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On the Rails in India - Navigating Train Travel

INDIA | Friday, 27 May 2011 | Views [11687] | Comments [4]

India is a country that grows on you in time. It is overwhelming in its population, culture and poverty, yet every time I leave it I have a yearning to go back. I don't know what the constant pull is, but ask anyone that has travelled there and they’ll all tell you the same thing. It is a country of contradictions, of love and hate, of ups and downs. But is it a country that beckons to be explored. 

If you travel in India you are bound to do so by train at some point or another. Train travel in India is the lifeblood of the country. It is by far the most economical and efficient form of transport to get around. It can be a bit confusing at first and a daunting experience, but it doesn't need to be.

Below we have compiled advice and tips helping make your time catching trains in India as smooth and as easy as possible.

Bookings & Reservations

There are a number of different ways that you can reserve your ticket for your train travel in India. But by far the most efficient is online at http://www.irctc.co.in/ But be warned, this isn't the easiest website to navigate and figure out, and you’ll need to know your train number before booking. The website http://www.indianrail.gov.in/ will help you with that too. Once you get the hang of the back and forth between pages it does become a little less confusing. The best advice would be to give yourself some time before booking the ticket to actually work your way around the sites and find all the information you need.

If you would prefer to talk with a person and not book online, many hotels and travel agents have booking facilities. You can also book directly at the train station, where you will find a teller that is only for tourists.

It is advisable to book at least a few days in advance-as tickets sell out fast. This is especially so during festivals and holiday times. If there are no tickets available you can be put on a waiting list-but there is no guarantee that you will be given a ticket until the train arrives. It is possible to (sometimes) be able to bribe the train reservations manager if it is urgent that you must get on the train, but you didn't hear that from me ;)

Understanding the Class System

Depending on your budget and comfort levels will depend on which class you chose to travel on. There is a dramatic difference in price and comfort level throughout and understanding these classes will ensure that you are getting what you pay for.

1AC This class is the equivalent to 1st class and is complete with air-conditioned, your own private berth and locking doors for two people or four people. This is the deluxe of Indian train travel at Indian standards

2AC This class is also air-conditioned and has two tiered beds, where 4 people sleep per berth. There is a curtain you can pull across for some privacy

3AC This class is the one we mostly used whilst in India and is also air-conditioned and three tiered beds with 6 people per berth. The price difference between 2AC and 3AC is miniscule and we would sometimes opt for 2AC for the extra space.

CC- This is a carriage with chaired reclining seats. The carriage is also air-conditioned and the seats are covered in vinyl so be prepared for sweaty legs on long train rides. We chose this option when we were on shorter train rides.

SL This class is sleeper class and is non-air conditioned carriages. We slept this class on one occasion when there was limited space left on an 18 hour train ride. We had never been so hot in our lives. I would highly recommend air-conditions if possible during the hotter months in India.

2S- This is a free for all class and it is unreserved seating. First in first served. The tickets are unbelievably cheap and there is a reason why. They pack people in like cattle and in you can fit into a small space anywhere in this carriage you're good to go. I can't think of anything worse than being stuck in a cramped carriage for 18 hours. Not recommended!

Checking In

Once you have your booking number you will now present this at the station to receive your ticket for your train. This will have your seat number along with your booking reference number and your name on it. Once the train arrives, you will have to check the corresponding carriage with your ticket. There will also be a piece of paper stuck to the train with your name and bed number which needs to match the one on your ticket. Once you have searched for your correct carriage and you have reconfirmed all your information. You are finally right to board the train.

As stated before, head to the tourist booth in the train station to receive your ticket.

Navigating Indian train stations can be confusing. They are busy, loud and the signs are confusing. Allow yourself plenty of time to get to the station, receive your ticket and to find your way to the correct platform!

Waiting & Boarding The Train

You may find yourself waiting for a long time for a train. Don’t worry! Most trains never run on time-especially if you are at a station where the train isn’t starting point for the trip. Just, be patient. We had to wait for a train until 3am in the morning once, which was supposed to arrive at 9pm. No matter how long it takes, the train will most always arrive!

If you have booked an AC ticket quite often at station there are rooms for you to wait in while you train arrives. This can be a great place to escape the heat or the cold.

There are also rooms just for females, so if you are travelling solo this can be a good place to wait to stay safe and comfortable.

Essentials for any train trip are a good book, iPod, ear plugs (for the snoring symphony that is bound to be on board!) eye mask as well as some warm clothing (if you have booked an AC carriage). We constantly use these items on trains and can be your saving grace when travelling long distances.

Remember though to look out the window so you don't miss the beautiful countryside whilst travelling by train as well as chatting to others in the berth with you is great to hear other’s stories. Try not to sleep away your experience. Getting to your destination is part of the travel experience!


If you will be commuting on a train for a long period of time it is important that you wear comfortable loose clothing. Taking socks and a jacket in the AC carriages will ensure you are kept cozy and warm. These carriages will also provide you with a pillow and blanket.

Food & Water

Depending on which train you are taking there may be a food carriage on board. If not there is never a shortage of food. Vendors will board the train each time it stops at the station, giving you the opportunity to buy every samosa, dosa or chai that comes on board. You can also bring your own food on with you if you prefer. We opted to take our own food on with us and bought a compact metal container with various compartments. We went to a restaurant before getting on the train and filled it up with various curries, rice and naan. We also bought the odd cup of chai or samosa every now and again. The bottom line-you won’t go hungry on trains in India!

Do not drink the water on board the train unless it is bottled. Make sure you bring enough for your trip-especially if it is a long ride.


We found the general hygiene of most trains to be satisfactory. Sheets were clean as well as the sleeping bunks. Toilets are another story all together, even if you do use the western one that is on board. They are often smelly, dirty and are just something you need to deal with. We think the squatter toilet is better to use on board, as there are no points of contact. Toilets are shared both men and women and can be a mission to use while the train is going!

It is advisable to bring your own toilet paper as well as baby wipes (for a quick ‘shower’) and hand sanitizer as a secondary measure to clean your hands.


Try and fit your luggage away under the beds and out of sight from peering eyes. You may wish to secure your bag with a chain and lock, or use a pac-safe to keep you from worrying about your belongings. We generally slept with our daypack in bed with us that had all our important belongings in it. Our larger backpacks were tied under our beds. We never had any problems with security while on the trains.

Of course, the obvious still goes, don’t flash your expensive belongings about like your laptop, iPod etc. Keeping it out of sight will minimise the chance of you being a target for theft.

Know Your Stop

Always know the name of your train station and approximately the time of your arrival. Talking to fellow Indian passengers will give you an understanding of how close you are to your station. The carriage conductor changes on a regular basis so don't leave it up to them to tell you when to get off. The may be several stops in the same city, so know the name of the station not the city you are travelling to.

Train travel in India can and be exhilarating and an exciting way to travel. Using some precautions along the way will help you stay safe but most of all enjoy your travels in such an exotic country!

Have you travelled by train in India? Do you have any more tips to add?

Related articles:

Tips - Before Travelling to India

Learn Hindi with World Nomads Hindi Language Guide

About the Author

Anthony is one half of the dynamic duo at Positive World Travel. He is travelling the world on an indefinite journey sharing his experiences through HD video, photos and articles. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter for more of their travel experiences.

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