Family travel guide: Considering India with kids? Do it.

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You hear about the kaleidoscopic chaos and buzz that assaults every one of your senses on arriving in India. And that, is exactly what it’s like. It’s not a typical family trip destination, and unsurprisingly some eyebrows were raised when we mentioned visiting India with the kids. But, after visiting 19 other countries in Asia as a family, it felt like we had left a huge gaping hole right in the heart of the continent and we couldn’t wait to get there.

For us, India was cut short due to the global Covid-19 pandemic that saw us fly home three weeks earlier than planned. BUT, for the time we had in India it was incredible. And we will definitely be back.

We planned some and winged some of our travels in India. We learnt a lot in our time on the subcontinent and have listed useful tips below so that when India is ready for visitors again, you will be too…

Quickly, about India

Capital: New Delhi
Largest city: Mumbai
Population: 1.353 billion
Currency: Indian rupee (INR)
Religion: 79.8% Hinduism 14.2% Islam 2.3% Christianity 1.7% Sikhism

Traveling in India with kids

Assuming you have travelled in Asia as a family before reaching India, then some sights and behaviours will be less shocking. However, India does have its own reputation for bringing with it some of the highest highs of travel you will experience. But that comes right along with some of the most memorable challenges.

Our kids were 4 and 6 when we landed in India. I have been to India as a backpacker prior to having kids, so had a bit of an idea of what to expect. And for our kids, it was their twentieth country visited in Asia. They were ready for some of it, but there are some parts of travel in India that no traveller is honestly quite ready for…

Travel in India with kids. Finding our feet with a first cup of Indian chai in Kochi.
Finding our feet with a first taste of Indian chai, one hour after landing in Kochi.

What to expect

You can prepare yourself for some of it, but the rest is an adventure like no other. Where else do you have cows walking amidst one billion vehicle horns honking? A kaleidoscopic colour of sari’s at every turn? And a staring that just never ends? There is the constant back-of-mind fear of the looming ‘Delhi-belly’ for every meal that you consume… And on top of that you are responsible for little people amongst one billion others.

We know from experience it takes us 24 hours to find our feet in a new place, and India was no exception. I did wonder while looking out our hotel window on arrival as four jet lagged travellers, HOW on earth we were going to navigate India with kids… But I needen’t have worried.

In hindsight I think the build up to the chaos we were anticipating had given us low expectations for navigating India as a family. In truth though, we loved it.

It’s definitely somewhere you need to ’embrace the chaos’; otherwise you will miss out on all that India is about. So take it easy, start slow. And embrace the rush of chaos that is so incredible, and so India

Travel in India with young kids

There are some practicalities of travel in India with kids that need more consideration if the kids are younger. They need to know how to use and be comfortable using squat toilets. Even on some trains.

For very young children, there is the added challenge of being on hygiene alert 24/7 to keep watch over little fingers that want to touch everything. The levels of stress surrounding hygiene seem to ease in travel by the time the kids are more robust around school age. An upset tummy due to food poisoning can happen anywhere during travel, and it does. But perhaps because the levels hygiene are so much more visible and confronting in India, so too is the level of anxiety in Indian travel with kids.

India with kids. Exploring the back alleys of Varanasi on the River Ganges with four year old.
Navigating the back alleys of Varanasi as a four year old is an adventure like no other.

Our route in India [planned vs. actual]

In three weeks we saw a diverse landscape, food and culture between the different regions of Kerela in South India, Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh and Jaisalmer in the desert state of Rajasthan. And in three weeks, we fell in love with India.

But India is enormous. And there are more sights than can be seen on vacation.

If you have 2 to 3 weeks, it’s possible to see the cultural triangle of Rajasthan. This is the most popular choice for travellers to India. On my first visit I flew from Delhi for three days in Varanasi, which was plenty of time to explore there too.

We had planned an awesome six weeks in India that would take us from the South of India, to Varanasi, and then we would make our way slowly back across the desert state of Rajasthan by train… In actual fact, only half of this eventuated. But if/WHEN we go back again, that will definitely be a major part of the route we take. Those trains across the desert were part of a dream route of golden, pink and blue cities…

So far, our route in India took us to four cities in four (very) different states:

Kochi, Kerala

Flying in to Kochi in the South of the country and our first impressions were that this was a great choice for an introduction to this enormous subcontinent.

Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

Taking a boat ride down the River Ganges is one of those moments in travel that leaves you a bit lost for words. We hadn’t quite realised the significance of the city of Varanasi. It’s a powerful place to experience. And, Varanasi IS definitely doable with kids!

Jaisalmer, Rajasthan

Jaisalmer quickly became our favourite place in India. Small, easy to get around, friendly – and with the happiest musical rubbish truck I have ever heard.

We chose Jaisalmer because we wanted to get out into the desert. We had heard about a camel safari where you can overnight and sleep under the stars… And that, is exactly what we did. Jaisalmer is not on the usual route in the cultural triangle of Rajasthan, but if you have the time to add it to your destination list I highly recommend it.

Visas for India

Getting a visa for India is pretty straightforward. An e-visa is easy to get online from the government website. (Easy aside from having to list the countries you have visited in the last ten years, and any addresses in India you have visited before). There are options for tourist visas for different lengths of time, and the six pages(!) of forms are easy to fill out online. For the final page you need to upload a passport photo to the site to complete your application.

The one challenge I found in applying for the visa was that you could only apply within one month of arrival. The website wouldn’t actually allow us to apply for the visa any earlier, though I know this is subject to change. However, a month gave us enough time to plan for India and also to confirm and book flights. We were able to fill in the visa application stating which would be our ‘port of arrival’ anyway.

Food in India with kids

I love Indian food. It has been a favourite of mine since discovering naan and butter chicken as a teenager, becoming more refined after my first trip to India in 2012 when I discovered Thali… But considering travel in India with kids, I was anxious about what they would actually eat.

India has a reputation for being the land of spices. Just the sound of ‘curries’ can be off-putting for young kids that don’t normally eat that style of food. We knew this before leaving and started to introduce a few non-spiced versions of easy curries to the kids.

The first stop on our big trip was Fiji. We’ve stayed twice now with the same Fijian Indian family who love to cook different Indian style dishes. The kids love what they make and it turned out to be the perfect introduction they needed. They made dahl one night especially, in preparation for our trip to India. They called it ‘baby dahl‘. Essentially a spice-free version of dahl and rice that had the boys convinced they too liked Indian food.

A meal of dahl, aloo (potato) curry, spiced beans and poppadoms.

In bigger towns and cities, most guest-houses and hotels will have a menu with western food options on. Here the boys ate toasted sandwiches and pizza if the option was available. Some smaller restaurants or roadside stops when en route by taxi or tuk tuk didn’t have much choice. Dosa, dahl, and samosas became our go-to choices for kid-friendly meals in these occasions. Breads were always a safe bet and the boys were happy with roti. We have written an entire post about Indian breads to try here. And the boys quickly found a liking for chai. We had talked this up before arriving and it was our first mission out on foot in Kochi.

We stuck to mainly vegetarian options in attempt to lessen the risk of food poisoning via meat. This is easier in South India as a lot of options are vegetarian.

Drinking water in India

The short answer to whether it is ever safe to drink the tap water in India, is ‘no’. Generally speaking, the tap water in India is not safe for drinking. And certainly not if you are a traveller to India and only there for a few weeks. It does not give your body a fighting chance to develop any kind of immunity to various water-borne illnesses. Let alone when travelling with children.

It is tempting to consider boiling water; for environmental and financial reasons. But the reality is that it isn’t worth the risk. It is always safer to stick to purified bottled water in India.

We avoid salad and if possible, fruit that is already peeled and could have been washed with tap water. Roadside stalls selling peeled pineapple and mango is tempting, but if you are unsure, don’t risk it.

You do need to drink a lot to stay hydrated in the heat, but don’t panic. It is not often you will be far from a shop selling bottled water and drinks. And if you are in that position, try a coconut – or a cup of Indian chai!

Coconuts from a street stand in Mattancherry, Kochi.

What to wear

To sum it up; dress modestly. Indian cultures values modesty, and so it is fitting to follow that in considering what to wear in India as a traveller. The best way to do this is to copy the locals.

For women, this is a salwar kameez and light loose trousers, or a basic kurta top and leggings. On arrival in Kochi we found a market and I bought two long kurta tops. This, along with a scarf, was physically comfortable in the heat and made me feel comfortable walking around without drawing any added attention to ourselves (or as much as we could hope for!). Plus, the kurta top is easy to wear. It is like a tunic style long shirt, as opposed to a sari which I still have no idea how to fashion.

For men, a kurta is also practical and long trousers are recommended. We travelled to India in March and found it hot in South India, Varanasi and Rajasthan. Trousers are hotter but you will not see locals in shorts.

Our kids wore a combination of long sleeved t-shirts, shorts and long trousers. They are used to roaming the world in shorts, but we quickly realised they were the only boys around not wearing long pants. Trousers and a kurta are a good choice, even for kids.

In rural areas and villages you need to dress more conservatively. We felt this most strongly in Jaisalmer, where especially the ladies are all dressed in saris and often cover their face with a scarf.

It is not expected for a tourist to cover their hair or face, but certainly conservative dress is respected. Carry a light scarf to cover your hair at holy sites.

Ladies in beautifully coloured saris and salwar kameez in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan.

Getting sick in India

The reality of travel in India is that most travellers are likely to get food poisoning at some point. The standards of hygiene and sanitation are different (read: often low). Food poisoning is a reality of all travel, but it does seem to be heightened for travel in India.

There are some things you can do to prevent food poisoning, and some is luck. We stick to vegetarian food if we are unsure, and stay away from salads and fruits washed with water. For the kids, we are extra protective with travel in India, and find ourselves buying packaged snacks where in other places we wouldn’t. I don’t know if it helped or not, but we try to all eat yoghurt or curd to keep up with probiotics we hope adds to gut health.

A packaged snack for the kids; chai for us.

We also try to remember the golden rule of eating where it is busy, and where the locals are eating and the turnover is high.

It does sound a bit doom and gloom, and we found as soon as we mentioned to friends back home that we were going to India they immediately piped up with warnings of “Delhi belly”. Not technically helpful, but at least it aided to set out with expectations that were low.

In actual fact, we didn’t do too badly in India this time. It is constantly on our minds in travel, and we are grateful to have so far travelled well health-wise. Carry sanitiser, wash your hands often, and only drink bottled water with a sealed top.

Vaccinations for travel in India

The dilemma of vaccinations is an ongoing saga amongst all travellers. We are constantly wondering if we have made the right decisions re vaccinations. And travelling with children adds even more pressure being responsible to make the best decision for little people in your care as well…

[Note – do not take the following as medical advice. This is our experience considering vaccinations for India].

Our doctor in New Zealand can offer advice and let us know the vaccinations that are available. But he cannot officially recommend which ones to have, as he would therefore become legally responsible. So the choice is up to us. And vaccinations are expensive.

There are no vaccinations required for entry in to India (unless you are arriving from a country at risk of Yellow Fever Virus transmission). However, aside from the routine vaccinations, I found suggestions for travel to India to include:

  • Hepatitis A
  • Typhoid
  • Cholera
  • Hepatitis B
  • Japanese Encephalitis
  • Rabies
  • Yellow Fever

Hepatitis A and Typhoid are the main suggestions for travel to India, with Japanese Encephalitis and Rabies the most expensive on the list.

In the end we got Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccinations and discussed options for malaria prevention.

It is confusing, and can be stressful making a decision about vaccinations for travel. Do your research, and at the end of the day, be sure to make a decision that is right for you and your family.

Getting around

THIS, is definitely a huge part of the Indian adventure! We had organised for a pickup from the airport on first arrival in India, which made that part straightforward for us (and our driver even came in to help us organise SIM cards before setting off on our way to the city).

Some tuk tuks have meters, and others you can wave down and give it go with your negotiating skills. In theory the meters are there to save you from that but I don’t think it quite works the same for tourists… or rather, perhaps that depends on your bargaining skills!

We used Uber occasionally for getting around in Kochi, and although this technically was a cheap and straightforward way of getting a ride organised to somewhere – definitely don’t expect the suggested timing of the pickup schedule to match… nor the location beacon for where you want to specifically be picked up from!

Exploring Kochi by tuk tuk was the perfect mixture of breezy and exciting.

Booking trains in India

The railways of India… This in itself warrants attention and planning. I don’t think there’s any traveller out there that on hearing ‘train in India’ doesn’t conjure up images in their mind of this challenge!

In actual fact the trains are fairly easy to book and can be done online. The trick though is to book ahead, as tickets are open for reservation 90 days prior to travel. And in a country with one billion people, they do book out.

We used the IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Co) website while we were in Sri Lanka to book ahead and reserve our train tickets for Rajasthan. On arriving in India we also discovered the IXIGO Trains app which made booking and schedules even easier.

Phone and internet access in India

Wifi/3G and 4G is readily available around most of the tourist trail in India. Wifi at guesthouses and hotels is usually free, albeit slow and unreliable.

We found data to be reasonably and comparatively cheap, and were able to use our phones to hotspot data to our laptop if wifi wasn’t available.

Useful apps to download

Tripadvisor and WhatsApp are both popular communication apps in India. I was slightly wary knowing Tripadvisor is different from booking.com in that technically anyone can log in upload a review, but it still gives you a baseline.

We found a really good tour in Kochi, and booked that ahead of arriving. In Varanasi we used TripAdvisor to connect with a local guide. We contacted him through WhatsApp to book a walking tour that turned out to be the highlight of our stay.

SIM cards

Don’t make our mistakes! Do some research before you go. We chose ‘Idea’ but found out in the last days of our trip that Idea doesn’t work in New Delhi as it has recently been bought out by Vodafone. 

Given its size, India unsurprisingly has some of the most competitive rates for telecommunications in the world. Even on arrival at the airport you are spoilt for choice. We flew in to Kochi and there were options at the arrivals terminal for Idea and Airtel. Although it was slightly overwhelming arriving after a very early start for our touchdown in India as a family; the process for getting a SIM card wasn’t as bad as expected. The staff managed to make some superbly fast phone calls and texts to set up two SIM cards without any effort on our part.

Most international flights in and out of New Delhi operate from Terminal 3 at Indira Gandhi Airport. Its easy to find the Airtel Store there, located between Exit 4 and 5 and next to Costa Coffee.

And if you arrive in New Delhi and need to buy a Sim Card on the street, there are Airtel Shops scattered around the Main Bazaar. I even managed to buy and set one up in under and hour with the rising pressures of the pandemic beginning. Concern for being stuck in New Delhi without communications was not a good option at that point!

Where we stayed

  • Kochi: Hotel Abad Plaza [good location next to mall with supermarket. Multiple restaurants on site; huge buffet breakfast. Swimming pool. Note this hotel is not in the old city of Kochi].
  • Varanasi: Hotel Temple on Ganges [great location; basic rooms and restaurant. Close to Assi Ghat – good location to explore Varanasi from].
  • Jaisalmer: The Wanderlust Guesthouse [AMAZING guest-house! We loved staying here and would highly recommend. Great rooms; rooftop restaurant overlooking the fort; awesome camel safaris!].
  • New Delhi: Hotel Hari Piorko [wicked location to start off in New Delhi. Right in the heart of the Main Bazaar; close to restaurants and train station. No view from rooms].
Inside our room at Wanderlust Guesthouse in Jaisalmer.

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