The Trials and Tribulations of Trying to Tie down Train Tickets in India

TL/DR

  • Booking trains in India can be a mission but persevere. Read below for tips (after a rant)
  • I’ll think twice before moaning about National Rail (which is disgustingly expensive if you really think about it in contrast to Indian Rail!)

We’re mainly using the train in India to get around. The prices are good, and from what i’ve read it’s an integral experience for anyone venturing around India. As we’re doing rather an odd route (starting in Calcutta and finishing in Mumbai, but getting there from Kerala and Goa) we have some serious train journeys to look forward to!

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We’ve done quite a bit of reading about booking trains, because they tend to sell out, especially in the classes more suited to us newbie travellers. Indian railways are nationalised, and you need to book online via their national rail equivalent, IRCTC. So, let me guide you through my experience so far.

Registering on IRCTC

This is no trainline.com. I have actually registered 3 times on 3 separate emails because I never got any confirmation emails etc. You also need to have an indian mobile number, which MUST be 10 digits. Obviously I don’t have an indian number but fortunately have a mate in Pune who does (thanks Jay!). On my final and successful account registration I was overjoyed, as I REALLY needed to book some tickets to Mumbai ahead of our Diwali experience. HOWEVER, upon my first login I discovered I needed to confirm my email and mobile number, and didn’t get any comms to either; first hurdle hit. So as you’d normally do in this kind of situation, I emailed their customer support email (care@irctc.co.in). I didn’t hear back from 3 emails over two weeks, so resorted to Twitter, which got things moving. After a few back and forth emails I was asked to send a photo of my UK Passport through to sort out verification.

Tip No.1, email them immediately, say you cant verify your number or email, send them your username and passport as a small JPG.

So then I was in! HUZZAH! I can book tickets finally! Sadly, my second hurdle was hit.

Making sense of the codings and classes

The Class system is pretty simple to comprehend to be honest, and there’s loads of useful websites and blogs about what each bit means. I’ve been advised by a local indian friend (thanks Jay) that I shouldn’t bother with anything lower than 3ac (3rd class with air conditioning), so we took this advice straight away. Every traveller is different, but I don’t particularly fancy being on a 14 hour overnight train without a place to sleep, any AC or maybe even a chair!

Tip No. 2. Book 1-3AC only. Aim for overnight trains to save on hotel costs.

I’ve also been advised to book the side berths wherever possible, and to book overnight trains if possible to avoid wasting days on trains and to save on hotel costs. Seems like a great idea so we’ve done that wherever possible.

So now the real fun starts…

You can’t just say “Mumbai to Goa” as there’s so many stations in each area. You need to really know the names of the individual stations. In places like Mumbai and some of the other major cities you’ll be okay as they are called things like “Mumbai CST” but not in all cases. For example I started searching for Goa and there’s no station with Goa in the title. Uncle Google to the rescue.

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Tip No.3. Have a separate Google tab open at all times and hunt out the stations in the main areas you’re travelling to/from

You will probably find that in many cases you won’t get a train you’re looking for. This is very annoying as you have to just search for alternatives. This is a bit of a pain to be honest. For example if in the example below I searched for Agra Fort from Varanasi Junction i’d have been fine.

Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 12.36.43.jpgDO NOT press back in your browser as you’ll have to log in and start again. THIS RULE APPLIES THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE SITE TO BE AWARE.

Tip No.4. Do not use back on your browser. Navigate back through the site via links on the page.

Tip No.5. Have a separate tab with the same page open to speed things like searching up

You then need to figure out what days your train is actually doing that route. You’ll see something like this if you’ve successfully found a train that’s running

Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 12.41.27.jpg

Don’t worry about the days where there’s ticks and crosses, just click on your class and you’ll see loads of other options, including alternative trains (if you’re lucky) and the available dates. If you want to see the route, click on the train number in the above screen.

Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 12.42.50.jpg

So once i’d got this far, I had to start working out the coding.

Indian Train Coding

When you say where you’re going, there are different statuses of booking availability. Basically they are available, waiting list, and not available. Available is okay as there’s seats/beds available in your class. Anything like the examples on the 8th means tickets are on a waiting list (i.e. all the main tickets are gone), and you’re 15th in the waiting list. There’s also RAC that means ‘reservation against cancellation’. What the actual difference is i’m still not sure. To be honest, we just switched up our classes until we found something that was available. I’ve been advised that on 2AC and 1AC it’s unlikely there will be many cancellations, so unless you’re AL1-3 avoid being on the list.

Tip No.6. Avoid waiting lists, just adjust your class or date of travelling

Now I haven’t even mentioned the GN (General Quota) and FT (Foreign tourist) quotas you’ll see sometimes. Tickets are block booked/reserved for certain guests or travel agents. This is important to be aware of when you’re in India trying to book at a station apparently…

So, you probably think you’re getting there now. Persevere!

You then need to enter all your passport details. THIS IS IMPORTANT as you’ll be showing ID with your ticket so get it right. Alongside this you need to select your bed type. This is very much a personal preference and does vary based on class of ticket, but i’ve had side upper/lower recommended to me by people and in blogs.

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You then get to define booking parameters, like the below. Now the fun really started for me.

Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 12.50.42.jpg

On a couple of trains I booked, I got to the next stage and then got an error, because for example there weren’t any beds in the same berth left. At this stage I had to start the WHOLE PROCESS AGAIN! This is, to be frank, infuriating, but there’s not much you can do. Back to the start I go….

When you finally get to payment

So after literally an hour of trying to book 2 train tickets from Goa to Mumbai, I got to payment. HUZZAH I AM NEARLY DONE! Sadly, I wasn’t.

The payment options are vast, but for foreign tourists they are limited to one option basically, international card. I used my credit card for security which worked fine on my previous booking. However this time it was declined (because of error code RISK). This happened 4 times on the same train ticket (yes, I started again 3 additional times).

Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 12.54.54.jpg

Obviously I contacted IRCTC and my bank and both said nothing was going on.

HOWEVER

I then found I had actually been charged for the initial booking, even though I got an error. See no.4 below (payment settled but not booked. WTF!!!). So another email send to IRCTC. Fortunately they were very quick to give me a refund on the failed ticket. Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 15.41.16.jpg

Apparently you can also check your status of refund via the website, but I haven’t had the pleasure of doing this yet (but sure I will).

After all that, what was the damage?

So it’s a faff, but basically, you have to get over it as it’s the only system that’s available. I also had other websites recommended to me, but similarly I had issues because i’m not in India (many don’t take international cards, even credit cards). Stick with this site and just get on with it.

So lets talk figures. Trains in India are known to be cheap comparatively. This is what we’ve paid so far

1AC with a private cabin, Calcutta to Varanassi on a 14 hour sleeper train= £60 for 2 tickets

3AC side berth beds, Goa to Mumbai, 12 hour sleeper= £25 for 2 tickets.

I deduce from this unless you’re a total tart, go for a lower class. The cost difference is pretty vast and obviously you’ll get a more realistic/ less rose tinted experience. I’m yet to actually get on a train in India, so my opinion may change following that, but this is my initial thoughts.

So, to summarise, it’s a faff! I’ll think twice before moaning about National Rail (which is disgustingly expensive if you really think about it in contrast to Indian Rail!)

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