A single girl’s guide to travelling India: 9 top tips for solo female travel
As Dubai starts to light up in celebration of Diwali this weekend, I am inspired to write this week’s post about my holiday to India. When I tell people about the trip, the most common questions seem to centre around how I, as a single woman, managed to travel so enjoyably around the country, so it seemed like a good subject to focus on for this post. India is such an enormous and diverse country that I could write about the country itself all week, but for now I’ll keep it short and sweet and save the details of the journey for a series of posts at another time (I did list some of my highlights here for those interested).
Firstly let me start by saying that I love travelling alone. I’m not antisocial, far from it in fact, and I love sharing experiences with those around me, but you cannot beat the sense of freedom and independence that solo travel brings, plus it opens up opportunities to meet all sorts of interesting people. That being said, there are of course downsides and there have had been plenty of occasions where I have been uncomfortable and nervous and all too aware of the added risks that female travellers face. Luckily most of these risks can be minimised with a little bit of common sense – I’ve collected my thoughts together below in the hope that they might reassure women looking to travel safely alone.
1. Be prepared
Do your research so that you are aware of local customs, dress codes and sensitivities – be respectful and try to blend in as much as possible (as someone with freckles, fair skin and hair this wasnt necessarily easy for me!) I would always rather err more on the conservative side than run the risk of offending someone, so my skirts when travelling are always to the knee and I carry a short-sleeved cardigan in my bag. Be mindful that what is acceptable in some parts of the country, may not be in others. I started my trip in Delhi, visiting Agra and then touring around Rajasthan and the Golden Triangle, before flying down to Kerala and exploring the beautiful backwaters, and the places and people of each were worlds apart.
2. Choose your hotels wisely
Plan your trip and make sure you stay in places close to your centre of activity – there may be some beautiful places on the outskirts of town but personally I don’t want to be limited to that hotel in the evenings or have to take long walks back from restaurants and markets on my own at night. Throughout India I chose hostels that were recommended (generally those also listed in Lonely Planet) and that had a popular restaurant of their own so that if I didn’t feel comfortable in a town, I could stay within the hotel and still get to meet lots of people and enjoy a good sociable atmosphere. The hotel in Jodhpur (Hotel Pearl Palace) was a great example of this.
3. Carry a scarf/pashmina at all times
This is my ultimate tip and has been a lifesaver so many times in so many ways! A good scarf can be used to cover shoulders, hair and head if necessary when entering temples, or to cover tell-tale fair hair when feeling conspicuous. I’ve only really ever felt the need to try to hide myself with a scarf once and that was in Delhi old town. I didn’t have a particularly good time in the city unfortunately, I was harassed a lot by beggars, one woman even leaning in to my auto rickshaw and putting a dirty, crying baby in my lap – it was heart-breaking. Travel by taxi was better, although the driver asked me to keep the doors locked, and explorations outside of the old town were less fraught and more enjoyable. For travel within Delhi old town, I’d recommend auto rickshaws over the traditional cycle ones where you are very exposed and visible (unless you have your scarf handy!)
4. Make friends!
Strike up conversation with the family sitting next to you on a train, schoolkids crowded next to you on a bus, or other travellers waiting in queues (the only people actually queuing in India!) Indian people are so friendly, it’s would actually be more of a challenge to ignore them! Don’t be afraid to join in, offer your food (they’ll be the first to offer you theirs) and learn something! And don’t be afraid to start talking to other travellers relaxing with a Singha after a long day exploring. After my experience in Delhi and Agra and a long train journey (a baptism of fire to India), I was feeling pretty lonely by the time I reached Jaipur, but I dragged myself up to the hostel’s restaurant (point number 2) and after a nice dinner and some dutch courage, I went over to a group of travellers enjoying a beer in the corner and introduced myself – they were actually all travelling separately and I spent the next couple of days exploring the city with them. In Udaipur it was the other way around, I was having dinner when I was approached and asked for a lighter, which started a conversation and led to another couple of days company before moving on.
5. Select your train carriage with caution!
Check out the options on the train, for long journeys take the best seats you can find so that you have some privacy. I travelled two long journeys in Rajasthan in Second Class and next time I would take First Class for sure (note that first class as a term is used very loosely!!) The carriage I was in overnight contained six or seven other people, mostly men, and let me just say that it is very disconcerting to open your eyes (not that I slept much) and see men staring at you from their bunks! For shorter train journeys, you don’t need to upgrade, just take the woman/family carriage and be prepared for a squeeze! Within Kerala there was one long trip from Alleppey to Varkala, for this one I took the family carriage and was literally hanging out of the door for the entire journey! It was a great way to see some fantastic scenery though and all the shy giggling schoolgirls crammed next to me were having great fun playing with my hair and trying to practice the few english words they knew!
6. Get a driver
I’m not recommending a full on chauffeur here, but for those long journeys across country it can be really beneficial to get a car and driver, this will not only make you feel more secure if you’re nervous, but also gives you more freedom and the chance to see more of the countryside and people up close – and you can stop whenever you want for photos. Don’t waste any time deliberating over the extra rupees for this kind of flashpacking-style travel – when you convert it back to your own currency, you’ll realise that it’s just a little more spare change for so much more comfort and freedom. I had a driver to take me from Jodhpur to Udaipur and we were able to stop at lots of little temples and markets – even the driver’s refreshment breaks were an experience!
7. Share your adventures
I hadn’t travelled on my own for a while when I went to India, and I was tweeting about my nerves while sitting in departures at the airport. It was only as the tweets of support and encouragement started pouring in that I realised that with social media now, I really wasn’t travelling alone. Not only did the daily tweets keep me motivated and stop me from feeling alone at some lonely parts of the trip, but there were so many additional adventures as a result of my Twitter activity. I got upgraded on the flight out, I met up with a couple of Twitter followers who happened to be in Delhi at the same time and were headed to Agra on the same day as me, and ended up joining them and their guide/driver and spending the whole day together, and another follower connected me to friends in Jodhpur who took me sightseeing for the day in their car and out for a lovely dinner in the evening to a restaurant out-of-town that I would never have seen otherwise. Don’t be afraid to reach out to new people on of offline! (See point 4)
8. Sign up for group trips
The perception that ‘real’ experiences can only come from independent travel is completely inaccurate. Whilst I’m not necessarily advocating group packages and bus tours, there are now so many good companies that provide authentic, sustainable experiences and allow you to get under the skin of the destination without having to do it alone. I found a lovely travel agent in Cochin (Wilson Tours) and arranged all of my activities/transport in Kerala through them, one of which was a group trip. I was keen to see the tea plantations in Munnar, but it was much more expensive to go independently, and the idea of staying alone in a tea house on the top of the mountain was not inspiring at all, so I put my name down to join a group and sure enough, by the next day two more independent travellers had signed up and the three of us ended up going on the two-day trip together with a guide and driver. We had a lot of fun and and we’re still in touch now (the joys of Facebook!)
9. Encourage those at home to join you for part of the trip
The truth is that some things really are meant to be shared, and it can be much more meaningful with someone you know well. The one part of my trip to India that I could not imagine doing solo (and one of the main highlights) was taking a houseboat and spending a few days and nights cruising around the Alleppey backwaters. I was sharing my adventures with friends and family through Facebook and trying to encourage people to join me, although I had already been travelling for a couple of weeks, one of my friends realised she would be able to take a couple of days off around a public holiday and booked a flight to join me for the final stage of the trip. I went back to Cochin to meet her when she arrived and we were able to share a lot of different experiences in the course of that final week. All in all, it was a fantastic end to a great adventure.
So that’s my advice for travelling alone, and a lot of these tips don’t just apply to India! The final things to keep in mind are to go with your gut instinct, if you don’t feel comfortable, leave (as we did on Kollam beach) and don’t panic when things don’t go to plan or the unexpected happens – India is a land of surprises and that’s what makes it so much fun to explore!
See for yourself from the Facebook pictures here