I’m a young, white, solo female and I’ve spent more than 24 months over the last four years traveling independently across India on a budget.
India is the most fascinating, exotic, exuberant and life changing travel destination. From the tropical backwaters of Kerala to the chaotic megalopolises to the remote tribal mountains of Nagaland, there’s no end to the diversity of this country.
But India also has a bad reputation as a destination for solo female travellers. Why?
India can be a difficult country to travel in. Several high profile rape cases over the years, including the Delhi gang rape case in December 2012 and other incidents involving foreign tourists have also lead many women to reassess their India travel plans. I feel this is unfortunate, as with some extra caution and a fair bit of patience, traveling India happily and safely as a solo female is certainly possible.
Conservatively dressed women in India (Dreamstime)
Traditionally, India is a conservative and patriarchal society, with a skewed sex ratio, and the country is now hurtling into the 21st century at breakneck speed. The reasons behind the violence against women in India are complex but the fact that these incidents are so high profile and have caused so much outrage is hopefully a sign that the country is starting to address these issues, when previously women have been afraid to speak out because it would bring shame on themselves and their families and reporting an incident rarely resulted in a conviction.
Of course, terrible things have happened, and still do happen in India and across the world, but with common sense, cultural understanding and a little caution I generally don’t feel worried for my safety on a day-to-day basis when travelling in the country.
Once I got over the initial culture shock, I found that traveling in India as a solo female wasn’t as difficult or as dangerous as I had feared it would be, especially when you have an understanding of Indian culture and many people’s mindsets, and become acclimatised to the way things work here.
Metro station in Delhi (Dreamstime)
India is still a very religious country, with many people still believing in karma. There is a saying here that ‘Guest is God’, and there is always someone around who is happy to help you out.
The majority of Indians are incredibly warm, generous, curious and hospitable. Most Indian people want to feed you, hug you, talk to you or have their photo taken with you rather than hurt you. Encounters with them are part of what makes traveling in India so incredible. English is also widely spoken and I often find that when I’m traveling solo, other women and families fuss over and look out for me.
The world is often a lot less scary than they make it out to be on the news and the rewards of traveling India certainly outweigh the challenges. My suggestion is not to be put off travelling in India, but to take these sensible precautions:
1: Be culturally aware and adapt to the different culture
Indian women (Dreamstime)
One of my most important tips for safe solo female travel in India is to be culturally aware and to adapt to the way that things work in India.
Staying in a homestay with a host family is a good way to learn about the culture and you’ll have a whole family that will feel it’s their duty to protect you.
Also, watch the way that the local women act and take their lead. If a street is full of women and families, then I feel safe. If there are no women around, then it’s probably not safe for me either.
2: Dress conservatively
Anna at Golden Temple, Amritsar (Global Gallivanting)
India is a conservative country, and showing too much skin or wearing tight clothing will attract unwanted attention. You don’t need to wear a sari, but buying loose, light and colourful Indian clothes from the local markets is a good idea, and they’re comfortable and practical.
3: Be careful how you relate to men
Busy street in Delhi (Dreamstime)
Staring is not considered rude in India. Often, people are just curious to see foreigners. As a solo female traveller, the staring from men can feel uncomfortable at first but usually it’s not a threat to your safety.
In Indian culture, women don’t generally make eye contact, smile or flirt with men they don’t know, so be careful, as what may seem like an everyday gesture for you, such as a smile, a casual touch or eye contact, may be taken as flirtatious.
The most common thing to happen to female travellers in India is an opportunist grope on a bus or in a busy street. If anything does happen like this, stand up for yourself, make a scene and you’ll usually find that the other people around will come to your aid and deal with the man.
4: Start in the south
Waterways of Kerala (Dreamstime)
While some of the most amazing sights are found in Delhi and the Golden Triangle route, the north of India is where you will find the most hassle, scams and dirt. Especially for women, starting an Indian adventure somewhere in the south, like Kerala or Goa, before traveling around the North is a good idea, as southern India feels cleaner, calmer and less chaotic.
I’ve always felt a lot safer and less hassled in the south. Also, be wary of going too far into rural areas or off-the-beaten-track alone.
5: Use your intuition and common sense
Indian train station at night (Dreamstime)
Wandering alone in a new city at night or stumbling around drunk isn’t the safest idea, no matter where in the world you are. Ride in the ladies’ carriages or take the upper bunk on the sleeper trains, and try to avoid arriving in a new city that you don’t know at night or in darkness.
Be on your guard for scams around airports, bus and train stations and popular tourist monuments. But keep it in perspective and don’t let the hassle get to you. Most of the scammers are trying to get you to part with your money, but aren’t that likely to hurt or steal from you. Just ignore them and walk confidently past.
Trust your intuition. Be careful who you trust, even figures of authority, but don’t let a few scam artists jade your opinion of all Indian people. After a while, you will be able to recognise who is genuine and spot a scam a mile off. Most people are wonderfully hospitable so don’t be afraid to accept an invitation. It could turn out to be an amazing experience like the time I got invited to a wedding anniversary in a small village in Khajuraho.
Anna Phipps is a writer, travel blogger and Indiaphile who quit her job in the UK in Dec 2012 and has been travelling around Australia, Southeast Asia and India ever since. She is based in Goa, India, and shares her tips and experiences on her blog www.global-gallivanting.com. You can also follow her adventures on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.