Here is a list of the most important rules and tips that will keep you safe and healthy in India. In addition to health safety tips, I’ve also included a short list of what to wear, and what to pack.
Why should you listen to me?
I’ve lived in India for the first 20 years of my life, and I’ve traveled there at least 20 times since. As an Indian American, I can give you both an Indian as well as a Western perspective on some of the rules of traveling in India that you may have questions about. No article can cover everything, but I’ll give you some highlights.
Based on my extensive travel in India, both in North India as well as South India, and drawing from the experiences of the other travelers n my culinary tours, here are the things that will make your time in India enjoyable.
If it’s your first time going to India, or if you’re just thinking about going to India, you may have many questions. What should you pack for a trip to India? What clothes are acceptable in India? Are there certain customs or etiquette in India that you need to be prepared for?
Here are some tips that will keep you happy, and healthy in India. Let’s start with the things that will keep you safe and healthy first.
Don’t wander off alone
Note that in India, you often have slums right alongside mansions. You could exit your four-star hotel, walk a few yards, and be in a very different neighborhood entirely. I would suggest you go about with someone else until you learn your way around India. Buddy up if possible and be sure you know how to get back to your hotel.
While most educated Indians do speak English, the rickshaw driver, shopkeeper, or random person on the street may not be able to understand you. Especially if you are a single woman traveling alone, I’d highly
recommend finding someone to go with you first.
If you are on one of my tours, please stay with the group. If you must go investigate a shiny squirrel someone let someone know, so we aren’t wasting time looking for you. Definitely don’t wander off when we are on the streets.
Don’t eat Raw Vegetables or Peeled Fruit
- Do not eat ANY raw vegetables. You don’t know when they were cut, or what type of water they were washed in. As much as possible, eat freshly cooked, hot food.
- For the same reasons as above, do not eat ANY cut or unpeeled fruit. AT ALL. Even if it’s on the buffet at a fancy hotel. Bananas or other fruit that you yourself peel are fine.
- Try to consume yogurt or other fermented foods daily. If you’re worried about getting sick, you may want to eat mainly vegetarian. India is a fabulous country to do that in.
- During the monsoon months (June-July-August) avoid fish or other seafood.
Do not drink the water
Even though I lived there for 20 years, I get very sick with the water. It’s not just that the water may not be filtered properly, remember the main reason you’re getting sick is that you’re not used to the germs and microbes in India.
- Don’t believe the waitstaff who tell you the water is filtered—it is, but not to the point where it won’t make you sick. Instead, ask HOW the water was filtered. Make sure they’re using a reverse osmosis filter, or something other than a filter attached to a tap. On my India culinary tours, we try to stay in places that use reverse osmosis filters. But if in doubt, ask.
- Don’t consume ice unless you’re sure it was made from properly filtered water. This is the one thing people forget all the time, and then I have to knock that delightfully iced drink out of your hand as you’re trying to drink it.
- Think of how drinks are made before you order them. Does the lemonade use properly filtered water? Does the Lassi or popsicle use filtered water?
By following these suggestions, almost all of us stayed healthy on the trip. Just don’t be fooled by the “but that was a 5-star hotel!” argument. You’re not getting sick because it’s a dirty country/hotel/home. You’re getting sick because you’re being exposed to bugs against which you have no immunity
Is it Safe to Drink Water in India?
So let’s just address this question head-on. Can you drink water in India? No, tap water in India is not safe for most non-Indians, not unless it’s been filtered by one of the following methods.
- Boiled water. When I visit my family, they boil water for me each day, and we use that for drinking water and ice. At a homestay, this is the safest and probably most convenient way to be safe.
- Reverse Osmosis. My personal favorite. Water is forced through a semi-permeable membrane that traps impurities. Many expensive hotels use this method. On my all-inclusive India tours, this is what we prefer.
- Electric water purifier. These usually also filter UV and UF, and block carbon.
- UV radiation, adding bleach, adding iodine, etc. are rarer but help make the water safe to drink.
- Bottled water. Please make sure the seal is intact on the bottle you buy. If it is not, it has likely been refilled. Don’t buy it.
- Soda water or soft drinks. if in doubt, buy yourself a chilled soft drink. Just be sure to not get ice in it, unless you are sure how the ice was made.
The only way to be sure if the water is safe to drink is to ask. Don’t ask if the water is filtered. Everyone will say yes because they may have a faucet filter, they may have run it through a clay pot, a sheet of cloth etc.
Rather, ask HOW the water was filtered. If your waitstaff doesn’t know, politely ask them to find out.
Do bring some medication with you, but not your entire pharmacy
Medical care in India is very good, highly attentive, personalized, incredibly cheap, and easily found (in other words—nothing like most Western Countries). If you really
get sick, help is nearby. But carrying these few things with you is a good idea.
- Bring Diarrhea meds, especially ones that contain colostrum
- Probiotics are helpful. But honestly, eating yogurt or drinking lassi every day is a better bet. Just don’t consume lassi made with unfiltered water. And no ice unless it’s filtered!
- Electrolytes can’t hurt. I usually carry a few packets and drink one a day. Travel can be dehydrating, feeling wary of the water and so drinking less can be an issue, and wondering about your ability to find a clean bathroom can dissuade you from drinking. Sometimes having to squat may make you drink less. I also try to find some coconut water daily. YMMV, but it is the best medicine against dehydration as far as I am concerned.
- Sunscreen is a good idea. You’re quite close to the equator, and it’s very bright, even when it’s not very hot. It’s not very easy to find good sunscreen everywhere so I’d take enough to get you started.
- You may find a hat and a light coverup on your arms may help you as well.
- Insect Repellent. On my culinary tours, we don’t frequent areas with a lot of mosquitoes, typhoid, cholera, etc. so I don’t typically carry insect repellant. But if you’re going into smaller villages etc., I’d definitely carry some.
Don’t assume you can dress as you do at home
Yes, tourists do wear whatever the heck they want. But if you want to be respectful, I believe that the correct question isn’t, “Can you wear it?” Rather it is, “Are the locals wearing it?”
For the most part, light airy cotton and other breathable materials are preferred.
How to Dress in India: Women
Tops: When in India, I don’t wear shorts or tank tops with very thin straps.
Women do wear sleeveless shirts, but not usually tank tops or spaghetti straps. A few sleeveless shirts when I’m in bigger cities, and half- ¾- or full sleeve shirts depending
on the weather.
Bottoms: Very few Indian women wear shorts. Stomachs aren’t considered sexy since saris bare them daily.
Shoulders and legs on the other hand? Tooo sexy! So, cover those up.
Long skirts and pants are wonderful. Better still, try to acquire a salwar kameez in a
store or on the streets. You’ll be covered up, and stylish. Similarly, shorter Kurtas make
great tunic tops to wear with your jeans.
I have to say, in my experience, Indians love to see non-Indians dressed in traditional clothing. There is no concern about cultural appropriation. Rather, it is seen for what it is—a visitor who’d like to experience the culture and fit in with the rest of the population. Also, fun!
So, jeans, long pants, skirts, tops that cover your shoulders, capri pants, dresses that are at or preferably below your knee—all of these are acceptable.
Crop tops, shorts, spaghetti straps, halter necks, etc. are not representative of how
the locals dress and are to be avoided so you don’t give offense. This is especially true
while traveling and in smaller cities.
How to Dress in India: Men
Tops: Men don’t usually wear sleeveless shirts in India. Most of the men you see will
likely be wearing jeans or long pants, and half-sleeve shirts (also referred to as Bush Shirts). Shirts from your regular wardrobe will likely be just fine.
Bottoms: For men, long shorts are acceptable, but you will mostly see men in long pants.
If you want to acquire some cool (both with respect to temperature as well as style) clothing, see if you can acquire a Kurta and Pajama set.
I usually ask for ones that don’t require ironing. Most do still require some ironing or de-wrinkling, but they shrink less.
Typically made out of cotton, they’re likely to shrink so get a bigger pair than you
think you need. They are cool, they cover up your arms and legs, and they make great
pajamas at home. You can wear the Kurta with jeans while in India.
But she’s wearing shorts!
Yes, there will be kids and young adults wearing all these things I just told you not to
wear. But as a visitor, you really shouldn’t.
You already stand out, in a country where staring is not considered rude. Trying to fit into someone else’s norms while in their country is only a sign of respect.
I’m not trying to tell you how to dress. I’m telling you what will be considered
respectful and appropriate.
Do Bring A Head Covering
Both men and women will be required to have their legs fully covered, arms at least
partially covered, and their heads covered. For women, a light scarf will do the trick. For men, a ball cap will suffice. Leave your sleeveless shirts for another day, and wear a short sleeve shirt today.
Don’t give money to beggars
This is the hardest thing for me to tell you. You’re about to visit a very poor country. The little children who are begging will break your heart.
But as soon as you give money to one, you may well be besieged by others. You also don’t want to bring out money while being surrounded by several people.
Be careful in any case, not to flash a wad of cash while shopping. This isn’t just in India, I would recommend this to all tourists everywhere.
If you particularly want to give something to someone you encounter on the streets, ask your local tour guide to help you with this.
Note that you may have to be very stern with some persistent people. I try being polite first, and then I usually use my “mom voice”.
Don’t be offended by staring, personal questions, and lack of personal space
People will likely stare at you. You may be asked questions about how much money you make, why you aren’t married, why you don’t have children, etc., etc. Your concept of personal space will likely be ignored time after time.
None of this means anything. It’s normal. You will soon learn to deflect personal questions. My answers to the questions above include, it depends, still waiting for the right person, I have lots of nieces and nephews and how many kids do YOU have? respectively.
You will learn to slowly step back—and keep stepping back—as your new friend comes closer and closer. At times, I’ve had to politely ask people if they wouldn’t mind giving me a little more space.
Don’t point your feet at people
Feet are considered unclean. Don’t point your feet, especially the bottoms of your feet, at people. Rather fold your legs under you so as to not be pointing your feet at them.
Do not touch anyone with your shoes. If you accidentally kick someone, apologize profusely.
Don’t indulge in Public Displays of Affection
Men and women don’t often touch or hug each other in public.
For most Westerners, it is often surprising to find men walking hand in hand, or women doing the same. This is considered a gesture of friendship and closeness, not a sexual relationship.
But even husbands and wives touching or hugging will often find that they are making others around them very uncomfortable.
Even in the U.S., I don’t usually touch or hug my husband when we are in Indian restaurants or stores, or otherwise surrounded by Indians.
DO Bring Cash
Do bring some cash–just in case your card doesn’t work. We’ve run so many culinary tours now, and on absolutely every one of them, someone’s card doesn’t work, the place you just brought 5 much-needed drinks from has their credit machine hiccupping that day—you name it, it happens.
In fact, it happens on EVERY one of our trips to at least one or two people. It’s very unnerving to be in a strange country, and not even feel like you have cash if you need something or if something goes wrong.
You also will find yourself forced to pass up on experiences or things you might have wanted to get, at least until you can get your card sorted. I usually exchange about $250 or so at the airport and then I feel a little safer.
In 2022, I’d recommend $500 cash on our trips. You can always bring the unused money back.
DO Bring space in your suitcase
If you’re going on my North India tour, we’re going shopping a few times! Once in the heart of Delhi for kitchen items, and once for clothing and maybe even carpets and marble things (which they will ship).
India is a great place to shop for anything clothing. The variety is endless. Personally, I
always come back with a new salwar kameez or two, and a Kurta to wear with my jeans
I also look for a sari I can bring back. For my sons and husband, we look for Kurta Pajama sets or sometimes just button-down shirts in fabric or color they liked. We’ve also shopped at fancy shops for silk Indian outfits for them, but those cost about as much as clothing in the USA, so be prepared to pay.
The shops that we visit in Agra will ship your marble and carpet items to you. They’re expensive, but they’re not things you can buy in your own country, so they’re worth it if you’re in the market.
Do consider buying Jewelry
Should you shop for Gold Jewelry in India? I absolutely always do. Here’s why. It’s usually 22k gold. And it’s usually cheaper than even what you’d pay at Zales or other mainstream jewelers in the U.S.
The way prices are figured for gold jewelry is quite simple. The gold is weighed, the
day’s sale price for gold is used, and the cost of the gold is determined. Then, they add
a workman’s fee to account for the skill and effort it took to fashion the item.
Notice, no surcharge because we are Tiffany’s.
There are now a few brands emerging that may charge a brand price, so to speak, but
most traditional jewelers don’t do that. They will also transparently tell you how much for the gold, and how much for the workmanship.
So, it’s possible to get solid 22k earrings for $200 or rings for $300, etc. Not cheap, but
absolutely a great value—and an investment—compared to 14k “gold” jewelry in the US (yes, those quotes reflect my bias!)
If you’re thinking of getting custom-made jewelry in India, be aware that most places will take weeks to get your item made. I wouldn’t count on it being done in the few days you are likely in one spot.
Do NOT bargain
Please. Especially with people on the streets or in smaller shops that are barely eking out a living.
I know we’ve all heard how you should bargain in every country that’s not your own, especially in developing countries. (I’m trying hard not to diverge on why it is that we feel we can bargain with the poor, but not the rich but since this isn’t a political blog, I won’t go there. Yet.)
Here’s the thing.
The $2 difference will mean nothing to you.
But it may make the difference between a child going to bed hungry or being well fed that night.
You’re visiting a country where the median income is $392 a month—and the vendors
on the streets are making a lot less than that. If you don’t like the price, just walk away. But let’s leave behind the extra $2 when we can.
Do ask before you take photos
Not only is this always polite, but certain religious groups may not appreciate being photographed.
I will never forget the time when my very young and naive friend asked a Muslim woman if he could photograph her. She was wearing a burka and wanted to be photographed with her face showing. But my friend wanted a picture of her fully covered.
I explained things to him and he took photos both ways.
The next time he met a woman wearing a burka, he asked if he could photograph her without her face covered. Welp. That didn’t go over very well.
So just know that you don’t know. Ask politely and find out and respect the choices.
You will find some shopkeepers very happy to be photographed. You will find others who want to be paid before you take photos.
Do remove your shoes before walking into someone’s home
Most Indians remove their outside shoes before walking into their own homes. I would suggest that you do the same thing.
Many may politely tell you it’s not necessary–but they’re often only trying to respect your culture. A little white lie such as, “I’m more comfortable this way” or “I don’t wear shoes in my own home” etc. may go a long way in making everyone comfortable.
Know that you will not be allowed to wear shoes in any temples or other holy places.
Do plan to enjoy the wonderful food, the beautiful countryside, and the warm and welcoming people
You are in for an experience of a lifetime. The food is delicious and abundant. As soon as you get out of the cities, you will be taken aback by how beautiful and lush the countryside can be.
The people are warm and welcoming, and genuinely glad that you’re there, that you’re curious enough to learn about them and their culture, and that you are keen to learn what you can.
I hope you have a wonderful and enjoyable stay in India, and that you stay safe and healthy by following these tips.