The trains in India are not that good. They are also not that bad. We traveled by train quite a bit during our 4 months in India and here was our experience.
Train tickets can be very difficult and even impossible to get. They can also be purchased easily.
Before we arrived in India we tried to book some of our train tickets online. You can book tickets up to 3 month in advance. But . . . you can only purchase tickets on the railway website (IRCTC) with an Indian credit card. To get around this you can get an account on the Indian railway site and then connect it to an account on Clear Trip which will accept foreign credit cards. But . . . you have to have an Indian phone number to set up an IRCTC account. There is a way to get around this by asking for an email code, but it’s complicated and often doesn’t work. We have a friend with family in India, so her dad let us uses his cell number. But . . . we could not get the two accounts connected. We tried for several days and then gave up.
We were able to book some of our tickets before arriving in India by sending money to our friend’s father via Western Union and having him go to a travel agent and book e-tickets for us.
Once we arrived in India we found it very easy to purchase tickets through a travel agent. We tried a couple of times to get tickets at the train station, but we were always turned away at the window with a gesture that we needed to go somewhere else. We could never figure out where to go. In one city, we couldn’t find a travel agent, so our hotel staff spent two hours booking tickets online for us. Any extra fees the travel agents or hotel staff tacked on were totally worth not having to deal with the hassle.
Most train stations in India are pretty gross. They smell like urine and body odor. They are crowded. The beggars are heart-wrenching and relentless. They will grab your arm and follow you through the station. At first, I thought all the families sitting on blankets on the ground at the stations were waiting for their trains, but it turned out they were mostly families who are homeless. Because of the crowds, there is rarely anywhere to sit except for the ground, which is often wet.
Rand likes to be early everywhere, but we learned to arrive no more than a 45 minutes prior to departure to lessen the amount of time we had to spent in the stations.
Most of our train rides were overnight trips. We rode in 3A/C class. Meaning each berth has 3 bunks per side and 2 bunks across the isle. And the car is air conditioned. The cars in this class are clean . . . enough.
The middle bunk is up during the day and passengers sit 3 across the bottom bunk. At night you pull down the bunk and make the beds with sheets, blanket, and pillow provided. The beds are skinny and short, but Rand at 6’1” managed OK. The bed’s padding is minimal, so I often found myself having to roll over throughout the night due to hip and shoulder pain.
My favorite bunk was the side upper. There is room to sit up and you can go up during the day and be away from the fray below. I hated the middle bunk. It made me feel claustrophobic.
The bathrooms are, well, train bathrooms. The waste goes straight onto the tracks. On one side, the stall has a western toilet. The other side has a squatter. I always chose the squatter. Even with the train rocking I would rather hang on and squat than have my butt touch a train toilet seat. BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper).
A couple of times we rode sleeper class for shorter train rides during the day. This class is similar to 3A/C, but has no air conditioning, so it can get hot. And the windows are open for air flow, so you get covered in times thin layer of dust.
Once we rode chair car from Amrita to Delhi. The car had air conditioning and we were fed breakfast and a snack during the 6 hour ride.
Riding Indian trains is not the most comfortable thing, but it was an affordable way to get around this giant country. By traveling overnight, we saved money on lodging and (mostly) slept through the long journeys. I’m not going to lie, we were very excited to be done riding Indian trains at the end of the four months, but if you want to see the world, especially on a budget, you sometimes have to get out of your comfort zone.