Four of the best luxury sleeper trains in India

India’s luxury tourist trains operate like cruises on wheels, pausing at stations for passengers to disembark and explore the surroundings by coach. It’s then back on board for cocktails, fine dining and overnight travel to the next destination.

Setting tables in the dining carriage of the Palace on Wheels.

Photograph by Alamy
By Monisha Rajesh
Published 5 Feb 2023, 08:00 GMT

From the moment India’s first passenger train steamed along the 21-mile track from Bori Bunder to Thane in 1853, the country’s railways have fired the interest of writers, artists, photographers and directors, providing the backdrop to many a film — including The Darjeeling Express, Wes Anderson’s whimsical tale of American brothers journeying aboard a fictional luxury Indian sleeper train. With a number of real-life itineraries to choose from around the country, these celebrated trains operate like lavish cruises on wheels, parking at stations for passengers to disembark and explore the surroundings by coach. Then, it’s then back on board for cocktails, fine and overnight travel to the next destination. 

1. Maharajas’ Express

Featuring mirrored mosaic ceilings, raw-silk upholstery and gold-rimmed dinner plates piled with saffron-scented biryani, the Maharajas’ Express is the most opulent service, with four categories of cabin and suite — and a premium price tag to match. Its Indian Panorama itinerary includes a six-night round trip departing Delhi for Jaipur, a game drive through Ranthambore National Park, and the deserted Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri. There’s a dawn visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra, followed by a day spent exploring the quiet town of Orccha and the erotic temples of Khajuraho before a final day in Varanasi to glide along the Ganges by boat. 
Top tip: Pack a warm fleece and scarf for the early-morning game drive.

2. Palace on Wheels

Launched in 1982, the Palace on Wheels is the original luxury train that still covers the most popular route around the Golden Triangle, including stops at Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. Once shabby and threadbare compared with its competitors, the train had an overhaul in 2017, meaning guests can expect larger cabins, plush duvets and wall-to-wall carpeting. Over seven nights, passengers can pace the frescoed, mirrored halls of Rajasthan’s many palaces, follow Royal Bengal tigers in Ranthambore and ride a camel into the Thar Desert before watching the departing sun set the dunes aglow. 
Top tip: Book travel for October and November when the desert weather is mild and the rains are over.

3. Deccan Odyssey

A red carpet rolls out like a tongue on the platform at Mumbai’s CSMT station and personal butlers welcome guests on board. The seven-night Jewels of the Deccan tour takes passengers on a historical journey through some of India’s lesser-visited architectural marvels at Badami and Hampi, as well as the more famous caves at Ajanta and Ellora. There’s time to shop for bangles and pearls in Hyderabad’s bazaars, and if passengers want a break from excursions, there’s a spa on board the train for an ayurvedic massage, not to mention a DVD player in each cabin. 
Top tip: Wear comfortable walking shoes that slip on and off easily for tours around temples. 

4. Golden Chariot

Less flashy than its siblings, this train attracts far more domestic travellers than the other luxury services — which cover more traditional routes — and has a laid-back, family vibe. The Jewels of South tour begins in Bangalore before moving on to Mysore, Hampi and the temples at Mahabalipuram and Thanjavur, swinging diagonally down the south of the country to Kerala for a backwater cruise on Vembanad Lake. Here, passengers can expect a lunch of fried prawns, appam (rice and coconut pancakes) and coconut beetroot cooked on board the houseboat.
Top tip: Avoid booking during religious festivals, when tourist sites will be crowded.

Published in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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