solo female travel india - is solo female train travel in India safe?

Is Solo Female Train Travel in India Safe?

by Ellie Cleary

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Mastering Solo Female Travel India: By Train.

One of my favourite things about India is the train travel.

Planning a trip to India as a (solo) female traveller there are plenty of articles and blog posts out there about safety tips for women. What I couldn’t find much information on, however, was train travel for solo females. What was solo female train travel in India like? Was it safe? What should I do to minimise hassle?

I’d travelled to India and used the trains before, but as part of a group on a tour.

For general train travel advice – including how to book a seat online via the foreign tourist quota –  read my post about Booking Train Travel in India here

I was trying to get a sense of what class I should travel, and what should I do to make sure I was travelling in a safe way. But I couldn’t find much advice available that was specific to solo female train travel in India.

Hence this post in the hope that it may help other women looking to travel solo and take trains in India.

What’s different about Solo Female Train Travel in India?

Why all the fuss about solo female travel in India?

There are many discussions that take place about the safety of travel in India for solo females (or indeed females in small groups e.g. pairs), because the truth is it’s not always the easiest of places to navigate as a female traveller. Travelling alone as a woman is not the norm, particularly outside of cosmopolitan areas, and as a result you will draw attention in what is still a male-dominated society. How much attention and what sort of attention is partly within your control and I’ll cover in the tips below.

solo female train travel India safety tips

Womens’ carriage on the Mumbai local suburban trains (there are no womens’ carriages on long distance trains)

During my recent trip to India I spent 7 weeks travelling around Rajasthan, Mumbai, Delhi and Uttarakhand. I took over 10 train journeys, all of them solo. I learned a few things about solo female train travel in India.

To summarise, train travel is safe, even for solo female travellers, and we should not be put off it. But we do need to think a bit more than we would at home before acting. The advice is directed at Solo Female Travellers but can just as much apply to women travelling as part of a small group of female travellers.

Solo Female Train Travel in India Tips

solo female travel in india is not always easy but the train travel is certainly rewarding!

Train journeys in India are often beautiful – like this one from Mumbai to Pune early in the morning.

Be Prepared to Attract Attention.

You will draw attention as a woman travelling alone, and especially if you don’t look Indian. And in general, the lighter your skin and hair, the more attention you will draw. There are things you can do to minimise the attention and type of attention, but you will still be stared at. Staring is not considered rude, so it’s something that you’ll have to accept. Do not directly return male stares as this is considered an invitation. Sunglasses can be really helpful for this! A smile and a polite sideways head nod at ladies generally goes down well and helps make new friends.

Dressing conservatively / covering up will help minimise attention to some extent. That means wearing loose fitting clothing that covers your legs and arms down to your elbows. Generally I subscribe to the ‘when in Rome’ theory and found that wearing an Indian Kurta (tunic) or Salwar Kameez (loose fitting tunic and trouser suit) was viewed favourably. On occasions though I did feel that I was attracting more attention for being dressed in an Indian way as a foreigner, so this is for you to decide. Even if deciding to stick with western style clothing, a scarf (dupatta) draped backwards across your chest can be very helpful – this is taken to be a sign of modesty.

soul travel blog about responsible travel

Possibly my favourite place in the world… in the open doorway on a train journey.

Get a Local Sim card for your Phone.

This was probably the number one piece of advice I was given for travel in India by myself. Getting a sim card in India is a bit of a mission, but is definitely worth the effort. You can check out Global Gallivanting’s post about how to get a sim card in India here.

The main point about having a local sim is you can use google maps (and thereby thwart any efforts to take you on un-necessary detours), call hotels, liaise with drivers picking you up, etc. It’s just a good safety net to have. It also helped me a lot in terms of staying connected and sharing blog posts as the wifi is still not great in India. In many places you’ll be better off using the 3G.

solo female train travel India safety tips

Some of my younger new found train friends.

Plan your Train Travel in advance.

As a solo female traveller, you want to avoid looking lost/confused in public. You’ll find you get much less hassle if you look confident (even if you’re not feeling it) and look as if you know where you’re going.

Train travel in India is not a turn-up-and-go affair so book tickets well in advance. If you’re not sure where to go at the station, paying a porter to help you with your bag (the going rate is usually 100Rs per bag) can be a good tactic as the porters know which platforms all the trains leave from and where your coach will stop if you show them your ticket.

Anyone coming up to you on the platform and asking to see your ticket may be a scammer (there are particularly reports of this in Delhi) who will tell you your ticket is not valid / your train has been cancelled and you need to buy another one from their travel agency (surprise surprise). This did not happen to me, but I’ve read stories about it – so be aware and don’t show your ticket to anyone apart from the ticket inspector on the train.

Train from Mumbai to Jaipur

Image courtesy of Antriksh, Pixabay

Times of Travel & How to Arrange Train Station Pickups.

Some other advice I was given was to avoid arriving in a new place after dark (or before day break). Which makes perfect sense and sounds all very well until you look at the Indian Railways train schedule, where most trains seem to arrive and depart in the middle of the night. I had one train that arrived at 4am for example, and another at 5am. I had yet another train that was due to leave at 1am.

In those cases I would recommend: pre-organising a pickup from your hotel or guest house (always have at least one night booked in advance for any new place you go). Some hotels will pick you up for free, some for a small charge. Always make a note of the hotel & drivers number and arrange a meeting spot in advance – you can then call them from your local Indian sim to check you’re being picked up by the right person. Ask them to approach you by name or carry a sign so you know it’s them.

If you don’t want to be travelling by taxi / auto rickshaw in the dark an alternative would be to wait at (inside) the railway station until it gets light. Railway Stations always have plenty of staff around, police, and at least one person (the station master) speaks English.

If your train is scheduled to depart in the middle of the night check it is running on time before leaving your hotel. I learned the hard way with this one! I turned up at midnight for my 1am train only to find out it was delayed by 10 hours. My rickshaw had already left, and after trying a couple of hotels no-one was answering the phone at that time. I stayed the night in the train station where there were plenty of locals doing the same thing, but I would not wish this experience on anyone. A ‘train running status check‘ could have saved me the sleepless night.

solo female train travel India safety tips

On the Mumbai suburban railway.

Which Class should I Travel?

There are mixed views on this one. I took most of my train journeys in 3AC (Three-Tier AC) class. For me, that was a compromise between cost and comfort. Generally the advice is that higher class of travel = less hassle = better for female travellers. Personally, I’m not sure that wealth is necessarily the best indication of character.

I was warned by many people not to take ordinary non-AC sleeper class, so I didn’t take it this time. But travellers I have spoken to who have travelled in non-AC ‘Sleeper’ as part of a couple or with friends have said that they found it fine (if basic and grimy) and did not experience any hassle.

If it’s your first time travelling in India solo then I’d recommend to start with 2AC or 3AC and then decide if you want to go for more adventurous classes from there rather than throw yourself in at the deep end. You can find more about the classes of travel in my general India Train Travel post here.  Bedding is provided in the AC classes so the sheets are also handy for covering yourself up more.

My Golden Rule for Female Travellers

If you only take one thing from this post let it be this: try and get the upper-most bunk.

On the upper most bunk you are out of reach of prying eyes and hands. On all my train journeys I only had one dodgy encounter, and that was when I had been allocated the lower bunk. In case you request the Upper Berth but are assigned to a different one, you can always request one of your (male) fellow passengers to switch with you. Usually people are willing to do so.

solo female train travel India safety tips

Enjoying my chai in a 3AC carriage (please excuse the blurry look)

Families and Ladies Travelling are your (new) Friends.

Train Travel is how most Indian families get around. Many will be curious about you, many speak (at least a bit of) English, and it’s a great way to make new friends and find some allies to look out for you. If you find yourself surrounded by would-be male admirers at a station, my favourite tactic is to spot some women or families and go and sit right next to them with a smile. They will understand!

On long train journeys I met some wonderful families, and groups of kids who wanted to entertain my with their card tricks – not only did it make the experience of train travel more fun, and did I make some new friends, but it also made the time pass quicker!

Food on Trains – Should I Eat It?

I often get asked about whether or not to eat the food on Indian Trains. The answer to this really depends on how sensitive your stomach is and how hungry you are! I’ve eaten railway food a few times and had no issues, but I know that other people avoid it. If you are not yet used to Indian food or have a sensitive tum, you’ll be better off bringing your own food.

If buying bottled water or drinks on trains always check that the seal is in tact, as anywhere else. Train food will definitely not win any michelin – stars whether you decide to sample it or not! Personally, I always stick with vegetarian options throughout India, and home-made food in India is always the best.

Solo female train travel India safety tips

After a very long night at Jaisalmer station!

Remember to bring your Confidence Along for the Ride.

Much of solo female travel in India is about acting confident and being assertive. If someone is trying to cheat you, touch you, or generally do something that you don’t want them to do, the best thing to do about it is shout loudly, make a fuss and shame them in public.

In queues (lines) for trains / buses / ATMs do not be afraid to use your elbows and tell people no if they try to jump in front of you. It is also allowed for ladies to ‘push in’ – at ATMs there are separate lines for women, or just confidently head straight to the front. Act confident and like you know where you are going (even if you have no idea!) and far fewer people will hassle you.

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Planning solo female travel in India? Wondering about travelling by train in India as a solo female? Is train travel in India safe? Here are my top tips from months of experience travelling around India by train as a solo female traveller. Here's everything you need to know! Pin this post to one of your boards to find it later!

Sit Back and Enjoy the Journey.

Letting go and realising that I couldn’t control everything going according to plan was one of my biggest learnings travelling in India.

As solo female travellers in India, we can do whatever we can to keep ourselves safe, but it would also be a mistake to let our travels be completely taken over with safety concerns. Like most places in the world, 95% of people are good, friendly, honourable and trustworthy and will want to help you on your travels.

So once you’ve done your due diligence, sit back, relax, and enjoy what Incredible India has in store!

Have you travelled by train as a (solo) female traveller in India? Do you have additional tips to add to this list? Let me know in the comments below! 

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37 comments

Mariellen Ward April 25, 2017 - 3:57 pm

Great tips, Ellie, and I agree with most of what you said. I’ve been taking trains in India for 12 years, almost always by myself, and I haven’t had any terrible experiences. Sometimes, the trains are crowded and un-clean … that’s the worst of it usually. But a lot of the time, I meet amazing people and have a great adventure. It helps to bring snacks, headphones, earplugs (a must in India!) and a book or two. Personally, I travel 2AC most of the time, or CC (Chair Car); and I don’t eat the food. You can actually get food delivered to many trains. And sometimes, the platform food is good. I usually bring a bag of oranges and cashews etc.

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Ellie April 26, 2017 - 2:15 pm

Thanks Mariellen for adding those tips – headphones and snacks are definitely handy! I agree that train travel is safe and one of the most wonderful ways to experience India and meet new people. Thank you for sharing your experiences too. Ellie

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Sapna April 29, 2017 - 10:45 am

Well written post. I am Indian and traveled solo few times. I also take similar precautions.
If I am reaching before dawn then instead of calling cab from hotel, I prefer to wait at station in waiting room.

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Ellie May 1, 2017 - 11:07 am

Thanks Sapna, yes I did the same when arriving early in the morning at Bikaner, I found the stations very safe places to be. Enjoy your travels, Ellie

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Ellis April 29, 2017 - 11:45 am

I travelled in india alone by train in sleeper class and think it is totally fine and safe, especially if you pay attention to the things you mention here. My very first train journey and first day in india i was approached by a man who asked me if i could keep an eye on his grandmother who was travelling alone. I think she took more care of me in the end. The joys of travelling by train in india far outweigh the sometimes dodgy encounters.

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Ellie May 1, 2017 - 11:08 am

That’s such a great story Ellis! Love that you looked out for each other. Good to know as well that you felt comfortable in Sleeper Class, I’ll definitely be giving it a go in future 🙂

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Telma April 29, 2017 - 1:03 pm

Ellie,

Although we visited India as a couple, and I never felt unsafe, I had always wondered how would it be if I was travelling solo.
As foreigners we will always attract attention to ourselves, but I found out that dressing with one the traditional dress, Kurta, it was way better.
Oh yes, countless times I had to my elbows, it was frustrating, but India is not an easy country to travel too. 🙂

Telma

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Ellie May 1, 2017 - 11:09 am

Thanks for the comment Telma! Yes it’s not always the easiest, but I do believe it’s one of the most rewarding countries too 🙂

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Jill at Reading the Book April 29, 2017 - 1:22 pm

I have used the train in India many times but always in a group with a guide. I really admire you for doing this – partly the hassle factor, but mainly just the logistics of getting round India without local help!! This is a great, informative post – thank you!

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Katie April 29, 2017 - 2:13 pm

Great post – you’ve slated my fears on overnights trains solo, I will definitely be using these tips!

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Ellie May 1, 2017 - 11:10 am

thanks Katie! Have a wonderful time on your (train) travels!

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Maria April 29, 2017 - 5:03 pm

A really helpful insight on this sensitive topic, I like your approach that it’ all about confidence. Have been on a train ride in India once but not by myself and I think we intuitively went for your tipp and sat with families, the journey was a wonderful time and something I really like to recall. Although I can imagine it to be a whole different experience when solo traveling. With your tips though, it should work out just fine 🙂 Hopefully I’ll get to make use of them at some point, I’d love to go back to India! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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Ellie May 1, 2017 - 11:12 am

Thanks Maria, actually I think you’re right – intuition is one of the best tools we have! Especially when travelling in places with different cultures. We just need to learn to trust our intuition more, I think… 🙂

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Bucket List Belles April 29, 2017 - 6:19 pm

Great tips! I would love to travel India!! I haven’t backpacked before but definitely will use your tips to do so!

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Ellie May 1, 2017 - 11:12 am

Happy you found them useful – thanks!

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Alex April 30, 2017 - 3:34 am

Really interesting and insightful post. I’ve never been to India but hope to go one day!

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Ellie May 1, 2017 - 11:13 am

Thanks Alex! It’s such a wonderful place, but of course can be full on at times :-).

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Nuraini April 30, 2017 - 4:33 am

This is soooo useful. I am planning to travel across Uttar Pradesh by train this year, and it may be solo. Thank you for these ground truths 🙂

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Ellie May 1, 2017 - 11:14 am

I hope you have a wonderful trip Nuraini! Varanasi is one of my favourite places ever. Agra can be full on and downright challenging, but it is worth it (in my opinion) to see the beautiful Taj. I hope you have a great time! Ellie

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Meg April 30, 2017 - 10:21 am

There’s something quite romantic about the idea of long distance rail travel, isn’t there? I like your practical advice and the tips will be incredibly useful for women planning a trip to India. One day I will make it there, although I’m still in two minds about joining a group tour or going it alone. These tips have given me the confidence to believe in myself that I will be ok as a solo female in India.

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Ellie May 1, 2017 - 11:17 am

Completely agree on the romance! A good long train journey is one of my favourite things in life ;-). Re India, the first time I went was on a group tour (i used Intrepid Travel and had a wonderful time) – companies like that take you on trains so you still get the India experience but with the comfort of having a group and a guide to make the arrangements (which can be complicated in India). Personally, that gave me a lot more confidence for then going back as a solo female traveller. Tours will of course be a bit more expensive than if you do it by yourself. You know yourself best and what you’ll feel more comfortable with! Which ever option you choose, I hope you have a wonderful time :-). Ellie

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Cherene saradar May 1, 2017 - 2:42 am

I really admire you for doing this. I can’t imagine being groped on the lower bunk. Yikes! Very interesting and helpful read. I.Love that you refer to lower classes as adventurous classes. Lol

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Ellie May 1, 2017 - 11:20 am

Thanks Cherene, re adventurous I mean that the non-ac classes can get very crowded and hot (depending on time of year), and can generally be an assault on the senses, so I would think that would be something those looking for more adventurous (vs comfortable) travel. I didn’t experience any groping on the lower bunk, and I don’t know of anyone that has happened to, but there are a couple of stories of that. Happy travels, Ellie

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Karen May 1, 2017 - 11:51 am

These are great tips. I haven’t been to India yet, but I’ve saved it for when I do visit as I plan on taking lots of trains around. 🙂

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Ellie May 1, 2017 - 12:24 pm

Nice Karen, hopefully you’ll make it here soon! 🙂

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Indica May 8, 2017 - 11:44 am

Great post Ellie, lots of great tips! I’ve been travelling and living seasonally (3 – 6 months) in Mother India for the past 15 years. (My roots are from there, although I was born and raised in the wild west, lol.) I would add that there are women-only berths that can be booked, and there are often women-only waiting areas at most urban train stations. All major cities have a foreigner’s booking office where you will be fast-tracked in terms of service, which includes a cushy’ waiting area to boot! I’d also recommend keeping your valuables with you and in sight at ALL TIMES, as train stations are one of the most common places for theft in India. Although I have never been robbed in India, I know many foreigners who have been. Yes ear plugs are a must, definitely top bunk, and take your own food/snacks – train food has gotten dodgier/gone downhill over the years in my experience. I typically ride 3AC, it’s cheap and clean as 3non-AC is a huge difference in cleanliness and overall crowdedness. Hope this helps! Many blessings on your journeys! (And by the way, feel free to check out my ‘India Pilgrimage’ section of my blog which contains many articles for women travelling in India/health tips/what to bring, etc. Love & peace. OM.

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Debashis Bhattacharya October 31, 2017 - 9:27 am

Hi, Ellie, This is a great post. I grew up in India and an Indian. I now live in the UK and not unsurprisingly am a (gracefully) ageing doctor. When I was in India I could not afford AC travel and have travelled extensively in sleeper class. (can`t even imagine this anymore). This was before the internet. I have always attracted a lot of single Western women `attraction` during my travels not because of any romantic or sexual reason, but because they felt extremely safe in my company and I don`t know how would pick me out from a distance. Needless to say that I really enjoyed my travels and was always amazed to see these women were so well researched about the places that they visited. They knew more about India than what I did and this made travel easier. I learnt a lot about the West and the western woman psyche and I must say helped me a lot in my personal development and attitudes to life. Unfortunately, I never kept in touch and never exchanged addresses because I was always conscious of not invading anyone`s privacy. (Another way of saying that I was a lazy letter writer). It pains me to hear that things have changed in India. Not just in India but everywhere. I have only one piece of advice that hasn`t changed since then. having first hand on the ground knowledge. Please DON`T budget it (too much) in India and DON`T take chances. You pay for what you get. In the West, most places have a basic standard, in India, you pay for what you get. And I hope that you meet educated, well-meaning and chivalrous men (like me) who would make your travels more comfortable. Didn`t realise it then but in hindsight, I just may have been `hot` property. Lol!

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Uma January 10, 2018 - 11:10 am

There will not be so much problem nowadays to travel night time. You have written the article very clearly and i like the way you took this article. Definitely worth reading for most of the women out there.

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Hilary Svennevig January 23, 2018 - 5:29 pm

Thanks for these great tips Ellie. I am soon to be travelling alone by train, and have just been informed that I will not have a local guide with me. The journeys are during the day (a 4 hour and 6 hour train journey) and I will be put on the train and met at the other end. However, my main concern is security – I will have to leave my seat at various times of the day! I will obviously not have anyone to keep an eye on my luggage (hopefully the main case will be stored somewhere on the train) but my rucksack etc. Do I just take everything with me when I leave my seat?

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Robin Waldman August 20, 2018 - 3:56 am

Thank you so much for this article. I’m traveling solo to India in December and I’ll be traveling by train; two long trips involving night travel. You eased some of my concerns and provided some great tips.

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Ellie August 20, 2018 - 8:58 pm

Hi Robin that’s wonderful to hear! I love the train travel in India, I hope you enjoy it too. Where will you be visiting?

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Robin Waldman August 20, 2018 - 9:21 pm

First I’m going to Sawai Madhopur for a few nights in hopes of seeing a tiger and other wildlife. then I’m off to Udaipur for two weeks to volunteer at Animal Aid Unlimited. I wish I had more time to visit more places but unfortunately work gets in the way. Mumbai to Sawai Madhopur and Sawai Madhopur to Udaipur will be by train.

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Raj Kumar September 8, 2018 - 9:41 am

It is more difficult for women to travel in the train if they are alone, if they have a family with them, they can easily travel because there is not enough security for the Indian Railways, which raises questions about their safety Important steps should be taken to safeguard women, to facilitate the journey in their train and to make their travels unfamiliar.

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First Time India: How to Prepare (and What to Expect!) | Soul Travel May 9, 2019 - 2:12 am

[…] Trains are relatively comfortable in India (providing they’re on time that is!) and often make the most convenient and interesting option for inter-city journeys. For more comfort go for 2 or 3 tier AC as opposed to the non AC option, and enjoy the opportunity to meet and talk to people—you’ll find that many Indians are happy to have an opportunity to converse in English and are curious to know more about you. Trains can fill up quickly so advance booking is recommended and booking can be a challenge—if you’re tight on time and need to get to specific places on a schedule it is well worth looking into using a travel agent to book trains, as trains do sell out. Trains are also a good option for solo female travellers. […]

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