Trains in India – 9 things to keep in mind

Travelling by train in India

Having seen New Delhi come to a complete halt in the middle of the day because of the number of cars, people, motorcycles, rickshaws, cows and other miscellaneous traffic participants on the streets Kristina and I thought trains and metros should be the way to go in India. We read online that a number of tourist tickets can be purchased at the stations for each train but we did not quite know that something as simple as buying a train ticket could be such a challenge. As with other things (like visa application, hotels) we found the train booking system in India to be quite bureaucratic, slow, complicated and not really tourist friendly. It’s an even tougher nut to crack for someone new to the world of travelling in less developed countries. There is some terminology that you have to be aware of as well to make sure you don’t end up somewhere where you really don’t want to spend 5 to 11 hours of your day. Something like common class carriage without a place to sit or lay down.

It’s not all gloom here though. Having researched e-visas for India online, for example, I found things have improved a little bit. For example one problem is that card payments would often be declined, so even if you are an eligible applicant and you have filled out all the details in the online form you would not be able to get a visa because the online payment system is dysfunctional. Crashes, payments not going through for various reasons, servers offline and even slight instabilities of connection which interrupt the process are all common problems associated with it. Luckily, Paypal option has been introduced which was what worked for us for e-visa (while credit and debit cards didn’t).

The same (improvement) is applicable to online train ticket booking, but feedback I have seen from people using these systems is similar to that of e-visas. We decided to do it the old way and buy our tickets at the station. How hard can it be?

It turns out – quite hard.

9 things an unsuspecting tourist-traveller has to be aware of:

  1. International tourist bureau is what you need to look for. The one in New Delhi is tucked away on the first floor of the train station and there is relatively little signage to get you there. If you enter the station at the wrong place the chance you’ll see any signage is negligible. These are the places where tourists can buy tickets in advance and be sure to get a seat on a train. Only buy tickets here.
  2. People will try to help you (some genuinely and some for their own gain) and it is up to you to decide who you listen to, but my recommendation is to always read up about things online before going so you have an idea of what to expect. Ask people at information desks or people selling tickets at any of the ticket offices if you need help and don’t listed to anyone who approaches you.
  3. Hotels might offer to get tickets for you. Everything you are told about prices and their commissions is bollocks although this is not necessarily a bad thing if you want to avoid the mess or are short on time and just want to be handed tickets the next morning. Our experience shows their commission is around 100%. We travelled from New Delhi to Jaipur, Jaipur to Agra and Agra to Varanasi and saved around £65 buying tickets ourselves which is a lot in India.
  4. Have your passport (with a valid visa) if you want to purchase tickets. Pay in Indian Rupees if possible. Cards are unlikely to be accepted.
  5. Don’t believe people telling you the tourist office does not exist, is closed, has been moved or is being repaired. Although it did not happen to us I’ve read about tourists getting taken to other places (“agencies” if you are lucky!) where overpriced tickets are sold. Worst case you might get mugged or sold fake tickets. International tourist bureau in New Delhi is open every day from 8am until 10pm.
  6. Once in the office always check which class you will be placed in and have a basic understanding of differences. People at the tourist bureau are usually able to help here but my research and experience of 25+ hours on Indian trains suggests classes 3AC/2AC or CC are what you should opt for if you are travelling on a budget. Anything above is more like 1st class flying (still cheap but unnecessary) and anything below might appear more suitable for animals rather than for people.
  7. Best time to get tickets is yesterday. Tourist quotas are not massive so tickets could be sold out several days in advance. We forgot our passports in the hotel and even though it only took us 15 minutes to get them there were no more tickets available from New Delhi to Jaipur once we came back. Also, you are likely to find queues in the middle of the day so either come earlier in the morning or just after sunset.
  8. When at the station, look not only for the correct platform but also for the correct place to enter the train. In the stations we visited, approximately 20minutes before arrival of the train, the coach numbers are shown on the electronic boards (a1,a2….b1,b2… and so on). Your coach number will be shown on the ticket. Make sure you stand at the right place before the train arrives. People will be running around trying to get on the train so if you are near or near enough your coach boarding will be less chaotic.
  9. Once on the train, it is not unusual to find someone else in your seat or bed (berth). It is India so don’t expect people to just move – ask them to. We have been pointed at other empty beds on some trains but we just told people to move to those empty beds if they want to themselves. If somebody gets on at the next stop with a reservation for that particular bed you will have no place to sit or sleep at all.

Travelling by train is not as simple in India as it is in the UK for example, but it is doable. We are finding again and again that research and common sense are two very powerful things which can help save money and protect you in unfamiliar situations. And they are even more powerful in developing countries where you really need to work things out on your own…

Well, our train has almost arrived now so we better get off before we miss our stop. We really don’t want to have to buy more tickets!

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