How to book trains in India

Travelling on an Indian train is a reason to travel all by itself. India’s rail network is one of the world’s most extensive and the prices are very reasonable. Bookings open 90 days before departure and seats fill up quickly – an estimated 17 to 20 million people travel by train in India every day. So if you have a route mapped out and dates locked in, you can book your train tickets before you even arrive in the country. Here’s the lowdown on how to do it.

Booking tickets

Booking online is the easiest way to buy train tickets. The railway reservation system is open from 1.30am to 11.30pm every day (IST) so keep this in mind when trying to book online, particularly if you are abroad. The following websites all issue e-tickets, which are valid for train travel. You may have to show your passport as ID along with the printout of your booking reference when you are on the train. The following websites all accept international credit cards.

Image of Shimla Railway Station by Miran Rijavic

Reserving a seat

You must make a reservation for all chaircar, sleeper, and 1AC, 2AC and 3AC carriages (check out the glossary below for more details). No reservations are required for general (2nd-class) compartments. Bookings are strongly recommended for all overnight journeys and if you plan on travelling during Indian holidays or festivals.

Some pointers about trains and classes

  • Trains and seats come in a variety of classes and not all classes are available on every train.
  • Express and mail trains usually have general (2nd class) compartments with unreserved seating and more comfortable compartments that you can reserve.
  • Shatabdi express trains are same-day services with seating only, in AC Chair and Executive Chair cars.
  • Rajdhani express trains are long-distance overnight services between Delhi and state capitals with a choice of 1AC, 2AC, 3AC and 2nd class.
  • New to the rails are eight women-only trains, which service New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.
  • Some cities also have suburban train networks, but these are very crowded during peak hours.
  • In the higher sleeper categories bedding is provided but it doesn’t hurt to bring your own.
  • In all classes, a padlock and a length of chain are useful for securing your luggage to the baggage racks.

Image of station in Chennai by  seeveeaar

When to use a rail pass

The IndRail Pass permits unlimited rail travel for the period of its validity, but it offers limited savings and you must still make reservations. Passes are available for one to 90 days of travel. The easiest way to book these is through the IndRail pass agency in your home country. They can also book any necessary train reservations for you. Overseas travel agencies and station ticket offices in major Indian cities also sell the pass – click here for further details, including prices. Note: there’s no refund for either lost or partially used tickets.

Image of a sleeper carriage by stevehicks

Glossary

Air-Conditioned First Class (1AC): The most expensive class of train travel; two-or four-berth compartments with locking doors and meals included.

Air-Conditioned 2-Tier (2AC): Two-tier berths arranged in groups of four and two in an open-plan carriage. The bunks convert to seats by day and there are curtains for some semblance of privacy.

Air-Conditioned 3-Tier (3AC): Three-tier berths arranged in groups of six in an open-plan carriage; no curtains.

AC Executive Chair: Comfortable, reclining chairs and plenty of space; usually found on Shatabdi express trains.

Sleeper Class: Open plan carriages with three-tier bunks and no AC; but the open windows afford great views.

Unreserved 2nd Class: Wooden or plastic seats and a lot of people – but cheap!