Whenever you’re traveling somewhere new, local customs can be daunting (and sometimes go completely over your head without your knowledge). India, with its awesome breadth of color, noise, and exuberance, can be especially overwhelming at times. This list offers a general rundown of some things to know before you go. By all means, I see this as a starting-off point — feel free to add more in the comments below. Happy trails!
Money & Tipping
- Unless you’re in a major city (and even then), ATMs aren’t nearly as common as you might expect. And, as cash is king in India, make sure you take out enough to make it through several days. (Related: If you want to buy any food or drink on the flight, be sure to bring cash, as many Indian airlines do not accept credit cards in the air.)
- Bargaining is generally acceptable and expected. However, the very first sale of the vendor’s day is very auspicious and important. Most vendors will offer a fair rate off the bat. Be deferential to this moment — now is not the time to bargain or negotiate. Generally, the vendor will want to bless the sale by using the money to touch the item sold.
- Avoid any conflicts and ask your rickshaw or taxi driver to use the meter unless you discuss cost before you start moving. (Also, keep your hands inside the rickshaw — there’s a lot happening on the road, and most of it will happen directly outside your window).
- In general, tips are not related to the bill, but rather the quality of service. Tip what you feel comfortable with rather than adhering to a set percentage amount.
- Always check if the tip is included (usually around 10 percent). Either way, if you’re happy with the service, tip in cash — whoever is helping you doesn’t always get the 10 percent.
- If you’re giving the tips to the management rather than directly to whoever helped you (which is a normal occurrence at a hotel, homestay, or spa) be specific in how much and where each amount is going to ensure it goes to the right person.
The writer, Rebekah, on the right during her recent travels to India
- In general, you’ll be much better received if you dress modestly in India. Avoid tight tops and revealing clothing. Since skin isn’t shown everywhere around you, any spaghetti straps, short shorts, or midriff-baring tops are even more noticeable.
- Be sure to carry a scarf to cover your head and shoulders when entering a religious site. Specifically, women need to cover their heads in mosques, and both sexes are required to do so in Sikh temples. If you’re unsure about protocols, simply watch or ask a local.
- If you see shoes outside a shop, remove your own before entering.
- Temples and other religious sites may also require you to remove your shoes and wash your hands and feet in designated areas before entering.
- In general, make sure to wear layers to allow for air conditioning, midday sun, and shifting temperatures in the morning and evening.
- Bring one nice outfit … you never know (this tip comes directly from experience).
- In airports there are separate men’s and women’s security lines. Be aware and choose appropriately (or be prepared to be shuttled to the correct one with a bit of fanfare).
- Boarding passes are checked regularly while going through security all the way up to the moment you enter the plane. Keep yours close at hand until you are in your seat.
- Hand luggage is tagged when you check in and stamped as you go through security. Make sure to keep the tags visible and easily accessible.
- In some airports your checked luggage is zip-tied and scanned prior to checking in.
- Smaller airports do not have alcohol. Check your hopes and beer expectations along with your luggage.
- Delhi Belly (or Bombay Belly or Gandhi’s Revenge) is real and not nearly as subtle or gentle as the name may imply (trust me on this). Be prepared and start a probiotic regimen before hitting the ground, carry hand sanitizer wipes, and always drink bottled water.
- In addition to not drinking tap water, steer clear of any food that may have been washed in it. As an extra precaution, avoid ice, salads, and fruit you haven't peeled yourself.
- Pharmacists (also called chemists or druggists) are a great resource and well-versed in common foreigner complaints. Depending on your woe, you’ll be directed towards Norfloxacin (a common antibiotic) and oral rehydration salts such as Electral.
- Also seek out these two natural stomach soothers for less pressing issues (we brought a stash of them home): Amritdhara and Pudin Hara.
Fun fact: Public bathrooms don’t always have toilet paper — travel with wet wipes to avoid any unseemly situations.
- The concept of personal space is interpreted differently in India. The population is large and you feel it in the big cities, whether you're squished in public transit or standing close on line. Be aware of your surroundings, but don’t be overly upset if someone is standing closer to you then you normally experience.
- In the same vein as personal space, people may ask you outwardly intrusive personal questions. Instead of taking offense, remember that you’re in a different culture and the questions are meant to show interest, not malice.
- Lines can be optional.
- Horns are a language in India. And when there aren’t horns, there are bells. And when there aren’t bells, there are yells. Again, be aware of your surroundings.
- Carry small biscuits or chocolates to hand out to children.
(Image credits: Liz Clayman; Liz Clayman)