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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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Aqtedar shahid

Sunday 14th of March 2021

I'm in a sleeper coach right now and due to corona situation it's a difficult chance to get a confirm booking unlike old times. Hence we are 8 guys but 6 guys booked together and 2 guys booked separately coz they were not sure before. But all of us got a RAC and all 8 guys managing in 6 RAC seats which is comfortable they all wanna stay together so Noone wanna go in those different coach. Here is the good start of a trip to South India from east India which is Calcutta to kerala. In this 2 RAC seats we are sleeping 3 guys.!

roshan

Thursday 3rd of September 2020

well, travelling in a sleeper train is such a fun experience for me. We can easily connect with the peoples who are travelling with us. On the other side in AC compartment I feel boring.

Sameer agarwal

Friday 30th of August 2019

I loved your blog. Currently traveling in a sleeper class with my family. There is no easy way to share this on WhatsApp. Or am I too dumb? Suddenly realised my wife's headaches correlation with traveling.

Duangtip Gupta

Thursday 25th of October 2018

For the toilet, I put strong smell ointment like Tiger balm or Sunbreeze Essential oil on the tip of my nose before going in. It worked like a charm, overpowering the toilet smell. Perfumes may probably work too but these are more potent.

The trains I was on in 3A and up provided clean sheets (starched and ironed wrapped in brown paper), pillows and rough grey wool blankets.

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