been India is a backpacker’s playground; it’s a place that offers rare culturally immersive experiences that range across some of the most diverse landscapes in the world, spanning from the Himalayas of the north, through deserts, bustling cities, and the pristine beaches of the south. In the words of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, “India is not a nation, nor a country. It is a subcontinent of nationalities.”
We were India first-timers, which came with its own set of challenges to navigate. We tried our best to read up on the common pitfalls (which involves a lot of ~creative~ scamming), but one thing we learned through this process is that you will never be fully prepared for the culture shock of India.
The easiest and cheapest way to get around for many travelers is the train system. Thinking that this is a straightforward process from beginning to end? Think again! We were lucky to be guided through the process and pieced together information from different sources, otherwise we would have sitting ducks. We found this information to be so essential to our travel within India, that we’ve put together a survival guide to the Indian train system. We will walk you through, step by step, how to book tickets, how to read your ticket, and what to expect during your experience.
HOW TO BOOK YOUR TRAIN TICKETS
Most crucial piece of advice? Two words: plan ahead. We imagined India as a place where you could go into it with a loose framework and hop on and off trains on a whim. This is not entirely untrue; there are a lot of travel options ranging from trains, buses, flights, and even taxis. But when it comes to the popular train routes, they often sell out over two weeks in advance. There’s a certain kind of magic to carpe diem travel, but we are two girls who find comfort in knowing where we’re sleeping that night and can’t resist a good plan.
The train fares are very cheap. Depending on the route and time of departure, first class AC options ranged anywhere between $10 to $30 USD, with $15 as an average from what we saw of travel around the “golden triangle” (Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra). The second and general unreserved classes were not significantly cheaper online to sacrifice the comfort of the first class cars. We did not take any sleeper trains during our stint in India, so we acknowledge that we don’t have much insight into the tiers of classes or prices for those cars. However, we were told more than once that on both sleeper trains and buses you may find yourself sharing your bed with a stranger. We like to think that we embrace the unpredictability of travel and say “yes” to the unknown, but we draw the line at splitting cots in confined spaces with strangers, no matter how lovely they might be.
We booked all our tickets through 12go.asia/en, a third party booking website. Another reliable site is goibibo.com. We were informed by our fellow travel junkie, Meg, that the Indian train websites are liable to crash, and often don’t accept foreign credit cards (our friend, Meg, also has a lot of great advice about traveling to India and a really helpful (and shocking!) list of the most common scams. Check them out at www.offthebeatentracklist.com). After you’ve successfully booked through 12go, they will send you two emails: the first email is a receipt and payment confirmation - this is not your ticket, and they highlight this in the email. The second email contains your confirmed ticket; the tickets came through for us very quickly, but could take some time depending on the operating company.
HOW TO READ YOUR TICKET
WHAT TO EXPECT DURING YOUR EXPERIENCE
The train stations are pure unbridled chaos. Once you make it past the army of tuk tuk drivers harassing you (unbelievably as they have just watched you arrive in a taxi clearly with the intention of entering the train station), you will have to locate your train number on the departures board while actively waving off a new group of hecklers. As we mentioned above, only a rare few inside the train station are to be trusted (and we always maintained a healthy dose of skepticism around everyone). There’s no telling how helpful the staff at the information booth may or may not be, so be sure to give yourself enough time to make a few mistakes. Always give yourself an air of confidence, no matter how lost you feel on the inside, this will make you less of a target. You may also be tempted to rely on your phone for help, but beware of phone snatchers (which sounds like something straight out of Scooby Doo or something your mom would warn you about when you were 12)! We mentioned this above, but we cannot stress enough, that the people in uniform walking around the platforms are not to be trusted; at best they can’t/won’t help you, and at worst they will scam you into believing that your ticket isn't confirmed and buying a new ticket. We actually tested this theory out and can confirm, they just stared at the ticket looking very confused and told us our booking wasn’t confirmed. We had three minutes until our train was supposed to depart, and they were trying to sabotage us into missing our train and spending more money on a new ticket.
Once onboard the train and settled in your seats, it could be awhile before the train conductor comes by to scan your tickets. If your booking includes a meal service, they will pass it out very efficiently, corresponding to your seat, so make sure you’re in the right place. If your ticket doesn’t include food, there will be a parade of train employees (?) that will make the rounds with different food and drink items for purchase.
When it comes to luggage storage, the early bird gets the worm, or in this case the overhead luggage storage. We didn’t travel around India with our 60L bags, we stored them with our hostel in Delhi, so we only had our small backpacks. When we saw the size of the luggage storage on the train, we were so thankful that we didn’t have our larger bags because frankly, we would have had to buy a whole other seat for them (the ongoing saga of “we travel with too much stuff”).
One of our journeys gave us an appreciation for quiet cars… It was the day before Holi (a Hindu festival that celebrates the beginning of spring and love) and a group of no less than 20 Indians boarded our car and it became clear that Holi celebrations were starting there and then. It was a three hour train journey, and they came prepared with no less than a five course meal. They kept going back and forth to the next train car, rolling out suitcases full of food and non-disposable dishware and silverware. We have some questions about traveling without any clothes, but admire their dedication to food. Once mealtime was over, our train car might as well have been a bollywood set, there was even a costume change, decorative hats not optional! The singing and dancing continued until the train pulled into the station. While we could have been satisfied with their performance after the first of the three hours, we know that we will likely never experience that kind of lust for life on a train ride again!
When you arrive at your destination, the tuk tuk drivers will be waiting for you. One night we pulled into the Jaipur train station and immediately upon disembarking, we were followed by a man until we got in our Uber outside the train station, all the way harassing us to use his tuk tuk services. We found that Uber was the best option for getting around the cities of India. The fares are cheap, and Uber provides you with an extra layer of protection from the usual scams.
We hope that this guide can help you tackle your next Indian train experience with confidence, afterall it is one of the best ways to see the beautiful landscapes of India and is easy on the wallet. So now that you’re all Indian railway experts, you’re ready to go off full steam ahead on your next Indian adventure!