with their right hand only. This is considered their “clean” hand, and it is very rude to eat food with the left. 

WHAT TO EAT IN INDIA

Thali

Thali has to be the most brilliant thing in the world. It’s an unlimited buffet of deliciousness brought to your table. You get a cafeteria-styled metal plate with little divots in it that is generally filled with rice, dhal, lentils, vegetables, and a meat or a cheese called paneer. 

Usually, chapati is served with it as well, which is like a tortilla. Whenever you finish a bit of your food, someone will come around and offer to serve you more. Thali can often be purchased for less than one pound, can you believe it?

Dhal Bhat

Dhal bhat is to India what bread and butter is to the West. Most Indians eat dhal bhat two times, every day for their entire lives! They consider rice and lentils major staples of their diet; it is a means of nourishing their bodies and sustaining them. 

Samosas

These deep-fried clouds of goodness can be found on just about every street corner. Samosas are like Indian style empanadas. They are generally filled with potatoes, spices, chickpeas, and maybe some peas. Usually about the size of your fist, they are beyond delicious! Just be careful not to eat too many, as they are pretty oily and can be hard on the stomach. 

Indian Sweets

There are so many different Indian sweets to try with crazy sounding names. I recommend going to a bakery and getting a little bag of random sweets to sample! My favourites are malpua and coconut ladoo.

Candy store at Holi in Varanasi, India

WHERE TO GO IN INDIA

Rishikesh

Rishikesh is known as the yoga capital of the world and is an incredible spot to visit in India. Nestled in the Himalayas in the north, it’s a sacred city known for its chill vibes and proximity to the Ganges river. 

There are amazing Ganges Aarti Ceremonies to witness every single sunset. Expect chanting, bright colours, and candles floating down the river. There’s also river rafting on the Ganges which is super fun. Fly into the Dehradun airport or take the train to the Haridwar stop.

Amritsar

Amritsar is known for the astounding golden temple. You can also eat there for free! The golden temple is run by the Sikh people, and service is a big part of their religion. Every day of the year, they serve free food, 24/7. 

Be aware that you have to be barefoot in the complex, so it’s best to bring socks to avoid burning your feet on the marble floors. This is a huge holiday destination in India, so expect to see a lot of local tourists!

Dharamsala

Dharamsala is where the Dalai Lama resides and is as close to authentic Tibetian culture as you can get. Dharamsala sits on the mountainside and is broken up into little towns that are divided on the mountain.  

Dharamsala is at the base, McLeod Ganj is next, then Bhagsu; at the top of the mountain is Dharamkot. It’s a gorgeous area to spend time (and it’s so easy to get stuck there!) doing yoga, meditating, hiking, and just chilling in restaurants. The whole area is vegan-friendly too; it’s one of my favourite places to visit in India.

Goa

I’ve already shared my love of Goa and its fabulous beaches. But just where are the best beaches in Goa? My answer: everywhere. North Goa is known for its party scene; wild nightlife right by the crystal clear waters and under the palm trees? Yes, please!

Anjuna beach is tough to beat. However, if you’re more in the mood for chilling, Palolem Beach is great. It’s a little more chill and known for having the best souvenirs!

Kerala 

Kerala is world-renowned for its Ayurveda treatments and amazing backwaters, which I’ve already recommended taking a fun houseboat tour around. Kerala is right on the beach, so expect tropical weather and thousands of palm trees. 

If you’re interested in doing something a little more creative, stop by Amritapuri Ashram and do darshan with Amma. She is a guru who gives hugs!

Final Thoughts

India has so much to offer. Maybe too much! You just can’t see it all, do it all, or experience it all, even if you spend a lifetime trying. 

Once you give India a try, you’ll be hard pressed to stay away. Indian travels can sound scary, but I hope that all my tips and tricks make you feel more confident. Believe me; you’ve got this! Go India, Go!

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