There is no better way to see India than by train. It’s the closest thing to a “peaceful” journey as it gets in India! Built by the British Colonialists in the early part of the century, there are routes connecting virtually every major city in the country. If you’ve got time, and the patience, trips are in abundance and quite easy on the wallet for the budget traveler.
First, be sure and book in ADVANCE. Remember, you are in a country of over 1 billion people! In fact, India is forecast to pass the population of China in a handful of years! Every trip you think of taking to the beach or to the holy city of Varanasi or to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, the locals have certainly entertained the same ideas. Booking online can be confusing and oftentimes requires a local account. My advice is whatever city you arrive in; purchase your next ticket BEFORE you leave the station. Not only will this guarantee you a spot, it will save you the worry of hoping to book a ticket the day of.
For a system founded by the British, queuing just hasn’t caught on in India! Most people will form a single file line, but do not be surprised to see people cutting to the front or lingering to the side of the window, ready to intersect at a moment’s notice. Don’t get angry; that’s just life in India. Hold your ground and when you approach the window, do it quickly and assertively. Ignore the wandering hands trying to slide into the window. Be prepared to pay in cash and have it ready. Fumbling for your wallet or digging through a purse is open season for a lingering local to take your spot.
Have your departure form filled out BEFORE you arrive. If it is your first visit to a train depot, ask for a stack of them. Filling out forms is a way of life in India. Just expect that wherever you go, you will need to fill out forms, produce identification and provide copies.
Trains in India have several classes, ranging from the 1st Class AC down to the non-guaranteed general class. Unless you are desperate to save a few cents, riding in the non-guaranteed class can be the 7th circle of hell, as in standing in a cattle car elbow to elbow for 14 straight hour’s hell! Blessed is he who finds a seat for his journey!
Ticket offices do not sell guaranteed tickets after midday on Sunday. You will be in the unenviable position of returning on Monday morning to hopefully purchase a ticket if it is not sold out. Your only other option will be the non guaranteed general class, which can be booked whenever. If you have no choice but to purchase a general class ticket after hours, you can approach the conductor and ask if you can have a guaranteed seat for the difference in fare.
Your best bet is to book a sleeper class ticket. With the amount of time it takes to traverse India, catching a good rest is essential. Sleepers come in 1st Class and 2nd Class, AC is optional. If you are traveling in the north, especially between late fall and early spring, AC is not necessary and will only add to the price of the ticket. Most people are not aware of just how chilly it gets during the nights! Many travelers have spent their journey shivering and digging into their pack for more layers to put on. In the south, AC can certainly make your journey more comfortable, but if you are looking to save a few bucks, the large fans work just fine. It’s not unheard of to see hawkers renting blankets. Ignore them and pull out your sweatshirt you packed away for such an occasion.
Choosing which bunk can make a huge difference in the quality of your journey. The standard sleeper car has compartments of six bunks, three on either side. Most people are tempted to grab the bottom bunk, having learned as a child how much cooler and easier it is to move about. Heck, you even have a window and an outlet to charge your smartphone! An important rule to remember is, nothing works in India. Mice chase cats, nozzles are broken, and seals leak. Chances are highly likely the outlet doesn’t work and the window will be your undoing in the north. Unable to close properly, the cold air seeps in!
The top bunk is where you want to be. You are further away from the constant distractions and hawkers selling samosas and chai at all hours. They seem to have forgotten that people are actually trying to sleep! In the north you will stay warmer; in the south you will be closer to the fans. The top bunk will also keep your belongings out of sight for those who may be tempted to add a little something they didn’t come aboard with. The beauty is the top bunk will usually be available. When you are booking your fare, simply ask that you receive a top bunk and guarantee your spot.
As is in every country, never attempt to travel without a ticket. With the sheer number of passengers coming and going, it’s impossible to check them all. In fact, rarely will you even see a ticket inspector or have to produce a ticket. However; always assume you will be checked. Fare prices are very reasonable in India and proffer little gain in skipping the fare. If you are caught without a valid ticket, not only will you be fined, you will be at the mercy of an officer who often speaks very little English. Having a long broken conversation in the back of a crowded train with an armed officer whose mouth is full of betel nut juice is not the way you want to spend your journey.
For the Western traveler, I advise only eating prepackaged foods on the day of your journey. India is a large country, journey’s can take days. An upset stomach, or worse yet, diarrhea, can make your trip a nightmare. Stocking up on food and beverages before coming to the station is always good practice. There will certainly be temptations, with chai-wallas peddling delicious tea non-stop and an assortment of delicious fried foods passing down the aisles. If you must, stick with fruit. Always check the seal on water bottles and smell the water before consuming. It’s best to stick with reputable brands, but is often not an option in certain parts of the world.
If you have to use the restroom, proceed with caution. Toilets will be very rudimentary, often with just a squatter that deposits the contents onto the tracks. Staying off the train tracks in India is a matter of life of death, but that’s for another article! You cannot expect there to be toilet paper anywhere in India, let alone the trains. Always carry some on you if you have not adopted their ways or in case of emergency, newspaper works just fine and can be purchased on the train for 10 Rupees. Sinks are located on the outside of the restrooms and offer a steady stream of water but usually lack soap. Carrying a small hand sanitizer or bar of soap is always advised anywhere in India.
If ever you decide to get off during one of the frequent stops, don’t wander far! Stories abound of travelers who hopped off to grab a bite to eat or a bottle of water only to see the train start heading down the track! You never can be certain how long you will be stopped. Asking around will get you a multitude of answers, none of which seem to be based on any actual knowledge. Best bet is to have everything you need when you board.
It’s a good idea to use the journey times only as a rough estimate of the actual time your trip will take. Printed on your ticket will be station and arrival times.
Remember, delays are frequent, from mechanical issues to persistent fog in the north. Sometimes the train will stop and a half hour will elapse for no apparent reason. This is the pace of life in India. Always count on being several hours over and never being early. Arriving at your departure station hours before is unnecessary. Trains are never going to be early, most likely will be quite late and stations are hardly any place to hang out.
Finally, it’s a good idea to let those around you know what stop you are getting off. Depots can be very confusing, often lacking signs. You are not going to hear any conductor announcements, nor given any heads up unless you ask. Indians are all too ready to help you out and point out your stop.
There are enough headaches in India, hopefully these tips might prevent one or two!