Where to in India?
We wanted to visit Jaipur and Agra (for Taj Mahal) hence naturally, the Golden Triangle (the popular India starter route) which also includes Delhi, India's capital, came into mind. As we also had time for another city, we decided to look up for cities near Delhi/Jaipur/Agra and so many interesting cities came up! We were spoilt with choices, but in the end we decided to head further up north to Rishikesh. Termed as The Yoga Capital of the World and located in the foothills of Himalayas, we thought it'll be a good contrast to the rest of the cities by surrounding ourselves with Mother Nature. Frankly, Rishikesh was super out of the way for us (we took 14 hours to reach Rishikesh from Jaipur) but we were determined to make our way up. It was also the city that we stayed the longest in for India :)
But personally, now that I've come back from India, India is HUGEEEE and is a pity I skipped so many beautiful cities along the way. At work, I've always been told to treat India and China as a continent and that each city is a country and now that I've visited both India and China, I can personally validate that statement is a fact. If I could do it again, I would plan the trip based on the states as it would have saved us time from travelling leaving us more time to really immerse in the culture. If I didn't chance upon Rishikesh, my next route would actually be doing Rajasthan, the largest state in India which has rich culture and history, magnificent forts and beautiful palaces. It is the best place to go if you want to learn about the rich history of India :) Is definitely up on my list the next time I head to India!
After you've decided the cities to head to, is time to get the transport settled! For us, we could either land in Delhi or Jaipur but what made the deciding factor was the train ride that will be bringing us from Jaipur/Delhi to Haridwar which will lead us to Rishikesh. Timings worked out the best for us if we were to fly in to Jaipur hence despite it being a longer ride of 12 hours, we're up for it!
For flight, we flew in with Scoot at SGD280/pax without baggage and seat selection and bought our tickets 6 months ahead. We didn't wait for any promos so I'm sure you might find better deals. AirAsia too has many flights heading to India but we found Scoot to be cheaper during our time of purchase.
For train, all bookings could be done online on India Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation. The only tricky part is that you need to create an account of which there's a informative user guide which you can follow. Train timings will only be out 2 months before the date of departure so definitely set a reminder to purchase them. Even though we booked our tickets 1.5 months before departure, I was on the wait list and it was not pleasant at all but I'll leave that to another post. As the trains have 9 different types of classes, our curious minds got ahead of us and we decided to test out the different classes by starting with a 2AC (2 Beds with AC) and slowly moving down the grades to 3AC (3 Beds with AC) and Sleeper (3 Beds with no cooling fans). To be honest, there's no difference in the 3 options if you're just sitting. But if you're sleeping, the 2AC with Bed would be perfect- not too squeezy and cooling. Classes aside, our recommendation would be to choose the side berths/bed if you'll like to have some privacy as the beds in the middle will be facing other passengers.
Next up, buses are a great option if is 1-3 hours ride. We took buses for cities that were near by- we usually just head straight to the bus station and hop on to any of the buses that are heading to our destination. The timings of the buses are super frequent so there's nothing to be afraid! But the challenge will be that you'll have to go around asking everyone where the buses are leaving to. It may take awhile but eventually you'll find that bus! :) Alternatively, you can also purchase bus tickets online on Red Bus :)
Lastly, for the daily commute around the cities, Taxis and Rickshaws, Uber and Ola is the way to go! Ola is India's local version of Uber and includes Rickshaw of which you'll need a local number to create an account. We used Uber mostly as there's a higher chance of getting a English speaking driver but Olas are great for Rickshaws and there are plenty of them everywhere. A big tip that I've personally discovered is that whenever someone tries to quote you ridiculously for transport, just go to these apps and look the price and tell them I'll only pay you this. One of my absolute pet peeve in life is getting scam or cheated so I take huge pride in being a smart traveler and not fall into the tourist trap ugh.
Accommodation (Hostels, Airbnb, Hotels)
We stayed in hostels for the majority of the trip. I love hostels!! They are such a great place to stay in when you are in a foreign place. The people who work in hostels are the loveliest, they gave us so many tips and helped us with our sim cards and transport. My India trip wouldn't be as smooth sailing if not for them. We booked our hostel through Hostelworld and we would recommended Zostel- The largest hostel chain in India! We stayed in both their Rishikesh and Agra branches and it was the best stay ever. The staff were super friendly, there's a suite of exciting activities every single day (just look at the photo below of the activities at Zostel Rishikesh) and they serve the best food too!! Just amazing!!
We also stayed in Airbnb and Hostels to pamper ourselves along the way. I'll leave the Airbnb story to another post as it deserves a post on its own haha. As for hotel, apart from the Agoda and Expedia that we are familiar with, India has plenty of travel providers too such as HolidayIQ and goibibo. I personally booked mine through Agoda but there's no harm in using the local travel sites next time :)
And with that, this sums up my first timer pre-trip guide to India! Pre-trip planning is just always so nerve-wrecking as you'll have to do so many research but with our tried and proven methods, I hope it'll help you save some time!