On my train ride to Varanasi from Rishikesh, I found out at the station that I was #1 on the waitlist for a spot in 2nd class AC and that I did not have a spot on the train. Because the train was scheduled to leave at midnight, I decided to suck it up and buy a general boarding ticket. I have mentioned general boarding tickets in previous posts, and they may be described as a “cattle car” experience. I also said, “I can’t imagine doing long travel like this.” Famous last words!
More humans than I have every seen are crammed into every space you can imagine – in the aisles, under the seats, two to a seat, five to a bed, you name it. Luxurious, it isn’t, but cheap – heck yes! By doing a general boarding ticket, my trip cost $5 US instead of almost $20.
My experience doing an overnight trip in general class on the Indian Railway was overwhelmingly positive. I felt very safe and even managed to get a few hours of sleep. Despite the language barrier, I was able to bond with my fellow passengers and felt like they were always keeping an eye on me like I was part of the extended family. Overall, I am very grateful for the experience and would absolutely do it again.
Tips for India Budget Train Travel
1. Get there early, especially if you are at the end of the line. I boarded my train about 2.5 hours before scheduled departure and the train was already about 50% full.
2. Get a top berth. This is more important if you are traveling alone. The bottom berths usually hold around 5 people, while the upper ones hold one or two, plus luggage. The slight inconvenience of having an unpadded seat means that you will have space to stretch out a bit.
3. Save money on AC. Depending on where you are traveling to, unless it’s May through September, AC is probably not necessary. Especially when you are traveling at night, there is a nice breeze coming through the cabins and they all have fans.
4. Make friends. In India, you don’t need to speak the same language to make friends. All it takes is some smiles and a “Namaste”. With just those small gestures, I could tell that the families that were below me were keeping an eye on me, which made me feel safer.
5. Offer to surround yourself with luggage. For me, it was better to have some luggage to curl myself around, than a strange Indian man. I ended up sleeping with my head and shoulders against one suitcase and my legs draped over another.
6. Bring earplugs. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth saying again. Never travel without earplugs.
7. Bring a scarf or a towel. I used a scarf to lay over my bag that I used as a pillow, and a sweater to protect my butt bones from rubbing on the rales of the berth. The slats in this picture below are what my butt and legs were resting on the whole night.
8. Pack snacks. Preferably to share. Cookies are good and so are almonds for a little protein. Wallahs (sellers) are constantly coming around with chai and water, so you don’t need to worry about fluids.
If it gets to be too much, you can always try to throw the conductor a little cash for a better seat.