Yes, you can. When I visited India pregnant eight years ago, I intuitively knew I would be back one day with my son. When I boarded the plane with both my sons from the Gold Coast to Jaipur, almost a decade later, I felt a sense of proud for following my heart and embarking on this wild journey across Asia with my boys.
Now you might think I am crazy for traveling to a country like India with young children, especially the north, and only by road (no planes), no plastics, and with rucksacks, but I have been incredibly impressed with how smooth travel can be over here when you have kids in tow. In fact, my partner Remy and I are sure that we would have ran into trouble on many occasions had it not been for the kids by our side, who have won the hearts of the locals young and old, right across the country.
It has all been such a wild adventure and we have watched the kids crow in confidence and interact with the locals so much that I want to encourage any parents considering India as a destination with their children to give it a go. To make it a little less daunting, I have put together some tips and travel hacks so you can make the most of your adventure.
Where to start
We began our journey in Jaipur, and what a great city to begin your Indian adventure. Our flight touched down at midnight and I was apprehensive about arriving so late with the kids. Compared to my previous experience landing in Delhi, Jaipur was a breeze. The airport is small, the staff friendly, and whilst passing immigration did take at least an hour, the system is computerized and if you have an E-Visa you can enter smoothly.
Note: You cannot receive a visa on arrival in India. E-Visas (and general tourist visas) cannot be extended within India.
What to do
India is too big a country to see in the limited time you have available; 60 days is the maximum you are permitted to stay on an E-Visa. Previously, I have visited the southwest coast, which would be a great place to explore with kids, particularly around Kovalam and the Kerala waterways.
On this visit, however, we were located in the north, and our highlights (new Vlogs coming soon!) were: Jaipur, Pushkar, Varanasi, Manali, Leh.
When you're in the cities, it's great to check out the main attractions based on what you and your little ones actually enjoy. I'm a fan of architecture, culture, bookshops and vegan food, and the kids love animals and anything that allows them to express their high energy. So our trip included visits to the City Palace in Jaipur, the Amer Fort, the Pushkar Camel Fair, bookshops along the ghats in Varanasi, and a boat ride. We even stayed a night at a water park resort in Kolkata, where the kids could jump from pool to slide all day. (Note: if you have expectations of the cleanliness and 'wow' factor of western water parks, think twice before heading to Aquatica Kolkata.)
Without planes, we were able to visit local villages whilst traveling by bus, my preferred mode of transport, although Remy and the kids prefer the trains, which we'll get to below.
Remember you and the kids will both need some down time; India is hectic! So make sure to schedule in quiet days or half-days where you can hang out at the hotel or a rooftop cafe, and take some time out of the constant honking that will burst your eardrums in the cities.
Hint: Jump on Instagram and search different cities' geo location tags to see what people are posting and where they are visiting. We found some great cafes and local events using this nifty trick.
More often than not, we have been sharing two single beds. Accommodation is hit and miss in India, but we have booked almost everything through booking.com
Budget prices range from around 700INR to 1500INR (A$15-$30) for very basic rooms, generally with no hot water. WiFi has been a priority and it's free in most hotels and hostels and is quite reliable. Some hotels offer breakfast, if very basic,
Here is a list of hotels we found clean and affordable:
Jaipur - Hotel Kalyan (Excellent rooftop cafe and clean rooms).
Varanasi - Bliss Hostel (Great location, cheap, clean. Skip the breakfast and head down to Assi Ghat for a feed, or Vegan and Raw Cafe).
Manali - Welcome Homestay (Off the beaten track; stock up on snacks before you arrive as you won't be able to access the main village. The host family does cook great food and you get to experience a real local way of life. Rooms are huge and offer great views of the mountains and valley. Cheapest accommodation and food package of the whole trip!)
Kolkata - Aquatica Water Theme Park and Resort (Clean, large rooms, with good room service menu. The water park is rundown and rusting, and not as appealing in real life as the photos on the website make out. Still, an inexpensive way to spend your last days or some down time between traveling in India)
Transport - long haul
Train - When you know what you're doing with the trains, they can be a great option for long haul travel in India. Firstly, you can book online. You will need to master the booking system though, and note it is next to impossible to get a refund (although you can apply) if you miss a train. Trains run notoriously late, in some cases 10-15hours late on our journey, meaning it's a risk to book one train after another online. Try and space your train travel out with at least 24hours in between, or more, as trains also book out easily and you might find yourself on a waiting list, like we did, or worse, boarding a train without a seat or having to share a bed with a stranger.
If you are a family of four, I recommend that you book 2A (air-conditioned); opt for lower berths, and you'll get the biggest beds, windows, and a power point. To save money we didn't book berths for the kids (under 12 can go berth-less), meaning we shared top-and-tail with the kids (lower or upper berths make this possible; side berths are much smaller and don't have power points). We made a pact not to travel Sleeper Class. You can give it a try if you want but do your research first; I'd not recommend it with kids. Go 2A, or 1A if you have the extra budget.
The pros of train travel: You can book online, you get a bed, and you can charge your devices. There are filtered water stations on most platforms and you can fill a 1L bottle for 5INR.
The cons of train travel: The stations are a nightmare to navigate, and the trains are almost always late. We've found ourselves grounded at stations until the wee hours of the morning waiting for trains, and we've been stuck on some for 26hours (a 15hour delay). The toilets are generally disgusting. You never know where your coach is going to arrive, and more often than not you will find yourself sprinting to the other end of the platform with luggage, and kids, in tow. The hustle of the train platforms caused me more anxiety than I would wish upon most brave travelers. Once you're on board, however, it's mostly smooth training.
Bus - A little cheaper than the train (not always), but you have to buy seats for the kids, so if you were planning to share berths on the train you would end up spending extra on the buses. The buses are harder to book online unless you have an Indian phone number (Indian SIM cards are readily available and worth the 500INR for 1GB per day, 84 days); you will need to get some help from your hostel OR seek out the bus ticket counters in various cities and towns or at the bus station. Indians travel a lot, so beware that you will need to book your seats at least 24hours in advance or you may find yourself unlucky.
Pros of bus travel: Set seats. Buses generally run on time. They stop at random, interesting food stops, sometimes in very local villages that you probably would never have thought to visit, ever. Windows that open. Inexpensive.
Cons of bus travel: No toilets. Broken seats. Broken windows. Radical roads, even more radical driving. Excessive horn honking.
Transport - local
Tuk Tuk - The kids love the tuk tuks, or motorized three-wheeler vehicles with no windows. They are cheap, entertaining, but you will be right in the midst of the pollution, beeping, and crazy traffic of the major cities. Negotiate your price before you jump in. You will most likely get ripped off at the beginning of your trip, and become a better bargainer as you warm up to the prices. One trick is to walk away when they are requesting a ridiculous amount; they usually start at double the 'tourist' price. Don't expect local prices, you just won't get them.
Taxi - Slightly more expensive than the tuk tuks, but most come with air conditioning and a little escape from the chaos of the world outside. If you are a traveling over 20 minutes, i.e. to the airport, I recommend a taxi. As with the tuk tuks, negotiate the price before you jump in. We have requested the meter on many occasions, only to be laughed at. They simply won't use a meter almost everywhere for foreigners.
Cycle Tuk Tuk - Fun if you are going a short distance. Expect to pay not much more than 20INR.
Uber - If you have an Indian SIM, register with Uber. You will pay much less than the taxis and in some cases will get cheaper rides than the Tuk Tuks. The cars are more run down than most, but it is still a more pleasant way to travel around the major cities.
We are vegans, with the fussiest kids in the world. Regardless, India was quite easy to sustain our diets, as most of the country is vegetarian. If you are vegan, ask for 'pure veg', and make sure to mention no paneer (cheese) and no butter.
We did find the food quite oily, but on the whole it has been a fun experience exploring the different food haunts over the country.
Hotel Kalyan in Jaipur is the best for breakfast, whilst Vegan and Raw in Varanasi is incredible for vegans wanting something a little more Mediterranean.
We have definitely missed alternative milks; masala chai in India comes with cow's milk and when you see the food the cows are eating on the streets, mostly plastic, you won't want to consume dairy even if you are not vegan!
We have pledged to consume no plastic PET bottles on our trip, instead filling our Klean Kanteen stainless steel bottles with local tap water, then filtering with the SteriPen. This UV filter kills almost 100% of all the bacteria and nasties that will make you sick in the local water supply. The water then becomes completely safe to drink, although it doesn't make it taste any better. Still, we have saved on hundreds of plastic bottles during our trip so far, and in it's lifetime, one SteriPen will save up to 16,000 plastic bottles. If you are after something cold and more refreshing, follow our suit and order a plain, local soda/sparkling mineral water in a glass bottle as a treat.
More useful tips
DO wear enclosed shoes when moving from one destination to the other; thongs/flip flops can be a pain and the roads, streets and stations are generally filthy.
DO NOT accept the first price for transport (unless it's the train or bus). Negotiate, starting at roughly 50 per cent of their asking price and creep up from there. Walk off if you need to, they will come chasing you and finally accept your offer.
DO travel lightly. I can't practice what I preach here, but I can tell you if I didn't have to carry around cameras, laptop, hard drives and audio equipment, I'd enjoy the transport legs much more than I do with too much luggage.
DO stock up on snacks for long haul journeys with fruit and general snacks, and fill up your water containers before you board.
DO NOT expect each hotel to look like it does on its website photos. In fact, expect the worst case scenario and you may be pleasantly surprised rather than dumbfounded by false advertising.
DO get yourself an Indian SIM. They cost around 500INR for 1GB per day, can be bought almost anywhere, and will last your 2 months allocated tourist stay in the country.
DO NOT let your kids out of your sight, but try not to be over paranoid. Indians love children, and you and your kids will have to get used to being approached for many 'selfies' and hugs. We haven't had anything but kindness from the locals (aside from overcharging us whenever they can), so don't be too apprehensive and make friends with these friendly folk!