“India is cheap,” has been stated so many times that it must be true. Have you ever seen evidence though? Before visiting I heard anecdotes that it is cheap, things such as “a hotel costs $1/night” and, “I spent less than $5 per day.” Even though millions visit India annually, I never found any evidence of how cheap it was until I actually visited myself. Continuing on with our careful book keeping, while in India we tracked our daily spending, item-by-item, to understand how much India costs. After four months in India I can definitively say, India isn’t necessarily cheap.
Here are the numbers, broken into cost per day of countries we’ve visited. The bold numbers are the lowest amount for each major travel category. In a couple cases I excluded outliers that I know aren’t apples-to-apples comparisons. For example, the “Accommodations” and “Food” costs of Nepal are skewed because many trekking hotels provide accommodation for free if you purchase your meals there, therefore the actual costs of each category is a blend of the two. Sri Lanka’s “Sightseeing” costs are similarly skewed, therefore excluded from being called the lowest cost. As you can see, while India is the second cheapest country we’ve visited overall, in no individual category is it cheapest.
BEHIND THE NUMBERS
The reality behind the numbers further dispel the myth that India is cheap. The quality of budget travel experiences in India is shockingly low. When paying similar prices to other countries, budget travelers in India receive substantially less quality, comfort and safety for the money. India is correctly referred to as cheap because it is not a good value. Here are some examples of how little money in India gets you even less.
The bathroom of the most expensive place we stayed in India, $20/night in Kolkata. After fighting a brilliant battle the cockroaches won. We ceded the bathroom to them and used the shared bath.
While accommodations are priced equally to Vietnam, the guest experience is not. It became disturbingly normal for Indian hotels not to change sheets between guests, rooms to smell like mildew, and amenities that they offered to be non-existent. For similar prices in Vietnam or Sri Lanka, budget travelers can expect tidy rooms, clean linens, and fresh smelling rooms.
The room below, in Bangkok, cost $5/night. By no means is it glamourus, but to get a clean, bug-free, room for half the average rate we were paying in India is something I much prefer.
We never experienced food-related illnesses in any of the compared countries except India. We ate from whoever we wanted, drank shakes, drinks with ice and ate cut-fruit. In short, we ate everything a travel doctor would tell you to avoid. But you know what? We never got sick! India was a different story, we were cautious with food, drank only bottled water and followed all the safety tips, including eating vegetarian and brushing our teeth with bottled water, yet both ended up incredibly ill. We required antibiotics and anti-protozoa medicine on more than one occasion, treatments which would make more sense when living in the wild than in an urban environment.
Being ill in the relative comfort of a Vietnamese or Thai hotel is bearable, but lying on the floor, writhing in pain, between excretions in the above bathroom…well you get the picture, and it ain’t pretty.
CAN INDIA BE CHEAP?
Here’s the reality: India can be absurdly cheap…if you’re willing to bear a lot of pain. You can stay in hotels for $1 a night and eat for less than $2/day. Seriously, you can probably make India the cheapest place you ever go. That said, even while on a budget there is a certain line of comfort that I really don’t want to cross, therefore this comparison is about traveling comfortably and safely while on a budget. In that respect the idea that “India is cheap” is a flawed premise, you get more for your dollar in other countries.
If roughing it in urban settings is what you want though, I won’t stop you, for you then, India is the place to be.
Second Seating in an Indian train, possibly the world’s cheapest comprehensive travel network, but do you want to suffer it?