Want to take the cheap route and plan your own budget trips in India? It’s totally possible, very affordable, and I almost guarantee you’ll make some friends along the way.
Before I left for India, I was pretty anxious about catching public transport.
I had all these images in my mind of people sitting on top of trains, hanging out of buses, and piling in to cars – navigating that as a tourist sounded like a nightmare I wasn’t prepared to face, so it was a huge surprise to get there and realise that getting around India is actually pretty easy.
India is a big place and transport options are in abundance.
Locals tend to travel extensively around their own country, so there’s a wide variety of options for all ages and budgets. I backpacked around for two-months and took the cheaper options most of the time, but India is not an expensive place by Western standards, so ‘forking out’ can be the difference between two-dollars and four.
It all comes down to whether you’re willing to rough it or not – if sleeping in a bed with sheets is really important to you, don’t choose ‘sleeper’ class on the train. If you can fall asleep anywhere and don’t care about personal hygiene, the ‘unreserved’ class is for you.
Regardless of your preferences, I guarantee there are some great options to suit your budget.
This is the easiest (and priciest) way of getting around India. You can hire a driver and have the luxury of exploring this vast country at your own pace. Prices vary depending on where you’re going, when, and how far you want to travel. It’s always best to look at Trip Advisor for things like this.
Signing up for a group tour can be a pretty good deal, and they generally include private bus transport, accommodation, admission to various sites and monuments, and a tour guide to tell what what’s what. Tours vary from a few days to a few weeks, and there are different options for people of all ages.
Lonely Planet has a variety of options and special deals, otherwise companies like Intrepid and Geckos Adventures offer a range of tours. Whatever you decide to go with, remember that the Trip Advisor community is very active in India, and there’s valuable information from other travellers to help you find the best company.
Not in to traveling around with a bunch of random people? Grab a friend or two and sign up for a private tour. Unlike group tours, these can be tailored to suit your specific interests, and can generally go for as long as you want. Tour guides can plan as much or as little as you want, which means prices vary greatly.
It’s difficult to provide a recommendation for a private tour because it really depends on what you want, but if you head to Trip Advisor and type in something generic like ‘private tour India’, you’ll find what you’re looking for – there are some in-depth reviews.
Before I left for India, I was adamant I would catch as few buses as possible. The lack of road rules scared the crap out of me, and trying to figure out what bus left from where and when (let alone where to get off) was too stressful to think about.
By day two, I’d caught three buses.
While not the most luxurious way to travel, public buses are by far the most cost-effective way of getting around India. They leave frequently, they usually stop right in town (unlike a lot of trains and luxury buses) and the booking system is uncomplicated – just show up at the bus station, buy a ticket, and hop on.
Asking the people at your hotel is usually the best way to start working out your bus route, but if not you can jump in a rickshaw, ask them to take you to the bus depot, and ask someone there – even if they don’t speak much English, saying the name of the place you’re going is enough to get you headed in the right direction.
If your next destination involves travelling overnight and there are no trains available, this is the best way to go. Prices range dramatically depending on how far you travel, how luxurious the bus is (some have wifi and power outlets), and whether you’re in a reclining seat or an actual sleeping compartment.
The best way to book these is via Clear Trip or Make My Trip (excellent private online booking companies that I don’t think I could have lived without) but, if there are no options there, ask your hotel or go to a travel agency and something will usually emerge.
Throughout every long trip there are stops for meals, bathrooms, and chai (seriously, they sometimes stop at 3am for chai) and, unless you’re on a private tour, the dinner stop could just be the most authentic Indian food experience you have.
Some tourists get a bit funny about eating at the food joints along the way, but we always dug in and never had a problem. The drivers tend to stop at the same eateries with each trip, and if there are locals eating it, there’s no reason to worry about getting sick.
For short trips throughout the city or town, rickshaws are the way to go. Prices vary greatly depending on where you are, so ask around for an idea of local prices.
Auto-rickshaws dominate the local transport scene around most of India, and are super quick and convenient. Just make sure you agree on a price before you get in, and ensure that covers however many people are in your group – it’s not uncommon for a couple or group to agree on a price, and have the driver turn around at the end and explain the agreed price was actually per person.
Manual-rickshaws are like a large wheelbarrow you sit on while a man physically pulls you to where you want to go. For us, this was a tough ethical dilemma – it feels strange for an old and tired Indian man to physically pull Westerners along the road in a cart.
There was one occasion where a manual rickshaw driver was really, really desperate for some business (most people opt for autos these days because they’re faster), so we chose him over the auto driver and decided to pay him double the asking price.
Cycle-rickshaws aren’t around much anymore, and unless you go somewhere like Punjab or the Delhi Bizarre, you might not see any at all. It’s the same principle as the manual-rickshaw, but there’s a bicycle attachment on the front so the driver cycles you around – pretty tricky with some of the muddy pot-holed roads.
This is my preferred method of travel around India. The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) network is one of the most extensive in the world, and will get you around most of India. Getting a ticket can be a bit tricky depending on how far in advance you book, but you get the hang of it pretty quickly.
Food vendors also parade through the trains (more so in Sleeper and Unreserved classes) offering chai, coffee, samosas, puri, and a range of local morsels (ranging from 10 to 30-rupees a pop) to keep you going throughout the trip – it’s fantastic.
Online: As with private buses, I highly recommend booking online with Clear Trip. If the train is booked out, Clear Trip will tell you if there’s a waiting list, and what number you’ll be if you join the list. The site is very straightforward, easy to use, and accepts international credit cards. You can also go to the IRCTC website, but this is a pretty complex (I tried once and gave up), or use Make My Trip.
To book a train ticket online, you’ll need to sign up to IRCTC well in advance:
1) Go to the IRCTC site and fill out the form. When you get to the mobile number section, if you don’t have an Indian number just put your real number in. If your postcode has letters in it, IRCTC won’t accept it, so make one of those up too (eg: 12345), and submit.
A ‘thank you’ screen will pop up, stating your activation link has been emailed to you, and a verification code has been sent to your mobile number. This code won’t actually appear on your phone if you don’t have an Indian number, so on to step two!
2) When you receive your confirmation email, you need to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, state that you’re from overseas and you want them to send you the mobile activation code via email, and expect a reply anywhere between a few hours and a few days (they’re pretty efficient so you’ll definitely get one).
3) When IRCTC reply, they’ll ask you for a scan of your passport (I felt a bit weird about this at first, but technically tourists aren’t allowed to have Indian phone numbers, so it’s the only way unless you wait until you get there and manage to get ahold of a local number). Reply with the passport scan, and they’ll email you the mobile verification code.
4) Click the activation link sent to you in the initial email, and type in the mobile verification code when prompted.
5) Head to Clear Trip and use your IRCTC login details to connect the two, and start booking trains!
At the train station: This varies in degrees of difficulty, depending on where you are. I’ve been to stations where you have to fill out a booking form (if you can’t read the form, flip it over to find the English section), and I’ve been to others where you jump in a queue and wave money at the cashier until you’re served.
If you’re in a city, lines are long and it’s an all-for-one situation where you’re only aim at this point in your life is to get ahead. I’ve experienced numerous people telling me things like I’m in the wrong line, or that there are no tickets to where I want to go, but more often than not they’re just trying to get you out of their way so they can get there first – stand your ground, calmly shake your head, and stay in the line.
If you’re female or travelling with a female, you can also make use of the ‘ladies’ line’. Usually ticket lines are dominated by men, so these lines are short and quick, and should be taken advantage of. Sometimes they’re labelled, often they’re not, but make your way to the front of the line you’ll be served first – there is always a ladies’ line, so don’t be put-off by the lack of signage.
Through a travel agent: Sometimes it’s much easier for someone else to book your tickets, and with the hundreds of thousands of travel agencies in India, you can take your pick. I’ve walked in to the smallest, dodgiest-looking places and have never had a problem – they’ll always get you to where you want to go. Many hotels will be able to book tickets for you (for a small commission), so it’s worth asking them if you can’t book online. Travel agencies will sometimes pre-book a number of tickets, so when you come along at 10:30am (see ‘Tatkal’, below) desperate for a ticket on train that’s sold out, they’ll have some available for an inflated price.
Other Things To Note:
The train waiting list: Since bookings open 90-days before the departure date, trains tend to book out fast, but there are usually a lot of cancellations – if you’re before number 10 on the waiting list, you’ll most-likely get a seat. Keep in mind nothing is guaranteed, and you’ll only find out when the train arrives. There is always a paper list stuck to the side of each carriage with the names of all people allocated to that carriage – if you’re not on it, you don’t have a seat. Your best option in this scenario is to either find the on-board train guard (the official-looking people in uniform with clipboards) and ask them if they can slot you in to another carriage or class (the one time I did this it didn’t work out, but I’ve heard a few success stories, so it’s worth a shot), or run for your life back to the ticket office, grab a general ticket and hang out in the jam-packed unreserved 2nd class. Alternatively, you could just wait for the next train, or catch a rickshaw to the bus station and try your luck there – if you tell an official-looking person at the bus station where you’re going, they will most-likely try and help you.
Tatkal: Hindi for ‘immediate’, tatkal was implemented due to trains booking out so far in advance. IRCTC reserves a certain amount of tickets per train to go on sale at 10am the day before departure. Tatkal tickets cost a bit more, but sometimes it’s your only option. Strangely enough, IRCTC close all their online bookings between 9am and 11am daily, which means you either have to go to the train station and line up to book a tatkal ticket, or go to a travel agency and see if they have any options.
Booking the right class: There are seven classes of travel on Indian Railways, and you’ll always be asked to select one when booking a ticket either online or in person. While not all classes are available on all trains, most will have a class to suit all budgets:
1AC (1st Class Air-Conditioned): Expensive, comfortable, and private with two or four berths (beds), this class includes meals and doors that lock. This is the most secure way to travel, and the only class that isn’t open-plan.
2AC (2-Tier Air Conditioned): Though it’s open-plan, this is still a grade-A option. There are two or four very clean beds per compartment (two tiers per wall, like a bunk-bed) complete with AC, blankets, and curtains so people can’t watch you sleep.
3AC (3-Tier Air Conditioned): The same as 2AC, but there are two three-tier bunks per compartment with no curtains. It’s still very clean, and blankets are included.
AC Executive Chair: This class isn’t always available, but it’s good for day-trips with clean reclining seats and loads of space.
AC Chair: Not as swanky as Executive Chair, but still a good option for day trips.
Sleeper Class: No blankets, AC, curtains or windows that close properly. These carriages are laid out with two or six three-tier bunks per compartment, and can be pretty grubby and cold if you don’t bring your own blankets, but the slight padding on each tier and ceiling-fans make it comfortable enough for low-cost overnight travel. I spent a lot of time in this class, and I think it’s the best value for money if you can deal with a bit of filth – I don’t think I ever paid more than 150INR, and I did a few 12-hour trips.
Unreserved 2nd Class: The hardwood or plastic seats and overcrowded nature of these carriages make it pretty uncomfortable for overnight trips, but tickets are always available at super-cheap prices. Needless to say, there are no blankets, curtains, closed windows or AC, but they do have fans! If you’re in it for the experience, this is about as authentic as it gets.
Fancy Trains: India is a place of extreme poverty and wealth, and it’s reflected in their transport system. While the unreserved 2nd class might set you back 50-cents, for a few thousand dollars extra, you can travel like a king on the Maharaja’s Express. Drink from hand-cut crystal glasses, eat with gold and silver-plated crockery at one of the two restaurants on board, hang out in your own private ensuite using the complementary hair dryer while using high-speed internet with the LCD TV blaring in the background – and this isn’t the only train of its kind. Sites like The Luxury Trains have them all listed for you. Getting around India has never been so comfortable.
The idea of getting around India via public transport can sound daunting, but after a few days you’ll be a pro. If you’re there to immerse yourself in Indian culture, travelling on public transport is one of the most authentic experiences you’ll get, and I can almost guarantee you’ll never forget it. If you take one piece of advice, it should be to ask people to point you in the right direction.
What was your experience travelling India? Tell me about it!