Trains and how to buy your tickets: trains are the best way to move from city to city in India and the infrastructure and connections are quite good. There are online sites to buy tickets, but many times they are sold out, don’t take foreign credit cards or difficult to navigate. Tip: almost anywhere you look you will see a travel agent selling tickets, they ask for a small commission ($1-2USD per ticket depending on price) but well worth the service. You can go to two or three agents and shop around and use common sense and your instinct to not fall into someone that overcharges, but that shouldn’t be the case. My best bet was always finding an office with some tech-savvy 20-somethings behind the desk, those dudes are ready to get your ticket with a couple quick-clicks and you might strike up a conversation and ask them for a few travel tips on your next destination.
Which class should you book on your train trip? There are several classes on an Indian train but most likely you’ll encounter, the regular coach class or first class, which goes by codes 2AC or 3AC or even 1AC to signify the amount of beds/seats per cabin. My tip if you have an overnight train-ride or a ride more than 6 hours go for the first class 2AC or 3AC. It’s not really that much more expensive compared to European standards, say if a coach seat for a 10-hr overnight ride is $5USD and first class is $11USD and you can sleep in a cleaner, quieter, cozier cabin with better access to bathroom and ordered food, why not?
But people say to experience India you should take the coach trains with the Indian people: for short-rides for a couple hours or a half-day, yes sure take coach. Even overnight, it’s still ok, but you won’t get pillow, blanket, sheets, and a couple other amenities in your cabin. Also, from my experience on the first-class cabins you meet many interesting people that you are more likely to talk to than in coach-class: young professional Indians, middle-class and upper middle class Indians and other travellers from all over the world. In coach, when you travel occasionally, you will meet people from the cross-sections of Indian society, but they are more likely not to be completely fluent in English and you can smile, joke and exchange food and drinks and can have entertaining experiences, but I find the other cabins a better choice for the long-hauls.
What are 2AC, 3AC, 1AC class tickets? 1AC you will rarely encounter, I think it’s more express business-people short commutes. 3AC, means you will have a cabin with 6 other beds, 3 beds on each side. And 2AC, is the same-set up but with 4beds per cabin, so 2beds on each side. Either one is fine, if you’re in mood to meet people, higher chances out of 6-people there might more interesting chats, but it’s all the same at this level.
The Foreign Passports Desk in Train Stations: one other perk to foreign passport holders is that the train stations reserve a few last-minute seats at a foreign passport desk in the big train stations. You’re not going to find one of these in every small-town, but in Delhi, Mumbai and other big stations, you can go there in person and book a ticket for the next day or couple days, that may not have been available online or an agent.
Tip for Female Travelers: many females traveling on India trains told me as a precaution (although there are rarely any incidents) they will reserve or ask for the top bed in cabin. That way they are less likely to be a victim of an unwanted advance or a passing groper. Again this is very rare and perhaps just a precaution. Also, these trains are heavily populated my families, females and mixed families so there is safe atmosphere overall. If you are a lone female, and you see that your cabin is a six-seater with all males and you feel uncomfortable, chat with one of the other cabins next to you in the carriage and explain to a family, couple or other group your dilemma and most likely another male may swap with you so you can join a mixed-cabin or cabin with a family or more females. I met many women travelers traveling alone and or in pairs during 2012 and none reported anything unusual or any incidents to worry about.
Let me know if this has been helpful, if you need a clarification or if you are an India traveler and have another point you’d like to add.
For price comparisons I am using exchange rate of $1USD=50 rupees.