Why listen to me?
Why listen to me when there are so many blogs out there that cover the same thing? It is an important question to address since your time is limited and you can’t be reading an endless sea of regurgitated information.
Well, that is why you should listen to me. I have spent almost half a decade travelling around the country and have had to get countless trains in India. So, the information you get here comes from actual experience and on a budget.
Over the years I have accumulated many tricks and tips you can utilise for yourself and you can read them all in the same place. It makes sense, right?
Indian Trains – An overview
The Indian Trains rails spread like a misshapen spider web across the whole subcontinent to all but the country’s furthest reaches.
There are more than three thousand train stations that greatly vary in size. Some are the size of a whole village, and some are nothing more than a single platform. To confuse matters further, there are many classes to choose from. Some are fast and luxurious, and some rundown tin cans on wheels.
Some journeys can take what seems like an eternity to complete. Their punctuality, given the distance they cover, puts our railway system here in England to shame. Sometimes one train can run for more than two days and still be on time!
Train Classes in India
The Indian railways are a grand engineering feat by anyone’s standards. It is the world’s biggest single employer, which is astonishing, right? Much of the railway tracks were laid down during the colonial days of the British Raj. It has been built on and refined ever since.
Getting the train is an experience in itself and something that is quintessentially Indian. I find it is way more palatable for long journeys than the bus as it offers considerably more comfort. After all, even the low-end classes have access to a toilet.
There are many different classes to choose from and I would imagine that your budget will primarily dictate the one you choose.
Hopefully, you will be able to make an informed choice on what you want after reading this. Let’s start at the beginning of the most cost-effective seats on the whole network.
Unreserved Train Class
These seats can not be booked in advance, so the benefits are apparent. If you need to get somewhere quickly and all the trains are booked, consider taking this class. The downside is they can get swamped and can quickly become a very claustrophobic experience indeed.
Once, I could hardly get my feet on the floor; it was that crowded. It was an awful experience, and I would advise you not to get one of these if you are leaving a big city in rush hour. It is here you may learn that you are not a fan of confined spaces.
In my humble opinion, it is worth getting one of these on your travels just for the experience. Just so long as you are in a rural area else you may want to cry.
I have always been met with nothing but hospitality and kindness on these trains. Some of my fondest memories of meeting the locals have been in general class. It is, by far, the cheapest way to ride the Indian railways, so if you are on a tight budget this class is for you.
Many local people with unreserved tickets will board the sleeper class carriages when there is little or no chance of getting on the train.
When the ticket inspector comes around, you simply pay the extra charge for a spare seat if there is one. If not, you will have to sit in the doorway, but at least you will have room, which often beats feeling like a sardine in a hot tin can.
Sleeper Class Train
It is the class I usually travel to if it is possible. The carriages are broken down into six-berth cubicles with two more beds along the gangway. I like this class because it is affordable, offers good views, and provides an often exciting experience.
The aisles are always full of vendors selling everything from the ubiquitous Indian chai to plastic crocodiles. You will see buskers of all descriptions trying to scratch a living. Blind singers, contortionists and even not very convincing transvestites all try and play their hand for a few rupees.
Foreign tourists are relatively rare in this class, so there will be many a conversation to be had. With scarcely a dull moment here, I wholeheartedly recommend this class for an all-Indian experience.
Pro-Tip for Booking Sleeper Class Train
There is no AC in this class, only fans. What I have found is to book the upper bunk if you can. It allows you to retire whenever you choose from the madness that’s going on in the carriage below. Bring your valuables up on the bed with you. The downside is that your seat will be next to the aisle, so any vendors, beggars, holy people, or buskers will be asking you for money. If you are western, this will only draw attention more.
Also, hot air rises, so the top bunks are the last seats Indians want to book. For me, it’s a small price to pay for security and the chance to get some shuteye whenever you choose. The lower bunk is the window seat, so there is more chance of being bothered at night or, worse yet, having your valuables stolen. Lone female travellers in this class should undoubtedly think about taking the upper bunk.
I attach the straps from my rucksack to the metal clips underneath the seats for security. It’s hard for a thief to run off with my stuff, and believe me; It does happen. On more than one occasion, people have tried to walk off with my luggage on the train. Local people use chains, but I find just attaching the straps of my bags is okay.
Plenty of people will walk up and down the carriages offering massive padlocks and chains for sale. Your luggage would undoubtedly be safe if this is a service you would like to use. No one will be walking off with your stuff, trust me.
Precautions When Travelling in The Cheaper Classes of Indian Trains
As I said, there are only fans, meaning the windows are often open. This means any dirt or dust outside comes in. Sometimes this can be a lot, and I once got a severe eye infection from travelling in sleeper class and now I am scared for life from it, so beware.
Mosquitos will also happily come in, and if you are travelling in an area with a Dengue or malaria problem, spray yourself with DEET repellent or don’t travel on this class at all.
India may be a hot country, but it gets pretty cold sometimes, so bring something to sleep in. This also helps keep any dust from the bed of your body. I usually use a damp cloth to wipe the plastic mattress before I begin my trip. You will be shocked to see how much dust gets through those open windows.
Another Pro Tip from Me
The cheaper classes are reasonably priced so they can double up as a night’s stay when it’s a long journey. It is often cheaper than a hotel, so if it is possible to organise it overnight, do so as this is a great way to save money when you are on a long trip. However, the faster trains don’t offer sleeper classes as an option, so it will be AC or nothing.
3A Class in Train – 3-tier 3AC
3ac is the same set-up as in the sleeper class carriages. Only this time the windows don’t open, but you get AC. It can also get jam-packed, but you can’t stay in this class without a valid 3AC ticket. Meaning no matter what happens, there is only one seat per passenger.
There are no vendors except the ones employed by the Indian Railways here, making it a more peaceful ride. The price difference between the sleeper class and 3 AC is quite a lot, so bear that in mind.
I recommend this if travelling through an area with a problem with mosquito-borne diseases as mosquitos seem to hate AC.
2A Class in Train – 2 Tier 2AC
These are two-tier births in groups of four. I have only taken this class a couple of times. It’s pretty comfortable, and you will likely get a good night’s sleep. There are also curtains for privacy, which can make a big difference.
You are given bedding with any class with AC. Great if you can afford it! This class will probably be a nice treat if you are on a more extended holiday.
I usually only pay for this if there is a reason, such as I feel poorly. Particularly if I have a bad belly, the last thing your body will thank you for is sweating it out on sleeper class and dehydrating yourself further. AC can work out to be a blessing in these situations and it is well worth the investment to preserve your health.
1A class in train – 1AC
I have never actually travelled in this class as I visit India for at least six months, so financially, this is very impractical. It costs a lot more than the sleeper class and I have never found a need to use it.
As I understand it, there are locks on your cabin doors, which have between two and four beds. Meals are included at this cost, and I should think so too!
These are chair-only trains, and they tend to only run over shorter distances. The more comfortable ones will naturally cost a little more. However, they are comfortable and fast. Tourist offices often recommend these trains as they are often the quicker option.
Whenever I have booked a train from New Dehli to Jaipur, I am offered the train first. The Ajmer Shatabdi Express is one of the fastest ways to reach the capital of Rajasthan. I also wholeheartedly recommend them if they are available.
India’s Heritage Train Journeys
Even if you don’t like trains, some journeys are undeniably breathtaking in India. It is even more exciting if you are on one of the few heritage trains that still run.
These tend to be through incredibly scenic areas to make it even more atmospheric. Don’t get me wrong, I am no train enthusiast, but it is hard not to be able to appreciate the romance of chugging through the Indian countryside in one of these.
Two journey I would recommend is getting the Himalayan Queen between Kalka and Shimla. This journey takes you through countless tunnels as it winds through the pine-clad hillsides of the Himalayan foothills.
The other is the Darjeeling toy train that made its first trip along its tiny tracks in 1886! Poor girl isn’t up to much anymore, but you can still make your way 14 km from Ghum to Darjeeling.
Now I have explained about the train classes, let me talk about how to book them. If you want to book online, the government website is www.IRCTC.in. You will have to register for foreign tickets to use it, which takes considerable perseverance.
If you use any sites like yatra.com or book with an Indian travel agency, they will happily sort it out for you. However, they will obviously take a commission for themselves and just how much it depends on the company.
Important note for booking trains in India
Travel agencies have no access to the tourist quota. Only government outlets have that. These are seats that are reserved just for foreign tourists.
These tickets cost a few more rupees than usual, but seats on an otherwise booked-up train can come out of what seems like thin air.
Where are the government tourist offices?
I like to book in the tourist counters and offices normally located in the train stations. Most large cities such as Dehli, Mumbai, Calcutta, Madras, Udaipur, Agra, Jaipur etc, all have one.
I prefer to use the government tourist offices because you will be speaking to a knowledgeable person who can advise on alternative routes to help you create your ideal itinerary.
The staff have no interest in upselling you tickets that you don’t need. They are also a fantastic source of impartial advice that is hard to get elsewhere, and with all those train stations, that will come in handy. Don’t forget to bring your passport as the staff will want to take a copy of it with your visa.
In summary of my post on travelling to India by train.
Phew, there was a lot to say about that. I hope you found this post valuable and insightful If you did, please let me know in the comments section below. If you didn’t, I would like to know anyway so I can improve my work.
I always strive to give my readers a better service because you, the people absorbing this content, is what matters.
I genuinely want to spread my knowledge among my fellow backpackers because it has been a painful and costly journey learning this stuff myself. Before the internet, there was only the information in the guidebook as a guiding light. Sometimes I would meet a knowledgeable traveller and try to absorb as much information as possible.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with information in the guidebooks, but that was the only gospel to travellers everywhere.
Now all the information you need is at the click of a button, and there are countless resources. That is why it is important that my readers know that my advice is always honest, sincere and well-researched.
If you enjoyed this post and want to find out more, please do not hesitate to check out more of the website. I recommend my guide to travelling in India. It gives you more useful tricks and tips to help you plan your dream trip. Let me know what you think and I will see you soon. 😁