Apologies in advance if people who read this think I’m ‘trying to teach grandma to suck eggs’but I found there was so much to do and prepare for before going to India that it was sometimes easy to forget the simple things ( you guys may just be a lot brighter than me, it’s highly possible!), so I’ve tried to make a definitive guide to all the things to consider before you go.
Indian Tourist VISA:
Now, we have been told that if you are going for less than a month, you can apply for the E-tourist VISA online, and this is an incredibly straight forward process apparently. Unfortunately, as we were going for longer we had to do battle with the VISA office. The VISA is the same price whether you go for 5 weeks like we did (a mere week too long to apply for the E-tourist VISA), or 6 months so consider this when planning your trip. I think when we went the E-tourist VISA was around £30 and our long-stay VISA was around £100 so there is a big price difference.
For the long-stay VISA we had to fill in an on-line form (be prepared to fill this out multiple times as the website crashes A LOT!) which when completed gave us the option to pick a date for our VISA interview. Now for us we were doing this during the middle of exams (not our wisest move) and it was incredibly stressful finding the time to jump through all these hoops, but luckily we did have a local VISA office in Liverpool. Keep in mind there are only a small number of Indian embassies dotted around the country so be prepared to clear your schedule and have an impromptu road trip to get your VISA sorted.
Regardless of what it says on the VISA website (where it distinctly says to bring a passport photo) bring a VISA photo because that’s actually what they really want. Do not do what we did which was have to rush down into the centre of town to find the nearest boots to get the most unattractive, sweaty photo of ourselves to run back up the hill before our appointment slot was closed. The actual appointment takes about 10 minutes – they check out your form which you filled in online, which you must print out and look at you passport and Bob’s your uncle they send it off and you should hear if the Indian Government will let you in the country within a month!
Top tips for VISA applications:
- If you don’t have to go for longer than a month, make your life easy and get the E-tourist VISA
- They mean a VISA photo despite saying passport photo
- Leave plenty of time before your trip to apply for the VISA but equally don’t apply too far in advance as your VISA starts from the time it is issued not from the time you enter the country
- Be prepared to have to travel to your nearest VISA office
- Watch how much money they take out of your account – because of the glitches on the website they charged me for my VISA twice
- https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/index.html – This is the official government visa website, there are a lot of scams out there so take care!
- Make sure your passport is well in date – I think you need at least 6 months from your return date to be allowed to travel to India.
If you don’t like needles India may not be the place for you, and if you are doing any charity work or spending extended time in the country, you will likely need even more vaccinations than the standard set. Be prepared to shell out a significant amount for this – it was one of the most expensive parts of our trip!
We had the following Vaccines:
- Tetanus – free on the NHS (if you require a booster)
- Typhoid – free on the NHS
- Hep A – usually have to pay for but when combined with Hep B you can get it free on the NHS
- Hep B – free on the NHS
- Cholera – this is an oral vaccine to take at home given on the NHS, we just had to pay prescription fee
- Rabies – As we were working on a rabies vaccination program we thought this was an essential, however if you don’t plan to spend time with any animals it’s quite an expensive vaccine you could probably do without
- Japanese encephalitis – Now this was the most expensive of all the vaccines and unfortunately only last 2 years unlike some of the others which cover you for years and are a bit more of an investment. However this disease carried by mosquitoes is fatal in 1 in 3 people who get it and as we spent our time in a lot of rural areas we thought it was best to cover our backs.
Other possible medications to consider:
- Malaria – we didn’t take these because the North of India is more arid and it is not technically classed as a Malaria risk area. These are also incredibly expensive and can have some nasty side effects so talk to your GP/ travel clinic, tell them the areas you intend to travel to and they’ll advise you if they think you need them.
Top tips for Vaccines
- Talk to your GP about what they advise you get and get as many free on the NHS as possible
- If you book flights with a travel or tour company like STA or if you can prove you are a student or doing certain charity work you can get discounts on some of the non-NHS vaccines
- Leave enough time before your trip – most of these vaccines are given in 2 or 3 doses and some have long periods between each dose – I think it was the hepatitis which had to be done over a period of 4-6 months
- Always take a copy of the vaccines you’ve had with you so if you do end up needing medical attention the doctors can see what you’ve had
- Be aware that some of the vaccines can make you feel horrid for a few days after – so prepare yourself, don’t get jabbed before anything important e.g. exams!
Pre-booking tours and Expeditions:
In my experience India is a very “go with the flow” kind of country. We found that as long as we were guaranteed internet access we could more or less sort out our next move (travel, accommodation, activities) while in India a week or so in advance. However, what I would advise is that you pre-book everything down to a T for the first few days while you’re finding your feet (because trust me you will need it!) from the safety of your home. It makes it much less stressful when you are exhausted from travelling, you’ve been hit by the Indian heat, your senses are being assaulted by India’s ambience and you’re trying in vain to get your bearings.
One thing I would advice you to pre-book would be if you plan to go to the nature reserves. There are multiple westernised companies which offer you an extortionate price, so shop around a bit and try to find an Indian company, these seem much less official ( we had several email conversations, all of them insisting on calling me ‘Sir’ which involved a lot of chitchat and over the web bartering for what we wanted and how much we’d be willing to pay). In the end we managed to get 4 nights with transfers from the airport and onto our next destination, all meals included, 4 safaris in a private jeep and a walking tour up to Ranthambore fort for £200. We were well looked after, got an amazing experience and were fed like kings.
Top tips for pre-booking:
- If you go on safari in the reserves, choose to go in the jeeps – they seat 6 people max so everyone gets a good view, unlike the gypsies which squash in around 30 and are much noisier so disturb the wildlife much more. They are slightly more expensive but worth every penny
- Remember that if booking with an Indian tourist company it will seem very unofficial and there will be the slight worry you are about to get scammed. In our experience it usually turns out OK and the beauty is it’s completely acceptable to barter in order to get things for a suitable price.
- Remember India has closed currency so you won’t be able to get any money before you get there. We got Revolut cards, these are loaded with your own currency before you go but you can make withdrawals and use it like a debit card when in most other countries and it has some of the best exchange rates going. We would definitely recommend any travellers get one. https://revolut.com
Make sure your phone is unlocked
It can be quite a chore trying to get your hands on an Indian sim card – you need an Indian representative, passport, Indian address during your stay …. the list goes on. However when you’ve managed to jump through all these hoops to prove you’re not a terrorist, the Indian ‘pay as you go’ sims are incredibly cheap, you can get internet data and contacting home is incredibly inexpensive.
Some phone companies do do tariffs for travelling abroad but these are much more expensive than getting your hands on an Indian sim. Though it may be advised to use one of these for the first few days of being in the country before a sim is available to you – we waited 5 days before we even had the opportunity to sort out a sim.
It may seem like common sense but it’s easily forgotten when you get your phone from a phone company that it may be locked to a certain network so remember to check this before you go.
Make sure the insurance you’ve got is suitable for what you’re going to be doing. In our case we had to look for veterinary insurance for working with animals and medical equipment as a lot of normal policies don’t cover this. Also be aware if you’re thinking of doing any extreme sports as these sometimes have to be added onto policies.
Always take copies of all insurance documents with you when you travel in case you need medical attention
Packing to make a Girl-guide Proud!
Now I am a woman well known by friends and family to pack for EVERY eventuality but when travelling in India for 5 weeks the thought of taking a mere 65 litre backpack worried me greatly.
First the great debate…. backpack or suitcase? My advice to anyone with this dilemma would be to consider how much you’re going to be travelling around and what modes of transport you will be taking. If you are mainly flying or taxiing and staying mostly in one place a suitcase is fine and at times I greatly envied the suitcase “strutters” as they pulled their wheely suitcase along with ease, while I was struggling carrying what was basically another human on my back. However backpacks are great for the trains or walking in India as everywhere is so crowded and wild it’s good to keep your luggage close and portable and also a god-sent to have your hands free, so if you are doing a lot of travelling internally I’d go with a backpack.
First and foremost….. leave as much room as possible for all the souvenirs you WILL be bringing back! I had the not so fun game of playing packing tetris the day before flying home and had to sacrifice a lot of my own stuff to fit everything in! My advice would be to pack the bare minimum clothes and take disposable wash gear for this very reason.
A few things I found incredibly useful:
- head torch – power shortages happen a lot and always at the most inconvenient times – I was incredibly thankful for my light source when I was plunged into darkness mid-way through a shower.
- Something to fashion a washing line out of – sounds gross but we did all of our washing the old-fashioned way with a bucket of water and soap as where we were the laundry man was incredibly unreliable and turned up when he fancied. Having somewhere to hang up clothes to dry was really useful.
- surge protector – the electricity supply in India is not stable so surges of electricity can fry your technology, this little gadget stops that happening – really useful!
- clothes you are happy to discard at the end of your trip – it is very likely that in the dust and the grime, your everyday clothes will get ruined so apart from one or two nice outfits, make sure most of your clothes are expendable (helps make room from all the souvenirs you’ll most likely buy too!).
- COMFY sandals – we went with Clark’s “granny sandals” which looked amazingly attractive but god were they comfy. If you were anything like us, you will walk miles in India so comfy footwear is a must
- If you’re a lady, tampons – they have an abundance of sanitary pads but due to the culture you will struggle to find tampons so if you’re likely to need them pack them
- All your itinerary printed plus copies of important documents – passport, travel insurance, VISA, vaccinations etc. Always useful if technology dies or you lose your real passport etc.
- First aid kit – just a small one with the essentials is always useful for tackling minor injuries. I’d also make sure you have a hefty supply of anti-diarrhoeals – if Delhi belly strikes you don’t want it ruining your holiday!