13 Essential Tips for Indian Train Travel

Before you go

  1. Plan on delays. When putting together your itinerary, give yourself plenty of time. Our trains were delayed anything from 3 to 13 hours each. It helps if you are aware of potential breaks in your plan if the journey takes double the scheduled time. Remember delays multiply if you are meeting the train en route. The farther along the line the train is from its starting destination the more likely delays become.
  2. Trade up. You will not regret booking first class – it doesn’t cost much more and the extra privacy is well worth it. If first class isn’t available book the highest class you can. Do not be tempted to book sleeper class just because you believe nothing travel throws at you can phase you. This just might.
  3. Book in advance. We used cleartrip which was the only site at the time accepting non Indian credit card payments without needing an Indian mobile phone number (though this appears to have changed recently to match requirements by IRCTC). The cleartrip site is often down but do persevere, with patience we were able to book all our required journeys. Do not expect much in the way of customer service, our enquiries to the customer service team were met with excuses or silence.

  4. Cancelling is easy. One of the reasons for over booking is the ease of canceling a ticket, you can cancel up to 24 hours in advance for the maximum refund. For this reason many people have multiple tickets and then just take the best tickets they have on the day and cancel the rest. It’s a handy option.

  5. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. If you can’t find availability on the route you are looking for, try playing around by looking for a destination further along the route than you plan to get off. These often show up as available. Remember you can get off a train earlier than you have paid for but its a lot more difficult to get on it later than you intended to. Also useful is to cross check cleartrip with IRCTC – this site can be easier to navigate to find the information you need.

  6. RAC versus waitlist. If you don’t succeed in getting a confirmed reservation then you are often left with an RAC or waitlist reservation. If you take an RAC reservation you can board the train (although you are not guaranteed a berth to sleep in). With a waitlist ticket you have to wait until it becomes an RAC or confirmed seat before you can board the train. The PNR number is the key. Each reservation has its own 10 digit PNR number which you will need to check the status of your reservation, easiest on the IRCTC website. Here’s the rub. If you are wait-listed 2 or 10 (as high as we were although you can be wait-listed in the 100+) your status doesn’t move as your trip approaches. You don’t get a good sense of how likely you are to get a confirmed seat. The movement all happens 24 hours before the scheduled departure or even the day of, when the seats being saved for a variety of officials I.e. military, dignitary personnel are given up if not used and added to the pool. Suddenly your reservation jumps from its original booking slot as far up the list as it is going to go. If our experience is any indication we got confirmed seats for all our reservations – the highest wait-list reservation we had was WL10.

On the ground

  1. Use local agents. These can be a good way to avoid the booking chaos at the railway station. Most local travel agents charge 75R per ticket to make reservations. While this is 50R more than cleartrip charges it can be cheaper than the taxi fare to the station and it helps reduce the communication issues at the station. If you do go to the station, my top tip is to write the key information down i.e. the train number, departing station and destination, time, number of tickets and which class – this tends to help with the language barrier.

  2. The first class waiting room. Once you get to the station you will most likely have a decent wait. The station can be a mayhem with people all over the place, stacks of luggage and food and drink vendors hawking their wares. Every station we went to had a first class waiting room – often no more than a few chairs but they tended to be the least busy parts of the station to park yourselves and wait.

On the train itself

  1. Ignore the departure board. More often than not the departure board would not update or was just plain wrong. Listen to the announcements as these are the only reliable source of information at the station. They give you due warning when the train is expected. Beware though if you follow tip 8 as the announcements are often not piped into the first class waiting room. As the time approaches, you may need to stand outside under the loud speaker.

  2. Take provisions. Given the long unreliable delays, take enough food and water to last you the entire journey and then an extra 5 hours. In some trains people came though the carriage all day and night selling chai (sweet milky tea), samosas and pani (bottles of water). In others there was nothing. In some instances the train attendants came around taking dinner and lunch orders (at a cost of about 50R), but again this wasn’t reliable. They would come at odd hours and their was a hefty wait between ordering food and getting it. It is easier to take your own dry food.

  3. Hustle for space. Indian train passengers are masters of acquiring space. Don’t expect the luggage space under your berth not to be used by others when you arrive or find people sitting on your bed throughout the day. Embrace it, but don’t be a wallflower. Hustle for your own spot. It is also good to have a piece of chain and a lock on hand to secure your bags (sold at kiosks in every town).

  4. Have a map. Information about where you are on the route or how long each stop is is very hard to come by – mostly involving rumors from other passengers. It is very helpful to bring a map of the area you are in so you have a sense of the distance traveled and the size of the town at each stop. The larger the town the longer the stop tends to be. If you get out of the train to stretch your legs do not stray too far but equally don’t worry if the train starts to move, you can outrun it easily!

  5. WC in AC1. Perhaps the most useful tip of all. The toilet facilities are squat toilets onto the tracks which can get fairly unsanitary by the end of a 20+ hour train journey. The toilet in the first class carriage (AC1) is European style (has a seat) and was generally much cleaner than those elsewhere. You are free to walk up and down the train so find AC1 and use the WC there. You will still need toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

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