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. Here’s a survival guide for Indian train travel:
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.
Indian Train Travel Tips & Essentials
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
Overnight trains : 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 would need to wake them up and tell them to move).
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.
It’s always best to bring your own food on the trains. Options are limited and train food isn’t all that tasty, which is surprising, considering street food in India is so inexpensive. 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. Packed meals on trains are less than glamorous and don’t expect it to be tasty.
Most of these trains have a squat toilet, just in case you were wondering. And even if they had a western toilet, I still wouldn’t want to use it. There’s never any running water on these trains. There’s no toilet paper.
Tip: Always take baby wipes, toilet paper and your hand sanitizer.
How to know when it’s time to sleep or wake?
▶ Sample Itineraries and timetables
Below are the train routes I traveled (in my video) 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
+ CC Delhi to Ajmer (enroute to Pushar) | 7 hours day time | business class train|Ajmer Shatabdi: New Delhi (NDRLS) to Ajmer Station
Booking your Train Tickets
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 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
What do you think of Indian train travel? Will it be your next adventure?
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