Quick Tips for Women Travelers on a Gap Year in India

Elaina Giolando
Elaina Giolando
Topic Expert

A former management consultant turned nomad, Elaina writes about the intersection of career, life, and travel on topics including internships abroad and gap years.

Quick Tips for Women Travelers on a Gap Year in India

I'm a 5-foot tall, blonde-haired American girl in the middle of a 6-month solo trip through India, so I have a few ideas for you fellow female adventurers heading to the sub-continent for work, travel, or volunteering. If you're planning a gap year here, even better. India is the ideal place to settle in for awhile and let her quirks and chaos work into your heart.

"India will show you colors you never knew existed," a friend of mine told me before I left the States, and I've found that a delightful way of looking at what India is all about: getting to see all the shades of India and of yourself -- exaggerated rainbows of life, fresh hues of human purpose and energy.

It's also true that no country on Earth will delight and frustrate you more.

As a nation with over one billion people, it's impossible to sensibly discuss India and her people in any general terms. Stereotyping members of one of the most populous nations on Earth is foolish, as is listening to mass media coverage that extrapolates a few incidents into what seems like a common pattern.

By all means, stay alert and travel smart, but let your stereotypes about Indian men go.

Indians love to welcome foreigners into their country, so listen to your instincts and trust in the goodness of 99% of the population. It's an intense, beautiful, bewildering, and exhausting country. At Go Overseas, we want you to enjoy every minute, so here are some basic pointers to send you ladies off to work, travel, or live in India with the right mindset and best practical advice for your upcoming adventure.

You're Not Going to War, You're Going to India

Tips for women traveling in India

First things first, I see a lot of women come to India prepared for battle. Like they have something to prove every minute of every day: how tough, how capable, how savvy, how not intimidated by India they are, especially when they've been told pretty negative things about Indian men.

Let me tell you -- because I used to be one of these girls, walking down the streets of Mumbai with a big frown on my face so no man would make a comment or take a pass at me -- that takes a lot of energy. It's okay to smile! It's okay to make eye contact! Just treat men like you would any other human being in any other country on the planet or else you're going to dread interacting with over 50% of the population for months at a time. By all means, stay alert and travel smart, but let your stereotypes about Indian men go.

Be Prepared: You'll Get More Attention than You've Ever Dreamed Of

The whole staring thing is no joke, so you have to be prepared and decide from the start that it's not going to bother you. It's almost always harmless, with the worst end of the spectrum just being a more "dirty" stare, for lack of a better description.

If anything gets out of hand, tell him to go away, attract attention to it, align yourself with nearby females, or remove yourself from the situation altogether.

Unfortunately, many men in a traditional society like India do view western women as "easy," so don't do anything to worsen the stereotype.

Keep it in perspective, though: if staring is the worst thing you have to worry about, the country is pretty darn safe. Violent crime is extremely rare, so you're likely safer in India than you are at home.

Show You Respect the Culture with How You Dress

This is the easiest and most important thing you can do to communicate non-verbally with everyone you encounter. Wearing modest clothing signals that you understand and respect Indian culture. Wearing the salwar kameez is even better, helping you blend in and avoid unwanted attention.

Unfortunately, many men in a traditional society like India do view western women as "easy," so don't do anything to worsen the stereotype.

Traveling Slowly Is More Important Here than Almost Anywhere Else

Travel in India

I find that many people who had less than incredible experiences in India were people coming and going too quickly. They never really met local people and never really understood the culture.

This is the beauty of India as a gap year destination: you can intern, teach, use , or volunteer for a longer period of time in one place. The more you immerse yourself in India, the more you'll understand it, the better relationships you'll build, and the better quality experience you'll have in the end. Take your time and see more by seeing less.

There's a Few Things to Know about Taxis

A lot of practical advice for female travelers can be grouped under the umbrella of taking taxis by yourself. If possible, have a friend -- or the hostel owners -- recommend a reliable driver and always take him. Avoid taking taxis after dark, and, of course, avoid arriving in a new destination late at night or in the wee hours of the morning.

Always take a train whenever possible -- they are faster, cleaner, safer, and more private.

If pressed, use a prepaid or call service taxi, which are available in many big cities and outside almost all airports. Have a friend walk you to a taxi whenever you're taking one alone and have them chat to the driver quickly so he knows someone is expecting your arrival.

Lastly, never let your driver "bring a friend." If he picks someone else up, a friend or cousin or whoever, say, "Stop. Your friend can't come." If it's a problem, get another taxi or rickshaw.

Take Buses and Trains Strategically

Tips for women traveling in India

Always take a train whenever possible -- they are faster, cleaner, safer, and more private. Buses in India often have a double bed set-up, where you share an impossibly small space with a total stranger. Imagine sleeping 12 hours next to a man you don't know! Cringe. You'll never really know when a bus will be structured this way until you arrive because seats in travel agencies will look like singles but still be part of a double bed.

Stick to the train and book class 3AC and above, choosing the upper berth whenever possible for additional privacy. On local trains and buses, sit in the women's section whenever possible.

When arriving in a new place, try to have someone from your guesthouse meet you at the train or bus station. Most of the times, especially in smaller places, this isn't a problem at all or they can arrange a pickup for a small fee.

Lastly, especially if you're blonde, you may find covering your hair diminishes a lot of stares and unwanted attention on public transport. On night trains, I cover as much of myself as possible so they can't tell I'm foreign or even a girl.

Get a SIM Card

Not only does this make your life so much easier, but it's safer as well. Dialing 100 from any phone in nearly any part of India connects you to the police, and you can store numbers of reliable drivers and contacts in major cities. It costs next to nothing, so take the hour or so when you arrive and set yourself up with a local number.

If anything strange happens... start yelling and drawing attention to the perpetrator.

Depending on your carrier, your American phone may already be unlocked for use abroad -- meaning all you'll have to do is stop by a kiosk and get a SIM card and credit.

Make sure to download on your smartphone, which is an incredibly accurate offline GPS. It's helpful for street navigation, knowing when to get off the bus, and making sure your taxi doesn't take any detours.

Never Leave the House Without...

In India, I never go out without:

  • Toilet paper
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Sunglasses (helps with the staring)
  • Headphones (even if you're not listening to anything, they're useful for markets and busy city heckling)
  • A long scarf over my t-shirt
  • And mobile phone.

A Word about Photos, Swimsuits, and Directions

Gap years in India

If you're lost, approach women or families for directions. Asking a single male could be misinterpreted.

If you're swimming anywhere except Goa, and even then it can lead to a lot of creepers taking your photo in a bikini, wear a sarong and/or a t-shirt over your swimsuit. If you don't see women swimming at all, you might reconsider getting in altogether.

For photos, only do group photos with men. There are rumors they use one-on-one pictures with foreign females for unsavory story-telling with their friends. Be polite, and say with a big smile, "Okay, one group photo with everyone! Say cheese!"

Act Confident and Draw Attention to Any Inappropriate Behavior

If anything strange happens or you think you are being cheated, groped, or threatened, start yelling and drawing attention to the perpetrator. People will rally around you and protect you, especially as a foreigner, and especially as a woman.

If you're always on guard, afraid, or judgmental, you'll find yourself encountering [India's] sharpest edges.

If a man touches you, start screaming at him: "Bad! Very bad! Don't touch women! Don't touch madams! Help! This man is touching me!" Public shaming works wonders at scaring the guy off and preventing him from doing that again. If you think something weird happened, it probably did, so act on it.

Let's Not Stereotype 6,000,000 People

As many precautions as we have to take as female travelers or gappers in India, it's important to remember that like in any country, there are good people and bad people and we shouldn't let the widely publicized actions of a few ruin your mindset about the entire population. You wouldn't want everyone to treat you like a murderer because they see Americans shooting each other on TV, right? Same idea.

There are approximately 6,000,000 Indian men in India, so let's not lump them all in the "untrustworthy" category. Smile, be appropriately friendly, and use your judgment on a case-by-case basis.

Above All, Know That India Is a Mirror

I've noticed that India tends to respond intimately to the innermost feelings and expectations of her visitors. If you're always on guard, afraid, or judgmental, you'll find yourself encountering her sharpest edges. If you travel with an open, positive, and humble attitude, you'll be rewarded with warmth, respect, and generosity.