Indian railways is this wonderfully complex net of railway lines running almost all over the country that allows us to travel to our heart’s content at wonderfully cheap prices. Who doesn’t have fond memories of a long distance travel in a train….
The main pain with Indian Railways reservation is that reservations usually are full waaaay in advance – think three months when it comes to peak travel seasons like summer vacations. As soon as reservations are opened. The other pain is the tedious and utterly human unfriendly process of procuring a ticket. First you go to a station where long distance train tickets can be reserved (most local stations won’t). Then you figure out the train you want to book tickets on, and fill a form with details of every person, train number, etc. Basically, when it comes to reservations Indian Railways is a big challenge area. Can’t say problem, because with such a vast country and so many trains, it is bound to be somewhat chaotic.
Oh wait! Before you fill that form, you stand among a huge mass of humanity peering at big boards (You have the honor of becoming someone’s good deed for the day if your eyesight is bad) with train numbers and timings, etc – obviously there is no space for the train schedule, so you have to guess what time you will arrive, or ask the person when your turn to book the ticket finally comes.
This can be an incredibly agonizing process, particularly if you are trying to figure out your best chance to get non-waitlisted tickets from an array of trains. Sometimes people will fill forms for all the train possibilities and then submit the one that has best availability. Like I said, pain.
When it comes to reservation, Indian Railways is nothing if not innovative. Indian Railways Passenger Reservation Inquiry is a remarkably ugly website that has information on train schedules and you can check your pnr status, etc. The big thing is that you can sit in your chair and wield your mouse to know the various trains, their schedules, fares, etc. IRCTC ticket reservation status takes status checking out of the province of the fortune tellers. You have Indian Rail at your fingertips.
The tatkal system offers a ray of hope for those who wish to travel, but can’t plan journeys months in advance. But the Tatkal tickets get booked almost as soon as they are released. So, it isn’t uncommon to see people wanting Tatkal reservations on the Indian Railways trains lined up well before the ticket windows are scheduled to open.
But it gets better. irctc.co.in allows you to make online reservations. You need to register on the site and login. It uses some horrible cookie kind of thing, which keeps logging you out (the site is so good looking that something needs to remind you about its being a government enterprise). So you log right back in (remember to have an easy password, or infinite patience). You can select start and destination and the site brings up suggestions.
You can compare availabilities, prices…. well not compare – its a government website – intuitive stuff is banned, but the links are all there to find out schedule, fare and availability as separate popups – lather, rinse, repeat for each train you want to find out. It also can get real slow at times…. but its a choice. Do you want to stand for hours for a ticket?
Best part is that you can create profiles of passengers you regularly book tickets for, so that takes some of the pain out of filling in age, name, etc (remember, if you get logged out, you go back to the login, search for train, select, fill form….) so that helps.
Another thing is that you can pay with your credit card, so you don’t end up spending money before your trip, but can return and clear your bill afterwards.
You have the option to book a ‘real’ ticket, which gets delivered to your home by courier at additional cost, or an e-ticket that you print out yourself.
I am not going to pretend that as far as websites go they are good for saving you a lot of inconvenience.
But it gets better. For those among you who aren’t technosavvy enough to do online bookings, many cyber cafe guys can do it for you for a fee. The thing to remember here is that if you book a ticket online, you can cancel it online. If you book a ‘real’ ticket, or the i-ticket online, which is a real ticket and gets delivered, you can only cancel it in person at a ticket counter. So don’t book your ticket with some cyber-cafe guy/friend of a friend you can’t find again if you need to cancel.
Last thing to remember, a tatkal ticket is sure easier online than waiting up at 5am to go and stand in a queue, but please remember that the bookings on the site follow office hours (possibly a democratic measure for those booking physically to not be out technoed of availability) AND the fast disappearing quality of Tatkal doesn’t change because you are online. You WILL have to make a date with your computer at 8am – a time when the site is conspicuously slower than usual – and keep logging in and trying to book your ticket as fast as possible.
Last and most important, if you haven’t tried this, forget all that standing in lines torture and the excess payments to ‘agents’ – just give it a shot. In spite of all inconvenient irritations, I promise you you will be delighted.