A guide for navigating transport in India

India can be an overwhelming country to travel in. The land is vast, the crowds are relentless and understanding the orderly chaos that is the country’s multiple transport systems takes patience, time and determination. Many people have romanticised images in their mind about travelling by train in India; their hair whisked back by the wind and watching the sun set over the rice fields whilst the train promptly carries its passengers to the intended destination. Of course, the reality is much different.

Nonetheless, using public transport in India, be that trains, buses, autorickshaws or the city metro systems, can be a convenient, eye-opening and enjoyable experience, if you know what to expect and how it all works. 

So here is a guide to all you need to know about getting from A to B and navigating the transport systems in India, so you can hit the ground running.

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Trains

Most people imagine romantic journeys on India’s expansive rail network, however, the reality, in many cases, is much different. The general experience is that the trains are crowded, often require booking days in advance and are very often delayed… like we’re talking delays in hours not minutes. Of course, taking a train in India has become a sort of quintessential experience and is a memory you’ll probably keep with you long after leaving the country, so even if it doesn’t quite go to plan it’s part of the experience of travelling on the subcontinent. .

How to book trains in India

With so many different types and classes to choose from and all the regional differences, navigating the network is not necessarily simple. Timetables, live updates and seat availability is accessible on your mobile, with apps like IRCTC (the official Indian Railway company) and ixigo (an Indian travel agent). You can even book tickets online too, which is highly recommended to avoid the chaos and language barriers at the station counters. It sometimes takes a bit of time and effort to set these apps up, and you’ll need an Indian SIM card and number, but it’s definitely worth it if you’re going to be using trains often or as your main transport.

First, you need to set up an IRCTC account, which technically you can buy tickets directly through. However, it rarely accepts foreign cards, which is where ixigo comes in (or another Indian travel agent such as Cleartrip, they all work relatively similar). You then link your IRCTC account with your ixigo account and then purchase tickets through the ixigo app with your card. I used this many times in India and have heard other people also having good results with it. Other apps like Cleartrip work in the same way too.

You don’t even need to print out the ticket, just save it on the app or download the e-ticket version and that’s all you need when they come round to check tickets.

Tourist quotas

For the popular long distance trains between the major cities or tourist places, tickets can be sold out days and even weeks in advance. If you don’t get an Indian SIM or don’t want to purchase online, the other way to buy tickets is in person at the railway stations. You can buy regular tickets or, if they are sold out, you can try for the tourist quota.

This is basically an allotment of seats that are reserved for foreign passport holders in India on a tourist visa. These aren’t available for all trains though, and it’s best to check on the IRCTC website first to see if it applies to the train you want to take. These tickets have to be purchased at railway ticket counters, which can be inconvenient, and not all railway stations can sell these tickets (I told you transport in India is not easy!). The stations which have foreign tourist bureaus are where you can request and purchase tourist quota tickets and it usually has to be done the day before travel.

If all that sounds too hard, then you can also get your hostel or hotel or another travel agent in India to purchase tickets for you, but they will often add a commission of course. However, for the convenience it can be much easier, especially if you’re only in the country for a short time or only taking one or two trains.

Classes on Indian trains

For long distance travel it’s best to splurge a little more on a higher class, where you’re more likely to actually get some sleep. Classes like AC1, AC2 or AC3 have air conditioning, fold down beds and even offer a pillow and blanket as well. They are more like private cabins, with lockable doors.

If you’re on a budget, however, then sleeper class will be your go-to, and what an experience you’re likely to have! They are open carriages with fold down beds and usually just fans screwed to the ceilings for air circulation. My top tips for surviving this class are: always bring your own blanket or shawl, don’t expect your seat to be free when it’s supposed to and keep your bags close to you at all times. Saying that, you’ll find your neighbours are likely to want to have a chat, there’s always a constant flow of food and chai coming down the aisle by vendors and the sights, sounds and smells going on around you are likely to keep you well entertained for the entire journey.

Some trains have power points for charging but it’s always a good idea to carry a fully charged power bank with you, so you can charge your devices without worrying.

It’s also possible to use the trains for short distance travel during the day and trips can cost as little as a couple of dollars for a journey, if you opt for just a seat as compared to a bed. These tickets, for some routes, can usually be bought on the day and don’t require much planning, but it’s always best to check the timetable and availability online before heading to the station. 

HRTC bus
Government buses

Buses

For long distance travel, the real debate lies between buses versus trains, however, both have their merits.

Buses are surprisingly a good option, particularly if you’re a solo traveller. In fact, I much prefer them when travelling in India. They are more likely to be on time compared to the trains and if you’re opting for a private sleeper bus, you can even have your own compartment with a bed. It does mean you have to contend with India’s roads though, which are not always smooth, so don’t count on too much beauty sleep.

How to book bus tickets in India

For most of these long journeys on private buses, you can book through an app called Redbus which is highly recommended, as you can even pick your seat/bed. However, some people have trouble using their foreign cards on this app and it seems to change over time, as I have used it before and other times it doesn’t work for me. The alternative is to go through any hostel or travel agent who can also book them for you.

For these private sleeper buses, they sometimes pick up from various points in a city and when you purchase the ticket it will ask where you want to get picked up from. Although this sounds great, it can get confusing as to exactly where the bus will stop because some of the available addresses are just random corners and roadside shops rather than any kind of bus station. It’s best to ask your accommodation the best location to be picked up from so that you pick the place most convenient to get to.

Government buses

For cheaper options, there are non-sleeper buses with regular seats and the quality can vary remarkably. You usually have the option between private and public, with the public government buses often being in much worse condition although also much more affordable.

Government buses differ between states and are actually operated under a state transport corporation. For example, Himachal Pradesh’s government buses run under Himachal Pradesh Road and Transport Corporation or HPRTC and this is how you can differentiate between them and private buses, which can have all sorts of names.

In some areas where the train or private bus network is almost non-existent, such as Jammu and Kashmir, most of the Northeast region and some other rural areas, the government buses will be your only option (other than private vehicle hire). They are generally old, rundown and falling apart, however, they tend to cover most places and will get you to where you need to go, with the added bonus of watching daily life go by out the window and the opportunity to stop at good, cheap local restaurants for meals. They also aren’t the quickest form of transport, as they usually stop constantly to squeeze on more passengers and drop people off. 

Tickets for these buses are generally bought directly at bus stations although some states do have schedules available online. However, it’s really best to check the latest at the station counter as timetables change frequently and the websites often aren’t updated in years.

Tuk tuks/rickshaws/autos

The quintessential local transport in India are the tuk tuks or rickshaws. Cheap, slow (unless you’re lucky) but always fun. There’s so many of them around that they’re probably the most convenient form of transport within urban places and if your driver speaks a little English you often get a friendly local tour guide along with it. Some of them are old and barely make it over 20km/h, while others are fancier versions with all sorts of colourful tassels and dashboard trinkets to go with it. Choose wisely and always agree on a price before you get in. Some of the drivers can be ruthless businessmen so its best to know how much the trip should cost before setting out to bargain.

Kolkata taxi
Kolkata taxis

Taxis

Taxis are typically more expensive than rickshaws and ride-sharing services in India, but in cities like Mumbai and Kolkata they are iconic. The old taxis in these cities are remnants from the British times, so even if you choose to go with a cheaper type of transport they still make for a great photograph.

Ride-hailing services/apps 

There are now a variety of ride hailing services available in India, with the most popular choices being Ola and Uber. It can work out relatively cheap, especially if you share with other travellers, and can also eliminate some of the language barrier by you being able to enter your exact destination in the app. These apps also have a counter at every airport where you can get someone to book one for you, although there’s usually a lengthy line for it too. If you have a local SIM the best bet is to download the app and book your own (you’ll need an Indian number though). It’s also a good way to check for prices before hailing a local taxi or rickshaw, so you know what price range you should be bargaining for. 

Jaipur metro
Jaipur metro

Metro systems

In the cities where they exist, the metro systems are really efficient and a very cheap option to get around. The Delhi Metro is particularly good, you can pretty much get to every tourist site, shopping mall and market and even to the airport for much less than private transport. There are tourist passes available if you’re staying for a while, but otherwise one time-use tokens for most journeys cost less than $1 anyway and often work out cheaper if you’re only spending a couple of days there. 

If you’re a female, don’t forget that there’s also a female only carriage on metro trains (look for the pink signage) as well as reserved seats on most carriages.

Shared jeeps (sumos)

If you go off the beaten track and explore some of the least visited states in India, shared jeeps or locally known as sumos will be your only friends. The train network can’t possibly reach all places; especially areas like the Northeast region, and buses are sometimes confined to the major cities. In places like this, shared jeeps are the best and quite frankly, the only way of getting around. They leave when full and your luggage is usually strapped on to the roof rack. Just be prepared when I say ‘shared’ because it means with at least 10 other people, unless you want to pay for the whole car, which is always an option.

Depending on the place, these shared jeeps either congregate together in one large parking lot or they operate from their own private counters. For popular and long distance routes, tickets can usually be bought the day before and it’s recommended to do so if you want a decent seat. They are generally well organised and require you to be there half an hour before departure. However, this is still India, so don’t expect it to leave on time.

Tawang
Jeep travel in Arunachal Pradesh

It’s always worth asking what seats are available before purchasing a ticket and opt for either the front or window, and never the back! There are generally multiple ticket counters competing for customers so you can always shop around. 

They usually stop every few hours so you can stretch your legs, go to the toilet and get a meal or some snacks.

Read about my epic road trip to Tawang by shared jeep, here!

Bikers Srinagar
Srinagar-Leh Road

Motorbikes and scooters

Hire one, buy one or jump on the back of one. For the adventurous type, a motorbike is ideal if you have time and want to travel at your own pace. Plus, the old school Royal Enfields are pretty darn cool. They are extremely popular for people wishing to explore Ladakh and Spiti Valley in North India, and in high season, the roads there are almost crowded with Bullets taking the rough, mountain roads. If you’re not a moto head though, scooters are also for rent in many tourist towns like Pushkar and Goa and make for a great way to see the surrounding areas for much less than a day tour. 

Restrictions and regulations are rarely enforced, and roads can be chaotic and dangerous, so just make sure you have travel insurance that covers you! Although, in Goa authorities are starting to clamp down on tourists and they will fine you for not wearing a helmet or having a proper license (of some sort).

For hiring a motorbike in North India, most foreigners just needed to present a car license (or even just a passport), no motorbike license or prior experience necessary!

Camel That Desert

Camels and elephants

The least ethical mode of transport but unfortunately still a huge part of the tourism industry, particularly in Rajasthan. It’s been known for a while that the elephants at the forts in cities like Jaipur are not treated very well at all and some travellers have been calling for boycotts of these services for years. Unfortunately there is still enough of a demand for them to be in use. Please refrain from taking that elephant ride at the forts in Rajasthan or anywhere else in India, if you want to be a responsible traveller.

You can read more about why you shouldn’t ride elephants in India here.

Camel tours into the Thar Desert in Rajasthan are hugely popular and the way the camels are treated depends on who you end up booking with. Unfortunately it’s difficult to know as a tourist as most companies, hotels and middlemen all work together and often what you think you’re getting you may not actually get in the end.

Outside of the large and more luxurious camps, the tours are often run by families who have trained and ridden camels for generations. These kinds of operators are more ideal as they are more likely to treat their animals with respect, but it’s difficult to know because usually they will be booked through a hotel or agent. I heard some people having a bad experience with the larger and more popular camps there, which were more concerned about tourist money than animal welfare.

I would recommend trying to be as responsible as you can when booking a desert trip, ask questions and read reviews. More and more people are opting against these camel safaris though for the sake of ethical travelling.

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