If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again – especially when it comes to booking train tickets in India. In my four months in India, I got to understand the train system fairly well and always managed to get where I needed to go, albeit sometimes creatively. Like my trip to Rishikesh.
When I re-entered India in Gorakhpur after leaving Nepal, my next destination was Rishikesh where I had signed up to take a month-long yoga teacher training course.
In India you have several ways to book your train ticket. The first, obviously, is to reserve it in person at the train station. This option often involves standing in long, crowded “lines” where you must literally push and shove to get to the front. If the train station is distant from where you are staying, it can also require extra time and costs to reach the station.
The next way to book train tickets, and my preferred option, is to book online via Cleartrip. This choice clearly shows you your options for times and availability to reach the destination you want, and if the train is full, it allows you to add yourself to the waiting list and monitor said list easily. This option, however, got changed during my trip making it extra difficult for foreigners to book tickets themselves.
Another way to book train tickets is to use a travel agent, of whom there are many located in popular traveler destinations. These agencies will give you your travel options and personally book your trips for you, for a small charge (often using Cleartrip). Sometimes agencies are allotted a certain amount of seats for trips, which can be beneficial if the train you want is “booked.”
Additionally, services like “tatkal” reserve last-minute seats for travelers who book within two days of the scheduled trip, also for an extra cost. And special seats designated just for tourists allow foreign travelers the chance to get on popular train routes, although it does require booking the ticket personally at the station and making copies of your passport.
And when all else fails, you have one last option: to get on anyway.
In this instance, you jump on the train you want and take any vacant seat you can in the hope of finding a cancelled ticket. When the conductor comes around to check tickets, you simply purchase the seat you want and enjoy the ride.
When I first arrived in Gorakhpur, it had already been more than six months said I last set foot in India, but luckily my Indian friend Naren, who had been traveling with me in Nepal, was there to help me re-navigate the country.
The train I wanted was a 14.5-hour night train from Gorakhpur to Haridwar, which would then allow me to take a 45-minute bus to Rishikesh. Since I usually managed to get the trains I wanted, I did not think this would be an issue, but just in case (and at Naren’s nagging), I decided to book my ticket more than a week in advance. What I didn’t realize was that my Rishikesh trip coincided with the Kawadia pilgrimage, during which THOUSANDS of Hindus travel to Rishikesh to bathe in its holy waters at the mouth of the Ganges River.
Naren and I tried all the options.
Cleartrip had me wait-listed somewhere in the 80s, a number I was sure would go down before the date of my actual trip. When that didn’t happen, we visited the station the day of in hopes of a better deal. There were no tourist options for this trip, and again, I purchased a ticket with a waiting list in the 60s.
As Naren and I were headed to different parts of the country, this was a train I would board alone. But after already having done more than a dozen trains in India already, I wasn’t worried. I always made my trains.
Naren’s train had left later that morning, and I chilled out in the station waiting room, hoping to receive a message on my phone that I was officially booked before my train left that evening. When evening came and that still didn’t happen, I prepared for my last resort – to get on anyway and hope for the best.
I hauled on my backpacks, headed to the platform and hopped on to the second-class A/C cabin – the class for which I had purchased my waiting list ticket – found an empty seat and began to relax.
Soon after, I didn’t feel so relaxed. Turns out that vacant seat wasn’t so vacant after all – and neither were any of the others.
I stood by the end of the cabin waiting to speak with the conductor about purchasing a ticket, and when he finally talked to me, he was not happy. He told me I was not supposed to be on this train and that I had to get off and go to the sleeper class cabin – the lowest class of seating – to try to get a seat there.
I understood this as, “There are no vacant seats here, but there are vacant seats in the sleeper class.”
So at the next stop, I jumped off, ran down a few cabins and hopped on to the sleeper-class cabin.
Now, I’d done lots of sleeper-class trains before, but they are definitely not my favorite. They are by far the most crowded, dirty and uncomfortable and where you’re most likely (as a foreigner/female) to be stared at and harassed. But as I didn’t really have other options, I didn’t really care.
So I began to walk from cabin to cabin – the only foreigner around – looking for spaces. In vain. I finally asked the conductor where I was supposed to go – naively assuming there had been a space available for me – to which I was gruffly rebuffed again. He told me I was not supposed to be on this train and had to get off.
This point I started to get nervous. I had only been in the country for a couple days and was still getting my “India legs.” I began to fight back the tears as I retreated to the end of the cabin to figure out what to do.
Situated near the open doors and bathroom stall, I sat on the floor with my guidebook in an attempt to find a solution.
It was pitch black outside, and I had no idea where I was at this point. Other passengers rattled off the names of the passing cities, but Lonely Planet did not have sections for these places and stopping in the middle of the night to find a guest house in the middle of nowhere seemed quite dangerous. On the other hand, I was constantly having to move for the people who were frequently coming in and out of my cabin to use the bathroom or get on and off the train, and I couldn’t very well spend the night here either, especially if the conductors came by. I really didn’t know what to do.
And then, like an angel from heaven, I made a friend.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one desperate to get on this train and soon found myself chatting with a young Indian man who was also traveling from cabin to cabin in search of a space.
He was relaxed about the whole situation and told me to make myself a bed on the floor in between one of the rows of three-stacked sleeper seats that filled up both sides of the cabin.
I was not entirely comfortable with this idea either. Aside from the fact that these floors were nasty, I worried I’d put myself in a vulnerable situation for theft (or worse), lying between rows of strangers, most of whom were men.
Seeing my apprehension, my new friend led to me to a row with a man and a woman on the bottom levels and proceeded to make me a “bed” of newspapers on the floor and told me not to worry, that he would keep watch sitting at the end.
Though I was putting a lot of trust in this random stranger, I decided this was probably the best option I had at this point. I thanked him, shoved my big backpack under the seat next to me, placed my little backpack (with my valuables) under my head as a pillow, covered myself with my sarong and took out my iPod. As I lay there throughout the night – definitely NOT sleeping – I found myself in this little happy place listening to my music, letting my thoughts wander lazily and blocking out the fact I was sleeping on a bed of newspapers on the floor of a dirty train among strangers.
The next morning when my train arrived, my guardian angel was nowhere to be found, but the worst had passed. I was safe, my belongings were safe, and I had survived my less-than-ideal journey. Though semi-disgusted, part of me was quite proud to have “roughed” it, rightfully earning the “backpacker” title held so dearly by those determined not to be called “tourists.” On the other hand, I was grateful this was one of the last legs of my trip and the experience, though valuable, was not likely to be repeated.
And I can still say I’ve made it to every single destination I wanted on time :).