Numerous different classes of travel can be found on Indian Railways trains, and it can be confusing for those who are unfamiliar with it. Here's an explanation of what can be expected in each class, as well as some tips to help you choose the right class to meet your needs for a comfortable train trip in India.
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India’s poorest people travel in Unreserved General Class (UR), as well as those who haven't been fortunate enough to secure a ticket in Sleeper Class. Reservations aren’t required and the concept of overcrowding really is taken to a new level. There’s sitting or standing room only, and any spare floor space is occupied by those willing to sleep on it. Most seats are simply wooden benches, although some trains do have padded benches.
- Comfort Rating: Unreserved Class is not recommended for long distance train travel in India.
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Reservations are required in Second Class (2S). 2S is usually found on daytime intercity trains and is a cheap way of traveling. There are three seats on either side of the aisle, and they don't recline. Most of them are cushioned bench-style seats, although some newer carriages have individual seats. There are no sleeping facilities in this class. Carriages are cooled with fans.
- Comfort Rating: Bearable for short distance trips if really necessary. However, carriages are often occupied by passengers who don't have reservations.
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Most of India's middle class travel in Sleeper Class. Carriages are divided into open-plan compartments with six beds in each. The beds are stacked vertically in three tiers on either side of the compartments. During the day, the middle beds must be folded down flat against the compartment walls to allow passengers to sit on the lower beds. Two tiers of beds are also located outside the compartments, along the aisle. Fans on the carriage ceiling provide some cooling, and the windows have bars to keep intruders out as they are usually kept open. The bathrooms have both western and Indian style toilets.
- Comfort Rating: There's no privacy in Sleeper Class, and it's noisy, crowded and dirty (and that includes the toilets). However, some visitors do prefer to travel in this class so they can interact with Indians from all walks of life.
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Three Tier Air Conditioned Class, known as 3AC, offers a significant step up in comfort and quietness. The carriages in 3AC are laid out in the same manner as in Sleeper Class. However, the windows are covered with tinted glass that’s unable to be opened, and air-conditioning keeps the carriages cool. Sheets, pillows, blankets, and towels are provided to passengers.
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- Comfort Rating: Passengers tend to keep to themselves in 3AC, but privacy is still severely lacking due to the open plan nature of the compartments. (Indian Railways removed curtains from 3AC compartments in mid 2014, citing fire hazard). Most importantly, the carriages and bathrooms in usually remain much cleaner than those in Sleeper Class.
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Two Tier Air Conditioned Class, known as 2AC, attracts India’s upper class travelers. There’s much more space, as there are only four beds in each compartment. The beds are stacked vertically in two tiers on either side. Just like in the other classes, there are also two tiers of beds along the aisle outside the compartments. Bedding and towels are also provided, the same as in 3AC.
- Comfort Rating: The best thing about 2AC is the added benefit of privacy curtains on the entrance to each compartment, as well as across each of the beds that run along the aisle. The curtains are usually always kept drawn and this class of accommodation is quite devoid of any interaction.
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First Class Air Conditioned, known as 1AC, is found only on the most popular inter-state train routes. The cost is around double that of 2AC and is comparable to that of flying. Compartments have lockable doors, carpet and either two or four beds, stacked vertically in tiers. The beds are wider than other classes. Sheets, pillows, blankets, towels, and room freshener are also provided. 1AC carriages also have better and cleaner bathrooms, plus shower cubicles.
- Comfort Rating: If comfort and privacy are utmost concerns, choose 1AC. The only problem with 1AC is that it's not possible to specify if you want accommodation in a two bed or four bed compartment when you book. However, couples are normally allocated accommodations in the two bed compartments, while singles and families are accommodated in the four bed compartments.
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Executive Class is only found on Shatabdi Express trains, which are premium super fast passenger trains that run between major cities (such as Delhi, Agra and Jaipur), as well as selected Duronto Express trains. It's Indian Railways' version of airline business class. Carriages have only two seats on each side of the aisle. This makes them less crowded, and provides more leg room and luggage space. Better food is also served.
- Comfort Rating: This class is well maintained, clean, and pleasant for a day trip. However, it costs significantly more than Air Conditioned Chair Car (see below). Some people don't think the price difference is worth it. You may be better of paying a bit extra and flying!
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Air Conditioned Chair Car carriages (CC) are commonly found on shorter distance Indian Railways trains between major cities, especially those sectors that are frequented by business travelers. The carriages are slightly more crowded than Executive Class. They have three seats on one side of the aisle, and two on the other.
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- Comfort Factor: The seats recline, there is overhead space for luggage, and bathrooms tend to be relatively clean. It's a comfortable enough way to travel on day trips.
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Unlike normal Shatabdi Express premium trains, the Jan Shatabdi is a budget "people's" train. It has both air conditioned (CC) and non air conditioned (2S) chair classes. Travel in 2S on Jan Shatabdi trains offers perhaps the best value for money on Indian Railways.
- Comfort Factor: Unlike 2S on other trains, there are no bench seats. All are padded, individual seats. However, they do not recline like the seats in air conditioned CC class, and this gets uncomfortable after a while.
- Find Out What the Mumbai-Goa Jan Shatabdi Train is Like
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The beds are referred to as "berths". Where possible, always try to reserve an upper level one. They don't have to be folded down during the day like the middle level ones, or act as seats for all the passengers like the lower level ones.
The beds located along the aisle outside the main compartments (referred to as 'side berths') also offer a bit more personal space, and are less claustrophobic. They're great if you're traveling as a couple. However, they are enclosed at both ends and are shorter than the ones inside the compartments. As a result, they're not recommended for people who're taller than around 5 feet 10 inches.
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Travel in Sleeper Class is suitable for those on a tight budget, or those who don't mind roughing it or who want to experience the 'real' India. If comfort is more of a concern, then travel in 3AC is a better option. For those who require space and/or privacy, 2AC or 1AC is recommended.