I love riding Indian Trains!!! But they’re not for everyone.
When I did my video on Indian Trains with India Railways, I shared three train rides, spanning 32 hours of both, day and overnight train schedules, traveling AC3 and CC class. In reality I’ve taken more rides than that and find Indian can be both, convenient, comfortable (and uncomfortable) and ultimately, part of the adventure of traveling India.
Contents for A Survival Guide to Indian Train Travel (with video)
Here’s a survival guide for Indian train travel:
Types of Train Classes
Look inside an Indian Train
Indian Train Travel Essentials
Booking Train Tickets in India
What if your train is sold out?
Types of Train Classes
▶2S Second (class) Seating
These are the cheapest seats offered by India Railways as it is a sitting class. For travelers, this means you are as local as local can be and are on a strict budget. Seats are cushioned and three seats per row. There are no sleeping facilities.
Every time I take a sleeper train, I never regret it. Passengers are simple and no fuss. Cab is either open air and fan vs an AC (so I’m never cold). There’s no bedding, however the berths have cushioned padding. Three berths per side and 6 berths per cabin. By morning, a lot of passengers have already gotten off. This is a preferred choice for a lot of budget backpackers. It’s not as bad as people think. Fare: The cheapest and simplest of the sleeper classes, usually around 100 to 600 rupees.
Tip: The top berth is the best. This is because you can go to sleep as early or wake up as late as you want and you won’t be bothered by others. You can actually just hang out on your perch with on your laptop and surf the internet (given you got an Indian SIM and turned your mobile into a WiFi hotspot). Avoid booking the bottom berth seat. This is the sitting berth and your sleep depends upon other your fellow passengers’ sleeping habits.
AC-3 class is a step above a Sleeper class, except that there’s air conditioning and they give you sheets and blankets for your birth. Fare: I paid around 750- 800 for my seat and up for a seat. Tip: Same tips apply as with the Sleeper. Fare: Almost double that of a Sleeper class.
▶ CC A/C Chair Car
CC A/C Chair Car is feels like an air-conditioned seater for business class. During the day, you’ll see Indian men with laptops working or making business calls. Three seats per row and two rows facing each other over a long table. Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains (fast speed and air conditioned) are slightly more expensive, but rides come with a simple meal, a drink and a complimentary paper.
▶ AC-1 & AC-2 (First and second class train)
I’ve never gotten to first or second class frankly. But first class is like paying the cost of airfare. But you’ll get your own lockable cabin of either 2-4 berths depending upon whether you’re a couple or family. The cabin comes with its own wash basin. Second class is a little less expensive and has curtains and lamps per berth privacy.
A Look inside the Indian Train and its different classes
Indian Train Travel Essentials
My Train Recommendations
Best trains: Anything from 1st class to 3AC (ceiling fan and open air), Rajasthani and Shatabdi are fast speed trains with air conditioning and some classes include meals. They’re a little pricier due to the comfort. Favorite train for backpackers: The Sleeper class trains. They’re not as posh, but I appreciate the open air, which keeps the air from getting stagnant.
Overnight Train Travel
At some point you may find yourself booking overnight trains to make the most efficient use of your time. Overnight trains can run at irregular hours, leaving or arriving at either late at night or early in the morning. Depending upon the class you may arrive late to your berth to find someone sleeping in it (you need to wake them up and ask them to move. Traveling Indians know when they are wrong– they figure they’ll just keep your berth warm for you until you are ready to use it ).
If you’re booking an overnight train, avoid the bottom berth if you want to go to bed early or sleep until late. This is the seat/berth that everyone sits on and your sleeping times will be determined by other passengers who either want to stay up late or wake up early. However, usually by around 10am, the overnight train has few passengers as many have gotten off on stops in the morning.
I have never encountered issues with overnight Indian trains. Dress conservative if you don’t want to be leered at, mind your luggage and be polite.
▶ Indian Crowds
An initial culture shock when I first traveled India were the crowds and you notice them more in the train stations as they wait for trains. It can look like a homeless shelter with anywhere from urban to village folks with bags, luggage and families waiting or camping out on the station floors. This is acceptable. The train also has resting rooms with bathroom facilities on the tracks and they tend to be sex segregated to protect women.
▶ Indian Train Misconceptions
There’s a popular misconception that Indian trains are smelly, especially during the summer heats and packed crowds. Personally, the only smelly part of a train I’ve found are the toilets and that is because they lack water for rinsing or flushing. I generally avoid them if I can. Otherwise, I find the smells normal to a country with spices in foods and in the air. I typically travel in 3AC or Sleeper trains where there’s an open air window you cannot close and powerful overhead fans which keep the air circulating naturally. The 2AC trains are air conditioned so it tends to keep everyone chilled to frozen (just joking although the temperature change can make it feel so).
▶Indian Train Food
It is always best to bring your own food on the trains. Options are limited and train food .
Packed meals on trains are less than glamorous and don’t expect it to be as tasty, as street food or a restaurant. These cars generally have a chai guy going around and someone who sells chaat or a snack, but it’s still always best to take your own snacks and water. Your options are limited on the train.
▶ Indian Railways Toilet Facilities
If you haven’t used a squat toilet yet, be prepared: All Indian trains have a squat toilet with a hole running straight to the train tracks (in fact, you can see it below you as you pee). Some classes might have a western toilet, but there is never any running water or toilet paper. Any tissues used are disposed of outside or straight onto train tracks through the facility.
Tip: Always take baby wipes, toilet paper and your hand sanitizer. For women who are still learning to squat, I recommend buying a female urinary device. You can learn more about my first experience here.
▶Indian Train Etiquette:
How to know when it’s time to sleep or wake? Here’s some tips on train etiquette for India train travel.
▶ Luggage Storage
Luggage is stored under the seats. Keep in mind if you are in a cabin with a full family, there may be much luggage under the seats and occasionally on some of the top berths. I try to travel as light as possible so this is not an issue. Some travelers recommend chains to secure their luggage to keep it from being stolen or accidentally taken. I’ve not had a problem so far, but I always travel with my luggage in eye shot or next to me. I keep my valuables in a daypack which I keep with me always (I make it my pillow when I sleep). But especially for overnight travel, when folks leave they take luggage with them and the train makes several local stops along the way.
Booking Train Tickets in India
There are many ways to get around India, and Indian Railways is a popular way for long distance travel for Indians. Alternately, the other ways to cover long distance travel in India is via airplane and government or VIP long distance bus.
Sample Itineraries and timetables
Most first time travelers to India plan their itinerary thinking they can jump around India in a day via the train system. I always recommend giving your transit route a day and a half of a cushion. India is large and the routes can take longer than you think. Not to mention, occasionally train schedules can be delayed and it’s possible a train could break down. These are all things to factor into India travel.
Below are train routes I traveled (in my video below ) and the travel time it takes to get around in a large country such as India:
+ AC-3 Kolkata to NJP (enroute to Darjeeling) | 11 hours overnight| 3rd class sleeper train | Uttar Banga Express : Sealdah to New Jalgaipuri Junction
+ AC-3 Kolkata to Varanasi | 13.5 hours overnight | 3rd class sleeper train| Vibhuti Express: Howrah to Varanasi Station . (Delhi to Varanasi will similarly be an overnight train as well).
+ CC Delhi to Ajmer (enroute to Pushar) | 7 hours day time | business class train|Ajmer Shatabdi: New Delhi (NDRLS) to Ajmer Station
As of May 2016, the Indian Railways (aka IRCTC) allowed foreigners to book train tickets in advance online. However, that doesn’t mean it works. There’s always been a bit of a snag in the past as foreign credit cards are not accepted by IRCTC and you need an Indian phone number!
In the past, the workaround was to open an account on the IRTC website and then open an account on Cleartrip.com and then attempt to merge the two together, booking through Cleartrip. Both sites are frequently used by Indians to book travel; they show you the bus, airplane and train schedules.
Read more here on my India Travel Tips.
Booking via 12Go Asia
Another recent booking option is 12Go Asia. I used to use them to book buses and trains in Thailand but they’ve since expanded their city services to India. I have not tested train travel using this service so if you try it, let me know how it goes.
Powered by 12Go Asia system
Booking Through Travel Agent
Booking train travel is easiest when you’re in India, in-person and you’re booking through a local tourist agent . Often the commission fees you’re paying feels so small and less than an online credit card fee. If you don’t want to go through the hassle of trying to understand India Railways system, its codes or what timetables will work best, a travel agent is a no-brainer. They’re especially good at telling you your options if trains are booked or full. I use Indian travel agents to book my onward travel most of the time.
Booking at the Train Station
You can book train tickets through the train station or an international railway handler (like I did at Fairely Place in Kolkata). They both are a united agency for India Railways and they’ll help you book your tickets in person, as well as handle things like Wait List, RAC and Foreign Tourist Quota tickets. It’s advised to start out early to beat the queue.
What if your train is sold out?
Tatkal, Wait List, Reserved Against Cancellation and Foreign Tourist Quotas are three options if you find your train is booked.
Tatkal tickets are withheld tickets that get released at 10 am one day before departure. 10 to 500 rupees are added to each ticket price. Tip: Usually travel agents can help you book these.
Reserved Against Cancellation |RAC
Reserved Against Cancellation (RAC) tickets are tickets India Railways puts aside in the case a passenger cancels at the last minute. On the day of departure, you’ll need to go to the train station and watch the reservation list. Even if there is no cancellation, you might still be able to get on the train, albeit standing class.
Wait List | WL
Wait List (WL) means you’re waiting for a seat and if there is no cancellation you’ll be refunded.
Foreign Tourist Quota
Like tatkal tickets, India Railways reserves a small quota of tickets for foreign travelers, so if trains are booked and you need to be somewhere, you might try using the foreign tourist quota.
Next VIDEO>> How to Get a Foreign Tourist Quota ticket
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What do you think of Indian train travel? Will it be your next adventure?
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