The Ultimate Guide to Train Travel in India. Part 1: How to Book Train Tickets in India
Train travel in India is an essential Indian bucket list experience in itself. The best way to travel India is by the vast, and great value, Indian Railways network. However, this massive system can be confusing to navigate at first but I aim to explain everything you need to know in this ultimate guide to train travel in India.
In the first part of my 3 part series about train travel in India, I’ll introduce you to Indian Railways, guide you through how to book train tickets in India, and, as trains get fully booked weeks and months in advance, I will also show you how to book train tickets in India in advance even from abroad to ensure a smooth trip.
Indian Railways Explained
India is a huge country with an amazing diversity of sights but vast distances mean that when planning a trip to India you need to give some thought about how you are going to get around.
India offers multiple ways to get around (albeit often slowly) this massive sub continent, you can get transport to pretty much every corner of India for a very affordable price, but you need patience because getting anywhere in India always takes longer than you think.
My main advice is always to take it slow – Everything seems to take a lot longer than you think and trying to cram too much in often leads to a stressful and frustrating trip that is hard to enjoy.
Why take the train instead of the bus?
Train travel in India is very popular because the roads in India are often poor, traffic can be chaotic and buses rickety so the best way to get around the huge and diverse country of India is by train.
Of course, you could take the bus – buses in India range from bone shakers that you can’t believe are still in one piece and running to ‘delux AC’ buses that are just about reasonably comfortable.
Still, taking the train is so much more comfortable in India and the scenery is usually better. After a nightmare sleeper bus ride ( it was like being in a coffin on a roller coaster) from Mumbai to Goa on my first trip to India I always prefer train travel in India now, especially on longer journeys.
The Indian railways network is one of the largest in the world and stretches to almost every corner of this amazing and diverse country and ticket fares are incredibly good value. With over 63,000 km of rail routes and 6,800 stations you can get to pretty much every town or city in India by rail.
Indian Railways is the third biggest passenger rail network in the world (after Russia and China) and the busiest in terms of passengers and employs over 1.5 million staff making it one of the world’s biggest employers and train travel in India is a unique and culturally immersive experience that you won’t want to miss.
But in the world’s most densely populated country seats on Indian trains sell out fast, especially for popular routes in the peak tourist season you can find trains booked up weeks or even months ahead which could put a real delay on your travel plans! Which means arranging your train tickets should be on your ‘to do’ list as you prepare for your trip to India.
So how do you book train tickets for Indian railways in advance?
As train travel in India is so popular I always advise people to book their train tickets in advance, there are many ways that you can book a train ticket in India but if you are expecting to be able to arrive and hop on and hop off then you will be disappointed. You will need a reservation for all Indian Railways long distance trains, except if traveling in unreserved second class which I wouldn’t recommend although it’s often not as bad as you think…
There are several ways that you can buy a train ticket – online, at a travel agency or Indian Railways booking counter.
Due to the high demand for train travel in India tickets for Indian trains can be booked up to 120 days in advance, to make your trip to India more enjoyable and less stressful I recommend you book your tickets in advance.
If you want to find out the earliest date that a train is available you can look on www.indianrail.gov.in and click ‘Availability at major stations’ then ‘Earliest date of available berths’ you can see the next date on which berths are available on key trains leaving each of the most important stations.
So now you can see why you need to book train tickets in advance! But booking trains from outside India is not so easy….
Where to book tickets for Indian trains:
Online reservations can be made on the official government IRCTC Online Passenger Reservation website. I don’t find the IRCTC website very user friendly. It is slow and temperamental – often the service is unavailable although sometimes if you keep trying it will work eventually. It’s also not so simple to use – first you need to know the number of the train you want to book instead of being able to search and book by destination (and importantly checking availability) and it also does not accept most foreign cards and can be hassle to set up an account without an Indian mobile number.(see here how to get an Indian sim card)
A much easier way to arrange your train travel in India and book trains, even from abroad, is to use a website like Cleartrip.com to search and book trains. Their website is much more user friendly and easier to use. There is even an app you can get on your phone and, once your account is set up, this is probably the simplest way to book trains – it’s actually pretty easy once you get the hang of it! Most importantly you can pay with an international card. However they do charge a small service fee and not all trains are displayed, you can now book Taktal tickets online but you can’t book the Foreign Tourist Quota through these websites.
How to set up a Clear Trip Account
To set up a Clear Trip account IRCTC has insisted that you must also sign up for an IRCTC account. When you register with Clear Trip it will set both accounts up for you, but IRCTC requires an Indian mobile phone number which makes it a little difficult to set up the account before you arrive but it is possible – you can set up a Clear Trip account before you arrive without an Indian mobile number but, as with most things in India, patience and persistence are required.
To set up a Clear Trip account go through the normal process to set up an account, where it asks you to enter an Indian mobile number and zip code you will need to just make these up. To make up an Indian mobile number it’s 10 digits and usually starts with 9, but you can’t use a mobile number that has already been used before so you might have to try a few combinations. Then make up a numerical zip code (doesn’t work if you put in a UK style postcode) but make sure you change your country from India to UK or US or wherever and then finish the registration.
Then you should get an confirmation email with an Email OTP (Email One Time Password). Now send an email back to IRCTC customer care, attach a scan of your passport, quote your IRCTC user name and ask them to send you the SMS OTP by email. It could take a few days or you may have to chase them for a while. Once you get the password then you can verify and activate your account on Clear Trip and enter the Email or SMS OTP and then you are ready to book train tickets and enjoy train travel in India! There is more detailed information of this process on the really useful website – the Man in Seat 61
It’s a bit annoying but train is the best way to travel in India and it’s worth it to book in advance and avoid the hassles of trying to get train tickets once you arrive. Once you’ve got your Clear Trip account set up and the app on your phone it’s actually pretty easy to book train tickets! Just search the trains on the route you want to go, check the availability of the trains and book. Your ticket details will also be saved on the app and you can show it to the conductor – this is how I book most of my train travel in India.
Use a travel agency or ask a friend
If you have a friend in India you could ask them to book the train tickets for you and forward you the ticket by email. If not, if you want to avoid hassle and don’t mind paying a bit more you could ask a reputable travel agency or a train travel specialist to sort out your train bookings.
Let India Someday book your train tickets
I recently traveled through North India for 12 days and used a great company called India Someday to help plan my itinerary and book trains and homestays along the way (read about it here) India Someday are a young, energetic and resourceful travel company based in Mumbai (Bombay) who are experts on India and can assist you in planning a complete well thought, personalized and cost-effective trip to India.
If you want to avoid the hassle of booking trains then I highly recommend asking India Someday to help you to book your trains for a small fee. You don’t need to plan your whole trip through them, they are happy just to help you with the train bookings but if you did want them to plan your whole holiday then you can get 15% off the trip planning fee if you mention Global Gallivanting when enquiring. Contact them through the India Someday website.
If you prefer your train travel in India to be more luxurious then there are even some ultra luxury tourist train routes in India, escorted group trips by train and rail passes.
There is an IndRail Pass option where you can buy the pass and ask them to make all the reservations you want to go with it, free of charge. However, I’ve never tried this as I prefer to stay flexible and travel slow. Using a rail pass would most likely be more expensive than booking point to point tickets and to get your money’s worth you would have to have quite rushed and busy itinerary that was all pre booked. However, if you only had a short time to explore India and wanted to have everything pre arranged then this might be an option.
Tips for booking train tickets in India
Train travel in India, like everything else in India, always throws up some surprises, here are a few more tips and things you should be aware of when traveling by train in India.
Whether you use IRCTC or an app like Clear Trip the Indian railways online booking service closes for maintenance each day between 23:30-00:30 Indian time ( 18:00-19:00 GMT) Sometimes the system is overloaded with visitors or just randomly won’t work, shows an error or no trains available – as with everything in India be patient and persistent, refresh the screen and keep trying and it should work in the end!
The system only shows direct train routes. If your search does not come with any train then maybe it is because there is not a direct train to your destination the system cannot calculate a journey where you have to change trains, you have to find a station where you can change and make the booking separately as 2 tickets.
Most places in India have 2 names– the old colonial names and the newer more ‘Indianised’ names. If you are having trouble with the destination try the other spelling! Usually it uses the Indian name but sometimes, for example Trivandrum is still used instead of Thiruvananthapuram, Bengaluru uses the old name Bangalore.
Also, sometimes the name of the railway station is not necessarily the same name of the city. For example, the main railway station (and one of the busiest) in Kolkata/Calcutta is called Howrah so you would need to type this in. Also, many major cities have more than one train station – a search for trains from Mumbai will bring up stations like Lokmanya Tilak, Navi Mumbai or Thane which are actually pretty far away from the main re where travelers stay. The main station in Mumbai is CST, in Delhi the main station is New Delhi, but there are also many others. For Goa, the main train station is Madgaon/ Margao.
For stress free train travel in India and to book trains you will need to first have a little geographical knowledge of India, to help you you can can check the Indian Railways Trains at a Glance timetable.
How to get a train ticket at the station in India
The main stations in big cities and tourist centres, such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Agra, Jaipur and Varanasi (and 24hrs at Delhi International Airport) have a separate booking office for foreign travellers called an International Tourist Bureau that you will need to visit if you want to get a last minute ticket from the foreign tourist quota.
Make sure you bring your passport, visa and cash and make sure you go to the right one! Don’t believe anyone that comes up to you claiming that it has closed, moved, burnt down, all trains are cancelled or whatever else! This is a scam to get you to go to their travel agency which may or may not even be able to provide the services but will certainly over charge you!
There is a list of stations with an International Tourist Bureau at www.indianrail.gov.in under the Information and International Tourist tabs. You could try your luck at a smaller station that has an international tourist reservation bureau as it may be less hassle and less waiting. Either way, to apply for a tourist quota ticket you cannot get these online, you will need to go in, fill out a form showing where you want to go, show your passport and visa, wait and hope that there is a ticket available in the next couple of days for where you want to travel to. You can only pay in cash with US dollars, UK pounds, Euros, or Indian rupees and you may need to show an encashment certificate, ATM receipt or something that shows that you obtained this cash in a proper, legal way.
Coming up in the Ultimate Guide to Train Travel in India ….
So now you know how to book your tickets for train travel in India. In Part 2 I’ll explain all about the 8 different classes of carriage and ticket types on Indian Railways and give you many more handy tips to make booking and traveling by train in India less confusing!
Do you need to know what a Taktal ticket is? What is the different between AC2 and AC3, what to expect when you join a Wait List, is sleeper class really that bad? All the answers are here.
In part 3 I give my tips for an enjoyable and hassle free train journey and answer your questions and queries about how to find your seat, food, safety, scams and of course the state of the toilets on Indian trains!