When I was a kid, the Indian railway was an integral part of our travel planning. Air travel was luxury because there were few flights between few cities, it was expensive in those days. There were buses but with very less leg space and uncomfortable sitting. So, Indian trains were our favorite mode of transport as they were the best among the rest. In the last couple of decades so much changed about traveling and also train travel in India.
Now, most of the Indian cities are connected by air, its a faster medium for travel and air tickets are economical. Even bus travel is very much better with luxury buses like Volvo with comfortable sitting arrangements. Still, there is a charm when it comes to traveling by train in India.
Indian railway’s network is extensive. It is the fourth largest network in the world with a total track over 67 thousand kilometers. Indian railways runs over 20,000 trains per day on local and long-distance routes. There are 7400 stations across India. It is practically everywhere and adding new destinations every year.
I grew up traveling in trains but there is so much changed in the last 15 years that at times it gets overwhelming for me. Moreover, it’s not only trains system that changed but my style of travel and expectations from Indian trains changed. I expect cleaner trains, comfortable seats, better safety, better food and don’t like it when it gets delayed. That’s why whenever I plan to travel solo by train, I think 10 times if I really want to travel by train.
Whenever I travel by train in India, I plan thoroughly and take precautions. My advice to foreign travelers is that they should take at least a couple of train journeys in India to experience the real India and its feel. People who want to experience Indian culture should travel by travel by train in India. Watching people from different parts of India is a learning experience.
Some important information regarding train travel in India
Overview of classes in Indian trains
Indian railway has different classes/categories for travel depending upon the budget.
Classes in long-distance and overnight trains –
* AC I – It is an air-conditioned class with 2 bunk beds opposite each other with no side rows. 4 berths make a coupe and seats are wider with better cushioning. The Coupe of 4 beds can be locked from Inside. The pillow and bedding are provided. This is the most expensive class of Indian railways and in many cases, it’s tickets cost more than air tickets.
* AC II – It is an air-conditioned class with 2 bunk beds opposite each other and 2 inside rows. The beds are smaller in width as compared to AC I but wider than AC 3. Pillow and bedding are provided to everyone in this class. There is no coupe in this class but curtains are provided for every block of 4 seats and there is an individual headlamp for reading. It is cheaper than AC I and at par sometimes with air tickets on some major sector.
* AC III – This is air-conditioned class with 3 tier of bunk beds i.e. Upper, Middle, and Lower. There are two rows of upper and lower bunks on the side of the bay. (In some trains of “Garib Rath” side rows also have 3 tier of bunks.) In all AC III trains bedding is provided to everyone except for Garib Rath trains in which you have to pay 25 INR for bedrolls. There are no curtains for privacy. It is more crowded then the AC II but at the same time most economical AC class.
* Sleeper class – It is not air-conditioned and there are 3 bunk beds opposite each other and 2 bunk beds on side row like AC III. Bedding is not provided in this class. This is the cheapest reversed sleeper class in Indian railways and that’s why most popular among masses.
Classes in short and medium distance trains –
* Executive Chair Car – It is the most expensive of all sitting classes. It is air-conditioned and seats are additionally covered with an extra cover.
* CC (Chair car) – There are individual seats with side rests. It has 3 and 2 seat formats in a row on both sides of the bay. This is an air-conditioned class and luggage holders are on the top of the seats.
* Second class sitting – It has 3 sets of seats on both sides of the bay with no hand rest. The seats are flatbeds like sleeper class. It is the cheapest reserved class.
Other then these reserved classes, there are 2 unreserved compartments in every train other than Shatabadi, Rajdhani, Duranto and Gatiman train. The tickets for these can be bought on the spot before the train’s departure. These compartments are crowded and cramped with luggage. People can stand or sit anywhere, seats are occupied on the first-come basis.
Types of tickets
There are different categories of train tickets.
1. Confirmed tickets (CNF)
2. Reservation against cancellation tickets (RAC)
3. Waitlist tickets (WL)
It is ok to travel on RAC ticket as you get sitting space but on WL ticket you are not allowed to travel.
There are different quotas for train tickets
1. General quota – It is for everyone and booked on first come first serve basis.
2. Ladies quota – Few trains have special quota for women.
3. Foreign tourist quota – Around 200+ trains have FT quota and it can be availed by visiting International Tourist Bureau office at all major railway stations. You have to show your passport for FT and pay in USD.
Ticket booking timing
1. The booking opens 120 days before the train’s departure. Seats get filled fast in most of the trains so it is better to book the tickets asap.
2. Tatkal tickets booking starts 48 hours before the train’s departure. For tatkal tickets, you have to pay extra money for each class. For Sleeper 100 INR, AC Chair Car 125 INR, AC 3 Tier 300 INR, AC 2 Tier 400 INR and Executive 400 INR.
3. You can book a maximum of 6 train journeys per calendar month using IRCTC website.
Train tickets for the foreign traveler
You need an IRCTC account to book the train tickets on Indian Railway’s website.
Create a user name and login for booking the tickets. You have to give the passport number, Nationality and the International Mobile number to create an account. The IRCTC website doesn’t accept the international style pin code numbers so use 123456 instead as keeping it blank will give an error message. You will get a message code on mobile and after adding it, your account will be activated.
Once user name created, you are ready to book train tickets like any other traveler from India. IRCTC accepts payment made only through International Debit/Credit cards. The fare is uniformly charged at 1.5 times of the base fare.
Foreign tourist quota is useful when you want to book tickets on the spot while in India.
How to book train tickets
1. By visiting reservation counter at any Railway station. It remains open from 8.00 AM to 8.00 PM from Monday to Saturday and on Sunday it is open till 2.00 PM.
2. Online through IRCTC’s website. It is operational between 12.30 AM to 11.30 PM and closes one hour for regular maintenance. If booking between 8 AM to NOON choose “Ticket Booking” under “Services” instead “Quick Book” option because it is disabled for that time duration.
3. Foreign tourist reservation counter is very useful for international travelers and it’s located in all important cities.
IMP: When booking tickets click on the “Up-gradation option” at the time of booking. In this case, you may get tickets for a higher class if in case seats are available in the upper class. Once I got “Up-gradation” from 3A to 2A at no extra cost, so there is no harm selecting this option.
Types of trains in India
* There are different types of trains in India ranging from Passenger trains, Express trains, Superfast trains, Jan Shatabdi express, Garibrath express, Rajdhani express, Shtabadi express, and Duranto express. The last three categories of trains are considered best in terms of speed and cleanliness.
* In mountains narrow gauge trains operate and these trains are popularly known as toy trains of India. These trains are Kalka to Shimla toy train, Matheran hill railways from Panvel to Matheran, Nilgiri mountain railway from Mettupalayam to Ooty, Darjeeling Himalayan railways from Siliguri and Darjeeling and Kangra valley railways from Pathankot to Jogindernagar. The booking for these trains open only 30 days before the train departure date.
* Luxury trains in India are not only for travel but they also provide fantastic 5-star stay. The 5 luxury trains operate in India are The Deccan Odyssey, Maharajas’ Express, The Golden Chariot, Royal Rajasthan on Wheels, and Palace on Wheels.
Food options in trains
* Food is provided in premier trains like Rajdhani, Shatabdi, and Gatiman, which is supplementary because it’s the cost is included in the ticket.
* There is Pantry car in some trains, where you can buy the food by paying.
* Nowadays you can order food through “Mobile App” by giving the PNR number. You can select at which railway station you want delivery as well as from which food supplier you want which meal. The popular food ordering apps are Railyatri, Ecateringirctc, Travelkhana, and Railrestro.
* Though there are many food options available, I always recommend that you carry the food before boarding the train. I had tried food ordering and buying it from pantry but it is not good in taste and quality. Just serves the purpose when you have no other option.
Tips for safe train travel
* Keep a traveling kit with you when taking long train journeys. Keep this kit/pouch handy and it should contain hand wash (You can also buy a paper soap from railway station), tissue paper, toilet paper, antiseptic lotion, hand sanitizer, toothpaste, and toothbrush.
* Wear washable shoes because sometimes there is water spillage in washrooms and no one wants to spoil good leather shoes.
* Keep a chain and padlock to tie your luggage with the loop under the seat during night travel. Though in AC coaches the problem of luggage theft is rare.
* If you are a solo female traveler then preferable take upper berth. In my case, I am not comfortable climbing on upper berth so I take the middle or lower berth. If you get side berth then request another passenger and exchange the side berth in 2×2 or 2×3 block of seats.
* Do not to take food items from other passengers.
* If you are a solo female traveler or all women traveler then it is better to travel in AC compartment especially when it’s an overnight journey.
* If you want to experience the general/Non AC class or you are a foreign traveler and want to experience Indian kind of experience then take the second class train for shorter journeys. For longer and overnight journeys use AC class.
* You can check in advance before boarding a train if they have pantry car in that train so that you can arrange your food.
* Don’t leave your luggage unattended on the platform.
* Carry the valid photo ID proof and the foreign traveler should keep the passport handy.
* If you are traveling alone then don’t leave your handbag when going to the washroom.
* Hold or wrap the strap of your handbag around your wrist while you sleep in an overnight train.
* Keep your self covered and wear comfortable loose clothing. Don’t wear dresses and skirts when traveling on an overnight train.
* Reach at least 40 minutes before the train departure time so that you can locate your platform and coach without rush.
* Keep some cash and one ID proof in the outer pocket of your bag or pocket of your clothes. In this case, you don’t need to open your bag in front of strangers.
* If a traveler is misbehaving, drinking or disturbing other and not listening when you ask to behave properly then call 182.
* Check halt time of your train before stepping down from the train and don’t go too far from your coach.
* If your train is arriving at your destination at night or early morning then always set alarm and don’t depend on the attendant to tell you.
* Don’t wear expensive jewelry and watches, which makes you an easy target for thieves.
* Always ask the seat number of the person sitting next to you to make sure they have a reservation.