If you're wondering how to book a train in India, this is the post for you!
It contains everything you need to know, from signing up to Indian Railways (IRCTC) from your homeland, the right platforms to book through, how to book last-minute tickets, and the what class the book.
Signing Up To IRCTC
To book a train ticket online, you’ll need to sign up to IRCTC well in advance:
1) Go to the IRCTC site and fill out the form. When you get to the mobile number section, if you don’t have an Indian number just put your real number in. If your postcode has letters in it, IRCTC won’t accept it, so make one of those up too (eg: 12345), and submit.
A ‘thank you’ screen will pop up, stating your activation link has been emailed to you, and a verification code has been sent to your mobile number. This code won't actually appear on your phone if you don't have an Indian number, so on to step two!
2) When you receive your confirmation email, you need to send an email to email@example.com, state that you’re from overseas and you want them to send you the mobile activation code via email, and expect a reply anywhere between a few hours and a few days (they’re pretty efficient so you’ll definitely get one).
3) When IRCTC reply, they’ll ask you for a scan of your passport (I felt a bit weird about this at first, but technically tourists aren’t allowed to have Indian phone numbers, so it’s the only way unless you wait until you get there and manage to get ahold of a local number). Reply with the passport scan, and they’ll email you the mobile verification code.
4) Click the activation link sent to you in the initial email, and type in the mobile verification code when prompted.
5) Head to Clear Trip and use your IRCTC login details to connect the two, and start booking trains!
I highly recommend booking online with Clear Trip. If the train is booked out, Clear Trip will tell you if there’s a waiting list, and what number you’ll be if you join the list. The site is very straightforward, easy to use, and accepts international credit cards. You can also go to the IRCTC website, but it's pretty complex (I tried once and gave up). You can also use Make My Trip, but I find that Clear Trip is, well, clearer.
At the train station
This varies in degrees of difficulty, depending on where you are. I’ve been to stations where you have to fill out a booking form (if you can’t read the form, flip it over to find the English section), and I’ve been to others where you jump in a queue and wave money at the cashier until you’re served.
If you’re in a city, lines are long and it’s an all-for-one situation where you’re only aim at this point in your life is to get ahead. I’ve experienced numerous people telling me things like I’m in the wrong line, or that there are no tickets to where I want to go, but more often than not they’re just trying to get you out of their way so they can get there first – stand your ground, calmly shake your head, and stay in the line.
If you’re female or travelling with a female, you can also make use of the ‘ladies’ line’. Usually ticket lines are dominated by men, so these lines are short and quick, and should be taken advantage of. Sometimes they’re labelled, often they're not, but make your way to the front of the line you’ll be served first – there is always a ladies’ line, so don’t be put off by the lack of signage.
Through a travel agent
Sometimes it’s much easier for someone else to book your tickets, and with the hundreds of thousands of travel agencies in India, you can take your pick. I’ve walked in to the smallest, dodgiest-looking places and have never had a problem – they’ll always get you to where you want to go. Many hotels will be able to book tickets for you (for a small commission), so it’s worth asking them if you can’t book online. Travel agencies will sometimes pre-book a number of tickets, so when you come along at 10:30am (see 'Tatkal', below) desperate for a ticket on a train that’s sold out, they'll have some available for an inflated price.
Booking the right class
There are seven classes of travel on Indian Railways, and you’ll always be asked to select one when booking a ticket either online or in person. While not all classes are available on all trains, most will have a class to suit all budgets:
1AC (1st Class Air-Conditioned)
Expensive, comfortable, and private with two or four berths (beds), this class includes meals and doors that lock. This is the most secure way to travel, and the only class that isn’t open-plan.
2AC (2-Tier Air Conditioned)
Though it’s open-plan, this is still a grade-A option. There are two or four very clean beds per compartment (two tiers per wall, like a bunk-bed) complete with AC, blankets, and curtains so people can’t watch you sleep.
3AC (3-Tier Air Conditioned)
The same as 2AC, but there are two three-tier bunks per compartment with no curtains. It's still very clean, and blankets are included.
AC Executive Chair
This class isn’t always available, but it’s good for day-trips with clean reclining seats and loads of space.
Not as swanky as Executive Chair, but still a good option for day trips.
"No blankets, AC, curtains or windows that close properly. These carriages are laid out with two or six three-tier bunks per compartment, and can be pretty grubby and cold if you don’t bring your own blankets, but the slight padding on each tier and ceiling-fans make it comfortable enough for low-cost overnight travel. I spent a lot of time in this class, and I think it's the best value for money if you can deal with a bit of filth – I don't think I ever paid more than 150INR, and I did a few 12-hour trips.
Unreserved 2nd Class
The hardwood or plastic seats and overcrowded nature of these carriages make it pretty uncomfortable for overnight trips, but tickets are always available at super-cheap prices (I got from Dharamsala to Kolkata for 300INR). Needless to say, there are no blankets, curtains, closed windows or AC, but they do have fans! If you're in it for the experience, this is about as authentic as it gets.
India is a place of extreme poverty and wealth, and it's reflected in their transport system. While the unreserved 2nd class might set you back 50-cents, for a few thousand dollars extra, you can travel like a king on the Maharaja's Express. Drink from hand-cut crystal glasses, eat with gold and silver-plated crockery at one of the two restaurants on board, hang out in your own private ensuite using the complementary hair dryer while using high-speed internet with the LCD TV blaring in the background – and this isn't the only train of its kind. Sites like The Luxury Trains have them all listed for you. Getting around India has never been so comfortable.
Other Things To Note
The Waiting List
Since bookings open 90-days before the departure date, trains tend to book out fast, but there are usually a lot of cancellations – if you’re before number 10 on the waiting list, you’ll most likely get a seat. Keep in mind nothing is guaranteed, and you’ll only find out when the train arrives. There is always a paper list stuck to the side of each carriage with the names of all people allocated to that carriage – if you’re not on it, you don’t have a seat.
Your best option in this scenario is to either find the onboard train guard (the official-looking people in uniform with clipboards) and ask them if they can slot you in to another carriage or class (the one time I did this it didn’t work out, but I’ve heard a few success stories, so it’s worth a shot), or run for your life back to the ticket office, grab a general ticket and hang out in the jam-packed unreserved 2nd class. Alternatively, you could just wait for the next train, or catch a rickshaw to the bus station and try your luck there – if you tell an official-looking person at the bus station where you're going, they will most likely try and help you.
Hindi for ‘immediate’, tatkal was implemented due to trains booking out so far in advance. IRCTC reserves a certain amount of tickets per train to go on sale at 10am the day before departure. Tatkal tickets cost a bit more, but sometimes it’s your only option. Strangely enough, IRCTC close all their online bookings between 9am and 11am daily, which means you either have to go to the train station and line up to book a tatkal ticket, or go to a travel agency and see if they have any options.