I set out across India with a poorly fitted backpack and the anticipation of campy train scenes from Darjeeling Limited. Fresh out of a 3-year breakup, I went with the naive expectation that I would find some sort of resolve in the chaos. Well, dimly-lit hostels, sputtering rickshaws, congested markets, iconic monuments, and long long stretches of trail travel in India certainly proved to be a distraction. I experienced the chaos with an inflated sense of delight.
There is a long list of things no one really tells you about India, and I felt happy to love it in all of it’s urban sprawl and cow-cultivated traffic jams and waste speckled streets. Our route took us from Delhi to Rajasthan, past Agra and Khajuraho, onto Varanasi, and eventually to Darjeeling, all by train.
So what is train travel in India really like? It’s every bit of the adventure you expect it to be, though with less vintage luggage and Jason Schwartzman than Wes Anderson led us to believe. Whether you play cards in a train station with a group of employees or share chapati with strangers, you’ll experience India’s culture more intimately than you ever could in a museum.
So, brace yourself for the inevitable unexpecteds, forget your plans, and get ready to experience authentic India by train. Here’s how.
How do you book train travel in India?
There are more than 1.3 billion people in India. As you might expect, that means that trains can and do fill up weeks in advance. When booking trains in India, you’ll be able to purchase both from the general allocation or the foreign tourist allocation (FTQ) – tickets set aside particularly for last minute travelers. You can either book train tickets online or at the station (foreigner tickets must be bought in person).
Booking in Person: If you don’t have set dates, the best way to book your trip is to book your departure train upon arrival in a new city. You can also go through a travel agent.
Booking Online: Booking train tickets online isn’t as easy as it seems, so here’s a step-by-step of how to use Cleartrip.
- Start an account on Cleartrip.
- In order to make reservations on Cleartrip, you’ll also need to create an IRCTC account. Registration requires two codes: an email code and an SMS code. As you don’t have an Indian mobile number, you’ll put in a false value to receive your mobile code.
- Once you receive your confirmation email, you’ll need to contact firstname.lastname@example.org and ask to receive your SMS OTP via email rather than by text. You’ll need to mention your correct email, your IRCTC username, and also attach a copy of your passport.
- Example: To Whom it May Concern: I am a U.S. citizen attempting to book train tickets throughout India on Cleartrip, and would like to request my SMS OTP be sent by e-mail as I don’t have an Indian cell phone. My e-mail is email(at)gmail.com and my username is username. You can find a passport scan attached. [Attach passport scan]
- Within a few days, you will receive your SMS code via email. Once your account is activated, you’ll need to input your Cleartrip username, IRCTC username, email OTP, and SMS OTP.
- Click “Activate IRCTC Account” and get to bookin’.
What’s the deal with Indian train classes?
There are 8 Indian train classes, though not all trains will have all class types. The biggest difference between fare types is AC vs. non-AC and sleeper vs. sitting. Below you can find the fare types in order of most to least expensive:
- AC First Class (AC1 or 1A): Air-conditioned, lockable berths for 2-4 people with provided bedding and washrooms in the cabin. Most expensive.
- AC 2-Tier (AC2 or 2A): Air-conditioned, lockable berths for 2-4 people with provided bedding and washrooms on either end of the car.
- AC 3-Tier (AC3 or 3A): Air-conditioned, lockable berths for 2-6 people with provided bedding and washrooms on either end of the train. Slightly more crowded and lacks the privacy curtains of AC 2-Tier.
- First Class (FC): Not air-conditioned berths for 2-4 people. This class is on the decline with most travelers opting for AC1.
- AC Chair Car (CC): Air-conditioned sitting room only, 5 seats per row. This class is best suited for daytime journeys, and is about 3x the cost of second sitting train fare.
- Sleeper (SL): Not air-conditioned, open berths for 2-6 people without provided bedding and washrooms at either end of the car. Beds fold out from the wall like bunks. This class is crowded and basic, but the most common fare for long train journeys.
- Second Sitting (2S or II): Not air-conditioned sitting room only (both padded and wooden chairs). This class is often oversold, so you may or may not end up with a seat. While this is a good option for shorter journeys, I wouldn’t recommend it overnight.
Which Indian train class should you travel in? This is a budget decision. Backpackers stick to the not air-conditioned sleeper class, but I’d be lying if I said it isn’t uncomfortable at times. I’d recommend booking AC 3-Tier (AC3) if you’re looking for the right balance of comfort and economy.
What is it like to travel by train in India?
Train travel in India can be good and bad; sometimes it’s amazing an other times it’s tough.
Train travel in India is a crapshoot. Most of the time, train travel in India is an incredibly efficient, cheap, and immersive way to travel. You can cover long distances overnight, you don’t have to bother with the airport, and you can dive head first into India’s culture. Trains are generally quite safe (though you’ll want to keep your valuables nearby) and you’ll be surrounded by locals who are glad you’ve come for a visit. Violence is restricted to very isolated incidents, and is no more likely on trains than anywhere else.
Delays are common. Trains are hot and super crowded. Some trains that are quite rundown. Aboard on an overnight train from Varanasi to New Jalpaiguri, my newly adored India introduced me to a sleeper car meant for six, packed to the walls with 15 fellow passengers. A light drizzle of rain turned out to be betel nut juice spittle from a passenger in the car ahead. I spent 13 hours with a full bladder since aisles and floors were filled elbow to knee with seatless passengers blocking the walkways. That night, I popped a second sleeping pill, recognizing that India was going to do its thing. You can accept it or you can go home.
Alternatives to Train Travel in India
Train travel in India just not be your thing? You’ve got some other great options for long haul travel throughout India.
- Flights: There are quite a few reliable and inexpensive airlines operating in India. This can be the best way to cover long distances. You can check out Indian airlines like IndiGo, Air India, and Spice Jet to compare rates.
- Private Driver: Many travelers opt to hire a driver to take them from place to place. Rather than renting a car (aka making the worst decision ever) Hiring a driver is certainly a more expensive option, but perhaps not as expensive as you’d think. You can either go through one of the many travel agencies, check forums, or take recommendations from other travelers you meet. Be sure to be very clear about the agreed upon price to avoid any arguements later.
- Bus: The bus may not be a better option, but it certainly is an option if trains are sold out or off your schedule. RedBus is quite helpful for booking bus journeys online! Pay special attention to the specifications and pictures as these websites use misleading photos.
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