There are no generalizations that can be made regarding potential dangers for all tourists in India, but urban areas do have their particular crime patterns, and everyone is vulnerable in bad parts of town. For example, Delhi is known to be dangerous for women at night and has more crime in general than other big cities in India. Mumbai is safer for women, with fewer violent crimes taking place, although it’s important to be vigilant wherever you are.
Scams for targeting foreigners abound. One of the better-known, yet not that common, scams comes from the shoe shiners at Delhi's Connaught Place, who furtively sling mud at your feet and then point out how badly your shoes need to be cleaned. Just be cautious everywhere you go, and know that in a country in which most tourists stand out—and that is filled with locals vying for their business—you're always a potential target.
Theft in hotels is not common, but you should never leave money, traveler’s checks, passports, or jewelry in plain sight. If your hotel has a safe, definitely use it, but if there's nothing to lock up valuables, you may wish to take them with you. Follow the lead of locals: avoid wandering around late at night, especially in smaller towns where shutters close early, and avoid road journeys after dark. As anywhere, never leave suitcases unattended in airports or train stations. The most visible police officers are traffic cops, clad in white and khaki; they can usually help out, even with a nontraffic problem (though taxis are in their jurisdiction). Otherwise, look for a regular police officer, in a khaki uniform.
Avoid strangers who offer their services as guides or moneychangers, and do not agree to be taken anywhere with anyone. In crowds, be alert for pickpockets—wear a money belt, and/or keep your purse close to your body and securely closed. If you travel by train, you may want to avoid accepting food or beverages from fellow passengers. There have been a few cases in which train travelers (usually Indians) are given food laced with sedatives and then robbed once the drug takes effect. It's likely that you will be offered food on a train; Indians feel uncomfortable eating meals in front of another without sharing, but it's safest to offer an excuse and refuse. In train stations, ignore touts who tell you that your hotel of choice is full or has closed; they hope to settle you into a place where they get a kickback for bringing in business. Do not agree to carry a parcel for anyone.
Women need to take extra precautions. If you're alone, don't travel late at night, especially in Delhi. Avoid seedy areas, touts volunteering their services, or over-friendly strangers and jostling crowds of men. Also, never get into a taxi or auto-rickshaw if a second man accompanies the driver. If you find yourself in a tricky situation—a taxi driver demanding a king's ransom, a hawker plaguing you, a stranger following you—head straight for a police officer or at least threaten to do so, which often works just as well. Don't hesitate to protest loudly if you're harassed.
Overnight trains are safe for women traveling alone provided they take sleeper class or better, where you’ll be in an open compartment packed with other people. Just remember to chain your luggage to the loops provided below your sleeping berth (luggage chains and locks are available at every major train station). You may want to avoid first-class air-conditioned trains, because on those you're locked in a room with three others—who may all be male. However, this is also the most comfortable compartment and chances are that your fellow travelers—irrespective of their gender—will be educated and respectful.
It's easy to get upset by the number of beggars who beseech you for spare rupees, motioning from hand to mouth to indicate they have nothing to eat. Most disturbing are the children, as young as three years old, roaming in between cars on busy streets with no adult figure in sight. Sometimes, especially in big cities, such beggars are part of a ring and may not be as destitute as they look. If you give a beggar money, a dozen more may immediately spring up, and you may feel pressured to provide for all; it can also be difficult to get the first beggar, or the entire group, off your tail. Be firm and do not allow a beggar to follow you—a raised voice or mild threats usually work. If you're not firm, expect to be followed by a pack for a while—they do not give up easily.
If you want to contribute, seek out an established charity that's in a position to substantially help those in need. It also doesn't hurt to pass out small trinkets or candy to child beggars if you really can't stand the thought of ignoring them—but do it discreetly.
Hawkers and touts can also be a tremendous nuisance. If you're not interested in what a hawker is offering, give him a firm, polite no and ignore him after that. If he persists, tell him to clear off and employ some mock anger or else he will follow you for blocks. Do not encourage touts at all.
As different countries have different worldviews, look at travel advisories from a range of governments to get more of a sense of what's going on out there. And be sure to parse the language carefully. For example, a warning to "avoid all travel" carries more weight than one urging you to "avoid nonessential travel," and both are much stronger than a plea to "exercise caution." A U.S. government travel warning is more permanent (though not necessarily more serious) than a so-called public announcement, which carries an expiration date.
The U.S. Department of State's website has more than just travel warnings and advisories. The consular information sheets issued for every country have general safety tips, entry requirements (though be sure to verify these with the country's embassy), and other useful details. By registering on the site, you can have the DOS email you travel warnings as they are posted.
The U.S. Department of State generally does not list broad travel warnings for India because the majority of the country is safe for tourists. Still, there are a few unstable areas, and riots and other disturbances can arise quickly in otherwise-safe areas. It's always a good idea to know where the closest consulate or embassy is.
General Information and Warnings
U.S. Department of State. 888/407-4747; 202/501-4444; www.travel.state.gov.