Interested in traveling to India as a solo woman, but having safety concerns? I have been there and can assure you that you have nothing to worry about. My advice is to consider starting in the South. Although Southern India is less touristy than the North, it is also more relaxed and great for making first contact with the subcontinent. Read on to discover some tips about solo female travel in South India.
Although I have always been a great advocate of traveling alone as a woman, and I don’t take people who talk rubbish about places they have never been too seriously; I have to admit that I was unsure about traveling to India on my own. The country has an infamous reputation as an unsafe destination for solo female travelers and even I -who considers myself an avid traveler and quite open-minded- had some doubts about visiting India alone. But this year, thanks to the insistence of my friend Sara, I finally decided to give it a try.
The truth is I don’t feel entitled to talk about how it is to travel alone as a woman around India. It is a huge country and I only visited some places in the South. But I can tell you about my experiences traveling solo in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I can say that my trip could not have been easier! Maybe I was prejudiced and I had prepared myself for the worst, but in a way, I was even disappointed that everything was so uncomplicated. I think one of the reasons I traveled to India was that I was longing for an adventure and, in part, I was hoping that I would face many more challenges than I actually did.
In this post, I would like to talk about how to travel to and around South India as a solo female; hoping to dismantle some myths, give some advice, and encourage traveling to India without fear to any woman curious about this country. I have not been in the North yet, but I can assure that Southern India is amazing and definitely safer than you imagine.
Solo female travel in South India
01 | Itinerary
One of the biggest mistakes most travelers to India make is wanting to visit a lot in a short time. India is so vast, with so many different cultures and traditions, that it is impossible to visit all of the country at one time. In my opinion, it is always better to see little and well, than visiting too many places with rush and stress. For this reason, I decided to visit only two states: Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
For my first trip to India, I chose not to visit the most tourist places, leaving the Taj Mahal and the Golden Triangle for future trips. I also decided to skip the big cities, as the unpleasant things about India; the dirt, poverty, noise, crowd, and traffic, are most evident in the cities. I was looking for an India of astonishing color, temples, traditions, music, dance, culture, nature, and people.
For these reasons, I decided to start in South India. Although much less touristy than Northern India, Southern India is supposed to be quieter and perfect for first contact with the subcontinent. I flew from Istanbul to Chennai and visited Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu; then took a night train to Kerala and visited Varkala, Alleppey, a yoga retreat near Kochi and Fort Kochi.
Tamil Nadu, with its ancient temples, is the Hindu soul of the country. What I enjoyed the most were the scenes of everyday Indian life in the coastal town of Mamallapuram. Kerala, with its backwaters, surprised me with its tropical beaches and scenic landscapes. This state of communist tradition is also culturally diverse. In addition to stunning nature, there you will find lots of Hindu temples, mosques, churches and even synagogues.
02 | Visa
If the duration of your trip to India is one month or less, you can apply for an online visa (eVisa) and obtain it upon arrival at the airport. Like almost everything else in India, the website is a bit slow; but with a little bit of patience, you should not have too many problems. You can apply for your eVisa for India here.
03 | Useful information
- Languages: More than 20 official languages and about 1650 dialects are spoken in India. But don’t panic! A lot of people in India speak English. You will usually find someone you can communicate with.
- Religions: Also a little bit of everything! India is one of the most spiritual countries on the planet. Hinduism is the most popular religion, with almost 80% of the population. I was surprised to meet also many Muslims and Christians in Kerala.
- Climate: Humid and tropical. The weather is mild in winter and quite hot in April and May. From June to September, it is monsoon season and traveling can be more complicated.
- Currency: Indian Rupees (INR), € 1 are approximately 70 Rupees. ATMs and credit cards work without problems.
04 | What to wear
India is a traditionally conservative country and, no matter how hot it is, showing skin is not acceptable. If you want to avoid unwanted attention whenever possible, it is best to dress in the local way; always covering your legs, back, neckline and shoulders.
I suggest bringing little clothing from home and buying clothing there instead. It is quite cheap and you will love all the colors! You can also buy fabrics and ask a local tailor to make you a salwar kameez (a long, loose top and pants, with a matching scarf). I personally loved the colorful Indian clothes and enjoyed dressing like an Indian. I remember, my first day in India, the receptionist of the homestay I was staying was surprised to see me dressed like a local and complimented me, saying that my look was “very decent”.
I always wore a kurta, a loose long top with wide pants or leggings underneath. I wish I had bought a sari, I think they are amazing! But, with its six meters length, they are really difficult to put on (and even some local women don’t know how!).
There are lots of shops, but a chain with quality clothes that I loved is Fabindia. Also, do not forget to wear your bindi (third eye) and put fresh jasmine in your hair. There is no better perfume!
05 | Cultural shock
It is true that India is not the cleanest country in the world, but the level of dirt varies depending on the city or neighborhood. I can imagine cities, like Mumbai and New Delhi, accumulating large amounts of garbage. But the places I visited were not disgusting at all. Don’t let fears of dirt put you off experiencing India! It looks worse in your head.
Poverty is another thing that often impacts people traveling to India. Since I did not visit any big cities, I did not witness any huge slums. I did see people sleeping in the streets, but that does not always mean that they are homeless. Sometimes they are just people who do own a house, but feel tired and have the ability to nap anywhere.
I found it very curious to see the wandering sacred cows. Especially when they circulated freely on the road causing so much chaos in traffic. They always have priority. I was also surprised to see them eating bits of wall or trash.
Indian food is spicy but delicious, and a paradise for vegetarians. By the way, do not forget that Indians eat with their hands; or, to be more exact, with the hand. Indians only use the right hand because they reserve the left for other, “more impure” things (like washing their feet or intimate parts). Try to respect this custom and always avoid using your left hand to eat in public, greet someone, or pay.
The most important thing is to accept that India is a very different culture that can fascinate or frustrate us or both at the same time. It is important to go with an open mind and heart, be patient, and let ourselves go with the flow. Most things work differently in India, but they have been like this for centuries and we cannot change them.
India breathes life. The country is a celebration for all of our senses with its explosion of vibrant colors, honking cars, wandering cows, crowded trains, smiling children, ancient temples, endless cities, intense smells, and spicy flavors. Accept things as they are, expect and enjoy the unexpected, find the humor, and join the party!
06 | Health and female hygiene
It is very important to always travel with travel insurance. I have never needed to use it, which I am thankful for. But you never know what you will face during a trip. Never try to save your money on this.
As you have probably already been told, when you travel to India, be prepared for stomach problems. The frequent advice is: to always use bottled water (for drinking and even when brushing your teeth); never eating raw food; avoid street food as much as possible; do not eat too much spicy, etc. But, even if you follow all these directions, it will be difficult not to catch anything. On the other hand, you should not be too worried about this. Everything will be gone in a couple of days.
It is also important to protect yourself from mosquitoes. Antibacterial gels always come in handy to wash our hands anywhere. Toilet paper is not used in India. They use water after toilet and it works well. But, if you want to use paper, always carry your own.
Menstrual pads are not good quality and tampons are difficult to find. It is best to bring them from home. Although I highly recommend to all the ladies reading me that, if you do not already, start using the menstrual cup. Without a doubt, one of the best inventions!
07 | Where to sleep
India is a country with great offers in accommodations for all wallet sizes. You can find everything from expensive hotels to homestays with prices that seem like a joke.
I always go for Airbnb or choose reputed homestays, ensuring I have a point of contact in my destination before I get there. Without a doubt, the most interesting thing about traveling to India is getting to know the local culture and see how people live there. Therefore, I prefer to stay with locals in small family homestays that lend a personal touch to the experience.
08 | How to get around
With one of the largest rail networks in the world, traveling by train in India is the best experience! I will not talk about the many kinds of tickets because other bloggers already covered this topic. But I advise you to book your train tickets in advance.
If there is no train available, local buses will also do the work with tickets at ridiculously low prices. Keep in mind, they are often crowded, run at full speed and are honking all the time.
Compared to the price of trains and buses, taxis seem like highway robbery. But if you have to move around at night, it is the best option. Don’t compromise your safety to save money. Negotiate the price well before getting in and stay firm if the driver wants to charge you more once you reach your destination.
09 | Safety as a solo female traveler
In my experience, South Indian is a safe place for solo female travelers. Unfortunately, there is a lot of news about rape and crimes against women in India. But we should not forget that India is a subcontinent with more than 1200 million inhabitants. Based on the population of the country, rapes do not occur in India more often than in many other countries in the World.
During my three weeks of traveling in South India, I have to admit that I did perceive stares from both men and women. But they always came out of curiosity and interest. I was never intimidated by a man. Nowhere is exempt from sexual violence nowadays, but I was pleasantly surprised by the sense of security that I experienced in South India at all times. As I said before, I had prepared myself for the worst.
Having said that, women must be always particularly careful when traveling alone. Some more advice is:
- Never walk out alone after dark.
- Avoid traveling to another city at night.
- Avoid drinking alcohol and staying out late.
- Be aware of cultural differences to avoid misunderstandings with men.
- Express your opinions assertively and know how to say NO firmly if necessary.
India is an incredibly religious country. Public shaming is a useful tactic if someone threatens your personal space or unpleasant situations arise. As most people believe in karma, there will always be someone willing to help you. If necessary, do not hesitate to make yourself be heard.
Once you get over prejudices and the cultural shock, you will understand that, as long as you are cautious and use common sense, nothing bad should happen to you. The people and cultural differences are precisely what makes India such an interesting country. Those same people are kind and will want to meet you, talk to you, take pictures with you, and so on; most of the time of genuine interest. Talk to them; we are all family on this planet, and travel means nothing without those chance conversations!
Do not let the fear of harassment, dirt, or poverty take away the desire to visit a country as fascinating as India. I already want to go back and, yes, now I also feel ready for the North.