A while ago, I waxed lyrical about the train journeys I embarked on through Northern India, the Punjab, Rajasthan and Goa. The romance, the scenery, the interesting people you’ll meet and the endless supply of chai are reasons enough to book yourself on at least one train ride if you’re visiting the subcontinent. But Indian trains are also the most efficient way of covering long distances overland; they’re often direct, cheap, and if you’re travelling overnight, they’re also surprisingly comfortable.
However, booking these journeys can actually be pretty complicated, and I bumped into more than a few confused or stranded travellers during my time in India. So I thought I’d make a seperate post outlining a ‘how to’; especially to highlight how to actually secure yourself a spot on the trains.
Use the right resource
Booking India trains at first seemed a little scary to me. The Indian Rail Government website is the official resource for train times and the like. But it’s pretty confusing on the eye, so scrap that and use Cleartrip, which I found seems to be by far the simplest way, and reads in much the same way as Western transport booking websites. It even has its own iPhone app, which was a Godsend.
Book well ahead.
I’m all for the care-free backpacker lifestyle of letting things ‘just happen’ and deciding on next destinations upon a whim (lol jk I’m an absolute planning nazi), but can’t express enough how important it is to plan ahead when travelling in India! You don’t want to be caught out in a dilemma or stuck somewhere with no onwards transport in a country which already so overwhelming and frustrating. Especially between major cities such as those within the Golden Triangle of Agra, Delhi and Jaipur. Towns and cities with major attractions can sell out weeks, maybe even months in advance of the journey, especially around public holidays like Holi. Basically, don’t just turn up at the station on the day and expect to jump on the next departing train.
The booking system for trains in India is complex. We sat down with a bottle of wine one night a good few months before our trip and booked all of our major journeys via Cleartrip. You can download the app for iPhone and change bookings closer to the time if you need to; it’s just good to know you have something booked and won’t be left on the dreaded ‘waitlist’.
The waitlist is what people are booked into when there aren’t any available seats left, meaning your journey is dependable upon cancellations. Despite researching availability months in advance, we found ourselves at numbers 3, 4, 11, 44, etc. in the waitlist for seats on quite a few journeys; I assume this because we were booking travel during the busy Holi period in March. The worst part? You don’t find out whether or not you have managed to bag a seat on the train you would like until four hours before departure, and even then you only find out via either a text message to an Indian phone number (which us travellers won’t have), or via a log-in platform online (chances of wifi, or being able to read Hindi? Slim).
Of course, there are always a number of tickets reserved for those who go to a travel agency, or buy from the station, however it can be a hassle and take a day or more trying to sort. Furthermore, there are more than likely going to be hidden costs when you purchase through a travel agent or tout, and a lot of stress. Or you’ll simply pay the money but end up on an unsuccessful waitlist anyway, which is what happened to a friend of ours.
Don’t panic too much about the waitlist though; even if you’re twentieth in the queue, Indian trains are ginormous, so the chances of twenty people cancelling are relatively high.
If you’re starting your train travel in Delhi…
Delhi railway station in Paharganj has a Tourist Travel Bureau, which apparently stocks tickets especially for visitors long after they’ve sold out online. You can book the entirety of your trip with these guys since they cover thousands of stations across India. They’re the only completely trustworthy vendor.
Choosing your train carriage
Indian trains offer a plethora of options for the traveller: AC1, 2 and 3 being the most comfortable option for long-distance overnight journeys, since these are the cabins which offer beds. Reserved seating is better for comfortable and clean day journeys, and sleeper or unreserved second class for those on a budget who are travelling on shorter journeys of up to five or six hours. Matt and I bedded down for the ride in all but the unreserved second class during our time in India and never had a bad experience. Sometimes it can take a little while to find the correct carriage, or your reserved seat, but helpful locals always got us there within a few minutes.
AC2 is by far the best option for a budget traveller or backpacker of any age who is on a long overnight journey. Sleeping berths are air conditioned (hence, the ‘AC’), and two-tier, with compartments sectioned off by curtains for privacy. The top bunks can be folded up and down, meaning during the day, there’s more space to sit or move around on the bottom seats. In the evening, clean bedding is provided. The toilets are bearable (by Indian standards), and most of your fellow passangers will be middle-class professionals and families.
AC3 is the same as AC2, with curtains and small tables, however a little more crowded since there are three tiers of bunks, not two, to every berth, and AC1 is in theory cleaner and quieter. Asides from that, there’s little difference.
We even spent our ride between Varanasi and Rishikesh in a rather expensive First Class cabin, due to First Class being the only option left availble when we changed our travel dates last minute. There was hardly any difference at all between ‘First class’ and the other AC options, other than the grossly inflated price.
For shorter journeys, you have the option of executive chair class (posh), AC chair class (so-so), unreserved second class or sleeper cabins.
Sleeper did us just fine, despite being the cheapest and therefore of a significantly lower standard than any mentioned above. Sleeper and unreserved second usually have fans, but are ventilated due to the lack of glass in the windows anyway. If you snooze, you lose as far as seats go, and some carriages can get incredibly crowded, but we never had difficulties.
Arrive at the station early.
Some stations have as many as twenty platorms, and we learned the hard way, you do not want to be caught short of time, sprinting around with your backpacks trying to find the correct one.
Yes, I mentioned my appreciation for the abundance the food that is available on the trains but we did endure this one 15 hour journey where, for some reason, not a single vendor passed us by. S.I.. ‘Standard India’. We were shaking with hunger by the time we arrived at our destination and all I could envision was KFC and Mcdonald’s, the latter of which I succumbed to, then later regretted. Blergh. Biscuits, crisps, fruit and samosas are essential backups!
Get a middle or high tier bed.
This is especially important if you’re a female traveller. Or just wanting some sleep. You’ll need privacy, and quiet, neither of which are available on a lower bed next to the isle. And, more importantly, you’ll need to keep your belongings well out of reach of sneak-thieves who may run down the aisle.
Also, if you’re a solo female, try to assure you get a bunk at a 90 degree angle to the isle, so you can sleep with your feet next to it and your head and belongings on the side with the window for space and security.
Bring along a bike lock.
Plenty of travellers bring bike locks or giant padlocks along with them on any trip, to fasten their belongings to the rails of their beds. The same applies to transport. Other essential items include ear plugs, a travel pillow, a good book and a sense of humour.
Even in the most uncomfortable of set-ups. It will always be returned.