Air

Domestic air travel is booming in India, and there are several national and regional airlines serving all corners of the country, including some budget carriers.

Airlines in India

Transporting vast numbers of passengers annually, India's domestic airline industry is very competitive. Major carriers include Air India, IndiGo, SpiceJet and Jet Airways, AirAsia, GoAir and Vistara.

Apart from airline sites, bookings can be made through portals such as Cleartrip (www.cleartrip.com), Make My Trip (www.makemytrip.com) and Yatra (www.yatra.com).

Security norms require you to produce your ticket and passport when you enter an airport; a digital ticket on your smartphone is usually sufficient. Every item of cabin baggage needs a label, which must be stamped as part of the security check (collect tags at the check-in counter). Flights to sensitive destinations, such as Srinagar and Ladakh, have extra security restrictions. Spot checks of cabin baggage may take place on the tarmac before you board.

Keeping peak-hour congestion in mind, the recommended check-in time for domestic flights is two hours before departure, even though check-in actually closes 45 minutes before departure. The usual baggage allowance is 15kg (10kg for smaller aircraft) in economy class, though Air India allows 25kg.

Bicycle

There are no restrictions on bringing a bicycle into the country. However, bicycles sent by sea can take a few weeks to clear customs in India, so it’s better to fly them in. It may be cheaper – and less hassle – to hire or buy a bicycle locally. Read up on bicycle touring before you travel: Neil and Harriet Pike’s excellent Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook (2015), Laura Stone's Himalaya by Bike (2008) and Rob Van Der Plas’ Bicycle Touring Manual (1998) are good places to start.

Hire

  • Tourist centres and traveller hang-outs are the easiest spots to find bicycles for hire – enquire locally.
  • Prices vary: a roadworthy Indian-made bicycle costs around ₹40 to ₹150 per day; mountain bikes, where available, are more like ₹400 to ₹800 per day.
  • Hire places may require a cash security deposit (it may be stating the obvious, but avoid leaving your airline ticket or passport).
  • Bike-share schemes have been unveiled in cities such as Delhi, Hyderabad and Mumbai, though for now you can only sign up for them with a local ID.

Practicalities

  • Mountain bikes with off-road tyres give the best protection against India’s puncture-inducing roads.
  • Roadside cycle mechanics abound, but you should still bring spare tyres, brake cables, lubricating oil, a chain-repair kit and plenty of puncture-repair patches.
  • Bikes can often be carried for free, or for a small luggage fee, on the roof of public buses – handy for uphill stretches.
  • Contact your airline for information about transporting your bike and customs formalities in your home country.
  • Be conservative about the distance you expect to cover – an experienced cyclist can manage around 60km to 100km a day on the plains, 40km to 60km on all-weather mountain roads and 40km or less on dirt roads.

Purchase

  • Delhi’s ragtag Jhandewalan Cycle Market has imported and domestic new and secondhand bikes, and spare parts.
  • Mountain bikes with reputable brands that include Hero and Atlas generally start at around ₹6000.
  • Reselling is usually fairly easy – ask at local cycle shops or put up an advert on travel noticeboards. If you purchased a new bike and it’s still in reasonable condition, you should be able to recoup around 50% of what you originally paid.

Road Rules

  • Vehicles drive on the left in India, but otherwise road rules are not generally followed.
  • Cities and national highways can be hazardous places to cycle, so, where possible, stick to back roads.

Taking Your Bike on the Train

For long hauls, transporting your bike by train can be convenient. Buy a standard train ticket for the journey, then take your bike to the station parcel office with your passport, registration papers, driver’s licence and insurance documents. Packing-wallahs will wrap your bike in protective sacking for ₹100 to ₹200, and you must fill out several forms and pay the shipping fee, which varies according to the route and train type – plus an insurance fee of 1% of the declared value of the bike. Bring the same paperwork to collect your bike from the goods office at the other end. If the bike is left waiting at the destination for more than 24 hours, you’ll pay a storage fee of around ₹100 per day.

Some locals hang their bikes from their handlebars outside the window of the carriage – don't do this.

Boat

  • A new overnight cruise ship, Angriya Cruise, between Mumbai and Goa was launched in late 2018; it runs three times a week from either end.
  • Scheduled but infrequent ferries connect mainland India to the Andaman Islands, with departures once or twice a month to Port Blair from Chennai, Kolkata and Visakhapatnam; see www.andamans.gov.in.
  • From mid-September to mid-May, ferries travel from Kochi (Cochin; Kerala) to the Lakshadweep Islands, though tickets for these can be tricky to obtain and are almost exclusively available through package tours.
  • There are also numerous shorter ferry services across rivers, from chain pontoons to coracles and various boat cruises.

Bus

Buses go almost everywhere in India and are the only way to get around many mountainous areas. They tend to be the cheapest way to travel. Services are fast and frequent, and rarely need to be booked in advance.

Roads in mountainous or curvy terrain can be perilous; buses are often driven with wilful abandon, and accidents are possible on any route.

Avoid night buses unless there’s no alternative: driving conditions are more hazardous and drivers may be inebriated or overtired.

All buses make snack and toilet stops (some more frequently than others), providing a break but possibly adding hours to journey times.

Shared jeeps complement the bus service in many mountain areas.

Classes

State-owned and private bus companies each offer several types of bus, graded loosely as ‘ordinary’ or 'local', 'semi-deluxe', 'deluxe' or 'super deluxe'. These classes are usually open to interpretation, and the exact grade of luxury offered in a particular class varies.

Ordinary buses tend to be ageing rattletraps, while the deluxe grades range from less decrepit versions of ordinary buses to flashy Volvo coaches with air-con and reclining seating.

There's rarely any need, and nor is it usually possible, to pre-book seats on ordinary 'local' buses. More deluxe AC buses, though, are less frequent, so pre-booking is a good idea – doing so from the departure station the day before you travel normally suffices.

Buses run by the state government are usually more reliable (if there’s a breakdown, another bus will be sent to pick up passengers), and seats can usually be booked up to a month ahead. Many state governments now operate super-deluxe buses.

Travel agencies in many tourist towns offer relatively expensive private two-by-two buses, which tend to leave and terminate at conveniently central stops.

On any bus, try to sit up the front to minimise the bumpy effect of potholes. Never sit directly above the wheels. Earplugs are invaluable on long-distance trips.

Costs

The cheapest buses are ordinary 'local' government buses, but prices vary from state to state. Expect to pay around ₹100 for a typical two- to three-hour journey.

Add around 50% to the ordinary fare for deluxe services, double the fare for air-conditioning, and triple or quadruple the fare for a two-by-two super-deluxe service.

Rajasthan Roadways offers discounts for female travellers.

Luggage

Luggage is stored in compartments underneath the bus (sometimes for a small fee) or carried on the roof.

If you've pre-booked your bus, arrive at least an hour before the departure time – some buses cover roof-stored bags with a canvas sheet, making last-minute additions inconvenient or impossible.

If your bags go on the roof, make sure they’re securely locked, and tied to the metal baggage rack – unsecured bags can fall off on rough roads.

Theft is a (minor) risk: watch your bags at snack and toilet stops. Never leave day-packs or valuables unattended inside the bus.

Reservations

Most deluxe buses can be booked in advance at the bus station, through travel agencies, and online at portals such as Cleartrip (www.cleartrip.com), Makemytrip (www.makemytrip.com) and Redbus.

Reservations are rarely possible on ordinary 'local' buses; just turn up at the bus station and hop on the next available bus. Note: you won't always get a seat, but you'll always be allowed on board.

On very busy routes, one way to secure a seat is by sending a travelling companion ahead to claim some space. Another is to pass a book or article of clothing through an open window to bag an empty seat.

If you board a bus midway through its journey, you may have to stand until a seat becomes free.

Many buses only depart when full – passengers might suddenly leave yours to join one that looks nearer to departing.

Many bus stations have a separate women’s queue (not always obvious when signs are in Hindi and men join the melee), and women also have an unspoken right to elbow their way to the front of any bus queue.

Car & Motorcycle

Few people bother with self-drive car hire – not only because of the hair-raising driving conditions but also because hiring a car with driver is comparatively affordable in India, particularly if several people share the cost. Hertz (www.hertz.com) is one of the few international companies with representatives in India.

Hiring a Car & Driver

Most towns have taxi stands or car-hire companies where you can arrange short or long tours.

Not all hire cars are licensed to travel beyond their home state. Those that are will pay extra state taxes, which are added to the hire charge.

Ask for a driver who speaks some English and knows the region you intend to visit. Try to see the car and meet the driver before paying anything.

A wide range of cars now operate as taxis. From a proletarian Tata Indica hatchback to a comfy Toyota Innova SUV, there's a model to suit every budget.

Hire charges for multiday trips cover the driver’s meals and accommodation – drivers should make their own sleeping and eating arrangements. Many hotels have inexpensive rooms specifically set aside for drivers.

It's essential to set the ground rules from day one: to avoid difficulties later, politely but firmly let the driver know that you’re in charge.

Costs

Car-hire costs depend on the distance and the terrain (driving on mountain roads uses more petrol, hence the higher cost).

One-way trips usually cost the same as return ones (to cover the petrol and driver charges for getting back).

Hire charges vary from state to state. Some taxi unions set a maximum time limit or a maximum kilometre distance for day trips – if you go over, you’ll have to pay extra. Prices also vary according to the make and model of the taxi.

To avoid misunderstandings, get in writing what you’ve been promised (quotes should include petrol, sightseeing stops, all your chosen destinations, and meals and accommodation for the driver). If a driver asks you for money for petrol en route because he is short of cash, get receipts for reimbursement later. If you're travelling by the kilometre, check the odometer reading before you set out so as to avoid confusion later.

For sightseeing day trips around a single city, expect to pay upwards of ₹1400/1800 for a non-AC/AC car with an eight-hour, 80km limit per day (extra charges apply for longer trips). For multiday trips, operators usually peg a 250km minimum running distance per day and charge around ₹8/10 per kilometre for a non-AC/AC car for anything over this.

A tip is customary at the end of your journey; around ₹200 per day is fair.

Border Roads Organisation (BRO) Signage

In Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) builds 'roads in the sky', including some of the world’s highest passes accessible by car. Risking life and limb to keep the roads open, the BRO has a bewitching turn of phrase when it comes to driver warnings, including:

  • Life is short, don't make it shorter.
  • It is not a rally, enjoy the valley.
  • After whisky, driving risky.
  • Be gentle on my curves.
  • Better to be late than to be the late Mr.

Motorcycle

Long-distance motorcycle touring is hugely popular in India. However, it can be quite an undertaking; there are tours for those who don’t want the rigmarole of going it alone.

The most common starting point for tours is Delhi, though Manali is another possible hub, and the most frequently visited destinations include Rajasthan, South India and Ladakh. Weather is an important factor: check for the best times to visit different areas. To cross from neighbouring countries, confirm the latest requirements with the relevant diplomatic mission.

Licence & Permit

Technically, to hire a motorcycle in India you must have a valid international driver's permit in addition to your domestic licence. Some places in tourist areas may rent out a motorcycle without asking for a driving permit/licence, but you won’t be covered by insurance in the event of an accident, and you may also face a fine if you're stopped by police.

Hire

The classic way to motorcycle around India is on a Royal Enfield, built to both vintage and modern specs. Fully manual, these are easy to repair (parts can be found almost everywhere in India). On the other hand, Enfields are heavy and often less reliable than many of the newer, Japanese-designed bikes.

Plenty of places rent out motorcycles for local trips and longer tours. Japanese- and Indian-made bikes in the 100cc to 150cc range are cheaper than the big 350cc to 500cc Enfields.

As security, you’ll need to leave a large cash deposit (ensure you get a receipt that stipulates the refundable amount) or your passport/air ticket. Do not leave these documents, in particular your passport, which you'll need for hotel check-ins and if stopped by the police.

Prices range from region to region, and depend on the quality of the bike. Kerala Bike Tours in Ernakulam, for example, hires out touring-quality Enfields from ₹12,000 per week, including unlimited mileage, full insurance and free recovery/maintenance options. Lalli Motorbike Exports, in Delhi, rents quality Enfields for ₹700 to ₹1350 per day.

Helmets are available for ₹1000 to ₹5500, with the best Indian-brand 'Studs' coming in many models. Extras (panniers, luggage racks, protection bars, rear-view mirrors, lockable fuel caps, petrol filters, extra tools) are also easy to come by.

Companies

Lalli Motorbike Exports Run by the knowledgeable, trustworthy Lalli Singh, this Delhi-based outfit sells and rents out Enfields and parts, and buyers get a crash course in running and maintaining these loveable but temperamental machines. Lalli can also recommend other reputable dealers in the area.

Anu Auto Works Along with many other Manali-based bike-rental companies, this one rents Enfields and takes tours over high Himalayan passes to Ladakh and Spiti (June to September).

Allibhai Premji Tyrewalla Sells new and secondhand motorcycles with a buy-back option; in Mumbai.

Rajasthan Auto Centre Recommended as a place for hiring, fixing or purchasing a motorcycle; in Jaipur.

Kerala Bike Tours Organises multilingual Enfield Bullet tours around Kerala and the Western Ghats and hires out touring-quality Enfields with unlimited mileage, full insurance and free recovery/maintenance options.

Purchase

For longer tours, purchasing a new motorcycle may sound like a great idea. However, selling motor vehicles to foreigners comes with reams of complicated paperwork; foreigners are not allowed to register vehicles in their name; and in many situations procuring a motorcycle might not be possible or feasible at all.

Secondhand bikes are widely available, though, and paperwork is simpler than for a new machine. All privately owned vehicles over 15 years old are banned from Delhi roads.

To find a secondhand motorcycle, check travellers’ noticeboards and ask motorcycle mechanics and other bikers.

A well-looked-after secondhand 350cc Enfield costs ₹65,000 to ₹115,000. A good-condition 500cc with UCI engine ranges from ₹95,000 to ₹140,000. You'll also have to pay for insurance.

Ownership Papers

There’s plenty of paperwork associated with owning a motorcycle. The process is complicated and time-consuming, so it’s wise to seek advice from the agent selling the bike.

Registration papers are signed by the local registration authority when the bike is first sold; you'll need these when you buy a secondhand bike.

Foreign nationals cannot change the name on the registration, but you must fill out forms for change of ownership and transfer of insurance.

A new registration lasts for 15 years, after which it may be renewed for ₹5000 for five years; make absolutely sure that it states the ‘roadworthiness’ of the vehicle, and that there are no outstanding debts or criminal proceedings associated with the bike. The office of the state transport department where the bike was registered can provide this information.

Fuel, Spare Parts & Extras

Petrol and engine oil are widely available in the plains, but petrol stations are rarer in the mountains. If travelling to remote regions, carry enough extra fuel (seek local advice about fuel availability before setting off). At the time of writing, petrol cost around ₹68 per litre in Delhi, but it can cost up to ₹85 per litre in some regions.

Get your machine (particularly older ones) serviced regularly. Indian roads and engine vibration work things loose quite quickly.

Check the engine and gearbox oil level regularly (at least every 500km) and clean the oil filter every few thousand kilometres.

Given the road conditions, the chances are that you’ll make at least a couple of visits to a puncture-wallah – start your trip with new tyres and carry spanners to remove your own wheels.

It’s a good idea to bring your own protective equipment (jackets, gloves etc).

Motorbikes can be transported by train in the same way as bicycles. Empty the fuel tank first.

Insurance

Only hire a bike that has insurance – if you hit someone without insurance the consequences will be very costly. Reputable companies will include third-party cover in their policies; those that don’t probably aren’t trustworthy.

You must also arrange insurance if you buy a motorcycle (usually you can organise this through the person selling the bike).

Comprehensive insurance for a new Royal Enfield can cost ₹4000 to ₹5000 per year. Insurance for a secondhand Royal Enfield may cost ₹800 to ₹4000, depending on the age of the vehicle.

Road Conditions

Given the varied road conditions, India can be challenging for novice riders. Hazards range from cows and chickens crossing the carriageway to broken-down trucks, unruly traffic, pedestrians on the road, and ubiquitous potholes and unmarked speed humps. Rural roads sometimes have grain crops strewn across them to be threshed by passing vehicles – a serious sliding hazard for bikers.

Try not to cover too much territory in one day: on busy national highways, expect to average 40km/h to 50km/h without stops; on winding back roads and dirt tracks this can drop to 10km/h.

Never ride in the dark – many vehicles drive without lights, and dynamo-powered motorcycle headlamps are useless at low revs while negotiating around potholes.

Tours

Dozens of companies offer motorcycle tours around India with support vehicle, mechanic and guide. Here are a few well-established companies:

Blazing Trails (www.blazingtrailstours.com)

H-C Travel (www.hctravel.com)

Himalayan Roadrunners (www.ridehigh.com)

Indian Motorcycle Adventures (www.indianmotorcycleadventures.com)

Lalli Mobike Adventures

Moto Discovery (www.motodiscovery.com)

World on Wheels (www.worldonwheels.tours)

Hitching

Hitching is never entirely safe, and not recommended, particularly for female travellers. Those who do hitch should understand that they are taking a small but serious risk, as there have been robberies and worse in the past. However, for a negotiable fee, truck drivers supplement the bus service in some remote areas. As drivers rarely speak English, you may have difficulty explaining where you wish to go and working out a fair price to pay. Be aware that truck drivers have a reputation for driving under the influence of alcohol; always trust your instincts.

Local Transport

Buses, cycle-rickshaws, autorickshaws, e-rickshaws, tempos (big, brutal-looking autorickshaws), taxis, boats, tongas (horse-drawn carts), metros and urban trains provide transport around India’s cities.

Costs for public transport vary from town to town.

For any transport without a fixed fare, agree on the price before you start your journey and make sure that it covers your luggage and every passenger.

Even where meters exist, drivers may refuse to use them, demanding an elevated ‘fixed’ fare; bargain hard. Fares usually increase at night (by up to 100%) and some drivers charge a few rupees extra for luggage.

Carry plenty of small bills for taxi and rickshaw fares, as drivers may struggle to find change for you.

In some places taxi/autorickshaw drivers are involved in commission rackets.

App-based taxis such as Uber and Ola Cabs mean you can call a taxi or autorickshaw and the fare will be electronically calculated – no arguments, and cheaper than ordinary taxis, though the whole procedure tends to be more time-consuming than simply hailing an auto.

Autorickshaw, E-rickshaw, Tempo & Vikram

Autorickshaw & E-rickshaw

Similar to the tuk-tuks of Southeast Asia, the Indian autorickshaw is a three-wheeled motorised contraption with a tin or canvas roof and sides, usually with room for two passengers (although you’ll often see many more squeezed in) and limited luggage.

They are also referred to as autos, scooters and riks.

Autorickshaws are mostly cheaper than taxis (typically around half the price) and usually have a meter, although getting it turned on can be a challenge. You can call autos via the Ola Cabs Auto app (www.olacabs.com), which electronically calculates your fare when you finish the journey – no more haggling!

Travelling by auto is great fun, but – thanks to the open windows – it can be noisy (and chilly in winter).

In some cities there are larger, more environmentally friendly e-rickshaws (electric rickshaws), some of which (though not all) are shared and thus cheaper, but you'll have to be going in the same direction as the other passengers. In the Northeast States these e-rickshaws are known as totos.

Tempo & Vikram

Vikrams and the more brutal-looking tempos are outsized autorickshaws with room for more passengers, shuttling on fixed routes for a fixed fare.

In country areas you may also see the fearsome-looking ‘three-wheeler’ – a crude tractor-like tempo with a front wheel on an articulated arm – or the Magic, a cute minivan that can carry up to a dozen passengers.

Boat

Various kinds of local boat offer transport across and down rivers in India, from big car ferries to wooden canoes and wicker coracles. Most of the larger boats carry bicycles and motorcycles for a fee.

Bus

Urban buses range from fume-belching, human-stuffed mechanical monsters that travel at breakneck speed to sanitised air-conditioned vehicles with comfortable seating and smoother ride quality. In any case, it’s usually far more convenient to opt for an autorickshaw or taxi, as they're quicker and more frequent (though more expensive).

Cycle-Rickshaw

A cycle-rickshaw is a pedal cycle with two rear wheels, supporting a bench seat for passengers. Most have a canopy that can be raised in wet weather or blazing sunshine but lowered to provide extra space for luggage.

Fares must be agreed in advance – speak to locals to get an idea of a fair price for the distance you intend to travel.

Kolkata is the last bastion of the hand-pulled rickshaw, known as the tana rickshaw. This is a hand-cart on two wheels pulled directly by the rickshaw-wallah.

Taxi

Most towns have taxis, and these are usually metered; however, getting drivers to use the meter can be a hassle. To avoid fare-setting shenanigans, use prepaid taxis where possible. Apps such as Uber and Ola, or radio cabs, are sometimes a more efficient option in larger cities.

Meters

Getting a metered ride is only half the battle. Meters are almost always outdated, so fares are calculated using a combination of the meter reading and a complicated ‘fare-adjustment card’. Predictably, this system is open to abuse. It's usually better to simply agree a fare beforehand. To get a rough estimate of fares in advance, try the portal www.taxiautofare.com. Better still, ask a local for advice.

Prepaid Taxis

Major Indian airports and train stations have prepaid-taxi and radio-cab booths. Here you can book a taxi, even long distance, for a fixed price (which will include baggage) and thus avoid commission scams. Hold onto your receipt until you're sure you've reached your destination, then give it to your driver. The driver won't get paid without it.

Radio cabs cost marginally more than prepaid taxis but are air-conditioned and staffed by the company's chauffeurs. Cabs have electronic, receipt-generating fare meters and are fitted with GPS units, so the company can monitor the vehicle's movements around town. This minimises the chances of errant driving or unreasonable demands for extra cash by the driver afterwards.

Smaller airports and stations may have prepaid-autorickshaw booths instead of or as well as prepaid-taxi booths.

Other Local Transport

In some towns, tongas (horse-drawn two-wheelers) and victorias (horse-drawn carriages) still operate. Kolkata has a tram network, and Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai, among other centres, have suburban trains.

Shared Jeeps

In mountain areas shared jeeps supplement the bus services, charging similar fixed fares.

Although nominally designed for five to six passengers, most shared jeeps squeeze in more. The seats beside and immediately behind the driver are more expensive than the cramped bench seats at the rear.

Jeeps only leave when full; people often bail out of a half-full jeep and pile into one with more passengers that's ready to depart. Drivers will leave immediately if you pay for all of the empty seats and 'reserve' a vehicle for yourself.

Jeeps run from jeep stands and ‘passenger stations’ at the junctions of major roads; ask locals to point you in the right direction.

In some states, jeeps are known as ‘sumos’ after the Tata Sumo, a popular vehicle.

Travel sickness, particularly on winding mountain roads, may mean you are asked to give up your window seat to queasy fellow passengers.

Train

Travelling by train is a quintessential Indian experience. Trains offer more space and a smoother ride than buses and are especially recommended for long journeys that include overnight travel. India’s rail network is one of the largest and busiest in the world, and Indian Railways is the world's eighth-largest employer on earth, with roughly 1.3 million workers. There are more than 7000 train stations across the country.

Useful trains are listed here, but there are hundreds more. The best way of sourcing updated information is online, through sites such as Indian Railways (www.indianrailways.gov.in/railwayboard), Erail (https://erail.in) and the very useful Seat 61 (www.seat61.com/India).

If you can't get online, there’s also the long-running, comprehensive timetable booklet Trains at a Glance (₹70), available at many station bookstands and better bookshops/newsstands, and published annually.

You may have to show your passport as ID on board, but usually showing a digital copy of your reservation (rather than a printout) is enough.

Trains can be delayed at any stage of the journey; to avoid stress, factor some leeway into your plans.

Buying Tickets

You can book through a travel agency or hotel (for a commission), in person at the train station or online.

Refunds are available on any ticket, even after departure, with a penalty – rules are complicated, so check when you book.

At the Station

Get a reservation slip from the information window, fill in the name of the departure station, the destination station, the class you want to travel in and the name and number of the train. Join the (long) queue for the ticket window, where your ticket will be printed. Women should take advantage of the separate women’s queue – if there isn’t one, go to the front of the regular queue.

Stations in larger cities, including Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, have dedicated ticket counters for foreigners (usually as part of a separate office called the International Tourist Bureau, which sells tourist-quota seats on certain classes of train). This makes buying tickets in person much easier.

Online

Booking online should be the easiest way to buy tickets – though it still isn't quite as straightforward as you'd expect. The reservation system is open from 12.30am to 11.45pm (IST) every day, so keep this in mind if you're buying tickets from abroad. Bookings open 120 days before departure for long-distance trains, sometimes less for short-haul trips.

The government-run IRCTC (www.irctc.co.in) takes bookings for regular and luxury trains. Using the site involves a frustrating, complex registration process, and at the time of writing the site was having problems accepting international cards (though this may change). An IRCTC number may be needed for other booking sites.

An Indian mobile SIM will make life incalculably less frustrating when booking online; however, foreigners can verify their IRCTC account from abroad by entering a foreign mobile number, which will trigger an email from IRCTC with a link that will allow them to enter their mobile verification code (for which there's a small fee) online after submitting a registration form. Enquires should be directed to care@irctc.co.in.

The following are useful for online international bookings; all have apps that are sometimes more user-friendly than the websites themselves:

12Go (www.12go.asia) Handy ticketing agency, though only for India's 1000 most popular routes (confirmed tickets only); accepts international cards and is your best booking option if you're travelling on one of the chosen routes.

Cleartrip (www.cleartrip.com) A reliable private agency and one of the easier ways to book; accepts international cards but requires an IRCTC registration, linked to your Cleartrip account.

Make My Trip (www.makemytrip.com) Reputable private agency; accepts international credit cards.

Reservations

You must make a reservation for chair-car, executive-chair-car, sleeper, 1AC, 2AC and 3AC carriages. Book well ahead for overnight journeys or travel during holidays and festivals.

Waiting until the day of travel to book is not recommended, though on short journeys, buying a 'general' 2nd-class ticket and piling into the next available train is a handy, flexible and very cheap option.. as long as you don't mind sharing seats or potentially standing up.

Reserved tickets show your seat/berth and carriage number. Carriage numbers are written on the side of the train (station staff and porters can point you in the right direction). A list of names and berths is sometimes posted on the side of each reserved carriage. Many stations have signs marking the approximate spot where each carriage stops (again, ask station staff for assistance).

Ticket Types & Classes

Foreign Tourist Quota

As well as the regular general quota (GN), a special (albeit small) tourist quota is set aside for foreign tourists travelling between popular stations.

These seats can now be booked up to 365 days ahead through the IRCTC (www.irctc.co.in) or at Tourist Reservation Bureaus in large cities; you'll need to show your passport and visa as ID, and payment is either with a card (some bureaus accept international cards) or in rupees (sometimes they'll ask for ATM receipts), UK pounds or US dollars.

Online, there's a ₹200 service charge per ticket, plus a ₹100 registration fee, and you can book only 1AC, 2AC or executive-chair tickets. In person, there's no service charge and you can book cheaper train classes such as sleeper, too.

Waitlist (WL)

Trains are frequently overbooked, but many passengers cancel and there are regular no-shows. So if you buy a ticket on the waiting list you’re quite likely to get a seat, even if there are a number of people ahead of you on the list. Check your booking status at www.indianrail.gov.in/pnr_Enq.html by entering your ticket’s PNR number. A refund is available if you fail to get a seat – ask the ticket office about your chances.

Reservation Against Cancellation (RAC)

Even when a train is fully booked, Indian Railways sells a handful of seats in each class as ‘Reservation Against Cancellation’ (RAC). This means that if you have an RAC ticket and someone cancels before the departure date, you will get that seat (or berth). You’ll have to check the reservation list at the station on the day of travel to see if you’ve been allocated a confirmed seat/berth. Even if no one cancels, you can still board the train as an RAC ticket holder and travel without a seat.

Taktal Tickets

Indian Railways holds back a limited number of tickets on key trains and releases them at 10am (AC) and 11am (non-AC) one day before the train is due to depart. A charge of ₹100 to ₹500 is added to the price of each ticket.

Classes

Express and mail trains form the mainstay of Indian rail travel. Not all classes are available on every train, but most long-distance services have 'general' (2nd-class) compartments with unreserved seating, and more comfortable reserved compartments, usually with the option of sleeper berths for overnight journeys. Sleeper trains offer the chance to travel huge distances for not much more than the price of a midrange hotel room.

Shatabdi Express trains are same-day services with seating only; Rajdhani Express trains are long-distance overnight services between Delhi and state capitals with a choice of 1AC, 2AC, 3AC and 2nd-class seats. More expensive sleeper categories provide bedding. Similar to Rajdhani, though slightly faster, are Duronto Express trains, which link major state capitals.

  • Air-Conditioned 1st Class (1AC)

The most expensive class, with 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. Bunks convert to seats by day and there are curtains, offering some privacy.

  • Air-Conditioned 3-Tier (3AC)

Three-tier berths arranged in groups of six in an open-plan carriage with no curtains; popular with Indian families.

  • AC Executive Chair (ECC)

Comfortable, reclining chairs and plenty of space; usually on Shatabdi express trains.

  • AC Chair (CC)

Similar to the executive-chair carriage but with less-fancy seating.

  • Sleeper Class (sl)

Open-plan carriages with three-tier bunks and no AC; the cheapest comfortable option, and the open windows afford great views (and photo opportunities).

  • Unreserved/reserved 2nd Class (II/SS or 2S)

Known as 'general' class; lucky passengers cram onto shared, padded bench seats. Unlucky ones stand in the aisle or sit in the overhead luggage racks. Not always packed but always extremely cheap; offers flexibility, as reservations aren't necessary.

Costs

  • Fares are calculated by distance and class of travel; Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains are slightly more expensive, but the price includes meals. Most air-conditioned carriages have a catering service (meals are brought to your seat). In unreserved classes it’s a good idea to carry your own snacks.
  • Children under the age of five travel free, while those aged between five and 12 are charged half-price if they do not have their own berth (but full price if they do).
  • Senior discounts (40% and 50% off for men over 60 and women over 58, respectively) only apply to Indian citizens.

Calculating Fares

To find out which trains travel between any two destinations, check the Erail (https://erail.in) or IRCTC, Cleartrip, 12Go or Make My Trip websites, all of which also provide fares and timings.

Fares by Distance

100

1AC*

₹1203

2AC*

₹706

3AC*

₹498

Chair Car (CC)**

₹205

Sleeper**

₹77

2nd Class (II)**

₹47

200

1AC*

₹1203

2AC*

₹706

3AC*

₹498

Chair Car (CC)**

₹282

Sleeper**

₹136

2nd Class (II)**

₹73

300

1AC*

₹1356

2AC*

₹798

3AC*

₹561

Chair Car (CC)**

₹378

Sleeper**

₹181

2nd Class (II)**

₹103

400

1AC*

₹1678

2AC*

₹978

3AC*

₹687

Chair Car (CC)**

₹467

Sleeper**

₹222

2nd Class (II)**

₹128

500

1AC*

₹2054

2AC*

₹1209

3AC*

₹846

Chair Car (CC)**

₹577

Sleeper**

₹276

2nd Class (II)**

₹151

1000

1AC*

₹3362

2AC*

₹1949

3AC*

₹1352

Chair Car (CC)**

₹931

Sleeper**

₹446

2nd Class (II)**

₹258

1500

1AC*

₹4320

2AC*

₹2498

3AC*

₹1708

Chair Car (CC)**

₹1189

Sleeper**

₹573

2nd Class (II)**

₹334

2000

1AC*

₹5272

2AC*

₹3025

3AC*

₹2057

Chair Car (CC)**

₹1443

Sleeper**

₹698

2nd Class (II)**

₹412

* Rajdhani/Duronto Trains

** Mail/Express Trains

Luxury Trains

You can live like a maharaja on one of India's luxury train tours. Accommodation on board, tours, admission fees and meals are included in the ticket price. As well as the following, consider the Golden Chariot, a luxurious round-trip journey from Bengaluru highlighting the romance of Karnataka; the train was under renovation at time of writing but services are due to resume in 2019 (see www.goldenchariottrain.com for the latest developments).

Palace on Wheels (www.palaceonwheels.net) Eight- to 10-day tours of Rajasthan, departing from Delhi. Trains run on fixed dates from September to April; the fare per person for seven nights in a single/double cabin starts at US$4550/3500. Try to book 10 months in advance.

Royal Rajasthan on Wheels (www.royal-rajasthan-on-wheels.com) Modelled on the Palace on Wheels and running along similar routes through Rajasthan. Lavish one-week trips take place from September to April, starting and finishing in Delhi. The fare per single/double cabin for seven nights starts at US$6055/9100, plus taxes.

Deccan Odyssey (www.deccan-odyssey-india.com) Seven-night whirls around Maharashtra, Goa and beyond cost from US$6100/8750 per single/double.

Mahaparinirvan Express (aka Buddhist Circuit Special; www.irctcbuddhisttrain.com) An eight-day trip running from September to March and visiting India's key Buddhist sites as well as the Taj Mahal, and Lumbini in Nepal. Trips start and finish in Delhi and include some hotel stays. Rates begin at US$945 per person. Note: because the trip includes Nepal, foreign passengers must have a Nepali visa and a double/multiple-entry Indian visa; visa fees are not included in the price.

Metro

Metro systems have transformed urban transport in India's biggest cities and are expanding each year. Cities with metros include Delhi (which has one of the world's largest), Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kochi and Jaipur.