Despite the size , with more than 10,000 trains running everyday, in a country of 1.4 billion people, it is still quite difficult to get a train ticket. Allocated tickets usually sell out days or even weeks before the date of the journey. Luckily, in order to make it a bit more possible to get a ticket, there are several ways of ensuring your place on a train.
Three ways to buy a ticket
In person – it is possible to go to any railway station and purchase a ticket over the counter from the advance reservation desk. You must fill out a paper form with your personal details (name, age, phone number), as well as the train number and ticket type. This is good because you can pay in cash, however expect to spend a whole afternoon lining up to obtain a ticket: these offices are very crowded, and queues are not strictly followed.
Through an agent – there are hundreds of travel agencies in India who will help you to book train (and bus) tickets, for a commission. Travel agents can get special access to the railways booking facility, and there is a special allocation of tickets provided for them to access.
Online – train tickets can be booked through the IRCTC website, you just need to register your details and obtain a username/password. However you need a functioning Indian mobile number in order to do this, and you can only pay using Indian debit/credit cards.
Three types of tickets
Reserved – reserved tickets give you an allocated seat/berth, and are available (theoretically) up until a few hours before the train departs. However, there is a limited number of these available, because no train can be infinitely long. So often these sell out days or weeks in advance of the travel time.
Mostly when I have tried to book a ticket, I have booked an unconfirmed ticket, which means you are put on a waiting list. When you try to book the ticket it will have something like “CKWL6/WK5”, which means there is a wait list of 5 people before you. This means that when people with allocated seats cancel or change theirs leading up to the journey, your place in the wait list should decrease until eventually (hopefully) your ticket is confirmed and you are allocated a seat. If your ticket isn’t confirmed by the time the train departs, it is possible to get a refund on your ticket up until 24 hours after the train departure time. So it is a bit of a gamble booking a wait listed ticket – although if the gamble doesn’t pay off you won’t lose your money, and you have other options.
Tatkaal – the Tatkaal scheme is a last minute release of tickets at 10am the day before a particular journey. These are released online and can be purchased by yourself or through an agent. These tickets are more expensive than a general release ticket, and there are generally not very many of them released.
Be warned: trying to buy these tickets online is worse than trying to buy festival tickets (think Splendour in the Grass on Moshtix), as there are a easily a few million people trying to access tickets for hundreds of different trains on the same server. So the connection drops out and the process needs to be repeated several times in the hope of buying a ticket.
I spent one hour trying to book a ticket to Bangalore once – I had to repeat the process several times before I managed to pay successfully and obtain a ticket. The only reassuring factor was that if I was feeling this frustrated, then so were a million other people.
However this is your best bet at getting an allocated ticket at short notice for a long journey, so if you’re desperate to buy a train ticket, settle in for a wait online!
Unreserved – these tickets can be purchased on the day of travel, and cost less than 100rs. An unreserved ticket allows you onto the train, and once on the train you wander through the carriages looking for an unoccupied seat. Once you find one, sit down and look like you own that space so that no-one else tries to take it. When the ticket inspector comes by, you can buy a ticket for that particular seat if it is free, and simply pay the difference in fare to the inspector. If that particular seat is not unoccupied for your journey, then the inspector carries a print out of the passenger manifest, and they can look to see if there is another available seat on the train.
If there are no seats available to purchase, there is always an unreserved carriage on every train. Although I’m not game enough to go in there: its usually packed full of (mostly) men, and I think that I would be too much of a novelty to handle. There is also a women’s unserved carriage, but it also usually incredibly crowded. So, depending on how adventurous you are, and how much luggage you have, you can keep wandering the train trying to avoid inspectors, or sit in the unreserved carriages.
These tickets are best for short journeys, as it is less likely that you will find an available seat the longer your journey. Especially not advised if you are hoping to sleep during the journey.