India serves up travel on a massive scale.

The journey from northern Ladakh to the tip of Tamil Nadu covers 3214km (2000 miles), and it’s a 2933km (1822-mile) trip from the western edge of Gujarat to the eastern border of Manipur in the Northeast States. Needless to say, getting from one end of this vast country to the other takes some time and effort.

Luckily, India’s magnificent rail network is on hand to do much of the heavy lifting, with more than 13,000 trains running daily on 68,103km (42,317 miles) of track, carrying a staggering 8 billion passengers per year. Every journey by train is backed up by thousands of journeys by bus, 4WD, taxi and rickshaw, and planes connect every corner of the country, from the beach resorts of Goa and Kerala to tiny mountain airstrips high in the Himalayas.

Whether you’re making plans for the plains or getting high in the hills, here’s our guide to getting around India.

Shivalik Deluxe Express from Kalka to Shimla in the dawn light passing trees
The best way to see India is by train © Philip Lee Harvey / Lonely Planet

Taking the train in India is one of Asia’s most evocative experiences

Traveling by train in India is by far the most atmospheric way to explore the country, even with aging facilities on some parts of India’s vast rail network. Trains connect almost every corner of the country, including several charmingly nostalgic “toy trains” that run high into the foothills on narrow-gauge tracks. Recently, high-speed, modern Vande Bharat trains have started appearing on routes between major cities, offering a step up in comfort and convenience.

Indian Railways operates almost all of the nation’s trains, which are identified by name and number, as well as by the category of service (express, passenger or mail). Express trains are best, as there are fewer stops at minor stations to slow things down; for fast journeys, seek out the Rajdhani Express trains that connect Delhi to other state capitals, or the Shatabdi Express and Duronto Express trains that zip between India’s largest cities.

Make sure you use the right train station; many cities have multiple stations – often a city and cantonment stop, from the days when trains served British army barracks as well as downtown hubs. Some journeys involve connections in small towns that you’ll only visit for as long as it takes to jump across the platform.

Choose your class and book your train ticket in advance

There are many different classes – air-con 1st class (1AC) is the cream of the crop, with two- or four-person berths featuring seats that convert into beds, compartments with lockable doors and food service delivered to your seat. Two- and three-tier air-con carriages (2AC and 3AC) are almost as comfortable; sleeper carriages are similar to 3AC, only with fans instead of air-con. All are great for overnight trips, saving the cost of a hotel room for a night in relative comfort.

Unreserved 2nd class is something of a free-for-all – incredibly cheap, incredibly crowded and best saved for short journeys in the countryside. For all reserved classes (sleeper and above), there are special quotas and waitlist booking systems that can get you a seat even when the train appears to be fully booked. Major stations have special booking offices for quota seats.

Train tickets are best booked in advance, either at stations or online. The online booking process via the official Indian Railways website is complicated, however – you need a mobile phone to set up an account, and international cards are not always accepted. It’s usually easier to book through local booking sites such as 12Go, Cleartrip and Make My Trip.

Tips for train travel in India: When booking a trip, you’ll need to know the train number and the names (or codes) for the start and end stations. Consult the hard-copy booklet Trains at a Glance (available from station bookstands), use the journey search engine on the Indian Railways website or visit Erail. The website Seat 61 is a treasure trove of information on Indian rail travel.

Two buses pull up outside a grand terminus in a city
There are many different types of bus service to choose from in India © Ultimate Travel Photos / Shutterstock

Buses are the backbone of Indian travel

India has a huge and impressive bus network, operated by both state-owned and private bus companies, and buses run almost everywhere at almost any time of day or night. Even if you can’t get where you want to go directly, there’ll often be a bus going halfway, and another bus completing the journey.

Unless there is no other choice, night buses are best avoided since drivers often take advantage of the emptier roads to drive at reckless speeds. On any mountain journey, avoid sitting over the wheels or behind the rear axle, unless you want to be tossed around like spaghetti in a colander.

"Ordinary" buses run by state bus companies and local private operators are super cheap, but they stop everywhere and admit passengers until even the aisles are full. The price increases for various classes of “deluxe” and “express” buses and goes even higher for “Volvo” or “2x2” buses with airplane-style reclining seats. Private companies tend to charge slightly higher fares than government buses. Note that the duration of any journey to or from a major city will largely be dictated by the traffic in town.

On many local services, every seat and every inch of space in the aisle will be filled with passengers. Make your way toward the doors before the bus reaches your stop to make sure you can disembark. Bags go under the bus or up on the roof (you’ll be expected to carry them up yourself via a ladder on the back of the bus). Keep bags locked, and be watchful at food and toilet stops.

If you’re traveling on from India, international buses run to Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan. The international bus services run by state governments are usually reliable, but be wary of “tourist buses” run by travel agencies: it’s not uncommon to be charged luxury bus fares for two local buses, one running on either side of the border.

Tips for bus travel in India: More comfortable classes of bus can usually be booked in advance at the bus station or through travel agencies. On local buses, someone will wander up and down the aisle collecting fares – don’t panic if the conductor doesn’t bring your change right away; this may only be handed over when you disembark. If your change doesn’t materialize, a gentle reminder is usually all it takes.

A shared taxi full of passengers on a small mountain road
Shared 4WDs are particularly useful for reaching hill stations or the high valleys of the Himalayas © panoglobe / Shutterstock

Shared 4WDs are the best way to experience the Himalayas

While buses travel high into the mountains, you can also get around on an army of shared 4WDs, from venerable, British-colonial-era Land Rovers to muscly local 4WDs made by Tata and Maruti. They’re sometimes known as "shared jeeps" or "Sumos" (the brand name of one of India’s best-selling 4WDs). Drivers charge by the seat (the roomier seat beside the driver may cost extra), and vehicles leave when full – or you can charter the whole vehicle for an immediate departure.

Shared 4WDs are more expensive than buses – but not by that much – and are by far the easiest way to reach hill towns such as Darjeeling and Leh in Ladakh. Being smaller than buses, they’re able to squeeze around landslides and navigate dirt roads that are unsafe for buses because of flooding or snow.

Hiring a motorcycle or a car with a driver is a great way to explore

Few people self-drive rental cars in India, but it’s easy to find motorcycles and scooters for rent, including for long-distance trips across the Himalayas. Delhi’s Lalli Singh Adventures has decades of experience renting classic Royal Enfield motorcycles to riders attempting epic road-trip routes like the journey from Delhi to Ladakh. To ride a motorcycle in India, you’ll need an international driving permit, and when hiring by the day for local exploring, you may be asked to leave your passport as a deposit. Ride slowly and defensively, and always give way to larger vehicles.

If you don’t feel up to the challenging driving conditions, renting a car and driver is an easy alternative, and the cost can be very reasonable when shared between several people. Find vehicles for hire through travel agencies or at taxi stands operated by local driver collectives.

Many stands display printed lists of excursions with fixed prices, or you can arrange bespoke half-day, full-day and multiday trips. Ask what languages your driver speaks. For multiday trips, check that the price includes fuel and the driver’s food and accommodation (drivers will make their own eating and sleeping arrangements).

Taxis and rideshares are great for shorter distances

Taxis are found everywhere in India, and they can be hired for in-town rides, day trips and multiday journeys. However, some taxis are only permitted to operate in certain areas, so don’t expect every cab to be able to take you across state lines. As well as conventional cabs, rideshares can be summoned via the Uber, Ola, Lyft and Bla Bla Car apps.

Officially, taxis should use the meter, but many drivers refuse, so you’ll have to negotiate a fare before you set off. The taxis that loiter around tourist sites and train stations often overcharge, so flag down a moving cab to have a better chance of paying a fair rate. Prepaid taxi stands at major transport hubs offer cab rides at fixed prices.

Rickshaws and motorcycles wait near stalls at a busy market in a city with red walls
Cycle rickshaws and auto-rickshaws will whisk you around any Indian city © Instants / Getty Images

Urban transport in India is cheap and frequent

Urban transport in India is provided by crowded city buses, taxis, rickshaws and auto-rickshaws, urban trains and – in some cities – clean, modern, air-conditioned metro systems. The metros in Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kochi offer an easy way to explore these cities.

Cycle rickshaws and auto-rickshaws – small motorized vehicles with a cab and room for two or three passengers plus the driver – are the most popular form of transport for short trips in any Indian town. Auto-rickshaws have meters, though drivers are reluctant to use them. If you can’t get a metered ride, agree on a price with the driver at the start of the journey (unless you use the prepaid booking stands at major train stations and airports).

Tips for rickshaw travel: Don’t expect rickshaw walas (drivers) to have change for larger bills. Keep a stash of ₹10, ₹20 and ₹50 notes handy so you always have change to pay the fare. Don’t be too ruthless when haggling over a fare – drivers are poorly paid, and a few extra rupees can make a big difference to their take-home wage.

Take a cruise along the rivers

Ferries run across many rivers in India, but point-to-point trips along rivers or the ocean seaboard are uncommon. Slow sea ferries also run to Lakshadweep and the Andaman Islands.

There are some wonderful luxury multiday cruise services along some of India’s major rivers, including evocative trips on the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers with Assam Bengal Navigation. In rural areas, look for delightful cross-river trips by wooden rowboat or coracle (a small, basket-like vessel) – including at the ruins of Hampi. In sacred towns all along the River Ganges, boaters offer their services for rowboat tours, most famously in Varanasi.

Domestic flights will save time, but not carbon

Once upon a time, domestic air travel in India was a dubious proposition, with unreliable schedules, aging aircraft and elevated US-dollar fares for non-Indian passengers. Since the liberalization of air travel in India in the 1990s, domestic aviation now offers bargain fares for online bookings with budget airlines that bring cheap air travel to the masses.

Given its environmental impact and the many inexpensive alternatives, a lot of travelers are happy not to fly around India. However, a short flight can be a good way to avoid overland travel through areas with poor security (for example, in Kashmir and the Northeast States), or save days of rough travel in ancient 4WDs that aren’t exactly paragons of safety or environmental friendliness themselves.

If you want to fly sparingly, save internal flights for trips into the Himalayas – the flights to Leh in Ladakh and Pakyong in Sikkim rank among the world’s most spectacular air routes, with dizzying views of the tallest mountains on earth. With heavy competition, airlines come and go: Air India, Indigo, SpiceJet and Air Asia India are presently the biggest carriers.

People crowding on the roof of a bus as it drives through an arid landscape
Buses are routinely overcrowded making them very challenging for people with mobility issues © Dinodia Photo / Getty Images

Accessible transportation is very limited in India

India can be a challenging destination for travelers with mobility issues. While locals are extremely helpful, infrastructure is variable, and the crowds can make it tricky to explore. Having a companion will always be an advantage.

Wheelchair users and the mobility impaired face particular challenges – where pavements are found, they are often potholed and uneven and frequently full of people and vendors. Using the road instead can be dangerous because of speeding vehicles; take extra care when crossing the road as crossing signals are often ignored. Also, be wary of sidewalks made from concrete slabs laid over open drains – these are often wobbly or broken.

Steps, stairs and a general absence of ramps are further obstacles. Where hotels and other buildings have elevators, these sometimes only stop at mezzanine levels between floors, rendering them somewhat redundant. Upmarket hotels are more likely to have proper elevators and fully accessible rooms with bathrooms that will fit a wheelchair.

With the number of small steps and curbs to navigate, a folding manual chair is an easier option than an electric chair. If you charter a car or 4WD with a driver, you may be able to explore in comparative comfort, but note that in some cities, the boot of taxis is filled by an LPG/CNG tank, leaving no space for a folding wheelchair.

India’s buses and trains make little accommodation for travelers with disabilities. Among other things, they tend to be filled to capacity, providing a serious challenge for the mobility impaired. If you travel by train, staff can help you board and disembark, but it’s best to stick to the roomier air-con classes. The IRCTC offers an "e-wheelchair" service at select train stations. Many agencies offer specialist tours for travelers with disabilities, including Royal Indian Voyages, Disabled Holidays and Enable Holidays. For more on accessible travel, see Lonely Planet’s Accessible Travel Resources.

This article was first published Mar 8, 2022 and updated Dec 16, 2023.

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