If you travel in India, you may become frustrated with the country’s transportation infrastructure, whose primitive roads and slow trains transform trips that would take a few hours in a developed country into all-day affairs.
Still, if you plan well and in advance, it’s possible to see the most popular attractions in the northern part of India in just three weeks, a perfect length of time for travel in India if your job or school limits the amount of time you can take off.
Flights to India
India has dozens of international airports, although for travelers originating in North America, only two are of any concern: Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport and Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. If you’re looking for cheap flights to India, I recommend you fly into Mumbai.
As huge Indian cities go, Mumbai is by the best to ease you into India travel. Although the taxi ride into Mumbai from the airport may alarm you — what, with all the slums and shanty towns you encounter on the way — central and south Mumbai are about as Western as you’re going to get in India.
If you’re wondering what to visit in India, south Mumbai is home to a number of the city’s India’s most famous tourist attractions, including the “Gateway of India,” a monument erected in 1924 to commemorate the 1911 visit of King George V to the city then known as Bombay, the first of any British monarch.
The Gateway of India sits in the city’s cosmopolitan Apollo Bandar district, just adjacent to the Taj Mahal hotel made famous during the November 26, 2008 attack. Other nearby attractions include Elephanta Island, home to ancient Hindu cave carvings, and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum.
Trains from Mumbai to Goa
Formerly known as Victoria Station, Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Railway (CSTM) railway terminus is Asia’s busiest railway hub and has connections to nearly everywhere in India, including Magdaon (MAO) Station in the nearby Goa state, an idyllic, tropical paradise home to some of the best beaches in India.
Schedules vary depending on the season and day you travel, so it’s a good idea to hit up the Indian Railways website to verify times. You can also book in advance at ClearTrip.com.
One-way fares on trains from Mumbai to Goa vary depending on your class of service. I detail the differences between classes of service on trains in India in my article about India trains.
If you aren’t yet convinced that you should try out trains in India, take another traveler’s word for it. Writing for the BootsNAll Travel Network, Mariellen Ward outlines a more specific case for why you should take at least one trip on the Indian Railways, among other suggestions — namely doing yoga and shopping in a bazaar or market — RE: travel on the subcontinent.
Once you arrive in Goa, relaxation will be your only concern. Time-wise, I’d recommend you spend at least five days here. Ideally, you’ll depart Goa on the second or third day of your second week in India.
Travel from Goa to Northeast India
If you want to travel India in three weeks, you should fly from Goa to your next destination in India, which will be either Delhi or Kolkata if you follow this itinerary. Several airlines fly the Goa-Delhi and Goa-Kolkata routes, including the fabulous IndiGo, which offers fares as low as Rs. 1,000 one-way, plus tax, even if you don’t book in advance, which guarantees you cheap flights in India even after you arrive.
Whether you fly to Kolkata or Delhi depends on how slowly you want to take the second leg of your trip, as well as whether or not you want to see the infamous city of Varanasi, where Hindus go to die — I didn’t.
Train from Delhi to Agra
Instead, I flew directly to Delhi, then immediately hopped on a train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. The journey from Delhi to Agra takes just over two hours, so you need not book a bed — and due to how frequently service operate, you don’t even particularly need to make an advance reservation.
Train from Kolkata to Varanasi
If you fly to Kolkata, spend no more than three days there, then head to the city’s massive Howrah Railway Station and hop on a train to Varanasi.
As you can see on the Indian Railways website, trains from Kolkata to Varanasi depart several times through the day and take between 12-18 hours. I once again recommend you book in 3AC class due to the length of this journey.
I haven’t been to Varanasi, but most of what I’ve heard about the place suggests that you neither need nor will want to spend more than a day or two there. Since Hindus come here largely to die, the energy is even more manic than you’ll find in cities filled with mostly living people. Additionally, the smells and sights can be overwhelming, emotionally and otherwise.
Train to Agra from Varanasi
The train from Varanasi to Agra by train takes about 12-14 hours, with two to three daily departures depending on which day you leave. Like Varanasi, Agra doesn’t require more than a day of your time during your India travel.
Train from Agra or Varanasi to Delhi
Return to Delhi — or, if you came from Kolkata and Varansi, getting there in first place — by hopping on any of the dozens of daily departures to Delhi from the Agra’s Cantt Railway Station. Once you arrive back in Delhi, have a taxi take you to the Asoka Road area, home to many of the Delhi’s backpacker hostels and budget hotels.
How long you should spend in Delhi depends on where you are in your journey. You should aspire to be done there by the end of your second week in India, so if you flew directly from Goa to Delhi and then took a train to Agra, you’re looking at three to four days in the capital. If you flew to Kolkata, on the other hand, you can only really afford to spend a day or two in Delhi.
Need ideas on what to do in Delhi? Check out my article about how to see the best of Delhi in a day.
Travel from Delhi to Rajasthan
As you roll into the third and final week of your India travel, head to Old Delhi Railway Station and take the early morning train to the pink city of Jaipur. It’s important you don’t head back to New Delhi station, as departures to Rajastan don’t leave from here.
The journey to Jaipur takes only five hours, so I recommend you book a 3AC bed on the 4 a.m. departure, which leaves you with a full first day in Jaipur, which is positively replete with things to do.
Jaipur is only three hours from the blue city of Jodhpur, which you may recognize from films such as “The Darjeeling Limited.” Two days here is enough to explore the “blue city” itself, both on the ground and from the Mehrangarh Fort, which sits high atop a hill in the northern part of the city. Rest your head at the Ratan Villas, a walled accommodation formerly owned by the city’s royal family. Its spacious, private bungalows start at Rs. 1,000 per night.
From Jodhpur, you have several options. If you follow my itinerary, you should be about three days from needing to return to Mumbai. If you didn’t get your fill of the city the first time, hop an Air India flight back and spend your last few days in India in Mumbai.
If you’re feeling more ambitious, however, take a bus from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, located near the Pakistan border, or to the city of Udaipur, home to the famous “Floating Palace.” Be warned, however: If you visit either of these cities, your time there will be extremely limited, particularly in Jaisalmer, from which you’ll have to return to Jodhpur before you fly back to Mumbai.