Getting around India – Making travel simple and fun
Getting around India can seem a perplexing problem to the best of us. However, it is a challenge we have no choice but to face, so I implore you to read this post. It contains all the information you will need to begin to make sense of it all. There are a mind-bending number of ways to get around the county that range from shiny new range rovers to a horse and carriage. What’s more, India is vast! It will quickly become apparent just how vast when you try and move around it. A single train journey can take days to complete.
To add to the confusion, things tend to run in time rather than on time. I have had to literally wait for weeks for a bus before, although this is obviously an exceptional case. When things become that bad, it is usually something to do with mother nature. Whole roads can get washed out or frozen solid without warning and for days on end.
Sometimes everything can seem in order, then BAM! There is a festival that you didn’t see coming or perhaps a strike because the drivers are unhappy with their pay and just like that there will be no more busses until tomorrow. It often happens, guys, so make sure you budget a generous amount of time when planning your itinerary.
I am obviously unable to help with the completely unexpected, except to advise you to keep up to date with the local area’s current affairs. This will hopefully keep these problems to a minimum. However, by reading this post and absorbing the information in it, you will help prevent things from being any more difficult than they need to be. I will make this post as comprehensive and as clear as possible. We will take a look at all the main modes of transport you are likely to encounter and then talk about how to utilise them.
Before you start your journey to this magnificent country, it is a good idea to sketch your proposed route on a map. Your chosen route should be direct and with the least amount of backtracking as possible. By doing this, you will save wasting your money and, more importantly, your time! Ok, now we are ready to begin, so get your notebooks ready as you will be able to refer to this information again and again. We have a lot to get through so let’s get started, shall we?
Travel around India by air.
Holidays are becoming ever more popular with domestic tourists. With that has come a substantial number of affordable airlines that connect every corner of the subcontinent. Domestic airlines are both frequent and safe. Choosing to fly sometimes offers a convenient way for you to see more of this incredible country that would otherwise be very difficult. Shop around for the best deals as you have quite the choice these days. Here is a list of the most popular to save you searching on google:
- Air India ( www.Airindia.com)
- Spicejet ( www.spicejet.com)
- Go Air (www.goair.in)
- Vistara ( www.airvistara.com)
- Indigo (www.goindigo.in)
You can also use these sites for a concise comparison. Sometimes they offer better deals than what you can get if you buy directly from the company, dont ask me why?
- Clear Trip (www.cleartrip.com)
- Make My Trip (www.makemytrip.com)
- Yatra (www.yatra.com)
Sometimes internal flights are necessary as train or bus journeys can take what feels like an eternity. I would advise you to look at your journey’s duration if you were to do it by train or bus and then evaluate the cost difference if you were to do it by air. Often there will not be much in the cost, and it is hard to put a price on your time anyway as you are only there once.
Indias longest train journey is the Kanyakumari Vivek Express. It runs from Dibrugarh in Assam to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, and It takes a whopping 79 hours! Now you have to ask yourself how much do you like trains? I think you would need to be quite the enthusiast to appreciate that and not become frustrated.
When you get the plane in India, you will have to show your ticket before entering the airport. I would recommend saving or printing your E-tickets in case there is a problem with your internet connection. You will be denied entrance if you are unable to produce it. This has happened to me before, and it was incredibly stressful, but it is just the way things work. Eventually, managed to borrow someone else’s phone, who was kind enough to lend it to me. If I had not been able to do this, I would have missed my flight for sure, so dont forget to have a copy.
Usually, you are allowed 20kg of baggage in economy class, and your hand luggage is checked and labelled before you fly. Arrive a good two hours early to clear customs, as this can take some time depending on the destination.
The tracks of the Indian railways run like arteries, carrying both people and goods from coast to coast. By no means am I a train enthusiast, but you can’t help but be amazed by the sheer scale of it all.
Travelling India by railway.
The Indian railways is a grand engineering feat by anyone standards. It is the worlds biggest single employer of people. The majority of the railway tracks were laid down during the colonial days of the British Raj. It has been build on and refined ever since.
Getting the train is an experience in itself and something that is quintessentially Indian. I find it is way more palatable for long journeys than the bus as it offers considerably more comfort. After all, even the general class has access to a toilet.
There are many different classes to choose from, and I would imagine your budget will primarily dictate what you choose. So let’s take a look at what your money will get you, shall we? After reading this, you will be able to make an informed choice on what you really want. I will start at the begging on the most cost-effective seats on the whole network.
Seats in the unreserved class cannot be booked in advance, so the benefits are obvious. If you need to get somewhere quickly and all the trains are full, consider taking this class. The downside is they can get seriously busy and can become very claustrophobic indeed.
If you are leaving a big city, it can be just plain torture to get these trains, particularly in summer. Once I could hardly get my feet on the floor, there were so many people. I was stuck at a station in the baking hot heat with no air circulating and in rush hour. What’s more, there were so many people on the train there was no chance of me getting off, so I had to remain trapped by a wall of people against the rancid toilet door. This was the most inconvenient time to discover I am not actually that much of a fan of small spaces.
I am telling you this story so you can appreciate the reality of what can happen. However, as paradoxical as it sounds, it is still worth getting one of these on your travels just for the experience, in my opinion. Just so long as you are in a rural area, of course. I have always been met with nothing but hospitality and kindness in general class. In fact, some of my fondest memories of riding the Indian railways have been on here.
Here is a pro tip for you. Many local people who have unreserved tickets will board the sleeper class carriages when there is little or no chance of getting on the train. When the ticket inspector comes around, you simply pay the extra charge for a spare seat if there is one. If not, you will have to sit in the doorway, but at least you will have room, and that beats feeling like a sardine in a tiny tin can on slow bake.
Now, this is my favourite, and I will usually book this class if it is available. The carriages are broken down into six berth cubicles with two more beds along the gangway. I like this class because it is affordable and it is often an exciting experience. The aisles are always full of vendors selling everything from Indian chai to plastic crocodiles. You will see buskers of all descriptions trying to scratch a living. Blind singers, contortionists and even some not very convincing transvestites all try and play their hand for a few rupees.
Foreign tourists are relatively rare in this class, so there will be many a conversation to be had. With scarcely a dull moment here, I wholeheartedly recommend this class for an all Indian experience.
However, it is not all fun and games in this class. For a start, there is no air conditioning, only fans. I always request the upper bunk if I can, and I suggest you do the same. It allows you to retire whenever you choose from the madness that’s going on in the carriage below. Bring your valuables up on the bed with you. The downside is your seat will be next to the aisle, so any vendors, beggers, holy people, transvestites or buskers will be asking you for money almost continually.
Also, hot air rises, so the top bunks are the last seats Indians want to book. For me, it’s a small price to pay for security and the chance to get some shut-eye whenever you choose. The lower bunk is the window seat, so there is more chance of being bothered in the night or, worse yet, having your valuables stolen.
Lone female travellers in this class should undoubtedly think about taking the upper bunk for obvious reasons. I have been on a train more than once where it has got weird for my female travelling companions, so take note. For some good quality tips on safety for lone female backpackers, feel free to check out my post.
There is a significant risk of someone walking off with your luggage, and I can confirm this definitely does happen. I attach the straps from my rucksack to the metal clips underneath the seats for security to get around this. You will find plenty of people walking up and down the carriages offering a whole array of huge padlocks and chains for sale, but I have found simply tying my bag under the seat is sufficient. However, if this is a service you would like to use, no one will be walking off with your stuff, trust me.
Another problem is, like I said, there are only fans. That means the windows are almost always open, so any dirt in the air from outside comes in. That can be a lot of dirt! I once got a severe eye infection from travelling on sleeper class that has still scared me today. It is not just the dust neither. Mosquitos are also happy to come in. If your travelling in an area with a dengue or malaria problem, you should either spray yourself heavily with a DEET based repellent or just don’t travel in this class.
India may be known as a hot country, but it gets pretty cold sometimes, so bring something to sleep in like a sleeping bag or blankets. This will also keep the filth from the bed off your skin. Before settling down for the night, I normally use a damp cloth to wipe the plastic mattress. I predict you will be seriously shocked when you see just how much dust gets through those open windows.
The price for sleeper class is quite reasonable and doubles up as a nights stay when your on a long haul journey. It is often cheaper than a hotel, so it is possible to travel and save money at the same time. However, faster trains tend not to offer sleeper class as an option so that it will be AC or nothing.
Air-conditioned 3 tier 3ac.
Here you will find the same set up as you will find in the sleeper class carriages. Only this time the windows don’t open, but you get AC. It can also get jam-packed, but you can’t stay in this class without a valid 3ac ticket. Meaning no matter what happens, there is only one seat per passenger. There are no vendors except the ones employed by the Indian Railways on here.
It is certainly a more peaceful ride, but the price difference between the sleeper class and 3 ac is quite a lot, so think about it before committing to anything. I normally only travel in this class if my journey passes through an area with a problem with mosquito-borne diseases or I feel poorly, particularly if I have a bad belly. Because the last thing your body will thank you for is sweating it out in sleeper class and dehydrating yourself further. Having AC can work out to be a blessing in these situations, and it is well worth the investment to preserve your health.
Air-conditioned 2 tier 2ac.
These are two-tier births in groups of four. I have only got this class a couple of times myself, but I can say it is quite comfortable, and you are likely to get a good nights sleep. There are also curtains for privacy, and that can make a big difference. You will be given bedding with any class that has AC, and that’s great if you can afford it. If you are on a more extended holiday, then this class will probably remain a nice treat for you. The truth is I have only ever got this class when there is nothing else available, and you need to spend some cash to get things moving.
Air-conditioned 1st class 1ac
I have never actually travelled in this class as I visit India for at least six months, so financially, this is very impractical. It costs a lot more than the sleeper class, and I have never found a need to use it. As I understand it, there are locks on the doors of your cabin, which has between two and four beds. Meals are included, and I should think so too at this cost!
Shatabdi express trains.
These are chair only trains, and they tend to only run over shorter distances. The more comfortable ones will naturally cost a little more, but they are comfortable and fast. Tourist offices often recommend these trains as they are often the faster option. Every time I have ever booked a train from New Dehli to Jaipur, I am offered the train first. The Ajmer Shatabdi express is one of the fastest ways to reach the capital of Rajasthan. I also wholeheartedly recommend them if they are available.
Indias Heritage train journeys.
Even if you don’t like trains, some of the journeys are undeniably breathtaking in India. It is even more exciting if you are on one of the few heritage trains that still run. They tend to be through really scenic areas to make it even more atmospheric. Don’t get me wrong, I am no train enthusiast, but it is hard not to be able to appreciate the romance of chugging through the Indian countryside in one of these.
Two journeys I would recommend is getting the Himalayan Queen between Kalka and Shimla. This journey takes you through countless tunnels as it winds through the pine-clad hillsides of the Himalayan foothills. The other is the Darjeeling toy train that first made its trip along its tiny tracks in 1886! Poor girl isn’t up to much anymore, but you can still make your way 14 km from Ghum to Darjeeling.
Now I have explained about the trains’ classes, let me talk about how to book them. If you would like to book online, the government website is www.IRCTC.in. You will have to register for foreign tickets on this website to use it, and that takes some perseverance. If you use any sites like yatra.com or book in an Indian travel agency, they will happily sort it out for you. Of course, they will obviously take a commission for themselves and just how much it depends on the company.
Travel agencies also have no access to the tourist quota. Only government outlets have that. The tourist quota is seats that are reserved just for foreign tourists. They will cost a few more rupees than normal, but seats on an otherwise booked up train can come out of what seems like thin air. You can book these over the counter at some stations and in tourist offices.
Most large cities such as Dehli, Mumbai, Calcutta, Madras, Udaipur, Agra, Jaipur etc., all have one. I prefer to use the government tourist offices because you will be speaking to a knowledgeable person who can advise you on alternative routes to create your ideal itinerary. They have no interest in upselling you tickets that you don’t need. They are also a fantastic source of impartial advice that is hard to get elsewhere, and with over 3000 train stations, that will come in handy. Don’t forget to bring your passport as the staff will want to take a copy of it with your visa.
Travelling in India by bus.
Busses connect pretty much everywhere in India. It is impressive where they can reach to be fair. There are both government and private bus companies everywhere. I will state right from the start that private companies vary in quality. Try and see the bus before committing to anything, as sometimes the cost does not reflect the comfort.
Your chosen bus could range from hard seats that don’t even recline to a luxurious laydown situation. the later can only be described as being in a big glass fish tank with a double bed in it. There are no seat belts, so just roll around in your tank all night. It is certainly entertaining, but unfortunately, it is not Something I can see taking off in the UK any time soon. A lone woman could face issues with this particular setup as you will have no control over who you’re sharing a bed with. Obviously, this could lead to very compromising situations, indeed. Just something to bear in mind, ladies.
The downside to getting a private bus is the end destination is rarely marked on any maps and can lead you to pay extra to get into town. If you can find the street name and have internet, check how far it is. One very much premeditated scam is to stop far away from the city centre, and when you get off, low and behold, there are rickshaws aplenty ready to take you for an inflated fee. What a coincidence, right?
The local buses are reliable but often not overly comfortable as they get packed out. They are also a cost-effective option as there is no middle man involved and because they are government-run. You can simply get on and purchase your ticket on the bus. When you do, ask for a printed ticket to make sure you are getting charged the right price. If it is not an option, ask a fellow passenger if that sounds right.
When you are travelling to cities, busses that stay in the state tend to use a separate terminal to those that dont. The long haul government busses usually leave from an ISBT (interstate bus terminal.) These two places can be very far from each other, but you can usually get a connecting bus to save the taxi journey. Check online or in your guidebook to see is the case, as they are not always separate. In massive cities like Dehli, Mumbai, Chennai or Kolkata, you will find many bus stations than fan out depending on the general direction they are heading.
I usually go with government service because they stop for way more toilet breaks, and for me, that makes a significant difference for my comfort levels. Private companies can sometimes seem to go an impressive amount of time without stopping for a pee. I have gone for 6 hours or more, and that is just unpleasant. I don’t know how they do it!
Another pro tip for you is that Rajasthani busses offer discounts for a woman. This can come in handy, but sometimes the conductor may “forget” if you don’t ask, although they will get into big trouble if they are caught. I have had to almost wrestle with some conductors to get the ladies’ discount for others travelling with me, although it is okay most of the time.
Getting a public bus has distinct advantages for backpackers. They are frequent, cost-effective and overall a safer choice, in my opinion. Busses are an option that many of us will inevitably have to take, so I wanted to give a board overview of how to use them.
Getting around India by boat.
So boats have their part to play in getting around the subcontinent, and in the Andaman Islands, it is pretty much the only way of getting around in some parts.
Boats are so important in the Andamans. They can be hard to book. The offices get so busy with scores of men trying to push their way to the front. It seems standing in a straight line and waiting your turn is like rocket science here. Women have their own queues in the Andaman Islands, which can be a blessing as this tends to cut more than half your time when waiting for a ticket. Although the behaviour is not much better, there is just way less woman trying to get tickets. If You are the woman in your group, then, unfortunately, you will be standing in the queue. It is just good sense.
On the mainland, boats pop up everywhere to cross rivers or get to islands. The boats will range from roughly seaworthy passenger ferries to dugout canoes. Whatever the case, if it is an option, it is also probably the only option so just embrace and enjoy. If the boat looks too bad, just dont get in it as your life is just not worth the risk. Few boats have life vests or any regulations, so use your own judgement.
In 2014 a serious boating accident occurred off the ross island coast in the Andamans, where 21 people lost their lives. Since then, more and more boats in the archipelago are coming complete with life-saving equipment. Outside of the Andaman Islands, Few boats I have seen come with enough life vests or sufficient safety regulations, so use your own judgement if you have to get one.
There are two more significant places you will definitely need a boat to visit in India. One is the Sundarbans in West Bengal, and if this features on your itinerary, I would suggest booking everything in Kolkata as it is overwhelmingly easier to organise. For further information on Kalkata and how to visit the worlds largest mangroves, check out my post.
The other is in the holy city of Varanasi. Many people will be heading here, and if this includes you, get ready to have to bargain hard for your boat down the Ganges. I strongly recommend you organise one, though, as it is unforgettable to float down the river and take in this extraordinary city. Please take both dawn, and dusk boat rides for the full experience. Visiting Varanasi must be one of the most intense experiences you will ever have on the whole Indian subcontinent. I have written a whole post on India’s city of lights, so please check it out when you have the time.
Getting around India by taxi.
There are taxis available just about everywhere. The problem with this is you will have to negotiate your heart out for a good price for one. In my humble opinion, what must be a winning money-making scheme would be to set up a business fixing broken taxi metres in India. Because, Alas, they always seem to be broken when you ask the drivers to turn them on. Even if they do turn them in, there is a very high chance you will be going the extremely long scenic route.
If that is not enough fun for you, many taxi drivers are involved in hotel commission rackets. Eventually, they will get money from steering you away from your chosen hotel and getting you into another. This can be exhausting on your soul if you do not want this service, so negotiate for everything first!
An easier way and an undoubtedly less stressful one is to use the Ola or Uber apps on your phone. I checked online, and uber is the same app where ever you are in the world. Uber gives a precise cost and is available in most large cities. Ola (www.olacabs.com) is another taxi service but tends to be cheaper than Uber. Using this cuts out that nonsense of negotiating your fair for a sane price. I highly recommend it, if not for anything else, to stop you from going prematurely grey.
Auto Rickshaws, Cycle rickshaws, Hand-pulled carts and just about any other form of local transport.
Auto rickshaws are a widespread form of transport. It looks a lot like a south-east Asian Tuk Tuk, and some times when there are many rickshaws lined up at the traffic lights, it kind of reminds me of the whacky car races as everybody rev’s their engines. I half expect Mutley to come out with a flag as the lights change. They’re fun to get, but they are open, so they can sometimes be very cold or dusty.
In the cities, you may find shared larger auto-rickshaws, and they are cheaper. Providing you can find one heading where you are going. Also, there is often little room for your bag.
You will see many cycle rickshaws while on the road, and they are, as it reads, cycle taxis. All auto-rickshaws are negotiable with their fairs, and trust me when I say I bargain hard with them. However, I will always bargain way less when there is some poor guy who wants to cycle me and my luggage for kilometres at a time. Even more incredibly in Kolcutta, there are men (who tend to be really old) who wish to PULL you on a cart around the city. I have never got on one of these, but, If I did, I don’t think I could find it in myself to bargain at all.
Getting around India by Shared or private Jeeps
In India’s mountainous regions, this is sometimes the only choice to get around if buses are not heading in that direction. Private jeeps offer a distinct advantage in that you can go anywhere you want and take as long as you want. The downside is they are costly for a backpacker as you pay by the seat.
Shared jeeps are the local’s way of getting around in the hills. You can find yourself sharing your journey with just about anything from someones new kitchen furniture to goats. Once in Sikkim, the jeep in front had someone’s corpse tucked inside. The legs were left hanging out the back for some reason. It was weird to see them swung side to side as we drove along the long winding roads. In theory, there should only be one person per seat, but that seldom happens. It can become cramped, and if your travelling for hours on end, it is quite likely bits of you will go numb.
Sometimes I have even found drivers who offer the chance to buy the whole seat? As if it is two? Unless you really want to save money, I would strongly suggest doing this if it is a long journey and this is an option. Once I chose not to do that, and I deeply regretted it. I never want to feel that cosy with a load of strangers again. There were even two people in the driver’s seat! The owner must have really wanted his money’s worth out of his vehicle, is all I can say. Again I would advise double-checking with your fellow passengers how much they have paid to check if you have paid a reasonable price.
Getting around Indian cities by subway
Travel by road can be hot and incredibly slow. The good news is Kolkata, Mumbai and New Dehli, among other cites, have advantageous subway systems that are very reliable and fast. They will not cost you much, and the New Dehli Metro even connects directly to the airport. I Utilise these services if you can as it can save a lot of headaches. Although I would point out that because Mumbai is on a peninsular, all the commuters get funnelled altogether. That means rush hour is intense, and I would not advise trying to get on with your bags at this time as you will be insanely uncomfortable if you can get on at all.
In summary of my post on Getting around India.
India may be a big country, but where there is a will, there is a way. It is not as hard as you may think to negotiate your way across it. Even the most far-flung places are today linked somehow by some means of transport. I think I have given a good start on how to make sense of getting around India. Lord knows there are a lot of ways to do it.
If you have any more questions you think I may have missed, write them in the comments section below, and I will answer them if I can. I hope you enjoyed my article and found it of value. When I start writing like this, you know my post is coming to a close, so with that said, I will see you in the next post and safe travels, my fellow intrepid travellers.
Follow me on social media 🙂