Training wheels: Tips to surviving railway journeys in India

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway that runs from Siliguri to Darjeeling. Pic: glen photo/Shutterstock

HUGE delays, confusion surrounding our seats, hours needlessly spent in a cockroach infested corner of the station, fleeced on the train, a sick husband, and only a packet of biscuits for sustenance. This sums up my first journey on India’s railway.

I’ve lived those mistakes so you don’t have to. Here are a few tips.

Log on before you leave

Registering with the Indian Railway website before you head off on holiday can save hours of hassle. This is a must! You do need to provide an Indian mobile number (or make one up if you don’t have one).

All trains can now be booked 120 days in advance so if you have a set itinerary you are sorted. Routes fill up fast up fast, especially for popular overnight journeys.

You don’t need to print out e-tickets, just have your PNR number and passport on hand when you board the train. For flexibility, your bookings can be changed or cancelled online (for a fee) up to four hours before departure.

Don’t be bamboozled

When you log on to book tickets, things can look confusing. 1AC, 2AC, 3AC, sleeper and general tickets are all different. 1AC is the most expensive but you benefit from a wide bed in a cabin of no more than 4.

To be honest, 2AC is half the price with only a small concession in privacy and comfort. Third class (three tier bunks) and sleeper (cattle class) are to be avoided unless you want to get very up close and personal with your fellow travellers.

Don’t even think about general or you’ll risk standing up for eight hours. If you can’t find your seat, ask a guard.

Plan for the unexpected

Always expect delays and leave plenty of give in your schedule. This is India. In peak season, demand is so high you may be on a wait list (WL) ticket. Don’t despair, you’ll usually get a berth and there’s even a website that will let you know the likelihood.

Despite what the guidebooks, say there are no longer gangs of affable food “providores” at each station stop – take plenty of water and snacks or you’ll be drooling over the locals’ tiffin tins. If you order food on the train, check the price before it arrives or risk paying over the odds.

If digestive disaster strikes mid-journey take heart that the toilets are surprisingly sanitary.

Spoil yourself

To make the most of your journey, splash out on at least 2AC seats. Check it out on Youtube. If you have to take a night train, pay for a late hotel check out. If you’re fussed, you can also get restaurants to deliver to your seat online.

Be aware that reserved tickets entitle you to inhabit a station’s air-conditioned waiting room rather than hanging around the platform. And don’t forget an extra layer; the air-conditioning is always brutal onboard. Above all, relax and watch India roll by.

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