Its tough to give a summary which readers could use for their benefit, as a lot depends on your expectations. If you are an experienced traveller then you will understand and accept the differences in India, whereas holidaymakers would be appalled. So you need to align your expectations.
For us, we were expecting India to be smelly, dirty, poor quality rooms, dodgy food, hassled by locals, conned or overcharged by everyone.
The reality however was massively distant from the expectations.
The people and locals were nicer, politer and fairer than in most places – even beating all our other travels to date. We can’t understand the friendliness and willingness to help. We don’t quite get the selfie thing, and only hope its because its fun and we’re different, rather than any perceived race/class/social standing type thing. We consider all equal, and certainly those wanting our pics were happy and having fun and not really looking up to us. We even had people shout at us just to wave, even “Oy White Man!” – and literally it was just for a wave (in a place far off the tourist trail). We are different, they just want to look at the differences – no judging – we have no issues with that. Its sad that in the UK if we see someone different we’re no longer “allowed” to comment on such differences as its an “ist” of some form or another, and that can only undermine understanding and make things worse. Sad really.
Food off the street or in eateries was never over charged, transport was always fair, and even if we gave wrong money we’d always get the correct change. Never did we get scammed. Not saying it won’t happen, but much less chance than elsewhere. Of course, have small notes for buying cheap street food as often people don’t have change (some genuinely so!).
Very few tourist touts and scams, certainly less than even Thailand. Yes, be alert, but don’t assume the worse!
We mainly ate at street food or local eateries where very few westerners go, so often got strange looks, and often had to order random stuff verbally not knowing what on earth we were getting, but it was always cooked well, same as local food, and charged local rates. Most of the time it was at Pure Veg places, so no meat, so better hygiene albeit probably not to standards we are used to. Mostly got a spoon/fork generating lots of locals smirks. But it was always tasty, cheap, and not as spicy as you’d expect. No complains really.
Crisps, biscuits and snacks are readily available (albeit with interesting flavours!), bottled water/soft drinks are everywhere and cheap (water is fixed price). Finding local streetfood isn’t as easy as SE Asia, as they aren’t always on the main streets – so sometimes hard to sniff out. (Maybe due to us walking less!). Only some local eateries were to “our” standard, as in busy with locals, reasonably clean, and looking like there is some hygiene standard. Tougher to find a standard we were happy with than SE Asia but we didn’t starve.
We used lots of covid hand gel and didn’t get Delhi Belly. Phew. Did get curried out a few times, but never ill. (We did avoid washed salads and water that wasn’t from sealed bottles, so glasses given at meals we left untouched)
The rooms and lodgings, these were mostly nowhere near western standard but were on par with SE Asia. The bedding was always spotless and the rooms were clean, but the bathrooms were mostly “weird Asian” layouts, but all had western loos and were functional and fine. But, iif you got the same n Europe you’d complain or give 1* review…..
The AC mostly worked, the hot water mostly worked, and the power mostly stayed on. Most had full fibre internet and wifi….. Most exceeded expectations on the whole – though our expectations were not high! Do look on places like Booking,com which makes finding and comparing places really easy, so much simpler than hunting around at destinations (which would be a lot tougher in India than SE Asia). Do check the reviews, as locals (Indians) have different expectations than travellers – and not always what you think – they can give really poor reviews if they think the staff aren’t as attentive as they could be etc, or high reviews based on things you don’t care about. Different cultures, different expectations, so just check the country of the reviewers 🙂 e.g. One 9.7/10 place we would give 4/10 for; and one 6/10 we’d give 10/10, only noting the “indian” reviews later.
On the homestays, we would recommend checking out the food if offered – some of the best food we had was provided at homestays for not much money. Always local food, cooked well, but presented better than local eateries. To put in perspective, the staff/owners at these places provide the best possible to you, and they themselves may well live/sleep on the sofa in reception, or on the floor in the bare room next door…. So as long as its clean, we’ll take it.
The hotels we stayed at with the Rickshaw challenge were 3x the price we paid when going alone, and on the outside do look more “western standard”, but most were iffy somewhere along the line!
Is it smelly and dirty? From some perspectives – yes. But reality it, it smells different, lots of food smells and “burning plastic” smells, and smog smells, but really its as clean as it can be considering barely any rubbish collection and recycling in most places. Surprisingly, despite the large number of dogs running free (and cows and goats) – the animals gave us no hassle, and there was less dog sh*t than any UK street! No idea where it all went – but it was mostly spotless.
As a tourist, I’d say we didn’t see many “wow” things (but have seen so much on previous travels it does take a lot to wow us!), and we did get frustrated at busy tourist sites – mostly as the local tourists are not generally “travellers” – so behave differently especially around religious sites. It can be like a zoo – crushing, queue jumping, and just chaos. And there are millions of them there especially at any religious festival. You can see why an “incident” can cause multiple deaths in crushing and stampedes. Not fun.
We did get annoyed at the litter that locals just drop, we were even told to just dump empty plastic bottles on the floor! Shop keepers will empty a packet when stocking up and just throw it outside!.
So from some perspectives India doesn’t sound great. But the reality is the overall experience puts the India trip up there with our best. Not for one specific element, but for the overall absorption into real India.
We’d probably not recommend “Tourist India”, but “Explorers India” is fantastic. The Rickshaw challenge enabled us to explore and see the real India and for that, it was a winner, and if you have any interest in it – do it! Its not perfect, but wow – what an experience!!