Indian Transport – Getting Around the Country

India is a huge country. HUGE. There is so much to see – but just as important as deciding WHERE to go, is HOW to get there.

You can get from A to B right through to Z in India by pretty much every mode of transport. What will greatly influence your transport choices is both time and cost. We’ve travelled every mode of transport several times here in India – these are our thoughts and tips on all types.

1) By Airplane
Suggested use: For long haul travel when you’re short on time.

We’ve travelled on several domestic flights here in India and despite what some may say, flying is completely safe. It’s the fastest way to get around the country and with a number of budget airlines available, you can usually do so fairly cheap, but booking in advance is usually the way to go.
We travelled from New Delhi to Trivandrum in 4.5 hours, including a short stopover in Mumbai. It set us back just over $200 per person, so it wasn’t a cheap way to travel, however being Christmas Day we had to get to south as quick as possible and the alternative option – a train – was going to take 51 hours and cost around $100 anyway – so by plane was the way to go.

  • Pros: Indian plane travel is safe, quick and super easy, and if you book in advance is pretty cost effective also.
  • Cons: Delayed flights are common with the budget airlines so this can be a cause for concern if you have connecting flights lined up. We also found security in the Indian airports SUPER over the top (for domestic travel anyway) – so many checkpoints and stamps, and our hand baggage was x-rayed but then opened up and searched thoroughly. They’re only doing their job but this can add half an hour to your pre-flight routine, so keep it in mind.
A busy airport lounge after a delay of several hours.
A busy airport lounge after a delay of several hours.

2) By Train
Suggested use: For ALL travel where possible

You can’t come to India and not ride one of its trains – its THE way to get around the country. Navigating a major hub like New Delhi Station or Mumbai in the early hours of the morning is a quintessential part of your travels in India.
Just about everywhere is connected by rail in India, and if a town doesn’t have its own station you can guarantee there’ll be one in the next town. We’ve taken trains for 80% of our journeys and have loved it.

With over 25 million passengers a day, trains book out fairly quickly – especially seats on popular routes. You could try rocking up to the station and trying your luck but its unlikely you’ll get your preferred train, class and date – you may have to change your dates.
Your best bet of securing your preferred train is to book ahead of time. This will lock you in, but its such a relief knowing your plans are set when you arrive in India, with no need to line up for hours at the station to book all your trains.

It’s a convoluted process to book outside of India but it CAN be done – follow the exact steps outlined by The Man in Seat 61. We did and had no issues. We then used Cleartrip to book all our trains – this is SUCH a good site. Searching for trains is easy, booking them is easy, paying is easy – and if you change your mind, cancelling trains and getting your money back is also easy. We booked our trains approximately 6-8 weeks in advance for the peak season and managed to secure all but one of our preferred trains.

  • Pros: Very efficient travel, cost effective and comfortable for long journeys.
  • Cons: Booking outside of India can be a long process, but so can booking in India – you risk not securing your preferred train. Trains can be noisy, dirty and smelly (I still rate toilets on trains in India THE worst smell here!), but this will also depend on the class you travel.
A coupe - two bed berth - on a 1AC Class train in India.
A coupe – two bed berth – on a 1AC Class train in India.

3) By Bus
Suggested use: Only when there are NO train options

Buses in India… ugh. Not our favourite mode of transport, that’s for sure! There were only two stops on our journey that weren’t connected by train – Udaipur and Munnar, for which we had to get a bus for. We had issues both times we travelled.
India absolutely has a traffic problem, and when you’re travelling by bus – you’re right in the middle of it. The benefit of travelling by bus is that they generally go to a lot more places and a lot more frequently – so if there’s no train available for your route, take a bus.
There are local buses available – hard wooden seats, no windows, no brakes (ha – no not really, but some of them sound like they have none!) for just a few rupees. There are usually also Volvo AC buses available for typical tourist routes – we travelled on one to Munnar and it was a much more comfortable trip and only cost a little more. If you don’t mind parting with a few extra rupees, opt for a tourist bus – they may leave from a different station so ask ahead.

  • Pros: Cheapest form of travel, many routes at regular times available.
  • Cons: If you’re prone to motion sickness, a bus isn’t for you – bus drivers are as bad as everyone else on the road. Suspension is never that great so its usually a bumpy ride. Buses take a LONG time to get to their finish point, as they stop off in every town and station along the way.
A typical Volvo AC bus - even the 'better' buses suffer from breakdowns!
A typical Volvo AC bus – even the ‘better’ buses suffer from breakdowns!

4) By Private Car/Taxi
Suggested use: For sightseeing day trips that involve decent kilometres

In our limited experience with travelling by car, we’ve had an okay experience – but we’ve heard it can pretty hair-raising. As mentioned before, India’s traffic problem is pretty intense and it can be frustrating when you’re in the back of the car seemingly stuck at every single intersection.

We wouldn’t recommend travelling to your next destination by car (it’s an expensive way to go), but what a private car or taxi is good for is sightseeing day trips in your current area.

Taking an auto-rickshaw is a slow, loud and smelly option for long periods of time, but travelling by car alleviates all those issues. We were in Munnar for several days and all the sights are spread out up 60km away in every direction. We got a car and a driver for the day (8 hours) for $30 who took us to every spot and waited for us also – there’s never a rush with a driver. It was a super comfortable journey and really couldn’t be done any other way.

  • Pros: Comfortable, quiet mode of transport, completely personalised – will stop wherever you want and wait for you whilst sight-seeing.
  • Cons: No good for built up areas – very slow way of getting around and you can easily get ripped off if you don’t speak to several drivers to get a ballpark price.

5) By Auto-Rickshaw
Suggested use: For all day to day travel

A classic green and yellow auto-rickshaw is the way to get around in India. From dropping you off at your accommodation after a long train journey, to taking you around the city sights, an auto-rickshaw will take you anywhere.
Whilst not always comfortable and super noisy, the small size of an auto-rickshaw means it can weave in and out of traffic a lot easier than a car can – so despite going at a slower speed, can generally get you to where you need quicker. They’re also cheap as chips.
A good idea to ensure you don’t get ripped off is to cross-check with your hotel/guesthouse how much they think you should pay to get to where you’re going – they’ll advise you of the ‘Indian price’ – what the locals pay. The rate your driver will quote you will ALWAYS be more than this, but with that knowledge you can bargain them down. If they don’t budge much, shrug it off and find another driver – there’s always someone who’ll take your money.
Most rickshaw drivers will try and lock you in for more than a one way trip – asking you for your plans for the day and offer their driving services including waiting time. We found that this usually worked out more expensive. They’ll insist that if you don’t secure their services, that there’ll be ‘no other rickshaw’ available for your return trip – trust us, this is never the case. Pay the one price for the one trip, and grab another rickshaw to your next stop.

  • Pros: Auto-rickshaws are EVERYWHERE and can take you anywhere you wish. They’re cheap, reasonably quick and the way to get around.
  • Cons: Very noisy especially in big cities – pollution is also an issue. Not very comfortable for long journeys (more than 30 minutes), and easy to get ripped off. Drivers can be insistent on taking you around for the day or taking you to their friends shop – stick to your guns and say no.
The only way to get around the streets of India - in an auto-rickshaw.
The only way to get around the streets of India – in an auto-rickshaw.

How did you get around India? We’d love to hear your experience – awesome or horrifying, leave your story in the comments!

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Indian Transport Getting Around the Country

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