My first day in Kolkata, India, consisted of exiting a plane at the dingy international airport on one side of the city, hailing a cab to take us through the mess of disconnected streets and traffic that included everything from bikers to horse drawn carts to free-ranging cows, and wandering into the largest railway station in all of India. I had been here before. I knew what I was doing. We just needed to book a train north. Sounds easy enough, right?
Not so much. After circling the building a few times searching for a crosswalk (there isn't one) and running for our lives across a 4-lane freeway in the middle of rush hour, we fought our way through the streams of bustling people and made it into the heart of the 160-year-old station. All we needed was a ticket counter. We ignorantly believed this would be the easy part. It took about fifteen minutes of people stepping in line in front of us before we realized we were in the men’s line. We scooted over to join the sari-clad women in our gender-specific queue and waited about fifteen more minutes before reaching the booth. We knew our train number. It was scheduled to come in a few hours. We thought we knew the name of our station. We tried in vain for several minutes to pronounce it to the woman behind the counter - who didn't speak any English - before the woman behind us shoved us aside, grabbed her ticket, and walked off. Our heads, exploding with jet lag and unfamiliarity, not to mention the suffocating mass of humans, couldn't come up with any better plan than to get out of there as quickly as possible. We didn't make our train that night, but we did eventually learn where we went wrong.
Indian Railways is one of the largest enterprises in the world, carrying millions of passengers across thousands of miles of tracks annually. The railway is considered one of the greatest achievements of the British occupation of India. With over 7,000 stations spread across the country, you can get yourself to just about anywhere you’d like to go. In fact, although other modes of transportation exist (like long-distance buses), traveling by rail is an experience in and of itself. The ease, comfort, prices, and frequency make train travel the most practical means of getting around. There’s something about the plastic-lined bunk beds, the rusty, barred windows, and the 2 a.m. shouts of chai vendors wandering down the corridors that give you a taste of India that shouldn't be missed. But aesthetics aside (a topic for a later article), the point of this article is to discuss all of the ways you can – and more importantly all the ways you shouldn't - purchase tickets for train travel in India.
International Tourist Bureaus
International Tourist Bureaus are offices set up at major train stations across India designed to help foreign travelers with ticket purchases. Indrail passes and FT (Foreign Tourist) tickets can be purchased at these locations with a valid passport, which are both great means of ensuring a seat on the often over-booked trains. Indrail passes provide unlimited travel within a certain time period all across the continent for relatively cheap. FT tickets are seats that are reserved outside of the GN (General) quota specifically for foreigners. These bureaus are located in:
- New Delhi
Chances are your international flight will land in one of these major cities and, if you plan on using the trains, they should be your first stop.
Although having an Indrail pass will slightly increase your chances of booking a seat last minute through the FT seats, many trains sell out weeks in advance. If you’re planning on flying in to New Delhi, for example, and leaving within a few days, there is a chance you will not be able to book a seat to your preferred destination immediately. Indrail passes cannot be purchased online in advance, and although there are Indrail agencies in some foreign countries, there’s a good chance there is not one near you. If you are the kind of person who feels more comfortable with an itinerary booked in advance, you may prefer to book online through IRCTC.
IRCTC and Cleartrip.com
Tickets can be purchased online in advance through a combination of Cleartrip.com and the IRCTC website. Purchasing tickets directly through IRCTC is cumbersome because most credit and debit cards are not accepted (see the resource below for more information on which cards are accepted). Cleartrip.com (which accepts most cards and works in conjunction with IRCTC) is the easiest, most efficient way to purchase tickets online. Through Cleartrip.com you can easily search for train schedules, seat availability, prices, connections, and most other things you may need to know, as well as actually booking your tickets.
If you are traveling abroad with a SmartPhone or access to the internet, Cleartrip is by far your best resource. Apps are available for download which will make registration easier, but by no means is it a simple process. An Indian mobile number must be provided to be able to purchase tickets, and that is something you most likely will not have before you arrive. There are ways to get around this, though, which is why this next resource may be the most useful.
The Man in Seat 61 is a guru of all things train, all over the world, and his information on Indian rail travel saved my life. India is known to be a country that is hard to navigate in many different ways, and buying rail passes is no exception. Although I made the mistake of arriving in India without enough information on how to get around, I managed to make it work, but I don’t suggest that route. Take a look at this website and you will find many of your answers in one place.
Last Resort: Travel Agencies
Travel agencies in India have a horrible reputation. Many hole-in-the-wall booking offices turn out to be fraudulent, but many government-endorsed, fully trust-worthy agencies cannot be distinguished from the con artists. In the worst cases, the con artists even post fake documents on their walls. Ask around. Do a little online research to find out where the real offices are located. Many hotels will have their own booking offices, which are usually a safer bet. However, one of the many pitfalls of using a hotel booking office is that they typically charge significantly more in fees and will almost always try to upsell you on the most expensive seats (even when cheaper seats are available). If you must resort to these resources (which I did multiple times), be sure the agent is willing to show you the computer screen (and be sure you’ve visited IRCTC yourself so you know what to look for) to prove that he is not just printing out a fake ticket.
India can be a challenging place to visit for so many reasons, but the beauty, culture, food, and history make the struggle so worth the effort. Knowing how to get around will ease your travels significantly. Plan ahead, do your research, and know that once that ticket is booked, you’ll be set up with one of the most stunning rides of your life.