Planning a Trip to Northern India

side view of the domed white marble Taj Mahal, the highlight for many travellers when planning a trip to Northern India

India is amazing and intense. It will overwhelm every one of your senses and change your perspectives. I think everyone should go at least once, but as a travel destination, it can be intimidating. Unless you’re a seasoned independent traveler with other developing countries under your belt, a local guide or organized tour is worth considering for first-time western visitors and solo female travellers heading to the more northerly states.

The north is more traditional than the south, with less English spoken and more conservative attitudes towards women. The culture shock can be severe, and India as a whole is known for being an infuriating place to travel; a place where few things go as planned. A good guide will help you navigate through the chaos and offer insights that help you maximize your enjoyment and understanding of all that India has to offer while minimizing frustration. It’s like paying for a temporary best friend, and in India it’s an affordable option.

Guides and organized tours

For my trip to Delhi, Varanasi, Agra and Rajasthan, I joined a G Adventures guided tour that started and ended in Delhi. Their small group trips are led by excellent local guides and feature culturally rich itineraries that include lots of free time to explore each destination on your own. Plus they give back to many of the communities visited through their Planeterra Foundation.

If you prefer to hire a local guide, it’s best to get personal recommendations. You can ask for a referral from your hotel or other travelers upon arrival, or search for recommendations online in advance. Forums like Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree, TripAdvisor or BootsnAll Travel are good places to start.

Where to go

Be realistic about what you can see in the time you have – India is a huge country, and transportation delays are common. If you only have a couple of weeks, it’s best to focus on a specific region and build some slack into your schedule.

New Delhi

With its international connections, the capital city makes a good starting point for first-timers, and has enough attractions to warrant a couple of days. My favourite sites were the collection of Islamic structures at the Qutab Minar, the Raj Ghat Ghandi memorial and the Chandni Chowk market in Old Delhi.

Jama Masjid mosque and a monument at the Qtab Minar in New DelhiAgra

Delhi is well connected to the home of the magnificent bejeweled Taj Mahal. There’s also another UNESCO World Heritage site worth seeing in town – the impressive red-walled Agra Fort.

Varanasi

India’s most sacred city is a must for those who want to experience the country at its most spiritual. It’s a good distance from Delhi and Agra, so it might be worth flying this leg if you’re short on time.

boats along the banks of the Ganges River before sunrise

Rajasthan

Next, move west to Rajasthan’s princely desert cities. Jaipur, also called the pink city, is the most visited. Its palaces and shopping opportunities have made it the 3rd point in the Golden Triangle (together with Delhi and Agra). It’s a captivating place, but I think preferred the more peaceful lakeside setting of Udaipur, considered by many to be India’s most romantic spot.

Jaipur palace and holy men at a temple in UdaipurTo get a break from cities and experience another side of India, try to spend some time in a rural area. My visit to rural Rajasthan was a highlight of my trip. If you’re taking an organized tour, look for an itinerary that includes a village or farm stay. If you’re traveling independently, tourist offices in main cities can help you get there, or try one of these organizations:

  • Travel Another India offers rural experiences in various regions, including a visit to Pranpur (350 km south of Agra) where you can learn about silk weaving and other local crafts.
  • India Untravelled provides opportunities like this week-long stay on a farm in Rajasthan to learn about local organic farming methods. Only 22 km from Jaipur, this one is easy to reach.
  • Explore Rural India is a government initiative connecting travellers to rural tourism spots across the country. Their search by map feature helps you find a location that will fit with the rest of your itinerary.

street of a small village near Jojawar in Rajasthan

Transportation

Train travel is often the most convenient, economical and comfortable option, not to mention one of the best ways to experience the “real” India. For comprehensive information on navigating the railways in India (and many other countries too), The Man in Seat 61 covers everything you need to know.

You should experience at least one train trip in India, but if you’re determined to cover lots of ground in a short time, you’ll be best off flying for greater distances. Low cost carriers SpiceJet and IndiGo offer affordable fares.

For shorter distances, another possibility is to hire a car and driver, a common mode of transport for tourists in India. At less than $30 per day, it won’t break the bank, and can be arranged through your hotel or a local tourist office.

Accommodations

Depending on your budget, India is a place where spending a little more for a comfortable place to recharge from the sensory overload of the day can be well worth it. Lodging choices range from cheap backpacker hostels for less than $5 to posh luxury hotels where rooms start at $500, and everything in between. Moderate hotels with A/C and private western bathroom can usually be found for $30 to $40, depending on city and season.

There are some unique options to consider that will give you more cultural flavour than a standard hotel. In Rajasthan, staying at a heritage property like Rawla Jojawar will give you a feel for life during the British Raj era. There are also ashrams (yoga retreats) and other religiously affiliated options. This article gives a good overview of accommodation types and includes useful links.

For booking hotels in India, try Agoda – one of the best sites for booking hotels throughout Asia.

Before you go

Don’t forget to top up your immunizations and check into entry requirements. Make sure your routine vaccinations are up to date, and depending on your itinerary, you may want to get boosters for Hepatitis, Typhoid, Polio, or other diseases. The Center for Disease Control website outlines health recommendations for travellers. Also ensure that you have out of country medical coverage for the duration of your trip.

At the time of writing, all visitors to India require a visa. If staying less than 30 days, you can apply online for an e-visa, which will then get validated at customs when you arrive. Be sure to read the ‘Instructions for Applicant’ page and  time your application appropriately – you can only apply between 4 and 30 days before your arrival.

For cultural insight, women planning a trip to India will find this article helpful. It’s aimed at independent travellers, but it provides valuable advice that women traveling with a group should also keep in mind.

Stomach strategies

Delicious food may be one of the reasons you travel to India, but it’s something you’ll need to be careful about. Delhi Belly is not just a myth – it’s a strong possibility, especially for western travelers whose immune systems haven’t been exposed to regional bacteria. Even if you’re careful, it’s possible, and maybe even likely that you’ll experience at least a touch of digestive discomfort. Here are a few tips to minimize your chances, and to manage the symptoms if it does happen:

  • Start eating local yogurt as soon as possible after you arrive, and continue daily if you can. This gets local “good” bacteria into your gut to help ward off the bad bacteria. In India, yogurt is plentiful, so it shouldn’t be hard to find.
  • It goes without saying that you should avoid unpurified water and ice, but remember to extend this caution to things like brushing your teeth and eating uncooked produce.
  • Avoid red meat. You probably won’t find pork, and beef is banned in many states (since cows are sacred to Hindus), so safe handling standards may not be as widely known or practiced. Chicken and lamb are safer bets, being the most common omnivore proteins. And of course, it’s easy (and delicious) to go vegetarian like 30% to 40% of the local population.
  • Be careful about street food. It’s a fun part of the experience, but ensure you choose stalls that keep food properly heated. Look for vendors who are busy with high turnover, as the food will be fresher.
  • In case you do get struck, pack some Immodium (or similar remedy) and oral rehydration salts.
  • In India, seek out some Pudin Hara – inexpensive green herbal capsules – from any pharmacy. They’re made from a blend of mint oils, and many (myself included) attest to their effectiveness in relieving stomach discomfort.
  • Have some slack in your schedule, in case you need to take it easy for a day or two
  • If symptoms last more than a few days, seek medical attention.

When to go

To avoid excessive heat and the wet monsoon season, winter is the best time for visiting Northern India. It’s most pleasant between November and March. This is considered high season, so the main tourist destinations will be crowded and prices at their highest. If you’d prefer fewer crowds and cheaper prices, October is a good bet, but you may get some wet weather if the monsoon hasn’t subsided yet.

Recommended reading

For most of your other planning needs, a good guide book, whether in e-book or paper form, will be your best friend. My favourite guide book publishers are Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. Both put out country-wide guides for India as well as region-specific variations. They include introductions to India’s history and culture, recommendations on what to see, logistics information and practical tips.

I always like to read a book or two set in the region before and while I’m traveling. As a starting point, check out this cheeky list for some great suggestions that feature India as a backdrop.

Namaste,

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