Everything you need to know about getting a sleeper train in India…
Full disclosure: I started writing about getting a sleeper train in India as part of my blog post on Delhi, but then I realised that there was a LOT I wanted to talk about. I decided to write a whole new post so that I could cover my experience in all its gory detail. Trust me, there’s a lot to talk about.
I took two overnight trains when I visited India last year; one from Delhi to Varanasi and another one from Jaipur back to Delhi. I was travelling with my twin sister as part of a group travel tour in India with Intrepid Travel, which was an amazing experience. We had so many memorable experiences and the overnight train in India… well, that was one of them.
You can read more about my adventures in India below:
So what can I say about getting a sleeper train in India? Well, it’s definitely an experience. I’m not 100% sure if it’s an experience I’d like to repeat… although it was certainly a really fun part of the trip. You definitely want to go in with your eyes open, and that’s what I want to share with you here. I’m also not an expert on overnight trains in India – our tickets were booked through our trip so we weren’t involved in the purchasing process – so if that’s what you want to know this probably isn’t the right blog post for you. However, as a recent first timer on overnight trains in India I thought it was worth sharing what I did – and what I wished I did!
So here’s your survival guide for getting the sleeper train in India…
What to expect when you board
When you think of sleeper trains in India you might think that you’re going to be rammed in without an inch to move. Right? That’s not the case. I wouldn’t exactly say that you have loads of room, but you have your own designated berth – or bunk – and that should be enough space on the train to be comfortable. Let me explain…
There are six bunk beds in each compartment of the sleeper train in India. Two parallel to the aisle and four on the other side, with one person allocated to each bed. When you first get on the train the top bunks will be folded down flat against the wall. The idea is you sit down on the lower seats and then when you’re ready to sleep you fold down the beds.
Saying that, families might not all be seated together so they might move around the carriages, so it can get busier than you might expect in your particular space. If you’re on a lower bunk and you want to lie down you may just have to ask people to move.
One last thing, there’s also a small table between the bunks. This is your dumping ground for books, snacks, water, etc!
Where you should put your bags?
Storage space for bags is under the lower bunks (or seats) but it goes pretty quickly. Some families on the train will have several bags with them, so my advice is to try and get on the train and to your seats promptly so you can get first dibs at the storage space.
Once it’s gone it’s gone and you don’t want to be stuck with a large bag and nowhere to put it!
Are sleeper trains in India safe?
Here’s the serious part. You do have to exercise a degree of caution on the overnight train, especially as a female traveller. The compartments on the overnight train we took are all mixed gender, so when deciding who was going to sleep where our Intrepid tour guide Sana made sure that none of the female travellers were placed in a compartment alone as a precaution.
She also advised against us going to the bathroom alone at any time, but especially overnight, and instead asked us to either wake her or one of the guys in the group to accompany us. It may sound silly but there have been attacks on tourists in the past, so it’s worth playing it safe.
One final point on personal safety. From my own research I’ve read that female travellers are better sleeping on the top bunk if possible, as they’re less likely to be less visible and therefore less prone to be hassled. So just another point to keep in mind.
Will my possessions be safe on the sleeper train?
Well, there have been reports about tourists have their stuff stolen on sleeper trains, so it’s something to think about. Some people advise bringing a lockable chain for your bags, which is a great shout. I also kept my backpack with all my essentials close to my pillow, like a little teddy bear, so that I could keep an eye on it. I’ve seen other people recommend sleeping with your bag under your feet. However, your feet are closest to the corridor and therefore more likely to be visible to opportunists. You’re probably not going to have the best night’s sleep with a bag at your head but that probably wouldn’t be the case anyway!
What’s the bedding situation?
Let’s talk about bedding. Clean bedding is provided for you just as it would be in a hostel, where you’d have to make the bed yourself. Some people will be cool with that and others might not be, so just giving you the heads up! One of the women actually brought her own silk sheet with her on the trip, which I thought was an amazing luxury travel trip to remember.
What’s provided on the train:
I found all of the bedding to be clean and perfectly adequate so it was all good from my perspective!
What to bring on board the sleeper train
So that’s what’s already in place on the train. But what else should you bring?
Well, call me predictable but the first thing is food. There isn’t a dedicated buffet carriage on the train where you can buy food. That’s not to say there’s nothing – I remember a man walking up and down the aisle the whole journey yelling ‘chai, chai, chai’ – and according to other blogs you can buy snacks onboard. But it’s not like there’s a huge choice at your disposal.
Therefore, it’s important to bring a healthy supply of food with you on the train. We’d all picked up food to make up a ‘packed tea’ and we also had a big bottle of water each.
I would also recommend bringing lots of snacks. It’s a long night and the trains are prone to delays. You certainly don’t want to end up starving and stuck in the middle of nowhere!
Finally, entertainment is really important. It’s a l-o-n-g journey, folks, so you want to be able to keep yourself entertained. As we were travelling in February it got dark pretty quickly so you didn’t even have the option of staring out the window and watching the countryside go past – which would have been really cool. No, you have to bring your own entertainment.
Sleeper train in India: your survival kit
10 essential items to pack for your overnight train journey in India
- Water – bring more than you need just in case you get delayed
- Snacks – there’s limited food on the train, although you can buy masala chai
- Tissues/toilet paper – you will definitely need this!
- Hand sanitiser – an essential after experiencing the bathroom facilities!
- Portable charger – there are plug sockets but if the train is busy there might not always be one available, so best to have a back-up option
- Movies downloaded onto your phone or tablet – the wi-fi isn’t great to best not to rely on it, make sure you have a back-up with some films already downloaded
- A good book that you actually want to read
- Face wipes so you can freshen up even if you can’t wash your face
- Lockable chain – this may give you more peace of mind
- Warm clothes – it can get cold overnight
Can I charge my phone on a sleeper train?
The short answer is yes, you can charge your iPhone on board a sleeper train in India. There is a plug socket between the four bunk beds that you can use as a charging point. However, there isn’t a socket for everyone so you will have to share. It’s probably a good idea to have a portable charger with you as a back-up just in case you can’t access it.
How do I keep my valuables safe on the sleeper train?
I would keep your valuables in your main bag – as long as you have a lock on it.
My next piece of advice is to split your luggage into two: your main bag and a smaller bag that has all the essentials that you’ll need over the course of the journey. That way you can keep the smaller bag within easy reach while placing your large bag underneath your bunk where it’s out of sight. You don’t want to have to keep getting it out because once everyone is sitting down in the compartment you don’t have a lot of space to play with.
What to include in your small bag:
- Face wipes
- Contact lenses case
What are the toilets like on a sleeper train in India?
What words could I use to describe the toilets on the sleeper train? Hmmm…
As you might expect, the toilets are pretty grim, so just make sure you’re prepared for that. They’ll smell, there will be water everywhere, and don’t even hope that there will be toilet paper. You might want to wear enclosed shoes too.
There are usually two toilets on the sleeper train, a western toilet and a squat toilet. You might be thinking that you’d prefer to use the western toilet. Well, I actually think that the squat toilet is actually a better idea – that’s what I did. Why? Well, you don’t have to touch anything, and when you see what the toilets actually look like this is a blessing, trust me.
What time does the overnight train in India arrive at?
As I said at the top of the post, I got two overnight trains over the course of the trip. Both of these were due to arrive at 7am in the morning. The first one was pretty much on time but the second was late – I think it arrived about an hour and a half late. But that’s pretty tame really! One of my friends from home experienced a much longer delay and Sana said that she’d once been on a train delayed for over six hours! I’d had enough of the train by the morning so I’m delighted that that didn’t happen to us.
That’s the thing. If you get delayed you might think – yay – a lie in, but it’s actually a bit tricky if you’ve got a day of sightseeing planned out ahead of you. As Intrepid are in the know about the frequent delays we didn’t have anything definitive in the diary for the morning, so that’s something I’d keep in mind if you’re planning a trip without a travel company.
No sunrise viewings at the Taj Mahal for example, because that won’t be happening. Leave your morning free and then you can enjoy the overnight train in India.
My overall thoughts on the sleeper train in India…
Now onto the what I thought about the overnight train as a whole. Well, it was certainly memorable. However, I look back really fondly on our experience of getting the overnight train. It was nice to rub shoulders with the locals and to play with some of the children in our compartment – they kept being drawn to all the snacks which we were happy to share with them.
It was also on the train from Delhi that everyone on our tour group started to really bond. There were five or six of us from our tour group all in one compartment of the train – with six bunk beds all next to each other – and it kind of felt like having a sleepover with your friends when you’re 13. Especially as we were all crammed in together in one space!
We just sat up and chatted for ages – I remember our tour guide Sana had lots of stories to tell us about India and the culture and what we could expect from the trip, which was really interesting to hear. We also all watched the Netflix show I am a Killer together on someone’s iPad, and then retreated to our bunks to read or watch more stuff on our phones. It was really enjoyable. One final tip: don’t drink too much water – you really don’t want to have to use the bathroom more times than necessary.
On that subject… the toilets were truly revolting by the time morning came around so it’s worth remembering that this definitely isn’t the five-star experience. It is also an early start and you may feel a bit groggy and disoriented when you wake up – I definitely didn’t recover until I’d had an extra-large coffee and a full-cooked breakfast in Varanasi!
With all that said, if you can keep an open mind then the overnight train in India is a great way to get across the country quickly and cheaply. You have to try it at least once!