Recently we decided to go on a short 12 day road trip to south India. While we were traveling I had the idea to share some of our knowledge and stories, which we experienced over the years. When you have been in India for some time you meet some of the most exceptional people and that’s when you exchange useful travel tips, so you can make a better picture of the local environment. The knowledge comes handy, it can help you find the most magical places ever and at the same time it may save you from the worst.
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Now don’t take me wrong, I am not here to take away the magic from traveling in India. I mean, I am not going to reveal beautiful things that you should discover for yourself but I will point out how not to fall in trouble for example. Anyway the tips I am providing can prepare you only for the most common situations. You know India is quite unpredictable at times and there is a saying here that says: “Anything is possible”. Basically, it means that you shouldn’t try to expect anything while traveling through India, just relax and get surprised!
India is like a bag full of Harry Potter Jelly Beans. You never know what flavor you will get!
Just at the side, if a road trip appears too daunting or if you are traveling alone then you have always the option to travel in comfort either by plane, train or bus. The train system is one of the best and safest in the world (as long as you are not wearing a hundred gold chains!) and you can even get a seat in the A.C. section. Also trains in India have Sleeper seats and the price is very reasonable. Traveling by bus is alright too if you prefer that. Again you can pick from non A.C and A.C and over night buses have sleeper and sitting seats. Sleeper is cool, although bumpy at times. See that you get a sleeper compartment for yourself if you travel alone and always pick popular bus tours.
I personally prefer a road trip in India, you just get to see so much more! If you really want to see the country without cutting on your own sane security then a road trip is the right decisions. You have more freedom to roam about, to discover and to marvel at your surrounding. A road trip gives you a better access too to the real India and its people. Plus you have options and can choose how you want to travel. Will it be you taking the highway on a dashing Royal Enfield bike? I can smell freedom here. Or will you pick a car, either a comfortable regular car or a road trip master SUV?
What you need to organize before you start your road trip in India
When we travel by car we make sure that basic things are covered so that we don’t run into problems later on. Believe me you don’t want to have a problem somewhere in the nowhere in India!
I remember a south African couple I had met in Goa. Both were form Cape Town and each one was riding an Enfield bullet. They had traveled from the Interior parts of the country to Goa for a 1 week break and to relax a bit. While traveling by bike to Goa one of the bikes had a flat front tire but luckily they had a tool set to fix this and also the knowledge to do it without help.
so before you hit the road get…
- a valid car driving license – That’s a very obvious one, hopefully…
- a valid passport and visa if you are a foreigner – goes without saying but I just wanted to add here too that you will have to provide a passport copy, or if you are an Indian national then a driving license will do too, (some hotels scan the passport too) and fill a C-Form (Arrival Departure). In Goa this is a good common practice but in other states they seem to do what they want at times…
- a travel insurance, mediclaim – It’s a good point in case something serious happens. I have never used mine for small things such as food poisoning, for that I will rather pay the doctor cash, which by the way is peanuts compared to Europe for example. The other day I payed the doctor 200 INR (around 2.50 € or 3.40 $) for an emergency diagnose in south India. I have paid less in North India but the docs are better in south India for example.
- A functional car with valid papers – If you don’t own a car, you can hire one or even hire a reliable driver with an all India permit car. The latter might be affordable and it’s absolutely not a far fetched idea. Pick a car with A.C. and a heating feature, you might need both. Make sure the car goes through a maintenance check (oil check etc) and pick a reliable car garage (Don’t always go by the looks of a place, I have seen western standard garage mess up more then fix things in cars…). Also make sure the driving is comfortable and check the tool set and extra tyre.
- Money – Might sound obvious too but seriously don’t underestimate this point. It’s always a good idea to have money backup in case of emergencies. I have seen some people falling into traps because they didn’t give this point enough priority, so better be prepared then to fall into trouble when you are suppose to enjoy your road trip. Oh and make sure that you always have small money with you, people don’t always have change.
- a small first aid kit – just the essential stuff and maybe prescribed tablets which you might need.
- a torch and a lighter – Why?! Because you always end up using a torch and a lighter with candles, candles can be easily and cheaply bought all over India. Remember, power cuts are very common.
- a Swiss knife – Multi useful tool for any situation, especially when you need to open a bottle of beer. =D
- a USB car charger – we always use the car charger extensively while we are driving because sometimes the car can charge phones etc better then a bloody hotel room plug!
- Google maps for your device – Very useful when you need to find your hotel in a crowded polluted Indian city, or your current location, but DO NOT trust the Estimated time it’s complete bull****.
- 3g phone – although 3g rarely worked when we needed it but if it works it can help you in finding a restaurant on the way. Finding good food on a road trip can be frustrating in India. Solution to that, the Internet.
- good music – usb drive, device with the right cable or good ol cd and tapes, whichever! The right music will transport your trip to another level plus music helps you to focus while driving.
I think these are just a few things that you will need besides your personal belonging. I have seen some people riding out into the wild without any of those things. So yeah,… you can do what you want but following these useful road trip tips for India and having these few things can save you a lot of headache later on.
Indian highways and roads
We have used on long road trips in India a Bolero SUV and a Maruti Swift. The Bolero is big, comfortable and great for off road rides, mountain roads and during the monsoon. You should pick a regular smaller car such as a Swift if you are planning longer highway trips and if you will be crossing cities (small cars are great for small Indian roads!). Indians tend to travel in big groups so bolero or a big Tata will do the highway job too.
Highways in India are not like the highways in the US or Europe. We have experienced different highways in India, some are gold and others simply… how should I say, plain red bumpy mud roads with very deep pot holes. What they all have in common is that you rarely get to drive more then 100 km/h. Even if the road is empty and straight you won’t get to drive fast and you shouldn’t because you will realize that you better focus while driving.
A few things you might come across on an Indian highway and of course on all other roads in India:
- Free running cattle – Cows, goats, sheep… you name it!
- Other animals – dogs, cats, snakes, monkeys, elephants, peacocks, a load full of frogs etc etc…
- bullock carts full packed and super slow rikshaws- I think the speed will be at 10 km/h…
- skilled and daring Indian drivers – Seriously Indian folks know how to drive and react fast. If you are not used to this driving get used to it soon if you plan to drive yourself. More about it further down.
- political rallies and blockades – Please avoid and take a detour if it doesn’t look safe.
- Toll booths – Some highway stretches don’t even have one toll booth. Others have a toll booth every few kilometers and this can slow things down.
- vehicle accidents – Turtled trucks and cars in the strangest ways you could imagine.
- Fallen trees, mud slides, sudden cloud bursts aka force majeur
- a vehicle in front of you taking a sharp turn onto the other lane without stopping first or signaling, or vehicles coming full speed from a side road. People rarely look so you better keep an eye out!
Street lights are not that common, in fact the problem still persists too on highways. Anyway you should drive in the day and only in the night if you are a very good driver. This is not only because of the street lights but also because of things and creatures on the road, which you will have trouble to see with other cars flashing their lights into your sight. Driving in the night can be very tiring for the eyes and heavy slow driving trucks tend to use the highway during the early dark morning hours too. However, I do know that a seasoned good driver can make up distance easily in the night compared to the day, but please refrain from doing so. Again it depends too which highway you are driving in India. For example the coastline highway NH17 is a catastrophe during the day but some stretches are just bumpy mud road in the middle of nowhere and driving a mud road in the middle of nowhere when it’s dark is not a good idea.
Petrol pumps and going to the loo on Indian highways
To refuel you don’t have to worry normally as long as you are on an Indian Highway you will come across countless huge Petrol pumps and many are open in the night too. For rookies: Approach the filling station, wait for your turn in the car, tell the man if you want petrol or diesel, open the tank, let him fill, give the money and make sure he closes the tank too, finished. Petrol pumps are the only place where girls can go to the loo. Don’t expect the toilets to be sweet and pink, you will come across many toilet holes and broken doors (but still better then a moving dirty train toilet door with a hole in the floor!). We always go in pair, one always guards the toilet door. I always keep a roll of toilet paper, bottled water and some kind of soap (either liquid soap or paper soap) with me when I go to the bathroom. Also, I use the dettol disinfection lotion.
To drive the Indian way…
you need to be like a fish in a river, just flow along.
Driving in India means a lot of action and quick reactions. You need to be sharp, so no sightseeing while driving. There are rules, it doesn’t seem so but yes there are Indian road rules.
Rule Number 1 –> You can sound your horn in countless different ways and each has a meaning. While over taking, it’s a short sound, when somebody is over taking on the other line and is about to crash into your vehicle it’s a crazy loooong horn to fix this and if you are behind a truck, sound your horn repeatedly. You will notice that truck drivers have painted the words “Sound horn OK” on the backside of their trucks, there is a reason for that. When you are in a truck you won’t hear a thing that is going on outside because of the machine noise so you need to exercise your horn a lot so that they can give you a sign with their hands when you can take over. Don’t be afraid to use your horn, in fact you must use your horn on Indian roads!
Rule Number 2 –> Use your headlights instead of the horn when it’s dark, it has more effect. Some Indian drivers use the switching from normal front lights to headlights tactic too when they over take so to signal cars coming on the other lane to slow down. I also use the headlights when some dork is driving 20 km/h on the fast lane so that he frees the highway.
Rule Number 3 –> Just go with the flow. I noticed that a confident driver has an easier game on Indian roads then a driver who for example lets others pass. The moment Indian drivers smell weakness they will take advantage of the same and you will be crawling behind a tractor for hours. BUT remember to always drive slow! Some roads can be very tight and sometimes you are just a cm away from getting your car scratched by a full loaded rikshaw. By the way Indian car side mirrors can be folded in if the road is getting tight.
Rule Number 4 –> There is no point of driving fast in India. If you want to drive fast on a highway, go to Germany.
Rule Number 5 –> If you see red lights and traffic boards (yes a few do exist) then just try your best to follow the other lemmings on the road. Generally, people do stop at red lights and all…
Rule Number 6 –> Always keep an eye out for animals on the road or on the side of the road. I mentioned a few examples on top and I do have a few stories further down. Also be aware but people are very stupid at times, running across the highway without even looking left or right.
These are the few rules you need to be aware off while driving by bike or car in India. Something you should never ever do while driving in India is driving with ear phones and blasting music. You can listen to music in your car no problem with that, I am concerned about the ear phones. Some people are just begging for an accident. Just the other day I saw a girl riding her bike uneasily while having her ear phones in. I got so mad because she was blocking the road and I kept on sounding my horn but she wasn’t going to move… A few days later on I saw the same girl with open wounds on her elbow arms and legs. -_-
Another time, I was riding a bike and my friend was behind, we crossed a bridge and it was going a bit downwards when I saw a goat coming up the road from the field. I saw it way early but the unexpected happened. The goat moved where I moved and I crashed into the goat (Some of you will remember this incident and chuckle!). I was a beginner at the time and during the same time I managed to crash into a chicken and pigglet. I am not proud of it and the animals where fine btw. My point is, westerners driving the first 3 years in India will frequently have cattle accidents. It doesn’t matter if you are the best driver in your country, India is India the rules here are different.
Another incident, we were in the car, on the left and right side beautiful rice paddy fields and all of a sudden a mad running horde of water bulls crossed the road as if they were on fire. That was just a few meters from our car. Not sure what caused the water bulls to panic in such a way, and usually these animals are most relaxed. A few weeks ago, just near Mysore on the highway we had to take a sudden heavy break and the bike rider on the other lane had to do so too because a 1 1/2 m long snake had decided to cross the road and the bike rider had crashed into the snake.
Animals in India are everywhere, which is a complete contrast to the western countries and you will experience all kinds of creatures on your way that will amaze you. Therefore, when you travel in India it makes sense to take it easy and to drive slow. After all the journey is very adventurous. You will see colorful places, pristine untouched nature, gorgeous wild life and welcoming cultures.
Share your Indian road trip with us in a comment, we want to read your experience!