India is cheap. Perhaps the cheapest travel destination on earth. The backpacking cost for a couple in India is lower than anywhere else Navi and I have travelled before.
In the 40 days since arriving in India we’ve spent £1000 between us. Prices vary by around 30% state to state, but our daily budget for traveling through southern India has rarely exceeded £25.
Of course, there have been days when we’ve spent a lot more. We took an AC taxi 350KM from Ooty to Alleppey because the bus and train timings meant more waiting than travelling (£75). We splurged on a nice hotel in Mysore because we needed some luxury after I got sick in Hampi (£25 per night). We ate at Domino’s pizza and at Subway once or twice which cost 10 times the price of Indian food.
I’d like to tell you we’ve been budget conscious just like we were back home – but we haven’t.
We pretty much stayed where we wanted, ate what we wanted and splurged when we wanted. We’ve not held back on any trips or tickets to attractions. We’ve done all the main tourist things in all the places we have visited. We took taxis and rickshaws often when we probably could’ve walked or got the local bus.
About £25 per day is just how it’s worked out without really trying.
Budget Backpacking in India
One of the factors that’s helped keep our expenditure down is slow-ish travel. When you don’t move around too often you tend not to blow too much money. Navi and I try to stay about a week in each destination. That gives us enough time to meet locals, listen to recommendations and learn the price of things. Yesterday for example, we spent the day dodging thunderstorms in the room. We ate twice at local Indian restaurants, watched a bit of online TV and caught up on some reading. That whole day, including our accommodation, we spent £11.
Just imagine what’s possible if you negotiate accommodation by the month instead of by the day. Now imagine its low season (May –Sept) as well.
The potential for cheap living in India is hugely exciting.
We enquired about monthly rentals in a couple of the beach towns and were quoted between £100 -200 per month without haggling. Of course it’s not 5 star but £150 should get you a studio style place with kitchen, fridge, cable TV, Wi-Fi and maybe AC. What more does a person need for a month of relaxation?
The Price of Food in India
Another reason why backpacking through India can be so cheap is the price of food. Unlike western countries the best food is available in the cheapest establishments. We tried eating at mid-range places a couple of times and even once at a 5 star hotel but we always wound up very disappointed. You cannot improve on culinary quality by spending more money in India. It doesn’t work that way.
The taste is in simple, fresh, local cooking.
The Indians eat breakfast at the usual time, then have a big lunch around 3PM. Those that eat a dinner tend to eat between 8 and 11PM.
Expect to pay about 50p per person for a large vegetarian dish and about 80p for a meat dish. In practice Navi and I have mostly found the dishes too large for a single person so we tend to order just one to share. Always with some Indian breads or rice on the side.
It’s easily possible for a couple to eat 3 meals per day for under £5. In reality, we tend to spend between £5 – 10, but we have eaten for as little as £3 on some days.
Even cooking for yourself, it’s hard to see how anyone could improve on those prices.
The Lows of Backpacking in India
Despite the low prices I’m not sure I’ll be rushing back to India once we leave on 10 Oct. The food and accommodation are awesome and great value but India lacks a certain welcome.
Despite being the spiritual home of backpacking, India hasn’t yet learned to embrace tourism in the way that its South East Asian neighbours have.
There is simply nowhere to sit and relax apart from your room. Other backpacker destinations have little bars and restaurants strewn with cushions and bean bags. You can order a cold beer and just watch the sunset. Chat to other travellers, read or even fall asleep after a big meal. Here in India those places don’t seem to exist.
Occasional “National Dry Days” plus alcohol and meat free towns (due to religious restrictions) can also be frustrating to someone used to the cultural and culinary freedoms of the west.
I’ve looked hard but I can’t see what Indians do for fun. I’m guessing in a society where family is paramount, they simply relax at home behind closed doors. Nice for them but it sucks if you’re a backpacking westerner looking to blow off some steam.
Meeting Other Travellers
One of the greatest things about budget travel is meeting other travellers and sharing experiences. The friendships and interactions you have on the road can be so rewarding. Here in India though, meeting backpackers is hard. The lack of common areas at guesthouses and general tourist infrastructure can mean you don’t see another backpacker for days at a time.
In Thailand for example we’d often find ourselves crammed onto some bumpy tourist bus for 6 hours with a dozen other backpackers. Here in India you book your travel direct, rather than through an agent. You arrive at the stations with all the other Indians and rarely see a foreign face except in passing. Those travellers we have seen tend to be of the dope smoking, barefoot hippy crowd. The ones that always look at you like you’re ruining India for them simply by being there.
India can be a lonely place for a regular backpacker.
Rubbish and Poop
I can’t not mention India’s hygiene issues. It would be easy here to criticize Indians for not respecting their environment but that wouldn’t tell the whole story. From what I’ve seen Indians have a huge respect for their surroundings. Gardens and homes are tended and cleaned with a reverence at least as great as that seen back home in the west. Unfortunately the story ends at the front door or the garden wall.
Rivers and roadsides are simply dumping grounds for anything people don’t want any more. Piles of rubbish can often be seen underneath windows or behind walls. Any public place with no-one to take personal responsibility is filthy. Animals and humans alike can be seen urinating and defecating in the streets in plain view of everyone.
No-where that I’ve ever been before is the impact of humans on the immediate environment more openly apparent than in the towns of Southern India.
I’m not judging. I freely admit I do not understand Indian culture or the social and economic issues faced by people here. I’m simply a tourist. All I know is what I see.
Eating some food and discarding the plastic wrapper or taking a poo at the edge of the road is as natural as breathing for many Indians. Re-educating the next generation is going to be a necessary challenge.
Would I Recommend Backpacking in India?
There are some wonderful sights and experiences that are uniquely India. The underdevelopment, spiritual and cultural aspects make for some unforgettable moments.
India is an assault on the senses. The tastes, the colours and the smells alone, should put India on the radar of every serious backpacker. Long term travellers will appreciate the crazy low prices. If you’re on a fixed travel budget, India will give you more bang for your buck and allow you to travel for longer than anywhere else on earth.
All in all I’d wholeheartedly recommend India. India demands to be experienced at least once.
Like Colonic Irrigation, India is frightening and a bit weird at first. You’ll certainly get shit on your shoes and at times, it will bring a tear to your eyes. You’ll come away uncertain if the encounter has done you any good. But you’ll feel triumphant that you had courage and gave it a try.