“The pride of India” is India Railway’s undeniable slogan. The train system is a marvel, moving hundreds of millions of people annually. There is nothing in India that works with the efficiency and scale that the railway does. It’s not world-class in any sense, but to get around and interact with Indian people, the trains are the way to go. Serving as an artery to connect nearly every city, this is how nearly every person, caste, and family gets around. The conversations that can be had in a compartment will be at least as memorable as the trip itself. Here’s how to get train tickets when you need them to maximize your time in India.
An Second AC (2AC) cabin. Not too bad…but either is the much cheaper 3AC.
THE CLASSES OF TRAVEL
In most trains there are five classes: First Class (1AC), Second A/C (2AC), Third A/C (3AC), Sleeper (SL), Second Seating (2ND) and General Seating (GS). On some trains there are AC Chair cars which are exceptional for daytrips, but this is not recommended for long rides as it’s basically an economy class airplane seat.
As you can see there is a huge difference in cost, First Class costing over 12 times the reserved seat price. With such a price difference you can be assured a totally different clientele in each, providing a different perspective on India in each class. Most budget travelers opt for Sleeper class. Due to the noise, dust and grime that come with open windows we always preferred 3AC. 2AC is hard to recommend, while substantially quieter than 3AC due to less families, the cost differential was too much for us as the bed itself is the same.
If you gamble with General Seating you may end up squeezing in this close as we did on a train to Agra. (Read about that experience here)
India Railways does an admirable job to ensure that tourists aren’t delayed by lack of tickets. There is a quota of tickets available only for foreigners on almost every train. To get these tickets you must purchase them at a station, in-person, with your passport. Touts and tour agencies will often tell you that tickets aren’t available for certain routes, trying to steer you onto a commission paying bus, but always check the station in person for Tourist Quota before giving up on the train. Buying tickets at the station is relatively painless and will save you big money on commissions and hassle from tourist agencies.
Look for official signs inside the station to locate tourist ticket counters. If there is no sign proceed to the normal ticket window.
Major stations have sales offices specifically for tourists, always located INSIDE the train station, but smaller stations sell tourist quota tickets at the “Advance Reservation” ticket window. Tour agents and touts will approach you in the station claiming to work for Indian Railways and offer to help you, usually by taking you outside the station to their office, just ignore them. Only take directions and availability information from Indian Railways employees located behind their desks/windows.
Bring to the station the following information: your passport, travel date, train number, train name, boarding station and destination station. Don’t think about what you need to buy a train ticket in any other country, in India you need all this information or they will not help you. Why I do not know. Where do you get such trivial information such as train name and number?
In the land of paperwork, purchasing a train ticket requires filling in a form like this. Be sure to have all the information.
Online booking websites ClearTrip.com and MakeMyTrip.com have Indian Railways ticket search. Use these sites to check availability, train information and timing. If you have an Indian mobile phone number you can purchase tickets online. Online booking is obviously the easiest way, but there are several hoops you need to jump through to register with both the site and the IRCTC (Indian Railways) that absolutely require an Indian mobile phone. We registered and booked almost all of our tickets online instead of the station.
Feeling old? People over 60 get a “senior discount” of 40% on Indian Railways tickets.
Short Notice? Need to get on a train in the next few days? Indian Railways reserves tickets for last minute purchase, released 24 hours from the train’s departure.
RAC? Reservation Against Cancellation are the first tickets sold after confirmed. If you are offered these take them, you will get on this train. Waitlist comes after RAC.
Tour agencies and internet cafes sell train tickets. Only purchase from vendors that commit in writing to what class you will receive, what the ticket price is, and what their commission is. We met travelers who paid for AC class tickets and got sleeper with no refund, or who were charged 5-10x the ticket’s face value for an agent to book it online. Always check the ticket price and availability online before visiting an agent. Most agents do not sell tourist quota tickets, but if they do they will have to go to the station themselves with a copy of your passport. Considering how easy and fast it is to buy tickets online or in person, there is rarely a reason to pay a commission to purchase train tickets in India.
From cheap chai to decent food options to great conversation, traveling India by rail is the way to go. In a country where 2/3 of the population makes less than $2 a day, it is the way that the average Indian travels. The vast majority of people can’t afford to visit relatives, make religious pilgrimages, or travel for work on anything other than trains. While sharing a cabin, chai and meals with them you can ask questions and hear a local’s perspective like nowhere else in the country.
NEED TO KNOW
- Train stations often have “fixed price” rickshaws and taxis. Sure they cost more than a local would pay, but it sure saves you the time and effort of negotiating…
- Railways, not trains. English is readily in use throughout India, but “Railway” and “Train” are not as interchangeable as one would expect. To avoid confusion ask your rickshaw or taxi driver to take you to the “railway station” not “train station”.
- Buy chains to lock your bags to fixed loops. This is the only country we have used them, but locals swear by and use them. Purchase these at or near railway stations to ensure your bags are still there when you wake up.