Buying a ticket at the train station
Our experience of booking tickets at train stations in India varied from city to city: In Delhi it was very easy to book directly at the train station – once you got past the scammers outside! In other cities, we booked almost all of our travels online as it was impossible to do it otherwise (too much hassle).
As a rule of thumb: in big cities (e.g. Delhi, Mumbai) book your tickets at the train station. In smaller towns (e.g. Jodhpur, Udaipur) book online.
When in Delhi
1) Always look for the Foreign Tourist Bureau located in the station.
2) There is an information desk to the right when you enter the Bureau (which you want to head to after getting a queuing ticket for the booking desks). While you’re waiting for your turn ask at the Info desk for your journey details (the lady we spoke to was incredibly friendly and helpful).
3) Take your details to the booking desk and book tickets – see the FAQ section below for an explanation on train classes on Indian trains.
Be aware: The booking agents only take cash (no credit cards)!
At no point listen to the people trying to deter you from going inside the station! Just keep walking until you see a big sign (in Delhi, it’s red) saying ‘Foreign Tourist Bureau’. If you can’t find this, ask for the Station Master or try to find a Policeman who can direct you. I repeat: do NOT listen to anyone outside the station – however genuine they come across (some of them even wear uniforms; produce some sort of work permit to show you; claim the train station is closed or that there is no access for tourists etc). Their aim, is to send you to one of their offices where they will charge you way more for a train ticket (which could be fake too) and the guy cashes in some commission for his referral work.
I don’t want to name & shame India here. Unfortunately, this has been our experience and the experience of others we have spoken to.
At smaller stations
1) You will need to know the FROM & TO station names and the TRAIN NUMBER.
2) To obtain this info go to the Indian Railway website (a fantastic resource when researching for train travel within India). Write these details down as clearly as possible.
3) Find the booking office, hand them over the details you have written down and explain which class you want to book. At this point: In some stations, they may really show their annoyance towards you and not overly helpful. Don’t be discouraged by this. After travelling in India for a while, you’ll grow a thicker skin! However, I would advise to book train tickets online as opposed to booking at smaller train stations. It saves you all the hassle.
But…keep in mind…
In smaller towns
You are better off going to a reputable Travel agents, who will add a small commission fee for their services to book a train ticket for you. Ask at the hotel you are staying at for recommendations for travel agents. Or better research on the web beforehand – even at hotels, they might cash in a commission for a referral, meaning it will cost you more than necessary.
For shorter journeys (under 1 hour): If you do intend to travel to nearby destinations, just turn up at the train stations and buy the tickets at the ticket booths. These are unallocated seating tickets and very cheap.
Buying a ticket online
1) Create an Account on Cleartrip.com. This is a straightforward process – just follow the instructions on the screen. You also need to sign up for an IRCTC Account (you need this to be able to book through Cleartrip) – you do this at the same time when you register on Cleartrip. For this, you will need an Indian phone number. This is because you will be sent a verification code to your phone and e-mail address. The verification code can ONLY go to an Indian number.
2) Once these accounts are set up – you can search Cleartrip for train availability and directly book online. However, the tickets will be booked from the GENERAL quota (there are a few tickets available for TOURIST tickets which can only be purchased at the train station or via travel agent – however, we never did this as they quickly sell out) and TATKAL quota 24 hours before the departure of the train (again: we’ve never done this, as it is extremely rare to actually get one of these tickets).
3) Print out the e-mail confirmation as you need to produce this as a proof of travel. For your convenience, you will also receive a SMS sent to you.
P.s: The booking of BUSES in India is also done via Cleartrip or Redbus (no need to follow the same procedure as for Cleartrip to set up an account, making bus bookings much more straightforward than train bookings).
Now, I’m on the train…what’s next?
1) Finding your compartment: Trains in India are HUGE. But luckily they stop at the station for quite some time when they arrive. So in case you do struggle to find your compartment, you have enough time to run around to find it. I found asking people helps. As a rule of thumb: 1AC (the best class) is located near the driver’s compartment, 2AC, 3AC follow and Sleeper are at the back. However, this was not always the case.
2) Finding your Berth: The bunk bed numbers are visible on the wall where the window is. When in doubt, ask someone.
3) Luggage: Luggage is placed under the last bunk bed near the floor. Most trains have chains under the seat to attach your luggage to. It might be worth, investing in a lightweight chain (which are often sold at the station) & lock just to be on the safe side. We’ve never done this as we were travelling as a couple, but I heard from solo travellers who had their belongings stolen while they were asleep. Also, keep your hand luggage (backpack etc.) with you on the bed.
4) Refreshments: Stay away from the food served on the trains. I’ve heard of people who had food poisoning when they ate on the Indian trains. Better buy some supplies before you travel. We usually brought oranges, bananas, water and cookies for our journeys.
5) Destination: No fancy voice will inform you over speakers where you are currently. You need to keep an eye out for your station or ask people (who have always been very helpful whenever we did not know where we were).
How can I get an Indian SIM card?
This isn’t as straightforward as in other Asian countries. It won’t be activated for at least 24 hours after you purchased it. Ask your hotel / hostel where you can buy SIM cards – there are a range of different providers – just stick to the bigger more well-known companies.
1) You’ll need a passport photo (does not need to be an Indian-sized one like you need for the Visa application),
2) a copy of your passport (they usually do this in the shop for you) – fill in some details (including what your father’s name is….odd I know) and
3) YOU’ll need to activate the SIM card once you see a signal on your phone (takes about 24 hours) – ask the shop owner which number to call for activation.
4) Make sure when you buy the SIM card to include Roaming, in case you plan to visit another State – as the moment you move to another state, this needs to be activated for your phone to work (e.g. Rajahstan to Kerala).
Which Train Class?
There are several classes on Indian trains – depending on the service, you could choose between 3-7 classes. But as we booked every train ride last minute, we only ever got to choose between a max. of 4 classes. The upper classes book up very quickly. So, make sure to book in advance (at least a week).
Sleeper – For shorter train journeys, as a couple or a solo male traveller, we think this class is perfectly fine. We have heard of other travellers who could not find a seat on sleeper, but this must have been due to them having a waitlisted ticket – as no one else we met thought travelling on sleeper class was a problem. Regrettably, we only realised at the end of our India trip – once we spoke to more travellers who all had a positive experience travelling on this class- that we should have travelled on sleeper occasionally. The only difference, between sleeper and 3AC, for instance, is that you don’t get a pillow, sheets and blanket. Price roughly for Cochi to Goa, as an example (approx. 16-18 hours): 500-600 INR (roughly 5 Pounds)! Which is normally roughly half the price of 3AC.
3AC – AC stands for Aircon. 3 stands for 3 bunks attached to each wall (except for the side berths which only ever have 2 bunks and are slightly smaller). You get freshly washed sheets, blanket and pillow with freshly washed pillow covers neatly folded in brown paper envelopes- for longer journeys. We found most Indian travellers sleep even on shorter journeys. If you have the lowest seat: don’t be surprised if people of the same berth, end up sitting on your bed (even while you sleep on it). Personal space, in India, has a different meaning. But, people were always very friendly and helpful and we never felt uncomfortable.
We mainly travelled on this class. We saw many solo female travellers on this class. However, if you are travelling as a solo female, do ask for lady or family compartments – not all trains offer this though. Price roughly from Agra to Jaipur (6 hours): 560 INR.
2AC – Only two bunk beds attached to the wall. Other than that – exactly the same as 3AC.
Is it safe to travel by train or bus?
Train: I often travel solo, but on this trip, Ben was with me and I must honestly say, I felt much more comfortable travelling with a male companion. Men respect you more when you are in the company of a man. Even if I had the occasional stare (be prepared to be stared at all the time – just don’t reciprocate the stare and look away), once Ben looked at them, they quickly looked away. Personally, I would feel safe enough to travel on trains or busses in India, but I always carry my safety whistle and Pepper Spray just to be on the safe side. Also bring a small lock to chain your bags under the bunk bed in case you need to go to the toilet.
Bus: We travelled a lot by bus in India – but only, because the trains were full for the destinations we wanted to travel to. If it wasn’t for our last-minute serendipitous decisions on where to travel next, we would have only ever travelled by train. Trains are SO comfortable and wonderful to travel in. You can actually sleep. Buses, on the other hand, are tough. Even the sleeper buses are not overly comfortable. The drivers speed like maniacs – I have pretty much always felt scared at some point.
So, I did not feel harassed or uncomfortable and unsafe because of the passengers as such. But, I felt unsafe because of the style of driving and the roads.The roads in India aren’t great either (unless you are near a main hub, such as Mumbai) meaning you are being rattled and shaken constantly. We miraculously managed to always sleep – but never felt rested the next morning like we did after train travel. Some bus companies don’t even bother to stop regularly for toilet breaks – meaning, you could end up driving for 8 hours without a toilet break (which is not an issue for most – but if you have a weak bladder – train travel is definitely more convenient).
How did you enjoy travelling India by train? Would you do it again? Why? Why not? I would love to hear your comments below.