Do not leave India without riding a train at least once. Nothing will help you identify more with the people around you than taking a train ride to a nearby city. Trains are the preferred mode of travel for Majority Indians, Classic Indians, and some New Indians, or basically about 90% of the country. They are fun, mostly reliable, cheap, and worth the experience. Plus, it will really impress your Indian friends.
When it is the best option:
- If you’ve never done it before
- If you have some extra time
- If you are short on cash
- If you are traveling overnight
- If yourfinal destination is in the middle of the city
- Train stations are more centrally located than airports
How to get a ticket:
Note: The best, most comprehensive information about booking and riding on the Indian Railways system is found on IndiaMike.com. If there is a question to be answered, that community has done it, along with some nice pictorial guides. I’ve summarized some of that information here and added some of my own thoughts.
- Earlier, the only options were going to a station or using a travel agent. Now, you can use Cleartrip and MakeMyTrip, and even use an international credit card to pay for it. The official Indian Railways site is https://www.irctc.co.in/, but some of their payment options are limited. You will need to set up an account with the IRCTC to book a ticket. You do not need an account if someone else books a ticket for you.
- Book your ticket well in advance as almost all trains sell out. Tickets go on sale 60 days in advance.
- Booking on your own will seem overwhelming until you figure out the terminology. Have a friend help you out your first time.
- The timing for trains is mostly accurate plus 10-15 minutes. Factor in a little more if it is a very long train.
- Here are the most common classes of tickets you will choose from:
- First Class AC (1A) – An enclosed air-conditioned cabin with four berths (beds). Two on the bottom and two on the top. You can open the windows if you wish.
- Two tier AC (2A) – Same as first class, except your cabin only has a curtain and not a door that you can bolt, and you cannot open the window.
- Three tier AC (3A) – Same as two tier, except every cabin has six berths (three on each side) instead of four.
- AC Chair Cars CC – This feels more like airline seating with rows of chairs. They are only offered on certain trains that run during the day, usually a Shatabdi.
- Sleeper Class (SL) – Same as the three-tiered, but without AC. The windows stay open all the time. These are the most common class of ticket.
- There are other classes, but these are either not common, or not a good idea for the uninitiated foreigner.
- Choosing a berth
- If you choose either the 2A or 3A class, you may be asked your berth preference. Upper berths are great if you are athletic enough to climb up, because you can sleep whenever you wish without bothering anyone. Otherwise, the lower and middle (in 3A) are ok, but the middle bed will be stored upright most of the day.
- “Side upper” and “side lower” do not share a common cabin with others, but you are also right in the middle of all the traffic. It is not considered really safe, especially for women.
- If the train you want is waitlisted, this means all the reserved seats have been allocated. You can still book a ticket and get put on the waitlist. You will move up the waitlist as people cancel their ticket or other reserved seats open up.
- If you book a waitlisted ticket, keep in mind how many seats are allocated per train. If you are number 15 waitlisted for a sleeper car, you will likely get a seat because there may be 500 sleeper seats. If you are number 15 for a first class AC car (1A), you are unlikely to get a ticket because there may only be 12 seats and you would need every single person to cancel before you got a seat.
- You cannot get on the train if you are still on the waitlist.
- If you make it through the waitlist, your ticket might be Reserved Against Cancellation (RAC). This means you can get on the train, but your seat is not confirmed. If you are still at a RAC a few hours before you depart, go to the station and find the Ticket Taker Examiner (TTE). He is a nicely dressed man with a black blazer. He will tell you where to sit and will try to find you an open seat once the train is moving.
- Whether you have are waitlisted, RAC, or confirmed, make sure you have your PNR number (Passenger Name Record) handy, which is on your ticket.
- If money is no object, you can also look at the luxury trains.
- Book your tickets as soon as your plans are confirmed. Popular routes might sell out within the first week of availability.
- Train stations are nothing like the new pristine airports going up all over India. They are old, often dirty, and usually have a strong smell to them. If you arrive too early, there won’t be a nice air-conditioned place to sit and leisurely wait.
- The AC cars work pretty well, but if you are traveling in the really hot months, it won’t matter much.
Rules of the road:
- One of the big advantages of train travel is that unlike airports, you can arrive one minute before the train leaves and still get on fine. When you reach the station, there will be some light security, but nothing serious.
- At the station, use the large display board to match your train number with the platform number, and then ask anyone how to get to that platform. Then, find your train car (or where your car will stop). Cars are labeled as Sleeper, or Three Tier AC, or something like that. There may be multiple cars for the class of ticket you bought, so check the car number. Get on the car and find your seat number.
- No one will check your ticket until the train starts moving. If you have trouble, find the TTE who will be glad to help.
- When the TTE comes to check your ticket, give him some ID proof such as a passport.
- If you are in 3A or above, you will be given a blanket, sheets, and pillow. These are washed every time, but you may still be more comfortable bringing your own.
- The AC can get pretty cold, especially if you are in 1A or 2A, where there are not as many bodies. Bring some layered clothes depending on the time of year.
- Train travel is great because you can read or work on a laptop easier than on an airplane or bus. You can also get out of your seat and walk whenever you want. You can stand between the cars and look out to see the countryside as you go past.
- You will likely find your fellow train travelers to be friendly and helpful. However, you might also end up on the same car as a large group traveling together who might be very loud. There is not a lot you can do about this.
- If you are traveling on aShatabdi, the mealwill be included in the cost. It will be a typical Indian meal with achapati, some rice, and two gravies. You will also be given some snacks along the way. The porter will come around at the end to collect tips. Rs. 20 per person is enough unless you feel he gave you some extra service.
- If you are not on a Shatabdi, you will either need to bring your own food or buy from the many vendors who will walk through the cars offering various fares. The food is basically hygienic, but someone with a sensitive stomach might want to avoid it.
- Someone may also come to your berth and ask if you want a meal brought to you, which you can chose if you want. Ask for the price ahead of time.
- Your baggage is normally kept with you the entire time. Therefore, it is better to pack in smaller sized bags that can fit under a seat. If you are traveling a long distance, some travellers prefer to bring a lock and chain for their bags. If you are traveling with large items, you can take them to the “Brake Van” where they can be stored.
- If you are not riding to the end of the line, tell some of your fellow travelers where you are going, and they will help make sure you get off at the right place. There will be no announcement for what station is next, but each station is clearly labeled when you arrive. Make sure you know the approximate time you will arrive and also the name of the stop right before yours.
- When you walk out of a train station or airport, follow the cues of the Indians around you. Everyone will be headed in the same direction.
- As you get to the exit, you will see people who seem to recognize you and make eye contact with you. These are not long lost relatives, these are taxi drivers. Like airports, use a prepaid service to get to your destination or have a friend pick you up.
And just for fun, here’s a great story about running to catch a train.