How to survive sleeper trains in India

We’ve all seen the photos of trains in India where the carriages are so packed that people are squished into tiny seats, spill out from the doors and take refuge on the roof. Just the thought of a train journey like this is enough to induce a claustrophobic panic attack and have many travellers wondering how the hell they’re going to survive a couple of hours never mind an overnight journey on a sleeper train!

I was in India for less than 3 weeks and took 3 sleeper trains during that time and I’m pleased to say that I lived to tell the tale. The first journey was horrific, the second slightly better and by the third I can safely say that I almost enjoyed it. After each journey I learned something new so here are my top tips for surviving a sleeper train.

Book in advance

You may be surprised to hear that a lot of the trains in india are actually super organised and you’ll need to book in advance. I was travelling during Holi Festival and the trains had to be booked four months in advance. This won’t always be necessary but if you want to guarantee a seat it is definitely recommended.

Opt for 3rd class tickets

Third class tickets are in three tier carriages which mean there are 3 bunks beds per row. You’ll have the option of first class, 2nd tier, 3rd tier, a 4th class and a 5th class. 3rd tier also has air conditioning which will make the journey that bit more bearable. Of course, first or second class would be much nicer if your budget stretches to this.

Ladies travelling alone should also be aware that third tier is actually the safest as there are so many people around. In 1st and 2nd class you could end up in a private compartment on your own with a scary stranger. Don’t let it put you off travelling in a nicer class but it’s something to be aware of.

people standing on a train in India

Fold down your bunks as early as you can

When you get on the train, the seats will probably be folded up so you can use your seating area to sit up. If you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by friends on your journey then you’ll have a great little booth. But if you’re surrounded by strangers who don’t want to chat it’s best to fold down your beds and lie down. This will mean you’re comfortable and not squished next to a load of strangers.

Rent a blanket and pillow

You’ll need to get in there early if you want a blanket and pillow but it will make your journey much more bearable. If you’ve got AC it can get chilly in the middle of the night and you’ll get a better night’s sleep with a pillow.

If you’ve got the space then I’d recommend packing your own blanket and packable pillow but if you’re travelling light it’s pretty cheap to just rent one.

Don’t be afraid to ask people to get out of your seat

I’m yet to go on a sleeper train where someone hasn’t tried to steal my seat. You could then steal someone else’s seat but it’s a vicious circle of seat stealing and arguments so it’s easier to just sit in the seat you’ve been assigned. Some people will reluctantly get up and move but others will put up a fight to defend the seat. This can be tricky if they don’t speak English but I’ve always found that the father of a nearby family will be happy to help turf the offender out so keep your eye out for friendly dads when you get onboard!

Sleeper class train in India

Order the food and drink

I don’t know why but the chai tea on sleeper trains in India is about 10 million times more delicious than any other tea in the world. Make sure you have plenty of small change or give the tea server a note to ensure he keeps coming back all night.

The food is also delicious on Indian trains but opt for something dry to avoid making a mess.

man on a train in India

Chain up your bag

There are bars beneath the seats where you can lock up your bag. I didn’t meet anyone who seemed untrustworthy and didn’t hear about anyone being robbed on a train but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Another option would be to keep your bag on your bed while you sleep. This is fine for shorties like myself but I imagine taller passengers would struggle.

Ignore the mice

Yes, there are mice. Obviously you should never leave any food on the floor or have anything edible in your backpack but aside from that I simply opted to pretend they weren’t there.

delhi train station

In the train station

You’ll get a lot of hassle in the train station from people wanting to carry your bags and take you in their tuk tuk. You need to be firm but polite in these situations and keep walking. If you’re looking for a tuk tuk, wait until your outside and negotiate a price.

There are also lots of beggars in the stations and we were told not to give them any money. Be aware of the young mothers who will target other young women by encouraging you to play with their baby and then asking for money. This is a really tough one to say no to, especially when the kids are all so darn cute.

I was told that there are plenty of organisations out there to help the poor and the homeless so try not to feel too guilty. Easier said than done, I know, but begging is never a long-term solution and giving food or money can make the situation worse.

busy platform at Indian train station

Delays

The most frustrating thing about Indian trains is the fact that no one will tell you if they’re delayed. I spent 6 hours sat on the platform waiting for a train that was ’10 minutes late’. There’s not a lot you can do about this so just make sure you have plenty of entertainment and plenty of food. Books and games are the best because iPads and Kindles can attract unwanted attention.

Inside a busy train station in India

The toilets….

And finally, I’ve left the worst till last. I’m not going to lie, the toilets are horrific. For my first journey I tried to not drink any water but this only gave me a headache and made me feel groggy so you just have to get over it. Take your own tissues and hand sanitizer, wear shoes over flip flops and ladies with a bad aim should, well, just practice your aim or wear a long skirt. The squat toilets are usually better than the Western toilets but neither option will be a pleasant experience.

I wasn't comfortable getting my camera out on the train but here are a few iPhone pics. That's a #SadSelfie on the left (looking sad because the train was gross)
I wasn’t comfortable getting my camera out on the train but here are a few iPhone pics. That’s a #SadSelfie on the left (looking sad because the train was gross)

Have you been on a sleeper train anywhere else in the world? Do you have any survival tips to share?

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TheTravelHack

Monica is the founder and editor of The Travel Hack. She began the blog in 2009 when she left the UK to travel around Asia and Australia for two years. She's now a professional blogger and has travelled around the world in search of stylish adventure travel. Monica has recently had her second baby and is determined to prove that travelling with a baby is possible!

SHOWHIDE Comments (40)
    1. I’m an Indian and I’ve been in Indian railways many times and I know how foreigners might be feeling as you all are so organised and hygienic and the sight of the toilets!! Eww! But if you need 2 go somewhere we need to bear all of that actually I’m used to all of it by now ?

  1. This is very interesting post! … I think I could handle the mice, since I’ve actually managed to ignore them at my house when they walk across the room 😛 But the toilets… not so sure! I admit I’d probably also try to not drink… but then again it’s not very enjoyable to be thirsty! I actually wish you’d have taken a picture of the toilet 😀 Or probably it’s better to be surprise… then there’s nothing I can do about it and just have to make do…! 😛

  2. Oh my god! I’ve been putting off plans to visit India and I guess that is going to stay for some time after reading your story 🙂 Great photos by the way.

  3. Great stuff 🙂 I would never be able to put my backpack in my bed with me, I’m 6’1…not sure if I will even fit in the bed 😉

  4. Yep! I’ve been on the train in India. It was awful! My tip. Sleep with your bags, wear earplugs and have a bottle of vodka handy so that you can sleep through the noise and bright lights!
    The train in Vietnam on the other hand, was a delight. Take some food with you though and use the hot water available, as there was plenty.

  5. OMG! This is such a good post and brings back many memories. Yes, I’ve taken the 3rd class Indian sleeper train and it was horrific. The porter almost ran off with my bag and dumped it on the other side of the carriage and trying to get past loads of people in order to pick it up, wasn’t easy. I t was a good thing it was red and looked tatty! Tips for the train: Stay on the top bunk. I’m petite so it worked for me but I had to crank my neck though. If you can, keep your bag with you on your bunk and also, take a bottle of vodka in order to sleep through the noise of the chai man, the snoring, and the bright lights!
    On the other hand, the sleeper train in Vietnam was delightful. Possibly ‘cos it only had 4 bunks as opposed to 6…! It was much cleaner in my opinion too and there was hot water so that you could “cook” your own stuff. My tips: Try the food as it was pretty reliable and bring your own cup noodles and snacks. The toilet was pretty OK and even had bars of soap and toilet roll, but if you’re ever unsure, sadly, the squat toilet is generally cleaner LOL!
    Thanks for posting. I’m going to share it on Twitter. 🙂

  6. As an Indian I found the post to be amusing but true. I would like to point out one error though. The compartments that you are talking about are not 3rd class but 3rd AC (3 tier AC) which are two very different things. Also generally 2nd class and 1st class compartments without AC as referred to as sleeper and not the AC ones. 3rd class is no longer operational in most trains but it exists as an unreserved compartment where might is right and travelling but it is not at all advisable unless you have no other choice.

  7. Oh my god! I have been putting off plans to visit India and I guess that is going to stay for some time after reading your story Great photos by the way.

    1. Excuse me India is a country rich in heritage , magnificient history and culture. The train may be poor but as a country India is a beautiful country.If you can afford air go by air.

      1. Elshada, I’m also Indian and live in India. Like the author said, don’t take things so personally- toilet trains are horrific and it’s true. Elegant hasn’t she even gently criticized the country and the people, and even if she did, I think you need to learn to take a bitter pill about the many prevalent and negative truths about our country. It is the truth the our population can’t even maintain basic toilet hygiene which makes public washrooms stink bad. You, like the majority of our population tends to overdramatize even the most minute opinions.

  8. This is very interesting post!
    It’s always the grossest/most uncomfortable experiences that make for the best stories later on! I really loved your photos in this post; they captured the chaos really well.

  9. Have travelled on India Rail on two previous trips and have another one planned for later this year. Good tips! I would like to add another to deal with the rather smelly toilets… we always travel with a small spray bottle of room freshened… Open the door… Give a few good squirts… Close the door and wait for about a minute before entering!! Makes the experience a tad less unpleasant. We are also taking cheap disposable gloves this time around and see if this works OK.
    India Rail is luxury compared to the trains we caught in Myanmar last year… these trains sway madly from side to side, jerk forward and every now and then jump about 6inches in the air! Looking forward to the smooth Indian trains!

  10. A friendly tip, “Avoid the tea from unauthorized vendors, both their water and milk have dubious origins” Also smoking and drinking are banned (for the lady who advises vodka to get through the journey). You can take a sip in your room before leaving for the station.

  11. Mice??!@#!!$ Seriously?!@@!$! It is my phobia. Let me ask this….are mice everywhere in India? I leave on Wednesday, a week from today. I have the biggest phobia of rodents, so please be real with me. Was it mostly hearing them or seeing them on the trains? And in other public areas….were they there a good bit of the time? I know there is a trash problem in India, so I was thinking that rodents would be there, but until now, I’ve tried repressing it. It’s no longer repressed as the trip is around the bend. I won’t let it stop me from going, but yes, it is a definite phobia that I have no control over. No one can understand this, I am sure, unless they have a phobia themselves…. thanks for the input.

    1. Hi Emily I am off to India in a month travelling by train for one night , I have a really bad phobia of mice and rats, please be honest how did you get on with the train and other areas in India , I will be better if prepared , many thanks .hope your trip was good .

  12. Wow,this brought it all back! My first train journey was a 16hour lower berth experience between Delhi & Varanasi on the Shivganga Express in Sleeper Class…despite all the things mentioned in your post I loved my train rides in India & even found the swaying motion of the carriages restful- to a degree..I loved that you can get a drink or food from the passing vendors at any time of the day or night and it was awesome to leave Delhi in darkness,sleep a little and wake up to scenes of rural India through the barred glassless windows of the Sleeper car & the cries of “ChaiCoffeePaniBotalMangoFrrrruiteeeeeee!!” as the chai wallah made their early morning rounds..great article but it’s made me pine to go back now!

    1. Hi Jim, would u like to share more about ur route trip from Delhi to varanasi, as I plan to do the same in a month from now. But I’m super confused about where exactly to go 🙂

  13. Seriously ok read but look back and read it again. Scared to do this scared to do that. Didn’t want to take my camera out or Kindle. No everyone is out to get you. Start living seriously.

    1. There isn’t one use of ‘I was scared’ in this post at all.

      And I didn’t want to take my £900 camera out of my bag because it felt inappropriate to have such a flashy device. Some people might be totally comfortable with that but that’s there decision.

  14. Why is the Chai on the trains so amazing? I also did not take any photos of the toilets….although you do want the experience over as quick as possible 🙂

  15. I am indian- out of 40 years of my life, I have lived 36 in India and remaining in USA. I have a travel trip planned to Kerala that has 40 hours train journey in sleeper class -reserved tickets- before and after kerala.
    I m travelling with wife and 2 sons. This is my longest journey so far and I was reading around the net in search of brining comfort to my total 80 hours of journey with two unrestful sons. That’s where I landed to this post.
    Yes – for foreign travellers, this may be a daunting feat to travel in indian trains, especially when they don’t have a prior experience to chaos at public place like trains.
    Showing off your rich articles – like cameras, iphone, kindles etc may lure a begger or thief to steal or snatch them. Although it’s a very very remote possibility. But you are advised to careful throughout your journey.
    Rats are mostly seen on railway tracks or at stations. It may be hard to find them on trains.
    Ac sleeper classes offer bedrolls, pillows, blankets as part of your already paid tickets. You may also book/rent additional bedroll and food through irctc website.
    99 % people are good and co-operative . They may look curious but are harmless during journey in train. But for the rest 1%- you may never predict for good in any country.
    Toilets are cleaned at regular intervals at intermediary stations. But some unfortunate trains carrying overloads of passengers may leave toilets unusable.
    You are advised to enquire a little about trains. Mostly if you can afford 1st or 2nd class ac tickets – most of these issues are automatically resolved.
    So not to worry much while travelling in train in India.
    Hopefully I addrmessed some of your concerns from my viewpoint.
    I am still thinking how I shall manage my 80 hours of sleeper class journey with my 2 naughty sons.

  16. 6 train rides on a 32 day trip of india…here a a few tips that helped me. Tiger balm in the nostrils is a must, No problems with the toilets or foods smells. Plenty of tissue and hand sanitizer. crocs for your feet. Ear plugs and an eye mask ( i recommend Bucky brand). Duct tape!!! a tiny strip on each corner of the sheet to stop slippage. A sleeping bag liner and take your own pillow in a compression sack or at very least your own pillow case. Wet wipes…do not leave home without them. I never slept with my luggage but my daypack was always with me on my bunk. Mice…yeah, there are mice…get over it! Have fun.

  17. Hi, thanks for the tips!! Very useful indeed. I’ve been taking the night train a couple of times in Vietnam and it’s hard to say if that experience was better or worse than yours, but at least there were no mice on the train. It had zero toilets though, so i didn’t drink anything at all. The AC was crazy – it was SO cold, so my best advice is to bring some woolen socks and a sweater. And maybe an empty bottle (just in case)… And of course tissues, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, ear plugs and a travel pillow + scarf/sarong/blanket/sleeping bag liner/something to cover yourself in. I too took my daypack (with my valuables) with me on my bunk, but shoved my backpack under it. But this is somehow what traveling is all about – suddenly finding yourself in weird and cross-boarder experiences, surviving them and learning from them. I would definitely do (and have already done) this again. No doubt!

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