I remember foreigners, tourists, visiting India when I was a little girl. They dressed in a white t-shirt and loose baggy cargoes, and they all carried a gigantic rucksack that probably doubled up as mattress and pillow at night. They all looked vaguely similar to each other, and I suspect they were all in India for the same reason: spiritual enlightenment. (I’ve lived in India all my 18 years and haven’t found spiritual enlightenment yet, but hey, there’s no price on optimism.)
But there’s one thing that those rucksack-toting tourists definitely got right: they were travelling in the cheapest possible way in India. However, I wouldn’t recommend their method to everyone.
It’s a big and amazingly diverse country, and to really see everything that’s worth seeing (without feeling like you’re on a ride at an amusement park with a movie screen playing next to rollercoaster) you should plan a rather long visit. Listing all the places worth seeing in India is like trying to summarize Shakespeare’s works in a paragraph, so this article cannot be all-inclusive.
Inexpensive touring in India can be summed up in two words: public transport. The public transport in India, being government-owned, is heavily subsidised. They advertise themselves by claiming to be “reasonably priced”, but an honest representation of the fact would be that public transport is actually unreasonably underpriced. However, being an avid traveller, you won’t find me complaining about this.
While travelling cheaply in India, I would advise any first-time visitor to not scrimp on spending when it comes to food. Inexpensive meals are easy to find, but if a price seems too good to be true, it probably is. You don’t want to end up confined to bed just because you grabbed at the wrong opportunity for a super-cheap meal in an obscure joint. (Besides the fact that you will probably need to pay a doctor’s bill that’s a lot more expensive than a not-so-cheap meal would have been.)
There is a lot of the street food culture in India. It is much cheaper than restaurants, of course. Natives find it delicious, but a newcomer might not want to challenge his immune system with these local foods. A good compromise would be to try the different local specialities, but in a small restaurant instead of actually on the street.
If you’re a party person, you could try one of the big cities, such as Mumbai, or possibly Goa. Goa is a small state, drawing most of its revenue from tourism. It has pretty beaches, and hotels ranging from the luxurious (and expensive) to the small and affordable ones. There is plenty of nightlife in Goa, and everything is generally cheaper than it would be in major cities. (Most hotels in Goa are situated not in the state capital, Panaji, but in quieter, prettier, more peaceful locales closer to the beaches.) Transportation is particularly cheaper since you can hire a motorcycle (charged by the hour) to drive yourself around. Try not to forget that in India we drive on the left side of the road: of course, if you’re in rural Goa, the roads are probably too small to have two sides.
While travelling can certainly be very cheap in India (taking a one-way train from Mumbai to Delhi, which is literally travelling halfway across the country lengthwise, would be about 1500 rupees or 30 Euro) staying there is not so affordable. This is more prevalent in the big cities, like Mumbai especially, but if you are thinking more of traversing the smaller towns, cheap accommodation is quite easy to find. The state of Rajasthan, which is where the maharajahs of yore lived, is filled with such small cities (and correspondingly affordable accommodation) and has a lot of beautiful sight-seeing opportunities, such as the numerous palaces and sprawling royal residences.
Most states have their own tourism departments. If you choose to stay in a state-run hotel, you will find it very inexpensive and safe. Don’t expect a Ritz-like experience, but these hotels are invariably secure and affordable. Just look up on Google for the tourism department of the state you wish to visit.
If you did not fall asleep in history class
History lovers could have a wonderful trip just visiting all the different forts in India. They span a very long period in history, from the fort of Jaisalmer that was built in the 1100s, the forts in Maharashtra which are mostly from the 1500s, the Red Fort in Delhi, built in the 1600s, to the 18th century forts built by the British.
If you are planning to take this sort of history-education-trip to India, I would advise you not to miss out on the Daulatabad fort in Aurangabad. Aurangabad is a city in Maharashtra, on the west of the country, and this fort is considered a marvel because of the engineering and architectural tactics that went into the building. (As a point of trivia, the fort’s fortitude has a testimony in the fact that it has never been captured in war.)
Also near Aurangabad, you can take a look at the ancient Ajanta and Ellora caves, both declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Ajanta is full of cave paintings, whereas Ellora is filled with sculptures carved right into the cave walls. Some of these caves have been worked on by generations of one single family over more than hundred years.
There are also several sites throughout the country that mark big events from the colonial era, which lasted from the mid-1700s to 1947.
At all these tourist spots, finding a guide will not be difficult. But be wary, and check for ID. All qualified guides ought to have an ID card, and their rates are pre-decided.
Mumbai could be an interesting destination by itself. (If you watched and liked Slumdog Millionaire, there are lots of savvy guides who have turned it into a business opportunity by creating tours of the city just to show you the different neighbourhoods portrayed in the movie.)
Wherever possible, choose a pre-paid cab in place of a metered one. This can be done at the airport upon arrival, and during your stay you could look up the private agencies that offer this service.
Mumbai has accommodations of both extremes, but very few options in the convenient average: there are the expensive five star hotels, like the Taj chain in most major cities, or then there are the cheap motels where I would not advise anybody travelling alone to stay. The most convenient option would be if you have a friend willing to keep you under his or her roof.
Travelling within Mumbai is done cheapest by the public transport. I personally would not recommend a newcomer to take the local trains: the maddening, stifling crowd is not calculated to please everyone. The buses are a better option; most bus conductors are fairly fluent in English, so language should not be a problem. In a regular public transport bus (called a BEST bus), one can buy an all-day ticket for 15 rupees (which is about 25 Euro cents) and then travel within the city as many times as one wishes, within a day.
However this involves having a clear idea of where you want to go and which buses take you there; if this is not what you have in mind, you may want to look at some options of guided tours that show you around the city. Several of these tours (which usually come with a chauffeured car and a guide if you want one) are only a Google search away.