I love India's trains. If you ever travel to India, taking at least one train is imperative to the full experience. I used 4 throughout my 30 days in the beautiful country. But, like everything else in India, it's not without it's own challenges to acquire a ticket.
Buying a Ticket:
Most countries, you show up to a station, buy a ticket, and voila! But, in this country, most citizens purchase their train tickets months in advance. They have an account with the train office, which requires extensive registration, difficult for tourists to access or create (utility bills, proof of address etc).
There are two ways to get a ticket. The first, visit a tourist office at the train station. Because tickets are purchased so far in advance by Indian's, there is a section of seats reserved under the Tourist Quota (otherwise nobody would ever be able to travel via train). Depending on where you are, it could take minutes, or hours to acquire a ticket. The second and faster method, ask a local person to help purchase a ticket for you under their account. Even through third party websites for tickets, the account number is required to process the reservation. A text will get sent to your phone, with seeming nondescript letters and numbers. That's your ticket.
Types of Tickets:
With the challenges of getting a ticket in India, there are several kinds that you can receive. I've reviewed the first two kinds. If you need to travel on a particular day and the trains are full, and you find the tourist quota tickets being sold out, you have the option of being wait listed. You will be informed how many people are already on the list before you, and generally, you are notified within a few hours of the train's departure. If you don't want to risk missing a train, you can buy a tatkal ticket. Tatkal seats open 24 hours before a train departs, sells for a higher price than the normal ticket, but guarantees you a spot on the train. I did this twice. After waiting for 3 hours in the tourist office in Kolkata for 96 person long line, moving only 20 in the time I had arrived, I was 40 people later and the office was closing in an hour. I purchased a Tatkal ticket from a friend, and left. Kolkata is notoriously awful for the tourist office wait time because Bangladesh people wait to get trains back to Bangladesh. Buying a ticket in Haridwar required 5 minutes of my time.
When I began searching for tickets, I was faced with some confusing questions about which train car I wanted. There were different kinds, and I had no idea what 1AC versus 3AC etc were. I had trouble understanding the differences, and what was considered safe and comfortable.
Sitting: This is a non air-conditioned car, usually only costing a few dollars, and you have general admission to sit amongst hundreds of other people squashed together. This is the train class where the poorest of India use. I never took it, but when train trips last 15-30 hours, that is not my cup of tea. This is also prime staring and awkwardness. Most of the people probably have never seen a white person, nor probably speak english. You can get this ticket at the counter of the train station, but it won't be a comfortable ride. Some cars are rumored to be completely wooden benches. Ouch! (I met a guy who bought this ticket so he could get on the train, and then hoped an empty bed was available in the upper class car he boarded. When the conductor arrived to check tickets, he was sent away to his appropriate car, though returned shortly after)
Non-AC Sleeper: This is a non air-conditioned car, but you receive a 'bed' reserved for you. This is still a lower class train car, and from what I have learned, it's just a bench sleeping surface without any sheets etc. I think this kind of ticket runs about 10 dollars or so, nothing crazy expensive.
3AC: Third Class. 3 stands for Air Conditioning. Anyone who can afford AC in India are more developed people who don't look so funny at a foreigner, and feels more like a normal day on a train. 3 stands for the number of beds stacked up in each section of the train car. The side berths have 2. There are western toilets and Indian toilets. In the 3AC car, toilet paper and soap were not available. You are given sheets, blanket, and pillow. Each section has one outlet, a lamp, and small table on the lower berths.
If you compare this image below, to the 2AC, you will see that they are essentially the same, aside from the blue backrest will fold up into a bed. If the person in middle berth wants to sleep, the bottom person must lay down as well.
2AC: Second Class. 2 stands for 2 beds being stacked in the train car. In addition to the bed linens, soap and toilet paper are available in the western toilet area, and curtains enclose the beds for privacy. I preferred 2AC for this reason.Also, I highly recommend doing the upper berth, as people commute during the day, they all sit and hang out on the lower bed (berth), so you can have your personal space above. I think the ideal bed is an upper side berth in 2AC, you get your own space and a curtain to block out people. See 2AC below.
1AC: First Class! Instead of a train car pictured above, the 1AC has three compartments with either 2 or 4 people inside. The doors lock, and you have an attendant that makes sure you have food, or anything else you need. The beds were wider, and there were steps leading up to the upper berths. Though I liked the privacy of a 1AC sleeper, I didn't enjoy feeling stuck talking to the people in my cabin. I like the anonymity of 2AC, where you can participate with others or not talk to others.
If you've ever wanted to see what the train bathrooms look like: Note, these are upper class bathrooms. The toilets open up to the tracks below, which is always comforting. My 1AC bathroom had a compost toilet, so I thought that was cool and a step up.
Trains in India are amazing. Generally, it's ideal to pick an early evening departure, that way you can eat, hang out, and it's an unspoken rule that at 10pm, everyone sleeps. Generally, trains are 15-20 something hours, so by the time you wake up and eat breakfast, you are almost to your destination. There is lots of activity. Vendors come onto the train at occasional stops, walking through selling water, potato chips, chai, and meal around meal times.
During the day, if you have the chance, lean outside the train and experience the countryside.
If you ever want to know why the side of the train tracks are so dirty with litter, I found out who the culprit is. . .