On the 1st of January, 2016, we returned to India. And even though this was our second time in India, we had never traveled by train in India before. During our previous trip we were cycling across India for five months. And as a result we never used long-haul buses or trains.
Sometimes we used local buses to travel within the city and we used local bus in Goa a lot. Once we went on a backwater boat-trip in Kerala. And once – on a short train ride. But that’s it. We didn’t really have an experience with the most popular form of transportation in India – long distance train.
Traveling by train in India – our very first journey
During our stay in Delhi we met fellow travelers Karina and Harijs. They had come to India after visiting Pakistan, and were on their way to Myanmar. They already had experience of traveling by train in India and were planning to make few more train journeys.
What we did? We went together with them, to see how easy or hard it is to buy a train ticket in India.
We followed them to the International Tourist Bureau in New Delhi, where they would book another train ticket. And they showed us the place and how to fill in the application form. After that we bought our first train tickets – to Muzaffarnagar. Because we wanted to meet Agate and her Indian family.
Our first train experience was, let’s say, very tiring! Our train was supposed to depart from Old Delhi station at 5:30, and arrive in Muzaffarnagar at 8 o’clock. But instead the train came at 11 AM. And we arrived to Muzaffarnagar at 2 PM! What? Why? Our train got delayed due to fog.
Because of the fog and thereby – reduced visibility, our train was driving slowly. And that’s why it was so late. Our train didn’t start its route in Delhi. It went across few states, starting the journey day before.
Train departed from the very first station on time, but later on the train reduced its speed because of low visibility.
But we didn’t know it back then.
We needed to get to Old Delhi station very early in the morning, before 5 o’clock. Metro isn’t running at that time. So we searched for another option to get there.
We were staying near New Delhi station. As we weren’t sure if there will be some tuktuks around at that time (now we know – there are tuktuks driving around in Delhi at 4 AM), so we booked a taxi at our hotel in order to get to Old Delhi Railway station.
When we came to the train station, we went through the security check and went to check arrival and departure display board. Yeah, it was there, but it wasn’t working. Probably it was too early for somebody to switch it on, I suppose, haha.
Then we found an information desk and decided to ask about it there. The queue was getting shorter, but at one point few men jumped in and it was like a signal for other persons to cut in queue as well. We looked at each other and decided to do the same thing – forget about the queue and push ourselves in that mess of bodies. But we didn’t need to. As one of the staff members waved us in their cubicle.
We asked about the platform of our train. And then the man told us that our train had been delayed. It will be here, in Old Delhi station, at 8:30, three hours later, that’s what he said. OK. Even though we had more than three hours, we decided to stay here. Kaspars told me – yes, it is late. But what if it arrives before 8:30? What we gonna do then?
I agreed with Kaspars and we stayed in the station, sitting on the bench on the platform. And while sitting there, I remembered that Agate mentioned something about checking the train status, to know when we are going to arrive in Muzzafarnagar. I supposed that she will check it online. So I told Kaspars about it and shortly later we found this site, where we were able to track status of our train.
And this was not our only revelation – we found out that our train now is 5 hours late. It will be here, in Delhi, at 10:30. OK. This is when we decided to go to our hotel and come later. For a moment I wasn’t so sure, if we need to go to Muzaffarnagar at all. Because now we will have only three hours for visiting Agate there, in Muzaffarnagar. We planned to go back to Delhi the same day, at 6 PM, because Kaspars’s parents were coming to Delhi the next day.
But we did go to Muzaffarnagar, and the train was even more late. It arrived at 11 o’ clock, and left Old Delhi Railway station at 11:30. We arrived in Muzaffarnagar at 2 o’clock.
When our visit to Muzaffarnagar was coming to an end, Agate’s family told us, that train back to Delhi will be delayed as well. It will be two hours late. But we weren’t disappointed, at all. That meant that we will have a little bit more time to spend with Agate and her family.
In the end it was us who were late, not the train, ha. We barely made it (because of the traffic jam). Train was already leaving, when we arrived to railway station. We jumped off the platform, on the tracks, and jumped onto the moving train. That was something!
So, what can you learn from this?
It is India. India is a big country. Fog, accidents, rain, other stuff can affect train schedule. Of course, it won’t happen every time you will want to go somewhere, but it can happen, yes. So if you are planning to travel in India by trains, you should always take this into account and have a plan B or a time reserve.
Never go across all India by train, expecting that you will arrive precisely on time. So for example, if you have to get to the airport, which is few thousands kilometers away, definitely plan some extra time.
If your train starts its journey not from the station, that you are going from, check the train status online (on the site of Indian Railway) before going to the train station and you will avoid getting into situation like ours. You will need to know number of your train. It’s written on your train ticket.
Buying tickets at The International Tourist Bureaus
Where you can buy train tickets? There are few options. You can buy them at The International Tourist Bureaus, regular counters if there is no tourist bureau available, online or through some agency or hotel. The last one I wouldn’t recommend. But if you can trust the hotel or the agency and if you know that they won’t charge you like ten times more than actual price of the ticket, you can do it.
Let’s start with the foreigners’ counters (The International Tourist Bureaus). First things first – remember, those bureaus are not in every city! In total there are 11 International Tourist Bureaus in India: New Delhi, Kolkata, Secunderabad, Chennai, Jaipur, Agra, Bangalore, Jodhpur, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Varanasi.
In New Delhi Railway station The International Tourist Bureau is located on the first floor.
If you are entering New Delhi Railway station from the side of Pahar Ganj, go to the left. There will be stairs and there you will see a plaque which reads that The International Tourist Bureau is on the first floor.
Before going to the booking counter, take a form and fill it in. You will need to write down: from where you will be traveling and what is your destination, train number, date of journey, class of travel (type of coach), number of seats or berths you want to book.
When all of this is filled, you need to provide information about all the travelers of your “group”. Names, ages, genders, passport numbers and preferable choices of berths (like lower, middle or upper). If you need a return ticket (or even onward ticket), fill in the box at the bottom of the form as well.
“Where I can get the train number or information about classes of coaches? Where can I find a timetable?” – you will ask.
Just write the information you know for sure, leave the blanks and ask the clerk at the information counter. He or she will show you the timetable, tell you about the coach classes and prices, as well as the train numbers and names.
When your form is completed, go to the booking counter in the same room. There the clerk will check your form, write all the information in his computer and print your tickets. Almost done! Now you need to pay and this deed will be done!
IMPORTANT – you will need to show passports of all the travelers, when booking the tickets.
Easy, isn’t it?
Note: in these Tourist Bureaus you can book a ticket from any station to any destination! For example, you are in New Delhi Bureau and there you are able to buy a train ticket from Mumbai to Goa. Isn’t it great? So, that basically means, that in one place you can buy all the tickets you will need during your trip in India.
It is possible to book tickets online as well. For more information about how you can do it, go to seat61.com. Let’s say, it’s a little bit more time consuming and not so easy, if you don’t have Indian mobile number.
Tatkal tickets and The Foreign Tourist Quota
When possible, book your tickets in advance! Trains in India are very popular method of transportation, so don’t be surprised – the trains could easily be fully booked.
Book the ticket at least a couple of days in advance. Even better – a week in advance! Especially, if you are planning to take some of the most popular trains. While researching more about traveling by train in India I found, that there are quite a few, who claim that buying a train ticket month in advance is normal and right thing to do, as the trains get fully booked very quickly.
Well, if there are no seats left in your chosen class, try different class. If there are no tickets at all, don’t be devastated, yet! There are two schemes that might help you to get a ticket, even if there are no seats. No, you won’t need to travel on the roof of the train, haha.
This scheme is made for those who need to travel on short notices. That means that there are few reserved seats in almost every class. If you didn’t get a ticket the normal way, try to ask for tatkal tickets. But note – there is specific time, when you can buy those tickets:
8 – 8:30 AM General tickets (cheapest tickets with no allocated seats).
10 – 10:30 AM AC classes.
11 – 11:30 AM Non AC classes and sleeper.
Extra charges are applied when buying tatkal tickets.
If you can’t or don’t want to use Tatkal Scheme, there is still another option – The Foreign Tourist Quota (FTQ).
The Foreign Tourist Quota (FTQ)
There are few seats reserved on certain trains only for foreigners. So that’s how FTQ work. But take into account – you can’t book FTQ tickets in every station! You can book this kind of tickets only in The International Tourist Bureaus (see the list above). And these tickets cannot be booked online.
One more option – you can try to buy general ticket. It is the cheapest ticket possible. It lets you to board any train on the particular route within 24 hours. With this type of ticket you will not have allocated seat. And if all the seats and berths will be taken, you will need to stand. Or sit on the floor.
Train scams in India
In all big cities of India, be aware of scammers, when you are approaching train station. For example, in New Delhi Railway station they are especially aggressive.
Look, there are official-looking guys in front of the train station. They will stop you and ask you to show your train ticket. Don’t stop and go past them! Don’t be surprised, they can be quite aggressive, too! These men will try to block your way and their tone of voice won’t be friendly.
“Maybe they are official after all?” you will ask yourself. But, hey, listen! The guys check only foreigners, they don’t stop locals. And, how on earth, somebody can buy a ticket in the railway station then? If they need to have a ticket to enter the station?
If you stop and say something like: “I don’t have a ticket, but I want to buy it in the Foreigners Office in the station.” They will say you something like: “No, my friend, it is not possible today! The office is closed… (The International Tourist Bureau in New Delhi is open 24/7) Come with me, I will show you the official tourist office, where you can buy a ticket!” Remember our article about official tourist office scam in Delhi?
Here is what happens next. The guy leads you to “official tourist office”, where they most probably will try to convince you, that there are no train tickets available. Next step – they will try to sell you their transportation services, mostly more expensive and sometimes not existent.
Types of coaches of Indian trains
For now, we have traveled either in non AC chair car, either in Sleeper car. But there are few more different classes.
With the help of this Wikipedia article I have listed down all the train classes by the accommodation quality and price.
The most expensive is First Class AC. Then come air conditioned coaches: AC 2 Tier, AC 3 Tier, AC 3 Tier Economy, Executive Class Chair Car, AC Chair Car.
Sleeper Class and Seater Class are without AC.
Unreserved (general) is the cheapest and simplest type of train coach. When buying this ticket you won’t get allocated seat. People are sitting and standing everywhere, and it could be very crowded.
Sleeper class is the most popular class
Before buying tickets in sleeper class, we were a little bit worried about it. As we thought that it will be super dirty and crowded, with people sleeping on the floor. Turned out, it’s not that bad. At least, not all the time.
Berths weren’t all dirty. Just few stains here and there. And that’s it. Just sleep with all your clothes on and you will be fine. If you have a sleeping bag with you, you will have even more comfortable journey. Yes, the train coach sometimes smells of piss. And that’s probably the worst thing about sleeper class. There are toilets on the both ends of the coach. But you can’t really close the doors of the coach. So the smell comes inside.
All in all, it is fine, taking into account the price. Overnight journey from Mumbai to Goa in sleeper class cost us less than 400 rupees (6 euro).
So, when are you going on a train journey in India? :)
Author: Una Baufala
Una is a traveler and travel blogger from Latvia. Apart from traveling and exploring new places she loves to read books. And she adores cats. Together with Kaspars they have been traveling – volunteering – working abroad since October 2013. WeAreFromLatvia.com is where she shares her travel experiences.