Want to take the cheap route and plan your own budget trips in India? It's totally possible, very affordable, and I almost guarantee you'll make some friends along the way.
Before I left for India, I was pretty anxious about catching public transport.
I had all these images in my mind of people sitting on top of trains, hanging out of buses, and piling in to cars – navigating that as a tourist sounded like a nightmare I wasn't prepared to face, so it was a huge surprise to get there and realise that getting around India is actually pretty easy.
India is a big place and transport options are in abundance.
Locals tend to travel extensively around their own country, so there’s a wide variety of options for all ages and budgets. I backpacked around for two-months and took the cheaper options most of the time, but India is not an expensive place by Western standards, so 'forking out' can be the difference between two-dollars and four.
It all comes down to whether you're willing to rough it or not – if sleeping in a bed with sheets is really important to you, don't choose 'sleeper' class on the train. If you can fall asleep anywhere and don't care about personal hygiene, the 'unreserved' class is for you.
Regardless of your preferences, I guarantee there are some great options to suit your budget.
This is the easiest (and priciest) way of getting around India. You can hire a driver and have the luxury of exploring this vast country at your own pace. Prices vary depending on where you’re going, when, and how far you want to travel. It's always best to look at Trip Advisor for things like this.
Signing up for a group tour can be a pretty good deal, and they generally include private bus transport, accommodation, admission to various sites and monuments, and a tour guide to tell what what’s what. Tours vary from a few days to a few weeks, and there are different options for people of all ages.
Lonely Planet has a variety of options and special deals, otherwise companies like Intrepid and Geckos Adventures offer a range of tours. Whatever you decide to go with, remember that the Trip Advisor community is very active in India, and there’s valuable information from other travellers to help you find the best company.
Not in to traveling around with a bunch of random people? Grab a friend or two and sign up for a private tour. Unlike group tours, these can be tailored to suit your specific interests, and can generally go for as long as you want. Tour guides can plan as much or as little as you want, which means prices vary greatly.
It's difficult to provide a recommendation for a private tour because it really depends on what you want, but if you head to Trip Advisor and type in something generic like 'private tour India', you'll find what you're looking for – there are some in-depth reviews.
Before I left for India, I was adamant I would catch as few buses as possible. The lack of road rules scared the crap out of me, and trying to figure out what bus left from where and when (let alone where to get off) was too stressful to think about.
By day two, I’d caught three buses.
While not the most luxurious way to travel, public buses are by far the most cost-effective way of getting around India. They leave frequently, they usually stop right in town (unlike a lot of trains and luxury buses) and the booking system is uncomplicated – just show up at the bus station, buy a ticket, and hop on.
Asking the people at your hotel is usually the best way to start working out your bus route, but if not you can jump in a rickshaw, ask them to take you to the bus depot, and ask someone there – even if they don’t speak much English, saying the name of the place you’re going is enough to get you headed in the right direction.
This is nowhere near as stressful as it sounds – people are always willing to help you. Just trust me on that one.
If your next destination involves travelling overnight and there are no trains available, this is the best way to go. Prices range dramatically depending on how far you travel, how luxurious the bus is (some have wifi and power outlets), and whether you’re in a reclining seat or an actual sleeping compartment.
The best way to book these is via Clear Trip or Make My Trip (excellent private online booking companies that I don’t think I could have lived without) but, if there are no options there, ask your hotel or go to a travel agency and something will usually emerge.
Throughout every long trip there are stops for meals, bathrooms, and chai (seriously, they sometimes stop at 3am for chai) and, unless you’re on a private tour, the dinner stop could just be the most authentic Indian food experience you have.
Some tourists get a bit funny about eating at the food joints along the way, but we always dug in and never had a problem. The drivers tend to stop at the same eateries with each trip, and if there are locals eating it, there’s no reason to worry about getting sick.
For short trips throughout the city or town, rickshaws are the way to go. Prices vary greatly depending on where you are, so ask around for an idea of local prices.
Auto-rickshaws dominate the local transport scene around most of India, and are super quick and convenient. Just make sure you agree on a price before you get in, and ensure that covers however many people are in your group – it’s not uncommon for a couple or group to agree on a price, and have the driver turn around at the end and explain the agreed price was actually per person.
Manual-rickshaws are like a large wheelbarrow you sit on while a man physically pulls you to where you want to go. For us, this was a tough ethical dilemma – it feels strange for an old and tired Indian man to physically pull Westerners along the road in a cart.
There was one occasion where a manual rickshaw driver was really, really desperate for some business (most people opt for autos these days because they’re faster), so we chose him over the auto driver and decided to pay him double the asking price.
Cycle-rickshaws aren’t around much anymore, and unless you go somewhere like Punjab or the Delhi Bizarre, you might not see any at all. It’s the same principle as the manual-rickshaw, but there’s a bicycle attachment on the front so the driver cycles you around – pretty tricky with some of the muddy pot-holed roads.
This is my preferred method of travel around India. The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) network is one of the most extensive in the world, and will get you around most of India. Getting a ticket can be a bit tricky depending on how far in advance you book, but you get the hang of it pretty quickly.
Food vendors also parade through the trains (more so in Sleeper and Unreserved classes) offering chai, coffee, samosas, puri, and a range of local morsels (ranging from 10 to 30-rupees a pop) to keep you going throughout the trip – it’s fantastic.
Online: As with private buses, I highly recommend booking online with Clear Trip. If the train is booked out, Clear Trip will tell you if there’s a waiting list, and what number you’ll be if you join the list. The site is very straightforward, easy to use, and accepts international credit cards. You can also go to the IRCTC website, but this is a pretty complex (I tried once and gave up), or use Make My Trip.
(Click here for more details about catching Indian trains, booking, what the classes are, and more!)
The idea of getting around India via public transport can sound daunting, but after a few days you’ll be a pro. If you’re there to immerse yourself in Indian culture, travelling on public transport is one of the most authentic experiences you’ll get, and I can almost guarantee you’ll never forget it. If you take one piece of advice, it should be to ask people to point you in the right direction.