8 Tips for first time American travelers to India

Traveling to India is a unique experience. And while I did not even come close to covering the whole country, my recent experiences as a first time traveler may help you prepare for your own future trip to amazing India. While much of this advice is pertinent to anyone traveling to India (or on a very long trip in general), I think there are a few things specific to the experience of an American who has never traveled to India before. Hopefully you find these tips useful!

1. Prepare for the time change

No matter where you are coming from in the US, it’s a looooooong way to India. A nonstop flight will take at least 14 hours. My flights, with a layover in Amsterdam, cost me 22 hours. No matter what, you are going to ‘lose’ a day and a half or two days just to travel. (Want the good news? You get those days back when you head home!) Leave on Monday morning, and you won’t arrive to India until Tuesday afternoon at the earliest, and possibly Wednesday.

In addition, many stopover flights from the US arrive in India at very odd hours. My flight landed at 12:50 am Bangalore time.

Fun fact: despite its size, all of India is on one time zone. At my time of travel, the time difference between the East Coast and India was 10.5 hours – you read that right – time in India is not on the same ‘hourly’ schedule as the rest of the world. There is a metaphor there somewhere…

I have a few recommendations to help you manage the accompanying jet lag and time confusion you will inevitably experience.

  • Memorize two three quick time conversions. For example, noon in the US (East coast) is 10:30pm in India. And 3:00pm in India is 1:30 am in the US. This way, whatever time it is, your mind won’t struggle to think about whether it’s a good time to call home or look for the newest Wordle puzzle.
  • Begin slowly transitioning your sleep hours to move closer to Indian time. In the days leading up to your trip, go to bed a little earlier each night. Get up a bit earlier each day. Even a two or three hour shift in the right direction will help.
  • Try a jet lag management app such as Timeshifter. The app not only recommended when and how to begin ‘shifting’ my sleep schedule but when to sleep on the plane, when to avoid sunglasses (to maximize light exposure), when to drink coffee, and when to take melatonin.
  • If your flight arrives in the middle of the night, arrange for a hotel room for that night. You don’t want to arrive at the hotel at 3 am and then be unable to check in until 4pm. You want your bed ready to go!

2. Don’t rent a car

I know, you’re a great driver. So am I. So is Dear Husband. We never ever make driving mistakes at home (she said facetiously). At home, though, there are these nebulous things called “The Rules of the Road”. Things like, use your mirror and use a signal before you change lanes. Follow the speed limit, more or less. No cows allowed on the highway. Following these rules helps us turn our small errors around home into near misses rather than collisions. We also more or less know our way around, and are familiar with the road signage.

None of this will be the case in India.

Perhaps the most surprising part of my trip was the traffic and roads in Bangalore, Agra, and Mysore. I didn’t even visit some of the most congested areas, such as New Delhi and Mumbai, and I can only imagine.

Lane markings? A mere suggestion. Signals? Never. Horns? Constant. Red lights and one way signs? Worth occasional consideration. Bicycles, cows, overloaded trailers, scooters with entire families on board, you name it…. they all share the road and are all going as fast as they can to get there. If they can pass you on the right, they will. If they can pass you on the left, they will. Sometimes with a friendly ‘beep beep’, sometimes not.

Simply put, it’s chaos. Let someone who is local and experienced do the driving for you, whether you hop in a Tuk Tuk, take a bus tour, or hire a driver for your entire trip. I cannot recommend this strongly enough.

3. Get professional travel medical advice

Our immune systems are conditioned to home. American water, American air quality, American insects, etc. In addition, although the COVID-19 world health emergency is officially behind us, there can still be travel restrictions and requirements. Further, I’ll take it as a given that you would probably prefer to avoid landing in an Indian hospital with a serious illness. For all of these reasons, consider professional travel medical advice.

I went to Passport Health, a nationwide chain of travel medical advisors overseen by doctors. I’m sure there are plenty of other options, so ask your own doctor first, particularly if you have any kind of medical issues.

In addition to a tetanus booster, I chose to receive a polio booster and typhoid vaccination. I was also advised that malaria is a problem in India, and chose to take an anti-malarial drug beginning a few days before my trip. I purchased strong repellent as well.

While I guess I will never know whether these steps prevented me from falling seriously ill, I know that one of the recommendations was, as Mastercard puts it, priceless. I purchased two “DiaResQ” pills. Which leads me to my next piece of advice…

4. Research and understand Indian food

Indian food is divisive in my circles. Some of my friends and family love it, some not so much. I generally enjoy it, although I am not a fan of food so spicy that I don’t even know what I’m eating. Everyone has different spice tolerance, and only you can know yours.

But, even if you love and ingest spicy Indian food regularly at home, be aware that you still have a good chance to contract what’s lovingly known as “Delhi Belly” if you are in India for any length of time.

For the majority of Americans, an Indian menu will contain a number of unfamiliar items. I’ve definitely heard of, and enjoyed, tikka masala. Tikka darbari? Not so much. Tikka angare? Nope. Before I left, I googled “Indian foods ranked by spiciness” and memorized a few of the names on the bottom of the list. I also discovered some very flavorful, rich foods such as dosa and maddur vada, which are grain based and mild.

I heeded the advice and cautiously brushed my teeth with bottled water, and avoided ice in my drinks, even at the swanky JW Marriott. I ate several traditional Indian meals during my first few days in India, but also chose more familiar foods such as eggs and pizza to balance things out. Nonetheless, I fell victim. Suffice to say, white rice became my best friend for a few days.

My best advice? Ask servers, do your research, skip street food, avoid unpurified water, …. and be prepared with your anti-diarrheal medication of choice.

5. Hire local tour guides

While a well-written guide book or recorded app can certainly give you the background and history of a given city or tourist site, choosing to self educate, particularly in India, will rob you the opportunity to really hear about the perceptions and experiences of its vast populace.

Our guides in Agra, booked through Pacific Classic Tours India, and Bangalore /Mysore booked through Hidden Gems Tours, offered great logistical advantages (planned by locals who know and understand that traffic referenced above). They took us not only to the most famous of Indian tourist sites, but to little-known ‘hidden gems’ such as the Bengaluru flower market. I highly recommend both companies.

Most importantly, however, they gave us undisturbed one-on-one time with Indian citizens who were more than happy to educate us about everything from local holidays and traditions, to insight on family life, to the political landscape and economic challenges faced by Indians. While I enjoyed learning about Indian rulers from several centuries ago, I will always treasure the new awareness I gained as a result of these conversations.

6. Absorb a little Indian culture before you go

Whether it’s a raucous Bollywood movie or a fictional book set in India, spend some time before your trip getting to know India. It’s just more fun when you know what to look for – such as the delicate henna tattoos I saw on some of the women attending an engagement party held at our hotel, or the thrumming beat of Indian music as I passed by the nightclub. India’s many customs are unique, and there is nothing like a good story to make them come to life.

I watched Oscar-winning Bollywood movie “RRR” on the plane. I’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, but I learned from one of my guides that Indians don’t particularly embrace that film, seeing it as spreading stereotypes about India. A few of the books I read prior to my trip were:

  • The Henna Artist, and The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, both by Alka Joshi
  • The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani
  • The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • (parts of ) a translation of the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture

Reading A Passage to India and Siddhartha back in high school does not count, although I did that too.

7. Especially for women

So I debated whether to include this section. I am not in any way looking to create a stir or criticize another culture. I also won’t even pretend to be fully educated on the treatment of women in India. I just think American women should be aware that it simply won’t be quite like home when you visit India. This is my perception, not a judgment.

I guess the best way to put it is that different countries make progress on Women’s rights at different rates. Back in the 1980s, walking to work in downtown Chicago in my ‘9 to 5’ office attire, I could expect a whistle or two from a construction worker or a guy driving a big pickup truck. It felt a bit icky, and sometimes intimidating depending on the situation. India is a little like that.

You will rarely see an Indian woman walking alone in the city – only with her male partner or with a bunch of other females. I found out the reason when I took a solo walk around Bengaluru one day. I was honestly was a little uncomfortable when some of the tuk tuk drivers tried to lure me for a ride, shopkeepers beckoned me inside for a bargain, or as I passed a staring man on a park bench. Men you have never met will not hesitate to look directly at you and get physically closer than you are likely used to.

To be clear, I never felt unsafe on my walk, which was in the middle of a busy Wednesday afternoon. But I was glad to re-enter the cool, controlled environment of the JW Marriott.

As another example of what I mean, one of Oldest’s female American colleagues, who has blond hair, mentioned that sometimes people (men, women, and children) would not only stare but just reach out and touch her hair, because it’s so unfamiliar to them. I had read before my trip that “personal space” has a very different definition in India than it does in the US. It makes sense, when you think about the incredible population density in Indian cities. It’s also very true.

GO! And take it all in

Looking back at what I have written above, I realize it may seem like a multitude of dire warnings. Traffic, food, jet lag, personal space … yes, they are all challenges. But with great challenges come great rewards, and that is especially true with traveling to India. So for my final #toptipforindia, I’ll steal from Nike and say: Just Do It.

While you are there, take time to look around you. Don’t just go to the Taj Mahal and post it on social media and spend the rest of your day scrolling. Watch local TV. Look at magazines and billboards. Eat in small local restaurants (with care, see #4 above…). Shop in the little shops and bargain and feel the silk. See the colors, hear the sounds, talk to the people. It’s beautiful, and noisy, and chaotic, and lively. It’s exotic, for an American, and you may just develop a new appreciation for the Stars and Stripes – as well as a taste for even more foreign travel.

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