Getting around India – Making travel simple and fun
From the moment you arrive, you begin to appreciate what a vast country this is and getting around it can seem perplexing. Every conceivable form of transport plies the streets of this country. From horse and cart to sleek shiny land rovers are all waiting to ferry you anywhere you could possibly want to go.
All this can be overwhelming if you have just arrived. So to make it all a little less stressful for you. I have written my comprehensive guide on Getting around India. I will break down one by one, every major method of transport you are likely to encounter and how you can utilise them. We may as well jump straight in as there is so much to get through. So here we go.
Travelling India by air.
Today there are several affordable domestic airlines and an extensive railway system that runs all over the country. Each state is connected intricately by public and private busses. Uber operates in every major city alongside those who want to get you in their cycle taxi and peddle you to your destination.
I want to begin by saying when you book a flight don’t plan too many big journeys and try and concentrate on one portion of the country at a time. It might not look far on the map, but some train journeys can take days!
Before I start my journey, I find it is a good idea to jot your proposed route down on a map. By doing this, you get a clear idea of how far you will be travelling as no one wants to spend all their precious time away on the back of a bus now do they? Also, this helps you avoid backtracking and making any unnecessary trips. Keep your route as direct as possible to avoid wasting time and money. Now you have this in mind lets look at the options you have at your disposal to move around the country.
Travel by air around India
As India hurtles into the future, there are now many domestic airlines to choose from, and they are reliable, frequent and affordable. Here is are a list of the key companies to take a look at:
Air India ( www.Airindia.com)
Spicejet ( www.spicejet.com)
Vistara ( www.airvistara.com)
It is best to shop around for the best deals, and You can start with companies like:
Make my trip (www.makemytrip.com)
They all provide good price comparisons at competitive rates. What I do myself when using airlines, Is I have a look at the duration of the train and evaluate the cost difference. Then make a judgement if it is worth it or not just to fly. Indias longest train journey the Kanyakumari Vivek Express runs from Dibrugarh in Assam to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, and It takes a whopping 79 hours! There wouldn’t be much in the price to get the plane, so sometimes it is definitely worth it.
When you get the plane in India, you will have to show your ticket before you can enter the airport. I would recommend saving or printing your E-tickets in case there is a problem with your internet connection. You will be denied entrance, and this has happened to me before. I had to borrow someone’s phone who was kind enough to lend me it or I would have missed my flight.
Usually, you are allowed 20kg of baggage in economy class, and your hand luggage is checked and labelled before you fly. Arrive a good two hours early to clear customs, as this can take some time depending on the destination. For example, it can take a good while to clear customs in places like Srinagar or Leh as they are in sensitive areas.
The Indian railways is a grand engineering feat by anyone standards. It is the worlds biggest single employer of people, and its tracks run like an intricate web across a vast portion of the subcontinent. Getting the train is an experience in itself and something that is quintessentially Indian. I find it is way more palatable for long journeys than the bus as it offers more comfort. There are many different classes to choose and what class you want is primarily dictated by your budget. I will break these down as you read on so you can make a more informed choice of what is right for you.
Unreserved or general class trains.
These seats cant be booked in advance, so the benefits are obvious. If you need to get somewhere and all the trains are full then take this class. The downside is they can be extremely busy and can be a very claustrophobic experience. If you’re leaving a big city, it can be just plain uncomfortable, particularly in summer.
It is worth getting one of these on your travels just for the experience, in my opinion. I have always been met with nothing but hospitality and kindness on here. Some of my fondest memories of meeting the locals have been in general class. It is, by far, the cheapest class. What many local people do and I have done myself is when there is little or no chance of getting on the train, get an unreserved ticket and get on sleeper class. When the ticket inspector comes around you, pay the difference for a spare seat if there is one. If not, you will have to sit in the doorway, but at least you will have room.
Sleeper class trains.
It is the class I usually travel if I can. The carriages are broken down into cubicles with six beds and two along the gangway. I like this class because it is affordable and allows for good views and makes for an exciting experience. The aisles are always full of vendors selling everything from the ubiquitous Indian chai to plastic crocodiles. You will see buskers of all descriptions, from blind singers, contortionists and even not very convincing transvestites that seem to demand cash from the passengers.
Foreign tourists are relatively rare in this class so there will be many a conversation to be had, all of this makes it, so there is scarcely a dull moment. There is no AC in this class, only fans. What I have found is book the upper bunk if you can. It allows you to retire whenever you choose from the madness that’s going on in the carriage. Bring your valuables up on the bed with you. The downside is your seat will be next to the aisle, so any vendors, beggers, holy people, transvestites or buskers will be asking you for money almost continually. If you are western, this will only draw attention more.
Also, hot air rises, so the top bunks are the last seats Indians want to book. For me, it’s a small price to pay for security and the chance to get some shuteye whenever you choose. The lower bunk is the window seat, so there is more of a chance of being bothered in the night or worse yet having your valuables stolen. Lone female travellers in this class should undoubtedly think about taking the upper bunk.
I attach the straps from my rucksack to the metal clips underneath the seats for security. Making it hard for a thief to run off with my stuff, and It does happen. Local people use chains, but I find just attaching the straps of my bags is okay.
Also, as I said, there are only fans, and that means the windows are often open. Meaning any dirt or dust outside comes in. Sometimes this can be a lot, and I once got a severe eye infection from travelling on sleeper class. Mosquitos can come in and if your travelling in an area with a Dengue or malaria problem, either spray yourself with DEET repellent or just don’t travel on this class.
India may be a hot country, but it gets pretty cold sometimes so bring something to sleep in. This also helps keep any dust from the bed of your body. I normally use a damp cloth to wipe the plastic mattress before I begin my trip. I am sure you will be shocked when you see how much dust gets through those open windows.
The price of this class is quite reasonable and doubles up as a nights stay when it’s a long haul journey. It is often cheaper than a hotel so if it is possible to organise it for overnight then do so as this is a great way to save money when you are on a long trip. Also to note the faster trains don’t even offer sleeper class as an option, so its ac or nothing.
Air-conditioned 3 tier 3ac class.
It is the same set up as you will find in the sleeper class carriages. Only this time the windows don’t open, but you get AC. It can also get jam-packed, but you can’t stay in this class without a valid 3ac ticket. Meaning no matter what happens, there is only one seat per passenger. There are no vendors except the ones employed by the Indian Railways on here, making it a more peaceful ride. The price difference between the sleeper class and 3 ac is quite a lot. I recommend this if travelling through an area where there is a problem with mosquito-borne diseases.
Air-conditioned 2 tier 2ac class.
These are two-tier births in groups of four. I have only got this class a couple of times. It’s quite comfortable, and you are likely to get a good nights sleep. There are also curtains for privacy, and that can make a big difference. You are given bedding with any class that has AC, Great if you can afford it. If you are on a more extended holiday, then this class will probably remain a nice treat for you.
I usually only payout for this if there is a reason such as I feel poorly. If you have a bad belly, the last thing your body will thank you for is sweating it out on sleeper class and dehydrating yourself further, so AC can work out to be a blessing.
Air-conditioned 1st class 1ac trains.
I have never actually travelled this class as I visit India for at least six months at a time, so financially this is very impractical, as it costs a whole lot more than sleeper class. As I understand it, there are locks on the doors of your cabin, that has between two and four beds. Meals are included, and I should think so too at this cost!
Ac chair cc and executive chair class.
These are same-day affairs, so shorter journeys only. I have caught these trains many times, and they are quite comfortable. You will often see the word Shabathi used in the name of the trains that are sitting only. The only real difference between the two classes in the title is one chair is slightly larger and reclines, and the other one doesn’t. You are only likely to be on one of these trains for a short period of time, so it seems like an inconsequential spend to me. Sometimes meals are included in the price for the more expensive Shabathi trains like the one from Dehli to Jaipur.
Indias Heritage train journeys.
Even if you don’t like trains, some of the journeys are undeniably breathtaking in India. It is even more exciting if you are on one of the few heritage trains that still run, and they tend to be through really scenic areas. Don’t get me wrong I am no enthusiast, but it is hard not to be able to appreciate the romance of chugging through the Indian countryside in one of these.
Two journeys I would recommend is getting the Himalayan Queen between Kalka and Shimla. This journey takes you through countless tunnels as it winds through the pine-clad hillsides of the Himalayan foothills. The other is the Darjeeling toy train that first made its trip along its tiny tracks in 1886! Poor girl isn’t up to much anymore, but you can still get to make your way 14 km to Ghum and back from Darjeeling.
Booking Indian trains.
Now I have explained about the classes of the trains, let me talk about how to book them. If you would like to book online, the government website is www.irctc.in. You will have to register for foreign tickets on this website to use it, and that takes some perseverance. If you use any of the sites listed above like yatra.com or book in a travel agency in India, they will happily sort it out for you. But, of course, they will obviously take a commission for themselves and just how much depends on the company.
Also to note travel agencies have no access to the tourist quota. Only government outlets have that. These are seats that are reserved just for foreign tourists. They cost a little more, but seats on an otherwise booked train can come out of what seems like thin air. I like to book in the tourist counters and offices, in the train stations.
Most large cities have one, and another reason I prefer them is that you will be speaking to a person, whos knowledgeable and can advise on alternative routes. They have no interest in upselling you tickets that you don’t need so it is a good source of impartial advice and that always helps when there are over 7000 train stations.
Travelling in India by bus.
Busses connect pretty much everywhere in India. It is impressive where they can reach to be fair. There are both government and private bus companies everywhere. The private companies vary in quality.
From hard seats that don’t even recline to a luxurious laydown situation in what can only be described as a big fish tank with a double bed in it. You kind of roll around in them, with no seat belt behind glass. Something I can’t see taking off in the west any time soon, but they are however very comfortable indeed.
These buses are divided into double beds so; obviously, a lone woman should consider this as you will have no control who you’re sharing a bed with. This could lead to compromising situations. Just something to bear in mind ladies and for more information on tricks and tips for female backpackers and staying safe, check out this post.
The local buses are reliable but often not overly comfortable as they get packed out. They are cheap as there is no middle man involved and because they are government-run. You get on and buy a ticket on the bus and when you do, ask for a printed ticket if that is possible to make sure you are getting charged the right price. If it is not an option ask a fellow traveller if that sounds right to double-check you are paying the correct amount.
Government bus companies vary state to state and have there own bus terminals. The interstate government busses tend to leave from a separate terminal usually called the ISBT (interstate bus terminal.) Check online or in your guidebook to see where that is, as its more often than not in a separate terminal but not always. It is also useful to have some idea how far it is to your destination when negotiating a taxi or rickshaw.
The downside to getting a private bus is the end destination is rarely marked on any maps and can lead you paying extra to get into town. Find the street name and if you have internet check how far it is. One very much premeditated scam is to stop far away from the city centre and when you get off, low and behold there are rickshaws ready to take you for an inflated fee.
I usually go with government service as they stop for way more toilet breaks and for me that makes a significant difference for my comfort levels. Private companies can sometimes seem to be able to go an impressive amount of time without stopping for a pee. I have gone for 6 hours or more, and that is just unpleasant, I don’t know how they do it!
Also to note Rajasthan busses offer discounts for a woman on the bus. This can come in handy, but sometimes they don’t offer if you don’t ask although the conductors will get into trouble if they are caught. I have had to almost wrestle with some conductors to get the ladies discount for females that have been travelling with me, although most of the time it is okay.
Getting around India by boat.
So boats have there own fair share to play in getting around the subcontinent and in the Andaman Islands, it is pretty much the only way of getting around in some parts. These can be hard to book from busy terminus such as havelock island. Woman have there own queues in the Andaman Islands, and this can be a blessing as this tends to cut more than half your time waiting for a ticket. There are not many boat trips on the mainland except maybe Kerala.
But getting across rivers or to islands you will need to get them. They can range from roughly seaworthy passenger ferries to dugout canoes. Whatever the case, this is more often than not the only option, so just embrace and enjoy.
Getting around India by taxi.
There are taxis available just about everywhere. Some are privately owned, and they more often than not involve negotiation for the fair. Alas, the Taxi metres tend always to be broken when you do ask. I think a money-making scheme for anyone would be to set up a business fixing broken taxi metres in India.
Another sneaky trick when you ask for this service is the driver will turn on the metre. But you have no idea where you are, or where you are going. So this can lead to a full tour of whatever city you are in and get to pay for that privilege. Not to mention, many taxi drivers are involved in hotel commission rackets, and this can be exhausting if you do not want this service, so negotiate first!
An easier way and undoubtedly less stressful is to use one of the apps on your phone. I checked online, and uber is the same app where ever you are in the world. Uber gives a precise cost and is available in most cities. Ola (www.olacabs.com) is another service that tends to be cheaper than Uber.
Auto Rickshaws, Cycle rickshaws, Hand-pulled carts and just about any other form of local transport.
So the Auto rickshaw is a widespread form of transport. It looks a lot like a south-east Asian Tuk Tuk and some times when there are a lot of rickshaws lined up at the traffic lights it reminds me of the whacky car races. They’re fun to get, but they are open. So sometimes they can be very cold or dusty.
In the cities, you may find shared larger auto-rickshaws, and they are cheaper. Providing you can find one heading where you are going. Also, there is often little room for your bag.
You will see a lot of cycle rickshaws while on the road, and they are as it reads, cycle taxis. While all auto-rickshaws are negotiable on fairs and need hard bargaining skills, I tend to bargain way less when there is some poor guy who wants to cycle me somewhere. Even more incredibly in Kolcutta, there are men (who tend to be really old) who wish to PULL you on a cart around the city. I have never got on one of these, but, If I did, I don’t think I could find it in myself to bargain at all.
Getting around India by Shared or private Jeeps
In the mountainous regions of India, this is often the only choice if no buses are heading in that direction. Private taxis offer a distinct advantage in that you can go anywhere you want and take as long as you want. The downside is they are costly for a backpacker.
Shared jeeps are the local’s way of getting around in the hills. In theory, there should only be one person per seat, but that seldom happens. It can become cramped and if your travelling for hours bits of you are likely to go numb. Sometimes I have even found drivers who offer the chance to buy the whole seat? As if it is two? Unless you really want to save money, I would strongly suggest doing this if it is a long journey and this is an option. Again I would advise double-checking with your fellow passengers how much they have paid to check if you have paid a reasonable price.
Getting around Indian cities by subway
Travel by road can be hot and incredibly slow. The good news is Kolkata, Mumbai and New Dehli have advantageous subway systems that are very reliable and fast. They will not cost you much, and the New Dehli Metro even connects directly to the airport. I Have provided maps at the end of this post for my readers. Do utilise this service if you can as it can save a lot of headaches.
Although I would point out that because Mumbai is on a peninsular, all the commuters get funnelled altogether. That means rush hour is intense, and I would not advise trying to get on with your bags at this time as you will be insanely uncomfortable if you can get on at all.
In summary of my post on Getting around India.
India may be a big country, but where there is a will, there is a way. It is not as hard as you may think to negotiate your way across it. Even the most far-flung places are today linked somehow by some means of transport. I think I have given a good start on how to make sense of getting around India. If you have any more questions, I may have missed, write them in the comments section and I will answer them if I can. I hope you enjoyed my article and safe travels.
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