It can be confusing at first, but let me show you how to find and book trains in India. The biggest concern about trains in India is that they book out fast – often months in advance. There are, however, tickets held specifically for foreigners in a special allocation that is sold only ONE DAY in advance.
This is super handy for most of the major routes, you’ll easily get a seat or a sleeper berth in an airconditioned carriage. But for the infrequent or minor routes, less used by foreigners, you won’t be in a special ticket category and you’ll be competing with hundred, perhaps thousands of locals trying to secure a spot on that train.
Search for your train
The National Train Enquiry System is the main website you’ll be using to search for trains. The website is here (opens in a new tab): enquiry.indianrail.gov.in/ntes/.
Click on the tab “Trains between stations.” It will give you two text fields, one for Origin and one for Destination. Type in the city name and a pre-populated list will drop down, select the appropriate option. The station code is shown in square brackets next to the city name: New Delhi [NDLS]. (We’ll need this later).
Some big cities have multiple stations, so be aware of this by double-checking the station codes for the train you are looking at.
Once you’ve filled out both Origin and Destination, the system will show you the trains that operate on that route. I generally look at the last column “Travel time,” to see which one will be the fastest. Indian trains operate painstakingly slowly, often 40-50km/hour, and then the train will stop at nearly every station it passes. However, if you opt for a sleeper berth, the journey is comfortable whether the duration is long or short.
Because you’ll likely go for a sleeper berth, my advice is to take an overnight train. This will save you money on accomodation because you’ll be travelling through the night – but also have a bed to sleep on. Its pretty comfortable, trust me.
Once you find the train you want to take make note of the train number, as shown in the first column. This five digit code will be used on another website for seat availability. (We’ll need this later.)
- Go to the National Train Enquiry System to identify the train you want to take.
- Search trains on the “Trains between stations” tab
- Enter the Origin and Destination stations/cities
- Take note of the Origin and Destination station code, shown in the row of the train you want
- After deciding on the day, time and route – make note of the Train Number #
Verify the seat availability for your train
You’ve identified the train you want to take, following the steps in the previous section. Now, you need to check that there is actually a seat available for you. You will be using the Indian Railways Passenger Reservation Enquiry for this part, click here (opens in a new tab): indianrail.gov.in/seat_Avail.html.
Please note that the link above takes you directly to the Seat Availability page, which is different to the home page of the website.
Simply type in the Train Number into the relevant text field and select the date. Then enter the Origin and Destination station codes (remember, these are shown in square brackets). Finally, you select the ticket class you want. If the class you choose is unavailable, you will need to go back to the search page and select another class. I suggest to start at 3AC, which is the cheapest air-conditioned class – everyone has their own berth and its very tame. If you opt for Sleeper, be aware that its often overcrowded, you might share your berth, and there is no air-conditioning.
- You need the Train Number #
- You need the Station codes for Origin and Destination
- Check that there are seats available in the ticket class you want
Purchase your train ticket
Phew! We’re here! Now that you have found the train you want and checked that there are seats available, you can now go ahead and buy your ticket.
There are several ways to do that:
- Buy the ticket yourself online cleartrip.com
- Buy the ticket yourself at a train station
- A ticket agent to buy it online
- A ticket agent to buy it at a train station
You can’t buy the tickets online via the IRCTC website, unless you have an Indian credit card. But, if you have any local friends or contacts, they could help you – it was how I procured some of my train tickets. There is one official retailer for online ticket sales, cleartrip.com – you can sign up for free and use a foreign credit card to purchase train tickets.
If you buy the ticket in person, you may be waiting in long lines for a few hours – I tend to avoid this option.
My preferred options are via a local ticket agent – you’ll find them everywhere – they are reputable and reliable – they are safe. They will charge around 50-100Rs per ticket, which is equivalent to AUD1-2. Online is the fastest way for an agent to secure your ticket – they will even send you the e-ticket, which you can then store on your smartphone.
If the agent needs to buy the ticket in person (for Tatkal quota, see below), then you will need to carry the physical ticket. This is inconvenient if you had to keep moving but you had to wait for a ticket. It happened to me twice, I had to continue on without the physical ticket, instead carrying a scan – the ticket inspector was not impressed but showed me mercy and let me off with a warning.
There are no tickets available, what do I do?
If there are no tickets in the General Quota available, then check the Foreigner Quota. If that quota has been fully allocated, then you’ll need to look at the Tatkal Quota. This is a special allocation of tickets that are held as a last-minute offering, at a 30% premium! As I mentioned earlier, tickets for Indian trains can get booked out months and months in advance – as such, there are Waiting Lines in case a ticket buyer does not show up. The word tatkal means immediate in Hindi. I have had friends on the WL showing number #300 and still managed to get a spot on the train. I’ve been WL14 and not been able to get a spot – so it is really pot luck!
I would go to a ticket agent and have them arrange a ticket for you – they may be able to acquire a Tatkal ticket for you – of course, the fee will be higher for tatkal because of the difficulty to acquire such tickets.
I was on WL for an extremely busy route, I missed the tatkal quota two days in a row (even via a ticket agent) because of how much competition there is to get a ticket. There are agents physically lining up at the ticket office and there are ticket agents sitting online waiting for the allocation to be released.
If all else fails, take the bus – I’ll write up something soon for getting buses around India.