Rail travel in India is like no other country you will experience. Home to one of the world’s largest rail networks, the journeys you will complete and the stories you will have to tell will be the jewel on the crown to your India itinerary. No trip to India is complete without at least one train journey, but here’s a few things you should prepare yourself for.
Trains will get fully booked; book online in advance
If you are on a fixed itinerary, or short on time, you are best to book ahead to make sure you can get the service you want, as India trains (especially on popular tourist routes) get fully booked months in advance. You can also book train tickets in person at the station, but this will leave your travel plans up in the air if a train is full. We booked the majority of our trains using the official IRCTC website. A lot of people suggest booking through a third-party such as 12go.asia, but personally I found that not all trains were listed on these third-party sites. We ended up booking one train with 12go.asia, and everything else through IRCTC. Trains come online for ticket sales roughly 120 days before the date of travel – keep checking if it’s getting close to this date. IRCTC website may be a bit fiddly (it might take you a few attempts to successfully process the payment, but I found paying in rupees through the Payment Gateway service with our American Express or debit card worked the best. You also have to submit passport information as well as visa information – keep this handy! Often you need an IRCTC account number to be able to book through third-parties.
Seat61.com has a very useful page on how to buy tickets online using the IRCTC website.
A day before travel and then running up into your journey, you can check the details of your train journey in live time. Tracking the train number through the NTES (National Train Enquiry System) will show you of updated arrival times, and logging into the IRCTC website to track your train through your booking will show you any updates to your seat allocations. When purchasing, you will receive an e-ticket which you can print out to have on you but generally onboard we found that the conductor will have your name and will just ask you to confirm your details. This e-ticket sometimes won’t always show your seat allocation – use the IRCTC website to check this closer to your travel date.
There are multiple classes on the majority of Indian trains, and not all trains have all classes. There are eight general classes of travel, and what class you choose depends on what level of comfort you wish to have, and how much you want to spend. In the grand scheme of things, a “first class” journey will not break the bank, but it is often the lower classes, where you are bundled up between two families, that provide the most fun.
Air-Conditioned First Class (AC1): The most expensive class of train travel; two-or four-berth compartments with locking doors, plug points, reading lights, linen and meals included (although we still had to pay for our meals, but I think that was the staff taking advantage of their seeming lack of English and getting a little tip from us). It’s the most expensive class, but is best for overnight journeys if you want somewhere to stretch. On most trains, some of these booths have 4 beds and some only have 2. If you are 2 travelling, the 2-bed cabins are great, but we generally found these classes were quite empty. If we were in a 4-bed cabin, and somebody had a bed within reserved, they often moved to another cabin that was empty. All bunks change into seating during the day by folding up, so you have space to sit up. Only trains completing long journeys will have this class. We generally booked this class for long journeys.
Air-Conditioned 2-Tier (AC2): Two-tier berths arranged in groups of four and two in an open-plan carriage. The bunks convert to seats by day and there are curtains for some semblance of privacy. The most luxurious on shorter train journeys. We generally booked this class for long journeys that didn’t have AC1.
Air-Conditioned 3-Tier (3AC): Three-tier berths arranged in groups of six in an open-plan carriage; there are no curtains so journeys can become slightly awkward if thrown into a large family.
AC Executive Chair: Comfortable, reclining chairs and plenty of space (think most western trains) usually found on Shatabdi express trains. No lay-flat bed, so this class is good for quick day journeys as you get a reservation and meals included in your fare.
Sleeper Class: Open plan carriages with three-tier bunks and no AC; open windows afford great views, but get tiring for a long journey. Sleeper will be much more crowded, so not great privacy.
Unreserved 2nd Class: Uncomfortable wooden or plastic seats, and no reservations plus a lot of people, means this class isn’t luxury at all, but it is very cheap! Buying a 2nd-class ticket and piling into the next available train is a flexible option if you are stuck on options – you may regret your decision after a long, delayed train journey having had to stand the entire way… (if this is the case, use your travellers backpack as a pop-up seat!
Travelling through India, you might experience a lot of people staring at you. This can be particularly noticeable in cabins without privacy. The majority of the time, it is just people who are interested (especially children) in seeing something different. Also be on the lookout for pickpockets and people in general who might be trying to scam you. It is very easy to feel uncomfortable when you are in a situation where you don’t speak the language, and not exactly sure of what’s happening. If there is an issue, there will always be a guard.
You’re in India now – be prepared that your train service will be running late. On our travels, we had many trains running extremely late, and once you are slightly delayed it will only get worse. Have things to hand to keep you entertained. Also be aware that if the service is running late, when it arrives at stations it will not wait its full time on the platform and instead leave as soon as it can. This means you need to be prepared to depart if your station is coming up.
There are no announcements on the trains as to your location. Be prepared that if you are departing a station, especially at night, you will have to keep an eye on the map to know where you are. Too many times we had a heart attack when we thought we were at our destination and weren’t ready to get off.
Many stations have signs marking the approximate spot where each carriage stops (again, ask station staff for assistance if not). Trains won’t stop at stations for long, especially if running delayed, and so the last thing you need is to be the wrong end of a 15 carriage train when it arrives onto the platform. Most of the time, you can’t then get through to the correct carriage as it is too crowded or blocked off by other non-passenger carriages. Be prepared for some running with your luggage if you aren’t in the right place!