Inter-city transport in India may not be the fastest or the most comfortable in the world, but it’s cheap and goes more or less everywhere. You generally have the option of train or bus, sometimes plane, and occasionally even boat. Transport around town comes in even more permutations, ranging in Kolkata, for example, from human-pulled rickshaws to a state-of-the-art metro system.
Whether you’re on road or rail, public transport or your own vehicle, India offers the chance to try out some classics: narrow-gauge railways, steam locomotives, the Ambassador car and the Enfield Bullet motorbike – indeed some people come to India for these alone.
Travelling by train is one of India’s classic experiences. The national rail network covers almost the entire country; only a few places (such as the mountainous regions of Sikkim, Ladakh, Uttarakhand and most of Himachal Pradesh) are inaccessible by train. Although the railway system might look like chaos, it does work, and generally better than you might expect. Trains are often late, of course, sometimes by hours rather than minutes, but they do run, and when the train you’ve been waiting for rolls into the station, the reservation you made halfway across the country several weeks ago will be on a list pasted to the side of your carriage.
It’s worth bearing in mind, with journeys frequently lasting twelve hours or more, that an overnight train can save you a day’s travelling and a night’s hotel bill, assuming you sleep well on trains. When travelling overnight, always padlock your bag to your bunk; an attached chain is usually provided beneath the seat of the lower bunk.
Types of train
There are three basic types of passenger train in India. You’re most likely to use long-distance inter-city trains (called “express” or “mail”) along with the speedier “super-fast” air-conditioned trains – these include the various “Rajdhani” expresses, which link Delhi with cities nationwide, and “Shatabdi” expresses, daytime trains that connect major cities, mostly within an eight-hour travelling distance. There are also painfully slow local “passenger” trains, which stop everywhere, and which you’ll only use if you want to get right off the beaten track. In addition to these three basic types of train, there are also a few dedicated tourist trains and other special services, such as the famous Palace on Wheels and the toy train to Darjeeling.
Classes of train travel
Indian Railways distinguishes between no fewer than seven classes of travel. Different types of train carry different classes of carriage, though you’ll seldom have more than four to choose from any one service. The simplest and cheapest class, used by the majority of Indians, is second-class unreserved (or “second seating”). These basic carriages have hard wooden seats and often become incredibly packed during the day – bearable for shortish daytime journeys, but best avoided for longer trips and (especially) overnight travel, unless you’re exceptionally hardy or unusually poor. On the plus side, fares in second-class unreserved are so cheap as to be virtually free. It also represents a way of getting on a train at the last minute if you haven’t been able to secure a reserved seat.
Far more civilized, and only around fifty percent more expensive, is second-class sleeper (“sleeper class”), consisting of carriages of three-tiered padded bunks that convert to seats during the day. All seats in these carriages must be booked in advance even for daytime journeys, meaning that they don’t get horrendously overcrowded like second-class unreserved, although there’s usually still plenty going on, with itinerant chai- and coffee-sellers, travelling musicians, beggars and sweepers passing through the carriages. Overnight trips in second-class sleeper compartments are reasonably comfy. First class consists of non-a/c seating in comfortable if ageing compartments of two to four berths, though this class is being phased out and is now found on relatively few trains.
The other four classes are all air-conditioned (available only on inter-city and super-fast trains). A/c chair car (often denoted as “CC”) is found almost exclusively on superfast services and consists of comfortable reclining seats; they’re really designed for daytime travel, since they don’t convert to bunks, and aren’t generally found on overnight services. Shatabdi expresses are made up entirely of chair-car carriages (ordinary a/c chair car and, for double the price, an executive a/c chair car).
There are three classes of air-conditioned sleepers. The cheapest, third-class a/c, has open carriages with three-tier bunks – basically the same as second-class sleeper, except with a/c. Less crowded (and found on more services) is second-class a/c, which has two-tier berths. Most comfortable of all is first-class a/c, which consists of two-tier bunks in two- or four-person private compartments, complete with carpeting and relatively presentable bathrooms – although fares can work out only slightly cheaper than taking a plane.
Note that bed linen is provided free on most a/c services, while bottled water, snacks and simple meals are included in the ticket price of Rajdhani and Shatabdi services.
Ladies’ compartments exist on all overnight trains for women travelling on their own or with other women; they are usually small and can be full of noisy kids, but can give untold relief to women travellers who otherwise might have to endure incessant staring in the open section of the carriage. They can be a good place to meet Indian women, particularly if you like (or are with) children. Some stations also have ladies-only waiting rooms.
Timetables and fares
Fares, timetables and availability of berths can be checked online at Indian Railway’s cumbersome website (w indianrail.gov.in), or via the more streamlined, privately run w cleartrip.com. Indian Railways’ Trains at a Glance (Rs45; updated twice a year) contains timetables of all inter-city and superfast trains and is available from information counters and newsstands at all main stations.
All rail fares are calculated according to the exact distance travelled. Trains at a Glance prints a chart of fares by kilometres, and also gives the distance in kilometres of stations along each route in the timetables, making it possible to calculate what the basic fare will be for any given journey.
Indrail passes, sold to foreigners and Indians resident abroad, cover all fares and reservation fees for periods ranging from half a day to ninety days, but are considerably more expensive than buying tickets individually. The pass is designed for nationwide travel, so if you only use it, say, between Delhi, Agra and the cities of Rajasthan, you won’t be getting your money’s worth. The pass does, however, save you queuing for tickets and it allows you to make and cancel reservations with impunity (and without charge), and generally smoothes your way in. For example, if you need to find a seat or berth on a “full” train, pass-holders get priority for tourist quota places. Indrail passes are available, in sterling or US dollars, at main station tourist counters in India and outside the country at IR agents and sometimes at Air India offices. A seven-day pass costs US$80 in second class, US$135 in first, and US$270 in a/c class. There’s a full list of prices and overseas IR agents at w indianrail.gov.in/international_Tourist.html.
It’s important to plan your train journeys in advance, as demand often makes it impossible to buy a long-distance ticket on the same day that you want to travel – although the Tatkal quota system has made life a little easier. Travellers following tight itineraries tend to buy their departure tickets from particular towns the moment they arrive to avoid having to trek out to the station again. At most large stations, it’s possible to reserve tickets for journeys starting elsewhere in the country.
Online booking can be done through Indian Railways’ official reservation site, w irctc.co.in, although the site only works during Indian opening hours and can be frustratingly difficult to use. A more dependable option is the privately run w cleartrip.com, which charges Rs100 per ticket to process purchases; major foreign credit cards are accepted but you will first have to register with them and Indian Railways – check out w seat61.com/India.htm#book-fromoutside for a clear explanation of this convoluted procedure. Bookings may be made from ninety days in advance right up to four hours before the scheduled departure time of the train. w Cleartrip.com also handles Tatkal tickets. Having booked your travel, you can then print out your own e-tickets, taking this along with some photo ID, such as a passport, when you board the train.
When reserving a ticket in person at a railway station, the first thing you’ll have to do is fill in a little form at the booking office stating your name, age and sex, your proposed date of travel, and the train you wish to catch (giving the train’s name and number). Most stations have computerized booking counters and you’ll be told immediately whether or not seats are available. Reservation offices in the main stations are generally open from Monday to Saturday from 8am to 8pm, and on Sunday to 2pm. In larger cities, major stations have special tourist sections to cut queues for foreigners, with helpful English-speaking staff. Elsewhere, buying a ticket can often involve a longish wait, though women can often bypass this by simply walking to the head of the queue and forming their own “ladies’ queue”. A few stations also operate a number system of queueing, allowing you to repair to the chai stall until your number is called. A good alternative to queueing yourself is to get someone else to buy your ticket for you. Many travel agents will do this for a small fee (typically around Rs50–100); alternatively, ask at your guesthouse if they can sort it out.
Quotas and late-availability tickets
If there are no places available on the train you want, you have a number of choices. First, some seats and berths are set aside as a “tourist quota” – ask at the tourist counter of the reservations hall if you can get in on this, or else try the stationmaster. This quota is available in advance but usually only at major or originating stations. Failing that, other special quotas, such as one for “emergencies”, only released on the day of travel, may remain unused – however, if you get a booking on the emergency quota and a pukka emergency or VIP turns up, you lose the reservation. Alternatively, you can stump up extra cash for a Tatkal ticket, which guarantees you access to a special ten percent quota on most trains, though certain catches and conditions apply. Bookable online and at any computerized office, these are released from 8am two days before the train departs, and there’s a surcharge of Rs75–150, depending on the class of travel.
RAC – or “Reservation Against Cancellation” – tickets are another option, giving you priority if sleepers do become available. The ticket clerk should be able to tell you your chances. With an RAC ticket you are allowed onto the train and can sit until the conductor can find you a berth. The worst sort of ticket to have is a wait-listed one – identifiable by the letter “W” prefixing your passenger number – which will allow you onto the train but not in a reserved compartment; in this case go and see the ticket inspector as soon as possible to persuade him to find you a place if one is free. Wait-listed ticket holders are not allowed onto Shatabdi and Rajdhani trains. For short journeys or on minor routes you won’t need to reserve tickets in advance.
Luxury tourist trains
Inspired by the Orient Express, Indian Railways offers high-end holiday packages aboard luxury tourist trains. The flagship of the scheme is the Palace on Wheels (w palaceonwheels.net), with sumptuous ex-maharajas’ carriages updated into modern air-conditioned coaches, still decorated with the original designs. An all-inclusive, eight-day whistle-stop tour (Sept–April weekly) starts at US$2920 per person for the full trip, with discounts off-season (Sept and April). Note that the train is often booked up for months ahead, so early reservations are advised.
The Palace on Wheels has proved so popular that it has spawned a number of similar heritage trains, including Royal Rajasthan on Wheels, Maharajas’ Express and The Deccan Odyssey. Details of all these tours, including fares and toll-free numbers in major Western countries, can be found on the Palace on Wheels website.
Considering the huge distances involved in getting around the country, and the time it takes to get from A to B, flying is an attractive option, despite the cost – the journey from Delhi to Chennai, for example, takes a mere 2 hours 30 minutes by plane compared to 36 hours on the train. Delays and cancellations can whittle away the time advantage, especially over small distances, but if you’re short of time and plan to cover a lot of ground, flying can be a godsend. There was a proliferation of private airlines in the early years of the millennium but competition has seen some fold or get bought out by more established companies. At the time of writing, Kingfisher Airlines’ fleet was grounded and it’s uncertain whether the company will survive.
As with train tickets, booking flights is most easily done online via the airline’s website. Larger carriers also have offices in major cities. Children under twelve pay half fare and under-twos (one per adult) pay ten percent.
Air India w airindia.com.
Air India Express w airindiaexpress.in.
Go Air w goair.in.
IndiGo Airlines w book.goindigo.in.
Jet Airways/JetKonnect w jetairways.com.
Kingfisher Airlines w flykingfisher.com.
SpiceJet w spicejet.com.
Although trains are generally the most characterful and comfortable way to travel in India, there are some places, particularly in the Himalayas, not covered by the rail network, or where trains are inconvenient. By contrast, buses go almost everywhere, usually more frequently than trains (though mostly in daylight hours), and are also sometimes faster (including in parts of Rajasthan and other places without broad-gauge track). Going by bus also usually saves you the bother of reserving a ticket in advance.
Services vary enormously in terms of price and standard. Ramshackle government-run buses, packed with people, livestock and luggage, cover most routes, both short- and long-distance. In addition, popular routes between larger cities, towns and resorts are usually covered by private buses. These tend to be more comfortable, with extra legroom, tinted windows and padded reclining seats. Note, however, that smaller private bus companies may be only semilegal and have little backup in case of breakdown.
The description of the service usually gives some clue about the level of comfort. “Ordinary” buses usually have minimally padded, bench-like seats with upright backs. “Deluxe” or “Luxury” are more or less interchangeable terms but sometimes the term deluxe signifies a luxury bus past its sell-by date; occasionally a bus will be described as a “2 by 2” which means a deluxe bus with just two seats on either side of the aisle. When applied to government services, these may hardly differ from “ordinary” buses, but with private companies, they should guarantee a softer, individual seat. It’s worth asking when booking if your bus will have a video or music system (a “video bus”), as their deafening noise ruins any chances of sleep. Always try to avoid the back seats – they accentuate bumpy roads.
Luggage travels in the hatch of private buses – for which you may have to part with about Rs10–20 for the safekeeping of your bags. On state-run buses, you can usually squeeze it into an unobtrusive corner, although you may sometimes be requested to have it travel on the roof (you may be able to travel up there yourself if the bus is too crowded, though it’s dangerous and illegal); check that it’s well secured (ideally, lock it there) and not liable to get squashed. Baksheesh is in order for whoever puts it up there for you.
Buying a bus ticket is usually less of an ordeal than buying a train ticket, although at large city bus stations there may be twenty or so counters, assigned to different routes. When you buy your ticket you’ll be given the registration number of the bus and, sometimes, a seat number. As at railway stations, women can form a separate, quicker, “ladies’ queue”. You can usually only pay on board on most ordinary state buses, and at bus stands outside major cities. Prior booking is usually available and preferable for express and private services, and it’s a good idea to check with the agent exactly where the bus will depart from. You can usually pay on board private buses too, though doing so reduces your chances of a seat.
Apart from river ferries, few boat services run in India. The Andaman Islands are connected to Kolkata and Chennai by boat – as well as to each other. Kerala has a regular passenger service with a number of services operating out of Alappuzha and Kollam, including the popular “backwater trip” between the two. The Sunderbans in the delta region to the south of Kolkata is only accessible by boat.
It is much more usual for tourists to be driven in India than it is for them to drive themselves; car rental firms operate on the basis of supplying vehicles with drivers. You can arrange them through any tourist office or taxi firm, and local taxi drivers hanging around hotels and city ranks are also available for day hire. Cars will cost around Rs1500 (£17/US$27) per day, which should include a maximum of 200km, with additional kilometres charged at around Rs6–7 per kilometre. On longer trips, the driver sleeps in the car, for which his firm may charge an additional Rs150–200. You should generally tip the driver around Rs150 per day, too.
Most tourists succumb to the romance of that quintessentially Indian automobile, the Hindustan Ambassador Mark IV, based on the design of the old British Morris Oxford. Sadly, however, the car’s appalling suspension and back-breaking seats make it among the most uncomfortable rides in the world. Older models, in particular, can make for some gruelling journeys, with dashboards that become burning-hot and suffocating fumes plaguing the front seats. All in all, you’ll be much better off in a modern two- or four-door hatchback – ask your rental company for the options. Air-conditioning adds considerably to the rate, and with larger cars such as SUVs, the daily rate of Rs1500 tends only to cover the first 80km, after which stiff additional per-kilometre charges apply.
A handful of big international chains offer self-drive car rental in India, but unless you’ve had plenty of experience on the country’s notoriously dangerous roads, we strongly recommend you leave the driving to an expert. If you do drive yourself, expect the unexpected, and expect other drivers to take whatever liberties they can get away with. Traffic in the cities is particularly undisciplined; vehicles cut in and out without warning, and pedestrians, cyclists and cows wander nonchalantly down the middle of the road. In the country the roads are narrow, often in terrible repair, and hogged by overloaded Tata trucks that move aside for nobody, while something slow-moving like a bullock cart or a herd of goats can take up the whole road. It is particularly dangerous to drive at night – cyclists and cart drivers hardly ever have lights. If you are involved in an accident, it might be an idea to leave the scene quickly and go straight to the police to report it; mobs can assemble fast, especially if pedestrians or cows are involved.
To import a car or motorbike into India, you’ll have to show a carnet de passage, a document intended to ensure that you don’t sell the vehicle illegally. These are available from motoring organizations such as the AA. It’s also worth bringing a few basic spares, as parts for foreign makes can be hard to find in India, although low-quality imitations are more widely available. All in all, this option is arduous, and bringing a vehicle to India is something of a commitment.
Riding a motorbike in India is not for the faint-hearted. Besides the challenging road and traffic conditions with the resultant stress and fatigue, simply running an unfamiliar bike can become a nightmare.
Buying a motorbike in India is only for the brave. If it’s an old classic you’re after, the 350- or 500cc Enfield Bullet, sold cheapest in Puducherry, on the Tamil Nadu coast, leads the field, with models becoming less idiosyncratic the more recent they are. If low price and practicality are your priorities, a smaller model from the likes of Bajaj, built in India but based on dependable old Japanese designs, may fit the bill if not the image. Delhi’s Karol Bagh area is renowned for its motorcycle shops and rental agencies. Obviously, you’ll have to haggle over the price, but you can expect to pay half to twothirds of the original price for a bike in reasonable condition. Given the right bargaining skills, you can sell it again later for a similar price – perhaps to another foreign traveller – by advertising it in hotels and restaurants. A certain amount of bureaucracy is involved in transferring vehicle ownership to a new owner but a garage should be able to put you on to a broker (“auto consultant”) who, for a modest commission (around Rs1000–2000), will help you find a seller or a buyer, and do the necessary paperwork.
Motorbike rental is available in many tourist towns and can be fun for local journeys, but the condition of the bike can be hit and miss. However, unless you know your stuff, this is a better strategy than diving in and buying a machine. Unlike with sales, it’s in a rental outfit’s interest to rent you a bike that works. Mechanically, the important thing to establish is the condition of the chain and sprockets, whether the machine starts and runs smoothly and, not least, whether both brakes and lights work (even so, riding at night is inadvisable). An in-depth knowledge of mechanics is not so necessary as every town has a bike mender who will be no stranger to Enfields.
A recommended firm in Delhi, both for purchasing bikes and for rental, is Bulletwallas (w bulletwallas.com), at 7 Arakashan Rd, Multani Dhanda in the Paharganj district. An Aussie-run outfit, they specialize in Enfields, selling new, used and customized machines with only quality parts.
Without doubt the least stressful way of enjoying India on a motorbike, especially a temperamental but characterful Enfield, is joining one of several motorbike tours. They focus on the best locales with minimal traffic and amazing landscapes – the Himalayas, Rajasthan and Kerala – and remove much of the stress from what is still an adventure.
Motorbike tour agencies
Blazing Trails UK t 01902 894009, w blazingtrailstours.com.
Classic Bike Adventure India Goa t 0832 226 8467, w classic-bike-india.com.
Ferris Wheels Motorcycle Safaris Australia t 02 9970 6370, w ferriswheels.com.au.
Himalayan Roadrunners US t 802 738 6500, w ridehigh.com.
Live India UK t 0845 224 1917, w liveindia.co.uk.
In many ways a bicycle is the ideal form of transport in India, offering total independence without loss of contact with local people. You can camp out, though there are cheap lodgings in almost every village – take the bike into your room with you – and, if you get tired of pedalling, you can put it on top of a bus as luggage, or transport it by train.
Bringing a bike from abroad requires no carnet or special paperwork but spare parts and accessories may be of different sizes and standards in India, so you may have to improvise. Bring basic spares and tools, and a pump. Buying a bike in India couldn’t be easier, since most towns have cycle shops and even entire markets devoted to bikes. The advantages of a local bike are that spare parts are easy to get, locally produced tools and parts will fit, and your bike will not draw a crowd every time you park it. Disadvantages are that Indian bikes tend to be heavier and less state-of-the-art than ones from abroad; mountain bikes are beginning to appear in cities and bigger towns, but with insufficient gears and a low level of equipment, they’re not worth buying. Selling should be quite easy: you won’t get a tremendously good deal at a cycle market but you may well be able to sell privately, or even to a rental shop.
Bicycles can be rented in most towns, usually for local use only: this is a good way to find out if your legs and bum can survive an Indian bike before buying one. Rates can be anything from Rs25 to Rs150 per day and you may have to leave a deposit or your passport as security. Several adventure-tour operators offer bicycle tours of the country, with most customers bringing their own cycles.
As for contacts, International Bicycle Fund in the US (t 206 767 0848, w ibike.org) publishes information and offers advice on bicycle travel around the world and maintains a useful website. In India, the Cycling Federation of India, C-5A/262, DDA Flats, Janak Puri, New Delhi 110058 (t 011 2375 3528, w cyclingfederationofindia.org), is the main cycle-sports organization.
Transport around towns takes various forms. City buses can get unbelievably crowded, so beware of pickpockets, razor-carrying, pocket-slitters and “Eve-teasers”; the same applies to suburban trains in Mumbai (Chennai is about the only other place where you might want to use trains for local city transport). Any visitor to Delhi or Kolkata will be amazed by the clean efficiency of India’s two metro systems.
You can also take taxis, usually rather battered Ambassadors (painted black and yellow in the large cities) and Maruti omnivans. With luck, the driver will agree to use the meter; in theory you’re within your rights to call the police if he doesn’t, but the usual compromise is to agree a fare for the journey before you get in. Naturally, it helps to have an idea in advance what the fare should be, though any figures quoted in this or any other guide should be treated as being the broadest of guidelines only. From places such as main stations, you may be able to find other passengers to share a taxi to the town centre. Many stations, and certainly most airports, operate pre-paid taxi schemes with set fares that you pay before departure; more expensive pre-paid limousines are also available.
That most Indian of vehicles, the auto-rickshaw – commonly referred to as just an “auto” – is the front half of a motor scooter with a couple of seats mounted on the back. Cheaper than taxis, better at nipping in and out of traffic, and usually metered (although, again, very few drivers are willing to use theirs and you should agree a fare before setting off), auto-rickshaws are a little unstable and their drivers often rather reckless but that’s all part of the fun. In major tourist centres rickshaw-wallahs can, however, hassle you endlessly on the street, often shoving themselves right in your path to prevent you from ignoring them, and once you’re inside they may try to take you to several shops before reaching your destination. In general it is better to hail a rickshaw than to take one that’s been following you, and to avoid those that hang around outside posh hotels.
Some towns also have larger versions of auto-rickshaws known as tempos (or Vikrams), with six or eight seats behind, which usually ply fixed routes at flat fares. Here and there, you’ll also come across horse-drawn carriages, or tongas. Tugged by underfed and often lame horses, these are the least popular with tourists.
Slower and cheaper still is the cycle rickshaw – basically a glorified tricycle. Foreign visitors often feel uncomfortable about travelling this way; except in the major tourist cities, cycle rickshaw-wallahs are invariably emaciated pavement-dwellers who earn only a pittance for their pains. In the end, though, to deny them your custom on those grounds is spurious logic; they will earn even less if you don’t use them. As a foreigner you’ll probably be quoted grossly inflated fares, but ask yourself if it’s really worth haggling over tiny sums, which they could probably do with more than you.
Only in Kolkata do rickshaw-wallahs continue to haul the city’s pukka rickshaws on foot.
If you want to see a variety of places around town, consider renting a taxi, rickshaw or auto-rickshaw for the day. Find a driver who speaks English reasonably well and agree a price beforehand. You will probably find it a lot cheaper than you imagine: the driver will invariably act as a guide and source of local knowledge, so tipping is usually in order.