So many well-travelled people offered their advice to a readers' question about travelling around India by train that we decided to make a separate guide. The original question is below. Do you think the responses miss anything out? Let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org
I am planning a trip to India where I will be going by train around the country. I have heard the ticketing system of Indian Railways is a nightmare and the queuing system shambolic. Can I book my tickets in advance or on-line? Can I use my credit card or will I need cash? How far in advance will I need to buy my tickets? Grateful for all advice.
I traveled through the Indian Sub-continent for over six weeks, from Delhi across to Rajasthan and then down to the South visiting Goa, Kerala and Mysore. Later I took another train all the way up to Kolcotta.
The best way to book your tickets is on irct.co.in
but sadly they only accept local credit cards or an Amex. If you don't have one you will need to get tickets from the station. If you find that your ticket is sold out you might be able to buy it from the tourist quota but these tickets are only available from train stations, and marginally more expensive.
I travelled second class sleeper and, for the whole trip, spent just over £34. I did every journey without air con as I couldn't imagine anything worse than traveling through this beautiful country behind a closed dirty window.
I had been warned to always keep my bags locked and never leave them but I soon realized that if you keep your wits about you your belongings are safe. The people in the compartment become your surrogate family. They will, as your mother does, want to know too much, what you do, how much you earn, why you are there, but they will always look after you. They will barter to get you a fair price with the endless vendors and they will ensure that the fruit you buy is ripe. They will even keep your things safe when you go to the toilet.
I always ate the food that the IRCT staff sold in the stations, egg biryani mostly washed down with masala chai, and didn't get sick once in six weeks.
My train journeys gave me an insight into this amazing country and its extremely noisy, but just as welcoming and warm, people and, with a bit of luck, you might even get the ubiquitous bovine trying to drink your chai.
As a green traveler I was pleased to see that you could get safe drinking water in most major stations. It was treated and cost around 7 pence per litre.
The only thing I would change is the dreadful habit the locals have of throwing everything through the train window but, then again, that it just how it is. A lot of the Indian families I met always kept, even in the most desperate poverty, a pristine home by throwing everything outside.
One last piece of advice, don't forget your toilet paper or wet wipes. Roberto
Sadly the Indian Railways are run by the Indian government, which is
pretty much the kiss of death when it comes to any possibility that
things might be simple, quick or convenient. While technically you can book
train tickets online, you can only do so using an Indian credit card.
While this means that it is technically possible for a company
based in India to book your tickets in advance for you (I for example
use HRG Sita, but they are a corporate travel company), I'm afraid
that I cannot recommend any, but Rough Guide, Footprint, Lonely
Planet etc. may have some recommendations.
However, you can also book in advance, in person, at major railway
stations. For example, I live in New Delhi and if you make your way to
the New Delhi main railway station, head inside and upstairs to the
first floor (ignoring all the touts and other 'helpful' people
proffering advice on where to buy tickets) you can find the Foreigners
Booking Office (which is sign posted, after a fashion). Although being government run and not exactly the most idyllic of rooms, they won't stick a massive commission on ticket purchases, and you may even be able to buy them with a foreign credit or debit card - no guarantees on this though.
So if you have your entire itinerary planned out - you can use http://www.irctc.co.in to plan your trip, as they have a train info search engine you can use if you can't buy the ticket. Oh, and check out http://www.seat61.com/India.htm to get a good idea of what the various classes of travel are like.
Also, as a general bit of advice: Let your bank and credit card
companies know that you are in India or they'll put a block on the
account. You might also want to consider opening an HSBC Plus account,
as they don't charge for foreign withdrawals on these and the exchange
rate is okay.
All the best and good luck,ColinBrit Cinematographer in India
If your trip coincides with any festivals or holidays (particularly Diwali) you may have to buy tickets a long way in advance, particularly for long journeys. Otherwise you are normally OK to turn up at the station a day or two before you want to travel to purchase tickets, unless it is a very popular route, or a particularly crucial journey (although be aware that a lot of long distance trains don't run daily - sometimes just once a week).
I think you can (in theory at least) buy tickets online now, and there are agents in the UK who will do it for you. If you are only going for a couple of weeks then that might be your best option. But somehow it doesn't feel quite right to me - not really India!
If you have a bit longer, and some flexibility over your journeys, go for it and brave the booking office. Yes, you will have to queue. But it's part of life in India - best just to get on with it and smile.
The best piece of advice I can give is to buy a copy of 'trains at a glance' from a large station such as the main one in Delhi as soon as you arrive. It's a summary of all the major routes and timetables, and it's invaluable for planning your journeys. Go to the station prepared with a number of different possible routes and times, and fill in several requisition forms for alternative versions of your journey. If you get to the front of the queue and the clerk wiggles his head and says 'no tickets', immediately brandish your next best option and say 'what about this one?'.
Sometimes there are special windows in the booking office for foreigners, or for women, and at a few large stations in touristy cities there are special booking offices for tourists. Wendy
I spent around six months travelling through India a few years back and spent most of my time on trains wherever possible - I had the time of my life (and met my now wife so it was a truly memorable trip).
Train travel is by far the best way to go - it gives you time to relax and watch the scenery go past, sample local street (train?) food and chat to locals. I will never forget watching the sun rise through the mists of the fields - you really feel immersed in the country. The knowledge that you will definitely (at some point) get to your destination is a nice security in a country where buses can break down and just leave you by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere....
The tricky part is that most trains have to be booked in advance. The guide 'Trains at a Glance' is your bible for this - available from newspaper stands and train ticket offices. It may seem like a quagmire of complicated tables of times and destinations, but read it carefully and it will slowly become clear.
Select your destination from the index at the back, go to the correct page, look up the day/time you want to go (roughly) and you've got your train. (You'll have to forgive me if the details are sketchy or outdated - my knowledge is about eight years old now).
First you'll need to pick your class of seat. For overnights you'll want 3rd class sleeper (six bunks to a 'compartment', no A/C) if you are on a budget. There are more expensive 2nd class cabins with A/C, although the windows are hard to see out of. Be warned, 1st class cabins can cost the same as UK rail travel!
That's only 1/3 the battle however. Next you have to go to the ticket office and fill in a reservation slip. You'll need all the information about the train (including its name!). Fill it in and then queue to hand it over plus the ticket cost and fingers crossed there are seats available.
If there are no seats available on your selected train (say there's a festival happening, which is a nearly daily occurrence), ask if there's a festival special train put on (it won't be in the book) - there often are.
If this is all bewildering and a bit much, don't worry, the larger cities (Delhi, Mumbai) have tourist ticket offices where someone will help explain the process for you. Finding the tourist office can be tricky in itself (I was at first steered by a tout into a private travel company offices, so be careful). The number of tourists queueing is a good clue you are in the right place.
Although the stops are not announced in advance, it's easy enough to keep track of which station is next using the guide (or just ask a local - pretty much everyone speaks English). You'll need a chain and padlock to lock your bag/rucksack under the seats. I have heard of people's bags being stolen, but in six months of travel in India no-one I travelled with had this misfortune, so as long as your bag doesn't look too shiny and new you should be OK.
Think that's it. Only problem is I now want to go back to India!
Good luck! Chris www.irctc.co.in
is Indian Railways own site where you can book your tickets online up to three months in advance. I use it at least once a week and find it quick, straightforward and helpful for planning routes by showing all trains between your points of departure and arrival. If your credit card doesn't work then use a local travel agent to make the bookings for you. Tickets can be emailed to you by them as .pdf files for printing out and carrying with you and you can pay the agent in one go. Otherwise sites like makemytrip.com and other Indian travel portals also offer assistance with train bookings.
If booking from point to point is full you can book a ticket for a longer journey with a "boarding at" option as tickets are made available in sectors which may open up some availability on the route you require.
Indian Railways express trains (Shatabdi, Rajdhani etc.) are far superior to any British train I have ever travelled on: good food, services and helpful staff. It is a "nightmare" for foreigners to travel on Indian trains if they choose to travel in classes where seats are not fully reserved. Pay properly for the best tickets available and enjoy good company from travel companions and a comfortable journey.Lindsay
While rail travel can be quite mad in India, a lot can be planned in advance thanks to booking facilities at www.irctc.co.in and other information at www.indianrail.gov.in
I consider the Indian computerized ticketing system to be one of the IT wonders of the world. I remember booking a ticket in the late 1990's over a month in advance for a train at the other end of the country, and arriving at the station to find my name pasted to the side of the carriage on a roll of fanfold. Considering Indian Railways is the world's busiest railway and the world's second largest employer (after the Chinese army), this is no mean feat.
The queuing system is certainly not shambolic - indeed as a westerner you are likely to be treated with extra courtesy. There is no doubt however that the queues are very long and many tickets go fast, so book in advance. The most comprehensive guide to booking Indian train tickets is at Seat 61: http://www.seat61.com/India.htm. I have used the Indian Railways online ticketing system at http://www.irctc.co.in/ many times without any trouble, although it can be a bit slow. It takes international credit cards - choose the "CITI PG" option for Visa and Mastercards. Take the e-ticket option, but remember you'll need the ID you used to book with along with a printout of your reservation when you're on the train.
Let us take as a given that your motive for touring India is not as global hyper-consumers of streamlined sight-seeing. You are there to meet a cross-section of a most thoughtful and resilient people. The Indian Railways provide tidy compartments of extended shared space with which to come face to face and into dialogue with diverse constellations of your national hosts. Take advantage of this; as a guest you will receive every consideration.
As opportunities for technological malfunction increase around the world, the detail of my delightful hours spent in Indian Stations for the Railway may have lost relevance. However, I cannot in my wildest fantasy imagine that the fundamental dynamic of the railway experience has ceased to be its operating principle: the system is designed to flummox the flummoxable. Demand the same quality of service as say, Deutchesbahne and you will be thwarted. If you can find the generosity of spirit to remain psychically flexible, be prepared for a treat.
Above all, book Second Class; the number of tourists decreases radically. Conditions may be rudimentary, but within a number of weeks you'll likely be home again among pillows and sheets and will have missed the chance to share the living conditions of most of your fellow man .
One night, just before bedding down (bedding up might be more appropriate as unbeknown to me I was apportioned the third tier sleeping shelf that doubled as the luggage rack during the day), I fell into conversation with a geologist surveying the local desert for oil. I voiced my delight in the challenge of remaining successfully perched on my half of this narrow shelf, (wire gitter separated me from the neighbouring back). His comment stuck: 'It was a rare pleasure to meet a European who wasn't complaining about India."
Of course, if you for any reason are not satisfied, the Indian Railways operate with an, in my experience, unique service of active customer relations: one is directed to follow the posted signs to the 'Complaint Cell'. It is inevitably located in the dank basement corridors beyond the lavatories; should you for any reason be tempted to create an international incident, the journey hence will undoubtably give you reason to reconsider.
Also remember that at times, an idiosyncratic timetable can have it's advantages: once, prevented by injury from reaching my train on time, I could only make my way to the station four hours later intending to book a next day departure. Imagine my glee when my original train rolled into the station just as I did, and I could hop directly on board.Bembo
You can book your tickets ahead of your journey, online. Things are not that haphazard as they seem, although it can be overwhelming for a first time traveller.
You can book your tickets online at this website (http://www.irctc.co.in/), from 3 months before the journey. I would suggest you book an E-ticket so you can travel with a print-out of the ticket, as opposed to an I-ticket in which the ticket will be sent to your address. Of course, you need a credit card.
The entire process is described here (http://www.irctc.co.in/eticketsguide.html)
Your ticket will have an unique number called the PNR number. To get updates about the train timings and to check if your ticket is confirmed if your ticket is in waiting list you will need this number. For such information go to http://www.indianrail.gov.in (Go to "PNR enquiry") and many others relevant to a traveller.
While travelling, carry an identification card, preferably your passport.
Have fun!Leslee Lazar
I wouldn't say the ticket system is a nightmare, but it is definitely confusing. It is the timing system that is more frustrating: be prepared for big delays and don't count on catching a connection!
On a recent trip in December, I was travelling in a group of four which made reservations slightly tricky as we wanted to make sure we could sit together. I found seat 61 really helpful http://www.seat61.com/India.htm. It provides pictures of the different classes of travel and a guide to booking and travelling
Another helpful webpage for explaining the reservation system is indiamike.com
We booked 2nd class A/C two months in advance for many trips. However, some seats were RAC status the day before travel, so despite the possibility of confirmation at the last minute, we cancelled and travelled sleeper class, which was amazingly cheap. Armed with wet wipes, ear plugs, a sense of humour and an ability to ignore mice running about on the floor you should be fine. Also, I imagine that in the summer, the breeziness of the compartments is welcome.
If you are travelling in a couple, the aisle seats are the best, as you have a window each and can face each other - also, you won't have to share if you are feeling antisocial.
The Indian railways website http://www.irctc.co.in/ is actually really easy to navigate once you are used to it, and you can compare prices and routes easily. You can enter and save the names of your party so that repeat bookings are simple to do.
Above all, be prepared to be flexible and rather bewildered occasionally! Enjoy!Jo
Admittedly it was in the 80's but I expect the same advice still goes.
What you need buckets of is patience.
Yours, very jealous,Paul
Indian Railways are in virtually every respect vastly superior to the system of licensed theft and incompetence which passes for a rail network in Britain. Fares are low, trains are comfortable, and the reservation system is a miracle of efficiency and good sense.
In Delhi, Calcutta and Madras there are special booking offices for foreign tourists, where you can avoid the lengthy queues which you sometimes find at ordinary reservation windows. Here you can take advantage of the 'tourist quota', tickets held in reserve especially for the use of foreign travellers, which often make bookings possible on over-subscribed routes (I suspect it will be a long time before Virgin Trains offer a similar service).
Even simpler, you can now book tickets on express trains online and in advance. Simply go to http://www.irctc.co.in/, register as a user and take it from there. You can pay with a credit or debit card (for a nominal fee), and will be issued with an e-ticket which you can print off and which, when presented on the train with the form of identification you used to make the booking (usually a passport), will count as a valid ticket and reservation.
At http://www.indianrail.gov.in/ you will also find a complete, searchable timetable akin to National Rail Enquiries. Thus you can travel from Simla to Rameshwaram, and from Puri to Dwarka, and if you're really organised make all your bookings in advance before you leave home.
Bear in mind that the tourist quota is not available on online bookings, so you may find some routes fill up earlier than they would if you went to a booking office. Also bear in mind the following:
1) It is always worth having a reserved berth: Sleeper Class costs very little more than 2nd Class unreserved, and is worth every penny
2) Non Air-conditioned First Class doesn't really exist any more except on minor routes, but if you're worried about the heat then 3rd class AC is very good value.
3) You will only get a private compartment if you fork out for 1st Class A/C, but why would you want one? Talking to people (about life, love and cricket), sharing food and gazing out of the window (the sealed units in A/C compartments are usually tinted and too dirty for anything to be visible) are all essential parts of the Indian Railway experience.
4) Make sure you find a proper chaiwallah with a kettle and clay cups, and eschew the ersatz stuff made with 'Taj-Mahal' teabags and served in plastic.
All the best,Alexander Morrison
I've just spent a month travelling around India largely by train, and it was a great experience. Booking tickets on Indian trains is surprisingly straightforward, once you've done your homework.
Tickets can be bought online using a British credit card, and then printed out - so no need to queue anywhere. You can do this in advance once you've registered at irctc.co.in
. The website is only open for buying tickets between 5.30 - 23.00 Indian time - so make the necessary adjustments to either GMT or summer time. There's good access to public internet facilities in India too, so if you need to book over there it's easy if the place has a print-out facility. Another reason it's worth booking well in advance, even if you're not 100% certain, is that cancellation fees up to a day or so before departure are fairly minimal. Lots of people do this - and cancel at the last minute - which makes for an interesting "waiting list" system.
But the important bit is your homework: you need to know where you want to go, the name or names of the stations there (there's often more than one station - and sometimes the same station has different "new" and "old" names), and the class of travel you want. There's loads of different classes, but can basically be split into A/C (air conditioned - for middle classes and up) and non-A/C (for everyone else). You can find more about how these differ and what you can expect on the online train travel bible, http://www.seat61.com/India.htm, or by researching the excellent forums and articles at www.indiamike.com . Both of these will also give you details about how the waiting list system works.
The irctc website also only gives tickets of trips between A-B, direct. If your journey requires a change (and you may not know that it does) you need to use the timetable facilities - and probably the maps - on the Indian Railways website http://www.indianrail.gov.in/, which is worth getting to know - although it will take some effort. And some train station names on this site are different to those on the irctc site - so double check if you start to get confused.
This all might sound like a lot of work but it's worth it - almost definitely in the hyper-busy stations in the north.Laura Stuart
I have tried the hard way and the easy way.
The hard way is to do it all yourself (for a few rupees less), queuing for
hours at a time to find you are in the wrong queue, trying to unpick tourist
quotas or VIP quotas. I recommend you take a good book, post cards and a
journal to write and set aside a whole day in some circumstances for this
The easier way (highly recommended for a few pounds more) is to pay an
agent. Most hotels, including budget hotels, for a small fee can arrange this
for you. They will do all the queuing and understand how the system works.
This saves a lot of hassle and is more likely to get a result.
As a tourist you can nearly always get tickets on the tourist quota, so no need to buy far in advance. I do suggest also planning some possible itineraries using the excellent Indian railways site to work out trains and possible routes beforehand.
It all depends on whether you have more money or more time to spare; like
many things in India. Enjoy your travel. The train is a wonderful way to
explore India and in my opinion one of the best run train services in the
world once you understand its quirks. I wish the Indian Rail network
extended as far as the UK!Pete Taylor
Yes, you can book in advance, at most "large" stations - i.e. in a reasonable
size town. Usually a week in advance should be OK. There are "tourist"
quotas, which kick in when the train is in theory "full". Big cities - e.g.
Delhi - have a special advance booking office - very civilised. In most other
towns it is a bit of a scrum.
Maybe you can use a credit card, but better to have cash just in case. There are ATMs all over the place, although for 'security' reasons some of those have stopped accepting foreign cards. Fares are uber cheap, so you won't need much cash.
You have to fill out a form and present it to the cashier to do an advance
booking. You will need to know the number of the train, departure date and
time and class of travel you want. So get form at the window and fill it
out while in the queue. Train numbers should be on the departure board.
Be vigilant - Indian people are somewhat undisciplined about queues - i.e.
there are a lot of queue jumpers who push up to the window from whatever
side the queue is not on. Giving them a stern look and uttering the mantra
"line?" (pronounced Hindi style as in "line-a ? ") sometimes helps.
Class of travel: 2nd class non-A/C sleeper has 6 berths to a compartment,
like European trains. This is my preferred class: hot, but real air and a better
class of fellow traveller - i.e. poorer. More public with beggars, food sellers
etc. Bring your own blanket and pillow.
2nd class A/C comes three-up (six to a car) or two-up (four to a car).
two-up is more expensive. In A/C you don't get as hot and dusty as non-A/C,
but the A/C is a little over the top - you may be cold. Also fellow
passengers more likely to be yelling into their cell phones. But on the
other hand they will speak better English and be more sophisticated, if
that's what you want. Sheets, blankets and pillows are provided.
1st class A/C is only two-up - not recommended as your travel companions
are likely to be overweight fat cat businessmen.
They will ask you what berth(s) you want. In the top berth you can lie down all
day. In the bottom and middle you have to co-operate as to when the middle gets set up – it usually happens around 9pm and after dawn you are supposed to put it back down so everyone can sit.
Do not be nervous - Indian trains are a great way to get around, and super
affordable. Of course internal flights are very cheap at the moment also,
but the Indian train experience is not to be missed.Martin Church
Best place to find out about Indian railways and indeed anything about
travelling in India is the wonderful www.indiamike.com. Started by India
Mike (the Big Paneer). It's a realtime travel site where you can find a
very comprehensive guide to the railways or any other method of travel.
Just don't take any notice of the posts about people's gripes - find out
Where did you get the idea that the ticketing system is shambolic? For
tourists it is brilliant: competent staff, good service. Compare it with
our railway and weep.
Find the tourist office in any large railway station, or the tourist
opening at the ticket office in smaller stations. Ask them how to fill
in the forms, they will tell you, book you in, and it will work.
With a sleeper you will be given a berth in a particular carriage. There is a
train manager, who has grown up on the railways, and is treated with great respect. On the train there's OK to good food, and constant chai. You pay your food bill at the end of the trip. If you are by yourself the train manager will probably ask for a tip. Enjoy yourselves.
Look at: seat61.com/India.htm#classes
If it's a long trip go for AC2, and book the berth in the main
compartment, not either of the two seats by the window the other side of
the corridor (more comfortable bed). In AC2 you can have a lie down in
the top bunk whenever you like. AC3 or sleeper has more people in the
compartment, but it's still comfortable.
One tip I was given, for which I am unimaginably grateful, is that in
Delhi station the tourist booking office is above the main hall, find
the stairs at the back. I can't remember when it shuts - 8pm? On your
way there you will be told, very confidently, that the office is closed
for the night / being repainted / renovated / and you will have to go to
another office round the corner, and here is an auto rickshaw waiting. This office will be a private travel agent, who will try and sell you a trip in a car, with a driver, round the three tourist spots surrounding Delhi. So say "I'll just check that" (about the ticket office) and keep walking, they will fade away. Or, if it really is closed, say "that's OK, I'll come back tomorrow".
I got into a similar situation when I was trying to change money in a
travel agents: yes, it might be a lovely tour, and having a driver would
perhaps be very convenient, and the price might even be good, who knows,
but I actually wanted to go somewhere else. And that does not mean that
I am an arrogant Englishman who thinks he knows better than the locals,
as I am very aware of my ignorance, but I do not actually want to go on
the trip that is being suggested . . It is tiring, it should be said,
but if you don't let it get to you it's not so bad. People have to make
a living. I found it much easier for tourists in the south, if you can
get there, because people don't seem so bothered about making an instant
sell. If you want something, fine, if not, OK. Easier all round.
It's the same thing queueing for a fixed-price ticket for an auto
rickshaw or taxi. (In the booth in the car park of Delhi station, west
side, also at other places, the guide book will show them.) You may well
be told that the correct price is (say) 200 rupees, so if you come now
you can skip the queue. The fare might perhaps be 70. So just stay in
I spent four months travelling India last year, and have to say despite fears and horror stories from other people, I found train travel by far and away the most reliable, enjoyable, and hassle free mode of transport (in Indian terms obviously).
The ticketing system is quite simple once you have your head round it. It is very difficult to book on-line which i put down to the system supporting the website. Depending on how strict your timetable and time scale are you can generally buy tickets for even the most popular routes only 2-3 days in advance, although I anticipate this may be different in Goa and Kerala and other popular routes (i.e. Delhi to mumbai or Varanasi) in peak tourist season.
Here is my only travel tip that I always pass to any other traveller that I can almost guarantee is worthwhile: when buying tickets, go to the train station - timetables are always in both Hindu (or Tamil or whatever the local language is) and English. The timetables give you the departure time and destination of each train, along with the train name and train number. These details, along with the names of stations where you will board and alight (most trains run for huge distances and you may be onboard for only a fraction of the journey), you will need to fill out a form required whenever you purchase a ticket. Don't get upset about having to fill out a form each journey - you literally have to fill out a form for everything in India, from hotel rooms to using a PC in an internet cafe. The sooner you accept this the easier your trip will be.
I personally tried to avoid travel agents, who take big commissions (in Indian terms), sometimes up to doubling the price. If you want to avoid the stress of having to visit the station, you will have come to your own conclusions about whether you want to pay the commission or not.
The majority of stations I visited had separate ticket booth windows for tourists, but you may sometimes find these being used by local people. This annoyed some travellers, but as a guest in India I tried to accept this as just being part of life in India. It's not as orderly as England, but once again that's India.
You can end up queuing for quite some time, although I was never queuing for more than two hours - some friends spent a whole day at the station in Mumbai. The benefit of this is that you will be the centre of attention for every Indian around you and never short of interesting conversation, and you may find that this time spent in a ticket queue to provide a highlight or two in your trip.
You may find the queuing system shambolic, but stand your ground and enjoy the experience. I prefer the term organised chaos to shambolic, which is India in a nutshell. If this isn't for you, then you probably won't enjoy the rest of your trip.
The people working in the stations generally speak English and will help you adjust mistakes on your forms, look for alternative routes or different sleeping classes if your desired route or class of travel is not available. A good up-to-date guide book will tell you what train name and number, times, and cost of each journey for the varying classes. I had Lonely Planet and it was almost always spot-on.
In the really big cities, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata etc. there are rooms for tourists only with staff to help and guides. It's possible to buy all your tickets in one go in one afternoon for all your train journeys in India if you know your schedule etc.
The last piece of advice is never give money to anyone who approaches you in person, only hand it over a counter.
It is true that getting tickets for trains in India is a hassle. If you go to the train station, you have to queue up for a very long time often to be told that no seats are available. If they are available, you have to fill out a complex form. When you catch your train you have to check which carriage you are in by looking for your name (and age) on the several sheets of paper stuck up on the sides of the carriages. All in all quite a bothersome method.
However, there is a simple way to alleviate this stress: get someone else to do most of it for you.
I found that the best way to get a train ticket was through a middle-man such as the numerous travel agents found near train stations in cities like Bangalore and Delhi. If not, get hotel staff to help you out. As with everything in India, people will usually be more than willing to help if asked. They may charge a slight fee, but this can be haggled down and should not be more than about 200 rupees extra (£3 perhaps?). It's worth it because booking trains manually through the train stations is usually a nightmare. Just make sure you don't get ripped off.
As far as I know you can't book tickets online. One piece of advice I would give though is book everything as early as possible i.e. as soon as you get out there. Indian Railways transports the equivalent of the population of a European country around India every day. If you find trains are fully booked, always ask for the 'tourist quota'. Failing that, bribe an official.
P.S. don't rule out the bus. They're not nice, they're somewhat dangerous and they take longer, but you'll get there and they're very cheapTom Monaghan
I did quite a bit of rail travel in India a few years ago. Throughout most of my trip I booked through local agents, who would charge a small fee. Sometimes they will need a few days to organise the tickets, but generally I found the whole thing hassle free. If you're limited on time, you don't want to waste it sweating over a timetable in a railway station, let someone who has local knowledge sort it.
The trains are great in India, always on time. You can book dinner as well, and it turns up, hot and tasty. A few tips: if you're booking standard sleeper class, which I would thoroughly recommend because you get to 'mix', it's worth booking top bunks, which means you can always climb up and sleep during the day. Take lots of small change on board with you; you can buy water and snacks throughout the journey. The chai man starts bellowing up and down the carriages at about 5am with a flask of morning cuppa at the ready. Sian