Indian Train

The Great Indian Train Journey: A Short Guide to Train Travel in India

Taking the train in India is about as vivid a memory as you'll ever remember when looking back on your travelling days. Is it safe? What sort of ticket should you book? Here are a few tips to keep it an overwhelmingly positive and memorable backpacking experience. There's no better way to travel India with a greater sense of authenticity than by train.

Getting The Tickets

To buy a ticket for a journey you can, of course, visit the train station. But if you do, don't leave it until the last minute, this is a country of over a billion people – the seats fill up fast. So, if it means making a special journey to the station for the ticket, you may as well save the rickshaw fare to get there and instead, buy it from your hostel or nearest travel shop. Most places will be falling over themselves to book it for you and will just add a small surcharge on top for their trouble.

Indian Train Station

Choosing which class of ticket to buy can be confusing, so here's a rundown:

All classes must be reserved in good time, except of course unreserved, which is fine for short journeys, but agonising for longer ones – cheap though!

Layout Of Indian Trains

Inside Indian Train

It is also important to note the layout of Indian trains; on a 30-hour train journey you'll want a good seat in a decent position. As you walk down the aisle there are 4 or 6 beds on one side of the train in each open cabin. If your bed is on the lower tier here, then people will be sitting, dozing, eating and playing on your bed with you during the hours of daylight, much like a normal seat on a normal train. Having a bed on the mid-level in a 3-tier layout is just as problematic since it needs to be stowed away during the hours of daylight so people can sit down without banging their head on it. So yet again, you'll be sitting on the bottom bunk with everyone else. In a 3-tier scenario, the top bed is the most advantageous because you can leave it open all day long. The disadvantage however, is that if you want to stay up there you'll find yourself in the laying position all day, but if you try to sit up you'll have to stoop because of the low ceiling; it is also uncomfortable to manoeuvre your backpack up there.

Along the other side of the carriage, running along its length, are sets of 2 berths (one top and one bottom) positioned flush with the wall and in line with the direction of travel. Some would argue that these are the best 2 beds in any carriage due to their occupying privacy, i.e., no one will sit on your bed at any time of day or night. If you want one of these you must ask for a 'side berth.'

In most cases, I never felt the need for air-con. The windows on the train don't have glass in them, only bars, so the airflow into the cabin is constant. I'm not saying it doesn't get hot, it does, but air-con often negates its comfort point by being too powerful and chilly. That said, AC classes do come with blankets and pillows.

There is one point that will likely seal the deal for either choosing or not choosing an air-conditioned bed: you're less likely to be bothered by beggars (legless children and clapping eunuchs), people selling chai (tea), coffee, food and all the other hustle and bustle that goes on in the non-AC carriages.

A few final points:

A Piece Of Advice

Sunset View From Indian Train

My advice for first-timers would be to choose non-AC sleeper class and embrace both the chaos and the community spirit of this experience. Yes, the beds are dirtier; yes, the sound of “Chai! Chai! Chai!” will grate on you at some point; and yes, there is no real sense of privacy. But it is also the place that people are likely to offer you food to share, people will converse with you and you'll be immersed in the sounds, smells and intrigue of India in such close quarters that you can't help but accept and grow to love it. There's almost no point in coming to India and leaving your guard up to the way in which people choose to live and travel here. So sit back, share a chapati (flatbread) and watch the sun dip as the world streams past your window.