You’re waiting on the platform and the train arrives ten minutes early. As you board, your steward checks your tickets and takes you to your cabin, where plush beds with white linen sheets have been prepared for your arrival. There’s a complementary bottle of prosecco and a small chocolate on your pillow. Living the dream right? An intrepid rail journey across exotic India. Except that’s what it is, just a dream – because overnight trains in India are an absolute nightmare.
Ok, so it’s not as bad as it sounds – trains in India can be quite fun. The doors are never locked so you can open them at any time, hold onto the handrail and swing yourself outside to feel a rush of excitement as you hurtle across the country (not recommended after one too many Kingfishers). You’ll probably meet some friendly people who genuinely want to hear about your life and invite you into theirs.
Overnight trains are also the best and most economical way to travel huge distances across the country, but out of our 4 overnight train journeys in India, 3 of them were inside 5 days – the novelty had definitely worn off by the end!
Here are some tips on how to survive your overnight journey:
1. Don’t go first class
The trains have various classes of accommodation and if you want a bed rather than a seat for the night you’ll generally choose AC1, AC2 or AC3.
AC1 is first class and usually 4-berth or 2-berth compartments. You can’t specify which type you want when you book so it’s not guaranteed that couples will get a 2-berth. The compartments are also lockable from the inside so aren’t considered as safe – especially for lone female travellers.
We always go for AC3. These are air-conditioned, open-plan carriages that contain bays of 6 berths across one side and 2 opposite. There aren’t any curtains so just be aware that you might have someone staring at you at all night.
2. Bed hacks
You’ll get two white sheets, a grey woollen blanket and a small pillow. To make the bed a little more comfortable put the blanket down first, followed by a white sheet and use the second white sheet as a cover. We heard that the pillows and woollen blankets are never washed, so a scarf or t-shirt to cover your pillow is a good idea!
3. Bring earplugs
I can’t tell you enough how much you need earplugs on these trains if you want to block out the loud snoring and various other noises throughout the night. We have yet to take an overnight train in India where there hasn’t been at least one incessant snorer. The trains make many stops and even when the lights are out, people will get on, turn the lights on and make as much noise as possible trying to find their bed. A cheap pair is better than nothing but if you want to spend a little more on something decent then we’d highly recommend these Loop noise cancelling earplugs.
4. Don’t be scared of the squat toilet
There’s usually one squat toilet and one western-style toilet at the end of each carriage. The squat toilets are perfectly fine, all of the waste goes straight through onto the tracks so no risk of a pile up. The western toilets tend to have wee all over the seat and floor anyway so are pretty pointless if it’s a seat you’re after. Just make sure to hold onto the hand rail when you’re squatting in case the train makes a sudden jolt.
Although flip flops seem like the easier choice when you’re moving to and from your bed – trust me when I say you should definitely make the effort to wear shoes for your toilet run!
5. Don’t leave food in your bag
Absolute rookie error. We had heard there were rats on trains in India, but had never actually seen any and it simply slipped my mind when I decided to leave an open packet of delicious fruity cupcakes inside my canvas backpack on the floor.
The next morning I was in for a nasty surprise when I pulled my bag from underneath the seat – it was covered in crumbs and a giant hole had been gnawed through the top! The greedy rat had eaten at least three cakes, he must’ve been rolling round feeling extremely pleased with himself.
6. Keep your expectations low
As long as you’re not expecting the orient-express then you may be pleasantly surprised. If you plan for delays (we’ve never been on a train that left or arrived on time), are happy to feel a little bit grubby and aren’t too fussed about a squat toilet, you might even enjoy it! It’s really not as bad as it sounds, although we don’t plan on taking another any time soon.
Here’s a little video to get a feel for the carriage and journey:
Have you been on an overnight train in India or another part of the world? Let us know your survival tips in the comments below!