In India I wear shorts and skirts all the time, the picture of me below is from a Christmas eve. I was dressed in this gown at a restaurant in Bangalore, a new expat lady was strangely but politely staring at me wondering how. How did I manage this? That was the question in her eyes. For something like this you'll need to consider your destination, timing, transport & the path you are traveling through. If you are new in India consider taking suggestion from an Indian girlfriend because these thing vary largely from town to town and girls who live in these towns know about it the best.
I will give you an example of the kind of uncertainty faced in India. A couple of years ago I moved to Hyderabad from Bangalore, in Bangalore it was very common to find a taxi (a car not autos) on call, the very same company runs taxi services in Hyderabad so when I came here I didn't really think about wearing something "safe" for an evening out, because I thought a taxi would be available on call when I wanted to get home. But as sometimes things go, when it was really late I called for the taxi and they weren't available at all for the night. They told me that the number of vehicles they own in Hyderabad are much lesser as compare to Bangalore so it was a less available service here. Now these things make you sweat because you'll probably have to hire an auto in the middle of the night. If you are not aware of these local things; having a local girlfriend is always a big help.
Taxi or no taxi, even if you have to wait for hours, look for an auto but never ever think of taking a bus unless you are in Bangalore, people and buses are nicer there but they charge you as much as an auto so its matter of preference and availability. In Delhi you find similar looking buses as Bangalore but its never a good decision to ride one of those.
Also if you are traveling intercity (between cities) make sure you are traveling by air or by train. India is a crowded country and you get to see the best of it outside its train stations and airports and sometimes that kind of a crowd makes you feel really safe. But intercity buses are as inconvenient as intra-city (within a city) buses. They stop wherever they want to, most of them don't have toilets, their pick up and drop timings & locations change at their whim & convenience, so I advice you not to take these intercity buses. Except in northern India, Intercity buses are very common in rest of the country, and even though southern Indian girls brag about the safety & comfort of these buses all the time, I would never take their advice because it never seems right to me to get off the bus in the middle of the night to use a toilet in one of those highway "motels" (called dhabas in India). People do also claim to speak English in these regions of India but trust me they don't, so it'll be very tough to communicate in a situation with these added problems as well.
When you travel in a train and you don't have any male friends with you, always travel in a three tier compartment, it depends on the route but you meet some of the biggest jerks on the planet in Indian trains sometimes. I have traveled in two tier compartments many times over many years, but this one time the compartment started to empty out on the route and some idiots around me, who were by the way idiots from the first moment, started behaving more senselessly. Well probably lowlifes like those, just cannot enjoy themselves if women aren't living in fear and are living the freedom that we claim by traveling alone.
I'm going to tell you about another one of my train experiences. Once I went to see off a friend at the New Delhi railway station and I witnessed complete craziness, a Caucasian lady found herself in a situation where she had bought a first class train ticket and she found herself in a seat surrounded by three misbehaving moronic men. Now she wanted to exchange it with somebody else so that she can travel safely. On the platform I could see that she was nervous & exhausted at explaining the whole situation to the relevant authorities & requesting them to change her berth. They were in the beginning trying to fake it with her that they didn't understand English, then they switched to saying that they couldn't do it lawfully. None of those excuses were true & when she persisted & didn't quit & finally when the train was about to leave the station, they had to do what she was asking. One of the biggest tools in India if you sense danger or deliberate discomfort and you think that a particular thing can help you feel safe, ask for it & make some noise letting the people around you know. Crowds always scare Indian men so gather a crowd & then they are bound to behave accordingly.
If you are traveling in the northern or western regions of India and you're dining at a no star restaurant, always prefer vegetarian restaurants. As women in these regions do not cook and eat non-veg & only men do and they do that outside their homes. So restaurants that serve anything non-vegetarian are basically male hubs, unlike veg restaurants where the same men will bring their families and behave sensibly. But if you are traveling in the eastern or southern region of India you don't have to follow this so strictly because here women are also non vegetarians, so any ordinary restaurant will have an equal number of female customers. But when I'm in south India I always prefer eating in a fancier place as they are the only ones who can guarantee hygienic food in these regions, it does make your trip a little costly but I guess its worth it.
Seeing women around everywhere is rare in India, but never take this as a general indicator and hire a hotel in which you do not see women, it is always going to be a bad experience. When you are hiring a hotel look for a place with women travelers, I have stayed in everything from budget hotels to 5 star hotels, of-course star hotels do feel much safer and healthier, but our pockets don't always allow this, so it can be a little tough but never impossible to find a safe hotel within your budget. (The picture below is of me at the Taj hotel in Kumarakom, inside their enclosed property.) In northern India it is common to find local female dressed in saris but they're also enthusiast travelers :) but it is a rare sight in southern India. So your only hope in such a situation are international tourists, if that doesn't work out you'll have to pay a little extra for your safety. While I was traveling in Mysore, I paid 2000 INR per night for an below-average hotel which only had one more female traveler, an American girl. If you have Indian girlfriends staying at a paying guest (PG) accommodation, you can stay in their place with little money & some negotiation, those places almost always let you stay.
You should always carry your pepper spray, on security checks at some places you might have to explain it a little but they let you carry it everywhere even inside movie halls (I've never been denied). Recently women safety measures have become very strict in India, nobody can avoid your complaint, so whenever you feel unsafe look for any police officer including a traffic police for help. Every city has a city centric female security phone lines, keep that number in your mobile phone, you can find these numbers online. I have traveled to places like Goa, Kerala, Mysore, Hampi, Kanha, Khajuraho, Lucknow, Vrindavan, Agra, Varanasi, Jaipur etc. which attract a lots of domestic and international tourists. Except for in Goa and in the major metros, the other smaller cities/towns don't have much of a night life. So here it's safe and also sensible to return to your places in the night because all the fun, in these little towns of India, starts in the morning.
I am a professional photographer based in New-Delhi India, specializing in people and places with a style consisting of colorful and also monochrome imagery. In this blog I share pictures & stories of my travel & everyday life.