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Overland Transportation in India

Tips for Independent and Adventurous Travelers

Train travel in India
A vast network of trains service much of India.

India is often referred to as a subcontinent and with good reason. The country is culturally and geographically so diverse that it could easily be made up of dozens of independent nations with unique ethnic groups, cultures, natural features, and languages. Still, India has succeeded in forming a reasonably stable unity despite its diversity. However, this tremendous geographic, cultural, and economic diversity also means that travel conditions change drastically from state to state. Northern India has the country's best-developed highway and railway system. Regardless, road conditions can change drastically when you leave the more populated and developed regions. Within a day's bus ride from Delhi, travelers can travel on a modern four-lane highway and end up on a narrow dirt road leading up into the Himalayas.

To shed some light on India's vastly different transportation conditions, we have compiled an overview of transportation options to help you make the best of your trip (see the resources at the end of this article). Before planning your journey through India, please bear in mind that the country is obviously vast, and the distances are enormous. As a result, the way you approach travel in India, as in a vast nation such as the U.S. or China, must consider the size. The best way to travel in India is to use all available means of transportation. If you only have a few weeks to spend in India and want to see several regions that are far apart, I suggest flying to save time. On the other hand, if you are not in a hurry, take the train on routes that offer many attractions along the way. Hiring a vehicle is an option when you travel with others in areas with little public transportation.

Railways in India

Thanks in part to the British colonial administration, India has a vast network of railways, which has been well-maintained by the Indian government since it gained independence in 1947. India has one of the largest networks of any country in the world, transporting over 12 million passengers every day. Traveling by train is the most comfortable and enjoyable means of ground transportation in India. As distances are vast, an overnight train ride in a sleeper car is a relaxed and pleasant way to travel. Traveling by train is also a great cultural experience and an excellent opportunity to meet the Indian people and converse over tea or a meal. If you want a meal while on the train, request well before your departure to ensure you receive the kind of food you like. You can book railway tickets conveniently online or go to a railway booking office, which may or may not be located at the railway station. Before planning a trip by train, get the lowdown at the local tourist office.

The downside is trains are notoriously late, and seats sell out quickly. Be prepared to wait for several hours for the train. Have a book handy or buy a magazine. Since most trains are crowded, buying your ticket in advance is the best way to ensure a seat or berth. Seats on a train are sold according to a rather bureaucratic quota system, allocating more seats from the city of origin than along the route and giving preference to special groups of travelers such as ladies, government officials, and people with disabilities. There is also a small quota for foreign tourists on select trains intended to make it easier for foreigners to make a reservation on short notice. These tickets must be paid in cash in U.S. dollars, British pounds, or Indian rupees. For last-minute reservations, travelers can also use the Tatkal booking system, which offers unsold seats up to five days before departure. These tickets are available at railway stations for an additional fee.

Foreign visitors arriving on international flights can also purchase an Indrail Pass, available for half a day, two days, and four days for visiting only one or two connecting destinations. In India, indrail passes are available for sale at international tourist bureaus, railway stations in major cities, and the Delhi International Airport (open 24 hours). These offices also sell regular train tickets to foreign travelers, offering you a significant advantage because you don't have to wait in line at regular ticket offices.

If you choose to travel by sleeper car, you have several options. You can travel by first class (1A), two-tier (2A), and three-tier (3A) sleeper class, all of which have air conditioning. The two-tier sleeper car has two berths on each side, with four per compartment, while the three-tier sleeper car has three berths on either side, with six berths. 2A and 3A sleeper compartments only have a curtain to separate them from the corridor. If you are a light sleeper, consider earplugs. Since railway travel is quite affordable, there is no reason to travel in the crowded, uncomfortable second-class sleeper car without air-conditioning or the regular second-class car equipped only with wooden benches.

India's railway system is divided into 16 different administrative zones. Assume you change trains in a major city. In that case, you may have to transfer to a different railway station for onward travel to continue using a different railroad. Tourist information and railway personnel will inform you about current taxi prices. If the ride is short, you should take a motorcycle rickshaw. Otherwise, an authentic taxicab is your better option since they are safer. If you need to change railway stations, allow for a long enough layover to make sure to catch your connecting train. Traffic is chaotic in all large Indian cities, and it may take a while to reach the railway terminal when you depart.

I have found railway travel to be very safe. There is security at each railway station, and all personnel speak English, making it easy to receive information and find the platform and car with your seat/berth reservation. There are also waiting rooms that are only accessible to ticketed passengers. Make sure that the car number corresponds to the number on your ticket and that you occupy your designated seat. Each train has its own name, making it easy to identify. There are usually lit-up panels or boards at railway stations that announce the next arriving train or train delays, and the information is displayed in English as well. Depending on the number of passengers, getting on a train can be a hustle and bustle. Remain calm and ask railway officials for help. Trains stop long enough for all passengers to find their seats. For passenger comfort, trained personnel hand out clean sheets, pillows, and blankets for all travelers. You are also served optional tea, refreshments, and meals.

Bus transportation in India.
Buses connect much of India.

Bus Travel in India

Long-distance buses travel on all major highways and connect all cities in India. Busing is less comfortable than traveling by train, but buses usually run on time, which is the only significant advantage. There are no onboard bathrooms, and passengers have to rely on rest stops to use the bathroom. In remote areas and mountains, roads are often winding and in bad repair, making long bus rides quite uncomfortable. Traveling in the Himalayas by bus is a hair-raising experience. Single-lane dirt roads lead up to high mountain valleys and passes frequented by buses and trucks. It can take several minutes and careful and dangerous maneuvering for two large vehicles to pass each other on these roads. The buses are ancient in these remote mountainous regions, with minimal legroom. Seats are made of plastic and are very uncomfortable on long rides. Buses stop every couple of hours for a break, usually at a village restaurant, where passengers can buy food and drink.

Getting to the correct bus terminal can also be challenging, especially in big cities, since each bus company has its own terminal. Since many bus routes are run by state governments, each State Road Transport Corporation also has its own terminal or bus stop, often located in central Delhi at or near the respective state government house, known as a "Bhawan." Getting the correct information about bus travel can be challenging since many different companies and terminals exist, especially in large cities. Traveling back to Delhi by bus from Rajasthan, I was lucky to ask a very knowledgeable passenger, who told me the location from which buses to Himachal Pradesh were leaving and the name of the state-run bus company. Without his help, I would have spent the better part of the day going from bus terminal to bus terminal all over Delhi to find the right one.

Hiring a Vehicle

Hiring a vehicle and driver is a common and popular way for Indian families to travel on vacation. These large SUVs hold up to eight passengers, and it can be a very affordable way of traveling long distances, provided you have several travel companions to share the ride. Many vehicles have four-wheel drive, making them safer in the mountains and on bad roads. When hiring a car for a day or even a week, I find it helpful to ask the local tourist office about current prices and where to contact drivers. Each city or town usually has at least one dedicated spot where you may find vehicles for hire. Prices are negotiable, and good bartering skills will help you achieve this.

Getting Around Town

City buses and suburban trains can be found in all cities. Still, taxis are affordable and often a safer and easier way to get around. Consider taking a bicycle rickshaw for short distances, which provides a shady canopy and gets you to your destination much quicker than walking. Motorcycle Rickshaws are another popular option to get around town. They are very affordable, but be aware that drivers often pick up several passengers going in the same direction. Keep in mind that Rickshaw riders may not speak English. Before embarking on an aimless tour around town, ensure your driver understands where you need to go. I spent an hour riding a bicycle rickshaw in the city of Allahabad only to find out that my driver spoke no English and had no idea where I wanted to go.

Others Forms of Local Transportation in India

Where no roads exist, mules and camels become the common form of transportation. Imagine you plan to visit a remote village in the Himalayas or want to explore sand dunes in Rajasthan's Thar Desert. In that case, you are better off on the back of a mule, yak, or camel than trying to get there by vehicle. Riding a camel is a little daunting at first because it is somewhat precarious, but it is fun once you get used to the animal's gait. Riding an elephant is another option to get around locally. Instead of walking uphill to an old castle, many visitors rode an elephant.

Boat Travel

Although India has a sizeable navigable river system, boat travel for foreign visitors on the mainland is limited chiefly to short boat excursions at popular tourist sites. The large rivers, such as the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, are mainly used to transport cargo, but there are a few destinations in India where boat travel assumes a more critical role. In Goa, for example, water taxis and ferries are common ways of getting around. In the state of Kerala in Southern India, with its extensive backwaters, travel by boat and ferry is also quite common.

Several island groups are also connected to mainland India by ferry. The Andaman and Nicobar islands are located about 1,200 km off Southeast India in the Bay of Bengal. They are connected by regular flights and ferry services from Kolkata, Madras, and Vizag. Keep in mind that ferries take two days to reach the islands. There is also a regular ferry service between the islands.

A Quick Word on Air Travel in India

India has many domestic airlines that serve all state capitals and major cities. Most airports are relatively small, making checking in and getting to your gate easy and quick.

For More Information


Maps of India provides much helpful information about travel and transportation in India, including railway, bus, and boat travel — as well as maps.


The IRCTC Tourism India website caters to foreign visitors for booking tickets.

Indian Railways Fan Club (IRFCA) provides a great deal of information about the extensive network of railways in India.

Several printed Indian railway guides, such as "The Great Indian Railway Atlas," "A Guide to India Railways," and the "India-Railway-Atlas," are available for purchase at bookstores and kiosks at railway stations.


Buses travel on all major highways and connect all cities in India.

Air Travel

Here are a couple of India’s most popular airlines.

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