I’m on a 750 kilometer train to Mumbai. This is almost twice the length of Sri Lanka, mind-boggling. After messing up a bunch I have a sort of rhythm with this travel thing, which basically involves paying extra and taking a lot of buses. The train is cool, but always booked. You can pay extra and book late, which I do. Barring that, you can catch a bus almost anywhere. A 14 hour bus is beyond my ken, I fear. I’m glad I made the train.
Trains, being the ideal in terms of romance and comfort, can be booked pretty easily online. MakeMyTrip has a simple interface, but I use the official Indian Rail site. This is a bit slow and particular, but it works once you get the hang of it.
1. Register, get username password
3. Search based on start and destination. Some places have a few stations. Some places like Goa or Hyderabad don’t have a station, you have to enter a specific station’s name.
4. Then, and this is the trick, select your options. Starting with class.
Class – basically AC Car Chair or Second Class for the daytime, AC Two Tier, Three Tier or Sleeper for overnight. The AC options are fine, but Second Class is actually probably more scenic. The AC chair windows are dirty and opaque. At night normal sleeper is fine (though they don’t give you sheets). However, and this is the key for booking late, AC sleepers usually have shorter waiting lists. They are also quite a bit more expensive, and you wake up into a noisy communal sinus, but besides that are OK.
I’m in the three tier right now, which is fine. I have the middle tier bunk, which sucks, but whatever. The best berth to request is the side lower, pretty much private and a window. Booking late you have like zero chance at this. But to return
5. Then you select the type of ticket, i-ticket or e-ticket. i-ticket is a misnomer, it’s actually a physical ticket that they mail to you. Pointless. I just select the e-ticket, which can be printed out, tracked and cancelled online. They also have pretty ill SMS interaction.
6. Once you search it’ll return the trains (if there are any). Then below that you have to check the fare and the availability. Availability is the thing.
If you’re booking a major train a few days before, seats won’t be available. You’ll see a number like WL 15/WL 8. That basically means that you’re number 8 in line. When booking started the wait list was 15, so you can see that it’s moving. WL 8 is not especially good. I’ve become uncomfortable with anything above 5. The system works with reserved seats, then Reservation Against Cancellation (people with seats but not necessarily sleeping room) and a wait list. As people cancel you move up. In my experience it always moves.
With a crafty jiggering of the options you can usually get a wait list below five. I’ve been booking AC Two or Three Tier, for example, plus Taktal, and I get like WL1. It’s a bit dicey cause I only get seated like three or four hours before, but I’ve got seated OK on busy trains to Mumbai and Hampi. It’s like Rs 200 more, or like Rs 500 SLR, so no joke, but it’s better than spending extra nights in random, shitty, soul-stultifying transport hubs.
7. Then click ‘Book Ticket’ and book. It’s nice if you have a mobile cause they send alerts. Then select a payment gateway, of which there are 4 billion. I go with Axis. It sucks but it generally processes my MasterCard OK. What’s cool is that you can cancel your ticket almost anytime, through the site (and only through the site).
Then, if all else fails, you can always take the bus. For most destinations you can just knock up at a bus stand and get there. You can also book longer sleeper type stuff via MakeMyTrip. For short hops (as in 5 or 6 hours, which is damn long for me) I’m OK taking cheap, crappy buses. I end up thwacking my head on the metal with some regularity and the speed bumps rattle me bones, but what to do. You meet some interesting people, maybe get to play peekaboo with some babies, whatever. One can at least go a few hours without hearing idiotic conversations in English, which is a relief.
So yeah. That’s how I’ve been travelling. What’s extra cool is that I can do almost everything online. I book on ny netbook, over a mobile Airtel connection. Then I check status by SMSing my PNR number to 139. And I print my ticket at random net cafe’s. The billing bricks half the time and the site is mad slow, but it works. The whole system kinda works. You end up spending days travelling, which I didn’t really plan for, but you can traverse some serious distance, with most of the footwork online.