India is home to a well-established domestic airline network. All of India's main carriers have a six-star (out of seven) safety record, according to AirlineRatings (www.airlineratings.com) – with the exception of SpiceJet, which only manages three out of seven.
Airlines in South India
India has a very competitive domestic airline industry. Air India and Jet Airways are the established international carriers. There are also a host of budget airlines offering discounted fares on a variety of domestic sectors. Airline seats can be booked directly by telephone, through travel agencies or cheaply over the internet.
At the time of writing, the following airlines were the major players operating across various destinations in South India. Keep in mind, however, that the competitive nature of the aviation industry means that fares fluctuate dramatically. Holidays, festivals and seasons also have a serious affect on ticket prices, so check for the latest fares online.
Security at airports is generally stringent. You must present your passport and a valid ticket/boarding pass (print or digital) to enter airline terminals. All hold baggage must be X-rayed prior to check-in and every item of cabin baggage needs a label, which must be stamped as part of the security check (don’t forget to collect tags at the check-in counter).
The recommended check-in time for domestic flights is one hour before departure. The usual luggage allowance is 20kg (10kg for smaller aircraft) in economy class and 30kg in business.
Air India (www.airindia.in; 1800 1801407)
GoAir (www.goair.in; 092-23222111)
IndiGo (www.goindigo.in; 9212783838)
Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com; 1800 225522)
SpiceJet (www.spicejet.com; 9871803333)
Vistara (www.airvistara.com; 9289228888)
South India offers loads of variety for the cyclist, from pretty coastal routes to winding roads passing fragrant spice plantations and breezy coconut groves.
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 bikes in. It may actually be cheaper – and less hassle – to hire or buy a bicycle in India itself.
Read up on bicycle touring before you travel – Rob Van Der Plas’ Bicycle Touring Manual and Stephen Lord’s Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook are good places to start. Consult local cycling magazines and cycling clubs for useful information and advice. The Cycling Federation of India in New Delhi can provide local information.
Riding the Rails with your Bike
For long hauls, transporting your bike by train can be a convenient option. Buy a standard train ticket for the journey, then take your bike to the station parcel office a day prior with your passport, registration papers, driving licence and insurance documents. Packing-wallahs will wrap your bike in protective sacking for around ₹50 to ₹250 and you must fill out various forms and pay the shipping fee. Charges, based on distance and weight, are quite reasonable (₹34.83 for an average 13kg mountain bike going 500km, for example) – 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 six hours, you’ll pay a storage fee of ₹10 per hour.
- Tourist centres and traveller hang-outs are the easiest spots to find bicycles for hire – simply enquire locally.
- Prices vary; places charge anywhere between ₹75 and ₹100 per day for a roadworthy, Indian-made bicycle. Mountain bikes, where available, can run between ₹200 to ₹600 per day (try www.rentomo.com).
- Hire places may require a cash security deposit (avoid leaving your airline ticket or passport).
- Mountain bikes from reputable brands, including Hero (www.herocycles.com) and Atlas (www.atlascycles.co.in), generally start at around ₹3500.
- Reselling is usually fairly easy – ask at local cycle or hire shops or put up an advert on travel noticeboards.
- If you purchased a new bike and it’s still in reasonably good condition, you should be able to get back around 50% of what you originally paid.
- Mountain bikes with off-road tyres give the best protection against India’s puncture-prone roads.
- Roadside cycle mechanics abound but you should still bring spare tyres and brake cables, lubricating oil and a chain repair kit, plus 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.
- Vehicles drive on the left in India but otherwise road rules are virtually nonexistent. Cities and national highways can be hazardous places to cycle so, where possible, stick to back roads.
- Be conservative about the distances you expect to cover – an experienced cyclist can manage around 60km to 100km a day on the plains, 40km to 60km on sealed mountain roads and 40km or less on dirt roads.
- Scheduled ships connect mainland India to Port Blair in the Andaman Islands, although the journey is long and the ships are not very well maintained. Ships also travel to the Andamans from Kolkata (Calcutta), Chennai and Visakhapatnam, leaving several times per week.
- Between October and May, there are boat services from Kochi (Cochin; Kerala) to the Lakshadweep Islands.
- There are also numerous shorter ferry services across rivers, from chain pontoons to coracles, and various boat cruises.
- Buses go almost everywhere in South India and tend to be the cheapest way to travel. Services are fast and frequent.
- Buses are the only way to get around many mountainous areas.
- Roads in curvaceous terrain can be especially perilous: buses are often driven with wilful abandon and accidents are always a risk.
- Avoid night buses unless there’s no alternative. Driving conditions are more hazardous and drivers may also be suffering from lack of sleep.
- 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.
- There are state-owned and private bus companies and both offer ‘ordinary’ buses and more expensive ‘deluxe’ buses. Many state tourist offices run their own reliable deluxe bus services.
- ‘Ordinary’ buses tend to be ageing rattletraps while ‘deluxe’ buses range from less decrepit versions of ordinary buses to flashy Volvo buses with AC and reclining two-by-two seating.
- Buses run by the state government are usually the more reliable option (if there’s a breakdown, another bus will be sent to pick up passengers), and seats can usually be booked up to a month in advance.
- Private buses are either more expensive (and more comfortable), or cheaper, with kamikaze drivers and conductors who try and cram on as many passengers as possible to maximise profits.
- Travel agencies in many tourist towns offer relatively expensive private two-by-two buses, which tend to leave and terminate at conveniently central stops.
- Be warned that some agencies have been known to book people on to ordinary buses at superdeluxe prices – if possible, book directly with the bus company.
- Timetables and destinations may be displayed on signs or billboards at travel agencies and tourist offices.
- Earplugs are a boon on all long-distance buses to muffle the often deafening music. On any bus, try to sit between the axles to minimise the bumpy effect of potholes.
- The cheapest buses are ‘ordinary’ government buses, but prices vary from state to state.
- Add around 50% to the ordinary fare for deluxe services, double the fare for AC, and triple or quadruple the fare for a two-by-two service.
- Luggage is either stored in compartments underneath the bus (sometimes for a small fee) or carried on the roof.
- Arrive at least an hour ahead of the departure time – some buses cover the roof-stored bags with a large sheet of canvas, 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 – some unlucky travellers have seen their belongings go bouncing off the roof on bumpy roads!
- Theft is a minor risk so keep an eye on your bags at snack and toilet stops and never leave your daypack or valuables unattended inside the bus.
- Most deluxe buses can be booked in advance – usually up to a month in advance for government buses – at the bus station or local travel agencies. Red Bus (www.redbus.in) is India's best and most comprehensive booking site/app.
- Reservations are rarely possible on ‘ordinary’ buses and travellers often get left behind in the mad rush for a seat.
- To maximise your chances of securing a seat, either send a travelling companion ahead to grab some space, or pass a book or article of clothing through an open window and place it on an empty seat. This ‘reservation’ method rarely fails.
- If you board a bus midway through its journey, you’ll often have to stand until a seat becomes free.
- Many buses only depart when full – you may find your bus suddenly empties to join another bus that’s ready to leave before yours.
- At many bus stations there’s a separate women’s queue, although this isn’t always obvious because signs are often not in English and men frequently join the melee. Women have an unspoken right to elbow their way to the front of any bus queue in India, so don’t be shy, ladies!
Car & Motorcycle
Self-drive car hire is possible in South India’s larger cities, but given the hair-raising driving conditions most travellers opt for a car with driver. Hiring a car with driver is wonderfully affordable, particularly if several people share the cost. Seat belts are either nonexistent or tucked so deep into the backseat they require a bulldozer to dig out. International rental companies with representatives in India include Budget (www.budgetinternational.com) and Hertz (www.hertz.com).
- 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. Even those vehicles that are licensed to enter different states have to pay extra (often hefty) state taxes, which will add to the rental charge.
- Ask for a driver who speaks some English and knows the region you intend to visit, and try to see the car and meet the driver before paying any money.
- Hindustan Ambassador cars look great (and are sadly disappearing – production of these Indian classics ended in 2014), but they can be rather slow and uncomfortable when travelling long distances; if you can find one, keep it for touring cities.
- For multiday trips, the charge should cover the driver’s meals and accommodation. Drivers should make their own sleeping and eating arrangements.
- It is essential to set the ground rules from day one; politely but firmly let the driver know that you’re boss in order to avoid anguish later.
- The price depends 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 time limit or a maximum kilometre distance for day trips – if you go over, you’ll have to pay extra.
- To avoid potential misunderstandings, ensure you 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 to pay for petrol en route because they are short of cash, get receipts so you can be reimbursed later.
- For sightseeing day trips within a single city, expect to pay anywhere upward of ₹850/1200 for a non-AC/AC car with an eight-hour, 80km limit per day (extra charges apply beyond this). For out of town journeys, charges hover around ₹2400 to ₹2700 for an AC car plus tolls, parking and sometimes a driver's meal, with 250km to 300km per day. Extra kilometres are around ₹10 per kilometre.
- A tip is customary at the end of your journey; ₹150 to ₹175 per day is fair (more if you’re really pleased with the driver’s service).
In terms of motorcycles as public transport, Goa is the only place in South India where they are a licensed form of conveyance. They take one person on the back and are a quick, inexpensive way to cover short distances.
Despite the traffic challenges, South India is an amazing region for long-distance motorcycle touring. Motorcycles generally handle the pitted roads better than four-wheeled vehicles, and you’ll have the added bonus of being able to stop when and where you want. However, motorcycle touring can be quite an undertaking – there are some popular motorcycle tours for those who don’t want the rigmarole of going it alone.
Weather is an important factor to consider – a monsoon-sprayed motorcycle tour is probably not on your to-do list.
To cross from neighbouring countries, check the latest regulations and paperwork requirements from the relevant diplomatic mission.
To hire a motorcycle in India, technically you’re required to have a valid international drivers’ permit in addition to your domestic licence. In tourist areas, some places may rent out a motorcycle without asking for a driving permit/licence, but without a permit you won’t be covered by insurance in the event of an accident, and may also face a fine.
- The classic way to motorcycle around India is on an Enfield Bullet, still built to the original 1940s specifications. As well as making a satisfying chugging sound, these bikes are fully manual, making them easy to repair (parts can be found almost everywhere in India). However, Enfields are often less reliable than many of the newer, Japanese-designed bikes; and, at time of writing, production wasn't keeping up with demand, creating a scarcity in the market and higher prices.
- Plenty of places rent out motorcycles for local trips and longer tours. Japanese- and Indian-made bikes in the 100cc to 220cc range are cheaper than the big 350cc to 500cc Enfields.
- For three weeks’ hire, a 500cc Enfield costs between ₹25,000 to ₹30,000. The price includes excellent advice and an invaluable crash course in Enfield mechanics and repairs.
- As a deposit, you’ll need to leave a large cash lump sum (ensure you get a receipt that also stipulates the refundable amount), your passport or your air ticket. It’s strongly advisable to avoid leaving your air ticket or passport, the latter of which you’ll need to check in at hotels, and the police can demand to see at any time.
- If you’re planning a longer tour, renting is the way to go, but purchasing a motorcycle is not impossible. Though nonresident foreigners cannot officially purchase a bike, loopholes vary by state and secondhand bikes are widely available (the paperwork is a lot easier for these than for a new machine). Finding a secondhand motorcycle is a matter of asking around. Check travellers noticeboards and approach local motorcycle mechanics and other bikers.
- A well-looked-after secondhand 350cc Enfield will cost anywhere from ₹50,000 to ₹100,000. The 500cc model costs anywhere from ₹75,000 to ₹100,000. You will also have to pay for insurance.
- It’s advisable to get any secondhand bike serviced before you set off.
- When reselling your bike, expect to get between half and two-thirds of the price you paid, if the bike is still in reasonable condition.
- Shipping an Indian bike overseas is complicated and expensive – ask the shop you bought the bike from to explain the process.
- Helmets are available for ₹500 to ₹5,000 and extras like panniers, luggage racks, protection bars, rear-view mirrors, lockable fuel caps, petrol filters and extra tools are easy to come by. One useful extra is a customised fuel tank, which will increase the range you can cover between fuel stops. An Enfield 500cc gives about 25km/L; the 350cc model gives slightly more.
- A useful website for Enfield models is www.royalenfield.com.
- Ask around for dealer recommendations. A Mumbai institution is Allibhai Premji Tyrewalla.
- There’s plenty of paperwork associated with owning a motorcycle; the registration papers are signed by the local registration authority when the bike is first sold and you’ll need these papers when you buy a secondhand bike.
- Foreign nationals cannot change the name on the registration. Instead, you must carry blank transfer documents that are required to be changed within 30 days of purchase (the loophole here is that they will not carry a date). If you are involved in an accident, you are on the hook for any damages (and legal repercussions). If you have a residence permit and buy a new bike, the company selling it must register the machine for you, adding to the cost.
- For any bike, the registration must be renewed every 15 years (for around ₹5000) – you must make absolutely sure that it states the ‘fitness’ of the vehicle, and that there are no outstanding debts or criminal proceedings associated with the bike.
- The whole process is complicated and it makes sense to seek advice from the company selling the bike. Allow around two weeks to tackle the paperwork and get on the road.
Fuel, Spare Parts & Extras
- Petrol and engine oil are widely available in the plains, but petrol stations are widely spaced in the mountains. If you intend to travel to remote regions, ensure you carry enough extra fuel (seek local advice about fuel availability before setting off). At the time of research, petrol cost around ₹70 per litre.
- If you’re going to remote regions it’s also important to carry basic spares (valves, fuel lines, piston rings etc). Spare parts for Indian and Japanese machines are widely available in cities and larger towns.
- For all machines (particularly older ones), make sure you regularly check and tighten all nuts and bolts, as Indian roads and engine vibration tend to 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, chances are 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 etc.).
- Only hire a bike with third-party insurance – if you hit someone without insurance, the consequences can 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, though not if you are on a tourist visa).
- The minimum level of cover is third-party insurance – available for around ₹700 per year. This will cover repair and medical costs for any other vehicles, people or property you might hit, but no cover for your own machine. Comprehensive insurance (recommended) costs upward of ₹1400 to ₹1500 per year.
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, pedestrians on the road, perpetual 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 and avoid travelling after dark – many vehicles drive without lights, and dynamo-powered motorcycle headlamps are useless at low revs while negotiating potholes.
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.
Organised Motorcycle Tours
Dozens of companies offer organised motorcycle tours around India with a support vehicle, mechanic and guide. Below are some reputable outfits (see websites for contact details, itineraries and prices):
Enfield Riders (www.enfieldriders.com)
Peter's Classic Bike Adventure Tours (www.classic-bike-india.com)
Vintage Rides (www.vintagerides.travel)
Hitching is not much of an option in South India; considering the inexpensive public transport options available, the concept of a ‘free ride' is relatively unknown. Be aware that truck drivers have a reputation for driving under the influence of alcohol.
Hitching is never entirely safe, and we don't recommend it. Travellers who hitch should understand that they’re taking a small but potentially serious risk. As anywhere, women are strongly advised against hitching alone or even as a pair. Always use your instincts.
- Buses, cycle-rickshaws, autorickshaws, taxis, boats and urban trains provide transport around South India’s cities. Costs for public transport vary from town to town.
- On any form of 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 local transport is metered, drivers may refuse to use the meter, demanding an elevated ‘fixed’ fare. If this happens, insist on the meter – if that fails, find another vehicle.
- 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 rarely have change.
- Some taxi/autorickshaw drivers are involved in the commission racket, wherein they may pressure you to switch to a hotel of their choice. Stand your ground and walk if necessary.
Autorickshaw, Tempo & Vikram
- The Indian autorickshaw is basically a three-wheeled motorised contraption with a tin or canvas roof and sides, providing room for two passengers (although you’ll often see many more bodies squeezed in) and limited luggage. They are also referred to as autos, scooters, riks or tuk-tuks.
- They are mostly cheaper than taxis and are usually metered, although getting the driver to turn on the meter can be a challenge.
- Travelling by auto is great fun but, thanks to the open windows, can be smelly, noisy and hot!
- Tempos and vikrams (large tempos) are outsize autorickshaws with room for more passengers, running on fixed routes for a fixed fare.
- In country areas, you may also see the fearsome-looking ‘three-wheeler’ – a crude, tractorlike tempo with a front wheel on an articulated arm.
Various kinds of local boats offer transport across and down rivers in South India, from big car ferries to wooden canoes and wicker coracles. Most of the larger boats carry bicycles and motorcycles for a fee. Kerala is especially renowned for its breathtaking backwater boat cruises.
Urban buses, particularly in the big cities, are fume-belching, human-stuffed mechanical monsters that travel at breakneck speed (except during morning and evening rush hours, when they can be endlessly stuck in traffic). It’s usually far more convenient and comfortable to opt for an autorickshaw or taxi.
- 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 lowered to provide extra space for luggage.
- Many of the big cities have phased out (or reduced the number of) cycle-rickshaws, but they are still a major means of local transport in many smaller towns.
- Fares must be agreed upon in advance – speak to locals to get an idea of what is a fair price for the distance you intend travelling. Tips are always appreciated, given the slog involved.
In some towns, tongas (horse-drawn two-wheelers) and victorias (horse-drawn carriages) still operate.
Mumbai and Chennai, among other centres, have suburban trains that leave from ordinary train stations.
- Most towns have taxis with meters; however, getting drivers to use them can be a major hassle. Drivers often claim that the meter is broken and proceed to request a hugely elevated ‘fixed’ fare instead. Threatening to get another taxi will often miraculously fix the meter. In tourist areas especially, some drivers flatly refuse to use the meter – if this happens, just find another cab.
- To avoid fare-setting shenanigans, use prepaid taxis where possible or taxi apps.
- Be aware that many taxi drivers supplement their earnings with commissions from particular restaurants, hotels and tourist shops.
- Taxi apps like Uber (www.uber.com) and Ola Cabs (www.olacabs.com) have completely changed the game on intra-city travel for foreigners in India – no more arguments, no more rip-offs, no more discussions whatsoever. At time of writing, Uber was operating in 29 Indian cities; Ola is usually available in smaller cities where Uber is not (over 100) and includes an autorickshaw option.
- Ola introduced Ola Outstation in 2016 – one-way fares for long-distance trips, meaning you will no longer have to pay for the return kilometres of your driver. At time of writing, it was available in the South Indian cities of Kolkata (Calcutta), Mumbai (Bombay), Bengaluru (Bangalore), Chennai (Madras) and Pune.
Most Indian airports and many train stations have a prepaid-taxi booth, normally just outside the terminal building. Here, you can book a taxi for a fixed price (which will include baggage) and thus avoid commission scams. However, officials advise holding on to the payment coupon until you reach your chosen destination, in case the driver has any other ideas! Smaller airports and train stations may have prepaid autorickshaw booths instead.
Manning the Metre
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. If you spend a few days in any town, you’ll soon get a feel for the difference between a reasonable fare and a blatant rip-off. When in doubt, seek advice from locals, or stick with taxi apps where available – their prices are considerably cheaper than the inflated ones you would have normally paid an autorickshaw driver!
Travelling by train is a quintessential Indian experience. Trains offer 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 largest utility employer on earth, with roughly 1.5 million workers. There are around 6900 train stations scattered across the country.
There are hundreds of useful services. The best way of sourcing updated railway information is to use relevant internet sites such as Indian Railways (www.indianrailways.gov.in) and the useful Seat 61 (www.seat61.com/India). There’s also Trains at a Glance (₹45), available at many train station bookstands as well as online at www.indianrailways.gov.in/railwayboard (under 'Important Information'), but it’s published annually so it’s not as up to date as websites. Nevertheless, it offers comprehensive timetables covering all the main lines.
In India, riding the rails is a reason to travel all by itself. The Indian rail network goes almost everywhere, almost all the time, and trains have seats to suit every size of wallet. However, booking can be quite an undertaking – book online to take the hassle out of train travel.
Trains & 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. More expensive sleeper categories provide bedding.
- 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
Comfortable, reclining chairs and plenty of space; usually on Shatabdi express trains.
- AC Chair
Similar to the Executive Chair carriage but with less-fancy seating.
- Sleeper Class
Open-plan carriages with three-tier bunks and no AC; the open windows afford great views.
- Unreserved/reserved 2nd Class (II/SS or 2S)
Wooden or plastic seats and a lot of people – but cheap!
Booking online is the easiest way to buy train tickets. The railway reservation system is open from 12.30am to 11.30pm every day (IST), so keep this in mind when trying to book online, particularly if you are abroad. A number of websites issue e-tickets, which are valid for train travel. You may have to show your passport as ID, but usally showing a digital copy, rather than a print out, of your reservation suffices.
The major booking websites accept international credit cards as does IRCTC.
Bookings open 60 days before departure for long-distance trains, sometimes less for short-haul trips. Seats fill up quickly – reserve at least a week ahead where possible, though shorter journeys are usually easier to obtain.
An Indian mobile phone number make life incalculably less frustrating when booking trains online; however, foreigners can verify their 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 online after submitting a registration form and passport. Enquires should be directed to email@example.com.
These websites are useful for online international bookings:
Cleartrip (www.cleartrip.com) A reliable private agency and the easiest way to book; accepts international MasterCard and Visa credit cards. Can only book direct journeys.
IRCTC (www.irctc.co.in) Government site offering bookings for regular trains and luxury tourist trains. International cards are accepted.
Make My Trip (www.makemytrip.com) Reputable private agency; accepts international cards.
Yatra (www.yatra.com) Books flights and trains; accepts international cards.
All of the above have apps that are usually more user-friendly than the websites themselves.
Railway Razzle Dazzle
You can live like a maharaja on one of India's luxury train tours, with accommodation on board, tours, admission fees and meals included in the ticket price.
- Deccan Odyssey (www.deccan-odyssey-india.com/) Seven nights covering the main tourist spots of Maharashtra and Goa. Fares per person start at a decidedly upmarket US$8750/6100 for single/double occupancy. There are also several other shorter luxurious trips on offer.
- Golden Chariot (www.goldenchariottrain.com) Tours the south in sumptuous style from October to March, starting in Bengaluru; 10-night trips visit Mysuru, Hampi and Goa. Rates run US$8260/5530 for single/double occupancy.
- Mao Doubledeckr Wednesday, Friday and Sunday service from Mumbai's Lokmanya Tilak Terminus to Goa (Madgaon) in a double-decker Shatabdi train.
You must make a reservation for all chair-car, sleeper, 1AC, 2AC and 3AC carriages. No reservations are required for general (2nd-class) compartments. Book well ahead for overnight journeys or travel during holidays and festivals. Waiting until the day of travel to book is not recommended.
IndRail passes permit unlimited rail travel for a fixed period, ranging from one day to 90 days, but it offers limited savings and you must still make reservations. Prices start at US$19/43/95 (sleeper/2AC, 3AC & chair car/1AC) for 24 hours.The easiest way to book these is through the IndRail pass agency in your home country – click on the 'Passenger Info/Tourist Information' link on www.indianrail.gov.in/international_Tourist.html for further details.
Booking Tickets in India
You can either book tickets online, through a travel agency or hotel (for a commission), or in person at the train station. Big stations often have English-speaking staff who can help with choosing the best train. At smaller stations, midlevel officials, such as the deputy station master, usually speak English. It’s also worth approaching tourist office staff if you need advice about booking tickets, deciding on a train class etc. The nationwide railways enquiries number is 139.
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 and the name and number of the train. Join the long queue at the ticket window where your ticket will be printed. Women should avail themselves of the separate women’s queue – if there isn’t one, go to the front of the regular queue.
- Indian Railways began installing some 10,000 point-of-sale terminals within its nationwide network in late 2016, allowing for cashless machine ticket buying.
Tourist Reservation Bureau
Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai have an International Tourist Bureau, which allows you to book tickets in relative peace – check www.indianrail.gov.in/international_Tourist.html for additional info.
- Bookings open 90 days before departure and you must make a reservation for all chair-car, sleeper, and 1AC, 2AC and 3AC carriages. No reservations are required for general (2nd-class) compartments. Trains are always busy in India so it’s wise to book as far in advance as possible; advance booking for overnight trains is strongly recommended. Train services to certain destinations are often increased during major festivals but it’s still worth booking well in advance.
- Reserved tickets show your seat/berth number and the carriage number. When the train pulls in, keep an eye out for your carriage number, written on the side of the train (station staff and porters can also point you in the right direction). A list of names and berths is also posted on the side of each reserved carriage.
- Refunds are available on any ticket, even after departure, with a penalty – the rules are complicated so check when you book.
- Be aware that train trips can be delayed at any point in the journey so, to avoid stress, factor some leeway into your travel plans.
If the train you want to travel on is sold out, make sure to enquire about the following possibilities:
- Reservation Against Cancellation (RAC) Even when a train is fully booked, Indian Railways sells a handful of RAC seats in each class. 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 where you’ve been allocated to sit. Even if no one cancels, as an RAC ticket holder you can still board the train, and even if you don’t get a seat you can still travel.
- 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 ₹90 to ₹500 is added to each ticket price depending on distance. 1AC and Executive Chair tickets are excluded from the scheme.
- Tourist Quota A special (albeit small) tourist quota is set aside for foreign tourists travelling between popular stations. These seats can only be booked at dedicated reservation offices in major cities, and you need to show your passport and visa as ID. Tickets can be paid for in rupees (some offices may ask to see foreign exchange certificates – ATM receipts will suffice).
- 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.
- 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 portable snacks.
- Seniors (those over 60) get 30% off all fares in all classes on all types of train. Children below the age of five travel free; those aged between five and 12 are charged half price.
- Indian Rail introduced surge pricing on Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto express trains in 2016. Fares increase 10% with every 10% of berths sold subject to a prescribed ceiling limit.
To find out which trains travel between any two destinations, go to www.trainenquiry.com and click on ‘Find Your Train’ – type in the name of the two destinations (you may then be prompted to choose from a list of stations) and you’ll get a list of every train (with the name, number and arrival/departure times). Then, armed with these details, you can find the fare for your chosen train by going to www.indianrail.gov.in and clicking on ‘Fare Enquiry’.
Express Train Fares in Rupees
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* Rajdhani/Duronto Trains
** Mail/Express Trains
- In all classes, a padlock and a length of chain are useful for securing your luggage to baggage racks.
- Be mindful of potential passenger drugging and theft.