After some nightmare experiences with train travel in India, like that one train journey from Goa to Mumbai that I wrote about here I actually ended up loving my Indian train trips. Amazing achievement considering my first couple of journeys left me so frazzled I felt more like throwing myself under the train than stepping onto it.
One time I got the train from Mumbai to Delhi and thought I could buy the ticket on the train. The train conductor comes along and tells me no you can’t do that and tries to intimidate me into paying double the price of what I should have paid. Anyway I refused to pay it and I was sure they were going to throw me off the train and arrest me. I began plotting my getaway from the police and decided to jump off at an earlier stop and leg it. Classy! In the end I paid half what he had originally told me to pay which was the correct train fare. I was still pissed that I’d missed the earlier train (I couldn’t get out of bed 🙁 ) which would have cost one fifth of that price. Oh well, at least I don’t have a blog post on the way called “How To Survive Indian Jails”. Then there was the time I got on the wrong train and another time I nearly punched someone. I could go on.
Being able to love train travel in India did take some planning in advance. You know simple stuff like finding out what coach classes offer what. How to book in advance to avoid the queues that usually result in having to catch the next train. How to behave in a way that doesn’t make train conductors want to throw you off a moving train or have you arrested at the next station. Minor details 😉
1. Buy The Right Train Ticket
First things first… You need to choose your berth and your class.
Berths are the beds and you should try to reserve a top one because the top berth won’t have to be folded down during the day like the middle ones, or act as seats for all the passengers like the bottom ones.
Train Ticket: Sleeper Class
If you’re on a budget or just love to rough it with the rest of us commoners then travel in Sleeper Class (SL). In Sleeper Class the carriages are divided into compartments with six beds in each. The beds are stacked vertically in three tiers on either side of the compartments. There’s no privacy and SL will be noisy, stinky and sweaty. Yay!
Train Ticket: 3AC
3AC might be a better option if it’s a really long journey. The carriages are the same as Sleeper Class but there’s AC to keep the carriages cool and the windows are covered with tinted glass and can’t be opened.
I hate AC and prefer a natural breeze from an open window so I actually prefer Sleeper Class… I know my place lol…
Train Ticket: 2AC
If you want more privacy then go for a 2AC train ticket and mingle with India’s upper class travelers. The main plus here is if you want AC and privacy (which you don’t get in 3AC) because on the entrance to each compartment there’s privacy curtains and also across each of the beds along the aisle. These curtains are always drawn though so don’t expect to start chatting with anyone in 2AC.
Train Ticket: 1AC
If you pay double the price of a 2AC ticket and buy a 1AC ticket you get wider beds than in the other classes, sheets, pillows, blankets, towels and room freshener, cleaner bathrooms and shower cubicles. You could also fly for about the same price most of the time.
There’s lots of other train ticket options and classes but the above are the most popular/common.
2. Find The Train
Sounds pretty simple but in big Indian cities like Mumbai and Delhi I can assure you it’s not! I’ve been dropped off at the entrance to train stations only to be met with a sea of chaos and instantly felt my stress levels rising. It can be a battle to board the train and you have to fight your way to the platform and that’s after you’ve figured out where the platform even is.
The platform and YOUR part of the platform
That’s not it either because you should also find out what part of the platform you’re meant to be standing on. This is because standard trains in India usually have 18 carriages but can have up to 24 carriages for the popular train routes. I’ve been stuck at the wrong end of a crowded platform when the train pulls in and it was a scrum in a backpack! Not ladylike and not pretty.
Never fear! Arrive at the train station a bit earlier so you can find one of the big boards that will show you what trains are departing and when, the platforms they arrive on and the order of the carriages on each train which is something I never checked for until my scrum in a backpack incident.
Once you get to the platform, on the roof of the platform you’ll see a row of numbers. This tells you the places where the carriages will stop. Position yourself at the number corresponding to your carriage from the board and you’ll be at the spot where your carriage will arrive.
If in doubt just ask someone, there’s one thing you can be sure about with train travel in India and that’s that there will always be a load of people around 24/7 to help you.
3. Get On The Train
- Do you want to join the crowds and put those boney elbows to work pushing, shoving and elbowing your way onto the train?
- Or are you prepared to step back from the pandemonium and wait until most people are boarded and potentially miss out on a good seat or even your seat?
Despite what above option you choose, once you’re on expect to find someone already sitting in your seat. They’ll move if you ask nicely but if they don’t then try smiling, shrugging, looking surprised and tap your ticket all at the same time. Anyway you’ll look like you’ve run a marathon at this point and they’ll probably move because they pity you.
If in doubt: Hire a porter also known as a coolie. You’ll see them around the station wearing a red coat and carrying bags on their heads. Travel in style, don’t sweat it… throw some rupees around and you’ll be well rewarded. Make sure you negotiate their fee in advance!
4. Stay Safe On The Train
Chat with families in your carriage
You’ll probably have a few families traveling in the same coach as you and this does help me feel more relaxed. A coach full of men as a solo female traveller in India does not! Say hello, smile and make some small talk with the people around you. Building a little rapport at the beginning of your journey and with those who get on during the trip is just a really nice thing to do and you might have some genuinely interesting conversations too.
Accept food… or don’t!
If they offer you some food or a snack don’t let fear of getting Delhi belly get in the way of bonding with a fellow passenger. If they’re eating it it’s probably fine. That said there are signs up in some trains warning you to not accept food from strangers. I personally will accept food if they seem harmless. Follow your intuition and use your common sense though.
Speak to a train conductor
If you really don’t feel comfortable with where you are seated for whatever reason there’ll be a conductor around and coming through the train once in a while so speak to them about moving. Depending on what class you’re in, or if you don’t mind sitting in a ‘cheap’ carriage then go find yourself a new seat. No big deal.
& Prepare for stares
There’s always someone with a wandering eye everywhere you go, not just in India. On a train though you’re kinda stuck unless you want to play musical chairs for the entire journey. When you’re sitting next to or across from someone who stares to the point of making you feel uncomfortable here’s what I do; I always take a few light-weight, really thin sarongs (super thin because it’s so hot already in India) and either throw one over my hair to block my face from the side (I’m not covering my actual face with it… that’s a bit hardcore unsociable even for me).
I wouldn’t be showing my legs off in India anyway but if you are then throw a sarong over your legs too. If you choose to show a lot of skin in India people will look at your skin. Really simple. You could always ask them to stop staring but on a long train journey you’re then stuck with them and that could make the journey more awkward than it was with just the staring. Follow your instincts!
Style Guide For Female Travelers: What to wear in India
5. Keep Your Things Safe On The Train
Don’t attempt long distance train travel in India without a padlock and chain for your backpack. No brainer really! I usually use my backpack or part of it as a pillow on a long journey. It’s the equivalent of sleeping on a rock but at least I know where it is and that it’s safe while it’s slowly fracking my skull.
I also chain my backpack to something, even while it’s under my head. I’m such a deep sleeper that if someone ripped it out from under my head and jumped off the train I don’t think I’d notice. Of course all zippers are padlocked too, with a code padlock so I don’t worry about keeping the key safe… way too much responsibility! I still have the important things strapped to me at all times in a money belt. Passport, ID, cash… all on me.
Little details to make train travel in India enjoyable
Once you’ve taken care of the important things like, you know, getting on the train and not getting robbed on the train, you can kick back and start enjoying the journey! Gaze out of the window and watch the ever changing landscape go by. Read that book you’ve been meaning to read for forever. If you like to chat then strike up a conversation with your neighbor, who knows where that could lead… (probably to them putting in their headphones but oh well).Like eating a perfectly ripe avocado, train travel in India is an experience to be savored. It's also a bit like Marmite, you either love it or hate it. Click To Tweet
If all else fails embrace the chaos of train travel in India!
Despite all this though you might still have a hectic time getting from A to B on a train in India. It’s just how India is and you’ve got to embrace the chaos and keep a sense of humor. That’s the best mindset for India and definitely when it comes to train travel in India.
I hope you liked this post! Have you traveled on a train in India? If you have your own advice for people traveling by train in India then feel free to share it in the comments section below.
If you’re traveling to India for the first time use one of these India Travel Guides to plan your trip. I’ve always been a fan of Lonely Planet’s…