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Planning a trip to India for the first time can seem like a daunting task. You’ve probably heard stories of dirty streets, culture shock and absolute chaos. While this can be true, India is probably the single most rewarding and awe-inspiring travel destination on Earth. Most travellers to India have a love/hate relationship with the country and this will likely be true for you. You’ll love the food, the friendly locals, the spirituality, the colours and the culture, but you’ll hate the chaos, the poverty, the grime and the hassle in equal measure.

The key to a great trip to India is to minimize your stress levels, and one of the biggest stresses for backpackers in this country (or any new country) is getting from point A to point B. The transportation system in India can seem overwhelming, so overwhelming in fact that we figured it was necessary to make a Goat Guide specifically for Indian transport!

This guide will walk you through the transportation options in India – from figuring out what type of India traveller you are, to working the transport system for maximum benefit and ultimate savings.

Nick Sleeping On Train Transportation In India
A Stress-free Trip Is A Good Trip In India

For more on India, check out our article: Preparing To Travel To India and our Budget Backpacking Guide to India.

What Type of Traveller Are You?

There is a wide variety of transportation options in India, from luxury 1st class cabins in trains, to buses that are crammed so full that even veteran travellers find themselves gasping for air. You may say to yourself: “I’ve travelled a lot before so I can handle hectic transport” and while this may be true of some people, most westerners will never be able to handle a seater class 1 train from Mumbai to Kolkata.

So we arrive back to our first question.

What type of traveller are you? Or rather, what type of India traveller are you?

Let’s assume that you’ll be travelling long distances, which is normal in India. Let’s also assume that you don’t want to spend 12 hours hanging out of the door of the train, desperately trying to get a grip of something to pull yourself inside the dirty, loud cabin before the next tunnel rips your arms off. We’ve been on trains like this and in our opinion, no matter how strict your budget is, long-distance seater class trains are not worth the money you’ll save.

Partition of Punjab, India 1947
Luckily, thanks to new transport laws, trains in India will never look this crowded this again.
So, you’ll probably be looking at SL (Sleeper Class), AC 2 Tier (AC 2) or AC 3 Tier (AC 3) trains. There are many different classes of trains but these are the most common for long distances.

If you’re a bus traveller, you’ll have fewer options for buses that will get you to where you want to go. You’ll likely take local buses to your destination and these usually don’t have AC and can get very crowded, although they are always frequent and reliable. There is a new bus in India that may be the backpackers’ savior. It’s called RedBus and although we’ve never used the service, it sounds like it could be a great addition to India’s transportation options.

Train Travel

Choosing Your Train Class

Most backpackers on the budget end of the scale will be opting for an SL train. These trains are not bad, although they do vary greatly in cleanliness and service.

SL Sleeper Class Cabins:

These cabins consist of 3 bunks on each wall facing each other, with another 2 bunks perpendicular to those across the hall. There is no air conditioning on these trains and the beds are slightly harder than they are in the AC class.

Inside indian train 1481
Inside SL Train (Image By: Krokodyl via WikiCommons)
You won’t have to bring food with you because there is a kitchen on the train and workers will bring through meals and snacks on a schedule, for an extra cost. There are also hawkers that come on at almost every stop selling everything from chai (Indian tea) and samosas to blankets and sweaters.

Riding on an Sleeper Class Train can be very interesting and is often a great way to interact with local people, although you may be sharing your bed with the occasional cockroach or mouse.

AC Class Cabins:

The AC class can actually be broken down again into three categories: AC1, AC2 and AC3. Keep in mind that some of these options are only available on certain lines. AC1 is the higher end of the three and is probably out of most backpackers’ budgets. AC2 is relatively affordable, spacious and comfortable with just 2 bunks on each wall of the berth, giving you plenty of space to sit up, move around and breath. These trains have only 2 beds on each wall and they really feel like a step up from the SL class.

Some backpackers with higher budgets will be able to afford AC2 but AC3 trains are cheaper. AC3 is like a much cleaner, air-conditioned version of an SL train with three bunks on each wall.

The best thing about AC trains is that the windows are sealed shut, so not only is it much quieter at night, but you won’t be woken up by the smell of excrement at every stop. Also, there is a curtain on AC trains that can be pulled across the cabin for more privacy.

2AC upper bunk
2AC Train (Image By: Ken Walker via WikiCommons)

What’s The Difference Between AC and SL?

AC Trains offer sealed windows, temperature control, better meals (free), curtains across the compartments and blankets & pillows. None of these things are offered in SL Class. Another major difference between the AC Class and the SL Class trains is the people who ride them. I always use this example when explaining to other backpackers the divide of classes:

When we took our last SL train it was loud, over crowded and there were some cockroaches running around at night. People were changing their baby’s diapers and throwing the dirty diapers at their feet. We then upgraded to AC because there were no SL classes available on our required journey. When we boarded the train it was quiet, people were speaking English and it was blissfully cool. I stepped on the lower bed to get up to my top bunk and the gentleman sleeping there scowled and brushed off the dirt left from my foot. He said: “Excuse me sir, please use the latter, your feet are very dirty”. Yes, the change between classes is extraordinary.

Having said that, there is a lot more commotion and excitement on the SL trains and you will most likely have a much better “people experience”. Locals seem to be more social in the lower class trains and you’ll probably end up sharing a delicious home-cooked lunch with the family in your cabin. The decision is up to you.

Choosing Your Berth

Deciding which seat you want can be a tough decision…at first. Once you’ve been on an Indian train for a long journey, you’ll know exactly which seat you want next time! On SL and AC3 Trains, there are 6 berths/cabin with another 2 berths across the hallway. On AC2 Trains, there are 4 berths/cabin with another 2 berths across the hallway.

india train travel map

LB (Lower Berth)

During the day, everyone is allowed to sit on the bottom bed, even if it’s yours and you want to lie down. At times, there could be up to 5 people trying to squish onto your bottom bed. The pros of the lower berth are that you have a window to look out of and you are close to your luggage, which is stored under the lower bunk. Also, you don’t have to worry about going up and down the ladder at night to go to the bathroom!

MB (Middle Berth)

We personally think this is the worst seat you can have! During the day the middle berth is folded down and acts as a back rest for everybody sitting on the lower berth. This means that you can only lie down when all of the other passengers are going to sleep and you can finally hook your bed back up. The middle berth doesn’t exist on AC2 Tier trains, as there are only 2 beds on either side of the cabin.

UB (Upper Berth)

The upper berth is a good choice. You can lie down whenever you want and no one will be asking you to sit on your bed, or to fold your bed up to make a back rest! The downsides are that it can be a bit cramped up there, during the day it can be very hot (if you’re on an SL Train) and you won’t be able to see out of the window. If you’re on an AC2 Tier Train, the upper berth is a good choice. It’s spacious, private and since there’s AC, you won’t be too hot.

SL (Side Lower)

SL refers to “Side Lower” and is not to be mistaken with the SL class of the train. If you’re on an SL or AC3 Train, this is a good seat to choose. During the day, this bed turns into two chairs facing one another. So, you will be able to have your own seat and will only have to share your area with one other person. Each person will be able to have a view out of the window as well.

SU (Side Upper)

Another good choice. Since there are only two beds on the side berths, the side upper bed is spacious. There’s plenty of room for sitting up during the day and more room for sleeping at night as well. The only downside is that there’s no window view from the side upper bed.

Our preference are the SU and SL berths. If there are two of you travelling, definitely opt for these two seats. During the day, you have the bottom bunk to yourselves, your luggage will go beneath your bed and the upper bunk is spacious. The only downside is that these beds are a bit more narrow than the berths inside the main compartment.

Booking Your Tickets

Booking train tickets can be a confusing process in India. With so many different classes of trains, different classes of tickets and a ton of different ways to obtain them, your head might be spinning by the time you figure out where you want to go. We’ve gone over the different classes of trains already, but now you need to know the different classes of tickets. You see, in India there are so many people travelling that the IRCTC (Indian Rail Company) decided to reserve tickets for foreigners, and for people who forgot to book early. You’ll pay a bit extra for these tickets but sometimes they’re your only options.

Man Near Indian Train

Tatkal Tickets: To allow travel at short notice on trains that often become fully booked, Indian Railways introduced a system called Tatkal (a Hindi word for ‘immediate’).  A certain number of tickets on busy trains are reserved and then released at 10:00 am one day before departure, then sold with a Rs75-Rs300 extra Tatkal charge. If there are Tourist Quota tickets available, you won’t need to worry about Tatkal.

Tourist Quota Tickets: Major stations in cities like Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Agra, Jaipur and Varanasi have an International Tourist Bureau where foreign travellers can book trains away from the crowds and queues at the train station booking office. For a list of stations with an International Tourist Bureau and their opening times, visit www.indianrail.gov.in. Tourist Quota tickets can be a life saver because they’re only for holders of foreign passports and they’re available for most of the popular routes. If the train you’re trying to reserve is fully booked, ask about Tourist Quota Tickets!

RAC (Reserved Against Cancellation) Tickets: When a train becomes fully booked with passengers who have confirmed reservations (CNF), a certain number of tickets in each class are sold as ‘Reservation Against Cancellation’ (RAC). Basically, if someone cancels their trip, you’ll be bumped up to CNF and you’ll find your seat number and berth posted to a notice board in the train station (ask information at the station for help).

WL (Wait-Listed) Tickets: These tickets are one step below the RAC tickets. Basically you won’t get on the train unless a lot of other people cancel. These are often a last resort and while they don’t always get you on the train, there are times when you can get lucky.

Where Do You Book Train Tickets?

You basically have three options for where you will book your tickets: at the station, from a travel agent or online.

At The Station:

Booking your tickets at the station can be a hassle and you’ll have to pay for transportation to and from the station to book your ticket in advance. Sometimes the station can be way out-of-town. However, you avoid paying any extra travel agent fees this way and if you’re already near the station, it would make sense to stop in and book a ticket. Look for the “foreigner window” so you don’t have to wait in a long queue.

Through A Travel Agency:

The easiest option is to go into a trusted travel agent, pay a small fee and have them do all of the work for you. Typically the extra charge is about $1 and it’s worth it to save yourself the hassle and commotion at the train station.

Booking Online:

WARNING: The IRCTC website ONLY accepts AMEX Credit Cards! That’s right, NO VISA, NO MASTERCARD. 

**UPDATE August, 2016: The IRCTC website now accepts VISA and Mastercard. 

No Visa No Mastercard

 

You’ll have to go through a long, 8-step booking and registration process. Check out this article on Seat61 for more (scroll down to “Buying India Train Tickets Online”).

Checking Your Reservation & Finding Your Seat

Your train ticket will show your train, coach and seat number printed clearly (see below). The berth on the ticket will state either UB (upper berth), MB (middle berth), LB (lower berth), SU (side upper) or SL (side lower).

India Train Ticket

When you arrive at the train station, look at the departure board for your train number. Beside it there will be a platform number which your train will be leaving from.

About 2 hours before the planned departure, you’ll find a reservation list posted on the notice board of the train station. The list contains the name, age and sex of every passenger on the train. This helps officials make sure the correct people are in the correct seats/beds.

Once you are at the correct platform and the train is arriving, you then need to look for your coach number. After you’ve boarded the correct coach, you will then need to search for your seat number and finally, your berth.

Bus Travel

Booking Your Tickets

If you’re taking the local bus, you can usually just head to the bus station and hop on the next one leaving. Because there are so many people travelling around India, you never have to wait too long to catch the next bus out. The main problem comes when you see that all of the destinations are written in Hindi. This can be annoying, but luckily you’re never too far from a fluent English speaker in India, so you should be able to find someone who’s happy to help you. If you’re going to take the new backpacker bus, you can book cheap tickets with Red Bus.

A Local Bus In India
A Local Bus In India

Checking Your Reservation & Finding Your Seat

If you’re taking the bus then you probably won’t have any issues with this. Local buses are often first-come, first-serve and you’ll either buy your ticket right at the station, or when you’re on the bus. Seats typically aren’t assigned on the local buses.

Tips For Indian Travel Days

Travel days should be fun and exciting, but if you don’t plan them properly, sometimes they can be disastrous. Here are a few tips for making the most of your travel days in India.

Keep An Open Mind: Even if you’re in the lowest class train or bus, you can have a great journey. Things will most definitely be different than they are at home, but just be open to it and learn from the experience. Try to connect with the people and enjoy the ride!

Pack Food and Water: Even though you’ll have meals and drinks offered to you on both bus and train journeys, it’s best to pack a few snacks that you know you’ll want to eat, just in case you’re not interested in what’s on offer. A hungry travel day can be a grumpy one and nobody wants that!

Nick Eating On An Indian Train

Bring a Sweater For AC Journeys: When you’re boarding your train mid-day you may find that the AC is a god-send, but when the sun sets and the AC is still blasting full force, sometimes you’ll be close to hypothermic! Bring a sweater just in case.

Travel At Night: If you’re on a budget, why not get a free night’s stay with your train journey? If it’s an 8 hour trip or longer, you might as well be sleeping through it. Night trains are great and if you’re taking SL class in the hot season, you may find that the day trains are simply TOO HOT.

Book Your Meals On Trains: If your train has a restaurant car then you’ll probably see a man walking around taking orders before mealtime. Flag him down and order something light and tasty. Train food isn’t the best but it’s good enough to get you by.

Tiger BalmPack Tiger Balm: Sometimes there are some nasty smells from the sewage covered tracks and side-of-the-road garbage dumps. A little Tiger Balm under the nose can do wonders! It’s also great for headaches.

Reserve A Good Bunk: During the day on trains (or as long as the other passengers decide to stay up), the bottom bunk is free game for everyone. If you’re ready to lie down but everyone else is just eating dinner, you’ll have to wait until they retreat to their bunks before you can kick back and relax. If you choose the top bunk, you can lie down whenever you want. Better yet, if there are two of you, book the side-upper and side-lower bunks and have the whole area to yourselves!

Women, Make Yourself A Curtain: More and more stories of harassment (or worse) are coming out of India these days. A good way for women to avoid unwanted attention is to bring a sarong on the train and tie it up around the bunk to create a curtain. Only foreigners would do this, but only foreigners would get enough attention to warrant such actions.

train travel india
Using a sheet for a curtain works well on trains in India

Arriving At Your Destination

Now you’ve figured out how you want to travel, you’ve booked your ticket, checked your reservation, boarded the train or bus and made it to your destination. But the journey’s not done yet. You’ll have to get to your hotel or guest house. The best way to avoid unnecessary stress is to pre-book your accomodation.

Before your train or bus arrives, phone and ask your hotel to pick you up, or ask the receptionist exactly how much a taxi, tuk-tuk or city bus will cost directly to the hotel. Taxis and tuk-tuks will be lined up ready to take tourists to their hotel and charge them tourist prices. Know your transport costs and do some bargaining… it’s fun when you know the real price!

In some cities, taxis and tuk-tuks have a meter. If so, find a ride that’s willing to use the meter. If you’re ever having a hard time making them use their meter, flag down a nearby police officer and the driver will quickly change his tune. If the driver takes you straight to your hotel, the meter will ALWAYS be cheaper than a quoted price.

Transportation In India Tuk Tuk

Now You’re A Pro!

Travelling around India doesn’t have to be difficult. Aside from some buses and seating class trains, the days of riding on the roof and not being able to find your reserved seat are pretty much over. For all of India’s disorganization, its transport system is now efficient, punctual, comfortable and fun. You just need to know how to tackle your travel plans and transportation bookings and you’ll have a better trip in India.

Travelling by land in India is the best way to see this incredible country. Not only is bus and train travel cheap, but the scenery and people you’ll meet along the way are sure to make your trip a memorable one.

train travel india

Some Useful India Transportation Websites:

http://www.seat61.com/India.htm#.U3Yfy1hdUyk

http://wikitravel.org/en/India

https://www.irctc.co.in/

https://www.goatsontheroad.com/category/southern-asia/india/

If you have any questions about travelling to India, feel free to leave a comment below or Contact Us Here!

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The Backpacker’s Guide To Transportation In India

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44 thoughts on “The Backpacker’s Guide To Transportation In India

  1. This is a such a great, clearly laid out article. We are headed to India later this year and were VERY intimidated about how we would get around – I feel a lot more confident about what to expect and how to navigate the system 🙂

  2. Nice! I don’t mind a sleeper class, although when I have it in my budget I”ll go 3AC, don’t see much reason to go higher than that! Tatkal has saved me more than once! Although now that I”m not on a tourist visa, I can’t use the foreigner quota

    1. Hey Rachel,

      I agree, don’t mind SL class, and we took it our entire 2 months when we were in India the first time….until our very last journey which was from Mumbai to Kolkatta, all that was available was AC2, and since then, we find it hard to go back to SL! haha, although we have.

      Taktal is a lifesaver, same with tourist quota… I’m off to see where you’re living in India!

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

  3. You’re very right when you say travelling in India can be daunting, but you’ve shared some great tips to overcome this. I especially liked your ideas about the tiger balm, (who would ever think about that other wise?) and travelling at night (seems so obvious now that you point it out)!

  4. Well written and very detailed article. I don’t think any reader need any better information then this. I would also recommend getting AC3 tickets if you are on budget, they are cheap anyway and gives you a good nigh’t sleep. The very best about these berths is that they don’t oversell, your seats are reserved and there will be people passing through the cabin but no extra people will stop there,. Also, check RedBus route if you are planning to travel by bus, the most nasty thing about local buses is the smell which humans produce 🙂 That’s one thing I can’t stand and secondly local or non-A/C buses are frequent and reliable but they usually have more stops and spend more time in travelling from destination A to B.

    Happy Indian travels!

    1. Hi Hammad!

      Thanks for sharing your information about travel in India. We have heard about the Red Bus as well and agree with you that AC3 is a good train to take. Travelling by train is our favourite way to see India 🙂

      Cheers!

  5. Awesome post! I see I’ve been doing it all wrong. I’ve been getting the SL with the Middle Berths! lol. They haven’t felt bad, but I could be lucky. During the day they’re not too pleasant though and can get hot. Will have to step up my game to the AC class though, so I don’t have to drop my silk liner on them. I feel like they’re still better than sleeper buses. Was on a VIP bus with a friend and they booked us next to each other– in one berth the size of a train berth. Horrible.

    1. Hey Cristine,

      Ya, if you bump it up to AC3, it’ll be much more comfortable – SL can be super hot, fine at night though. Oh, definitely need to put down some sort of sheet, towel, sarong or liner on SL beds! haha. We haven’t tried out this new Red Bus in India, but it sounds good in theory. The other buses we’ve been on at night were horrible, totally agree with you!

      Cheers for the comment. Happy travels.

  6. Great post – very informative! I usually paid the bit extra to take AC2 tier bunks – just a bit of extra room. If you’re looking for a good way to book trains in India, Cleartrip.com is a good option – they take Visa and MasterCards I’m pretty sure.

    1. Hey Tim,

      Ya, we usually opt for the AC2 as well – more room, it’s quiet, comfortable, etc. Short journeys though, we’ll still go for SL. We’ve recently heard about Clear Trip as well, finally somewhere that will take Mastercard and Visa!

      Cheers.

  7. This article is spot on!

    I use a site called 90di.com to check what trains are available before booking them on irctc. 90di shows you even connecting options in addition to direct trains between destinations. And the search function is intuitive, just type in “Bangalore Kochi June 12” and voila! Also avoid food on the train that you think doesn’t need to be cooked/heated to be made (eg chutneys). Most Indian general stores or clothing stores will sell a very light thin towel. You can dip it in water, tie it onto the window bars of your Non A/C sleeper seat and you will a slight respite from the hot air blowing in. If you have an RAC ticket and you still need to travel, make sure you find the Ticket Inspector as soon as possible and he may help get you a no-show seat. http://indiarailinfo.com/ is another site that I use to check real time status of trains. This site is on steroids so it could be information overload.

    A/C Volvo buses ply between most major towns and cities and these can be booked through RedBus or another travel sites. The cost as much as an 2AC seat on the train.

  8. This article, and your website as a whole, is so helpful!!

    I’m of in India in October, I can’t wait!

  9. Thank you so much for the information! It’s extremely helpful. My husband and I (we live in Chicago, USA) are going to India in September. We are traveling mostly in the north, and mostly by train. I was able to book tickets through cleartrip. Now I am trying to figure out what to do with a phone. We are flying into Delhi. I read somewhere that we may be able to buy an inexpensive prepaid phone at the airport but in some other place it said that to buy a phone you may be required to have a local address/documents. Do you have any suggestions regarding phone use while in India? What phone do you use to make phone calls there?

    1. Hi Olga,

      We bought a cheap, basic, Nokia mobile when we were in Delhi (just at a small electronics shop) and purchased a local SIM card and bought minutes as we went. We had to have a photocopy of our passport in order to get the phone/SIM.

      I hope this helps. Enjoy India!

  10. Hi Goats,

    The IRCTC Website DOES accept Master and VISA cards. Not just AMEX as mentioned above. Request an edit please 🙂

    Awesome Website, yours !!!

  11. Excellent article. I think you have understood our train systems so well (definitely better than me – me being an Indian). I infact do not like to travel by trains in India because I get really conscious due to the crowd and cannot sleep in the trains. I end up being very tired or get a bad headache & it ruins my travel plan.

  12. Guys, thank you very much for your post. I’m amused by how detailed and well organized it is. Me and my wife are going to India next month and your posts are helping a lot!

  13. The need for Amex card to book on IRCTC is not correct.They accept master card and visa too. I have booked with those including using net banking facility to pay directly from a bank (Indian bank though).

    Cheers.

  14. Right where the points are, Traveling is all about the experience starting from the planning and traveling during the trip. I get more out of the planning and the actual visit of seeing the place rather than going for a catered holiday package. Thank you for the tips and making my trip even better with these information about transportation in India. Love the Smoking Dragon!!!

  15. Hi, I’m off to Southern India (Keral & Tamil Nadu) next week and your website has been really helpful, mainly for reassurance . I’ve set up an IRCTC account from the UK (with a bit of hassle) and have started booking a few train journeys (CC in the day and AC2 in the nights) and now very excited for my trip. By the way IRCTC definitely does except Visa & Mastercard and can book from the UK by selecting ‘International Cards’ – there is 4% surcharge though. Hope that’s helpful! Thanks Oli, Bristol, UK

  16. Wow great post. You covered a lot of the options for travel in India! The most difficult part for me was trying to get “personal space” in Indian trains (or really anywhere on the streets). I look forward to future posts.

  17. We love the details of your adventure and the thoughtful advice around train travel. My best moments in India were often spent on the open road, traveling by scooter or tuk tuk as we sought out an undetermined destination. It is always about the journey, isn’t it? 🙂 This reminded me of the 12 hour train ride I took from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Thailand. I learned very quickly that 3rd class was not a suitable solution for an individual who stands over six feet tall lol

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