Taking the train has been, and always will be, my favourite way to get around: no matter where I am in the world. I love everything about it- staring out the window, watching people get on in different cities and the general convenience.
It should be no surprise then that I could never dream of taking a domestic flight in India. Taking the train is actually one of my favourite experiences in India and one that everyone should have for themselves. The views out the windows, the chai man going round giving everyone their tea and the friendly families curious to speak to you. What’s more, it’s cheap and comfortable, too. If I can pay 300 rupees to fall asleep in Mumbai and wake up on the beaches of Goa, why on earth would I pay 5,000 rupees to fly?!
I understand, though, that not everyone feels the same way as I do. Taking the train in India can feel intimidating. Walk into an Indian train station and you’ll probably see more people in one place than you might ever have seen in your life and a whole scope of wealth disparities.
Plus, the reservation system can be VERY confusing so taking a flight might just seem like the all-round better option.
But, let me tell you, there’s no need.
To help you make sense of it all, I’ve put together this guide which will hopefully encourage you to experience an Indian train journey for yourself. If I’ve left anything at all unanswered, please leave me a comment and let me know!
Safety on Trains in India
One of the biggest concerns when it comes to transport in India is personal safety. I travelled in India alone last year, took overnight sleeper class trains and, for me, the experience was fine. That’s not to say it’s going to be fine for everyone but in all the journeys that I took, I never had any bad experiences. Yes, there are some people who will shamelessly stare at you but, remember that you might be the first non-Indian person that they’ve ever seen. The Western media fills our heads with stories about “what India’s like” but it’s not always what you think.
If you ever do feel uncomfortable, though, speak to the conductor. The staff on the trains are friendly and accommodating so if you’re a solo travelling female and find yourself in a carriage full of curious men, just ask the conductor if you can move. They’ll probably keep an eye on you, too.
Usually, when I get on trains, I’ll make friends with a family nearby and to be honest, I’ve never been in a carriage full of men. There are always families around- smile, say hello (English is widely spoken in India), establish common grounds and you’ll instantly feel more at ease!
As friendly as people seem, though, use your common sense and remain cautious. You’ll see signs up on the train saying not to take food from strangers and this is a wise rule to follow. 9 times out of 10 it’ll be fine, but I simply wouldn’t take the chance.
To keep your luggage safe, buy a chain and padlock. These can be bought cheaply at the stations so don’t worry about bringing one from home. You’ll be able to lock your bag up under your chair while you sleep. Just remember to unlock it on time when you’re coming into your station!
And, finally, this seems like a given, but remember to dress appropriately on the trains. Unless you’re in Goa or a huge attention seeker, shorts are a no-no in India. Actually, when I was travelling alone, I even stopped wearing backpacker-y clothing like elephant pants on the train. In the cities, these were all I wore, but when I was on a train alone, I tried to draw less attention to myself. When I arrived, I picked up a couple of kurtas and wore these. Kurtas can be picked up cheaply and, along with a pair of leggings, are really comfortable and conservative looking on long train rides.
Train Classes on Indian Trains
Indian train classes can be VERY confusing. It’s hard to distinguish which will be better than which just by looking at the names and there are a lot of classes!
Usually, tourists stick to Sleeper Class, 3AC, 2AC and 1AC. There are also other classes with unreserved seats but these are usually jam packed and a bit of a free for all! Unless you’re made of really strong stuff, I would just spend a little bit more for one of the nicer classes and leave space in the unreserved section for the people who actually need to use it every day.
Sleeper Class is at the bottom of the “tourist-friendly” sections but is my favourite class to travel in. This class has no AC but instead, has open windows and fans. I travelled in sleeper class throughout the sweltering hot months but never felt uncomfortable. Fares are cheap, cheap, cheap in this class! For an overnight 12 hour journey, you can expect to pay about 300 rupees.
In sleeper class, there are 3 beds on each wall. From 10pm to 6am, the beds are folded out for sleeping but during the day the middle bunk is folded up so that everyone can sit on the bottom bunk.
I always specify that I want the top bunk at the time of booking so that I can sit up there throughout the journey (if I want.) It also gives me the option of sleeping in late and sometimes, I’ll spend the journey with a scarf around my head and sunglasses on if I want to go incognito and not be spotted out as the only white girl in the carriage!
3A/C, 2 A/C, 1A/C
All of these classes are air conditioned, however, since the air con is rarely very strong, it never feels too cold. I found the AC class to actually be stuffier than sleeper class since there was no air from outside.
Here’s the difference between each class:
- In 3AC, there are 3 beds on the wall, the same as sleeper class.
- In 2A/C there are 2 beds on the wall and a curtain separating each 4 bunk berth.
- 1A/C is the same as 2A/C except it has a proper door and food is served for free.
I’ve travelled in 3A/C once and 2A/C once but never 1A/C so I can’t really comment. There is a bit of a steep price jump between the 3A/C and sleeper but not much difference in quality so I wouldn’t do it again. The only difference, really, was the almost non-existent air con.
As for 2A/C, that is a class that I loved. I enjoyed the privacy but I was lucky that I shared my berth with 2 women; one from England and one from France. I think that if I was in a carriage full of men, I might feel the opposite way about the level of privacy. If I was going to India again, though, with Veeran, I’d definitely suggest getting 2A/C a few times!
Safety wise, sleeper class is much busier, which I think is a good thing. People are always getting on and off the train, especially food vendors. This is one of the main reasons why I think that it’s perfect for solo travellers.
Booking Tickets on Indian Trains
Very few things are simple or smooth in India and booking trains is no different! It’s a difficult process for foreigners but it’s perfectly doable when you know how. Here are a few ways to do it.
At the Train Station
You’ll need your passport to book your train at the station, as well as hard cash- no bank cards! In some of the bigger cities, you’ll need to go to a special foreigner booking station so you should look online to double check.
With the Travel Agent
Sometimes train stations are located far out of the city centre and getting there takes time and costs extra rupees. When I travelled in Rajasthan, my friend and I used a travel agent to book all of our train tickets. It saved us having to stand in a queue or spend money taking a rickshaw out to the station. Plus, the commission was so little that it cost us barely anything more.
All travel agents are different, though. One of my friends in Hampi got charged way over the odds for a ticket he booked through a travel agent. Check the Indian Rail website or Ixigo to see how much the ticket should be and make sure your travel agent isn’t charging you too far over the odds. We paid about 10% more for our tickets but some travel agents might ask for 100% more!
I downloaded Cleartrip for my last trip to India and it was an absolute godsend! The sign-up process is complicated but it will save you lots of time and energy in the long run. I’d actually recommend signing up for this as far in advance of your trip as you can- they took months to verify my account!
Cleartrip is great because it lets you see all the train journeys and how many seats are left in each class and purchase tickets quickly and easily.
This is my absolute favourite way to book tickets for trains!
When to Book Tickets
Book your tickets as far in advance as possible. Trains sell out quickly in India but it is still possible to get on a sold-out train.
I’ve never meddled with any of these options but it’s good to know that they’re there if I ever need them. Click on the links for more information.
I really hope that this article has helped you make more sense of the complicated train booking system in India. The trains really are the best way to get around- they’re cheap, an awesome experience and a convenient way to see the country, too. If you have any questions at all, give me a shout down in the comments and I’ll be happy to help you out!
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