Planning is a big part of the fun of travel for me, so prior to our trip to India in March I already had much of the journey laid out in detail. This included ordering our train tickets in advance.
The Indian Railways site to find schedule and price information is www.indianrail.gov.in. There is a separate site for online booking at www.irctc.co.in. The booking site requires a username and password, but signing up is fairly straightforward. But with at least eight classes of seats and over 60,000 kilometers of rail, the system is huge and can be complicated.
Booking train tickets from outside of India is a breeze – if you are patient. It’s possible to make reservations and payments online, but the booking website does not work consistently and the instructions are not always clear. Two great resources for Indian train information are the forums at IndiaMike and the Indian rail information provided at The Man in Seat Sixty-One.
I ordered tickets for six journeys online, and gave the address of the booking office in Delhi as my delivery address. It took me about two hours to order the first tickets, but after that the process was a bit smoother and within a week I had ordered all of the tickets. I placed the orders about a month before our visit to India.
Once in India, we had one day to spend in Delhi before heading to Agra and then Rajasthan. We only had one goal for that day: to pick up the train tickets.
The New Delhi train station was just a five minute walk from our hotel, but finding the right place to pick up our tickets was not so easy.
At the train station we tried to go upstairs to the ticket office but were ‘advised’ by an older man that we needed to go to Connaught Place in New Delhi to pick up our tickets. In truth we had left the hotel entirely unprepared and had no idea where we really had to go. We retreated back to the hotel to check, where we asked the desk clerk where we needed to go. According to him, the office was just down the road from the station, right next door.
We went back and this time we found the right office, though it is more like 500 meters down the road instead of next door. Upon entering the building we were ‘advised’ by another man where we needed to go. There he told us we had to go upstairs. We managed to ignore him and read the clear signs for ourselves and found the window for picking up Internet tickets (which was not upstairs).
Two middle-aged Danish men were standing at the ticket window. They looked exasperated. They told us they had spent three hours that morning in another office trying to order train tickets for several journeys. They were bounced from window to window before they found the right person to help them. After booking all the tickets they had to come to the place where we all now stood to actually pick them up. It was taking a very long time. We sat down and waited. After about 30 minutes they were finished, but I don’t know if they actually got everything sorted out or not.
We filled in a form to pick up the tickets. We were missing some vital information but included everything that was on the receipts I got from the online bookings. The man took our forms and looked at the receipts and then picked up a very small pile of small white envelopes and started to look through them. After looking at every envelope he would make his finger wet on a sponge and flip to the next envelope. The envelopes were all smudged brown from being shuffled through over and over.
Soon we saw my name on one of the envelopes, yippee! One of our tickets was found, joy! He kept looking. Another one! Yeah! And another! Again and again, and then finally near the bottom of the pile the last of our six train tickets was found. He looked at our envelopes again and checked and cross-checked with some large dusty notebooks on his desk, and then gave us the tickets for us to check yet again. We also had to sign and/or initial a few documents for him. Everything was great, the tickets were right, we were very happy.
We started to leave and he called us back, gestured us to come BEHIND THE GLASS to sit in a small office. What’s this? We wondered what was wrong. He found two chairs for us and asked us to sit down. Uh oh. He brought us a large horizontal notebook and opened it up to a half-blank page. The suggestions book! He saw how happy we were and he wanted us to leave a comment in the suggestions book! And we were quite happy to do so.
Ordering our tickets online was a great method for us. Our visit to India was just under three weeks so we wanted to have our travel arranged in advance rather than worry about it while on the road. If you are looking for the security of pre-booking your travel but worry about the loss of flexibility, we understand the return policy with Indian Railways is quite generous. But the paperwork is a killer.