India is one of the most amazingly beautiful places in the world, full of ancient monuments, delicious food, and friendly people. If you follow me on instagram, you’d know that in September 2018, I spent just under three weeks travelling in Northern India, on a tour with Intrepid Travel to the province of Rajasthan! I booked my trip through a travel agent friend who works for Student Flights, who managed to get me the whole trip (tour + flights + insurance + airport transfer + extra night in a hotel) for AUD$2,700! Which is amazing for a 2.5 week international holiday. If you’re curious, I probably then spent another $1,000ish on food, activities, and (of course) shopping!
It was an amazing experience, full of highs and definitely some lows, and I wanted to write out my experience here for you all – I’ve received a fair few messages regarding my trip, so thought it would be best to detail everything here. If you still have questions after reading this 3,500 word mega blog post, of course leave a comment and I’ll get back to you!
I knew I would be travelling solo, so once I’d decided to go to India it was a pretty logical next step to do a tour. Even though travelling solo can be risky anywhere in the world, no matter your gender or age, I was conscious that as a young woman it would be challenging travelling through India. And honestly, once I got there I could see that it would be challenging to travel solo through India regardless of your gender – the language barrier alone makes things tricky!
With that in mind, I started looking at different tour companies, and ended up on the Intrepid website – they’re an Australian company that focus on delivering “real life experiences” in all their trips, and have made a commitment to responsible, sustainable business. Plus, my mum recently did a trip to Russia with them and said it was great! In fact, everyone who I spoke to that had done an Intrepid said how good it was, and that’s Tip 1: trust word-of-mouth recommendations!
Intrepid have a ton of different trips to India, broken up into different regions, levels of comfort, family or solo traveller, etc. I initially was planning to do a solo traveller only trip, since I’d heard horror stories about being the only solo traveller in a big group made up of couples, but there were none that suited my timeframe. It did, however, draw my attention to the ‘Classic Rajasthan‘ trip, which is a 15-day adventure through Rajasthan which hits many of the must-see spots in North India. I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to do but I felt like the Classic Rajasthan would let me see lots while also working well with the leave that I had available to take. As an ‘Original’ style trip, it also included in the cost of the trip entry and guide fees for many of the monuments, so you really only have to pay for food, tips, and any extra goodies you want to purchase while away (and trust me, you will definitely want to shop!). Intrepid offers three trip styles, which vary in comfort, inclusions, and obviously COST. I think the original trips are the best way to go as far as the cost vs. what you get – if you go comfort, you’re looking at almost double the cost but you don’t have to take any public transport and get many meals included, while the basix trips seem cheaper but you will have to pay for all entry fees to monuments.
I’ve included the trip itinerary and map below, so you can see all the places we went in 15 days!
I can honestly say I had a really lovely time overall. Rajasthan is an incredibly beautiful place, full of history and amazing places. September was a great time to be travelling as the weather was sunny and mid-30°C almost everyday – but it was the end of the monsoon season so we did have some heavy rain towards the end of the trip in Udaipur and Pushkar. My tour group was small, only 5 people (all of us women!), but I know that the next few tours our guide was taking in October and November were going to be at full trip capacity (15 people).
Getting used to being in India was definitely a learning curve, it’s a bustling and busy place even in more rural areas, and coming from Tasmania which is fairly quiet, I experienced major culture shock in Delhi particularly. The pace of the tour was perfect – we had a few days in a big city, and then got to take a break in a smaller town or at one of the heritage stays. The days in the cities were crazy, we were going to the major attractions (sometimes multiple stops in one day) and battling the heat and crowds of other tourists and sometimes dehydration when we hadn’t drunk enough water. Of course, you forget all of that when you go to truly spectacular places like the Taj Mahal or Red Fort in Agra, the Amber Fort in Jaipur, the City Palace in Udaipur, Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. Equally beautiful was the heritage locations we stayed at, such as Fort Madhogarh and Castle Bijaipur.
The food was also amazing, I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed every meal and trying some new things. We ate only at places our tour guide recommended, and I’m glad we did as no-one in our tour group got seriously sick. While staying at the Pangarh Lake Retreat, we had some of the best food of the whole trip, including taro root and bhindi masala (made of my new favourite vegetable, okra). I ate vegetarian while in India and was really happy with my options everywhere we went – my favourites were bhinda masala, mutter paneer and paneer tikka masal, with garlic naan. SO GOOD. We also had some amazing roadside vegetable pakoras (eat at your own risk), and of course, seemingly endless Masala Chai.
WHAT I WISH I’D KNOWN OR BROUGHT
Less makeup – this is something I probably could have figured out by myself but I brought WAY too much makeup even when people said I didn’t need to. I love wearing makeup so brought a pretty decent amount with me (basically the same as what I pack in my gym bag). Of course, it was so hot and we were moving around so much that it just wasn’t practical to wear a full face of makeup everyday. I used about six products on a daily basis – sunscreen (a must!!), foundation stick (used strategically on redness or discolouration, not worn all over), cream highlight, tinted brow gel, mascara, tinted lip balm. I could have brought just those products and been happy, but if you wanted to bring a few more, I’d recommend a cream shimmery eyeshadow to use all over the lid with a finger (Colourpop Super Shock Shadows were perfect for this, I love the shade ‘Sequin‘) and a bright lipstick (such as the Fenty Stunna Lip Paint in Uncensored or Mattemoiselle Lipstick in Candy Venom).
Singlet or camisole top – I didn’t bring one of these and I wish I had. There were just a few times where it would have been perfect to wear with a dress which was slightly too low-cut for comfort, or underneath an unbuttoned shirt for a more breezy upper half. It just would have been convenient, and it takes up no space, so definitely recommend this!
Spending money – do all your budgeting and planning and research, set your spending money amount… and then double it. Ok, so if you’re not someone who likes shopping, maybe you don’t have to double it, but you should plan on spending more than you think you will. While all the travel blogs and forums will tell you that India is dirt cheap, what I found was that there were lots of opportunities to buy really beautiful things at a great price, and to eat in really delicious restaurants, and to visit amazing places. And it would suck not to be able to do those things because a travel forum told you that you would only spend INR500 a day (AUD$10). My meals, in nice restaurants and cafes recommended by our guide to not get us sick, were generally between INR300-600. That depended on whether I bought a vegetable or paneer curry, whether I got roti or naan, and whether I got an alcoholic drink or non-alcoholic drink. That’s not super expensive ($6-12 for a curry+bread+beer would be SO cheap in Australia) but if you haven’t budgeted that much for each meal then it can start to seem like a lot. We went to ethical textile shops to buy scarves and bed linen, to an emporium-style jeweller to buy earrings (I bought moonstones and plain silver). In Udaipur we went to a local tailor and had clothes made (Two dresses and two pairs of pants for AUD$200!). In the markets of Pushkar I bought some amazing locally made crockery. Trust me, there is something for everyone in India, so if you want to shop there is GREAT shopping. If you’re planning on doing India on the cheap, you definitely can – haggle your heart out in the markets and stick to vegetable curries with roti bread. But if you want to really enjoy it and walk away with beautiful things from your trip, try to have access to a few hundred dollars more than you think you’ll need.
Bag size/shape and packing cubes – Intrepid tell you that you must be able to carry and lift your own bag, and recommend that it not weigh more than 15kg. Certainly for the trip I did, we had to carry our bags between transport and our accomodation, and lift it overhead into storage compartments on the train. So be aware of how much you can comfortably lift, and choose your bag accordingly. My bag was about 18kg, and closer to 21kg by the time I left (with a carry on bag packed with purchased goodies!!). I’m pretty strong, so had no real issues with lifting my bag, except that I was too short for getting it into the overhead compartments! But if you’re worried, err on the side of a smaller bag. I should note that even though people said I wouldn’t, I actually wore everything I brought with me, so I was happy with my packing efforts in the end! Speaking of packing and bags, if you’re doing a trip where you’ll be moving around a lot, I cannot recommend more highly the use of packing cubes. I bought two sets of these, which gave me six ‘cubes’ in total, and it was such a great way to travel. I separated out my clothes by type (dresses, tops, pants, underwear, bras, and pyjamas) so that when I wanted to get dressed I knew exactly where everything was, and then I could just stack the cubes back in and zip everything up. Towards the end of the trip, I started putting all my dirty clothes into one of the bigger cubes, so that I knew what was and wasn’t clean, and it made it super easy to wash stuff when I got home! See my packing efforts below!
Hand Sanitiser – if you’re thinking of going to India, hand sanitiser is a must (which you probably already knew if you’ve gone to a travel doctor or done a cursory google). What I found was that I probably should have brought more, and that it was better to bring multiple small bottles rather than one large bottle. Some people on my trip had brought just one larger bottle with them, and they found that they would leave it in the room or have it in their backpack and forget to put it in their day bag, etc. As it happened, the teeny travel bottles of hand sanitiser were on sale the day I was doing my travel shopping, so (by luck not design) I brought about 4 little bottles with me – and this worked out for the best when I got there! It meant I could chuck one bottle in my day bag, another in my backpack, a third in my pocket – I was never without! And I didn’t get sick while I was there, so I must have been doing something right!
Travel clothesline and stain remover stick – given how hot, sticky, and dirty you can get travelling in a place like India, trust me when I say you’re going to want to wash your clothes. Some hotels have a laundry service but it’s not always cheap, so it can be easier to just handwash things in your room when you’re staying a few nights in the same place. I made do without a travel clothesline and a stain remover stick, but they were two things I wish I’d had – curry stains don’t come out easily, and not all hotel rooms have space to hang things out to dry! You can get Sards Wonder Soap for $5 from Woolworths and travel clotheslines are around $10-$15.
BYO Snacks – this tip might not be as practical for you if you’re travelling for a long period of time, but if you’re doing it like I did (just a few weeks) then this is one I wish I’d known. Breakfast… isn’t always great in India. Depending on where you are and what you’re doing it can be unfamiliar or just not the most appetising. Similarly, it can be difficult/impossible to find places that sell snacks that are familiar. In the airport, I happened to buy a number of ‘Bounce’ protein balls (because they were on sale and I was curious about them), and I wish I had bought more! They’re super tasty, packed with protein, but small enough to tuck away in your day bag. They were great for days where I didn’t want to eat heavy local food for breakfast, or when we had long days and I got hungry between meals. I definitely recommend buying packaged protein balls or museli bars, you won’t regret having something familar and accessible to snack on during long days. Some travel blogs will recommend that you bring chocolate, but don’t forget that India is freaking HOT, so that choccie will melt fast!
Buy the Lonely Planet – call me a millennial, but I figured that since I had paid all this money for a tour, purchasing the Lonely Planet guide would be superfluous. And to an extent, it was… but I was the only one on my trip not to bring a guide book (specifically, everyone on my trip had the ‘Rajasthan, Delhi and Agra‘ version) and there were definitely moments where we had no wifi and it would have been nice to be able to read up about where we were and things to do. Obviously, I was able to borrow a copy and read up while there, but even if it seems old fashioned, consider buying and bringing the travel guide – especially if you’re going somewhere that may have patchy (or no) wifi, or where you will have a few days to explore and you want to make sure you don’t miss anything.
Don’t Pre-Book Urban Adventures – this might be something specific to my trip, but if you’re doing an Intrepid tour you’ll notice on the first and last day of the trip they’ll provide a number of recommended ‘optional activities’. For Delhi, I did most of these and they were really good (especially Humayan’s Tomb, see below), and they also list a number of ‘Urban Adventure’ day tours, which are run by Intrepid. Now don’t get me wrong, these are really good day trips, and if you don’t have any time spent in Delhi as part of your tour then they’re a great way to see the city. However, we had a full day in Delhi at the beginning of our tour where we, as a tour group, did the Delhi Food Walk and Gandhi’s Delhi as a combined tour. Our guide Ajay organised this for us, and from memory I think it ended up costing around INR3000 (AUD$56) each (on the Intrepid tour page, they’re listed as costing INR3500 and INR2700 respectively, so we got a good deal). Even if you paid the cost listed on the Intrepid page to do both tours, that’s around AUD$110 – BUT, if you book in advance on the Urban Adventures page you’ll be paying AUD$90 for the Food Walk and AUD$88 for Gandhi’s Delhi, AUD$178 total!! When you compare that to the AUD$56 we paid directly to our tour leader, or even the AUD$110 listed on the Intrepid website, it’s pretty clear which would be the most expensive option. So don’t pre-book!! When optional activities are listed on the trip itinerary, you don’t have to book in advance, everything is taken care of by your tour leader when you get there. Use the approximate cost information to help you budget, but save yourself some dollars and don’t book in advance.
Get the Airport-Hotel Transfer – In direct contrast to the previous tip, I really REALLY recommend you take advantage of booking in advance the airport transfer that Intrepid offer. I booked my trip through a travel agent, and so the cost of the transfer was just added onto my total (so that insurance + transfers + extra night in hotel + tour + flights were all bundled together). I think it was about $50, and trust me when I say that is a small price to pay for knowing that when you turn up at (the highly confusing to navigate) Delhi airport, all you have to do is look for the Intrepid sign at the place they told you it would be, and you’ll be put in a safe and reliable car, with a lovely driver. Some people on my trip didn’t get the transfer to save money, and they had an awful time getting from the airport to the hotel with the taxi they got out the front of the airport. Spend the extra $$ on the pre-booked transfer, you won’t regret it!
Hot Air Balloon – this was a pretty expensive part of the trip, costing about AUD$350, but it was totally worth it. We got a sunrise hot air balloon over Jaipur, able to see for hundreds of kilometres over the Rajasthan countryside. We waved at villagers tending to goats, saw paddocks of cows, amazing mountain ranges, and of course the sunrise. It was utterly spectacular and I would pay the money to do it again in a heartbeat.
Heritage Locations – a definite highlight of going on a trip with Intrepid is that you get to stay in off the beaten track locations. I cannot recommend more highly selecting a tour that has heritage stays. Our visits to Fort Madhogarh, Lake Pangarh and Castle Bijaipur were genuinely the highlights of my trip. Having a break from the noise (the horns!!) and the bustle of the city was definitely something I needed, and it gave us the chance to see what rural life was like in Rajasthan. It was also the perfect rest stop between the busy visits to Delhi/Agra, Jaipur, and Udaipur – in those cities we were constantly doing things, going to monuments, walking around, etc, so it was super important for my personal mental health and wellbeing that we got some time to relax, nap, read books, enjoy the scenery and the countryside. There’s nothing quite like watching the sunset from the turret of an ancient fort while dringing a longneck of beer!
Udaipur – I absolutely loved my time in Udaipur. It had the best shopping of the trip, some of the most scenic and beautiful moments, and overall the city felt the friendliest of everywhere we went (except maybe Pushkar, but that was definitely a tourist town rather than a city). We did a stunning scenic sunset boat ride on the lake, saw the city palace, got tailored clothes made (amazing!), and I did a cooking class so I had the know-how to make some of my favourite dishes once I got home. The people were friendly and the city itself was beautiful. Definitely a highlight and a place I recommend you visit.
Taj Mahal – of course the Taj Mahal is a highlight, it’s like THE thing that you come to India to see! I also really enjoyed seeing the Red Fort in Agra, so it’s definitely worth the day trip from Delhi to see the sights. We went to the Taj in the late afternoon, so the sun wasn’t too hot and it wasn’t super busy. By the time we were leaving a lot of the best photo spots were clear of visitors, so we could snap photos to our hearts content.
Humayun’s Tomb – a visit to Humanyun’s Tomb isn’t included in the Classic Rajasthan tour, but it was easily my favourite part of Delhi. Set on sprawling grounds with other beautiful monuments, the Tomb is amazing in scale and a nice break from the chaos of the city. Nice spot to relax and wander around, well worth the INR600 entry fee.
If you’ve been thinking about going to India, let this be your impetus to finally book that trip! I was so, so nervous about going alone, joining a tour, the heat and culture shock – but I had such an amazing time, I would recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat. Doing the trip with Intrepid was a great choice, they really look after you and make sure that you get to see all the best things about the place you’re visiting. Not just the shiny tourist things, but the real character of the cities and towns that you go to. While there were moments where I found it very overwhelming, and I was pretty unwell when I got back to Australia (ironically, after being totally fine for the trip itself), these were minor blips in what was otherwise an
holiday adventure that was totally unforgettable.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve been to India, and if so what was your favourite part? Do you like doing tours or are you someone who likes to plan it all yourself? And of course the most important question – where should I travel to next??
Lots of Love,