India, a land of energy, spirituality, colour, detailed architecture and love.
When most people envision India, they dream of elephants and tigers, colorful saris, prayer ceremonies on the banks of the Ganges, buildings and palaces with the most incredible details, steaming hot chai tea, and slow moving cows.
Planning my trip to Asia, I hadn’t planned on visiting India.
It’s not that I wasn’t keen to go, but my top concerns were internet strength (for working) and the experience of going alone.
However, working more over the summer and early fall than I planned, meant I had a bit more budget cushioning than I’d expected to have rounding out 2019.
And so, leaving Indonesia at the end of October, I started thinking about where I could spend November, before heading to Europe in early December to take care of a few things in London en route to being Stateside for the holidays.
Visiting Sri Lanka was of huge interest to me, and just so happened to be ‘on the way back’ (in a general direction sense sort of way) to Europe.
And there, looming next to Sri Lanka, was India. A country I really wanted to visit but felt overwhelmed at the notion of trying to plan a trip through.
Thanks to Instagram though, and the power of e-friends who also took on the challenge of traveling India as solo female travellers, I felt empowered to take on the trip.
Their experiences inspired me, and made me feel better about committing to visit for three weeks.
As it would turn out, I had nothing to worry about. Never once during my travels in India did I feel unsafe or threatened.
Sure, I felt uncomfortable a lot, but that’s part of the reason why I travel- to see and experience new things, that push me outside my comfort zone.
When planning my trip, after I’d decided where to go (which, was one of the hardest parts), I tried to get a sense of budget expectations.
India is the kind of place that can be incredibly cheap or ridiculously expensive, depending on your travel style
Because I’d earned a bit more than I’d projected over the summer, and wanted to work a bit while in major cities in India, I wasn’t interested in a bottom of the budget, backpacker experience.
Although, kudos to anyone backpacking India on less than $400 USD monthly (which seemed to be the general, low-tier backpacker cost consensus).
Whenever I searched for advice about backpacking India, and more specifically, solo travel budget examples, I could only find two things- cheap as chips or high end splurge.
Lower end estimations ranged from $10-15 USD daily, and were calculated on sharing dorms at a hostel, taking buses or the lowest train class everywhere, and eating street food.
On the higher end, calculations ran upwards of over $100 USD daily, and included luxe hotel rooms, private drivers, plentiful tours, and nice dining experiences.
There wasn’t much for moderate travellers, or flashpackers as I’d deem myself, which made setting budget expectations a bit difficult initially.
What’s more, I didn’t find much about spend variation for different cities in Northern India, where I’d be visiting.
I didn’t meticulously track every expense while I travelled India, but after two and a half weeks traveling Jaipur, Jodphur, Jaisalmer, Amritsar, Delhi and Agra, I have a much better sense of what a comfortable, budget venture to India costs.
What to Expect Traveling India on a Budget, but Not as a Backpacker
Looking at hotels and hostels, I was torn what to book.
On sites like Agoda and Booking.com, I found some good hotel deals, but staying at a hostel appealed more to me because I knew I’d be able to chat with other travelers.
However, because I wanted to work (video conferencing), I needed decent WiFi and some privacy.
Private rooms at hostels.
I wasn’t too fussed that my rooms have en-suites, but it worked out that booking private rooms with my own bathroom was only $5-8 more per night than sharing the same toilets as everyone else in the hostel, so it was what I opted for in each place.
Choosing a hostel in each city was actually the easy part.
In Agra, Joey’s came highly recommended for their proximity to the East gate of the Taj Mahal- only a 3 minute walk. At $26 USD a night, I considered it a bargain to have close of access to such a historic site.
Everywhere else (sans Amritsar), I stayed in a hostel brand I’d heard nothing but rave reviews about- Moustache.
Their staff is familiar with foreigner needs, questions and interests and well prepped to help with just about anything from getting a SIM to recommending places to eat or drink, or how to get to the next place in your India travels. Each location I visited also offered a variety of walking tours, which was a nice way to meet people from the hostel and see the place I was visiting.
Their Delhi location was my favourite- there were always people in the common areas, which made for a real community vibe.
Being so well known, and a bit upscale for India hostels doesn’t come super cheap though. Generally, I paid between $25-35 per night for private rooms with en-suites at Moustache locations.
And, in Amritsar, I booked a hostel close to the Golden Temple that had great reviews for only $15 USD a night. It wasn’t nearly as nice (read: clean) as the rooms I stayed in at Moustache, but it was a safe place for me to sleep.
One note on booking hostels in India, be careful when reading reviews. Some hostels pay people to write glowing reviews when the reality is far from what they describe.
Moustache came personally recommended, as a hostel brand, from others I knew who had travelled India, so I felt comfortable staying there without much research.
Getting Around India
One of the biggest challenges budget travelers in India face is getting from place to place. India is a vast country, and sometimes, travel distances are absolutely massive.
Chatting with friends who had visited, many hired a private driver to get city to city. To hire a driver this way, rates are based on distance and can average $30-40 for 3-4 hours, or $60 and up for longer distances.
Other friends said they’d hired a driver to escort them throughout their entire time in India, showing them around sights as well. Rates for this kind of experience vary as well, based on where you’re going, what you’re asking of the driver, etc. but I’ve heard anything between $60-100+ USD per day.
The upside to traveling either of those ways?
It’s comfortable and eliminates a lot of logistics you’ll have to otherwise manage.
You miss so much. When you travel by tuk tuk, train, bus or even walking place to place when feasible, you see and experience a lot more. Sometimes those experiences may not always be pleasant (hectic train stations), but you leave feeling like you’ve really explored India.
My recommendation for getting around India?
Take plans for vast distances: I flew twice, in India. The first time was from Jaisalmer to Amritsar, a journey which could take several days otherwise. The second time, I thought trains were sold out from Amritsar to Delhi, but it turned out to be a website glitch. Unfortunately, by the time I’d learned this, I’d already paid for a flight.
India has a few budget airlines- Spicejet, Air India, Vistara, Tiger Airways and Indiego, which makes it pretty easy to find deals in relation to domestic travel in other countries around the world.
I flew Spicejet, Indigo and Vistara, and had no complaints with any of them. In actuality, I was surprised by the service- on domestic flights, the cost to add checked luggage was minimal, and onboard the plane, full meals and drinks were served.
From Jaisalmer to Amritsar, I paid $35, and from Amritsar to Delhi, I paid $55. Not the cheapest way to get around, but also not a bad option for covering long distances in a relatively short amount of time.
And, I’ve heard some airlines, like SpiceJet, have travel passes if you’re going to be flying all around India.
A final note, always check the airlines for recent safety ratings. I usually use GoogleNews to help me scan press coverage over the past few months whenever I fly an airline I’m not familiar with.
Take trains for shorter journeys:
Travelling by train has never been easier for foreigners in India.
Prior, you had to reserve tickets using an Indian debit card, which meant foreigners had to go to full-service agencies ($$$) or small shop owners and hope a last minute seat was available.
Now, you can use booking agent, 12GoAsia, which charges a minimal fee to reserve tickets for you.
The only thing to note? You must reserve in advance- like, weeks in advance for the best chance of getting the train you want and seating type.
I waited too long to book (1.5 weeks before my trip), and was bummed to discover I had to rearrange some plans because trains I’d initially looked at schedules for and planned to take were sold out.
I took trains from Jaipur to Jodphur, Jodphur to Jaisalmer, and Delhi to Agra return.
On shorter journeys, I sat in CC ac class, which is essentially padded seats in air-conditioned cars. Think: Scruffier, British trains.
And, on longer journeys, I booked 2AC class, which is best for a balance between cost and comfort. In 2AC, there are only two beds stacked, so you have room to sit up fully, stretch, etc. Cars are also typically cleaner than 3AC class.
That said, I wouldn’t be against booking 3AC class. It’s usually a bit cheaper than 2AC because beds are stacked three in a row, which means it’s a bit tighter. There’s still air-conditioning though, so you should be comfortable for the journey.
There’s also 1AC class and non-air conditioned sleeper cars. 1AC is the nicest class, but I didn’t consider it because the compartments lock, which is a safety concern for me as a solo female traveler. I’ve heard the non a/c classes are mostly locals, and while they may be alright for travel in pairs, they’re generally not advised for solo female travelers.
When you book trains, you’ll have the option of shorter or longer journeys, usually. Should go without saying the most direct route is always the most expensive, but not by much.
I always booked the quickest trains since the cost savings weren’t worth the additional journey time to me.
Short distance tickets were usually $8-10 USD each way, with 12GoAsia’s booking fee.
And, longer distance tickets were usually $12-16 one way, with 12GoAsia’s booking fee.
I didn’t take buses or hire a private driver while in India because the former usually took too long to get place to place on my tight schedule, and the latter was cost prohibitive.
Getting Around Cities
In smaller cities, like Jaisalmer, Jodphur, Amritsar and Agra, I walked most places.
Because I had an Indian SIM, I was able to to user Ola (Indian rideshare app) and Uber to get around Jaipur, Amritsar, Delhi and Agra.
Each city has buses, and Delhi has a modern metro system, but being short on time, ridesharing meant I could quickly and easily get to the places I wanted to see.
Using rideshare services in India will vary city to city- all have private cars, some also have tuk tuks, rickshaws or motorbikes as options as well.
As with using rideshare services anywhere, make sure the driver’s photo / plate number matches before you get in.
Several times, I refused to get in tuk tuks where the plate didn’t match, even if the driver showed me proof of my booking on his phone. For my own safety, it was important to me the details were the same as their rideshare profile.
Overall though, I found rideshares an effective way to avoid haggling and fare scams at major train stations and airports. It also added a layer of safety for me as a solo female traveller, knowing my journey was being tracked, and I could share it (as in Uber) with a friend or family member.
There were a few instances where I did take a tuk tuk or rickshaw though.
When possible, I asked my hostel staff to help me understand how much the ride should cost, based on where I was going.
Generally, I ended up taking 40-50% off the first estimate the drivers gave me- they were that inflated.
I get it- I’m a prime target for mark-up as a white, female solo traveler. But, that doesn’t mean I should be taken advantage of.
If you’re wondering about tip for taxi, tuk uk or rickshaw drivers, no need. They won’t expect it, it’s factored into the rate.
I spent a bit more here than most people will, and than what’s necessary because of my food allergies.
Being allergic to cashew nuts and knowing how prevalent they are in Indian food, especially vegetarian dishes, I took no chances and only ate at cafes or restaurants where someone on staff spoke English.
I did this because, I needed to be able to communicate the severity of my food allergy, and have them give directions to the kitchen.
There were a few street food items I tried- lassis, jalebi, juices, naan- things I knew were safe. But, for the most part, I avoided curries or sauces if I couldn’t be certain they were nut free.
Even eating at cafes, on average, I spent under $5 USD per meal- sometimes only $2-3 USD.
Zomato was a favorite app in cities (Jaipur, Jodphur, Amritsar, Delhi) for ordering food on nights when I needed to work. And, using it meant I didn’t need to walk around by myself at night in search of food.
The best part of the app, in my opinion? It offers chai tea delivery. For under $1 USD, I could have a cup of chai delivered, or for under $2 USD, I could have an entire box (5-6 cups) delivered.
Talk about a delicious score.
Taking Local Tours
A few times in my trip, I was interested in joining a walking tour.
Googling options usually turned up overpriced, huge tours- which, I wasn’t interested in because of my budget, but also because I prefer more intimate, group experiences.
My advice here?
Join a hostel’s walking tour- most will let you join, even if you’re not staying there, and you can bet they’ll be more reasonably priced than anything you find online because of their clientele.
In Jodhpur, I went on a 3 hour walking tour of the city at sunset, which was fantastic, and cost less than $4 USD.
And in Amritsar, I went with a small, single service provider operated food tour a friend had recommended than the bigger alternatives. For under $10 USD, I got a private walking tour of the city, including 6 food stops.
My guide was a local, so at all the places we stopped, he knew the staff. This meant they let us peek into the kitchens, or went out of their way to service us.
My other advice here would be to do more generic tours- like an Indian food tour- in smaller cities.
In Delhi, I looked up the cost of a food tour, and although it was ~1-2 hours longer than the one I took, it was also nearly 5x the price at $50 USD per person.
Getting a SIM
While getting a SIM in India isn’t necessarily expensive, it can be a nightmare to navigate.
To help counteract terrorism concerns, the Indian government requires all foreigners go through a rather complex process to get a SIM- you have to show your original passport, and provide a photocopy of passport, photocopy of your Indian visa, your local Indian address, your home address, a passport photo, and a local reference name and phone number. Once your paperwork is processed (usually several hours after you leave the store), the telcom provider will call your reference.
The tricky part? They only call once, so if your reference doesn’t pick up, your application is denied and you have to start the process over. Even if it ends up being processed, it often takes a half day to a day for your SIM to work.
Another reason I stayed at Moustache hostel in Jaipur?
I’d messaged their staff ahead of my visit, and asked if they’d be able to assist in helping me get a SIM.
Like a few other hostels, they have deals with the local service providers (like AirTel) to quickly get guests SIM cards.
The process was painless and my SIM worked immediately.
There are ATMs in major cities, but options will be limited in more remote places. And, the few options there are will charge a withdrawal fee.
To help mitigate paying fees, I only took out cash three times while in India- when I first arrived, in Amritsar mid-way through my trip, and in Delhi when I realized I was running a bit short and would need more to cover me until I left.
A Review: How much it Costs to Travel India on a Moderate Budget
My general daily budget, inclusive of accommodation, food, drink, tuk tuks and tours averaged $40-50 per day.
This is a good mid-range budget for India, it’ll allow you to have nice private rooms, a few meals a day in restaurants, and chai tea from street vendors.
Additionally, I spent ~$140 on trains and flights around India.
There are definitely ways to do India cheaper, and if you book further in advance than I did, you’ll find more affordable trains and flights as well.
Plus, I visited India during the high season for the part of the country I was in, which means prices for just about everything were at their peak.
The other thing to keep in mind about my budget- I visited six cities in 2.5 weeks, which meant I was on the move a lot, and took tuk tuks/taxis often within cities to maximise my time.
- $25-35 for private rooms with en-suites at upmarket hostels
- $15 for a private room with an en-suite at a basic hostel
- Trains: Short distance (2-5 hours) tickets were $8-10 USD each way, and longer distance tickets (6+ hours) were $12-16 one way, both inclusive of 12GoAsia’s booking fee
- Planes: I paid $35-55 for short, domestic journeys. Book far in advance and you’ll likely find even better deals
- Tuk tuks: Cost varies per ride, but always negotiate
- Taxis: Again, cost varies, but I often used rideshare apps to avoid haggling
- Hostel walking tour in Jodphur: $4 USD
- 3 hour walking food tour in Amritsar: $10 USD
- At cafes, on average, I spent under $5 USD per meal, sometimes as little as $2-3 USD
- Street food or drink (chai, lassis) will usually run under $1-2 USD per item
- And, with food delivery apps, I spent under $5-6 USD per meal, and under $2 USD for an entire box of chai tea (5-6 cups)
Note: I wasn’t drinking alcohol while in India, and didn’t pay attention to the price of beers or mixed drinks on menus
Have you ever travelled India solo, or on a moderate budget? What tips would you share with someone planning their first trip?
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