With its mountains, beaches, palaces, wildlife, and food, there are myriad reasons why India continues to be a top choice for travelers seeking adventure. And while it excels in luxury – offering tourists the chance to stay in maharajas’ former palaces, and lounge on the backwaters of Kerala in a houseboat with a private chef – India also allows for budget travel without scrimping on comfort.
With a bit of research you can often find decent accommodations for less than $13 a night and delicious dinner for under $7, and with the following tips you can equip yourself with the knowledge to travel smarter and make the most of your time away. Here’s how to get the best out of India on a budget.
Check the cheapest time of year to travel
Before traveling to India it’s important to consider which regions you want to visit and what the weather will be like. April is often the cheapest time to find flights when the temperature soars to the high-80ºFs (mid-30ºCs) in popular states like Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Goa, while a number of resorts close until high season begins at the end of September.
The monsoon season also begins in May with heavy downpours likely to put a dampener on your sunbathing plans, but equally it will mean fewer crowds at tourist hot spots and discounts on accommodations. For visitors to the Himalaya, and surrounding areas, April to June is the best time to visit, and trekkers to Leh and Ladakh will find milder temperatures but greater crowds, as families flee the heat of the cities in search of cooler climes.
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Take the night train
One of the smartest ways to save money is to travel between cities on a night train, thereby avoiding the cost of a hotel. On the Duronto and Rajdhani trains, the price of dinner and breakfast is included in the price of a ticket. On other services, fresh food bought from vendors will cost no more than $4.
It might sound obvious, but the further in advance you make reservations the less you’ll pay for your ticket. Reservations for Indian Railways open 120 days before departure, and you can book your train through 12Go if you’re abroad, or you can do it in person at the station if you’re already in India.
Step outside your comfort zone if you want the best price. For example, a single ticket from Delhi to Hyderabad can cost $71 in 1AC where you’ll be confined to a two-person compartment with tinted windows and only one other person to chat to, but a ticket in standard sleeper class with open windows and plenty of people for company will cost just $12. Consider the type of train you travel on too. Tickets on the Duronto fleet cost more than others as they’re faster, newer, and stop at fewer stations during the journey. Express and Mail trains are slower and have fewer on-board services, but you’ll save your rupees.
Go off the beaten track
If you travel to a megacity like Mumbai expect to pay premium prices for accommodations, food, and drink. So it’s worth considering other big hubs that offer just as much in the way of restaurants, bazaars, and boutique hotels. Hyderabad, for example, is home to some of the country’s best biryani, bangle-shopping, and Mughal architecture, along with museums showcasing Buddhist and Jain relics, sculptures, and textiles.
Instead of visiting the Maharashtran temples at Ellora and Ajanta, consider exploring the Karnatakan monuments at Hampi, Badami, and Aihole, which receive fewer foreign tourists and make for a far more peaceful and rewarding outing. Instead of fending off touts and battling for a quiet spot on Goa’s packed beaches, think about visiting Tamil Nadu’s Puducherry with its promenades, surfing, and beach yoga.
Travel in a group
Even if you’re traveling by yourself it makes sense to buddy-up for taxi rides from airports into the city or for day trips and excursions from your hotel – particularly if you’re a solo female traveler. Most budget hotels offer rooms with multiple occupancy, which can further reduce your bill. For example, a single room in a bungalow on Agonda beach in Goa can cost from $24 per night for single occupancy, or $30 for three sharing a deluxe room. And if you ask nicely at reception, the staff will often set up a camp bed in the room for no extra cost.
Learn the art of haggling
Part of the fun of trawling markets and bazaars is negotiating with vendors to score a good price. It’s a ritual and not one for foreigners alone: Indian shoppers will also go in at lower prices than what is quoted. The key is to know when to stop. Even though a foreign tourist can be asked for double (or even triple) the price of an item, be mindful that many of those with whom you’re negotiating earn low wages. Paying a little more than you wanted can make a world of difference to a low-income laborer who can then feed their family with your cash.
Hop in an auto
Often referred to incorrectly as “tuk-tuks” – the Thai term for auto-rickshaws – autos are a quick and efficient way to zip around. While Uber and Ola cabs operate in India with lower prices than regular taxis, any car will get stuck in traffic at rush hour. Autos, however, can weave in and out of jams, getting you to your destination in a flash. Make sure you agree on a set fee before setting off, or request that the driver switches on the meter at the start of the journey.
Check into a hostel
In general budget accommodations are easy to come by in India with plenty of small hotels and guesthouses available on websites like MakeMyTrip (not accessible in Europe currently), or shared by word of mouth. But big cities can still be pricey or booked up in advance, and staying in dirt-cheap hotels often means compromising on comfort, hygiene, and safety.
However, you can still travel on a shoestring budget by checking into a hostel where you’ll find everyone from solo travelers to large groups of Indian students on excursions. Founded in 2013 the Zostel group opened its first establishment in Jaipur with the hope of introducing a super-cheap alternative to local lodges, and a much safer option for young travelers – women in particular.
Offering mixed dorms, female-only dorms, and even private rooms, Zostel has now expanded across the country from Pushkar to Panchgani and Aurangabad to Alleppey, with a bed costing from as little as $5 a night with a shared bathroom, free Wi-Fi and breakfast included.
Try out the street food
Indian food varies wildly from one state to another and the best way to get a feel for local specialities is by eating at street-food outlets that usually charge less than a $1.30 for a plate of freshly stuffed pani puri or deep-fried pakoras. Choose vendors with long lines that suggest they’re well-known and well-trusted for hygiene and quality.
Deep-fried snacks like vada pav, or dosas with sambar are usually the safest options as they’re cooked on high heat and on the spot. Don’t be afraid to ask around for advice: local residents are only too happy to point visitors towards their favorite kathi-roll cart or bhel-puri vendor.
Take an early-morning flight
If you’ve no time to take a long-distance train to your next destination, India’s domestic airlines offer regular flights throughout the day to all the major cities – and plenty in between. SpiceJet and IndiGo are the two preferred carriers, with prices starting from as little as $43 for a one-way fare between New Delhi and Hyderabad if you travel just before 8am. The same flight doubles in price in the evening. Compare prices on 12Go.
Buy an Indian SIM card
One of the quickest ways to build up huge costs is by using your own mobile to send texts and make and receive calls. Instead, get your handset unlocked before you leave home, or bring an old one and buy an Indian SIM card from either Airtel or Vodafone.
If you’re flying into Delhi or Mumbai you can buy one at the airport. To buy a SIM at a local shop you’ll need to present a couple of passport photographs, fill in a form providing a local address, and the contact details of someone who can vouch for you. It’s a far more inefficient process, but the fuss will save you a fortune in the long term.
- Hostel room: Rs.500 ($6.50);
- Basic beach hut for two: Rs. 2000 ($26);
- Self-catering apartment: Rs.3000 ($40) for the whole apartment;
- Daily transport: Rs.250 ($3);
- Cost of a vegetarian thali: Rs. 75 ($1);
- Dinner for two: Rs. 800 ($10.50);
- Bottle of beer: Rs. 100 ($1.30).