India is a much easier place to visit with kids than in the past – and as long as you don’t attempt too much, or go too far off-the-beaten track, especially on your first visit, it’s a wonderful destination for family holidays. Most of its people are endlessly delighted to see children, the hotels have improved exponentially over the decade or two, and the sights and sounds are simply extraordinary. And there's an incredible choice of family-friendly accommodation and activity options.
Plan carefully, go at the right time of year, and you’ll probably end up giving your kids the holiday of a lifetime, as long as you’re prepared for the culture shock. India can take a while to get your head round, and that goes double for kids. The sight of beggars, particularly malnourished children and severely deformed people can be very upsetting, while the begging itself can be uncomfortably persistent. Foreign visitors often get openly stared at away from the main tourist sites. Then there’s the dirt, the pollution in cities (something to consider if travelling with asthma sufferers), the noise, and the crowds. All can seem overwhelming at first, so warn your kids and/or break them in gently.
Things to do with kids in India
Take one of the most popular and rewarding trips in northern India, around the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Delhi is not a place you’ll easily forget, and you need to prepare for serious sensory overload – our advice is to stay somewhere a bit cushy for a few days until you acclimatise. Then take a deep breath, flag down a rickshaw and throw yourselves into it. New Delhi is full of grand avenues, embassies and monuments. Old Delhi is the place to go – cheerful chaos reigns in its labyrinthine bazaars and wonderful relics, which include the Red Fort or Jama Masjid. Take train-mad kids to the Rail Transport Museum, where they can climb all over mighty steam engines and the skull of an elephant who charged a mail-train and lost.
The chief attraction of Agra is the Taj Mahal, a white-marble memorial built in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for one of his wives, Mumtaz Mahal; it took 20,000 labourers 22 years to complete. Not far from Agra is another Mughal masterpiece, Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient royal city guarded by massive gates, while at Bharatpur, on the edge of Rajasthan, you’ll find a wonderful bird sanctuary in a royal hunting reserve.
Within the colourful state of Rajasthan, famous for its bright-hued jewellery and handicrafts, visit the lovely capital Jaipur, known as the ‘Pink City’ since being painted this colour to mark a visit by the Prince of Wales in 1876. It’s surrounded by rugged hills and forts you can visit on the back of an elephant. Make sure to seek out the City Palace, full of regal costumes and weaponry, and the Palace of the Winds, an extraordinary and evocative place with 953 pink windows that make the air around it shimmer.
Also in Rajasthan are the ‘Blue City’ of Jodphur, so-named for its indigo-tinged brahmins' houses, and the ‘Golden City’ of Jaisalmer, built on a yellow sandstone ridge and topped by a fort. The latter has some lovely havelis (private mansions), and you can ride a camel out into the Thar desert to eat dinner under the stars and sleep on a sand dune. There’s also Udaipur, famed for its lake palace (now a luxury hotel) and for being where some of the Bond movie Octopussy was filmed.
In southern India, the beaches of Kerala and Goa are the best places for family holidays. But you’ll probably arrive first in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), which is well worth exploring, although it’s a good idea to take it easy for the first day or two to help your kids acclimatise to this extraordinary place. Then take them to see the Sassoon Dock, where colourfully dressed Koli fisherwomen sort out the day’s catch, and to Colaba market, full of dazzling sights and sounds. Swim off famous Chowpatty Beach and hang around to watch the sunset, when hundreds of snack-sellers converge on the shore to catch the evening crowd.
Goa is basically a 130km string of beautiful palm-fringed beaches, although it pays to venture inland and explore the wildlife sanctuaries and temples that dot this lovely region. If you do stay on the coast, you may wish to steer clear of the overdeveloped spots and seek out the quieter eco resorts. Some of the best beaches are Morjim, a turtle nesting site, Colva, the longest beach in Goa, and Calangute, particularly good for watersports.
Kerala also has beautiful beaches, including Kovalam, although the highlight of this state is a trip through the Malabar backwaters, a tangled maze of canals and rivers best explored by houseboat or even canoe. Go to Cochin to see the Portuguese fort, and to Periya National Park to see the elephants.
Indian cuisine is superb if not immediately child-friendly – if you're worried that eating out might be an issue, be reassured that anywhere tourists go there'll be cafés and restaurants offering western 'travellers' favourites'.
Before you go, be aware that ‘Delhi belly’ is so-named because traveller’s diarrhoea is a considerable problem in India, so pack supplies of an anti-diarrhoeal drug such as Imodium (not to be used for under-twos) or Lomotil. If your children get very bad diarrhoea accompanied by vomiting or blood in the stools, you could be offered Ciprofloxacin or Levaquin by local doctors – these medicines are unsuitable for children, so bring an alternative, such as Xifaxin, with you.
When to go to India
The winter season, October to February, is the most pleasant time to schedule family holidays here – it's not too hot, even in south India. Winter is also dry in the northeast, which is monsoon territory in the summer. Summer (March to May) is unpleasantly hot and humid unless you retreat to one of the scenic hill-stations.
Most of the well-known Indian festivals also take place in winter. November alone sees Dussehra, Durga Puja, Diwali, and Rajasthan’s Pushkar Fair, the country’s largest camel fair. Then in January comes Republic Day and the Punjabi festival of Lohri, while March sees Holi, the festival of colours.
It’s essential to go to a travel health clinic or your GP at least four to eight weeks before departure. Essential vaccinations are hepatitis A and B, typhoid and rabies (especially if your kids love playing with animals). You should make sure all other childhood vaccinations are up to date. Your clinic will have the latest health information and advice regarding travel to India, including the malarial medication specifically recommended for the area you are to travel to. Be aware that malarial medications – Mefloquine (Lariam), Atovaquone/Proguanil (Malarone) or Doxycycline – usually need to be started a couple of weeks before travel.
As a number of malarial drugs cause unpleasant side effects, some people contend that the best approach to tackling the risk of malaria is to take preventative measures while you are there. These include covering up fully to protect from insect bites – if you take your children out in the evening, make sure they wear socks, long sleeves, high necks and hats, and cover them liberally in an anti-mosquito treatment such as Deet or the gentler Jaico anti-mosquito milk. Many seasoned travellers also swear by eucalyptus oil, although it would need to be watered down for younger children. Make sure kids always sleep under a mosquito net, even in better hotels (ie ones with air conditioning and sealed windows), and for added precaution make sure the net is impregnated with Deet. You can also burn mosquito coils or carry an electronic mosquito repellent with you to plug in.
You should take all these precautions even if you are taking anti-malarial medication.
With return flights to India costing from £400 or less, and – unless you stay in a five-star resort – the cost of food and accommodation being very low, India can be a very affordable long-haul destination for family holidays and a winner for those looking for some winter sun on a budget.
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Capital cityNew Delhi
Flying time8.4hrs All flight times are based on flights from UK London airports, to the capital or nearest destination airport.
Carbon footprint0 CO2 Estimated tonnes of CO2 produced for return flights for a family of four.
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