How to Book Trains in India – Advance, Tatkal and Just Taking Chances

How to book trains in India is just like how to book trains in the UK or Europe. Wrong. Just because India sometimes appears disorganised, doesn’t mean it always is.

If you want to have  an experience like this…

Note that Indian trains can be booked up to 120 days in advance (it used to be 90). This means that if you arrive expecting to be able to hop on and off them, you may well find yourself disappointed. It isn’t your fault either, you can’t book Indian trains from outside of the country unless you have an Indian SIM card, or a friend there who can work the system for you. But fear not, here are some tips on how to book trains in India when you get there:

Reservation

Inside the Rail Reservation Centre

  • If you’re going to be in India for a while and have the time to spare, go and purchase an Indian SIM card.You will need a passport photo and your passport to do this. Try an Airtel shop. Without an Indian SIM you cannot book Indian trains online.
  • Once you have your SIM card, register on the IRCTC site. An easier-to-navigate and all round winning site for train bookings is  cleartrip.com
  • Avoid the tourist booking office in places like New Delhi station like the plague. Okay, not the plague, but this is the difference between two hours queueing in a hot office up some concrete stairs near the men’s toilets, or a ten minute wait in a one-roomed building.
  • Instead of a large booking office, try and locate a railway reservation centre like Nizamuddin Railway Reservation Centre in Delhi:

View Larger Map

  • If it’s a few days or weeks before you are due to travel, it’s more likely there will be space for you on the train. Without betting on a tatkal (emergency) ticket, or worse, a waiting list ticket. The further in advance you book the better.
  • If you are planning to travel imminently and don’t have a ticket, get to a reservation centre, or, in smaller places, a train station ticket office, before 10am the day prior to travelling. Pick up a slip of paper with a checklist on it if you can see one, or ask one of the people queueing where they got theirs. Fill in your details including the number of the train you wish to travel on and the time and date and hand it to the person behind the window. Good luck!
Railway Reservation Centre, New Delhi, India

Railway Reservation Centre, New Delhi, India

From Delhi, I took the train to Agra and the night train to Jaisalmer. Note that there is a New Delhi AND an Old Delhi train station, make sure you check which is the right one:

To Agra

  • New Delhi to Agra Cannt – 2hr journey in the morning – 12002 Bhopal Shatabdi 6.00am arr 8.06am £4 – £7 ($6-$10) rtn depending on class.
  • H Nizamuddin to Agra Cannt – 3hrs (recommended as it’s from a smaller less hectic station) – at 7.10am in the morning arr 10.05am – 12280 Taj Express Superfast less than £5 ($8) rtn.
  • Agra to New Delhi journey in the evening (a trip to the Taj Mahal can easily be done in a day this way) 2279 Taj Express 6.55pm arr 10pm.
  • Agra to New Delhi 12001 NDLS Shatabdi 8.30pm arr 10.30pm every day but Friday

To Jaisalmer

  • OLD DELHI to Jaisalmer – 17hrs leaving in the evening – 14659 Dli Jsm Express 5pm daily £17 ($16) in 2AC or £12 ($18) in 3AC or for the most ‘authentic experience,’ where you might have up to 15 blokes sitting with you playing cards (it happened to me), in Sleeper (SL) at just over £4 ($6). If you can, travel 2AC one way and Sleeper the other to experience both.
  • 14660 Jsm Dli Express Jaisalmer to OLD DELHI 5.15pm arr 11.10am the next day

Additional tips

  • If you arrive last minute you can take a chance that either there will be a spare ticket, or that you’ll get waiting list and the people in your seat won’t arrive. Don’t assume a waiting list ticket is the same as a normal one because you will be sitting in someone elses seat if you do that, however polite they might be about it because you are an idiot tourist.
  • If you are a woman, elderly or disabled, you have your own specific queue at stations and reservation centres. Even if this feels weird, the queue is shorter, so take advantage.
  • 5 rupee masala chai on the train is fine but not everyone gets on with the food, where provided. Pack some food before you go from a restaurant you like.
  • If you manage to get Old and New Delhi stations confused and miss your train (again, it happened to me) you may be lucky enough to get your auto rickshaw driver to take you to the wonderful government information office with a man I hope is still there – ‘you’re in India now, you must be strong’ he said to my friend.
  • There is a restaurant called Umed Marvel Garden Restaurant in Jodhpur where you can order thalis in advance by phone and have them brought to the train in the half hour it stops there on the way back from Jaisalmer (even better if you can get someone to help you order and share it with them)
Agra train

Agra train

2AC Jaisalmer Express

2AC Jaisalmer Express

The Man in Seat 61 is the best resource for researching train travel in India, along with about.com’s Indian site. Cleartrip.com itself is pretty good for searching the routes and train numbers, as well as prices, even if you aren’t looking to book through the site.

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160 Years of Railways in India, a Small Journey in Pictures

160 years of railways in India on April 16th 2013. A good excuse for some train-related pictures taken in the North of the country.

Chai

Masala chai is served out of large metal containers by chai-sellers. It costs 10 rupees and tastes delicious. Much needed in the morning unless you’re a heavy sleeper.

Indian train morning face

As I said, you don’t always get a lot of sleep and can end up looking something like this as a result. But you will smell of incense and the desert and spices and can open a door and feel the morning air against your skin.

At night

The train curves around the track as dusk kisses it. It is warm and the air is clearer away from the city. There are monkeys on the track eating what passengers throw from the windows and people living along the tracks.

Indian Railway Snacks

Anything fried is fine, as are things in sealed packaging are my general rules when it comes to food in India. But I eat dal for the most part and drink fresh lime sodas.

City train station platforms are crazy places, especially at night. Bring something soft to sit on.

City train station platforms are crazy places, especially at night. Bring something soft to sit on.

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Weddings in India

It’s coming up to Valentine’s day. I know this only because the Twitter timeline is beginning to fill up with desperate attempts to link travel-related stuff with love-related stuff, resulting in a cataclysm of travel-love ideas like, ‘propose atop the Eiffel tower on Valentine’s day.’ A cold and windy proposal after a three hour queue with a bunch of tourists? Yes please!

Thought a bit of colour and some pictures of an Indian wedding or two would be more fun. This wedding took place in Jaisalmer, which is 17 hours by train from Old Delhi station. The reservation centre by H Nizamuddin station, where the train to Agra departs from, is the best place to buy a tatkal (last minute) train ticket. Tatkal tickets go on sale at 10am the day before you wish to travel.

And this was in Delhi by the side of the road

In India, the wedding season follows directly after Diwali. There are nights where so many weddings are taking place simultaneously, that the processions cross paths. Fireworks are let off in the street (be careful) and bands play. There’s so much life and so much food at an Indian wedding that you’ve never felt so immersed in celebration. Fourteen dishes, featuring seven sweets and seven curries at the one I attended in Jaisalmer. Not to mention the naan breads coming out of the fire billowing from a big steel drum.

So this year, why not skip the awkward dinner and head to India to enjoy someone else’s wedding?

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Hotel Pol Haveli in Jaisalmer, Making Friends and Being Looked After

As I sit in my flat in London wondering if I should go out in the snow, which is thicker on the ground than the amount of work I have, my friend Vijay tells me business at Hotel Pol Haveli in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, is bad. I’m reminded that January isn’t good for any of our finances.

So I thought I’d tell you a bit about how amazing it was to stay at the hotel and how wonderful the people are.

This is my friend Manoj modelling the Adobe sunglasses I got at Social Media Week in London. We were sitting on the roof at the hotel. This was before he showed me how to make the most delicious pakoras I have ever tasted in the hotel kitchen.

We went to the nearby cemetery on a scooter.

And drank chai and bought scarves from this lovely man at the Fort.

And wandered around the city. And rode through the desert.

It was lovely to stay somewhere that was less frequented, but for the guys it would be really great if you could go and stay to make it a little more frequented. From Old Delhi train station, the Jaisalmer Express leaves at 5.30pm and arrives at 11am the next day. Stay a week, you won’t regret it.

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Travelling In Delhi Alone as a Woman

Travelling Alone in Delhi as a Woman

A young woman died. Most of her intestines had to be removed before she died, because they had become gangrenous following her rape by a group of men on a bus in Delhi.

When I arrived in Delhi it was loud and busy and there were cows in the street and everyone was allowed on the road whether they were walking, driving an auto rickshaw, a taxi, an overloaded lorry, or a scooter. But I wasn’t scared of it. I made friends and we rode on the metro together.

(the lovely Candace Rardon with our friends on the metro)

When I saw that the metro had a women only carriage, I said to my friend, ‘isn’t that great!’

‘Is it?’ she asked.

‘Well yeah, there’s all this space and you don’t get bothered,’ I said.

‘Don’t you think it would be better to educate our men to behave correctly? she replied, ‘I mean, what next, separate roads? Where does it end?’

This was only a couple of weeks before the appalling gang rape and eventual murder of the 23 year-old medical student on a bus in the city.

The best article I’ve read in western papers following her death is the one below.

I met a Delhi-born journalist the Friday before it happened. At this point I was alone, and definitely felt too vulnerable to venture out at night (and while I love Delhi, it really is not like that in London, I don’t feel the need to get pre-paid cabs after dark).

‘Girl,’ she said, ‘you gotta get yourself one of these,’ and she pulled out a small bright pink can of pepper spray.

‘Where did you get that?’ I asked.

‘Oh, they sell them in all the chemists.’

And so the next day I went and bought one, for 300 rupees.

(I liked the woman with the sword).

But as much as much as it made me feel safer to carry pepper spray while alone in Delhi, and on the overnight train to Jaisalmer, the idea of having it with me in London makes me feel safer too. Even though it isn’t allowed. Because you know what, women get raped every day in London. And although London is safer, before I left for India, a friend of mine was assaulted in a near empty carriage on a train headed for London. And while the police were really good about it, other people were shockingly unsupportive, even asking if it was her fault. And a week after that, I was in a shop in North West London and overheard a woman talking about intervening when she saw a teenage girl alone with a group of boys being assaulted. Worse, when the person who intervened asked if she was okay, the teenager shrugged it off and looked embarrassed.

I don’t think you can compare rape statistics between India and the UK. Our police are different and the number or reported rapes don’t equate to the number of actual rapes. But I do think it is important the media everywhere talk about rape everywhere. Loudly.

The outrage the case has sparked in India is really important for India. There have been multiple protests as well as worldwide media coverage. Nationwide mourning. The five men and one juvenile who raped the 23-year-old will be in court Monday morning. Forensic evidence links them all to the victimA protest with a difference is scheduled for the end of this month. Krav Maga self defence classes every Sunday in January at 11am in Saket. And fingers crossed a turning point.

Sophie Collard on Google+

Making Masala Chai

Making Masala Chai

A cup of five rupee train chai. Mmm, train chai.

As it’s Christmas and those of us who have come home for it might be a little jet-lagged, I thought it only appropriate to write up a post for my friend Pei who runs the Chaya teahouse in Notting Hill. If you haven’t been you simply must go, it is a very special place and Pei is a very excellent chef.

Before I left for India, I went for tea at the Chaya teahouse with some of the London contingent. Pei asked me most enthusiastically if I could find someone who would give him an authentic recipe for Masala Chai. He explained that every Indian he had asked had always said it was their grandmother’s or mother’s recipe, and it would be impossible for him to replicate.

So I asked my friend Manoj to explain,

‘Two cups of water, one cup of milk for the two cups, if you want it strong, two spoons of tea leaves, if weaker one spoon of tea leaves, add sugar to your taste, boil together until you get a browny colour, then put ginger or cardamom in and that’s it.’

Of course Indian milk is thick and creamy, so perhaps you’ll be wise to get real cow’s milk if you want to get it right, but that’s it.

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The Train, the Train – Thoughts Before the Night Train Delhi Jaisalmer

The Night Train Delhi Jaisalmer
I’ve finally worked out how to use WordPress from my iPad. I, er, downloaded the app. I know it’s a bit late, but then India is one of those places where you are lucky if you can get a couple of hours peace. Happily, I spent last night in the gorgeous French-run Rose in New Delhi, where peace is everything.

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Om…

So I now have a good couple of hours to update my blog and bring you the sights, sounds and smells of India, one post at a time. I hardly know where to begin and whether I should work backwards, forwards or at random. India is like my brain, it goes off in tangents constantly. One moment you’ve accidentally picked November 25th to visit the mosque, which wasn’t what you were looking for anyway, and 11-year-old boys are walking down the street throwing water and weilding swords you think might fly out and stab you in the face, and a thousand people wrapped in colour stand up together on the steps to watch. Because it’s a Muslim festival. Another moment you are meeting the editor of a luxury Delhi-based magazine and talking about your rates and where to order more business cards (they are far cheaper over here, everyone).

Tonight, I ride the night train Delhi Jaisalmer.

I hope to see more of this.

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But am equally aware I might have a rat pushed toward my face again by a small boy who has initially put it on the back of a puppy and watched as people waiting for trains take photographs on their mobile devices, but gotten bored and offered it up to my face instead.

I also look forward to arriving and seeing my friends. The ones who cooked mutton for my friend Clare and I in the desert and boiled masala chai, the ones who took us to a wedding where I ate my own weight in approximately fourteen dishes. The ones who drove us home on a scooter and made me feel 15 again.

And I look forward to seeing these guys too…

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Because riding a camel is like riding a dinosaur. And if you haven’t tried it yet, you simply must. You too can hear silence in a way you have never heard it before, crisp and clear.

The Rose New Delhi is in Delhi’s trendy Hauz Khas Village. It costs about £40 a night, which for a beautiful room in a serene space is worth it. Plus where else can you get great French food in Delhi?

An Indian friend managed to get me a 3rd class ‘bench’ bed on the night train to Jaisalmer by booking through an agency, but if you want to secure a ticket yourself, either go to a reservation centre well before you go (tickets can be purchased 120 days in advance now) or buy an Indian SIM card for your phone and register for an account on the IRCTC site.  Sound like a struggle? Get used to it, you’re in India now. Alternatively, head to a reservation centre for 10am the day before you wish to travel and see if you can get a Tatkal ticket. These are whatever’s-left tickets. First come, first served.

Sophie Collard on Google+

Delhi Cows in the Street. Time to Sleep.

Where other people are scared of actually arriving in the place they are going, I’m always more concerned about flying. I hate flying. So much so that I’ll pay over the odds for a good airline. We flew out with Emirates, which I chose partly because the new Airline over the Thames in London is so fabulous. There were ‘stars’ in the ceiling of our plane, the food was excellent, the film selection fantastic (I finally watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a good choice for preparatory purposes).

Getting a taxi from the airport in Delhi was a tad scary, as it was dark and we were tired – but I chose a man who understood my body language and we paid 600 Rupees on a meter to get to the Radisson Blu, which had wonderful beds but was far from where we wanted to be, as well as more expensive.

We travelled to Hauz Khas this morning, the trendy part of town, in a posh taxi, feeling bad about squashing four mosquitos against the window. And now we are in a lovely homestay.

The Indian Government are supporting homestays as an alternative to hotels because the standard of hotels and availability is lower than they would like. Ours is wonderful, with pretty bedspreads, rugs and paintings, and the host is lovely, so I’d highly recommend a homestay over staying somewhere like the Radisson.

So far, the Delhi cows in the street are the most different thing about the place – this morning one was standing in a space between two cars, as if it had parked itself there.

People pee by the side of the road, but then they do that by motorways in Germany too. Some of the vehicles are wonderfully painted and it’s lovely to see auto rickshaws (tuk tuks) after six years of only travelling as far as France and Italy.

Don’t stay at the Radisson Blu or any other hotel chain on the outskirts of the city if you can avoid it. If you want to stay somewhere comfortable in that price range, in a place you’ll want to be, try The Rose New Delhi in Hauz Khas Village. Do go to the taxi stand and order on there rather than letting the mob bundle you into a battered old thing like ours, even though it is true that if you are a good judge of character, you will often spot the good man among the not so good.

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