Going to India for the first time was incredibly intimidating to me. India is a country that polarizes and it seems nobody can leave without a strong opinion. It was my first time to the Asian continent and my friends who had already been to India were divided into lovers and haters. While some swooned about the vibrant colors, the delicious veggie food and the beautiful cities, others went on and on about crazy traffic, tourist rip offs and unwanted male attention.

How to get the most out of your first time in India, India as a woman | Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes.net

And then there’s the media telling the nightmarish stories of everyday sexism and barbarities committed against girls and women. They make India sound like the last place you would want to go as a woman, but you know what? I decided not to buy into that. There is good and evil happening everywhere in the world, whether you see it on the front pages, or not. Too often the news overlook the beauty of our planet and its people – but of course that is not really their responsibility, is it?

That’s what we are here for – I set out to India because I wanted to prove to myself and to you that India is indeed just as great a destination for female travel as any other place. My best friend and I travelled Delhi, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand for 10 days – admittedly that does not give me deep insight into the Indian culture or multiple-month traveling through the country, but it gave me a pretty good idea of how it feels like to arrive in India for the first time and make the best of that experience. During our trip I learnt a few lessons, which I would like to share so you can get the most out of your first trip to India.

How to get the most out of your first time in India, India as a woman | Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes.net

Book an airport pickup in advance

Arriving at Delhi airport has a particularly bad reputation amongst female travelers, but I did not really understand what all the fuss is about. Because we were flying in from different cities, we obviously arrived at different times – me in the afternoon and my friend very early the next morning. Our initial plan had entailed only 2 or 3 hours difference, and we were advised ‘under no circumstance sit around the airport to wait for each other’. While I might have not enjoyed sitting in the arrival hall by myself for hours, I can say, that in the area of the luggage belts, this would not have caused any problems at all – there were no weirdos or pushy people anywhere in sight.

How to get the most out of your first time in India, India as a woman | Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes.net

As we ended up booking different flights in the end, it never came that far, so I requested two airport pickups which were happily organized by our hotel in Delhi, Shanti Home. The cost came to about 800 rupees per pick up, roughly twice the prize of a regular taxi, but so worth it. I spotted my driver – rather the sign with my name on – as soon as the sliding doors opened up into the arrival hall. This way arriving at Delhi airport was a piece of cake.

At the hotel I was greeted with a flower necklace and a glass of cold iced tea – just what you need to ease you into your Indian adventure.

Don’t even think about driving yourself

You’ll notice within seconds after driving off from the airport: Indian traffic is mental. First, there is the variety of vehicles and other things on the roads: cars, trucks, busses, tuktuks, motorbikes, vespas, tractors, bicycle rickshaws, normal bicycles, ox-drawn carts, horse-drawn carts, camel-drawn carts, donkeys, dogs, goats, pedestrians and of course the worst of them all, cows. Second, there is the sheer absence of obedience to traffic rules. Where there are 3 lanes marked on the road, there are usually 5 or six lanes actually trying to squeeze their way forward. Honking means ‘Stay where you are, I’m coming’ or ‘Get out of the way, I’m coming’ – it really depends.

How to get the most out of your first time in India, India as a woman | Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes.net

Thirdly, there is the condition of the roads itself – holes and bumps everywhere. Sometimes the motorway turns into a gravel road, or gets flooded, you never know. You obviously shouldn’t run over a cow either, even if it is lounging in the middle of the road. At least these things take care of speeding. In conclusion: don’t drive yourself, it would be insane.

Book a private driver

Hardly anybody considers renting a car anyways, but would rather take public transport to get around. However, if you only stay for a limited period of time, I can highly recommend to book a private driver. I got this piece of advice from a good friend who used to live in Delhi and she recommended to book with Cozy Travels. For 14.500 rupees we had a car taking us around for five days, which included the car, the man driving it, all taxes and tolls, and fuel. He also took care of his own meals and accommodation, which made this just the cheapest, easiest and most comfortable way to get around.

How to get the most out of your first time in India, India as a woman | Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes.net

Quickly we grew fond of our driver Suares, who took us from Delhi to Pushkar, Jaipur, Agra and back. He watched over us when we used a cash machine in Agra; he brought us to an amazing artisan crafts bazaar in Jaipur; he taught us how to haggle with tuktuk drivers; and he organized a guide for us at Taj Mahal. Without him, our trip around Rajasthan would have been a lot less safe and a lit more clueless. Best value ever!

Don’t underestimate the distances

After our first eight-hour-drive from Delhi to Pushkar I knew not to trust the directions of Google Maps (it said it would only take 6-7 hours). As I said, traffic is crazy and roads are bad, so you will hardly ever be somewhere as fast as expected; it’s best to add an additional hour or two, when you plan. Also make sure not to underestimate how far distances in India are – it is obviously massive and you certainly don’t want to spend half your holiday in a car/on a bus or train. Even consider flying, as domestic flights are actually not that expensive.

Stay at nice hotels where you feel REALLY comfortable

We booked most of our hotels with Tripzuki, an online platform for boutique hotels all over India, but also relied on a few personal recommendations from friends and readers. My overall advice is to go with accommodation you think you will feel comfortable and safe in. If you are not a hostel kind of person, do you really want to spend your nights in 12-bed dorms? Wouldn’t you feel better in a private room, guest house or a hotel? Especially during the first few days, we were so overwhelmed with our experiences on the streets, it felt like heaven to return to our cozy hotel in Pushkar, where we had a big room, comfy outdoor seating and a calm rooftop restaurant – funnily enough, it was called Inn Seventh Heaven.

How to get the most out of your first time in India, India as a woman | Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes.net

A nice hotel should be your safe haven for you to retreat to, when everything else gets too much. As a first-time traveler to India, this is worth more than the prize of the room could be.

Go to a city which is “an easy way in”

For us this was Pushkar – one of the three holy cities of India. In season it is bustling with hundreds and thousands of domestic and international tourists, with numbers culminating during the massive camel market in November. But in low season during monsoon it is practically empty (in Indian terms). There are enough people and cows to make for good street photography, but not as many as to make you feel too overwhelmed. It is small and walkable, rather calm due to its spiritual significance, people are humble and friendly, there are no cars in the small lanes of the centre and a lot of rooftop restaurants and cafes to choose from. I also did most of my souvenir shopping here, as the city is particularly famous for great silver jewellery.

How to get the most out of your first time in India, India as a woman | Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes.net

Be careful with food, but also enjoy it

People say you can’t leave India without the so-called Delhi belly. The first nine days of our trip went exceptionally well though – we stuck to the widely accepted rule of exotic eating, ‘peel it, boil it, cook it, or forget it’, asked for mild spices only, stuck to veggie dishes and always ordered yoghurt on the side to stretch our curry sauces. Compared to my best friend, I probably leaned out of the window a little bit when I ate a samosa from a street food stall at a local market in Rishikesh, or when I happily accepted a literal handful of sweet rice at a temple in Pushkar. I even had a coconut milk shake once.

How to get the most out of your first time in India, India as a woman | Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes.net How to get the most out of your first time in India, India as a woman | Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes.net

In the end though, a banana broke my back (or bowels) after all – our host must have washed it under the tap after taking off one tip of the skin (a banana of all things – who washes a banana???)… Lesson learnt: be very careful with what you eat, but don’t restrain yourself all the time – if you feel comfortable with eating something, eat it. You can take the consequences later.

Join a guided tour (like for half a day)

What?!?, you might ask. But yes, if you only have a short amount of time in each location, a guided tour could be an ideal way of seeing it. I’m not talking weeklong group trips or boring tours filled with historical facts, but short tours offered by locals, food tours (brave stomachs only) or tours across markets. In Jaipur we were definitely lost on our own, but a quick Google research afterwards showed me, that there were actually a couple interesting tours offered in the Pink City, which are not only about history and architecture. We could certainly have used our 2 hours in a better way, would we have done our research in advance.

How to get the most out of your first time in India, India as a woman | Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes.net

Learning from our own mistakes, we joined a guided tour to explore Hauz Khas on our last afternoon in Delhi. Although we almost had to cancel it due to my Delhi belly, it sounded too good to miss: a tour around one of Delhi’s hippest neighborhoods with Delhi Dallying, which was founded and run by three former architecture students from Delhi. We met Bhavika and Rohan at the village’s entrance for a two-hour tour, which turned into three hours over tea and cake. Not only did we learn loads about the area, but we also got to know two people of our own age, ask them questions about modern and traditional lifestyles in Delhi, and how they find a balance between the two. It was one of my favorite encounters during out trip.

How to get the most out of your first time in India, India as a woman | Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes.net

Go slightly off-season

Going to northern India in the middle of July we actually took quite a risk, as it was practically monsoon season. In 2014 the constant rain had arrived in the beginning of July, flooding some of the areas we were meant to go, but we were lucky and only experienced a few quick showers. What I liked about traveling off-season was that obviously there were less tourists (no cues at major sites like Taj Mahal or Amer Fort) and things seemed a bit quieter. It was also easy for us to find accommodation and our ho(s)tels never felt overrun. Most areas looked lush and green even in the desert state of Rajasthan, as a little rain had already fallen.

How to get the most out of your first time in India, India as a woman | Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes.net

Although it was hot and steamy all the way, the clouds kept away the sun and we didn’t have to worry about sunburn too much. Although some of the cafes and restaurants (especially in Pushkar) were closed for the season, there were still plenty of options. All in all, I’d say, if you go early on in monsoon season and cross your fingers, it’s great value for money! (That said, I just saw photos from the floorings in Pushkar two weeks after our visit, and that doesn’t look like fun at all – it’s a risky game.)

Don’t be afraid

Finally, please don’t be afraid of going to India as a woman. Every single person we met, male or female, treated us with the respect I would expect anywhere else. Locals were of course curious and inquisitive as to where we’re from and what’s our names, they also stared (and didn’t look away when you stared back), but never in an alarming way – always out of curiosity. To the locals, we were as exotic as they were to us. They asked to take photos with us and in return I’d take portrays of them. If they spoke English we would ask them about their stories and recommendations, and they were happy to help.

  How to get the most out of your first time in India, India as a woman | Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes.net

General rules of common sense apply (like dress appropriately, don’t walk alone after dark in certain areas or get into cars with strangers) but that’s really the same everywhere. Media reports generally focus on the negative aspects, and paint a dark, wrong image of this country. To be honest, I experienced more sexist behavior in places like Nice or Vienna than anywhere in India. Nobody was out to get us, nobody tried to touch or harm us and nobody showed any form of hostility towards us. I would (and want to) go back to India any time and don’t see any reason why any other woman should not do the same.

How to get the most out of your first time in India, India as a woman | Kathi Kamleitner, Travelettes.net

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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.