Travelling India by train (a complete guide)
Travelling India by train will be on the cards for many of us while we are on our dream journey across this incredible country. It is just good sense for us to learn everything we can about it before we arrive, and there is a lot to learn. While riding the Indian railways is an absolute joy, it can seem perplexing for the best of us to get used to.
The Indian railway’s rails spread like a misshapen spiders web across the whole subcontinent to all but the furthest reaches of the land. There are more than three thousand train stations that greatly vary in size. Some are the size of a whole village, and some are nothing more than a single platform. To confuse matters further, there are many classes to choose from. Some are fast and luxurious, and some literally rundown tin cans on wheels.
Some journeys can take what seems like an eternity to complete. To be honest, their punctuality given the distance they cover puts our railway system here in England to shame. Sometimes one train can run for more than two days and still be on time! It is almost inevitable you will have to get one so here is my complete guide to travelling India by train to try and make sense of all the confusion. So read on because you might really need this information and thank me later.
My guide will be as clear and concise as you have come to expect if you have been reading my previous work. I don’t like my posts to drag on longer than they need to, as I dont want you to fall asleep on me and want you to actually finish this post. I would imagine it will be of value to you in the future.
Classes of Indian trains.
The Indian railways is a grand engineering feat by anyone standards. It is the worlds biggest single employer of people, and that is astonishing in itself, right? Much 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 low-end classes have access to a toilet. There are many different classes to choose from and I would imagine what your budget will primarily dictate the one you choose.
I will break down what your money will get you on this detailed post on travelling India by train. Hopefully, you will be able to make an informed choice on what you really want after reading this. Let’s start at the begging on the most cost-effective seats on the whole network.
These seats can not be booked in advance, so the benefits are obvious. If you need to get somewhere quickly and all the trains are full, then consider taking this class. The downside is they can get seriously busy and can become a very claustrophobic experience indeed. If you are leaving a big city, it can be just plain uncomfortable, particularly in summer. Once I could hardly get my feet on the floor, there were so many people. It was an awful experience, and I would advise you not to get one of these if you are just leaving a big city in rush hour. It is here you may learn that you are not a fan of confined spaces.
It is 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 just to be safe of course. I have always been met with nothing but hospitality and kindness on here. Some of my fondest memories of meeting the locals have been in general class. It is, by far, the cheapest way to ride the Indian railways.
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 often beats feeling like a sardine in a tiny tin can.
It is the class I usually travel if it is possible. 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 allows for good views with an often exciting experience. The aisles are always full of vendors selling everything from the ubiquitous Indian chai to plastic crocodiles. You will see buskers of all descriptions trying to scratch a living. Blind singers, contortionists and even 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.
There is no AC in this class, only fans. What I have found is book the upper bunk if you can. 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. If you are western, this will only draw attention more.
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 shuteye 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.
I attach the straps from my rucksack to the metal clips underneath the seats for security. It hard for a thief to run off with my stuff, and It definitely does happen. On more than one occasion, people have tried to walk off with my luggage on the train. Local people use chains, but I find just attaching the straps of my bags is okay. You will find plenty of people walking up and down the carriages offering a whole array of huge padlocks and chains for sale. If this is a service you would like to use your luggage would certainly be safe. No one will be walking off with your stuff, trust me.
As I said, there are only fans, and that means the windows are often open. Meaning any dirt or dust outside comes in. Sometimes this can be a lot, and I once got a severe eye infection from travelling on sleeper class. Mosquitos can come in, and if your travelling in an area with a Dengue or malaria problem, either spray yourself with DEET repellent or just don’t travel on this class.
India may be a hot country, but it gets pretty cold sometimes, so bring something to sleep in. This also helps keep any dust from the bed of your body. I normally use a damp cloth to wipe the plastic mattress before I begin my trip. I am sure you will be shocked when you see how much dust gets through those open windows.
This class’s price is quite reasonable and doubles up as a nights stay when it’s a long haul journey. It is often cheaper than a hotel, so if it is possible to organise it overnight, do so as this is a great way to save money when you are on a long trip. However, the faster trains don’t even offer sleeper class as an option, so it will be AC or nothing.
Air-conditioned 3 tier 3ac.
It is 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, making it a more peaceful ride. The price difference between the sleeper class and 3 ac is quite a lot. I recommend this if travelling through an area where there is a problem with mosquito-borne diseases.
Air-conditioned 2 tier 2ac.
These are two-tier births in groups of four. I have only got this class a couple of times. It’s 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 are given bedding with any class that has AC, 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.
I usually only payout for this if there is a reason, such as I feel poorly. Particularly if I have a bad belly, the last thing your body will thank you for is sweating it out on sleeper class and dehydrating yourself further. AC can work out to be a blessing in these situations and it is well worth the investment to preserve your health.
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 have no access to the tourist quota. Only government outlets have that. These are 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. I like to book in the tourist counters and offices, in the train stations.
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 that can advise on alternative routes to help you create your ideal itinerary. They have no interest in upselling you tickets that you don’t need. They are a fantastic source of impartial advice that is hard to get elsewhere, and with all those 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.
In summary of my post on travelling India by train.
Phew, there was a lot to say about that. I hope you found this post useful and insightful If you did, please let me know in the comments section below. If you didn’t, I would like to know anyway so I can improve my work. I always strive to give my readers a better service because you, the people absorbing this content, is what matters.
I genuinely want to spread my knowledge among my fellow backpackers because it has been a painful and costly journey learning this stuff myself. Way back before the internet, there was only the information in the guidebook as a guiding light. Sometime’s I would meet a knowledgable traveller, and I tried to absorb as much information as possible.
Dont get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with information in the guidebooks, but that was the only gospel to travellers everywhere. It was so nice to get some alternative advice I never knew when it would happen again. Now all the information you need is at the click of a button, and there are so many sources. That is why it is important to me that my readers know that my advice is always honest, sincere and well researched.
To find out more about some of the other methods of getting around the vast Indian subcontinent, check out this link. You will find it packed with tricks and tips to help you make sense of the haphazard and extensive Indian transport system. Check it out when you get the time; there may be something more that will help you in the future. So until the next time, my fellow intrepid traveller’s, happy trails.
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