I’ve taken a few trains over the course of my travels in India over the last couple of years, and whilst there are few things you can do to prepare, the journeys will never fail to surprise you. Be it delays, unexpected fights over your assigned seat (or lack thereof), or frantically grabbing your belongings to leap off the train at an unmarked station, there’s a lot to take in, and some things you just have to take in your stride…
Without further ado, here is my introduction to train travel in India, and what you can do to make the most of your journeys!
Where can I travel by train?
Almost everywhere! The Indian Rail Network is one of the best in the world, despite the images you might have seen of passengers hanging out of every door and window, and even perching on top of trains. It isn’t quite that bad!
Despite the longest train journey from Kanyakumari (the southernmost point of India) to Dibrugargh, Assam, covering 4273 miles, passing through seven states, and taking nearly four full days, no matter how long your journey, you never seem to need to change train. One day, just for a laugh, I think I might try and take that journey!
Don’t quote me on that, but the rail network is so extensive that it’s often far simpler, and cheaper, than other forms of transport like coach and car travel. They’re a far smoother ride than buses too. Price ranges enormously depending on the class you choose, and that brings me to…
Which class should I go for?
There are several options to choose from when it comes to classes on Indian trains. Here are most of the choices you’ll find – though not all trains will have all of these options! An asterisk (*) next to the class name indicates a class you’ll find on an overnight train!
The priciest option you’ll find for overnight travel. Often outside of the ideal budget backpacking range. First Class has four berths per carriage, lockable doors, air conditioning and bedding provided. It makes for a comfortable journey!
The only real difference between First and Second Classes is that instead of lockable doors, Second AC has curtains across each compartment for privacy. Bedding is once again provided, and the berths are very comfortable. As a solo female traveller, I’ll usually take this class or 3AC for overnight journeys because the risk of being locked in a carriage with three strangers in the night doesn’t sit well. I’m also an impoverished student, so…
Again, the same as Second Class AC, but there are three berths to a wall – so six sleeping berths per compartment. No curtains, and it’s an open-plan carriage. This option is mostly popular with Indian families. I recommend a lower berth to check out the views during your journey!
AC Executive Chair
Fancy reclining seats, you’re pretty much waited on, and you’ve got loads of space. Am too skint to have experienced this one, but I walked through to get to the toilet once… Does that count?
Not as nice as Executive class, but air-conditioned with comfortable seats and food regularly provided as part of your ticket price, which will probably be roughly half the price of Executive. Chair cars are often found on quick Shatabdi express trains.
This is the most basic form of overnight train travel which you’ll find. The carriages are open-plan with basic, often slightly grubby, three-tier bunks and no AC – air comes in through the open windows which also give you a great view! Bunks convert to seats during the day, so if you want to rest, try and bag the top bunk at reservation to avoid being pushed about at the break of dawn. However, prepare for the possibility that you may have to obstinately argue with a wizened old lady if you want to keep your reserved space. Taking someone else’s starts a trail of seat stealing and passive aggression and is really better avoided.
Your persistence ought to pay off eventually. I, as usual, dealt with this with my usual British decorum; huffing, rolling my eyes, and finding a sympathetic official to fight my cause. She was obstinate, okay?
Hassle aside, sleeper class can be great fun. If you want to interact, you can always befriend your seat-neighbours, but you can equally lose yourself in a good book to avoid the hustle and bustle for a while. I think everyone should take sleeper class once, but perhaps the way I did – a shorter journey from the early morning to just before midday, rather than a full long-haul trip. Delhi to Jaipur, a few hours away? Sure. Mumbai to Bangalore – a 26 hour-long trip? Just don’t, is my advice.
I’d recommend this one for short journeys, and especially if you want to glimpse how the vast majority of Indians travel. No reservations are required – think wooden or plastic benches crammed with any number of families, chai vendors, and occasionally animals… But amazingly cheap!
So, you’ve picked your class, booked your ticket (an adventure in itself, see below) and made it to the station! Here are some tips to make the journey run a little bit smoother before and after that point…
- If you can, book at the Foreign Tourist Booking office at the main train station in big cities. I’ve only used the one in Delhi, but they’re also in Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Agra, Jaipur, Hyderabad, Kolkata and several others. Some trains have tourist quotas, so you’re more likely to get a seat than using a general reservation.
- The process, other than waiting your turn, is fairly painless, as long as you’re not conned into thinking the office is closed by touts in the main station, and you take a photocopy of your passport and enough cash with you to pay!
- If you’re booking online, you need to configure an IRCTC account, which is a massive palaver and I’ll write another post on it once I’ve figured it out. Long story short, it’s a bit of a faff without an Indian mobile number, but doable.
- “Taktal” quota tickets are released the day before departure for certain journeys, but I think this is a bit of a risk if you need to be somewhere important!
- “CNF” on your ticket means a confirmed reservation, but “RAC” means Reservation After Cancellation, and this is a bit more stressful. After all these places are sold, other passengers are wait-listed (WL) – reservations open 120 days before departure so you can always book in advance, and I’d recommend doing so!
- With an RAC ticket, you’re confirmed a place on the train even without a specific seat or berth number – get on the train and it’s most likely that someone will have cancelled so you won’t have an issue. If not, it usually just means sharing a berth instead of having a sleeping bench to yourself. Oops.
- Take some snacks! Usually, some attendants come around all the trains selling all manner of chai and snack foods (definitely take them up on the chai at 10Rs per cup!) and even full meals for around 100Rs if you’re in an AC class on the sleeper trains. However, the food isn’t to everyone’s taste so it’s a good idea to have something you like on hand for a long journey!
- Bring layers! The AC can get VERY chilly! Even though it’s so hot outside, you’ll appreciate an extra blanket. On the journey from Mumbai to Bangalore, I slept in a fleece and my sleeping bag, which I never use otherwise, because I was so cold!
- Take in the views! India is vast, and the scenery changes from region to region. If you’re awake, take in the changes as the train rattles from station to station. Some of my best moments in India have been peaceful stretches of a train journey doing nothing but watching the world go by outside.
- The toilets are grim. Accept this and move on. You’re going to have to eat and drink so just make sure you have wet-wipes, tissues and anti-bacterial hand gel with you. There are both western-style and squat toilets on all trains, but they both get fairly grubby as the journey goes on. It’s not something you can avoid, so just deal with it as best you can. Try not to drop anything down the hole.
- Set an alarm! If your stop isn’t the last one on the line, make sure you’re setting an alarm for the time specified on your ticket as arrival time at your destination! Know which stops come before yours and have your things ready to go! I discovered this the hard way when I had to jump off a train in Jaipur which had already started moving due to language issues and rubbish signage. And maybe I wasn’t paying attention. But on that note…
- Lock up your luggage! Especially if you have larger bags on an overnight trip, use a bike chain or PacSafe to secure your bag to the bottom rails of the lowest berth. I can’t think of anything worse than waking up to find someone has filched my bag in the night. Keep your important possessions, like passport, cash, cards, phone and camera, close to your body as you sleep.
- Be vigilant, and firm if you need to be. As a solo female traveler especially, you get used to attention and stares from local people in Asia. In India, although the vast majority of people are lovely, helpful and welcoming, some Indian men can be forward in their staring or interactions with you. Keep aware of your surroundings, if you’re not comfortable with someone’s behaviour, let them know, and perhaps get to know a few people, especially women or families, who are seated near you. Even with a language barrier, you’ll feel more secure knowing someone can look out for you during your journey. But these worries will rarely come to fruition.
- Expect lateness. If you’re travelling in India, better get used to “Indian time” – in other words, expect everything to be late. Train departures are usually painfully accurate which is and news if you’re perpetually late like me, but arrival times are a different story. Don’t stress. It’s part and parcel of the wonderful madness which is India.
- Sit back, and enjoy the ride. You only live once, and train travel in India is not something to be missed if you get the opportunity!
For loads more useful information, check out The Man in Seat 61’s helpful guide to train travel in India for beginners!