1. Book in advance
Booking opens 60 days before travel, and long-distance trains get filled up quickly, meaning that only the shortest journeys can be organized on the day. It’s often possible to book at your hotel reception, but be aware that you may have to pay a small “admin” fee.
If you organize your trip at a train station, avoid any touts, head straight for the booking desk and leave yourself plenty of time – it’s not the fastest system in the world.
You can also book online, though it’s not as simple is click and pay. First, you’ll need to create an account on IRCTC (Indian Railways’ official website), which will require an Indian phone number for confirmation. You can get around this by emailing the company with a photocopy of your passport.
Once you have your IRCTC login, you may find the website a little clunky, so it’s much easier to use another travel booking site such as Cleartrip to actually buy your tickets (you’ll still need to enter your IRCTC login details at payment stage).
2. Don’t panic if your ticket says “Waitlisted”
If there are no tickets available at the time of booking, you’ll be given a reserve ticket, either “RAC Waitlist” or “Waitlist”.
With an “RAC” (reservation against cancellation) ticket, you can board the train, though you might not get the seat/class you were after. The ticket will be confirmed if enough people cancel and, as many people book far in advance, there is a high chance of this happening.
“Waitlist” means that all confirmed and RAC tickets have been sold. You’ll get a number with your waitlisted ticket – if your number is lower than ten, there’s a good chance that your ticket will be confirmed. To find out whether you have got a seat on the train, you can check at the station on the day, where you’ll find a seating chart posted up on the station notice board, or look online to see whether your status has changed.
Dorling Kindersley: Christopher Pillitz
3. Pick your class carefully
Indian trains are generally divided into eight classes – though they are not all available on all trains (it usually depends on the distance and line you’re travelling on).
There are three air-conditioned sleeper classes: AC1 (first class) is the most expensive, with four-bed booths, but most tourists choose AC2 (two-tier bunks) or AC3 (three-tier bunks) for long or overnight journeys.
These three classes offer a blanket, sheet and pillow for the journey and have fold-out bunks so you can get some decent shuteye. With two-tier bunks, AC2 is a little quieter and more comfortable than AC3; choose a side berth for the best window view or a top bunk in the main berth for the greatest chance of sleep.
SL (sleeper class) is cheaper but, ironically, you may not get that much sleep. Seating is arranged in open berths with three tiers of bunks, but bedding isn’t provided. While it is a reserved carriage, there tend to be more people than bunks. Although it gets quite crowded, sleeper class is actually a great option for daytime journeys, as it tends to be quite sociable.
CC (air-conditioned chair car) has upright, aircraft-style seating, which is a good bet for short trips, as are the other chair classes, FC (first class) and EC (executive).
2S (second class) is the cheapest option, with upright benches, but it’s unreserved which means that there’s often a scrum for seats. You’ll only really want to book second class if you’re on a tight budget and taking a short journey.
Image by Christopher Porter on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
4. Strike up a conversation
You may well find that some of your best memories are of the conversations you have on train journeys. People are very willing to chat, and one of the most enjoyable ways to pass the time is to get to know the people around you.