Getting around India by train...

  Train travel in India:  Amritsar station before the departure of the Shane Punjab Express to Delhi.

The platform at Amritsar before departure of the Shane Punjab Express for Delhi...

 

For hotels...

I recommend hotelscombined.com, just named as the World's Leading Hotel Comparison Site at the World Travel Awards 2013.

Click for some personal hotel recommendations

Without a shadow of a doubt, the best way to see India is not on a plane at 35,000 feet, but at ground level on the incredible Indian railway system.  In fact, no visit to India is complete without experiencing the bustle of Indian railway stations and a safe & comfortable journey on an Indian express train with the tea seller's welcome cry of 'Chai, chai, garam chai' coming down the aisle.  You can safely forget media images of overcrowded suburban trains with people sitting on the roof.  On a long distance express in an AC Chair car or an AC1 or AC2 sleeper, all seats and berths are reserved and it’s a safe, civilised, cheap & comfortable way to get around India.  Even long distances such as Bombay to Delhi, Delhi to Varanasi or Delhi to Udaipur can be covered more time-effectively than flying, using overnight AC Sleeper trains, city centre to city centre, saving a hotel bill into the bargain.

Train times, fares, tickets & information...

  Train routes & maps

  How to check Indian train times & fares

  Buying tickets: Tourist Quotas, RAC, Waitlists & Tatkal

 How to buy Indian train tickets online

  Tips for train travel in India

  The 8 classes of seat & sleeper on Indian trains

  Buying & using an IndRail pass

 Where to go in India:  Suggested IndRail itinerary

  Tailor-made tours of India by train

  Tourist cruise trains including the Palace on Wheels

  International train, bus & ferry links from India

  Travel from Europe to India overland

  Guidebooks 

  Hotels in India

  Flights to India

Sponsored links...

 

Useful country information

Train operator:

Indian Railways: www.indianrail.gov.in & www.indianrailways.gov.in for train times & fares.

See here for online booking.  Luxury train tours around India

Also see www.indiamike.com for advice.  UK IndRail Pass agency: www.indiarail.co.uk

 

Time zone:

 

GMT+5½

Dialling code:

 

+91

Currency:

£1 = 100 Rupees, $1 = 60 Rupees.   Currency converter

Visas:

UK citizens need a visa: Visa issuing has been outsourced to http://in.vfsglobal.co.uk/, a tourist visa now costs around £95

Tourist information:

www.incredibleindia.org    Tripadvisor India page   Health & vaccinations

Flights:

 

Scan multiple airlines for the cheapest flights to India

Hotels in India:

Scan Multiple hotel providers for the cheapest hotel rates & see hotel recommendations.

Page last updated:

10 May 2014


Train routes & maps

The third biggest passenger rail network in the world...

With 63,000 km of rail routes and 6,800 stations, the passenger rail network in India is the third biggest in the world after Russia and China, and the biggest in the world in terms of passenger kilometres.  Indian Railways are the world's biggest employer, with over 1.5 million staff.

  • The trains in India go almost everywhere, and it's generally safe to assume that you can travel between any two Indian cities or major towns by train, the length and breadth of the country

  • For an Indian railways route map see www.indianrail.gov.in/images/rail-map.jpg, or www.mapsofindia.com/maps/india/india-railway-map.htm.

  • There's currently no railway to Kashmir, but a line to Srinagar and beyond is under construction, part has now opened but the remainder is unlikely to open before 2016.  The line heads through tough terrain, and will feature the highest railway bridge in the world.

  • Khajuraho (a much-visited temple complex) now has a station, with a daily overnight train from Delhi's Nizamuddin station at 20:15 arriving 06:35 next morning.  It  returns from Khajuraho at 18:20 arriving 05:30.

How to check Indian train times & fares

See www.indianrail.gov.in or www.cleartrip.com 

It's easy to check train times & fares for any journey in India at www.indianrail.gov.in, one of the official Indian Railways websites.  This is an amazing site, but a little bewildering, not helped by there being another official site, www.indianrailways.gov.in.  It's a good training course for your travels in India!  There are some tips for using www.indianrail.gov.in below.  Alternatively, it can be easier to check train schedules & fares at www.cleartrip.com, a private agency website, click 'Trains' then make your enquiry.  You can buy tickets through www.cleartrip.com, too, but see the advice below first

Example train times & fares...

Indian trains are a very practical way to get around, and even long journeys can be done overnight by sleeper train more time-effectively than a flight.  As an example, here are some train times & fares from Delhi to key tourist destinations:

 Example train times from Delhi...

From Delhi to:

Train times:

Classes

Remarks:

Agra

New Delhi depart 06:00

Agra arrive 08:06.

XC, CC

Shatabdi Express - quality train, breakfast included

Bombay

(Mumbai)

New Delhi depart 16:30

Bombay Central arrive 08:35 next day.

AC1, AC2, AC3, CC

Rajdhani Express - quality sleeper train, meals included.

Calcutta

(Kolkata)

New Delhi depart 17:00

Calcutta Howrah arrive 09:55 next day.

AC1, AC2, AC3, CC

Rajdhani Express - quality sleeper train, meals included.

Jaisalmer

Delhi depart 17:30

Jaisalmer arrive 11:15 next day.

AC1, AC2, AC3, SL

Delhi-Jaisalmer Express

Madras

(Chennai)

New Delhi depart 22:30

Madras arrive 07:15  (2 nights later).

AC1, AC2, AC3, SL, 2

Tamil Nadu Express

Simla

New Delhi depart 07:40 by Shatabdi

Express, change at Kalka, Simla 17:20

AC1, CC

By broad gauge train to Kalka, then by Toy Train.

Udaipur

Delhi H Nizamuddin depart 19:00

Udaipur arrive 07:20 next day.

AC1, AC2, AC3, SL

Mewar Express.

Varanasi

New Delhi depart 18:55

Varanasi Jn arrive 07:25 next day.

AC1, AC2, AC3, SL, 2

Shiv Ganga Express.

 Example fares from Delhi...

 One-way per person, in rupees

AC1

AC Exec

chair car

AC2

AC 

chair car

AC3

Sleeper

class

 Delhi - Agra (by Shatabdi Express)

-

Rs.742

-

Rs.412

-

-

 Delhi - Agra (by ordinary express)

-

-

Rs.707

-

Rs.512

Rs.156

 Delhi - Udaipur

Rs.2,172

-

Rs.1,362

-

Rs.1,002

Rs.391

 Delhi - Jaisalmer 

Rs.2,442 

-

Rs.1,497

-

Rs.1,082 

Rs.406

 Delhi - Varanasi 

Rs.2,192 

-

Rs.1,367 

-

Rs.1,007 

Rs.391

 Delhi - Bombay (by Rajdhani Express)

Rs.3,772

-

Rs.2,227

-

Rs.1,537

-

 Delhi - Bombay (by ordinary express) 

Rs.3,197

-

Rs.1,952

-

Rs.1,407

Rs.546

 Delhi - Calcutta (by Rajdhani Express)

Rs.3,851

-

Rs.2,269

-

Rs.1,562

-

 Delhi - Calcutta (by ordinary express)

Rs.3,272

-

Rs.1,997

-

Rs.1,437

Rs.556

£1 = 100 rupees.  $1 = 60 rupees.

Children aged 0 to 4 travel free, children aged 5 to 11 travel at half fare, children aged 12 and over pay full fare.

Shatabdi Express = Premier daytime train, special fare payable, meals included. 

Rajdhani Express = Premier overnight train, special fare payable, meals included.

Tips for finding train times & fares at www.indianrail.gov.in...

 

Printed timetables:

Trains at a Glance...

'Trains at a Glance' - train timetable for India

Once in India, you can buy the famous 'Trains at a Glance' for about 35 rupees (50p) at bookstalls and railway stations across India.

Download for free...

Click here to download the pages you need from Trains at a Glance for free...

Use the map to find which table you need.  Please tell me if the link stops working.

Buying tickets:  RAC, Waitlists & Tourist Quotas

Do you need a reservation?

Yes, you do.  You need to make a seat or berth reservation for all long-distance journeys on Indian trains, you cannot simply turn up and hop on.  Reservations are now completely computerised.  Indeed, according to an Indian professor with whom I shared a compartment, computerisation saved him 50% of his travel costs as he had always had to pay the same again in bribes to get a reservation!

Do trains get fully-booked?

Yes, they do, often weeks or even months in advance, so you should make reservations as far in advance as possible.  You'll see TV screens in the reservation offices in major cities showing berth availability on the main trains from that city over the next few weeks.  In fact, if you go to 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.  For example, today is 29 January, and I can see that the earliest date for which I can buy an AC2 ticket on the Shiv Ganga Express to New Delhi is 6 March.  Although if I travelled in AC3 I could buy tickets for 28 February.  However, now for the good news.  On many popular trains there's a special Foreign Tourist quota which gives foreigners and IndRail passholders preferential treatment.

When do reservations open?

Bookings for most Indian long-distance trains currently open 60 days before departure.  It was 60 days until 2008, when it was experimentally extended to 90 days, then it was experimentally extended even further to 120 days in 2012, but reduced again to 60 days in 2013 to make ticket 'scalping' by agencies harder.  Some short-distance inter-city trains may open for bookings less than this, for example Delhi-Kalka & Kalka-Simla may open only 30 days or in some cases just 15 days ahead.

The Foreign Tourist Quota...

In addition to the normal General (GN) quota of seats or berths available to anyone, many important trains have a small Foreign Tourist (FT) quota of seats or berths available only to foreign tourists and IndRail passholders.  This is very useful:  A train which is theoretically fully booked may still have a few FT berths available within a day or two of departure so that foreign travellers can travel around at short notice.  However, it's not foolproof.  There is a foreign tourist quota on only 200 or so trains a day out of a total of 9,000 daily trains, and the quota might be just 2 places, seldom more than 12 places, in one or two specific classes.  So even using this special quota, you may have to wait a day or so before there is a berth available to your chosen destination in your chosen class.  Tickets issued against the tourist quota must be paid for in US Dollars, pounds sterling, or rupees backed by an exchange certificate proving they have been obtained from a bank or bureau de change in exchange for foreign currency.  Rupees backed by an ATM receipt and foreign bank card are usually sufficient.  You cannot book tickets from the Foreign Tourist quota online, only at the station or via an IndRail pass agency, so if you want to book Indian train tickets online you'll have to book places from the General (GN) or Tatkal (CK) quotas with the same availability (or lack of it) as for any Indian traveller.

Reservation Against Cancellation (RAC) & Waitlisted (WL) places...

Indian Railways have a unique system:  After a train becomes fully booked with passengers with confirmed reservations (CNF), a certain number of tickets in each class are sold as 'Reservation Against Cancellation' (RAC).  And after all the RAC places have been sold, further prospective passengers are 'Waitlisted' (WL).

With an RAC ticket, you are allowed to board the train and travel.  Whatever happens, you know you're safely booked on the train.  So if you're offered an RAC ticket, take it, even though you won't have a specific seat or berth number at this stage.  In most cases, one of the confirmed passengers will cancel at some point before departure, and you will be promoted from RAC to CNF with a confirmed seat or berth on the train.  Your name will then be shown against a specific seat or berth number on the reservation list pinned on the notice board at the boarding station on the day of travel, or you can check your status online.  A waitlisted passenger will then be promoted from WL to RAC in your place.  Even if nobody cancels, with an RAC ticket you are allowed to board the train and will usually be given a place to sit (but not a berth) in a carriage of the relevant class.  For example, two RAC passengers might have to share a 2-seat space that would normally convert into a berth for one person.  In most cases, at least one of the confirmed passengers will fail to show up for the train, and the on-board staff will then allocate the spare berth to the first RAC passenger, and the second RAC passenger may then find himself with a berth to himself, solving two RAC passengers' problems!  Obviously, in the worst case scenario, if there aren't any no-shows the RAC passengers will have to sit up all night, or perhaps take turns using the berth to snooze.

With a WL ticket you cannot travel, unless you are promoted to RAC or CNF before departure.  However, with a low-numbered WL ticket you've a good chance of this happening.  For example, one traveller reports that they had WL places between WL1 and WL10 on numerous trips, but always successfully got promoted to CNF with a confirmed place on the train, usually in the 24 hours before departure as that's when all the movement takes place.  Just keep checking your status online.  And even if you're only promoted to RAC, you can at least now travel, see the paragraph above.

How to check your current status:  You can confirm the current status of your booking as WL, RAC or CNF at www.indianrail.gov.in/pnr_Enq.html (or if you've booked with cleartrip.com, www.cleartrip.com/trains/pnr) by entering the PNR number on your ticket, but remember that things can change even on the day of departure.  In fact, most movement happens in the 24 hours before departure.  When the reservation chart is produced on departure day, unsold tickets in various special quotas may be released, and WL passengers promoted to RAC and RAC passengers promoted to CNF.  What a system!  Detailed explanation of the WL & RAC system, well worth reading! 

Tatkal places...

To allow travel at short notice on trains that often become fully-booked weeks before departure, Indian Railways introduced a system called Tatkal (Hindi for 'immediate').  A number of tickets on key trains are held back and released at 10:00 one day before departure (originally 72 hours before, reduced to 2 days in August 2009 and just 1 day in 2011), then sold with a Rs75-Rs300 extra Tatkal charge.  If there's tourist quota places available then the Tatkal system may be irrelevant for you, but if you can't get a tourist quota place, a Tatkal place may be useful.  Tatkal places can also be booked online.

Tourist reservation bureaux...

The main stations in big cities and tourist centres such as New Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Agra, Jaipur and Varanasi have an International Tourist Bureau where foreign travellers can book trains away from the crowds and queues at the normal booking office.  There is also a 24-hour rail booking office at Delhi International Airport.  For a list of stations with an International Tourist Bureau and their opening times, visit www.indianrail.gov.in, select 'Information' then 'International Tourist'.  Ignore anyone who tells you that the reservations office is closed, but their travel agency across the street can sell you a ticket.

Jaisalmer to Delhi train Indian trains: The AC2 sleeper on the Delhi - Varanasi Express

Identifying your train & carriage:  The locomotive backs onto the Jaisalmer to Delhi Express.  The yellow signboard on the end carriage states the train name and number, clearly identifying the train.  Station nameboards are also clearly shown at every station.

 

An AC2 sleeper car on the Delhi-Varanasi express.  The yellow boards on the coach side tell you the train number and route, so you know you've found the right train.  Under the destination boards, the small yellow square shows the coach number.

How to buy Indian train tickets online

Indian trains often get fully-booked weeks in advance, so it's worth booking before you get to India if you have limited time or need to be on a particular train soon after your arrival.  You can buy tickets online at privately-run website Cleartrip.com using Visa or MasterCard, or if you have an Amex card you can buy direct from the official Indian Railways ticket sales website, irctc.co.in.  The process has become more bureaucratic recently, it at first seems that you need an Indian mobile number, but the workaround is explained here...

Option 1:  Buy Indian train tickets online at www.cleartrip.com.

Who are Cleartrip.com?  www.cleartrip.com is a private company which has been allowed to link their website to the official IRCTC Indian Railways reservation & ticketing system.  It's probably the easiest & simplest website to use to buy Indian train tickets online, but more importantly it's now the only one that accepts foreign MasterCard & Visa cards.  IRCTC themselves only accept foreign Amex & Indian Visa & MasterCard, so Cleartrip is the site to use.

How to register & activate a Cleartrip account...

If you have problems activating your account...

Alternative if you have difficulties using Cleartrip...

Advice for using Cleartrip.com when your account is activated...

Option 2:  Buy from Indian Railways own website, www.irctc.co.in  (only Amex accepted)

You can also buy Indian train tickets direct from the IRCTC website.  That saves a few rupees compared to paying Cleartrip's token booking fee, but at the time of writing payment by MasterCard or Visa doesn't work on any of the IRCTC payment options, only foreign Amex cards are accepted, and even then only if your Amex card is issued in certain countries, including the UK and Australia but notably not including the United States or Canada.  But if you have an Amex card and want to try using www.irctc.co.in, here's how:

Option 3. Buy from Australian train specialist www.internationalrail.com.au

Option 4, buy tickets via an IndRail pass agency:


Tips for train travel in India...

Checking the reservation list on the Delhi-Varanasi train...

 

Checking your reservation...

Your train, coach and berth number will be printed on your ticket.  Reservation lists for each long-distance train are posted on the notice board at each station about two hours before departure, showing the name, age and sex of each passenger reserved in each berth in each coach - the age and sex help the ticket inspector identify that the right passenger is in the right berth.  The reservation list for each coach will also be pasted on the train itself, next to the entrance door.  Check to see that your name is listed.  The system is very efficient, and the days of finding your reserved berth already occupied by several passengers are long gone.  Pictured left, my glamorous assistant Karen demonstrates reading the reservation list next to the entrance door on the Delhi-Varanasi overnight express...

Car numbering:  Coaches on Indian long distance trains are normally numbered like this:

AC1:  car H1, H2, and so on, where 1, 2 is the number of coaches of that class on the train.
AC2: car  A1, A2, and so on.
AC3:  car B1, B2, and so on.
AC chair car:  car C1, C2, and so on.
Sleeper class:  Cars S1, S2, and so on.

So if you booked an AC2 ticket you'd expect to be given a car number 'A1' or 'A2'.

Berth layout and numbering plans:  Berth numbering system, AC1, AC2, AC3, Sleeper Class cars   Seat numbering plan, AC Chair cars

  Eating an Indian Railways curry on the Delhi - Varanasi overnight train

Enjoying a curry in the AC2 sleeper on the Delhi-Varanasi sleeper train (we brought the bottle of Wolf Blass with us!)

Food and drink on Indian trains...

There are no restaurant or buffet cars on Indian Railways, but on long distance trains an attendant will appear in your coach and ask you if you would like to order food.  He will note down your order (usually a choice of 'veg' or 'non-veg') on a bit of paper.  An hour or so later he will reappear with some rice and curry in small foil containers from the kitchen car.  It is not expensive - you can reckon on £1-£2 per meal.  Attendants also regularly pass down each car selling soft drinks, snacks, or excellent hot sweet Indian tea (garam chai) for a few rupees.  On the premier Rajdhani Express trains (linking Delhi with Bombay, Calcutta, etc.) and the premier daytime Shatabdi Express trains (linking Delhi with Jaipur and Agra, etc.), food is included in the fare, served at your seat.  Video showing included food on a Rajdhani Express.

Train reservation lists are posted on platform noticeboards about 2 hours before departure...

The reservation lists posted on the platform at Agra Cantonment station.

 

Cleanliness, toilets & crowding...

The efficient reservation system means that you can safely forget any pictures you've seen of overcrowded Indian trains with people on the roof or hanging on the side.  These these photos show suburban trains, or basic unreserved 2nd class on long distance ones.  On fast long-distance trains in AC1, AC2, AC3, or AC Chair Class, all passengers have an assigned seat or sleeping berth so there's no overcrowding.  Don't expect pristine western standards anywhere in India, but you'll find AC1, AC2, AC3 and AC Chair class fairly clean by Indian standards, with both western-style and squat toilets usually in a reasonably sanitary condition.  See the train interior photos below.  On the other hand, Sleeper Class gets much grubbier than the AC classes and unreserved passengers can sometimes enter the coaches making it crowded.  2nd class unreserved can be incredibly crowded.  Toilets in sleeper class or basic non-AC 2nd class seats can leave a lot to be desired...

Security on Indian trains...

Indian trains are safe to travel on, even for families or women travelling alone, and you are unlikely to have any problems at all.  Having said that, theft of luggage is rare but not unheard of, so for peace of mind take along a bicycle lock or medium-sized padlock to secure your bags.  In the sleeping-cars, there are wire hoops hanging down underneath the seats to which you can padlock your luggage.  As in any busy place anywhere, pickpockets operate at the major stations (for example Delhi and New Delhi), so take care.  Oh, and be prepared:  If anyone tells you that your train is cancelled, that the ticket office has closed or has moved to a travel agency across the road, or your pre-booked hotel has burnt down or been abducted by aliens, please politely ignore them, even if they look 'official', to avoid ending up in a travel agency paying for a car and driver at vast expense, or booking their 'alternative' hotel which of course will luckily have a room available.  These are all well-known scams (yawn...) to get travel agency business, usually obvious to any regular India hand, but first-timers have been known to fall for them...

Do Indian trains run on time?

 

AC2 2-tier sleeper:  An AC2 bay of 4 berths.  There are more photos of what each type of seat and sleeper are like below.

Generally, Indian Railways are very efficient, but Indian trains do run late, and sometimes it's hours rather than minutes.  To get a feel for it, why not go to either www.trainenquiry.com or www.erail.in and see how late yesterday's Delhi-Jaisalmer Express arrived, or last Thursday's Bombay-Delhi Rajdhani Express?  At www.erail.in, select the origin and destination that interests you, and bring up the train list.  Now find the train that you want and click on it.  Now select a date and click the 'train running status' button.  It will show you a table of scheduled times and actual times at each station.  Data is only held for the last few days, not weeks or months ago.  At www.trainenquiry.com, you simply enter the train number or name, then select from a list of possible trains.

Alternatively, these examples from my own travels may give you a feel for the likely delay:  Delhi-Varanasi overnight express spot on time, Bombay-Calcutta Mail 1½ hours late, Madras-Bombay Chennai Express 40 minutes late, Calcutta-Delhi Rajdhani Express spot on time (Rajdhani Expresses get priority and are pretty punctual), Delhi-Agra Shatabdi Express spot on time (Shatabdi Expresses also get priority and are pretty punctual), Jaisalmer-Delhi Express 2 hours late starting and 3 hours late arriving, Delhi-Kalka-Simla Himalayan Queen spot on time, Varanasi-Agra-Jaipur Marudhar Express 50 minutes late, Delhi-Madras Grand Trunk Express 1½ hours late.

Recharging mobiles & cameras...

These days, people seem unable to go anywhere without an array of electrical gadgetry.  You'll find shaver sockets in most AC1/2/3 sleeper cars, which can be used to recharge cameras & mobiles, though you won't generally find specific power sockets for this purpose on Indian trains.  One tip is to invest in a Power Monkey universal backup battery, which will give you up to 96 hours phone stand-by when your phone's battery dies, and can also be used for recharging PDAs, iPods & some cameras whilst on the move.

Other Indian train tips...

Bring your own toilet paper.  You'll normally find one western toilet and one squat toilet at one or both ends of the car.  In AC1, AC2, AC Chair Class and even AC3 the toilets are normally reasonably clean by Indian standards, and in full working order.  Sleeper Class and 2nd class toilets may be a different matter!

Finally, forewarned is forearmed...

In India, if someone asks which hotel you're going to, then announces that this hotel has been flooded, burnt down, or abducted by aliens, they are of course trying to get commission from sending you to another hotel - that's often painfully obvious and it's almost funny!  Smile, ignore them, and persist in walking to your own hotel, which will of course be open as usual.  But similarly, especially at big stations such as New Delhi, if an official-looking person (they may even show you a badge) says your train has been cancelled, or says you can't board without a boarding pass (with an e-ticket you can get on the train, there's no such thing as a boarding pass), smile, ignore them, walk past, and persist until you see the actual departure indicators and get your train.  If necessary, go and see the station master!  Although this has never happened to me, there are occasional reports of travellers being conned into buying new tickets from a nearby travel agency, being sent to a nearby travel agency when they wanted the genuine New Delhi foreigners booking office, or being conned into hiring a private car and driver for hundreds of dollars when they already had trains booked, which of course weren't really cancelled.  So smile, ignore, persist, go and see the departure boards with your own eyes, find and get on your train, and have a giggle about it later!  If you encounter any of this, feedback (and a good laugh) is always appreciated!


The 8 classes on Indian trains...

There are 8 classes of accommodation on Indian trains, although only a selection of these classes will be available on any given train.  Here are the classes, in roughly descending order of cost, together with the usual 2- or 3-letter abbreviations...

Air-conditioned first class (AC1 or 1A)

AC1 is a comfortable and civilised way to travel, although it's only found on the most important long-distance trains and costs twice the price of AC2.  In AC1 you're typically mixing with bank managers and army officers.  It consists of fairly spacious, carpeted and lockable 4-berth & 2-berth sleeper compartments with washbasin.  All necessary bedding is provided, and berths convert to seats for daytime use.  You cannot specify that you want berths in a 2-berth rather than a 4-berth compartment when you book, nor will you be given specific berth numbers when you book, as specific berth numbers are only allocated by Indian Railways closer to the departure date and shown on reservation lists at the station before departure and on the coach side.  Couples are normally given preference for the 2-berth coupés, families and passengers travelling alone are normally allocated berths in one of the 4-berth compartments, but of course this can't be guaranteed.  Note that when using online systems such as indianrail.gov.in or cleartrip.com, the AC1 sleepers shown here and AC Executive Chair class (available on certain short-distance inter-city trains) are both shown as AC1, the systems do not distinguish between the two classes.  Berth numbering system, AC1, AC2, AC3, AC Chair, Sleeper Class cars.

Indian trains:  AC1 coach   AC1 2-berth coupé, on the Kalka - Delhi - Calcutta train.

Regular AC1 cars, with (above centre) a nice 2-berth coupé with fabric seats/berths on the Kalka-Delhi-Howrah Mail and (above right) a spacious 4-berth sleeper on the Bombay-Howrah Mail with the usual brown leatherette seats/berths. 

Boarding the Bombay to New Delhi Rajdhani Express   4-berth AC1 compartment on the Bombay to Delhi Rajdhani Express

Rajdhani Express AC1 cars:  The Bombay to New Delhi and New Delhi to Calcutta Rajdhani Expresses are front-rank trains which have newer cars like this.  Above left, the Bombay-Delhi Rajdhani Express boarding in Bombay, and above right a spacious carpeted 4-berth compartment on the same train.  Photos courtesy of Sunil Mehta.


Air-conditioned 2-tier (AC2 or 2A)

AC2 is relatively clean, comfortable and not crowded, a good choice for most visitors to India. It's found on almost all decent long-distance trains, and it's the class typically used by middle class Indian families.  AC2 provides padded leatherette seats by day, convertible to flat padded bunks at night.  AC2 coaches are not divided into separate compartments, but are open-plan with berths arranged in bays of four on one side of the aisle (two upper, two lower, transverse across the car width), and in bays of two on the other side of the aisle, arranged longitudinally along the coach side above and below the windows.  Each bay is curtained off for privacy, and an attendant distributes pillows, sheets and blankets in the evening.  If you're tall, you want a transverse berth.  Berth numbering system, AC1, AC2, AC3, AC Chair, Sleeper Class cars.

Right:  A bay of 4 berths in an AC2 sleeper.  The seat back folds down to form the bottom bunk.

Far right:  Aisle in AC2.  Bays of 4 to the right, bays of 2 on the left.

  AC2:  Bay of four berths in daytime mode   Aisle of an AC 2-tier sleeper

Air-conditioned 3-tier (AC3 or 3A)

AC3 is very similar to AC2, but it has three tiers of bunks - upper, middle and lower - arranged in bays of six on one side of the aisle, and bays of two (upper and lower) along the coach side on the other side of the aisle.  It's more crowded than AC 2-tier, and it lacks the privacy curtains and individual berth lights found in AC2.  As in AC2, an attendant distributes pillows, sheets and blankets in the evening.  Berths convert to seats for daytime use.  Berth numbering system, AC1, AC2, AC3, AC Chair, Sleeper Class cars.

Right:  An AC3 sleeper on the new Jaisalmer - Delhi Express.  In the far photo, the middle bunk is shown folded against the wall.  The seat backrest folds down to form the bottom bunk.

Indian trains:  AC3 sleeper AC3: a bay of six berths (in daytime mode) on the Jaisalmer - Delhi express train...

Interior of 1st class 4-berth compartment.  This is a metre-gauge example...

First class (FC)

Traditional non-air-con 1st class has now almost disappeared, as Indian Railways have progressively phased it out in favour of AC 2-tier.  But for the record, ordinary first class consists of non-air-conditioned sleeper coaches with lockable 4-berth and 2-berth compartments.  Bedding is not included in the fare, but may be available for a small extra charge if booked in advance.  It is much grubbier than either AC1, AC2 or AC3 as it is not sealed against the dirt.


AC Executive chair class (EC)

AC Executive Chair Class is only found on the most important Shatabdi Express trains.  Seats are arranged 2+2 across the car width, and on Shatabdi Expresses food & drink is included in the fare, served at your seat.  The more modern type of car is shown here, found on the morning Delhi to Agra Bhopal Shatabdi and the Delhi to Jaipur & Ajmer Ajmer Shatabdi,   AC Exec Chair class is available to holders of an AC1 IndRail pass.  Note that online booking systems don't distinguish between AC Executive Chair class & AC1 sleepers, both are shown as AC1 or 1A.  Photo courtesy of Simon Smidt.  Seat numbering plan, AC Chair cars.

  Interior of AC Executive chair car on the Jaipur - Delhi 'Shatabdi Express'

AC Chair class (CC)

AC Chair class is a good choice for daytime journeys.  Comfortable & air-conditioned, they have seats arranged 2+3 across the car width.  AC Chair Class is found on the Shatabdi Expresses and a number of other inter-city daytime trains, for example Delhi-Jaipur, Delhi-Agra, Delhi-Kalka for Simla.  It's available to holders of a AC2 class IndRail pass.  Seat numbering plan, AC Chair cars.

Indian trains:  AC chair car Interior of AC chair car on the Delhi - Kalka 'Himalayan Queen'...

Sleeper Class (SL)

This is the way most of the less-well-off Indian population travels long-distance, and the majority of cars on a long-distance train will be sleeper class.  Sleeper class consists of open plan berths with upper, middle and lower bunks arranged in bays of six on one side of the aisle, and along the coach wall in bays of two (upper and lower) on the other side of the aisle.  Bedding is not provided, so bring a sleeping bag.  Sleeper class is found on almost all long-distance trains except for the premier 'Rajdhani Express' services.  Sleeper class can be quite crowded (although in theory all berths must be reserved, so it can't get overcrowded), and it's fairly grubby and basic.  On the other hand, you get a better view of the countryside then in AC coaches, where the windows are sealed, tinted, and sometimes dirty.  In summer, there are fans on the ceiling and a breeze from the windows.  In winter, wrap up warm at night and take a sleeping bag and fleece, as it can get cold.  Sleeper class is used by the more adventurous backpackers, who are prepared to take the rough with the smooth...  Berth numbering system, AC1, AC2, AC3, AC Chair, Sleeper Class cars.

Indian trains:  Sleeper class car      Interior of sleeper class car - bay of six berths. Sleeper class - aisle

Sleeper class windows are fitted with bars to keep out intruders. There is a glass pane and a shutter both of which can be raised / lowered.

A bay of six in sleeper class, with seats in day mode on the left, and berths in night time mode on the right.

The aisle of a sleeper class car.  Bays of six to the right, bays of two on the left.  Bring your own bedding!


2nd class seats (2S = reserved or II = unreserved)

Open plan cars with wooden or padded plastic seats, sometimes reserved and shown online as 2S, sometimes unreserved and shown online as II.  Not recommended for long distance overnight journeys (you'll see the huge scrum of Indians all trying to bag a seat in unreserved 2nd class), but quite acceptable for daytime journeys of up to a few hours if you're on a budget.

Indian trains:  2nd class seats coach   Some Indian 2nd class seats have padded plastic cushions...   ...others have hard wooden seats.

2nd class seating car.

Some trains have padded plastic 2nd class seats...

...others wooden seats.



Using an IndRail pass

 

Red double-deckers outside Bombay Victoria Terminus...

London buses at St Pancras?  No, Bombay buses outside Victoria Terminus!

 

What is an IndRail pass?

An IndRail pass gives unlimited travel across the whole Indian Railways network in your chosen class for a time period which you choose.  You still need to make a reservation for each long-distance train you take, but these are free of charge and you can make them either in advance from outside India through the agency that sells you the pass or you can make reservations yourself at stations as you go, using places from the Foreign Tourist Quota.  With an AC1 or AC2 class pass there are no extra charges to pay for sleeping berths or bedding, it's all included.

What types of IndRail pass are there?

IndRail passes come in three classes, AC1, AC2, and 2nd class.  You can buy an IndRail pass for any time period from ½-day to 90 days.  With an AC1 pass you can travel in AC1 or AC Executive Chair Car class or in any of the cheaper classes on trains which have no AC1.  With an AC2 pass you can travel in AC2 or AC Chair Car or the now-rare non-AC 1st class sleepers.  With a 2nd class pass you can travel in Sleeper class or unreserved 2nd class seats.  You can use a ½-day or 1-day pass to book a single one-off train trip or you can arrange a complete pre-booked itinerary all around India using a longer period pass or a combination of passes.  You'll find a suggested itinerary below.

Should you buy an IndRail pass or point-to-point tickets?

If you just want to book one or two train journeys well in advance, the easiest option is usually to buy tickets online as explained above.  And if you want to stay totally flexible, you may as well buy tickets as you go, making use of the Foreign Tourist Quota once in India.  This often works out a little cheaper than using an unlimited-travel IndRail pass.  However, there are situations where an IndRail pass makes a lot of sense.  The key advantage is that with an IndRail pass you can ask the UK IndRail pass agency to pre-book some or all of your trains before you get to India, free of charge.  So a whole 2 or 3 week itinerary can be painlessly pre-booked from outside India, avoiding the frustration of finding trains fully-booked if you waited to buy tickets when you got there, or the frustration of trying to get registered on Cleartrip.com and make multiple online bookings, possibly running up against the 10-bookings-per-month limit.  Indeed, even for just one or two train rides, if you really can't get Cleartrip.com to work for you, the fall-back is to arrange these trips painlessly by buying a ½-day or 1-day IndRail pass and asking SD Enterprises to make the relevant reservation for you free of charge.

Will an IndRail pass save money over point-to-point tickets?

Probably not, depending on your exact travel plans, but it may not cost much more.  For example, a normal ticket from Delhi to Varanasi costs around 1,270 rupees (£18 or $28) in AC2 class, whereas a 1-day AC2 IndRail pass costs $43.  However, a 2-week itinerary to Delhi, Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur, Jaisalmer and Simla all booked in advance from the UK using a 15-day AC2 pass costs $185 (£123), whereas normal point-to-point tickets would cost around £118.  A major advantage of the pass is that if you fall ill for a day or two and have to change your plans, or simply change your mind about when and where you want to go, you can do this with a pass but may have to forfeit regular tickets.  Of course, if you want to stay flexible and not pre-book anything before you get to India, you can still do this with an IndRail pass (passholders qualify for places from the Foreign Tourist Quota), but in that case there is little advantage in having a pass and normal tickets may be the better bet.

Which class of pass should you buy?

AC1 is most comfortable and expensive class, but it's only found on the most important long-distance trains and a handful of shorter distance ones, so an AC1 pass is not worth it unless you're sure you are going to use trains which have AC1 or Executive chair class.  For most people, an AC2 pass is the best bet.  With an AC2 pass, you will be booked in an AC2 sleeper for overnight trips or an AC chair car on a daytime journey if it's available, unless you specifically ask for the now-very-rare ordinary non-air-con 1st class.  Travelling in the grubby and basic Sleeper class is undoubtedly an experience, but a 2nd class pass is probably only for the more adventurous or extremely budget-conscious traveller.  See the section above about the 8 classes on Indian trains.

How much does an IndRail pass cost?  See www.indiarail.co.uk

A 7-day AC2 pass costs $135 (£90), a 15-day pass $185 (£125), a 21 day pass $198 (£132).  This gives unlimited travel for the relevant period, including all reservations, sleeper berths and bedding, so there are no supplements or surcharges to pay.  You can check prices for all pass durations & classes at www.indiarail.co.uk (SD Enterprises in Wembley).  You can make reservations at any station when in India, withy places taken from the Foreign Tourist Quota, or SD Enterprises can make any reservations you want from the UK free of charge.

How to buy an IndRail pass in the UK...

You can buy an IndRail pass, complete with any required train reservations, from the UK IndRail agency, SD Enterprises of Wembley - call 020 8903 3411 or see www.indiarail.co.uk.  I can personally recommend SD Enterprises as an excellent and long-established family firm, who know their subject and go out of their way to advise and help their clients.  If you can, visit them in person, as it is an experience in itself.  You may even get to see Dr Dandpani's video on visiting India...

How to buy an IndRail pass in the USA, Canada, Australia, Asia & other countries...

You can buy an IndRail pass together with any train reservations you need from the UK IndRail agency SD Enterprises, www.indiarail.co.uk.  They are UK-based but are normally happy to arrange passes and reservations for people from overseas, although they will only  sell 4-day and longer passes to people outside the UK, not one-day or half-day passes. 

For a list of IndRail pass agencies in other countries, go to www.indianrail.gov.in, and click 'International Tourist' on the left.  There are IndRail agencies in the UK, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Oman, Bahrain & Kuwait but surprisingly not in the USA, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.  If you're from one of these countries, contact the UK agency via their website www.indiarail.co.uk.


Where to go in India...

A suggested itinerary:  The highlights of Northern India...

India is vast, and first-time visitors often wonder where to start.  One strategy is to tour only a small area, for example Rajasthan or the beaches of Goa.  But I suggest a more ambitious approach, using the Indian train network to see a varied cross-section of India's highlights, picking one example from each type of place:  One big city, one colonial hill station, one or two princely cities in Rajasthan, Agra of course for the Taj Mahal, and perhaps Varanasi, the classic Hindu holy city on the Ganges.  This way, you'll see some incredible highlights and utter contrasts, with overnight trains minimising both daytime travelling time and hotel bills. 

Here's a suggested itinerary that works very well and easy fills 2 or 3 weeks depending on how much time you have and the pace you want to set.  I recommend sketching out your own itinerary using the technique explained here.  You can arrange this trip yourself, buying an IndRail pass as explained here or point-to-point tickets as explained here, and booking your hotels separately which is the cheapest option, or you can let a train travel specialist arrange it all for you as explained here, which is the easiest but more expensive option.

You can make this itinerary on either a 15-day ($185) or 21-day ($198) AC2 IndRail pass, depending on how long you take.  However, as you can see from the classes available on each train, you would get little use from paying the extra for an AC1 pass.  If you had more time, Udaipur is the place to add.  Alternatively, how about:

Calcutta - (overnight sleeper train to New Jalpaiguri then the famous Darjeeling Toy Train) - Darjeeling - Varanasi - (overnight sleeper train) - Agra - (daytime train) - Jaipur - (overnight sleeper train) - Calcutta.

Use www.cleartrip.com or  www.indianrail.gov.in to find train times & fares, as explained above.  Here are some suggested places in each category:

The big cities...

Bombay (Mumbai)     

It's been described as London on acid, a wonderful sub-tropical parody of 1950s London.  Colonial banks and offices (complete with foliage sprouting from the roofs), red double-decker buses and Victoria Terminus (CST), a railway station to rival St Pancras.

Calcutta (Kolkata)

One of the poorest and most populous cities on Earth.  Lots of historic buildings, the famous Hooghly bridge, the Victoria Memorial, the site of the infamous Black Hole, well worth a visit.

Delhi

India's capital.  Crowded Old Delhi with its Jama Masjid mosque and the famous Red Fort sits next to the new British-built capital with its elegant buildings designed by Lutyens.  Also visit the Qutub Minar (an ancient tower plus a strange iron pillar) and Himayun's tomb, a trial run for the Taj Mahal.

Madras (Chennai)

An even older colony than Bombay or Calcutta, in Southern India.

The royal cities of Rajasthan...

Jaipur

The 'Pink City', and one of my favourite cities in India.  Roads full of trucks and camels.  See the royal palace, the old observatory and the famous Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds).  Make a day trip to Amber Fort a few miles away.  The Shahpura House Hotel gets good reports, www.shahpurahouse.com.

Udaipur

A fantastic and beautiful place, built around a lake with a royal palace overlooking the lake and another equally famous palace - now a hotel - on an island on the lake itself.  Not to be missed!  If you can't afford the famous and luxurious Taj Lake Palace Hotel on the lake itself, the Lake Pichola Hotel is a good low-to-mid-price choice, central and with its restaurant terrace overlooking the lake, though many prefer the Jagat Niwas Palace, also overlooking the lake, www.jagatniwaspalace.com.

Jaisalmer   

A walled city in the desert full of beautifully carved temples, havelis (merchants houses) and palaces.  Probably the most amazing place in Rajasthan and perhaps India - don't argue, just go there...  It used to be one of the most time-consuming places to get to, being right next to the Pakistani border, but there's now a direct train from Delhi.  In Jaisalmer, the Mandir Palace hotel is wonderful, as long as you ask for an upstairs room.  The hotel was indeed once a palace, and the rooms are straight out of Arabian nights - yet remarkably cheap.

Jodhpur

Another fascinating Rajasthani city, worth a visit for the fort overlooking the town.

Old Colonial hill stations...

Darjeeling

Arguably the most famous hill station of them all, up in the cool foothills of the Himalayas.  Mock Tudor houses and a church straight from the Home Counties.  Before dawn, take a vintage Land Rover to Tiger Hill to see the sunrise - you'll see Kanchenjunga in the distance, and on a clear day you can see Everest.  Pay your respects at the cremation site of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay of Everest fame.  To reach Darjeeling, take the overnight Darjeeling Mail leaving Calcutta (Sealdah station) at 22:05 and arriving New Jalpaiguri (NJP) at 08:40.  If and when running, the famous narrow gauge toy train leaves NJP at 09:00 and arrives Darjeeling at 15:30.  Don't miss this spectacular trip to Darjeeling on the toy train - although buses are quicker, the toy train is a UNESCO world heritage experience but the buses certainly aren't!  If your budget will stretch, stay at the incomparable Windamere Hotel.  See 'a personal favourite' below.  If you can't get a reservation at the Windamere, try the Elgin Hotel instead.

Simla

Mock Tudor houses from a suburban town in Surrey, transplanted to the Himalayan foothills with an Indian bazaar tacked on the side.  In the days of the Raj, Simla became the capital every summer when Delhi (and before that, Calcutta) became just too hot.  Don't miss the journey to and from Simla on the narrow-gauge 'toy train', a spectacular trip up from the plains at Kalka up into the hills.  The 07:40 Kalka Shatabdi from New Delhi (AC Chair class and AC Executive chair class, breakfast included) connects at Kalka with the 11:55 toy train which reaches Simla at 17:20.  Alternatively, the 22:50 sleeper (AC1, AC2, AC3, sleeper class) from Delhi Junction arrives Kalka at 05:00 next morning.  The Shivalik Deluxe Express leaves Kalka at 05:30 and arrives Simla at 10:15.  The Shivalik Deluxe Express has plush 1st class armchairs and an at-seat meal service included in the fare - AC2 IndRail passholders can use this train (and enjoy the meal) at no extra charge.

Ootacamund    

(Ooty)

A old colonial hill station, southern India-style, now also known as Udhagamandalam.  Take the overnight Nilgiri Express from Madras (depart 20:15) to Mettupalaiyam (36km beyond Coimbatore) arriving 06:20.  Change for the 07:10 metre-gauge train, still steam-hauled, up to 'Ooty', where you arrive at 12:00.

Matheran

A lesser-known hill station close to Bombay, also served by its own hill railway from the mainline junction at Neral.

Other places to see...

Agra

The Taj Mahal is an icon and well, it just has to be seen...  Two bits of advice for Agra:  first, don't plan to spend more time than necessary in Agra to see the sights.  One or two days is enough, then high-tail it to somewhere less touristy with fewer touts and less hassle.  But second, there's more to Agra than just the Taj Mahal.  The 'baby Taj' and Agra Fort are both well worth a visit.  And most importantly, the deserted royal city at Fatephur Sikhri, 40 km West of Agra, is superb and in many ways more interesting than the Taj.  Buses link Agra with Fatephur Sikhri every hour or so, trains run irregularly from Agra Fort Station.  If there's two or three of you, it's not too extravagant to hire a car and driver for a day or half day.

Varanasi

One of the holiest Hindu cities in India, on the banks of the Ganges.  This is one city that should really not be missed.  The upmarket Western tourist hotels are all in the new town well away from the old town and Ganges - to see the most of Varanasi, book a lower or mid-range hotel overlooking the Ganges, for example, the excellent Hotel Alka (www.hotelalkavns.com).

Khajuraho

A famous and well-touristed temple complex (but without much else to see in the area) with erotic carvings in a remote location in North India.  Khajuraho now has a station, with an overnight train 3 times a week from Delhi's Nizamuddin station at 21:35 on Tue, Fri & Sun.  It  returns from Khajuraho at 18:15 on Mon, Wed, Sat.  Alternatively, you can use a bus or hire a car & driver from Jhansi, Kanpur or Allahabad.

Two personal favourites:  A ride to Darjeeling...

A personal favourite is the ride to Darjeeling on the narrow gauge Darjeeling Himalaya Railway (DHR), and a night or two at the Windamere Hotel.  The DHR is now a UN World Heritage Site.  Take the broad gauge 'Darjeeling Mail' from Calcutta (Sealdah station) to New Jalpaiguri ('NJP'), leaving Calcutta Sealdah around 22:05 and arriving NJP at around 08:40 next morning.  The 'Darjeeling Mail' conveys AC1, AC2, AC3, sleeper class and 2nd class accommodation.  When it was running, the DHR 'toy train' connected with the Darjeeling Mail, leaving NJP at 09:00 and arriving Darjeeling at 15:30.  However, major landslides have blocked the line in a couple of places since 2010.  Check the status of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway at www.dhrs.org/page4.html - part of the line is working and with luck the full line should be reinstated by the end of 2013.

Some guide books recommend taking the bus from NJP to Darjeeling (a 4 hour journey, so much quicker than the 'toy train') and treating the railway as a theme park ride for a quick trip over a short section - ignore them!  Four hours on a bus is cramped and uncomfortable, and hardly a world heritage experience.  The leisurely day spent on the toy train through the Himalayan foothills is a day well spent.  The 09:00 train from NJP is diesel-hauled (if and when running) except for certain days when the diesel is being maintained, but other services are still hauled by steam locomotives.

Once in Darjeeling, if you can stretch to £95-£130 a night for a single or £125-£145 for a double (including all meals), the place to stay is the Windamere Hotel, www.windamerehotel.com.  Originally a boarding house for bachelor tea planters, it became a hotel in 1939.  Meals are served by white-gloved, turbanned waiters and eaten by candlelight to the sound of Cole Porter tunes on the piano.  Even if you can't afford it, make sure you come along for afternoon tea - probably the best cup of tea you will ever drink...  The hotel's phone number (from the UK) is 00 91 354 22 54 043.

A ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway   The Windamere Hotel, Darjeeling

A journey on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway...

 

The wonderful Windamere Hotel, Darjeeling...

...and a ride to Simla.

A little bit more robust than the line to Darjeeling, the similar toy train up to Simla in the Himalayan foothills is the way to reach Simla, once India's summer capital.  Take a fast broad-gauge train from New Delhi to Kalka and change there onto the Toy Train up into the hills.  The train ride to Simla is one of Simla's highlights on its own.  If you get the chance, use the Shivalik Deluxe Express on the way back down from Simla (it connects with the overnight express to New Delhi going forward next day to Calcutta).  The Shivalik Deluxe has plush fabric-covered first class armchairs, and a meal is served at your seat, included in the price.  Although it gets dark as you descend, at stations without electricity the signalmen hand the single-line token to the driver whilst holding burning torches, the shimmering flames lighting up the side of the train.  It's wonderfully atmospheric.

Simla station   The Toy Train to Simla

Simla station.

 

A wonderful ride up to Simla on the Toy Train...


Tailor-made tours of India by train

Train tickets, hotels, transfers & flights all booked for you...

The cheapest option is to arrange everything yourself, independently, but this takes significant time and effort.  If you want a tailor-made itinerary with all your train tickets, up-market hotels and transfers arranged for you, you can do this through train travel specialist Railbookers.  Their website has a 7-day example visiting Delhi, Agra & Jaipur but they can arrange any length of itinerary you like, you your specification -have a look at the suggested itinerary above covering Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, Jaipur, Jaisalmer & Simla.  Railbookers takes good care of their clients and gets very good reviews.

  In the UK call 020 3327 0761, www.railbookers.com

In the USA & Canada call toll-free 1-800-408-3280 or www.us.railbookers.com.

  In Australia call toll-free 1300 971 526, www.railbookers.com.au

  In New Zealand call toll-free 0800 002 034 or see website.


 


Tourist cruise trains...

There are now several luxury cruise trains catering for tourists and offering sightseeing itineraries around Indian cities.  All of these trains are in effect 5 star international hotels on wheels, allowing you to see India in great comfort.

The Palace on Wheels...

  • The Palace on Wheels, see www.palacesonwheels.com - See the Palace on Wheels video.  This is India's first and most celebrated cruise train, voted as the world's 4th best luxury train by Condé Nast Traveller magazine.  Prices range from $2,750 for a 7-night 8-day tour around key cities in Rajasthan such as Jaisalmer, Jaipur, Udaipur & Jodhpur with all meals, off-train tours and on-board accommodation included.  All suites feature private shower & spotlessly clean toilet, TV & CD player, and the train's two elegant restaurant cars offer both Indian and international cuisine.

  • You can book the Palace on Wheels through reliable train holiday specialist www.railbookers.com (UK office), www.us.railbookers.com (US office) or www.railbookers.com.au (Australian office).

Other luxury cruise trains...

The Palace on Wheels is no longer the only cruise train in India.  A number have sprung up, though prices are sky-high.  Be warned that most of these companies quote a rate per night, not for the whole tour!

Book through train travel specialist www.railbookers.com, 020 3327 0761...

Railbookers is a train travel specialist and a safe and reliable way to arrange a trip on the Palace on Wheels, Maharaja's Express, Golden Chariot or Royal Rajasthan on Wheels.  They take good care of their clients and I can recommend them.  They have offices or toll-free numbers in the UK, US/Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but can be used wherever you live.  On their website, select 'Private trains'.

  UK call 020 3327 0761, www.railbookers.com

Call toll-free 1-800-408-3280 or www.us.railbookers.com.

  Australia call toll-free 1300 971 526, www.railbookers.com.au

  New Zealand call toll-free 0800 002 034 or see website.

Inclusive luxury train escorted tours...Great Rail Journeys

If you'd like a deluxe train-based holiday to India, but would like to do this as part of an organised tour, Great Rail Journeys (www.greatrail.com) is a well-known company offering inclusive upmarket escorted tours to India, including the Palace on Wheels or a number of other special Indian 'cruise trains', five star hotels plus flights to/from the UK.  There are a number of different tours available, departing on a range of dates throughout the year.  Check the holiday details online, then call 01904 527120 to book or use their online booking form.  Seat61 gets some commission to help support the site if you book your holiday through this link and phone number.


International train, bus & ferry links...

There are international trains to Pakistan & Bangladesh, and buses to Nepal.  Here's a quick summary:

  Closing ceremony, Atari on the Pakistan-India border.
 

The border closure ceremony at Atari.  You can attend this if you use buses or taxis to cross. Photo courtesy of Koen Berghuis.

  Travelling between India & Pakistan on the Samjohta Express train
 

The Samjohta Express crosses the India/Pakistan border.  Photo courtesy of Sudhir Mehra.

India to Pakistan:  Delhi - Amritsar - Lahore

  • Take a train from Delhi to Amritsar, there are lots to choose from.  See www.indianrail.gov.in for times & fares. 

  • Take a bus or taxi the 26km from Amritsar to the India/Pakistan frontier at Atari.  Walk through the border posts to Wagah on the Pakistani side.  You may want to hang around Wagah to see the spectacular ceremony at sunset when the border closes.  Indian and Pakistani guards try to outdo each other with their performances, watched by Indians and Pakistani crowds!

  • Take another bus or taxi the remaining 20km to Lahore.  Allow plenty of time for this deceptively short journey. 

  • Alternatively, twice a week on Mondays & Thursdays (these are the confirmed departure days as at November 2008) the Samjhota Express leaves Amritsar at 07:00 for Atari (on the Indian side of the frontier).  The train departs Attari at 14:30 arriving Wagah (on the Pakistan side of the frontier) 20 minutes later.  After frontier formalities it leaves Wagah usually around 17:50 arriving in Lahore in practice around 19:00.  The fare from Attari to Wagah is 16 Indian rupees.  You buy another ticket from a counter in the Wagah departure hall, 130 Pakistani rupees.

  • For details of the eastbound Samjhota Express from Pakistan to India, and for details of train service within Pakistan, see the Pakistan page.

India to Pakistan:  Delhi - Jodhpur - Karachi

A new weekly international train called the Thar Express started on 17 February 2006 from Jodhpur to Karachi via the border at Munabao. 

  • Eastbound:  The Thar Express leaves Karachi every Friday at 23:00, arriving at 'Zero Point' on the Pakistan/India frontier at around 08:00 next morning.  After customs checks, the train goes forward to Munabao on the Indian side, arriving around 11:00.The Indian train departs Munabao at 19:00 after customs formalities, arriving Jodhpur (Bhagat Ki Kothi station) at 23:50 Saturday.

  • Westbound:  The Thar Express leaves Jodhpur (Bhagat Ki Kothi station, about 4km from the main station) every Saturday morning at 01:00 arriving Munabao at 07:00, leaving Munabao at around 14:30 on Saturdays, reaching Karachi at 02:15 on Sunday morning. 

  • The sleeper fare from Jodhpur to Munabao/zero point is about Rs170, and from Munabao/zero point to Karachi is about Rs230.  No more information is yet available, but feedback would be appreciated!  The train has one sleeping-car and several economy cars.

India to Nepal:  Delhi to Kathmandu

It's quite easy, cheap, and an adventure to do this journey overland.

  • Take a train from Delhi to Gorakhpur.  The Vaishali Express leaves Delhi at around 19:45 and arrives at Gorakhpur Junction at 09:10 next morning, or there's another train from New Delhi at 17:20 arriving Gorakhpur at 06:35 next morning.  The fare is around Rs 2440 in AC1, RS 1240 in AC2, Rs 785 in AC3 or Rs 315 in Sleeper Class - see www.indianrail.gov.in for times and fares. 

  • Take a bus or jeep from Gorakhpur to the Nepalese frontier at Bhairawi/Sunauli.  Journey time about 2 or 3 hours, Rs 30.

  • Walk across the frontier, it's then a few minutes walk to the Sunauli bus station.  Take a bus or jeep on to Kathmandu.  Buses take 9 to 12 hours, cost about 120 Nepalese Rupees.  There are many buses daily, either daytime buses leaving regularly until about 11:00 or overnight buses leaving regularly from about 16:00 until 19:00.  If you have more information on travelling this route, please e-mail me.

India to Nepal:  Varanasi to Kathmandu

  • It's also possible to travel via Varanasi.  Direct buses from Varanasi to the Nepalese border at Sunauli take 9 hours and cost about Rs 100.  No info about timetables is available.

India to Bangladesh...

A new direct train from Calcutta to Dhaka started in April 2008, see the Bangladesh page.  There are also air-con buses every day from Calcutta to Dhaka in Bangladesh, taking 8 or 9 hours, fare about $12.

India to Sri Lanka...

After many years of being cut off from each other, a new ferry service linking Colombo in Sri Lanka with Tuticorin in India in June 2011, see www.flemingoliners.com.  Unfortunately it was suspended again in 2012, so there are currently no ferries at all between India and Sri Lanka.  For train service within Sri Lanka, see the Sri Lanka page.

India to Burma (Myanmar)...

The India/Burma border is closed to foreigners.  It is not possible to travel to Burma overland from India.  For train and river steamer service within Burma, see the Burma page.

India to China...

The direct route from India into China is difficult and mountainous, there are no trains, you need some serious permits to be in that part of India, and most if not all border crossings are closed to foreigners.  If you wish to travel this way, do your research before attempting it!  For most practical purposes, you are better off going from India to Kathmandu in Nepal (see the Nepal page), then taking an organised tour from Kathmandu to Lhasa in Tibet (see the Nepal page), then a train to Beijing.  For train service within China, including Lhasa to Beijing, see the China page.


Europe to India overland

It's possible to travel from Europe to India overland by train and bus via Turkey, Iran & Pakistan.  It will take a minimum of 2-3 weeks, and you should consider it as an adventure or expedition than a routine way to travel there.  Administratively, the main issue is getting an tourist visa for Iran, although this is becoming easier - see the London to Iran page for agencies to contact to get one.  The logistical problem is building an itinerary around the weekly train from Istanbul to Tehran and the twice-monthly trains towards to Pakistan border.  Finally, there are security problems in southeast Iran to be aware of - see the official travel advice for Iran and Pakistan at the British Foreign Office website, www.fco.gov.uk.  If you are still interested, here's how to do it.  I'd suggest planning the trip out carefully before you start to book anything - this may help:  How to plan an itinerary & budget.

See the Europe to India overland page...


Hotels & accommodation in India

 

◄◄ Hotel search & price comparison.

www.hotelscombined.com checks all the main hotel booking sites at once to find the widest choice of hotels & the cheapest seller.  It was named as the World's Leading Hotel Comparison Site at the World Travel Awards 2013 and I highly recommend it, both to find hotels in even the smallest places and to check that another retailer isn't selling your hotel for less!

www.booking.com is my favourite booking site.  It's really clear and you can usually book with free cancellation and so confirm your accommodation at no risk months before train booking opens.

Some personal hotel recommendations...

  • Delhi:  Metropolis Tourist Home, a cheap but clean place with good cheap restaurant in Paharganj, convenient for New Delhi station.  I've used it at the beginning and end of a couple of trips, I'm now quite fond of it...

  • Darjeeling:  Windamere Hotel, one of my favourite hotels worldwide, staying here is an experience straight out of the Raj.  It's a 'must' if your budget will stretch.  They serve the best Darjeeling tea I have ever tasted, so at least go there for afternoon tea...

  • Jaisalmer:  Mandir Palace hotel.  Yes, a real palace, and if you get an upstairs room these are straight out of Arabian Nights.  It's an absolutely amazing place to stay and a real bargain.Udaipur:  Lake Pichola Hotel, an excellent mid-range choice right on the waterfront.  Ideal if you can't afford the famous (and very expensive) Taj Lake Palace Hotel, situated in the middle of the lake, of course!

  • Varanasi:  Hotel Alka, cheap, simple, clean, and in a perfect location overlooking the Ganges where all the action is - most of the western-style hotels are miles away in the new town, you really want to be on the river!  Not bookable using mainstream hotel sites, but book direct at www.hotelalkavns.com.

  • Simla:  Clarke's hotel, a quality hotel yet not too expensive, in classic building right in the heart of town, walking distance from all the sights.

Tripadvisor hotel reviews...

www.tripadvisor.com is a good place to find independent travellers' reviews of the main hotels.  It also has the low-down on all the sights & attractions too.


Flights...

Overland travel by train around India is an essential part of the experience, so once there, don't cheat and fly, stay on the ground!  But if a long-haul flight may be unavoidable to reach India in the first place.

1)  Check flight prices at www.opodo.com...

2)  Use Skyscanner to compare flight prices & routes worldwide across 600 airlines...

skyscanner generic 728x90

3)  Lounge passes...

Make the airport experience a little more bearable with a VIP lounge pass, it's not as expensive as you think!  See www.loungepass.com


Guidebooks

Lonely Planet India - Click to buy onlineRough Guide to India - Click to buy onlineLonely Planet & Rough Guides...

For independent travel, the best guidebook to take is either the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.  I gave Sarah the Lonely Planet and Karen the Rough Guide and we road-tested both of them head-to-head across India.  The result was a tie, with similarly excellent levels of both practical travel information and historical and cultural background.  I personally prefer the Lonely Planet, but Karen preferred the Rough Guide.  Just make sure you take one of these two guides with you..!  If you buy anything at Amazon through these links, Seat61.com gets a small commission to help support the site.

Buy Lonely Planet India at Amazon.co.uk

Buy Rough Guide India at Amazon.co.uk

Alternatively, you can download just the chapters you need in .PDF format from the Lonely Planet Website, from around £2.99 or US$4.95 a chapter.

Also for your reading list...

OK, so Rudyard Kipling's 'Kim' is a novel, not a guidebook - but you'll need a reading book for your trip, right?  Trust me on this - 'Kim' is a magical tale, that captures the feel of Northern India even today.  Buy Kim online - it costs all of about £1.25..!

Once hooked, you'll probably want to get Peter Hopkirk's book, 'The Quest for Kim', which tells you about the real people and places on which the characters and places in the novel are based.  Buy 'The Quest for Kim' online.


Travel insurance & health card...

 

 

Columbus direct travel insurance

Get travel insurance, it's essential...

Never travel overseas without travel insurance from a reliable insurer, with at least £1m or preferably £5m medical cover.  It should also cover cancellation and loss of cash (up to a limit) and belongings.  An annual multi-trip policy is usually cheaper than several single-trip policies even for just 2 or 3 trips a year (I have an annual policy myself).  Here are some suggested insurers.  Seat61 gets a small commission if you buy through these links.

In the UK, try Columbus Direct or use Confused.com to compare prices & policies from many different insurers.

If you have a pre-existing medical condition or are over 65 (no age limit), see www.JustTravelCover.com.

        If you're resident in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland or the EU, try Columbus Direct's other websites.

  If you're resident in the USA try Travel Guard USA.

Get a spare credit card, designed for foreign travel with no currency exchange loading & low or no ATM fees...

It costs nothing to take out an extra credit card.  If you keep it in a different part of your luggage so you're not left stranded if your wallet gets stolen, this is a form of extra travel insurance in itself.  In addition, some credit cards are significantly better for overseas travel than others.  Martin Lewis's www.moneysavingexpert.com/travel/cheap-travel-money explains which UK credit cards have the lowest currency exchange commission loadings when you buy something overseas, and the lowest cash withdrawal fees when you use an ATM abroad.  Taking this advice can save you quite a lot on each trip compared to using your normal high-street bank credit card!

You can avoid ATM charges and expensive exchange rates with a Caxton FX euro currency Visa Card, or their multi-currency 'Global Traveller' Visa Card, see www.caxtonfx.com for info.

Get an international SIM card...

Mobile phones can cost a fortune to use abroad, and if you're not careful you can return home to find some huge bills waiting for you.  I've known people run up a £1,000 bill in data charges just by leaving their iPhone connected during a simple trip to Europe.  However, if you buy a global SIM card for your mobile phone from a company such as www.Go-Sim.com you can slash the cost by up to 85% and limit any damage to the amount you have pre-paid.  It cuts call costs in 175 countries worldwide, and you can receive incoming calls and texts for free in 75 countries.  It's pay-as-you-go, so no nasty bills when you get home.  It also works for laptop or PDA data access.  A Go-Sim account and any credit on it doesn't expire if it's not between trips, unlike some others, so a Go-Sim phone number becomes your 'global phone number' for life.

 


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