India is an unimaginably vast country with many remote corners not even accessible for non-indigenous people. But the country is also well-served by one of the largest railways networks in the world, with 1,17,996 km of tracks and 7,137 railway stations. Indian trains ferry 23 million passengers daily. And the tickets are cheaper than most other modes of transport available, not to mention more comfortable.
However, traveling on crowded Indian trains can be a bit of a challenge, especially if you are foreigner. But locals there have perfected the art of train traveling. Here are a few tips about Indian train travel for you, right from the horse’s mouth:
1. Always book your ticket via IRCTC
The online ticket booking portal of Indian Railways is a trusted source for getting tickets. You will get tickets of various price range at the portal, and the money charged would always be the correct amount. It is better to go for AC tickets. The weather can change drastically across the country. It would be much more comfortable to complete the journey in a temperature-controlled coach.
2. Arrive half an hour before the scheduled departure time
Trains in India arrive at the originating station at least half an hour before scheduled departure time. You can avoid the last minute rush to get to your compartment and find your seats if you have this extra time on your hands. But be prepared for long waits as well since trains often do not arrive on time; especially true if you are boarding from an interim station.
3. Get retiring rooms and waiting rooms for long layovers
If there is a couple of hours’ wait time till your next train, find the waiting room on the station platform. You’ll get some chairs to sit and free access to a toilet. If you are stuck for a longer duration, book a retiring room for a clean bed to stretch your legs on.
4. Carry wet tissues, old newspapers with you at all times
Millions of people travel via Indian Railways everyday. So, if you are squeamish about using a space occupied by many before you, then you should always carry wet tissues for a quick clean up job and old newspapers to use as instant rags.
5. If possible, carry your own food
One of the most exciting parts of train travel in India is the variety of food on offer from the train vendors. But if you are not habituated to gorging on spicy Indian food, it would be best to avoid the food from such vendors. Carry your your own food or just have it from the train pantry. The pantry vendors are always in uniform and easy to recognise.
6. Do not smoke or drink alcohol on the train
Indian laws specifically prohibit consumption of alcohol and smoking in public areas, and trains fall under this category. You can be fined or jailed or both if caught in the act by the Train Ticket Examiner (TTE) or the Railway security.
7. Check your train’s status online
Trains often arrive late or even before time in India. It is a good idea to check the status of your train online. Live updates of train status is made available by the Indian railways and there are many websites providing the service.
Also check the station it is departing from. Some cities like Delhi have an old and a new railway station. If you get the station wrong you may not have enough time to make it to the right one in time.
8. Get down on the various train stations to take in the sights and sounds of different places
Train stations in India have a slice of life of that town or city. Do get down at the stations to get a feel of the place. This will also help you stretch your legs and keep the journey interesting. But make sure to get back on the train on time or you might end up losing your belongings. Trains halt only for a few minutes at each station and there is always a crowd trying to get in or out. If you get off the train, wander too far and you may not make it back into the train before it departs. Best to get travel insurance to avoid possible losses in such scenarios.
9. Strike up a conversation with your co-passengers
Most of your co-passengers on the train would be headed towards the same destination as you are. And in all probability they would be much more informed about the place you are going to visit than you are.
They can be your guides to help you with anything from commute and best food joints to lesser known activities and places to discover.
10. Talk to the TTE for seats
If your journey is a short one, i.e. just a few hours long and you have not made reservations, you can buy a Tatkal ticket at the station. Once you have it, you are allowed to board the train. Once on the train, make your way to the first class or AC coaches and speak to the TTE. Most of the times he will be able to get you a seat against a last minute cancelation or a non-arrival. You may still have to pay the fare for the seat but don’t worry, you’ll get a receipt for it.
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Bonus Point: Managed to reach the end? Great! Since, you have been a patient reader, here’s a bonus secret for you. The best time to book train tickets at IRCTC is 4 months (120 days) prior to the journey. Log in before 10 am IST at the website as by then most AC seats, especially those for longer journeys, are already booked. Remember that millions of people are trying to book their tickets as you are. So the website tends to get slow due to too much traffic.
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