An Overview of Transport in India for Tourists

Taxi driver in Mumbai.

Graham Crouch/Getty Images

India, as the third largest country in Asia, requires visitors to give some thought as to how to get from place to place. Fortunately, there are numerous air, rail, and road travel options. This overview of transport in India will help you decide the best ways to travel around.

Air Travel in India

The Indian government has allowed private airlines to operate in India since 1994. However, it wasn't until about 2005 that the number of private airlines really started to increase on both domestic and international routes (although not all of them have survived). Many of these are low-cost airlines that offer cheap fares in return for reduced passenger services, such as free in-flight meals and baggage allowances.

Competition among low-cost airlines has made domestic air travel a lot cheaper (in some cases, airfares aren't much higher than train fares). Coupled with a thriving economy and dramatic jumps in disposable income, air travel in India is booming. In fact, India now has the fastest-growing domestic aviation market in the world. India’s airports have struggled to handle the additional passenger traffic though. Despite widespread redevelopment of the airports, there are continued capacity issues as passenger traffic rapidly rises. For example, Mumbai airport now handles more than 45 million passengers a year but with only one runway! This frequently causes congestion and delays.

The Indian government has also been focusing on improving regional connectivity, with the implementation of its UDAN scheme. Many new regional airports are being built and there more flights to regional destinations under the scheme.

As a result, airport expansion works are scheduled to continue across India well into the future.

Have a read of these guides to domestic airlines in India and airports in India for more information.

Rail Travel in India

India is extremely well connected by a rail network that weaves its 60,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) of tentacle-like tracks throughout the country. It’s possible to travel from one side of India to the other in three days. The railway network is operated by the monstrous, government-owned Indian Railways. It’s a huge undertaking that employs almost 1.5 million people, and oversees the running of about 20,000 trains every day on long-distance and suburban routes.

Train travel provides an interesting alternative to air travel in India, although it can take a bit of getting used to. The different classes of accommodations on long distance trains and the booking process is often confusing for first-time travelers. The lack of privacy and hygiene on the trains can be confronting too. However, there’s no better way to immerse yourself in the Indian culture and way of life, and you’ll be treated to an absorbing view of the Indian landscape. This article demystifies Indian Railways, with answers to frequently asked questions. These tips for long-distance travel on Indian Railways are helpful as well.

The good news for anyone wanting to experience India by train, but without sacrificing luxury or comfort, is that there are various luxury train tours (such as the famous Palace on Wheels) to iconic destinations.

Indian Railways operates special tourist trains for pilgrims as well. The Mahaparinirvan Express Buddhist Circuit Train covers India's important Buddhist sites and the Taj Mahal in eight days. The Bharat Darshan Train conducts low-cost train tours to holy places in India. These tours are mainly targeted at Indian tourists who want to visit temples.

There are also toy trains that run on India's historic mountain hill railways, which are popular with tourists.

In addition to the national rail system, many of India’s major cities have suburban train networks. In May 2015, the Indian government approved a plan to implement world-class rapid transit Metro rail systems in 50 cities. Currently, these Metro trains are operational in 10 cities -- Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai, Lucknow, Kochi, Hyderabad, Jaipur, and Gurgaon. The train networks are still being built though. The one in Delhi is the most extensive and useful for sightseeing.

At the moment, Mumbai's Metro train only has one functioning line, so commuters still rely on what's known as the Mumbai local train. It's an effective way of traveling north and south, from one side of the city to the other. However, it's notoriously crowded and hot, with people hanging out the doors. Although riding on the Mumbai local train is a quintessential city experience, it's advisable to avoid doing so during morning and evening peak times when the crush and swarm of people is astonishing.

Road Travel in India

The condition of India's roads is gradually improving, although it still leaves a lot to be desired in places. When traveling by road, don't estimate the travel time based on distance because bumpy or windy roads often make the trip much longer than expected. Roadside facilities such as restaurants and toilets are variable, and can be frustratingly few and far between.

Yet, for those who prefer to travel around India according to their own timetable, hiring a car and driver is a great solution. Self-drive car hire is not recommended (or common), as driving in India can be a hair-raising experience. It takes an experienced person to be able to safely negotiate the country’s unruly traffic, which isn’t too concerned about following the road rules.

Adventurous travelers may opt to hire a motorcycle, or go on a motorcycle tour, as an invigorating way of seeing the country. The hire of motorcycles and scooters is an ideal way of getting around in Goa, where the beaches are spread out along the state’s coastline. Bicycle tours are another option.

India has a large network of buses that ply the roads from city to city, and state to state. They’re operated by the state road transport corporations and private companies, and are in various conditions (the ones in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are among the best). Bus travel can be attractive on short journeys as services are more frequent than trains, and it’s much easier to book and catch a bus than a train. However, bus travel is usually slow and uncomfortable. Buses often make innumerable stops for passengers to get on and off, seating can be cramped, and the lack of toilet facilities can be a real inconvenience for female travelers. The buses do halt at roadside dhabas (restaurants) but the facilities are frequently far from sanitary. Understandably, many people prefer to take the train, especially on overnight trips. Buses are an inexpensive solution if trains are fully-occupied though, such as on the Mumbai-Goa route. Redbus is a popular platform for booking long-distance buses in India.

Budget travelers may wish to brave India's local city buses. They've become less perilous (compared to how they used to spew out pollution and rule the roads) and even have air-conditioning in some cities such as Delhi.

Otherwise, three-wheeled auto-rickshaws are the cheapest and most convenient way of getting around town. They're readily available on the streets and have meters that calculate the fare according to distance traveled. Be aware than most auto drivers will quote you an inflated fixed fare instead of going by the meter though (Mumbai is a refreshing exception). This is particularly the case in Delhi.

Of course, regular taxis are an option too. They may or may not go by the meter, depending on the location. Be prepared to pay more if you get a taxi from your hotel. Cab drivers will wait outside hotels in tourist areas and charge higher rates.

To avoid the hassle, tourists who can afford it often choose to use app-based cab services such as Ola and Uber, which now operate in many areas in India. These cabs can be hired for longer day or overnight trips.

Getting to and From the Airport in India

Up until recently, when transiting from the airport to your hotel, the best option was to take a prepaid taxi from the booth at the airport. This taxi service is regulated and has fixed rates, thereby eliminating the possibility of being overcharged by shady drivers. However, app-based cab services such as Uber and Ola now provide a cheaper alternative at many major airports in India.

In Delhi, the Metro Airport Express train conveniently connects Delhi Airport with New Delhi Railway Station.

Special airport buses, which are available from many major airports, are another option.

Hotels will also arrange a car and driver to pick you up from the airport, for a fee.

Read more about Delhi airport transfer options.