In retrospect, I consider myself incredibly lucky for the opportunity to study and live abroad at the age of 17. I grew up in a protective middle class family in the small bubble town of Dehradun. In search of my independence, I applied to and got accepted in a university abroad, and flew away with a big study loan and bigger dreams.
I remember being extremely nervous about traveling out of the country all by myself. There are too many myths circulated among Indian families, and after years of traveling, I hope to simplify it for you:
1) How to choose your first foreign destination?
My advice: Don’t follow the crowds.
I’ve met many travelers who swarm to museums abroad just because everyone else does, even though they don’t particularly enjoy art or history. Choose a destination based on your personal interests, check the weather during your travel dates, research the visa process for Indian citizens, and find someplace within your budget. It’s okay to miss popular attractions if they don’t appeal to you; find your bliss and don’t feel judged. Remember that it’s your trip and you alone decide how to enjoy it the most.
2) How to apply for a visa with an Indian passport?
It’s true that the Indian passport (and those of many developing countries) allows us to visit only a handful of countries spontaneously, and is subjected to far more scrutiny than other passports (those security checks are never random, are they?). But don’t let that dampen your spirit. Try to pick a country that allows visa on arrival. If your heart has settled on one that doesn’t, browse the country’s embassy website to find the visa process for Indians.
Most visas require confirmed flight and hotel bookings for your entire trip, bank statements for the last 6 months, salary slips, income tax returns, a letter from the employer and a ton of patience. I usually book my flights when needed, but book fully refundable hotels on booking.com across 2-3 cities – that I cancel once I receive my visa. In lieu of salary slips and an employer’s letter (I’m a self-employed freelancer), I include a cover letter and my resume. As long as you can prove that you need to come back to India at the end of your trip, getting a visa shouldn’t be too difficult.
3) How to plan and book your first trip abroad?
I’m surprised at how many people still use traditional travel agents to pick popular albeit boring itineraries. Plan it yourself and you’ll likely save a ton of money and have experiences unique to you. I use the following websites:
- Wikitravel, BBC travel, Guardian travel, blogs and anything interesting on Google to choose my destinations
- Booking.com to book hotels for short stays
- Airbnb and travel blogs to find unique experiential accommodations
- Tripadvisor to verify accommodation reviews
- Twitter to seek tips and suggestions
Besides a rough idea of my first few destinations, I don’t plan anything else in advance. That way, I leave things to chance based on local recommendations and unexpected encounters. The more you travel, the better you’ll know how much planning works for you.
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4) Should you carry cash or cards and how much?
Are we still tucking money belts on our tummies and looking for places to encash traveller’s checks? Don’t complicate your life. I carry debit cards (multiple, incase one bails on me), and withdraw money from ATMs abroad when needed. The amount you pay extra (if at all) in ATM fees and exchange rates is almost negligible, and you save yourself a ton of time, effort and bother.
Even in touristy parts of cities notorious for theft, you’ll be fine as long as you don’t flash expensive jewelry or a lot of money. It’s important to have a few secret stashes of money and an extra card in your luggage incase of an emergency. Also, many hotels abroad require a credit card at check-in, so it is wise to have one even if you don’t plan to use it.
5) Should you get travel insurance and how?
Yes, you absolutely should! The probability of something going wrong is low, but it’s not worth risking the high bills you might get slapped with. You can only purchase one before you start your trip. I browse different travel insurance policies on insurancepandit.com, find a cashless insurance, compare prices and benefits, and buy from a reliable company like HDFC Ergo; it offers instant email delivery and you’re all set to go.
A top-notch travel insurance literally saved the lives of Canadian travel bloggers, Dave and Deb of The Planet D, when they were stranded in Peru. Read their story.
6) How to get through immigration at the airport?
It’s simple really. Check in online, reach the airport 2 hours before your flight, drop your bags, get your passport stamped at immigration, and scan your handbags through security check. That’s the standard process at any airport (yes, even in the US, despite what everyone seems to believe!). You are likely to be asked similar questions by immigration officials – where are you traveling, why, how long will you stay. Dress well – I’ve noticed that wearing harem pants is asking for additional security checks. Relax and be truthful, you’ll be fine.
7) How to call India when you are abroad?
If you’re traveling for a week or longer, buy a local SIM card – they are cheap, let you make local calls, and give you internet connectivity on the go. That way, you can call India for free on Skype or Viber, and keep in touch with Whatsapp and Facebook. If it’s a short trip, choose a hotel that offers free Wifi (most hotels do). Calling cards are passé – I find them expensive and inefficient.
8) What to pack for your first trip out of India?
I’ve never figured out what people carry in 3 big suitcases when they travel for a week or two. If you can help it, don’t be one of those people. Don’t plan for every contingency. It’s not difficult to find a supermarket in another country and buy something you didn’t carry – infact, it’s a great way to get a peek into how the locals live. Check the weather, pack in layers, carry only the essential clothes and toiletries, and feel the freedom of travelling light.
And well, I know we have our traditional clothes and customs here in India. But if you really want to mingle with the locals and not be taken for a tourist everywhere, it helps not to wear a monkey cap or sneakers with a sari in Europe. What’s the fun of traveling abroad if you’re going to do the same things you do at home?
9) How can you find vegetarian food when you travel abroad?
It breaks my heart when people travel far from India for a short while and eat every other meal at an Indian restaurant. Even for a vegetarian like me, I’ve found that the world is full of delicious flavors. Research online (Tripadvisor, happycow.net, blogs, local food review sites of the country that Google pops up) about the local vegetarian food in your destination, note the names of ingredients in the local language, and don’t be afraid to ask for a customized local dish. Thanks to being a little adventurous with my food, I discovered that Turkish cuisine is full of vegetarian dishes (though it doesn’t occur to Turks that these are indeed vegetarian), Romania has a vegetarian fasting menu, and it is possible to survive Spain without eating meat.
10) How to make the most of your trip?
India has quite an obnoxious reputation when it comes to travel – we are often too demanding and loud, with little self awareness. Learning a few simple words in the language of the country you are going to – hello, thank you, where’s the bathroom – and reading about what is culturally acceptable (asking personal questions is considered intrusive in most cultures, unlike in India), always delights locals. It shows that you are interested in their way of life and can make for a great conversation starter. Be open to new adventures, talk to people who seem very different from you, put away the camera on some days, and do things you’ve never done before.
But beware, once you’re bitten by the travel bug, there’s really no way to cure it.
Do you have other questions or tips for traveling abroad from India?
[Featured image by martinak15]
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I’m the founder of this award-winning travel blog about offbeat and sustainable travel, and author of the bestselling travel memoir, The Shooting Star.
In 2011, I quit my full-time job, and gradually gave up my home, sold most of my possessions, stored some in the boot of a friend’s car and embraced a nomadic life.
Connect with me on Instagram to hear more about my adventures and personal journey.