Planning a trip to India requires more thought than other destinations. But the reward is richer, too. Here's how you can plan your own trip to India, either by yourself or with a reputable agency like Original Travel.
Disclosure - if you book or buy through some of the links on this page, we may earn a very small commission at no extra cost to you. We have also partnered with Original Travel in the past but as ever, as always, remained free to write what we like. Otherwise, there is simply no point.
India: From a Dream to a Plan
So, you are thinking about planning a trip to India? Congratulations! A riotous world of colour and character, taste and tranquility, spice and adventure awaits.
However, a word of caution. As rewarding and enriching as a trip to India can be, it can also be hard. I've been several times and found deep joy and an exhilarating sense of being alive. But I've also felt frustrated and exhausted and it's the only country in the world in decades upon decades of travel that I've ever left early.
Would I go back again? Of course! I have many times and would do again. But. Especially if this is your first trip to India, it's worth taking the time to plan your trip and get ready ahead of time. Sure, you can say that about everywhere. But it's particularly relevant to India.
One thing that can help? Having an expert help you to plan your trip to India and then be available on the ground as well. In short, I'd recommend Original Travel as a company to help you with this. They have an expert team to help book accommodation, tours and guides, as well as a dedicated concierge service on the ground and absolute flexibility and tailor-made itineraries. They also speak highly about arranging a honeymoon in India. More about them later.
But it's still perfectly possible to plan your own trip to India without an agent. Let me walk you through the various pros and cons, as well as all the other things you need to know to prepare for a trip to India.
How to start planning a trip to India
Sketch out your travel wish list
India is big. Three short words, so just to make sure they've had the required impact, I'll repeat them again with an extra one: India is very big. You won't be able to fit all the places you've heard about into a single trip without travelling for many, many months.
Start by building an overall idea of where you'd like to go. In general, less is more. India is not a place to rush through, you'll need patience and a certain amount of zen. This is easier to achieve if you're not stressed about catching another connection. Don't go into too much detail at this stage of planning. Just build an overall idea.
I'm all about getting off the beaten track and exploring less well known places. But some iconic spots, like the Taj Mahal, deserve to be on a lifetime wish list.
As an overall guide, the most popular itineraries are:
- The Golden Triangle in the North - Delhi, Jaipur and the Taj Mahal in Agra plus Ranthambore for tigers.
- Goa and Kerala in the south for laid back relaxation and at least one day in Mumbai for the buzz.
- Bangalore, Mysore and around for people combining work trips to silicon city Bengaluru.
- The Tibetan buddhist enclave of Ladakh for traditional homestays and trekking.
- Spa breaks in the Indian Himalayas
- The less explored city of Calcutta and states of Sikkim and Assam
- The Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.
- Central India for its National Parks and successful tiger conservation programmes.
Books to Help You Prepare for A Trip to India
- The Lonely Planet Guide to India - helpful for planning itineraries and learning about history and culture.
- Lonely Planet's Best of India - more visual and helpful in planning what you want to see more than how you can see it.
- The Rough Guide to India - another take on planning a trip to India with in depth background sections.
- Go deeper with this selection of books about India.
Work out When You Can Go
Work and weather can derail the best of plans. Because India is so big (there, said it again for impact) you will need to adjust your dreams according to global reality.
India has a reputation for heat, and when that summer sun squeezes into every aspect of your lungs, you'll see why. But places can also get very, very cold. One of the biggest travel mistakes I ever made was heading to India without enough warm clothes. Learn from my disaster!
As an overall guide, December to March works well for many places in India. April and May bring in heat and humidity while June to September lavish upon the earth the drench of the monsoon rains.
- Don't forget to factor in time for visas and vaccinations - up to eight weeks is advised. India is not a great last minute destination unless you are up to date with ALL international immunisations AND already have a visa.
Work Out Your Budget
You can travel around India on a very limited budget if you are prepared to take your time, hustle like crazy and stay in all manner of places. Yet India's five star hotels in former palaces, world class hospitality, transfers and wealth can easily run into a sky high budget as well. In India, perhaps more than anywhere else, your budget comes down to what you prefer - and can afford.
When to Ask for Help
It's at this point in planning your trip to India that it makes sense to speak to an agent. Feedback on the feasibility of the trip to India you have in your head is invaluable. From here, you can decide whether to book a package or whether to go it alone. I'll walk you through my experience with Original Travel.
Planning a Trip to India with Original Travel
The Original Travel Planning Process
The process is pretty simple. Hand over your initial request, via phone, email or online form, and they'll get back to you to clarify.
In my case, I had very little time. Less than a month, in fact, so my request was necessarily brief. My scrambled lines went something like "number of days, airport, like UNESCO, food, culture, boutique."
The next step involves a phone call. And that one call saved around a week's normal planning and researching, I'd say. In less than five minutes, their expert guide had ruled out some of my fancier notions and brought my plans into laser focus.
"Don't spend any more time in Bangalore. Let's get you straight to Mysore."
Me. "But I have a 7am return flight? How am I going to manage that?"
OT: "We'll book you into the airport hotel. Don't worry, it's a Taj and you can literally walk across the tarmac."
And so on...
The Provisional Itinerary
A few days later, I received a provisional itinerary. I LOVED the clear, visual layout, plus the pages of detailed descriptions that followed. Everything from the excursions with tour guides to the details behind the hotels had been beautifully presented. But there was also an easier to digest summary sheet (above) to give me an overview.
Alterations and Free Time
Original Travel really do aim to put together tailor-made itineraries, and so it's actively encouraged to feed back on any alterations you have in mind or to explain how much free time vs guided time you'd prefer. Communication is clear as to when certain deadlines have to be met to secure hotel bookings and the like. And there's no pressure to fill your itinerary from dawn to dusk just for the sake of it (which I have found with other tour companies in the past.)
Things to Know about Booking with Original Travel
- They would prefer to book the whole trip for you but can easily take over if you have already booked your flights to India.
- Original Travel Guides tend to be booked by the day during the high season rather than by excursion. It's not possible to pick and mix day by day. However, there is great scope for free time and flexibility while planning your itinerary to begin with.
- Original Travel work with a small selection of hand-picked hotels only.
- It is obviously more expensive to have a team of people arranging your trip to India for you than if you do it yourself. You gain your time and their expertise.
Reminders of the Essentials
Although your passport, visa and other essentials will always be your responsibility, I found that Original Travel did a pretty good job of reminding me just what needed to be done, when and why.
Extras: before your trip and the Concierge Service
Original Travel are a luxury travel company and so, as standard, you'll receive some perks. Some, like fast track UK check in and security, you won't need if you already have a business class ticket. But others are priceless, such as the 24 hour helpline, discovery packs for kids, and the OT Concierge Service.
The local concierges, as the name suggests, live in the country you are travelling through and can help with last minute changes, local recommendations and more. They also, helpfully, are on the same time zone as you while you are on your trip in India.
Beyond Your Trip: The Sustainable Tourism Aspect
Responsible travel and sustainable tourism have been a cornerstone of our philosophy since Inside the Travel Lab began.
Original Travel share the same view and since 2009, their Foundation has donated over £1,391,624 to support various humanitarian projects in over 30 countries.
Read more about how that works here.
Essentials of Planning a Trip to India
Vaccinations and Health
It is vitally important to check out which vaccinations you will need way before your travel date when planning a trip to India. You should ALWAYS make an appointment with your healthcare provider, preferably at least 8 weeks in advance. However, to give you an idea, I'd recommend checking the CDC Website for US advice and the NHS Travel Advice website for the UK. In general, you will need to be up to date with your routine vaccinations (diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, MMR, polio and flu jab.) Most travellers will also then need vaccines against hepatitis A and typhoid, with some also needing rabies, yellow fever, cholera, hepatitis B and japanese encephalitis.
General Health Advice
Vaccinations won't cover everything. Remember to pack a hat to protect you from the sun, plenty of sunscreen, learn safe food practices and pack your own first aid kit.
Malaria and Bite Advice
Malaria prophylaxis medication will depend on the region you plan to visit and the type of travel you have in mind. Discuss with your healthcare provider and decide. In any case, take all precautions to avoid insect bites, since malaria and other diseases can be transmitted this way. Cover up where possible with long sleeve tops and trousers to your ankles. Use insect repellent frequently, with DEET as an active ingredient. If travelling to a high risk area, consider taking a mosquito net for sleeping.
Health Advice Specific to You
Make sure that you have enough of any prescription medicine to last the duration of your trip and any extra in case you are forced to extend for whatever reason. It's always a good idea to have a letter from a doctor that explains any prescription medication you have with you (and essential if that involves syringes or fluids you need to carry onto a flight.)
- Check out the ultimate travel checklist here for more advice.
Take Out Travel Insurance
To be honest, I wondered whether or not to put this right at the top. Before you spend any money on your trip to India, take out travel insurance. Don't wait and don't decide you won't need it. If you travel frequently, I'd always recommend an annual policy.
At the very least, it should cover you for medical, legal and repatriation costs should you require them.
Arrange a Tourist Visa & Check Your Passport Details
Typically, you will need to arrange a tourist visa in advance from the Indian government - but always check the latest guidance before making any definite plans. In most cases, you no longer need to visit the embassy but can instead apply online. This is a relatively straightforward procedure but does take longer than five minutes. You will need to upload a passport photograph and copy of your passport page and complete details about your previous travel history and provide information about your parents. Several visa agencies exist but most people should be able to manage this themselves.
- Don't forget to check the expiration date of your passport and make sure you have enough blank pages for your trip to India. Check the Indian government website for the most up to date details.
Book Your Flights to India
Since flights often make up the largest cost of any trip to India, it's useful to start looking into these sooner rather than later. I always check flight comparison sites like Skyscanner, Momondo and Google Flights and set up alerts for the journeys I want.
Skyscanner has fantastic filters and sliders that help to eliminate the crazy, backpacking flights that require 4 connections and a night at the airport, allowing you to focus on finding great flight deals for grown up travellers.
- A word of warning: it's usually not a good idea to book a flight plan which involves a connection between different airlines. You will need to go through immigration in the connection airport, collect your luggage and check in all over again. Plus, if anything goes wrong with the first flight, the second airline is under no obligation to help out.
- Don't feel you have to fly in and out of the same airport. Depending on your route, it may make more sense to fly in to one and out from another to avoid the hassle of travelling back.
- Remember that India is very big! There is no one central airport, you will need to find the one closest to where you want to go.
- India's main international hub airports are New Delhi (DEL), Mumbai (BOM) and Bengaluru (BLR.)
Important Things to do When Planning a Trip to India
Look, let's be honest. It's not essential to plan the following things before you travel to India. But your trip to India will be better if you arrange some things in advance. In particular, the following:
How and When to Book A Place to Stay
Depending on the nature of your trip and personality, you may choose to book all your hotel accommodation in advance. This is essential if you're travelling during a peak season or have specific ideas about what you want.
For flexibility, though, it's perfectly easy to book while in India itself. However, I would always advise you book the first and last few nights in advance to take some stress out of the situation. On arrival, you'll likely be jet lagged and still adjusting to culture shock. On your return, you don't to miss your return flight or have the last few hours of your trip become an endless slog to get to the airport on time.
But how do you know where is a good place to stay? This is another area where a good agent can help.
You can check out the hotel giants like Booking.com and Tripadvisor but this can take hours to find what you want. Another top tip involves checking out smaller hotel collections. Check my travel resources page for the ones I recommend.
Book Essential Internal Travel and Transfers
Here's where things get harder. It's simple to book your own hotels and flights in this day and age but completing the tapestry with essential transfers in advance shakes things up. If you don't feel confident handling this, then reconsider booking through an agency where they will take care of this for you.
Most decent hotels will obviously assist in calling your taxi or rickshaw and will help you negotiate a fair price. It's a good idea to book your first transfer in advance and in my experience, airport transfers are easily booked on Viator.
Always pick up a card of the accommodation you're staying in to help you explain where you want to get back to. Have an idea of a fair price before you start negotiations and carry around small amounts of cash so that you can pay the correct amount.
Bus and Train Transfers
Bus and train travel through India varies between a thrilling explosion of character and colour and something more of an ordeal. The rail network offers a great way to explore the country but long routes fill up in advance so book ahead or prepare to be flexible. When buying tickets at the station, prepare to jostle and remain firm, fair and calm. If this is your first trip to India, I'd recommend giving yourself a few days to adjust before any essential long journey. And once again,consider travelling with an agent.
Consider an International Driving License
Should you drive in India? Not if you can help it, would be my advice! Road conditions are variable, traffic can be frenetic and overwhelming and the unspoken rules of the road are very different to those of the UK and US. It is relatively inexpensive and easy to hire a car with a driver, either for short transfers or for the day and then you don't need to deal with the headache of parking. However, if you do wish to drive, you may need additional documents. The UK government website on living in India contains useful, up to date information to help you navigate this.
What to Know About Your Return Trip
As of Feb 2020, you need to present your airline ticket and passport at the entrance to be allowed into the airport. In this e-ticket age, make sure you have the relevant image visible before you leave your hotel (and wifi connection.)
Enriching Your Trip to India
Local Tours and Local Businesses
If you opt out of an organised trip, you can still (and should!) take the occasional small tour.
The right guide can open your eyes to so much you may otherwise miss and it's a great way to support local communities and spread the benefit of travel at grassroots level.
Increasingly, you'll find free tours online, where the guide is hoping to survive on your tips. Tuk-tuk drivers may also offer to show you the sights of a city, but be wary when accepting these offers. You'll often end up at a string of shops with a heavy pressure to buy.
In my experience, I've had more luck with food tours, cooking classes and academic small tours than the more generic ones. The Truth About Food Tourism is a useful background read for this!
What to Pack for a Trip to India
Once you've worked out what to wear in India and included all your health essentials, it's time to think of the following: international travel adapter, swimwear, hiking gear, camera and accessories, chargers, washbag and toiletries, padlocks, travel tissues, hand sanitizer, a reusable drinking bottle, resealable plastic bags and of course your long haul flight essentials. Give some thought to your daypack or handbag. Go for one with a cross-body option and zip top and compartments to reduce the risk of pick-pockets.
- Check out our printable travel packing checklist here and don't miss anything when planning your trip to India.
What to Wear in India
If you only pay attention to one thing in this article, it should be this! Pay attention to the weather forecast for the region(s) you will be travelling through and pack accordingly!
It can get cold, very cold, even in the north and in hotter months when you're on safari and up at dawn.
Aim for a collection of loose, breathable cotton clothes that ideally reach down to your ankles and cover your shoulders. Layer up with wraps, scarves, jumpers and jackets but avoid a suit unless you're travelling for business.
Your footwear will take something of a battering and in many places, even in palaces rather than temples, you will need to take your shoes off and walk barefoot for some time. Don't pack shoes that damage easily or that you would hate to lose. With many open sewers and uneven pavements, closed toe shoes work best.
Mental Preparation & Skill Set
Perhaps the most important part of preparing for a trip to India involves brushing up on your street smarts. The aim is to find a balance between naivety and falling for scams and feeling so anxious that the point of travel disappears. Travel should thrill, not overwhelm!
Brush up on the Basics
Don't take anything with you that you couldn't bear to lose. Leave expensive jewellery at home and don't carry around large amounts of cash. Take photos of all your documents, including your passport and visa and insurance, and store them in the cloud, a paper copy in your suitcase and a full set with a friend or relative at home.
Prepare to Stand Out
Sorry to be blunt but if you are white, you will likely stand out and attract attention. Much of that attention will be warm and welcoming but bear in mind that your presence is seen as a sign of wealth in a country where so many people live below the poverty line. Expect people to want to take your photograph or give you gifts - but also be wary of pickpockets and forced detours to places you don't want to go.
Be firm but fair when declining offers or bargaining and setting limits. Don't chat politely if you have no intention of buying. And just see the extra attention as part of the experience. Don't let it get under your skin.
- Read the sections on these books on travel to India for more guidance.
Planning a Trip to India: In Summary
Planning your trip to India is the first step towards a fascinating journey. It takes a little thought, but with the right mindset, you can relish the process rather than resent it.
So, should you plan your trip yourself? If money is no issue and it's your first trip to India, I would highly recommend booking through a company like Original Travel. Travel in India is immensely rewarding but can also feel overwhelming and frustrating without a little help.
If you're a very savvy traveller, with decades of travel experience under your belt, it probably comes down to the age-old issue of money over time, with a side order of enjoyment. How much do you enjoy and relish flexibility and browsing through hotels and itineraries? And how much do you just want to get it booked and get on with it?
Only can know. Enjoy your trip to India!
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