A Newbie’s Guide to Train Travel in India

So you’re travelling through India? AWESOME. You’re going to have a blast. But India is BIG. You’re going to need some kind of plan for getting around. The quickest way? To fly. The cheapest? By bus. The best? There’s no competition here. You’ll want to go by train.

Taking the train in India is definitely my favourite way of getting around. It’s cheap, comfortable and social. Plus, unlike buses there’s a toilet on board, so you won’t have a scary bum-clenching moment where you have to bribe the bus driver to make a loo stop only for him to drive past excruciatingly slowly to let everyone have a good look. Not that this happened to me, of course…. Ahem!

Train travel in India can seem like a confusing experience for those who are new to it, but it really needn’t be. Here’s my guide to travelling by train which will make it as easy as chai! (Sorry).

full train

Despite what you’ve been led to believe, trains in India are not all like this!

Classes of Travel

There are lots of different classes of train travel in India, but they can roughly be split into two main classes: Sleeper and AC (Air Conditioned).

Sleeper class (also sometimes referred to as ‘Chair’ class or ‘Second Sitting’), has no air conditioning and is ‘first come, first served’, so there’s often a bum’s rush for seats. Carriages are crowded so don’t be surprised if you are sharing a seat or bunk bed with a few people. It’s no secret that Indians can be curious too, so you’ll probably be talking to people a lot of the way! 🙂 Tickets are really cheap so Sleeper Class tends to be the choice for locals or travellers on a strict budget.

Sleeper Coach

Sleeper Coach

AC class seats are split into 3 main classes: 3AC, 2AC and 1AC (also called ‘First Class’). The numbers simply refer to how many are stacked on top of each other. 3AC means there are 3 tiers of bunk beds (3 on top of each other), 2AC there are 2 bunks for more space, and depending on the train, 1AC may be a single bed or a reclining chair.

All AC class seats have basic bedding for an overnight journey, and tend to be the choice for middle class Indian families or travellers on a moderate budget.

3AC Class

3AC Class

Costs

Prices of tickets vary, but a very general rule of thumb is that you can expect to pay between 100 and 150 rupees (£1 – £1.50) per hour of travel in 3AC class, and between 150-250 rupees (£1.50 – £2.50) per hour to travel in 2AC class. Busier tourist routes such as the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Delhi – Agra – Jaipur will be more.

First Class tickets depend on the seat and level of service. As an example, a 4 hour First Class train journey from Delhi to Agra (for the Taj Mahal) costs around 1300 rupees, however you’ll get a seat in a row, rather than a private cabin as it’s such a popular route. Each train is different so check out your route for specifics.

How to Book

All trains in India have a name, so as well as your start and end locations and departure times, you’ll also need to make a note of the name of the train. For example the overnight express train from Mumbai to Goa is called the Netravati Express.

You can book train travel either online or in person, and my advice is to book as early as possible as popular routes do fill up quickly. If booking online, create an Indian Railway booking account on Cleartrip and you can book directly, check the status of your journey and get tickets sent to your Indian mobile phone. You need an Indian mobile number to join, otherwise you have to send in copies of your passport to complete the sign up process.

taj mahal final

If you want to book the train in person, go to the ticketing desk at any train station and fill in a travel form. You’ll need the names of people travelling, dates, time of departure and the name of the train. You’ll also need nerves of steel, as people don’t queue in India, rather push their way to the server’s window. Just accept it and join in!

If the train is fully booked, don’t worry as there are a couple of things you can try. Firstly, try to waitlist (WL) yourself, and as people cancel you’ll move up the list and eventually your ticket could confirm. I’ve done this a few times and have always been confirmed at the last minute, but it is a bit of a nerve-wracking experience!

If you don’t fancy waiting, then head to the station and ask for a TATKAL seat. TATKAL is the allocation of seats held back for foreign tourists to travel last minute, and they are available from 10am the day before travel. You’ll have to be quick as there are usually only a handful of seats available, and they cost a few hundred rupees more but I’ve successfully travelled on TATKAL several times. Make sure you take your passport and a copy of your passport as proof of identity.

golden temple amritsar

On Board

On the day of travel, get there early and find your carriage number displayed on the platform. Trains usually stay in the station for around 10 minutes but they are so long that if you don’t know which end to head for, you can easily spend those 10 minutes walking up and down the chaotic platform. Not a nice start to your journey!

On some Indian trains there will be people selling food, and some even have a delivery service if you order ahead, BUT the food is never great. Think sandwiches and curries which have been sitting out for a day. On some trains there’s no food at all, so it’s best to plan ahead and take what you need for your journey, plus a little extra to share with your fellow passengers of course!

Mumbai street food

Although 3AC and 2AC tend to be fairly clean, the sheets can be dusty so if that bothers you, then take a sleeping bag liner to sleep in. Plus no matter which class you’re travelling in, make sure you keep your food covered and throw it away when you’re done. There are almost certainly rats on the train… I had one sit next to my head while I took a nap one one memorable trip from Jaipur to Ajmer!

Make sure you take toilet paper and hand sanitiser, as you won’t be able to get this on board, and here’s another little tip… There are both Indian style and Western style toilets on the trains, but in this instance, west is not always best! If you feel confident enough squatting over a drop hole, then the Indian style toilets are your best bet, as they tend to be much cleaner.

That’s it! I hope you feel much more geared up for your Indian train adventure. Now all you have to do is enjoy the ride!

Disclaimer: This post was put together in collaboration with Cleartrip. All opinions are my own, and I used Cleartrip to plan my train travel in India whilst I was there.

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Travelling by Train in India

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Hayley is the author behind A Life of More, a travel and lifestyle blog with the goal of helping you to live a happier and more fulfilled life, whether you're currently travelling or happily settled.

Comments 6

  1. Amber

    WOW! This is an amazing tutorial. I don’t know that I’m ready for India quite yet, but I’m totally referring back to this when the times comes.

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  3. Derek Taylor

    There are eight ‘classes’ of train carriage.
    First class is fourth after AC1, AC2 and AC3. It’s being phased out but still used in the south.
    AC1 is not a single bed it is a lockable cabin with either one or two bunk beds, ie two or four berth.

    Sleeper class is not chair class or second sitting. They are totally different. For second sitting no reservation is needed, it’s a free for all. Sleeper class is reserved in the same way as the AC berths. Bear in mind that your reservation is for your berth for sleeping. During the day locals hop on and off SL for short journeys and sit anywhere.

    Chair class is aircraft style seating. There is also Executive chairs (bit wider). These carriages are usually found on the likes of Shatabdi trains which are the fast Inter City daytime trains. Good thing about using this is that water, tea, newspapers and meals are included in the fare.

    I wouldn’t recommend using a train name for identification. Yes they all have names but can be ambiguous. All trains have numbers unique to that train. Also if you’re backtracking and you took eg the 111 south there’s a good chance it’s called the 112 north! Which can save searches.

    I agree about taking wait list tickets. However you move from wait list, which doesn’t allow you on the train, to RAC (reservation against confirmation) which allows you to travel in the class of your ticket but doesn’t give you a berth. You will be sat on an unused bunk with someone else until the TTE sorts out beds for all.
    Next your ticket will be CNF confirmed. Good to go!

    If you don’t move from WL and the train goes without you a refund can be obtained for up to twelve hours for longish journeys.
    Tip. If you are struggling to get confirmed try buying a ticket for a station a few hundred km further! It’s too complicated to fully explain, but the journey is in quotas of tickets for sectors. Sometimes by paying a little bit more you can change quota and a magical seat turns up!

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  5. Stari

    I’m going to India in October and not sure how getting around really works but this helped alot but thanks to my long time online friend from India is gonna help me with the travels from getting to places.. Its gonna be abit easier 🙂 + your blog has been making me less nervous. Thanks for making it.

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