You first visit to India can seem a bit daunting but if you do your research, you'll be rewarded with rich and lasting memories, writes Kate Ford.
India roiled my emotions like no place I have visited before. It is exciting, demanding, intoxicating, exhausting.
I thought I was prepared for the culture shock until I touched down in Delhi. The heat was a permanent cloak. People, cars and rickshaws took up almost every square metre. On the drive from the airport to our hotel I saw pigs, families of monkeys, countless cows.
Once we became more accustomed to the workings of this incredible country, we found the rewards rich and the experiences memorable.
If you are visiting India for the first time, here are some tips you may want to keep in mind.
Don't let the food scare you
One thought that permeates many travellers' minds before visiting India is that they will succumb to "Delhi belly". Some people do get sick but there are plenty of ways to be food savvy. We relied on hotel staff to suggest restaurants. We also used Google a lot to research nearby places and read reviews from previous travellers.
We never got sick. We ate almost exclusively vegetarian food, but this is arguably the best type of food in the country anyway, so even avid carnivores can find plenty of dishes to love.
Our favourites were the thalis - a buffet for one that contained rice, naan bread, two types of curries, another vegetable side and then either a pot of yoghurt or a sweet treat.
Do your research on the best places to visit and when to go
India is enormous and your travel plans should be dictated by the time of year you visit. If you want to go north and see the Himalayas, July to September are the best times to visit. The weather will be mild and the highways will be open. Between November to March is a good time to visit Delhi, Rajasthan and travel around this band of northern India because the weather will be cooler. The same goes for parts of the south like the beaches of Goa and Kerala. Generally speaking, if you are travelling to India to escape a New Zealand winter, you may live to regret it as scorching temperatures and stifling humidity kick in during June and July.
How to get around
Train travel is the classic way to get around and the incomparably thorough Man in Seat 61 website (seat61.com) has great tips on train travel in India. Distances between cities are vast but overnight trains are a good option if you are limited on time but want to see a lot of the country.
Alternatively, you can hire drivers or book tours that include drivers, which makes for a more comfortable and stress-free way to travel. This means air conditioning, you can stop any time for food or sight-seeing and can basically travel on your own terms.
In big cities, rickshaws are the way to go. Just make sure to settle on a price before you get in and don't be talked into paying more money at the end of the trip. If you are worried about being ripped off, ask the staff at your hotel for price guidelines on getting to different destinations. However, rickshaws are an exciting and convenient way to see a city.
How to dress
For women, the recommended wardrobe choices are conservative. Even in the middle of a stubborn summer it is wise to cover up. Foreigners will get stares regardless but you will draw less attention to yourself if you are wearing long skirts or pants with modest tops that cover your chest and much of your arms. I wore long, lightweight pants with a long-sleeve cotton shirt and I also carried a scarf for when I visited mosques (women will be required to wear headscarves at some religious sites).
Men can get away with a less conservative wardrobe but it is still recommended not to wear short shorts or singlets.
Avoiding tourist traps
Walking through markets or down the street you will be approached by people trying to sell you things. Some people are very persistent even if you say "no", so if you don't want to buy their goods the best method is to just keep walking. You may also be approached by friendly people who say they know a great place to get pashminas, or a rickshaw driver may take you to a market you didn't ask to go to. Most of the time this is because they will get a commission if you purchase something from one of these stores. While it's a shame to be so sceptical, it's a bit of a necessity if you don't want to end up spilling your dollars unintentionally.
flies from Auckland to Delhi, via Kuala Lumpur.