The thought of solo travel in India, or even at travel in India at all, is intimidating to some. It can seem like a living, breathing hot mess of a country if you’re on the outside looking in. My advice? Go and experience it for yourself, and you’ll likely find a different story. Whether you are a solo traveler, a couple, or traveling with a tour group, India is sure to fascinate and surprise you like no other country in Asia can.
I planned my solo travel in India, booking a car and driver and all of my hotels on my own, while taking into consideration that I would be a solo female traveler. Two months before I left for India, a girlfriend asked if she could join me and I was thrilled, not because I didn’t want to go to India as a solo traveler, but because I missed my friend and loved the idea of spending two weeks visiting with her and seeing India.
Here are some tips for planning your solo travel in India or travel with a friend based solely on my experience.
Getting Around with Car and Driver
I’ve said before that I am not a tour group traveler and I didn’t want to be one in India. Solo travel in India didn’t bother me, partly because I planned to hire a car and driver. When I started planning my trip, I immediately googled “car and driver in India” and got thousands of options. I ended up booking a car and driver through Bobby Thakur at Kalka Travels.
I went with this company for two reasons. One, I got a very quick response to my email and Bobby answered all of my initial questions. Two, I needed to change one of his itineraries slightly to suit my timeline and I wanted to book my own hotels. I only wanted a car a driver through his agency, and he was very agreeable to this. I did end up using several of the hotels he recommended and they were great, but I booked them myself.
I had a total of 16 days in India, and since I was coming from Kuwait, only about a half day of travel to get to Delhi. But I wanted to make the most of my time there and to do that, a car and driver was the way to go. It was even cheaper than most group big-bus tours and I could control my itinerary and my accommodation.
I also liked the fact that I could get from one place to another while relaxing in the back seat, knowing a capable driver was at the wheel and knew the way. He also knew how to get around obstacles that might otherwise have held us up for quite a while. Obstacles that were truly unique to India, like, oh, for example, not one, not two, but three dead camels along the roadside (not all together) who had been hit by large, rapidly moving vehicles. No joke.
I regret that I don’t know much about train travel in India, and I have experienced trains in many countries. However, at my age, I had no interest in tackling train travel in India and didn’t need to do that to feel that I experienced India. Train travel wouldn’t have been difficult since I was with my a friend, but for a solo female traveler, I would recommend booking ahead in an all-female car. Train travel doesn’t have to be a headache during solo travel in India, no matter if you are male or female. If you are interested in traveling by train, here’s a couple of websites that might help.
Finding and Booking Accommodation
I have some advice about accommodation in India, no matter who you travel with. The cheapest option will likely never be the best option. You get what you pay for, but midrange accommodation is good, from my experience. The hostels and super cheap hotels are not for the faint of heart. Or those who want to stay in a pest-free room. Or sleep on somewhat clean sheets. For accommodation, do your research, look at lots of pictures and reviews on different websites, and even call first before booking just to ask any questions you may have. This was the most time consuming part of planning my trip to India, but worth it. I never stayed more than two nights in one place, and only my hotel on the first night in Delhi was a bad choice. I still stayed in budget hotels and got great results with airbnb.com.
An interesting feature of hotels in India is that the plumbing seems to be what is actually holding the building up and there is no insulation. As a result, you can hear pretty much every sound coming from the rooms above, below, and beside you. Every. Sound. Bring earplugs. Try to get a room on the top floor, even if there is no elevator.
Remember, ear plugs. Top floor. You’ll thank me.
If you’re like me and want to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, making your driver and tour company aware well in advance of your arrival date of the desired sights you want to see will help. They can better plan the route and your departure times each day, and can even make recommendations for convenient accommodation if you’re like me and want to book your own.
My trip consisted of a couple of days in Delhi, about 10 days traveling through Rajasthan, then a visit to the Agra to see the Taj Mahal, then a drive back to Delhi to catch a flight to Varanasi where my friend and I no longer needed a car and driver. Then we flew back to Delhi for one more night before departing for Kuwait and Hong Kong.
So what did we see? Here’s a list with some photos. The monuments in India are pretty amazing and did not disappoint. I listed them in order of my itinerary so you can get an idea of how far we traveled in 16 days.
Delhi – Lakshmi Narayan Temple, India Gate, Bahai Lotus Temple, Humayun’s Tomb – all in one day and all worth a visit, especially Humayun’s Tomb which is what the Taj Mahal is modeled after.
Mandawa – We toured 4 havelis, which are old mansions with two courtyards, one for men, one for women. It’s necessary to have a guide, which we didn’t understand in the beginning. Each one cost between 50-100Rs to enter.
Between Mandawa and Bikaner, we saw three dead camels on or just off the road. We saw many more live ones. Alarming to us, but not the locals. I was astounded by this. Our driver said they were likely hit by trucks.
Bikaner – Temple of a 1000 Rats, which I could not tolerate. There were literally rats crawling everywhere and they make you enter barefoot. I guess I didn’t realize the name of the temple was so literal, although it felt more like 1 million rats. I was in the temple less than a minute, snapped a few photos, and told my friend I was leaving. Next we visited Junagarh Fort which is a giant, pink palace and very impressive, for 300Rs. Much of Bikaner is pink.
Khuri – Desert camel ride to watch the sunset with at least 200 other people, mostly Indian, mostly on camels. But it was stunning.
Jaisalmer – We toured several Jain temples here. One of the highlights of this trip was the visits to these temples. Our guide, which is a very worthwhile investment in Jaisalmer, took us shopping instead of to the palace in Jaisalmer. I’m pretty sure he made a commission. We would have preferred to see the palace, but were unaware of its existence until it was too late.
Johdpur – Mehrangarh Fort which is just incredible and beautiful (300Rs/100Rs to take pictures). If you want to see Umaid Bhawan Palace, you must have a reservation. We didn’t know that, so we didn’t get to see it except from afar. Stunning. Johdpur is also known as The Blue City. The picture should explain why.
On the way to Udaipur we saw:
Ranakpur – We stopped to see Ranakpur Temple (free to enter, 50Rs to take pictures) which is a huge Jain temple with 29 halls and 80 domes. Overwhelming. Don’t try to absorb everything. Just walk around and enjoy and periodically tell yourself to close your mouth. We just stopped to see the temple and then we were on our way to Udaipur.
Kumbhalgargh Fort (100Rs) is surrounded by a 36km long wall enclosing 360 temples, both intact and ruined. Obviously, we couldn’t see all of them. According to the sign this is the 2nd longest wall in the world, 2nd only to, as you probably guessed, the Great Wall of China.
Udaipur – City Palace (75Rs/200Rs to take pictures) has an impressive collection of art, but needs a lot of work on the outside. Definitely worth a visit and the restaurants and bars in front of it are a great place to relax.
Jaipur – Also known as The Pink City. I wanted to see Palace of the Winds, but our driver said there is nothing inside. I later read about it and he is kind of right, but I still would have liked to go inside. Next was the Amber Fort (200Rs). We were feeling kind of finished with forts, yet every one of them makes you want to go inside. There were at least 15 elephants inside the fort being made to carry tourists around in a circle. I beg you not to ride the elephants. They are not indigenous to the area and are often mistreated at the hands of their trainers. Please do not encourage this poor, and unnatural, treatment of these animals.
Note about Jaipur’s Water Palace or Jal Mahal: Information about this palace is often wrong. We stopped to take pictures, but as of 2012, no one could visit. I read online that it is being transformed into and exclusive restaurant and that the four submerged levels have stone walls holding the water back. Our driver said none of this is true and that it is basically a ruin that is sinking further into the lake.
Agra – There are basically two sights to see in Agra. The Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. We did not get to see the Red Fort, but that’s not the main attraction anyway. If you don’t see anything else in India, you must see the Taj Mahal. It is the most beautiful building I have ever seen, maybe because I love symmetry.
From Agra, our driver took us back to Delhi where we said goodbye and caught a flight to Varanasi. We were officially on our own.
Varanasi – The place to visit in Varanasi is the Old City and the ghats. Ghats are the steps leading down to the Ganges River and there is a whole way of life taking place on the ghats, both day and night. The ghats are both a photographer’s dream and possible nightmare. The Old City is also fascinating. I recommend going in the morning, finding a nice place for breakfast, and doing a bit of shopping if you’re into that. You can purchase silk for a very good price in Varanasi.
Tips for Eating Out in India
Food is one of the main reasons, in my opinion, to visit India. I never got tired of eating Indian food. I had it every day, every meal, except two times I ordered a pizza, which was also surprisingly good. But when selecting a restaurant in India, it’s important to be aware of potential hazards. I did not get sick in India, and I think it’s because I followed some wise advice from a friend and our driver knew where to take us for authentic, really good Indian food. Here are some things to keep in mind when trying to decide where to eat in India.
◊ When you buy water, always check the seal on the bottle and look at the bottom of the bottle for sediment. The bottle was reused and filled with water you do not want to drink if you see sediment at the bottom. We didn’t know where the water came from for our hot tea and coffee, but we drank it and did not get sick.
◊ Don’t drink juice from a street stall. A friend gave me this advice and I followed it. Sometimes they add tap water to make the juice go further and there is no way to tell who does it and who doesn’t. Pre-bottled juice is fine, just check the seal on the bottle before opening and listen for that ‘click.’
◊ If it’s crowded or the line is long, it’s probably okay. Locals don’t want to get sick either. They eat where the food is good.
◊ If you hire a car and driver, you will have more control over where you eat than you would if you booked a tour. Our driver knew where to go in every city, but sometimes we ended up at a ‘tourist’ restaurant, but after a couple of these, we told him we didn’t want this type of restaurant. He mostly took us to restaurants where locals eat that were a bit more upscale than the average Indian could afford, but still really cheap compared to most places. If you have a driver, tell him what kind of restaurants you want and he will likely already know where to go.
My trip to India was an amazing experience. Go have your own amazing experience in Incredible India.