Train travel in India has its ups and downs but generally speaking we were pretty impressed by the efficiency of it all. The trains might not be the most modern and aren’t always the cleanest, but they are the same or better than your average bus in South East Asia and offer a cost effective and pretty quick way of getting round the country.
If you do choose to travel India by train, you’ll find that you save a lot of money compared to flying and also save yourself the stress of facing what have to be some of the world’s most dangerous roads. We travelled for just over two weeks in North India by train with no journeys reserved in advance and were surprised to find it a reasonably straightforward compared with the nightmare we had been expecting.
We wanted to share our experience and provide some handy tips for others planning on travelling India by train.
Booking Tickets Online
The most efficient way to manage train travel in India is to be organised and book at least one to two months in advance, especially if you want to secure specific journeys and seats.
Booking online is almost impossible in our experience – Cleartrip is the most user friendly website that connects directly to India Rail’s site but you still need to register with IRTCT to get tickets.
Writing this over a month after we began the process of getting our account verified (no India mobile number) and still despite chasing on email and twitter we don’t have an account. Which says it all really. The IRTCT claims to be a ‘Next Generation E Ticketing System’ so perhaps they’re aiming for it to be workable for the next generation… who knows.
These sites give a good overview of the process, and if you have plenty of time on your hands before you travel and a clear itinerary I imagine this to be far easier than trying to book in train stations when you arrive.
If you know where you want to go and when, and don’t mind paying a bit of a commission, consider using a travel agent to organise this bit for you as it will save a lot of hassle in the long run.
Booking Train Tickets in India
Generally speaking we found booking train tickets at various stations fairly tricky but by no means impossible if you are happy to queue and get lost a lot. Everyone we dealt with at the ticket offices was pretty helpful and spoke anything from passable to good English.
The main problem we found was working out where you’re supposed to queue. This was one of the hardest parts of navigating train travel in India!
Every time we went to a station to book tickets we queued at at least two desks before finding the right place to actually buy them.
Most stations seem to have an ‘on the day’ counter, an unreserved ticket counter (not sure what the difference between these is, and a reserved ticket counter. Alongside this will usually be another couple of random counters and none of these are necessarily well signposted. Usually it’ll be the Reserved Tickets counter that you’ll need and once you track it down the process is fairly simple.
The best bit is that whilst often tickets will show as unavailable online, we found we were able to get train tickets in person without too much difficulty. Even our one waitlist experience ended up fine and we got assigned seats in the end.
Here’s how we found booking at various mainline stations. Sadly we didn’t have to book anything at Delhi so I can’t write about that – but I have heard it’s the worst for touts and potential scams so be careful!
Booking foreign visitor tickets leaves you with limited choices at the last minute but more availability than is shown online. We found it fairly straightforward to go to the train station in Mumbai and book tickets at the tourist desk (desk 20 just outside the station to the right on the first floor).
Don’t go to the address on the India rail website… they’ll just direct you back to the tourist desk downstairs. They’re pretty helpful here and will make sure you get seats together in the best class possible. Fill in a short form and pay in cash.
Your ticket will have train number, time, coach and seats specified so keep it handy – it will also be checked by a conductor on the journey.
Here the issue was that only wait list tickets available, WL10 and WL11 – checked PNR code online and by 8pm we were confirmed with seats. Similar process to Mumbai with the same forms but a bit more manic in terms of queuing and jostling to keep your space. It was also tricky to work out where to queue – it’s the platform across from the main town and the Reserved Tickets window.
In Jaipur we booked through our hostel – basically the manager booked tickets and printed the confirmation through his account and we paid him cash. Bit of a hassle getting the print out and paid a little more for online booking but overall wayyy easier than trying to negotiate another train station.
This one was a bit of a nightmare as for some reason all of the trains from Agra to Delhi were booked out. There are at least 20 per day so it was seriously busy for this to be the case and I think it being a weekend didn’t help. I’d recommend booking tickets from Agra Fort Station (smaller than Agra Canter and has a friendly desk specifically for foreign tourists) as soon as you arrive if you can’t book in advance.
Navigating Train Stations & Finding Your Train
Without exception the stations we visited were very basic and had a lot of homeless and rough sleepers both in the station building and on surrounding streets, which can make train travel in India a nerve wracking experience. At all times it seemed the stations were very busy and we saw very few other tourists or travellers with the exception of one or two at the main Mumbai station and at Agra.
Keep an eye on your stuff and try to look like you know what you’re doing as you’ll attract a lot of interest – from stares to selfies. There are normally a fair few guards / security people around on the platforms so stand near them if you have any real worries.
Dadar Station Mumbai
By far the worst station we went to, filthy, noisy, busy and no signage that we could see to help find your train. This was one of our first station experiences and nearly put us off train travel in India altogether.
Three different sets of train lines – central, East and west with no indication of which one we needed. Luckily arrived an hour early and queued at 3 separate information desks to get the right information and directions on what platform we needed. A couple of locals did kindly try to help us but they really had no better clue than we did about where we should go.
(If you’re headed to Mumbai – check out our one day itinerary)
Our experience at the much smaller but still fairly grotty Jodhpur station was a lot better. Luggage is security checked and you have to walk through a scanner on arrival, there is then a large electric board with train details and a whiteboard in the window of the enquiries office with platform details. We headed straight to the platform, double checked we had the correct train with a friendly security guard and hopped on.
(Here’s what we got upto in Jodhpur if you want to find out more about our time there)
Sawai Madhopur Station
Small regional station but has decent electric signage with clear details on platform. On this occasion a very helpful elderly gentleman even randomly came over to check we were okay and made sure we were stood in the correct place on the platform to easily get in the right carriage.
(For more on Sawai Madhophur – check out our tips on how to organise your own tiger safari)
As the capital of Rajasthan, as you might expect, this train station is a little more organised than some others we visited. Here there’s a large board outside announcing upcoming trains, platforms and any expected delays. Easy to navigate and the first place we didn’t need to queue anywhere as we already had tickets.
Small and very used to dealing with tourists, this has a clear foreign tourist ticket desk, plenty of signs and loads of tuk tuk drivers waiting to rip you off just outside.
Pro Tip for Train Travel in India
If you’re travelling on a route from the very first station, once you think you’ve found your train you can head to the carriage and there will be a piece of paper stuck near the door with a passenger list – names and assigned seats which is very helpful for working out whether you’re getting on the right train!
Train Classes & Comfort in India – Our Experiences
17 hour Mumbai to Jodhpur AC3
Basic but fairly comfortable, much more comfortable than many night buses we were on in Asia and South America and we slept well. I’d say top berths are best, as you are tucked away from everything and afforded a bit more privacy. Plenty of women and families travelling. Basic but western style long drop toilets – even had toilet paper available.
7 hour Jodhpur to Sawai Madhopur Seated AC
Similar to some of the local trains we took in Taiwan, fairly basic but reasonably comfortable leather seats. Not too dirty and toilet facilities the same as the first train. Fine for a daytime journey and much easier to get a window seat and watch the world go by.
2 hour Sawai Madhopur to Jaipur AC3
It was sleeper rather than seated as it was just a section on a longer overall route between Sawai Madhopur and Mumbai, but it was fine. Someone was asleep in our seat but we just shared a bottom bunk and settled in with no problems.
3.5 hour Jaipur to Agra AC Chair
We took the express running between Jaipur and Agra which is worth doing, although it leaves early. Comfortable seating and decent air conditioning as well as a free paper and water. There’s also a free meal service although we declined this as we were both ill at the time of travelling! Probably the best train class we’d travelled in to date.
5 hour Agra to New Delhi AC2
Technically the highest class of travel we experienced while experimenting with train travel in India, but on a very long, bumpy, local route that took 3 times as long as the regular trains that were all sold out. It was actually very similar to AC3 so not necessarily worth paying the extra. The main difference was getting a small curtained off area for the 6 beds in each section.
Here are some pics of the facilities on the trains in India to give you an idea:
Cost & Reliability of Train Travel in India
Overall the cost of train travel in India is very affordable, especially if you’re not too fussy about what class you take. Our ticket prices, classes and distances are below and accurate from June 17.
Mumbai to Jodphur (983km)
Jodhpur to Sawai Madhopur (491km)
- AC Chair
Sawai Madhopur – Jaipur (160km)
Jaipur – Agra (240km)
- AC Chair
Agra – Delhi (231km)
Out of five train journeys we had four trains that left on time and one that was late. The one that was delayed was from Sawai Madhopur and was one hour late but with electronic signs kept fully up to date with delay and new times. Probably better than you’d get in the UK!
Train Travel in India Summary
Overall, we were surprised to find the train system efficient and pretty comfortable, if a little difficult to navigate. Our top tips would be:
- Book wayyyy in advance if you can
- Enlist the help of your hostel if you can’t but check they’re not charging you loads extra
- AC3 is absolutely fine so no need to spend the extra if you’re on a budget
- Get to stations in plenty of time so you can find your train
- Have hand gel and loo roll with you
- Take plenty of water and some snacks for longer journeys
- Don’t look out the window near rural stations…. Saw wayyy too many people relieving themselves by the trainlines before I realised this