Those who’ve been to India will know.
Unlike other countries, train travel in India is many things. But being ‘turn-up-and-go’ is definitely not one of them, especially not for foreigners.
I tend to subscribe to the saying that you haven’t been to India (let alone experienced India), until you’ve taken a long ride on Indian Railways. The view of this beautiful country is unrivalled – not at 30,000 feet, but from your bunk in a sleeper train carriage, chatting to new-found friends.
Planning (solo) female travel by train in India? Read my safe train travel tips for women here!
The third largest employer in the world, mover of 25 million passengers ever day, and owner of the longest railway platform in the word (amongst other trivia), Indian Railways is an experience not to be missed.
Planning my last trip in India proved something of a challenge, because I wanted to travel by train wherever possible. And unlike most countries, where you can employ at least a bit of the “let’s keep things flexible” mentality, in India it’s far trickier to do this if you are travelling independently (without a tour or guide), and especially if you’re only in the country for a couple of weeks.
What makes things more challenging, is that it’s not easy to book train travel from outside of the country. So you create your itinerary gambling on the fact that you’ll be able to get on a train between A and B on a certain day.
Here I’ll share some of my learnings about how planning train travel in India works, how you can most easily book tickets, and what I have learned about the best way to handle the ticketing system.
Planning Train Travel in India
1. Sign up for an IRCTC Account.
Update November 2017: You can now get an IRCTC account with a foreign mobile number. You’ll need to pay about 150 RS to activate your account, you just need to enter your foreign mobile number (including country code) during the signup process on IRCTC’s website. This will also enable you to book Foreigner Tourist Quota Tickets if you sign up as a foreigner, but the quota only exists online for 1AC & 2AC classes.
You won’t be able to book tickets online at all (or via an App) without an IRCTC account. IRCTC stands for Indian Railways Catering & Tourism Cooperation and is the Government body that oversees all railways in India. The tricky part? You won’t be able to validate your account without an Indian mobile phone number, where an SMS with a one time pass code is sent. Assuming you (like most foreign travellers) don’t have an Indian mobile number or have friends in India whose mobile numbers you can use, you need to send an email to customer care at IRCTC requesting that you validate your account by email instead of text message, together with a scanned copy of your passport (email: [email protected]). After waiting patiently for a reply for up to 24 hours, you may need to follow up on your request.
2. Booking Tickets with an IRCTC Account.
Once you have a validated IRCTC Account, booking is relatively easy. You can either download an app like Cleartrip, which is easy to use and will allow you to search for trains and book them, allowing you to choose your train, class of travel and preferred bunk (upper / middle / lower – note that you’re not guaranteed to get it), etc. They accept international Visa and MasterCard credit cards. Agents like Cleartrip will charge a booking fee per reservation. The IRCTC website now also accepts international credit cards (although personally I found this to be hit and miss so often ended up booking on Cleartrip).
Login, search for trains between your chosen destinations and preferred class of travel. Availability on trains opens up 120 days prior to departure. Many trains get booked up weeks if not months in advance, so this is where having an account well in advance helps. If your train is still available, simply book a confirmed ticket, note your booking number (called a PNR) and away you go! If not, read on…
3. Booking Tickets without an IRCTC Account.
If you don’t want to sign up for an IRCTC Account or don’t have time, you will be able to request train bookings through travel agents in India. This can be handy if your stay is short and you want to take specific trains. Do still request train bookings in plenty of time as travel agents do not have access to additional inventory compared to the inventory publicly available on IRCTC’s website.
If all else fails, you can turn up at any Railway Station in India and book trains in person (payment is by cash only). All Railway stations have someone who speaks English – and larger Railway stations have ticket windows that are dedicated to train bookings for foreigners. There is also a foreigner quota that is available only in person at railway stations. Try and go to the station to book your tickets at the earliest chance possible, as the trains sell out. Beware anyone trying to point you away from the ticket office and towards their own travel agency.
4. Classes of Travel.
Indian Railways is famous for having a total of 9 different classes of travel. Worry not though, you won’t have a choice of all 9 on any given train. The choices are essentially First Class / 1AC, 2AC (Two-Tier AC), 3AC (Three-Tier AC), and Sleeper (Non AC). Classes like 2nd (non AC chair cars) are not recommended for long journeys and are very basic. On Shatabdi express trains there are also Chair Cars (CC – Air Conditioned) and Executive Chair Cars (First Class Air Conditioned).
The main difference between the Air Conditioned Sleeper Classes (from what I’ve experienced – trains can be different) are as follows:
- First (1AC) gets you a locking compartment with 2 or 4 of you. It’s not possible to choose the 2 or 4, it’s down to pot luck on the day. Slightly thicker pillows are included but apart from the locking compartment door the rest is the same as 2 or 3AC – in that toilets and washbasins are at the end of of each carriage. First is not particularly fancy and costs double the price of 2AC. I was not a fan of my one and only experience in first, mainly as I ended up in a compartment of snorers (you can read about that one here). On some special Radjhani Express trains, meals are included. It can however be a good option if waiting lists on all other classes are very long and you need to get somewhere. It’s also the class that Indian Ministers and important persons tend to travel. So if you fancy some networking…
- 2AC / Two Tier AC. The layout is open plan within the carriage and comes with bays of 2 bunks opposite 2 bunks, and a further 2 sideways against the side of the carriage. The main advantage of 2AC is that the upper bunk is less high (as the bunks are only 2 high vs the 3 high in 3AC) and there are curtains around each bunk to provide some privacy. Bedding (sheet, blanket and pillow) is provided. Clean toilets are at the end of each carriage.
- 3AC / Three Tier AC. Same open plan layout as 2AC but with 3 bunks facing 3 (so the top one is a bit of a climb), and there are no curtains. This is the class I travelled in for 90% of my train journeys and I found it to be comfortable. (Solo) women should try and get the top bunk. Bedding is included and it’s pretty clean. In all Air Conditioned classes the windows are of course sealed against the dirt which keeps them warmer in winter and cleaner.
Non AC Sleeper is basically the same layout of 3AC, but a third of the price, and rumour has it, a lot grimier. Windows are open so the carriages get hot in summer and cold in winter. Bedding is not provided so bring your own. Everyone warned me about not going in Sleeper class as a foreigner (especially as a solo female) so I did not try it this time. But those travellers I spoke to (couples and groups of friends) reported that they’d had no problems, it was just grimy and hot/cold depending on season. If it’s your first time in India then probably best to start off in AC.
5. But the Train I want to Take is Full! And all the others!…
Worry not. Not just yet anyway. There are some options that do not involve flying or taking the bus to help you get a train ticket when your train (and all others) appear to be full.
Tatkal. This is the name of the service which is a quota of emergency travel tickets that is released at 10am the day before departure of the train. You (or your travel agent or other trusted envoy) need to be at the station before that time to get a spot in the line and fill out a form. You can then likely get a ticket for your desired train, albeit at an extra 30% of the normal price as a “Tatkal Premium”. Recently some agencies have started offering Tatkal tickets on line (such as Cleartrip) but this seemed hit and miss so I wouldn’t recommend relying on it. The Tatkal quota is increasing as more and more tickets are being held back by Indian Railways to be sold at the premium price. This is a way that they can increase revenues without putting up base fares.
Book a Waitlist Ticket. During my travels I had a waitlist ticket. Once a train is ‘full’ – i.e. standard non Tatkal tickets sold out – then the waitlist will open up. The first 2 spots are called RAC and mean you’re top of the waiting list. If you are RAC 1 or RAC 2 your tickets are 99% likely to be confirmed due to cancellations etc, and you can even board the train with an RAC ticket (although it’s not quite clear which compartment you’ll be allowed to travel in). Then you have Waitlist spots 1 up to a few hundred depending on the popularity of the train. I’ve been on Waitlist 6 and had my spot confirmed. Anything about 15 or 20 gets a lot more unlikely. Often, spots aren’t released until the day of travel (as how many waitlist spots will be confirmed is dependent not only on cancellations but how many tickets are sold in Tatkal (see above). So this can add some uncertainty to your journey. If you need to travel on that day, it’s likely better to pay the extra for a confirmed Tatkal ticket.
Get Creative with your “from” Station. On queueing up to buy a Tatkal ticket from Bikaner to Haridwar, a friendly local stepped in to enquire where I wanted to go. Suspecting “come to my travel agency” stories, I told him anyway and he suggested that I didn’t need to pay extra for a Tatkal ticket, but I could instead buy a ticket from a place called Luni in Rajasthan (how appropriate a name) but “getting on at Bikaner”. Luni was a small station in the middle of nowhere that not many people travelled from, before Bikaner on the line. But because there are quotas from each station that a train calls at, there were still standard price tickets for sale to my destination as opposed to paying several hundred rupees extra for Tatkal. This may or may not be a “grey area” but the ticket office sold it to me without questioning and the ticket inspector on the train seemed quite happy. You can only buy tickets with a different “getting on point” in person.
6. Take Plenty of Snacks for the Journey.
Food vendors generally get on and off trains but are remarkably unpredictable as to when they’ll appear.Multiple chai wallahs can walk down the carriage in quick succession, only to vanish again for another few hours. Many foreigners are reluctant to eat train-food – with different advice being given out about whether it’s a sensible decision to eat or not. Personally I’ve eaten it a couple of times and had no stomach issues, but regardless, it’s for sure not going to win any michelin stars. Vendors get on the trains at stations, so if your train is delayed (a common occurrence) it can be that there will not be any vendors for food or water wandering through the train for a long time – so definitely take provisions with you!
7. Stay up to date with the status of your ticket (and train).
Once you have your booking number (PNR) you can easily track your progress on the waitlist and check for any changes to seat assignments. If you are not issued with a seat number at time of booking, these are typically issued after 2pm on the day prior to travel (after Tatkal allocations have been released and waitlist tickets confirmed (or otherwise). You can check your PNR on Cleartrip, IRCTC or text your PNR to 139 from an Indian Mobile. Reservations charts are also printed off at each station, and pasted on the side of each carriage on the train. Make a note of your train number too as it’ll make finding your platform easier.
It’s also worth checking if your train is on time before setting out for the station. I learnt this the hard way, turning up at 1am for my train only to find it was delayed by 10 hours. And that’s not uncommon at all, although all of my other trains were on time. It seems some trains have a better reputation than others so do listen to what hotel mangers / station staff tell you. You can check your train status on this website.
7. Remember it’s about the Journey, not the Destination.
One thing’s for sure if you travel by train in India – you’ll go back home with stories to tell. Train travel can be hot, crowded, delayed, but it can also be the most wonderful way to experience this beautiful country, meet its people and experience all of India’s perfect contradictions. So relax and watch India roll by.
Have you travelled in India by train? Got extra tips to share from your experiences?
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A Londoner by birth Ellie has lived in the UK, Netherlands, India and now Canada. Prior to blogging, she worked for 12 years in hospitality and online travel. Ellie started this blog during a sabbatical trip in 2015 around South Asia, to help conscious travellers find the best inspiration for their next sustainable trip. When not travelling, she is happiest with wine, pasta and a good (travel) book. Ellie is also Founder of Soul Travel Consulting which helps travel brands communicate their sustainability initiatives.