How to plan and book an Indian rail odyssey

From buying tickets to packing, there are various things to consider when planning rail journeys in India. Whether you’re booking sleeper routes or inter-city expresses, rail expert Monisha Rajesh shares the essentials you need to weigh up.

By Monisha Rajesh
Published 8 Feb 2023, 14:30 GMT
A passenger disembarks the Mandovi Express at Ratnagiri station.

A passenger disembarks the Mandovi Express at Ratnagiri station.

Photograph by Marc Sethi

Spanning more than 40,000 miles, India’s railway tracks run from the southernmost tip of the country in Tamil Nadu to Gujarat in the west, Jammu and Kashmir in the north and Assam in the east, through villages, around mountains and along coastlines, taking passengers deep into the pockets, cracks and crevices no airline could ever reach. Nicknamed ‘the lifeline of a nation’, the railways are the arteries that keep India’s heart beating, employing 1.3 million people and carrying more than 25 million passengers a day on over 13,000 trains. From the superfast Shatabdi and long-distance Rajdhani expresses to lavish tourist trains and a handful of historic steam engines, the trains that make up the railways are characters in their own right — with a number of celebrities among their ranks. 

Within a typical carriage is a microcosm of society — graduates sporting AirPods sit at one end and farmers in traditional dress sit at the other — with everyone else in between. Amid calls of “chai chai, garam chai” and “coffee, coffee, coffee”, passengers set the world to rights by day, then sleep cheek by jowl above and below one another — it’s impossible not to trespass on your fellow travellers’ personal space. Yet there’s a uncanny sense of harmony that’s unique to Indian trains; there’s simply no finer way to discover India in all its beauty and complexity than by rail. Here are some of the main considerations when it comes to planning your own Indian rail odyssey.

So many services cover the same route, how do I pick one? 

Shatabdi express trains are fully air-conditioned, high-speed services that do roundtrips between major cities, returning to their origin station on the same day. They have chair cars only, with no sleeper berths. Rajdhani express trains are long-distance services that connect New Delhi to major cities. They make fewer stops and include meals in the ticket price. Be mindful that tickets go on sale 120 days in advance, so popular services get snapped up. For a list of services, visit

What should I pack for an overnight journey? 

Passengers travelling in air-conditioned first class (1AC), two tier (2AC) or three tier (3AC) receive a paper bag containing a pillow, sheet, blanket and flannel. However, it’s still worth bringing a silk sleeping bag liner (they keep you cool in the heat and insulated during chilly nights). Pack bottled water, toilet rolls, earplugs, shower gel for handwashing, and bring a bag to take away your rubbish, as bins aren’t commonplace. It’s also a good idea to wear slip-on shoes for trips to and from the loos.

Which class should I travel in? 

By Western standards, Indian trains are cheap (tickets on a sleeper from New Delhi to Mumbai range from £6 in an upright seat to £56 for a berth in 1AC including meals) but it depends on what you want from the journey. First-class compartments offer privacy with sliding doors, but they’re often cold and the windows are tinted, making it impossible to enjoy the views. Second tier is far more congenial, with four berths per compartment and two across the aisle. Passengers can interact more readily, although the issues with window tinting and air conditioning remain. Three tier is more cramped, with six berths in an open-plan compartment. During the day, the middle berth has to be folded away to make space for sitting passengers. The top berth is the best bet for those who want to read in private, doze or simply stretch out whenever they choose.

Do I need to pack food? 

Some tickets include meals in the price, providing you request them when booking, otherwise you’ll pay a surcharge for ordering meals on board. Rajdhanis and Shatabdis offer food, as do high-speed Duronto services, which put on a good spread. If you’re worried about eating on trains, stick to vegetarian options and follow the lead of fellow passengers when it comes to buying from vendors or station platforms.

Where can I get more information? 

Visit for a comprehensive list of timings, routes, prices and consumer ratings, then book tickets online from, which accepts PayPal, Visa and Mastercard, remembering to deselect the preselected travel insurance box if you already have your own. For personal advice, contact Shankar Dandapani, the official Indian Railways representative at S D Enterprises in London, who can make bookings for a small fee.

Monisha Rajesh is the author of Around India in 80 Trains (2016, John Murray Press), among other publications. RRP: £10.99.

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

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