There are three good things that the British left behind the day they left the Indian continent.
- The first is one language spoken across all states (English).
- The second is officially defining the borders of what we call India today.
- Thirdly, it is the incredible Indian railway system, by far the best and cheapest way to see India.
The Indian Railway System is pretty straight forward once you understand it:
1. How to get hold of a ticket
Make a reservation. You need one! Book in advance, the trains are busy. The easiest way is to do it online, check out 12Go. You can also book through travel agents and see 'terms' below for more info on the special 'tourist quota' given to foreigners.
The main classes that you will get to deal with are& - AC1, AC2, AC3, Sleeper and Unreserved 2nd class (which is the one you want to avoid where possible).
Air Conditioned first class (AC1) - The best option available, separate compartments. Comfortable and air conditioned (AC). On some journeys you're better off buying a flight ticket for the price of an AC1 train ticket.
Air conditioned 2-tier (AC2) - Coaches are open-plan, seats by day, convertible to bunks at night. Berths arranged in bays of four. It has curtains for privacy and bedding is provided. A good option.
Air conditioned 3-tier AC3 - As above, but with berths arranged in bays of six and therefore a bit more crowded. Also a good option. Includes bedding and curtains.
If in doubt, any AC option is good for girls traveling by themselves.
Sleeper Class - The budget traveler’s choice. The majority of cars on a long-distance train are Sleeper class. Open plan berths with upper, middle and lower bunks arranged in bays of six. No bedding, no AC.
Unreserved 2nd class - An option for emergencies, but not recommended for long journeys
The tourist quota - Many important trains have a special quota of seats available for foreign tourists. Head to the station to get these. Remember - tickets issued against the tourist quota must be paid for in USD, GBP or INR proving exchange of foreign currency. In case of Rupees, if its backed by an ATM receipt with foreign bank card, it is OK.
Tourist reservation bureaux - Big cities have an International Tourist Bureau where foreign travelers can book tickets away from the crowds.
Tatkal places - A number of tickets on key trains are held back and released at 8am, two days (72hrs) before departure. These are sold with an extra 'Tatkal' charge. Available via online booking sites.
Reservation Against Cancellation (RAC) places - After a train becomes fully booked, a certain number of places in each class are sold as RAC.& After all the RAC places have been sold, further prospective passengers are 'Waitlisted' (WL). If you have an RAC ticket you will be promoted in case of cancellation to a confirmed seat on the train. Your name will be shown on the reservation list at the station.&
Waitlisted (WL) places - A WL passenger will be promoted to RAC if RAC has been given a seat. If nobody cancels and you have an 'RAC' ticket you are allowed to travel on that train.