Keeping safe on the road is important wherever you travel to, not just in South Asia. However, India and the subcontinent tends to have something of a reputation (totally undeserved in our opinion) of being less safe than other regions of the world. Here are some general tips to help you travel safely.
BEING RIPPED OFF/SCAMS TO WATCH OUT FOR
Ensure your taxi/Autorickshaw uses a meter. If they refuse or don’t have a meter, negotiate the price beforehand. If you’re not sure how much to pay, ask a local first the going rate for a particular ride.
Fake bank notes – familiarise yourself with correct notes, particularly the Rs500 and Rs2000 as unscrupulous vendors might hand back your good note with a fake and protest that you gave it to them.
Service charge on restaurant bills – Service charge (tip) is always optional. Some restaurants add it to the bill and you can always refuse to pay it if you feel service hasn’t been worthy of a tip.
Train cancelled/full/ticket office closed – If you arrive at the train station for a train you have a ticket for and are told the train has been cancelled, always go to the enquiries counter of the station to double check. 99.999 percent of the time you’ve been approached by a tout who will then try to take you to a travel agent to provide alternative arrangements, so you miss your train, and find yourself out of pocket, often by a large amount.
Free gifts – In India, there ain’t no such thing. If you are approached by someone (often in the guise of a holyman) giving you a flower of tying a piece of string around your wrist or similar, they will then demand money for a blessing.
Hotel is closed/burnt down/road blocked. If arriving outside of daylight hours, or if it is your first time in India and you’re arriving into a big city (Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata etc), arrange an airport/railway pickup from your hotel. Alternatively, ensure you know where your hotel is, have the contact number on hand and if you have a smart-phone, use your phone’s maps to make sure the taxi is taking you to the correct address.
Overall – research a little before you travel and remain alert and aware. India is not a dangerous country but there are plenty of frauds/scamsters who will always prey on newly arrived foreigners.
India is a crowded country – the second-most populated country in the world after China. The big cities and towns will always be crowded and busy, but if you plan when to travel, ie outside of weekends/festivals/holidays, you can avoid a lot of the heaviest crowds. Visiting sites in the early mornings can often be quiet and peaceful. When you leave the big cities and towns, you will find that India can be very pleasantly peaceful. Get away up into the mountains, visit lesser known beach resorts and if you can handle less-than-perfect weather, travelling outside of the tourist season (differs for each region) can also mean much lighter crowds.
Indians are curious people. They have a completely different set of values in terms of what is appropriate conversation with a stranger. You can expect to be asked any number of personal questions such as how old you are, how many children you have and so on. It’s OK to make up a few little white lies, especially if you don’t have children. Just invent a couple for the conversation. It can be fun.
More and more Indians are now travelling throughout their own country, so wherever you go, you’re likely to meet many domestic tourists. Often they’ll be from a place where they get little or no foreign tourists, so don’t be surprised if they find you an attraction. You will probably find yourself a minor celebrity and the subject of many Indian tourists photos.
Staring – Indians have a habit of staring at others. It is not considered rude, as it is in the west, so you are best to counter the stares by ignoring it. If you find yourself surrounded by a group of Indians staring at you (I’ve termed this the staring squad), don’t be concerned. Whilst it might feel very intimidating, and is, they’re simply interested and want to see what you’re up to. When you have encountered this a few times (often happens at busy railway stations) you’ll probably learn to sense whether the crowd is hostile or not. In the last 24 years, I’m yet to encounter a hostile staring squad.
SLUMS AND POVERTY
A very large percentage of Indians unfortunately live in poverty and in the larger cities some will live in slum-like conditions. It is not uncommon for beggars to approach you outside tourist attractions, at train stations, even while you’re sitting in a vehicle at traffic lights. For more information on handling beggars in India see our Travelling in India page.
You might have the opportunity to visit communities, particularly in Delhi or Mumbai, which are classified as slums – such as Dharavi in Mumbai. Whilst some might consider slum tourism somewhat voyeurish, if visited appropriately (ie with a tour guide who is properly respectful and can explain how people live, survive and thrive in these conditions) you might find your experience nothing but wonderful, particularly as you will come to understand that these communities are nothing as you’d expect them to be. It will give you a very different outlook on what it can mean to live in poverty and in slums and might help you better identify challenge/opportunity as opposed to danger.
SAFE DESTINATIONS AND WHERE TO AVOID TRAVEL TO INITIALLY
Arriving in India – most people will choose to arrive into one of the larger cities, generally Delhi or Mumbai, sometimes Kolkata or Chennai. There are actually more than 20 international airports you may arrive into and where you first land can have quite a large impact on your initial experience and impressions of India.
The major cities, particularly Delhi, have more than their fair share of touts, scamsters and tricksters who look out for newly arrived foreigners. You might find yourself having to deal with the hassle of being ripped-off, taken for a ride or simply hassled more by beggars and hawkers. If you can start your Indian adventure in a smaller, quieter place, such as Goa, Kerala, Pondicherry, some of the quieter towns of Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh or Gujarat, you will find your initial introduction to India less fraught by hassle. Fly into a major city hub, and pre-book a domestic flight elsewhere (ensure you leave enough time in between flights). Deal with the busier, more touristy destinations when you’ve worked through your initial culture-shock.
TRAVEL SAFETY ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT
Travelling around India, you may find yourself on a public train or long distance bus. Keeping yourself and your belongings safe is really very simple if you follow a few basic guidelines.
Trains – Although it would seem logical that travelling on the upper-class carriages on overnight trains is safer, travelling on the regular sleeper carriages is also absolutely fine. The main difference is that sleeper class will be more crowded but with families and more women travelling. You will be surrounded by regular travelling Indians who are just as concerned for their safety as you are. The important thing regardless of which class of carriage you travel in, is to use common-sense and secure your belongings. There will always be a small number of thieves anywhere in the world that will take advantage of the unsuspecting traveller and sneak off with your precious belongings when you’re not looking. India is no different, but thankfully it is not that common. Indian sleeper carriages (sleeper class, as well as the upper air-conditioned classes) all have luggage storage underneath the bottom berths. You will find metal hooks or loops underneath the berths that you can lock your luggage to. Bring a chain and padlock with you to do this. Also, particularly at origin stations, such as New Delhi, be vigilant when you first board the train as thieves do patrol, pretending to be fellow travellers and then at the last minute will suddenly vanish with a smaller bag that you’ve put out of your immediate sight, even if you’ve padlocked the larger bag(s) underneath your berth. This particular scam has happened to me, or fellow travellers I’ve been with on two occasions, so it is a recurring trick. Until the train has pulled out of the station, never leave any luggage/bags out of your sight.
You might find it an idea, particularly if you are a single woman traveller, to book an upper, inside berth so that you’re out of the way of others and somewhat hidden (given that most Indian train carriages have open-plan sleeping arrangements and only First Class cabins, available on select trains only, have closing doors to compartments).
Buses – If you’re travelling on a public long-distance bus during the day, luggage will general go in the storage locker underneath the bus. Sometimes it may be tied onto the roof or you can fit it under the seat on the bus. Smaller bags are best kept with you at all times.
If you’re travelling on an overnight sleeper bus the luggage will be stored underneath. Some overnight buses have pushback seats, whilst others actually have beds. They are laid out with a double berth on one side and a single berth on the other, in an upper-lower configuration. If you are on your own, book a single berth. If you are travelling with a friend, go for a double, but be aware they will be pretty cosy and if you’re taller than 6 ft, you will be a little cramped as the length of the berths is exactly 6 ft (183cm).
Again as with trains, keep your smaller bags and personal belongings in your sight at all times.
REALITY OF INDIA VERSUS WHAT THE MEDIA PORTRAY
Indian and foreign media would have you believe that India is a scary, dangerous country and that every other woman gets raped while every tourist will get robbed and/or scammed.
Whilst there have been horrendous well publicised cases of rape in recent years, India actually has quite a low incidence of rape compared even to some western European countries (notwithstanding that reporting of rape may not be to the same level as in other parts of the world).
The majority of tourists to India actually manage to have a holiday without being ripped off, taken for a ride, stolen from or having any unwanted problems.
You might be surprised to learn that the average Indian is very friendly, helpful and would never dream of harassing or robbing you. There is a saying in Hindi – Atithi Devo Bhava – which roughly translates to ‘The guest is god’. When you travel around India, the overwhelming experience you are likely to have is that of being helped and assisted by the locals who are very proud of their country and want you to experience it in the best possible way.
Being a developing country, India certainly does have issues with public health and sanitation and it is something you need to be aware of when travelling here. However, we often have travellers arrive who promptly tell us ‘My doctor told me I’d get sick’ or similar. Such negativity does nothing to help you stay fit and healthy. In reality, the most common illness people suffer when they come to India is the common cold. You’re more likely to pick a cold up on the flight over here than to come down with Delhi belly.
Having said that, there are precautions you need to take to ensure you stay as healthy as possible.
1. Avoid catching a cold enroute. I always sanitise my environment on flights – use an antimicrobial wet wipe and clean all surfaces around your seat on the plane – the armrests, remote control, seat buckle and most importantly the tray table. Ever since I started doing this, I’ve never caught a cold on a flight.
2. Stay well hydrated. India is generally a warm to hot climate and sightseeing can be strenuous and dehydrating. Drink more water than you normally would and a really good tip is to drink electrolytes or rehydration salts regularly. In India, the packaged drinking water is not often mineral water, but treated water that has been purified using reverse osmosis. This takes everything out of the water – the good and bad, leaving plain h2o with no natural minerals. When you drink a couple or more litres per day, you are actually leaching some of the natural minerals from your system which can leave you feeling tired and lethargic. Regular doses of ORS (oral rehydration salts, such as hydrolyte or similar) will keep you feeling energetic and healthy. It is also a great idea to drink the ubiquitous refreshing drink of ‘fresh lime soda’ served everywhere in India. This is club soda with a squeeze of lemon or lime juice and ideally seasoned with a little sugar and salt. A perfect natural electrolyte drink.
3. Protect your gut. Before your holiday commence taking pro-biotics to strengthen and increase your good gut flora. This will help your system fight any nasties that might get ingested. There are plenty of good pro-biotics that can be carried without the need for refrigeration these days.
4. Personal hygiene. Keep your hands clean – always. Germs thrive in the hot and humid weather in India, particularly on bank notes, door handles, step railings – basically everywhere you touch that is in public. Regularly wash your hands with soap and water and before eating (even after touching the menu in a restaurant) use a hand sanitiser. If you try any street food (don’t be scared of street food – if it is freshly cooked and looks to be a well-frequented establishment go for it) make sure you sanitise your hands first – after paying for your snack.
5. Shower/bath/pool water. ALWAYS brush your teeth in bottled water. Never accidentally swallow water in the shower and if swimming in a public swimming pool – it might be better to not put your head under water.
WOMEN SPECIFIC TRAVEL SAFETY
Despite this section being headed women-specific, these do’s and don’ts apply to everyone. And as to whether India is an unsafe travel destination, the questions is not whether India is safe – all destinations can be considered safe or unsafe for various reasons. The question is rather how you travel and whether you travel safely.
Travel advisories against women travelling to India:
Western travel advisories often have specific information regarding women’s safety in India. These are better read as being women’s safety ANYWHERE and should apply wherever you are in the world as a matter of common-sense.
Tips to stay safe in your accommodation
Try to arrive during daylight hours
Use your first initial and surname but no title (‘Miss’, ‘Ms’ or ‘Mrs’) when checking in.
Don’t leave your key lying around where someone can see your room number.
Don’t leave your window open or unlocked, particularly if your room has a balcony or is on the ground floor.
Keep your hotel room door locked when inside the room.
If your hotel room door has a peep-hole or safety chain, use these to determine the identity of any unexpected visitors.
Tips to stay safe when you’re out and about
Be mindful of local dress codes and dress appropriately. In India, don’t wear skimpy or revealing clothing. This includes strappy tops, long see-through cotton skirts (regarded as underwear by Indians) and shorts or short skirts. The traditional Indian ‘Salwar Kameez’ outfit – a thigh (or longer) length tunic over loose trousers is recommended.
Even if you’re not married, it may help to wear a ring on your wedding finger to avoid unwanted attention. White lies – stating your husband is meeting you at such and such a time and/or place such as your hotel – can be useful in deflecting any unwanted attention.
Be aware that what might be taken for harmless flirting in the west might be interpreted differently in India. Don’t confront staring males – it is interpreted as a come-on. Avert your eyes and look away signalling you have no interest in further interaction.
Try not to walk alone in deserted areas, such as the beach, at night and avoid walking in the countryside on your own at any time. If you do, make sure your mobile phone is on hand and use it to call for help – even a fake call – if you feel at all uncomfortable.
Don’t be overly friendly with men who approach you at tourist sites or with hotel staff and don’t tell strangers where you are staying or details about your travel plans.
Indian women rarely speak to unknown men when travelling, nor do they shake hands with men (except in business scenarios). Don’t feel bad knocking back the offer of a handshake – reply instead with the traditional pressing of palms together in greeting with a ‘Namaste’.
Beware of any men who might offer to buy you an alcoholic drink. Indian women rarely drink in public and would never drink with someone they don’t know.
Plan your day. Have a good idea of where you’re going to and how you’re getting around. Ensure you have the name and address as well as contact number of your hotel handy in case you get lost.
Be assertive. Body language that says ‘I’m confident, in control and know exactly what I’m doing and where I’m going’ will generally deter those men who’d otherwise prey on a nervous, single female tourist. If you do feel threatened in any way, public shaming can be useful. Shout and make a fuss. The perpetrator will quickly disappear.
If you are a less confident solo traveller, you might want to consider travelling with a group, particularly if it’s your first time in India.
INDIA IS ACTUALLY A GREAT DESTINATION FOR FEMALE TRAVELLERS
Women in India have particular rights and allowances that in some ways actually make travel for women better. There are specified women-only areas on public transport and women’s queues at ticket counters. Restaurants often have family-friendly – read women-friendly – sections and as a woman travelling throughout India, you tend to be trusted more, giving you access to more intimate experiences with Indian families.
Here is a great article on safety in India for women by Sharell Cook, Australian author based in Mumbai and Indian content writer for Tripsavvy.