If you’re planning a trip to India, you have probably heard a few people say that travelling by train is the best way to see this wonderful country. And it’s true – there is something special about sitting back and watching the countryside roll past the open windows, breeze in your hair and a cup of hot chai in your hands. Friendships can be made on these journeys and new places are seen from a different perspective.
But to the newcomer, this vast network of train routes and bureaucracy can be a little confusing. Don’t worry, we’re here to help explain it – and soon you’ll be catching trains like a pro!
What do all the different classes mean?
There are several classes of seats or berths to choose from. The one you go for will probably depend on how long the journey is, as well as your budget. We have travelled in all of these classes ourselves, except first (though we did sneak a peek at first class through the train door!) To start with, lets look at the categories for berths. These are available on long distance routes, whether you are travelling overnight or during the day. If you are taking a long night train then booking a berth is probably advisable, as it means you have a guaranteed place to lay your head. It’s also useful for a long daytime journeys as it means you have an assigned seat and you have the option to take a nap as well to pass the time! We often find that the people you end up sharing a compartment with end up becoming friends over the course of a journey, asking questions and sharing food. It’s a great way to meet people.
Sleeper Class – This is the budget option for berths. Here, you have six berths per compartment, where three berths are aligned on top of each other. During the day, the middle berth folds down flat against the wall so that all three passengers can use the bottom berth as a seat. The beds are basic but comfortable – slightly padded and a little grubby. No pillows or sheets are provided in this class so you may want to make sure you have something to rest your head on, for example a travel pillow or bundled up hoodie. A sleeping bag liner, sleep sheet or blanket might also make your journey a little easier. The windows in sleeper class are open, with shutters than can be pulled down. At stations, food and chai sellers roam the platform passing their wares in through the window. There are also fans on the ceiling of each compartment to stop it becoming too hot, but they can often rattle noisily.
Three AC – Basically this means that you have three berths stacked on top of each other, the same as in sleeper class, but it is in an air-conditioned carriage. Again, the middle berth can be folded away during the day so that everyone can sit. In this class you are provided with sheets, pillows and blankets so although the berths are the same, they can be made a little more comfortable. The windows are sealed, which means you are slightly cut off from the outside world and the handy food sellers on the platform, although food is sometimes available on the train (and the train station vendors will board the train and walk up the aisle to offer food and drinks too).
Two AC – This is a step up from three AC as there are privacy curtains across each compartment, as well as individual lights. You get sheets, pillows and blankets again, as well as air conditioning. The main difference is that there are only four berths per compartment, so there is no need for a folding berth. The bottom bunk is shared by two people during the day as a seat.
First AC – This is the fanciest and most expensive – it’s only available on a few long distance routes and the cost is nearly twice the price of two AC. Here you have either a two-berth or a four-berth lockable compartment, with wash basins and all bedding provided. Sometimes you’ll only get half a carriage of first AC berths, with the rest being two AC – you’ll see this on the side of the train as ‘first AC cum AC Two Tier’.
All the AC carriages and some sleeper carriages also have plug points for charging your phone, which is handy. There are toilets and wash basins at the end of each carriage, usually one western style and one squat toilet. They can sometimes be pretty gross, but most of the time they are perfectly acceptable (honestly we’ve seen worse sometimes on Southern Rail trains back in the UK!) You’ll need to remember to bring your own toilet roll. Make sure you take note of which carriage and berth you have on your ticket, so you know which part of the train to board – some of the better stations have displays saying which carriage stops where. This is really useful as you can stand on the right part of the platform rather than doing a mad dash along the station when the train pulls in.
There are also a few different ticket categories for seated passengers which are good for shorter journeys:
AC Executive Chair Class – The chair classes are not available on all routes – only the main intercity routes. Executive Chair Class is air-conditioned and sometimes includes food and drink. There are four seats per row, arranged 2+2.
AC Chair Class – Similar to the Exec class, these are comfy air-conditioned seats. There are five seats per row here, so slightly less space, but still lots of leg room. Good for daytime travel on main intercity routes when available, if you don’t fancy the Second Class seats or if you know it is a popular and busy train.
Second Class Seats – These are the real cheap seats! You can travel for hours on just a handful of rupees in this class. These are wooden or padded seats with luggage racks overhead (though when seriously busy the luggage racks are used as seating too!) Generally this is unreserved seating so it’s a free for all. The carriages are always at the front and back of the train, so stand in the right place on the platform and sharpen your elbows if you want a seat! If you’re only going to be on the train for a few hours and you’re on a budget, we’d recommend travelling this way at least once. We’ve met some real characters and had some great (if a little uncomfortable!) journeys this way!
How to find out which trains run on which routes, and how often
There is a lot of useful information on the official Indian Railways website, including a search function to find out which trains run between two stations. However the results aren’t given in a particularly user-friendly format. We like to use either etrain.info or indiarailinfo.com. The good thing about these sites is that they let you put in the bare minimum of information into the search field, so for example you can do a simple search for trains running between New Delhi and Jaipur, leaving the date blank. Useful when planning longer term trips to India, as you can see how many trains run on each route and which days of the week are best for travel. The results will also tell you what kind of class seating/berths are available on each train. For example, here we have done a simple search on etrain.info from New Delhi to Jaipur, and you can see from the results that there are several services to choose from:
The results show you how long each service takes, arrival and departure times, and available classes. It also shows the departure and arrival station – if you’re travelling from or to a big city there are often several stations so make sure you make a note of the right one. Say you looked at the above table and you wanted the fastest train available, you can see that the 12015 Ajmer Shatabdi takes 4 hours and 35 minutes, runs daily at 6.05 am and only carries AC Chair Class and Executive Chair Class carriages.
But how do I buy tickets or reserve a berth?
Now you know your train name and number, and you want to buy a ticket. Great! This is the bit that can seem the most confusing as there are many options available, but don’t worry, it’s actually quite straightforward.
Advance Reservations – Because train travel in India is so popular, trains get booked up really quickly. Reservations open online 120 days before the date of departure so trains can often be fully booked months in advance. If you are the kind of traveller who wants all your plans locked in before departure, or you are visiting India on a very short trip with a definite itinerary, then you can register for an account on the official website and book away. It’s worth creating an account anyway, even if all the trains you search for end up being fully booked – you may be able to get a RAC or Waitlisted ticket. RAC means Reserved Against Cancellation, and although you don’t have a guaranteed seat you are still allowed to board the train. It’s very likely that a few people who have booked won’t turn up, and the conductor will then assign you a seat. You may even get notified a few days before if there have been cancellations. Waitlisted (WL) tickets area little less attractive – you are not allowed to get on the train unless enough people cancel to allow you to be promoted to RAC. With a low WL number this is quite likely, but if not you might be a bit stuck! WL & RAC passengers can check the lists posted at the train station before departure to see if they have been allocated a place, or check online if they have an account. You can also book in advance through travel agencies as you travel around India but they will be very inflated prices.
Last Minute Reservations – Thankfully, there is an option for backpackers and last-minute travellers too. This is the Taktal system (Hindi for immediate ). A certain amount of tickets are held back for short notice travel, and are made available the day before departure at 10am (for 3AC and 2AC tickets) and 11am (for sleeper class tickets). To purchase these you must go to the train station at that time and book in person – you will be given a form to fill in with the train name and number, date of travel, class and your personal details. You are sometimes asked for ID too so take some with you. Be prepared to go early and to queue, as this quota is well used! If you’re our of luck with the Taktal tickets, there is also a Tourist Quota on some of the more popular routes which you can try – these can be booked online or at the booking offices of the largest train stations. You can also get these from travel agencies but be prepared to pay through the nose!
If you’re planning on travelling in second class, this is generally unreserved seating, you can can just buy a ticket at the station right before you travel – easy!
What about train delays?
Trains get delayed all the time, mostly by small amounts, but sometimes by a few hours! We once waited ten hours for a sleeper train from Varanasi to Agra. If you want to stay informed about your upcoming journey, you can enter the train number on the NTES website and see if it is currently running on time.
We hope this was useful information. Have you got any good stories of travelling India by train? Let us know in the comments!