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How to Ride Indian Trains Sleeper Class
How to Ride Sleeper Class
So you want to travel India and do it cheaply? You've basically got two options: buses and trains. You can get virtually anywhere on trains. But you need to purchase tickets often at least a month ahead of time.
Buying Tickets for Sleeper Class
Try not buy tickets in person at the railway station unless you like long lines and a mediocre chance of finding a ticket. Be careful with some travel agents. They can be quite unsavory and may recommend more expensive services than you need when you can easily buy tickets yourself.
Again: Buy ahead. Generally at least a month ahead. Trains book up very quickly.
Buy tickets online. But, remember that many online sites require you to possess an Indian credit or debit card and an Indian bank account. Do not use the IRCTC website. It will not take a foreign credit card. My best suggestion is going to cleartrip, yatra or makemytrip. They foreign cards, and charge a small commission.
Buy in advance. If you cannot, then buy what is called Tatkal. Tatkal is scheme under which the Indian Railways releases a few seats the day before the train leaves at a higher price. It's useful for people who cannot buy in advance. Go to the websites above at 10am the day before the train leaves and select the Tatkal option if it appears. Keep in mind that Tatkal is not always available.
Alternatively, go direct to the train station with your passport. Many, but not all, trains have foreigner quotas. Usually up to 2 seats per class, but sometimes more.
What to Expect: Crowds
Expect really crowded trains. There may be up to 12 people per each six person berth. When you buy a berth, there will most likely be a person already occupying it once you enter the train. Be assertive. Bring your ticket. If they protest, wait for the conductor and show him or her your ticket. I do not recommend traveling sleeper as a single woman.
The upper bunks tend to offer more privacy.
What to Except: Berths
Each sleeper class has six person berths, with the cabin (not really a cabin since there's no door) perpendicular to the direction of the train. Two bunks on the bottom, two in the middle that can fold up so you can sit on the bottom bunk, and two up top. Each six person berth has 3 fans for airflow that may or may not work. With each 6 person cabin, there is a separate top and bottom bunk adjacent to it running parallel to the train.
Berths do not come with pillows or blankets. They are very dirty and not for the squeamish.
What to Expect: Extreme Temperature. Hot and Cold
If it is winter in North India, I highly recommend not riding sleeper class at night. There is no heat and sometimes the windows do not shut. The temperatures fall into the lows 40s Fahrenheit. With windchill, you can easily see your own breath. It will be one of the most miserable experiences of your life.
I remember riding into Delhi from Chandigarh on an overnight train, a short 6-7 hour train ride on the Kalka Mail. By the early morning I had worn every article of clothing I had in my small backpack and I wrapped my towel around me. I was violently shivering. When we made it to the outskirts of Delhi, I remember hearing the heavenly metallic voice of the first chai wallah, shouting “chai!” The chai was already cold once the cup hit my mouth. If you do want to ride sleeper class in North India in the winter, buy a heavy blanket.
If it is summer, buy water!
Delays and Layovers
Expect Delays. Delays can be especially bad on trains leaving Delhi. The North East Express from Delhi to North East India and back is notorious for delays and overcrowding. I have waited for this train for over nine hours at the station. Never expect your train to be on time. Never book any two long distance trains with a short layover period between the two. You might miss your second train and end up having to catch a very long and expensive taxi ride or having to ride second sitting (essentially human cattle car) on the next available train. Second sitting is not a pleasant experience for those who are not gung-ho.
Having lived in India and South Asia on and off for four years, I have found that routes going through Bihar, UP and Jharkhand tend to be quite delayed. Expect delays upwards of 4 hours on routes going through these states.