Chaotic, bamboozling, intoxicating, crazy, exasperating, squalid, daunting, overwhelming. India is all these things, and more. How can you possibly prepare yourself?
Start with our tips for taking the ultimate travel plunge: going to India for the first time.
1. Choose your route wisely
Think about what interests you, what you like doing, and tailor your trip accordingly. The itineraries section at the front of Lonely Planet India can be a great help here.
The most popular India tour is the all-time classic Golden Triangle. Clichéd, yes, but if time is short this is a fantastic introduction to three of India's very best destinations. Start in Delhi (Hamayun's Tomb, Old Fort) before hitting Agra (Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri) then Jaipur (Pink City, fort at Amber). Head back to Delhi's wonderful bazaars for a final shopping spree before you fly home.
And if you have more specific interests:
2. Slow down
Too many people try to cram too much into a visit to India. Don't be one of them. Seeing one place slowly is so much more rewarding than seeing many places in a flash. You'll be less stressed, gain a deeper understanding of where you are and have more time to build relationships with the people you meet.
3. Avoid the crowds
One billion locals gets a bit too much for some travellers, but India also has plenty of quiet retreats. If you need to escape the crowds in the sprawling cities, consider heading south to the backwaters of Kerala, north to Tibetan-influenced mountainous regions such as Ladakh or paying a visit to one of India's many hill stations.
4. Stay healthy
Avoid tap water, and any food that may have been washed in it, at all times. No ice, no salads and no fruit you haven't just peeled yourself.
Many travellers go veggie whilst in India. It's not a bad idea. A dodgy bit of meat will do you a lot more harm than slightly undercooked vegetables. Plus, many Indians are vegetarian, so there's a fabulous choice of vegetarian food. If you do eat meat, make sure it's well cooked. If in doubt, eat at a place that's packed with locals.
Toilets are notoriously bad in India, but they don't have to be health hazards. Consider using the left-hand-and-water-jug method preferred by many locals (it is, after all, so much more hygienic than using dry paper), but don't forget to carry soap with you so you can wash your hands properly afterwards.
5. Keep cool
India is renowned for its touts and scams, for its in-yer-face hassles and for being generally bloody hectic. There are various ways you can reduce the chances of being overcharged or just plain cheated (see scams in India), but there's no way you can avoid them altogether, so the single most important piece of advice for any India first-timer is to try to remain calm, no matter what. Frustrations boil over easily in India, and being able to control them, take a deep breath and move on, is key to enjoying your overall experience.