Travelling by train is one of the quintessential Indian experiences. Apart from being a great way to see the country, travelling by train is often more efficient and definitely more pleasant than other options, because you don’t have to deal with long airport commutes and stressful (and nausea inducing) car and bus rides. Sleeper trains are particularly efficient because you can enjoy a full day of sightseeing on either side of your journey (plus a cheap nights accommodation). Soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the scenery on one of the historic toy trains is a must do as is traveling on one of the unbelievably busy city trains or metros.
Navigating the Indian Rail system can be almost as entertaining as the train journey itself and we’ve had a lot of practice so here are our top tips:
Indian trains are very popular and some sell out months in advance, especially in high season. Trust us when we tell you that twelve hours in a comfortable AC2 bunk is infinitely superior to twelve hours of squatting next to the toilet in an unreserved coach. Bookings open between 4 months and 30 days in advance depending on the train.
You might not want to prebook in order to maintain flexibility, but at a minimum, you should get your login sorted out and do a test booking to make sure it’s working so that when it does come time to book trains you’re ready. Getting a login takes between 1 and 2 weeks.
If you book using Cleartrip, you can cancel tickets easily and get the majority of the money back into your credit card in a few days. So consider booking some of the more important trains and having the option to cancel later. The booking websites show you how many seats are left in each class so you can work out which are the more popular trains. Note that you are limited to 6 bookings per login per calendar month so stagger your bookings (or get two logins). Cancellations are counted in the 6 which is annoying.
Use Seat 61
Seat 61 tells you almost everything you need to know about the train system including how to get a login, what the different classes are like and how the waitlist system works (very important!). Read this first http://www.seat61.com/India.htm because I am not going to repeat much of it here.
Watch out for station names
Most cities in India have two names (e.g. Mumbai vs Bombay), many cities have more than one station and some stations have names which have nothing to do with the name of place you’re going to (e.g. Ernakulam for Kochi). Names are not used consistently (e.g. the website may say something different from your printed ticket and your map might be different as well) and spelling is also inconsistent. To make matters worse, sometimes the mainline station is in a nearby town (e.g Villupuram for Pondicherry) or more than one possible station serves an area. Wikitravel can be a good resource for figuring out which station you’re aiming for and for finding the unique three letter station codes which are very useful. Cleartrip also has a ‘search nearby stations’ feature which comes in handy.
Most of the booking websites will only allow you to search direct trains so you need to look elsewhere to figure out what the best connections are. Google and Rome2Rio are useful for this, as are the TripAdvisor forums. It helps to have an Indian rail map in front of you if you’re trying to work out something tricky. If you book a journey with a connection, it will count as 2 bookings towards your monthly 6. Note that some trains only run on specific days of the week so you have to plan your itinerary accordingly.
Many of the booking websites do not show ‘passenger trains’ which are slow, unreserved local trains. These can be very useful for short distance and day-time travel and for getting to the starting point of a longer train journey. Find schedules at http://www.trainenquiry.com/ntes/ and arrive 15 minutes ahead to buy a dirt-cheap ticket.
Preparing for your journey
The AC coaches on Indian trains are very comfortable with clean bedding, western toilets and regular food and drink vendors. It is worth having something warm to wear (the AC can be cold) and an eye mask and ear plugs. Don’t go anywhere in India without toilet paper/pocket tissues. Petty theft does happen, so don’t leave your luggage unattended, and keep your valuables on your bunk. A cable lock is handy for locking your bags in place. The stations tend to be mosquito infested so bring repellant.
It is very useful to know where you are, especially in the middle of the night and if your train is running behind schedule (highly likely). Download an offline map (maps.me is excellent) and save the detailed station-by-station schedule from http://enquiry.indianrail.gov.in/mntes/ so you can figure it out. You can check this same site to see whether your train is running on time, but be careful about arriving late, the trains do catch up time. You can also use this site to check on your ‘PNR status’ which will tell you if your seat number has changed, or if you have been upgraded from RAC (reservation against cancellation) to Reserved or from waitlist to RAC. You are not actually allowed to board the reserved part of the train if you are still on the waitlist (you can board with an RAC), although it’s worth talking to the conductor to check for last minute cancellations.
Enjoy the adventure!