When All The Doors On Your India Train Are Locked…

This is the story of the most shocking travel experience I’ve ever had. Now I’ve had some crazy stuff happen: have been stamped out of Cambodia and not allowed into Vietnam and stuck in no mans land; we’ve been taken to a fake border crossing in Thailand; have been stopped for bribes and refused to pay; taxied on the scariest dirt cliff road ever; have slept on beaches in multiple countries; and have hitch-hiked in even more countries; and many many other crazy stories. But this. This is the craziest thing that has ever happened to us… and not in a good way.

* Carrie, my wife, already posted on her site ( her take on our India experience. And normally we try not to post the same content… But since it was one of the scariest moments of my life, I figured it’s okay.

This story comes with a lot of backstory. If you want to skip to the part about the craziness regarding our train boarding, skip to the section titled, “And So It Begins…”

I previously wrote about how the Indian railways system is one that requires booking ahead and how that’s not my style. However, there’s no way to properly describe how crazy it is.

The best way to explain it is to say that all trains are government run. No competition and there’s no reason to fix the current system since they have a profitable system.

What’s super crazy is how much money they make on cancelations.

See, tickets sell out so far in advance that long haul trips are booked speculatively months ahead. Think about it. If you may want to take the 16 hour train in a few months, if you book now you can always cancel later. But you have like zero chance of booking later.

Okay, the crazy part is that they have waitlists 100 people long. Waitlists, that they sell at full price. And then they charge 150 rupees ($2.50) per cancelation.

It makes sense, sorta. Like, it’s not worth buying speculatively for a $5 ticket. But certainly for bigger tickets if it’s for sure going to be completely sold out later. And it for sure would be.

But all this does is create a system of making it impossible to buy tickets. Impossible at the very least for last minute travel.

I was in Jaipur and had two goals.  The first was to leave Jaipur to go to Agra (to see the Taj Mahal). Being tired of the big city and wanting to head north into the mountains, the second goal was to take an overnight from Agra to the very north. Two tickets. However, there were NO tickets for months, and I was hoping to find something… like a few days out.

But for whatever reason, when I checked online, there were tickets from Agra to Jammu. I mean, daily tickets. I mean tons of availability. Every week the train was practically empty, with 100 open seats instead of 100 waitlisted seats. It’s only once a week, so I decided to jump on it. Or attempt to jump on it.

The Backstory Saga Begins

Freaking tired of trying to cross the chaotic highway my hotel was on to get to the train station, I decided not to walk, but grab a tuk-tuk. But I’m freaking tired of haggling with tuk-tuk drivers. In Jaipur, like many other cities, they refuse to use their meter. Will not. Not even for locals. And yet, Jaipur was the worst city, in my experience so far in India, for people hounding you.

And the thing is, I ask locals how much they pay and I know that the meter should start at roughly 20-30 rupees and be ~15 rupees per kilometer. But I never expect this price. And never get it.

Never the less, I get to the station.

The station saga begins

I grabbed the form needed and filled it out like an ignorant westerner, like I did last time. I put our names down, figuring they can pull up the tickets. After all, the actual system couldn’t be more foreign to me.

Awkwardly I stood in the “line” for the window that reads “Foreigners, Elderly, Handicapped”. For once, it wasn’t not clear if the stares were for an actual reason. One time a guy came over to save me the embarrassment and said, “this line is for elderly.” Yet, the one time I went to the normal line, the guy at the window waited until I was the second person (although usually 50 people step in front of me when I get to be the second person), then shooed me off back to the elderly/handicapped line, as it’s also the foreigner line.

Picture me, a young healthy American standing in the short line with one 90 year old man, and a blind guy being guided by a child. Meanwhile a room full of 300 people waiting in lines two dozen people long are watching me.

Soo… Where was I?

Right. I’m in line and the lady tells me that I need to go fill out the destination on my form as well.


Except, I didn’t have a pen with me. So I could either: A) Use my elbows and body weight to get to the inquiry window to borrow a pen, or B) stand there politely for minutes like an idiot until I make my way to the window to borrow a pen. Although confident I could take everyone around me, I chose option B.

Eventually I got a pen and filled out two sheets. Then returned to the elderly/handicapped line.

I won’t draw this part out, but over and over and over she’d send me back to make edits on my form. No train number, etc.

“Can’t I just take any train to Jammu?” No, I had to go to the inquiry “line”. With a riot sheild and a baton, this would have taken an hour or two less. But at this point, I was getting very stressed. I had spent hours, and I mean hours, appeasing this lady.

Finally she told me the train didn’t exist. This is because I filled out a very minor detail incorrectly. Well then she told me to put the city in correctly, and she’d book the Jammu ticket.

Then she told me she couldn’t book the ticket from Jaipur to Agra. “Can you just put me on any train tomorrow to Agra?”

“There are no seats available tomorrow.” She said with a straight face. But I know for fact there were, she just didn’t want to search because that was the inquiry window’s job.

So I stormed out after grabbing a few empty forms. I would go back to the hotel and fill them out immaculately. Communication was hard, but I had not figured out the train website. I can’t book on it, but I can view it.

This is the real problem- that I have no way of booking online.

But this time I walked back to the hotel. And instead of stopping to meet every “friend” who wants to sell me something, like a normal walk in Jaipur, I just gave a stern no. “Where are you from?” “No!”. I was done. Like seriously done.

By the time I got to the highway I remembered why I had previously taken a tuk tuk. See the day before, after a close call following a local, who falsely I assumed would have level 10 road crossing skills, I vowed not to cross that road with Carrie again. But… Carrie wasn’t there. So I patiently waited for an opening… that was less of a close call.

A little jog and I crossed 3 filled lanes and jumped onto the median. However, traffic coming from the hotel’s direction was on the other side of a sign. I couldn’t see a thing. So a quick blind jump down, a quick horn from a bus and a quick hop back up.

Finally I got to the right side of the sign, in between the sign and a bush. Happened to be a good spot for an ant hill as well.

And traffic was way worse coming that way. It’s like the on ramp craziness or something. Bus after bus. So I waited on that ant hill median for minutes. And the entire time on the other side of the road where I was trying to go, tuk-tuks were lining up. Seriously, they were pulling over and yelling at me.

Why in the world would I be doing this if I was going to take a tuk-tuk?

Finally there was an opening big enough to cross. Small enough that I would renew my vows of not crossing again, but enough that I made it.

Then I started walking up traffic to the hotel when all of a sudden a tuk tuk was driving along side of me. Like a dog hoping for a companion he trailed behind me… UP TRAFFIC! I heard, “Sir, what does the number on your shirt mean?” Trying to make small talk, I eventually declined any future business offers.

That night in the shower I had an idea for a shirt that says:

I’m not interested in shopping, markets, textiles, art or your friend’s shop.

I already have a hotel reservation, it is prepaid and I am therefore not interested in a nicer, cheaper, better hotel.

Also, I do not need a ride right now, later, or tomorrow. Not even maybe tomorrow.

Attempt #2

These suckers were filled out perfectly this time, now my tickets would surely be booked. After I agreed to the tourist tuk-tuk price.

At the station, the same ticket – Jaipur to Agra – that she had earlier assertively told me had no availability, was printed 30 seconds after I gave her the paper.

Then the second one which she had earlier refused to book because I needed to change the wording. She put it into her computer again and then said she couldn’t book it. Something about a premium train, needing 6 days.

The point was that it could only be booked online… which I can’t do. The solution was to just go out on the street and find a travel agent store. Now, I knew the hotel had such a person and just decided to head back.

It was now 6 pm and I had started the process at noon.

The hotel assured me their agent would book this second ticket for me for a few bucks extra.

Every couple hours I checked in with the front desk and they told me they’d call me right back. But… they never did. So I felt a bit like a tool, but literally I called back every few hours until the next afternoon. Our train to Agra wasn’t until 5pm and check-out was at 1:30 pm. So at checkout I asked to speak to a manager.

He informed me that their agent was not able to book the ticket because his computer had been down since yesterday.

It was now 1:30 pm the next day. My train to Agra was set to leave at 5pm. “I don’t want to be rude, but I can’t help but ask why this wasn’t brought to my attention… like… yesterday? When I was told it would be booked soon, and I’d get a call right back?”

The manager was super nice, and helpful, and he decided to call a personal friend to get it done.

Apparently this train was some weird premium train with higher security because it was going to the Jammu and Kashmir area. I don’t know. But it needed all kinds of extra info, and we waited at the hotel for another couple of hours. Just… sitting.

Finally the manager’s friend was able to book the Agra to Jammu ticket and we headed to Agra.

See this second train was non-refundable. Which makes sense because it was the only train that had open seats and the buyers weren’t actually speculative buyers.

Whatever, I got the open seats.

I should mention that the station for our Agra to Jammu ticket wasn’t actually in Agra but a town 30 KM outside of Agra. It was in the middle of nowhere.

We spent two days in Agra (which is plenty). The train didn’t leave until 11pm, so we had another day spent waiting in a hotel, as the Taj took a lot less time than I thought it would. But at least the ITC had a game room.

Finally, the time came and the tuk-tuk who agreed to take me to the middle-of-nowhere-train-station for $10 showed up with his “brother” who would take us. At which point he tried to raise the price for his “brother”. *blinks*

Anyways, we were off to “Tundla”. This station was in the middle of nowhere and yet there were hundreds of military men there. In many ways they were very polite, but as usual terrible starers.

We were pretty early and so we waited and waited at our platform.

And so it begins…

As if the difficulties of booking this ticket weren’t odd enough, and everyone’s reactions and comments on how it was a “special” train… it’s also apparently a stealth train. Because it was listed on none of the signs. There were calls in Hindi and English announcing upcoming train arrivals and there was an L.E.D board, and neither ever mentioned anything about our train.

So I went in and out of the train manager’s office. It wasn’t easy to communicate but I showed him the ticket. He communicated that the train would be coming [late] in 15-20 minutes and now on platform 1. Twenty-five minutes later I went back into his office and he very adamantly told me it would be coming now to platform 2.

I walked out to platform 2 and saw a train coming but it wasn’t labeled and the signs above didn’t mention our train.

Still hundreds of the military men surrounded the train platform. Hundreds.

My heart is beating thinking about it.

The incredibly long train slowly pulled up and I could see our cabin “B2″ listed and could tell it would be stopping near us. So we ran through the crowd towards its doors.

It stopped. And for one second there was silence.

Then all hell broke loose.

All the doors on this empty train were locked. All of them.

Each one of these men either had a giant stick, apparently perfect for beating the train, or hands, also perfect for beating the train. And they each seemed under obligation to yell.

Now, mind you a few things. We were in a train station in the middle of nowhere and it was now midnight. If there were hotels here… I didn’t know, but I didn’t want to look for them. Up until this point it had been very clear to me that I could not miss this train, but I was freaked out because it wasn’t listed and the time had well passed.

Furthermore it was a once a week train and otherwise there was no availability.

My friend Seth (who joined us in China two years ago and Mexico last year) was also with us and I think he was freaked out… like a long time ago.

And we were in the middle of this mob of guys. And I could see way down the platform that a door was opened somehow up further towards the front. And from where I was, it looked like a funnel that suddenly opened, but so many people were trying to cram themselves into this funnel it somehow clogged.

The three of us in the middle of the chaos just kind of stood silently.

In hind-sight it makes sense, but these guys behind us looked sincerely scared for us. One kept saying, “you have reservation?”

But what was I to do, it was locked and crowded. “I have a reservation. Surely they’ll open up the doors.”

And I honestly thought to myself, “the train won’t take off without everyone.” This assumed that we weren’t the only ones with reservations. It’s extremely clear now, that the military dudes were just picking any old train. If it wasn’t this one, they’d hop on the next one going north and make room.

No sooner had I thought “the train won’t take off without us” then the train made the sound that an active train makes. It was the last sound I heard before all hell broke loose, and I knew exactly what it meant.

Immediately I yelled to Carrie and Seth and we started running through the crowd to get to that one open cabin. Suddenly I was okay with using my elbows.

With a big bag rolling by my side, and in flipflops, I passed the only open door that was gaining speed. I ran backwards (in flipflops and holding a bag now) in front of the door and yelled for Carrie to jump on first.

In these times, things go in slow motion. I had time to think: well, I don’t want to get on before Carrie and then risk her getting left behind. But I don’t want her to get on without me. Thus the solution was for me to be in front of the door so that as she got on, I could hold on to the handle and jump on behind her.

I yelled for her to get on and she, frantic with her heavy bag, jumped on. Holding on I yelled “Seth get on!”. He yelled back “I will” and immediately I hopped on.

Have you ever done tandem skydiving? This is when you’re strapped to a certified skydiver. You basically have control of nothing. And I remember going up into the California sky and waiting on this bench facing the front of the bench located by the open door of the plain. When it was time for us to go, the skydiver didn’t say anything, he just moved both of us forward.

For an adventure junkie, it felt a little like cheating. Like I didn’t make the nerve racking decision to jump on my own.

But the feeling of being pushed forward, and sliding the direction you want without trying… that’s what it was like jumping onto this train. The mob also trying to get on moved us further into the train.

It’s never over.

For whatever reason, the soldiers hadn’t gotten to our reserved bunks yet. We climbed up and laid in our little beds. But I couldn’t sleep.

There were so many ways this could have gone badly. I just laid there thinking: What if while running backwards the platform just ended? I would have never seen it coming. What if we got separated? What if we were stuck in Tundla? What if someone got hurt getting on the train? Why didn’t I pay the little extra to get the best possible bunk, 2A? It would have had less people in a room. And why are they all staring at me?

At the next stop, the same terrifying drumming sounds from people locked out resounded through the train. Then eventually the cabin would be more and more filled with each stop with military men.

It was super clear by now, that they didn’t have tickets. They just stood wherever they could. Even right next to our beds (it’s a public cabin anyways).

“I have to sleep now”. Never had I reached the end of my travel will like that moment. But I had to clear my mind. Thinking about it wouldn’t do any good. Just sleep.

My bunk didn’t have foam coverings on the metal rails that hold it up. Now I know why the other bunks do… because the metal is sharp enough to cut open your knee.

I’ve never been so homesick. But honestly… never did I realize how much of nomads we’ve been. When I think of “home” I picture us laying in a hotel bed. For whatever reason I pictured the Renaissance Bangkok. It’s just comfy, and we’ve spent a lot of time in Bangkok.

But there was no one place I dreamed of. Just being together, in our own private space. And here we were in separate bunks, being stared at.

When I woke up, the train was practically empty, as it should have been.

It was all okay.

We got to Jammu and I walked out and the bus station was across the street. I walked across the street and heard a bus driver’s call for “Katra” where our reservation for the Country Inn & Suites is. 9,000 points a night. It’s in the middle of nature. I see lots of monkeys and I see the peak of a Himalayan mountain. I hear birds. It’s what I need.

I love so much of India, and I want to see so much more. I just don’t feel like getting on another bus or train. My transport energy is not only depleted, it’s in a deficit. Logic says, this was a crazy fluke. Emotions don’t care.

This doesn’t really change how I feel about India – although, my nerves were plucked in Jaipur. It’s still a beautiful country. But I guess what they say is true: India is harder travel, but it’s more rewarding.

Has anyone else just… been completely drained from their travel experience like this? Just zapped of will to leave the hotel (which I haven’t done in 2 days (but due to the efficiency of the last few days, I have a ton of work to catch up on))?

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  1. I know this is supposed to convey frustration and horror of the Indian rail but I got a rush from reading it.

    And you have to admit, these adventures beat the cookie-cutter McTravel that everyone is obsessed with nowadays. We travel to experience stuff like this, not so we can snap pics of the LH F cabin.

    Quality post, man.

    • Na, I agree. Aint going back to 9-5 or anything. :-p

      But have seriously slowed down for a bit. Plus, right after posting this I got super travel sick. So a break is needed.

  2. Loved your post, so vivid. Laughed through it and had to share with hubby. Enjoy your blog alot.

    • 😀 Awesome. Thanks for reading the whole thing… and commenting! Also glad my humor sometimes comes across. :-p

  3. Entertaining read for sure!

    I’m originally from India. I admit it’s quite a tourist unfriendly country / setup. Now I understand some folks crave non-standard travel action, but more often than not, people want a stress-free travel experience. and that’s CERTAINLY not you get in India.

    If you want that in India – then you’ve gotta pony up the big bucks (Cox and Kings and the likes)…

    • After googling Cox and King, yeah, you make a good point. But it goes to show again how diverse India is. Kings and beggars. Sleeper trains and who knows what, private jets and the like.

  4. Haha! I just came back from India a few months ago and still feel your pain! Thank god I spent the 4-5 hours of effort pre-trip to figure out and register for online Indian train booking system… it was a huge pain but our 3-week, 8-train trip journey went super smoothly with our advanced reservations that I made at home. Regarding Jaipur, your reference reminds me of my experience… written here on my blog Talk about culture shock. Love India but man, it is a hard place to travel!

    • Yea, Jaipur is still by far the worse for me. Well, okay second to this train thing. But I didn’t even get to the Hawa Mahal like you did and all that. I just burned out, and worked in the room.

      Agreed, it’s great and hard.

  5. Man, what a story! It’s been a while since I had such a pleasure reading about someone’s misery. :) Great stuff, thanks for sharing it.

    And you probably know that, but in Siem Reap, they actually sell “No tuk-tuk, No massage” t-shirts. Sounds like they could make big bucks in India, too, with those.

    • Glad to provide you with such entertaining misery, Andy. lol

      No tuk-tuk, No massage. Awesome. I don’t ever remember seeing that there but never have I felt that more than here. Well, not really massage, that’s more SE Asia. But tuk tuks here man…

  6. Holy crap! I had a heart attack reading it much less experiencing it. I have many places to explore before India and this post puts it even further down the list.

    • Well, as crazy as it is, my goal and advice isn’t to avoid India. BUT… it’s a true story. Again, it’s also an epic place (depending where you go especially).

  7. Is there any easier method of long-distance travel in India? Would a trip on a long-distance bus be less stressful and take less than 2 days to book?

    • You have good air connection between all major cities in India.
      Fares can be between $30- $200. This will save you lot of time when traveling long distance in India, esp when on vacation.

    • Brandon, avoid buses at all cost. Road conditions in India are extremely bad as well as the quality of the buses.

      Trains can also be booked online, though availability might be very hard to get for reasons reasons Drew mentioned in the post. I think Drew was unable to book it because it needs an Indian Credit Card or Indian Bank Account for the payment (there are alternatives to that as well though). I remember sites such as yatra and cleartrip allowed train bookings to be made online (not sure if they accept US issued credit cards either – never tried since I have Indian credit cards that I always use for these). It takes a lot of planning to book train tickets in India and there are some options like Tatkal (last minute tickets – extremely limited in value and priced higher than usual). Kamal did a very good job of explaining it in his comment a few posts below.

      Source: I’m originally from India. Have had my share of travel on trains and buses as a student.

    • KP is right about the bus being hard, because of terrible roads, but I still prefer it. Well… rather I still do it because the train is always sold out. And it’s still super super cheap.

      But I don’t do night trips. I have a overnight bus phobia which I seldomly ignore.

      But yea, I book them the day of and it’s always fine. Sometimes I just show up and go. For really really long distances I would either train or fly. But I haven’t found flights for less than $100. Period. Maybe if you book ahead. Use Yatra.

  8. Sounds like the experience we had going from Delhi to Agra.Train tickets were sold out for 2 weeks. We were told to take the bus. The “bus station” in Delhi, was an open field (no building) in the middle of the slums. In Agra, the bus station was similar but getting to and from the bus was a chore. The main street shuts down if a Minister is in town.

    • The bus stations are pretty awesome. Our last bus (in the middle of the nowhere in the mountains) got delayed an hour because these two guys were fighting and all the bus drivers and staff and friends were watching.

  9. No doubt that India stressful for many. It certainly was for me as a solo traveller. But, what an adventure. Once you figure out the trains its a great deal less crazy. But! Always have a plan “B”. I always had the phone numbers of decently rated hotels in every city I connected through. Get an Indian SIM card when you get there. Its a minor pain—paperwork, but a must. There is a post on TripAdvisor about what’s needed for the SIM and (!) a post on how to get an account that allows you to buy train tickets online—the ONLY way to do it. When you run into a Catch 22 with the trains—skip them and hire a car. If you are with 2 or 3 other people or can spot similarly anxious tourists at the train station, the cost isn’t that great and will avoid the insanity of not having a ticket. Of course, its replaced by the insanity of being in a car India. :)

    • Good advise. I hold my plans pretty loosely in the first place. But it seems you either need to really book ahead or not care at all. 😀

  10. Great story! We spent 3 months in India last year and can certainly relate. India sucks everything you have out of you, but it does give you great stories :)

    • Boy we’ve had a fast paced one month, can’t imagine 3 right now. But I’m also sick. So I’d love to give a tour two in India, later, when I have less work on my plate. :-p

  11. I had no trouble while riding the trains in India last month, having made my reservations in advance through an efficient Australian travel agency. I was delighted with the quality of travel and food service aboard. They had a team called “Meals on Wheels” that kept bringing the food and beverages.

    One leg, Agra to Jaipur, was totally sold out, and I arrived in Agra with no onward transportation booked. I talked to the guy at the front desk of my hotel and he said I could make bus reservations online. I tried, but the system wouldn’t take a U.S. credit card. So the guy sat down at the computer with me and bought me my ticket with his own credit card (I reimbursed him in cash of course with a tip) and printed it off on the spot. The bus ride was civilized, not crowded, pleasant people, interesting scenes along the way. For many trips, the bus is a viable alternative if train arrangements aren’t working out.

    But like the others have said, great story!

    • Sounds like you did it the proper way. Guess you had a little more foresight into the transit booking situation. But I’ve actually enjoyed the busses (although not the roads).

    • I think things must have changed. It says you also need to register with IRCTC.

  12. If there were an award for “blog post of the month”, I think this one wins it. It’s a great story and interesting read – India is not high on my to-do list of places to visit due to experiences like yours and some similar travel stories I have heard from other people. If a business trip came up with India as a destination, I would certainly embrace it but I have so many other places that I’d like to see that the potential hassles simply keep India lower on the priority list.

    • Hah, Awesome! Thanks Erik. Makes me feel good. I think India is a great place to go if you want to feel like an explorer. More Indiana Jones travel than resort travel. Depends what you like I guess, but it’s a unique experience.

  13. Hi, I am from India and can feel your pain. Tourism on your own is not the easiest. I have made trips and the best thing I have done, is to fly into the bigger cities and book cabs to take me around. It has always been a much painfree travel that way.

    • Yea, actually Mumbai was quite easy because we just grabbed a taxi to the few places we needed to go. Ironically it’s the between to smaller cities that’s been hard. But really, it was mostly this one event.

  14. I feel like I need a drink after reading your post. What a great, harrowing, narrow escape. Bravo! I’m with Erik above, personally I have not ever considered India a destination. And why should I? If I want to go to a chaotic, crowded, crazy, but beautiful country, I’ll just go back home to Indonesia.

    • India is beautiful too!! It is just that the travel experiences are harrowing. However if you have it planned, you will be fine

    • Yea, I agree with NK. There are so many incredible things. And the history is so rich. I couldn’t not go, personally. It’s a lot of both in India, and with proper planning you can avoid a lot of crap I didn’t… mainly train ticket issues.

  15. What a story!

    I did a couple weeks in India in February. Delhi-Jaipur(2 days)-Agra(1 day)-Indore(lots of days for a friend’s wedding)-Mumbai. All trains, and all alone. I went through the hassle of getting registered on cleartrip dot com so I could book online. I’m extremely glad I did. I had all the same button pressing experiences you had, and it was good to be able to not have to deal with the actual live ticket buying process on top of that.

    For me, it was Agra that was the last straw patience-wise; Jaipur was alright.

    • Agra all I did was the Taj, so nothing else really. Although, that’s practically where this story took place.

      But sounds like registering could have saved me a lot of trouble. Although I don’t think I understand the train system enough to know that the Tundla station wasn’t in Agra. So maybe it’s best… somehow…

  16. Well, I never wanted to go to India but I really don’t want to go, now. Still, it is a heck of a story.

    • Thanks, glad it’s a read. Not meaning to down India… it’s still a top travel experience for me. Also happens to be a few of the lowest.

  17. I missed a lot of the excitement of India for travelers as I did organized travel for my tour of the Golden Triangle in India. I stayed at that ITC in Agra. I found India wore on me working there for 60 days. By the end I just wanted to come home, drive my own car, eat salads, and sleep in my own bed.

    I described crossing the street in India as like playing the old video game Frogger. Not an easy thing.

    • Frogger! That’s just…. so true. It’s a lot less scary on the game than in real life, eh?

  18. I am from India, currently in US. I am so sorry to read your experience. Getting reservation in long distance trains is a problem even for the locals. We do plan for train travels well in advance (atleast 2 weeks in advance and sometimes 1-2 months ahead). Getting reservation, while standing in the long queues at the railway station is very painful and you really have to have the correct information and forms. Back in days, I used to take multiple forms for all different trains and possible routes. Online reservation is much easier to do. You also have tatkal, where they open up some 50-100(not sure of exact number) just 1 day before. With the amount of cancellations happening, and if booking 1-2 weeks in advance, it always better to go ahead even if you have a waitlist. It will clear by travel date. Again if it is peak season like holidays, the wait list might not clear. The problem is the huge population in India and majority of them travel by train.

    There are multiple travel agents whom you can pay a little more($2-$5 max) for getting a train reservation.

    If you travel plans are less than 2-5 days, then train travel is strict no go. You have very little chance of getting a confirmed reservation. There are lot of good private AC bus service which has good connectivity between important cities. You also have sleeper buses in most routes.

    It is always better to consult a local friend to help in arranging all travel related things in India. India will have many challenges for tourists, but a better planning, knowing different options and taking help from locals will really help.

    Don’t let this incident discourage you from visiting India. Things are not as smooth as in western countries but with little local knowledge and proper planning can make trip very enjoyable.

    Note: Yes, you will have lot of people stare at you all the time, if you are a foreigner visiting India.

    • Detailed comment, thanks Kamal.

      Yea, I’ll definitely be back. And I’ve actually completely figured out the IRCTC website, except I don’t have an account. But I understand it all now and get the system a bit better. And locals were super helpful when I was trying to figure it out. Although, still can’t possibly understand why all the doors were locked.

  19. What happened to you pretty much happens to everyone who travels in India for an extended period of time. India will get to you at one time or another ’cause it’s “in you face” 24 hrs a day. Don’t worry though, you will recover.

    • So… it’s common to lock train doors in India? Or are you saying that things basic fall apart on some trip, eventually?

    • Hi Drew,
      Feeling really bad about your experience. I grew up in Lucknow , same state as Agra. Now I live in California. Doors aren’t usually locked in trains but I remember that sometimes the officials will lock them in the night from inside so they don’t have to worry about unscrupulous people getting in.

      This does sound like a bit out there incident because of the military men but nothing that I would be really surprised with.

      Like Kamal said, the best thing you can do while traveling in India is to have a local “mentor”. You must know some Indian friends in the US, just ask them for advice and contacts. Most people will be more than happy to help.

      I don’t usually travel by train when I am in India, they are far too stressful . If I had too , I will ask a travel agent to book the ticket for me and only stick to “superfast” (premium) trains like Rajdhani or Shatabdi . Again , a local is the best person to help you identify these “good” trains. Never try to skimp a few dollars on travel within India. There is a huge difference in service between the premium trains and premium classes of travel versus the regular (passenger) trains and regular classes.

      Also check…

      The website mentions a foreign tourist quota but I am not sure how much is it . You can ask an agent to check on it or explore the website on your own if you can figure out the code next time you have to book a train.
      Hope your next experience is focused more on the sights and sounds than on the trains :)

  20. Read this post earlier, and came across this video today, and thought I’d share it here….Just to show people that India isn’t all that bad.
    (Watch in HD)

    • That is a truly awesome video.

      In fact, we’ve seen many of those places. And I apologize if my story telling has been one sided, because there were a lot of amazing things in India.

    • Glad you liked it.
      And no apologies needed. I’m Indian and after living here for a while now, I get as pissed off (probably more!) as you did with the stupid Indian bureaucracy and nonsensical rules.

      I get your frustration, and can only offer an apology on behalf of the broken Indian system.

      Glad you had a good time overall… :)
      Next time, send me an email before going. 😛


  22. After living in India you realize people in the USA have it sooooooooo good. Even the one that arent doing so well. I don’t think this experience is really out of the ordinary. Live for a few years there and you will get used to it and take it in your stride. It is stressful though. No doubt

  23. Drew,

    Love your blog. Your PointsBreak education just gave me and my 2 kids a cheap vacation in Eastern US.

    I used to take university students to India and I would warn them; “Anything could happen”. You could be walking along the street and suddenly almost be squished against a wall by an elephant (almost happened). I had a Bombay-Calcutta train put on hold personally for me, my ex-wife, my sister and our friend for over 30 minutes. Just so a little ceremony could be given to us because my ex’s father was a high ranking police officer. I decided to start putting my stories in letters to my kids and blogging them. Two cute kids who say and do funny things. One single dad dealing with secrets of enriched uranium smuggling, murder, presidential candidate blackmail, corruption, theft, abuse, addiction and kidnapping attempts. It will be entertaining. Follow DearEzraAndLian on FB and the web at

  24. Oh, that all? I was waiting for the moment things really became Incredible India. I guess the getting the ticket had you all sleep deprived and feeble nerved, there’s way more suffering and fun possible in the trains.
    You have to mention they are relics probably from colonial times, and the Indian way of increasing passenger safety: permanent iron bars and shutters where you’d expect windows. Any accident turns a carriage into a death trap, as a tourist you’ll be the last to make it to the exit. I checked, no way you can make an emergency exit by force through the wall.
    I’ve experienced not getting On the train; two times the platform full of Indians, big metal luggage crates, burlap sacks w merchandise and some kids to pass on overhead crammed themselves in the train in an piranha style frenzy, leaving two tourists in a cloud of dust. We couldn’t do it with our bigger frames and backpack, they were just more willing to risk being squashed or smothered to death. We chose life. With what we know now, my Gf would probably be subjected to random bodyparts in every orifice as well.

    On the train we did enter and asserted our spots succesfully ( seats reservation marked FT foreign tourists are glued on outside and we know that they know.) we’ve had nice foodwallahs coming every few hours, crablike beggars being thrown on and shoved out, floorsweeper boys, a 30 hour Chennai- Varanasi ride, having to shove a guy off my bed while he did a 2 by 4 not moving act, playing chess with a 7 pp bench, getting off midway to crash bc of acute dysentry ( horrible, without a healthy person that could do you in in hours) and a weird Italian travelling with his mocca machine and home roasted coffee almost croaking when a soldier sat in front of him. After a long stare he walked on. Antonio confessed he picked up a little something up north that spelled 10 years minimum.

    O, and the toilet from the movie Trainspotting? Modelled after your average hole in floor train potty aka railway fertilizer. And you can hang out the door for trainsurfing while driving.

  25. I kindah feel sorry for what you went through :( I love to see you still having the spirit to see more of INDIA. Despite having many attractions and scenic spots, we have never been a tourist friendly country. Which is a sad but true fact. It’s better for you to arrange your trip with any of the tourist agents for a tension free holiday else you are sure for an adventurous trip 😀


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We have spent the majority of our marriage traveling full time, living out of hotels.   All the while, we list our expenses publicly, budgeting $25,000 a year for our nomadic life while still staying in mostly 4 or 5 star hotels across ~20 countries a year.
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