Our RTW Trip » Research & Tips » Trains

I thought it might be useful to add this section to our blog as we were often asked by other travellers what the trains were like in different countries. What follows is some information based on our experiences. Guidebooks often provide more detail in terms of schedule and cost, etc. but, personally, I liked to hear/read a first-hand account when it came to train or air travel.

For the record, our favourite trains for reliability, comfort, cost and cleanliness were in China. The worst were in India.



There are four classes of travel on Chinese trains: Hard Seat, Soft Seat, Hard Sleeper, Soft Sleeper. There is sometimes a restaurant car, depending on the route, though almost everyone brings their own food and there are hot water dispensers at one end of each of the Soft Seat, Hard Sleeper and Soft Sleeper cars for tea and instant soup.

The Hard Seat class of train travel is the cheapest and least comfortable. (We experienced this only once, and once was enough.) For a short distance, it was not unbearable but a longer trip would take years off your life. There are benches with unassigned seats on which 3-5 people can seat, depending on the crowd and size of person. Sitting an hour on these seats is hard on the butt and back as they are very slightly padded and the back-rest is at a right angle from the seat. If it’s crowded, you might have to stand for the whole journey. It’s a bit grungy and people don’t hesitate to spit or pull off their shoes and prop them on the opposite bench.

The Soft Seat class of train travel is more expensive than Hard Seat but provides an assigned, padded seat (seats are set in twos down each side of the car) in an air conditioned car and is much less crowded. My only complaint would be the extremely loud music that was piped-in via the intercom. Earplugs would’ve helped until the point at which they turned off the music. We travelled by day for about 8 hours and were very comfortable; it was not unlike the trains we took in Italy and Austria.

The Hard Sleeper bears little resemblence to its cousin, the Hard Seat. Hard Sleeper cars have berths stacked three-high, six per cabin. Each cabin has AC, a window and some have a door that closes, though most often all the berths are open. The Lower berths are more expensive than the Middle or Upper berths but the Lower berths tend to see the most activity because people will sit here during daylight hours and/or use them as the first step in climbing to the higher berths. We travelled by Hard Sleeper several times and were comfortable enough to get a decent night’s sleep. The berths are long (Marc is 6ft. and could just fit) and padded berths with light, clean bedding provided. The piped-in music can be loud but eventually gets turned off. The people we travelled with were nice and all luggage gets stored under the Lower berths or above the door from at the end of the Upper berths. We didn’t feel like we needed to lock our luggage to its shelf and generally felt quite secure.

The Soft Sleeper is the way to go for a long overnight journey when you can’t afford to skip a night of sleep. Soft Sleeper cars have berths stacked two-high, four per cabin. Each cabin has a door that closes, AC, a volume control for the intercom and a thermos of hot water for tea. The berths are the same size as the Hard Sleeper and clean bedding is provided. Again, the people we travelled with were nice and all luggage gets stored under the Lower berths or above the door from at the end of the Upper berths. We didn’t need to lock our luggage to its shelf and felt very secure during the journey. It’s definitely more expensive than the Hard Sleeper but is a great option for waking refreshed at destination.


When we were in China, we thought the train stations were Crowded, with a capital C, but that was only until we got to India and found out what Crowded really meant. At any rate, we visited several stations both for the purposes of buying tickets in advance and for travelling, and were reasonably comfortable with both.

Often, there are reams of people waiting/sleeping outside the train station- are they waiting for a connection? nowhere else to sleep? There were always kiosks near or inside the stations selling food, hot and cold, and water. Soft Sleeper, Hard Sleeper and Soft Seat class generally have a separate waiting lounge; the Hard Seat people have to be ready to rush the train in order to secure a seat.

Most often, only passengers are allowed inside the departure aread of the stations and must present a valid ticket at the security gate near the entrance. Also, luggage must go through an x-ray security screen but we never saw a foreigner get stopped or searched.


We didn’t itemize the cost of train travel in our budget, but it was included in our daily budget and was entirely reasonable. On the well-oiled tourist trail, the cost of air travel seemed to be approaching the cost of train travel for the same route. Eg. The cost of a Soft Sleeper berth from Xi’an to Beijing was about the same as the flight between the two cities. However, on an overnight train journey, you get one night’s accommodation and on any train journey, you don’t have to shell out for the taxis to and from the airports.

On the less-frequented paths between destinations in Central China, the train proved to be a great mode of transport, not only for cost, but for reliability, comfort and convenience as well.


There are several options available for booking trains in China. I believe travel agents and tour operators book trains and I think online booking available, but we only used two methods: purchasing tickets at the station, purchasing tickets at a reservation office.

At The Station

  1. If at all possible, try to book your tickets at least a day before travel. In my experience, it just makes things easier and you probably won’t have to spend as much time hanging around the station with all your luggage as when you are buying a ticket and travelling the same day.
  2. Before going to the station, talk to someone at your hostel and ask if they would mind writing down your desired travel date, time, destination and travel class in Mandarin.
  3. If you don’t have access to anyone who can write Mandarin, write down the travel date, time, destination and travel class in English; even that helps. If you can manage it, try to memorize the characters that represent your destination as that also helps when looking at schedule boards.
  4. Approach the station (it will be crowded no matter what the time of day) and weave through the people to find the entrance. If none of the signs have English, just follow the people with luggage who are walking towards the station.
  5. The ticket hall is usually right at the entrance. Upon entering, look for a ticket window labelled “Foreigner” or “English Speaker” which might be manned by an English-speaking clerk. If there is no such sign, it’s not a big deal.
  6. Look for the Hours of Operation posted on each ticket window. Be sure to queue up for a window that will be open for at least the next half-hour because when a window closes, everyone in that queue has to start again at the back of another queue.
  7. When you get near the front, don’t let anyone budge in front of you. It doesn’t happen often but it’s just not fair when it does. Be firm, if not aggressive, in order to approach the counter.
  8. Give the clerk your note with the travel details; they might have a few queries but nothing that can’t be communicated in a few words or gestures.
  9. Pay with cash, it’s just easier. As always, don’t be flashing around a big wad of money, advertising that you are, in fact, a walking ATM.
  10. Review the tickets quickly when you get them to at least make sure the date and time are right. It’s much easier to correct a mistake while you’re still standing at the window. Beware, though, when the people behind you see that you have your ticket, they’ll push ahead and start barking out their request almost immediately.

At A Reservation Office

Note: This option is infinitely preferable than going to the station to buy a ticket as there are almost no queues and the chances of finding an English speaker are greater.

  1. Check to make sure there is a Reservation Office in the city as it seems that only the largest cities have this type of office; they are listed in the Lonely Planet guide for China.
  2. Follow steps 1 -3 for At The Station.
  3. Check the hours of operation of the Reservation Office so you don’t show up during lunch hour.
  4. Enter and approach one of the clerks at a desk. We never had to stand in a queue but I think one takes a number and waits to be called, if there are ever more than a few people waiting to be served.
  5. Give the clerk your note with the travel details; they might have a few queries but nothing that can’t be communicated in a few words or gestures.
  6. Pay for the ticket; I think some places accept credit cards but cash is never-fail.
  7. Review the tickets when you get them to at least make sure the date and time are right. It’s much easier to correct a mistake while you’re still standing at the desk.
  8. Ask the clerk any questions you might have about the journey; you won’t have a better opportunity to ask than now.

Links A pretty comprehensive guide to trains in several countries, including schedule overview, cost and pictures.



Honestly, there were so many levels of train travel and types of trains that I had a hard time figuring it out. At this point, the best I can do is narrow it down based on our experiences. If one is travelling by train in India, one must accept that there will be cockroaches.

The 1st Class Sleeper is air conditioned and relatively roomy. still a bit grungy and one still must lock up the luggage but bedding is provided and the bunks are pretty comfortable. There are 4 berths per cabin (or sometimes 3). In hindsight, this is the class we should have travelled for every overnight journey, even if it was quite a bit more expensive than regular Sleeper Class.

The 2nd Class Sleeper is a class we never experienced but I think it offers air conditioning but perhaps not bedding. Anyway, it exists somewhere in the middle.

The Sleeper Class is more or less the standard for overnight travel. The Sleeper cars are not air conditioned but have windows that open with bars across them. On one side of the aisle, there are six berths facing each other, piled 3-high. Opposite each set of six, on the narrow side of the aisle, is an upper and lower berth arranged lengthwise along the car. There are no doors or curtains, privacy or air conditioning; there are, however, electric fans. This is an entirely acceptable level of travel and affords a decent night’s sleep. Bring a blanket!

The middle berths in the sets of six fold up out of the way so that everyone can sit on the lower berth during the day. The cars are grungy and security is non-existant but locking up our bags was fine and we never felt unsafe- not once. On the plus side, one can purchase hot, yummy food on longer trips and there is an endless stream of hot chai and coffee for sale, along with snacks, toys, etc.

As a personal preference, I liked booking the two lengthwise berths on the narrow side of the aisle because one can sit looking out the window with one’s feet up. Also, the upper berth in the set of six is preferable because a) you always have the choice of sitting or laying down, b) it’s closest to the fans for cool air – one can switch them off at night, and c) it offers a tiny bit more privacy than the lower or middle berths

The 1st Class Seats are plenty comfortable. They are air conditioned, include a free bottle of water, tea and coffee service and comfortable assigned seats. The gringo in me thought this was the best way to travel in India.

From here, my mind is muddled with the classes and trains available. Suffice it to say, we travelled Sleeper Class almost all the time we were in India, with the exception of a couple of 1st class extravagences and some experience of the bottom end, upon which I shall now elaborate.

The Passenger Train service is a milk run. It is cheap beyond belief and slow, with no air con, no assigned seats (though the seats are padded) and it stops at every station. It can be extremely crowded, to the point of squashed-standing room only but if one needs to get from A to B, it will do. We never felt unsafe on a passenger train but I’ve heard stories that it can be a bit dodgy.

Avoid the Mail Service Train! This is the lowest of the low, pretty filthy, always atrociously late and slower than molasses in January. The one time we had to travel mail service, it took SIX HOURS to travel 200kms. Be warned.


The urban stations are an example of bedlam. From a western perspective, the volume of people at a station can be staggering, especially overnight when people must sleep on the floor on any space available. It can be crowded to the point where it’s tricky to maneouvre through the main hall for people sitting and sleeping.

There are toilets at the stations, but it’s easier and cleaner to go on board the train. Food is always available and hot, delicious chai is ubiquitous. Keep your wits and your luggage about you and mind where you tread. If you’re waiting and bored, try one of the weigh scales for Rs.1. Weigh your bags, yourselves, whatever, and get your fortune foretold to boot.

The rural stations can be quiet, quaint and actually quite pleasant. They are often set apart from a town or hamlet and, as a consequence, don’t have much, if anything, in the way of services or food.


We didn’t itemize the cost of train travel in our budget, but it was included in our daily budget and was entirely reasonable. It’s much less to train than to fly and if we visit India again, I won’t hesitate to take the trains. The 1st class areas were always quite a bit more expensive than anything else but for my money, it was worth it.


All but once we used travel agents to book our train tickets. Often, the hostel or hotel we were staying at could arrange tickets for us and that was, by far, the easiest way to go. We were charged about 30-50 rupees ($0.78 – 1.30CAD) for each ticket booked via travel agent but that was Rs.30-50 very well spent.

Booking at the station involves finding the train you want to take, writing the details on a piece of paper, queing up for the computer to check that there are seats avaialable and then queing again to purchase the tickets. In my opinion, time is better spent enjoying the country instead of the train station’s booking office; travel agents are the way to go.

In our experience…

  • Diwali is a busy, busy time to travel and trains fill up fast.
  • The Mumbai-Goa route books up fast because it’s popular with the foreigners; book as far ahead as you possibly can.
  • Check that the info on the ticket is correct (class, date, time, etc.) before leaving the travel agent.
  • The tickets are not complicated to read but it’s handy to be able to “decipher” one’s ticket. People are friendly- just ask around for help figuring out what each number and letter refers to, including the reference to the train number.
  • Sometimes, one ends up on a Waiting List for seats in a desired class or a desired train. (Indicated by a WL in the space where the ticket should have a seat assignment.) Up to 2 hours in advance, approach the Waiting List window and hand over the tickets to the fellow to check to see if you have seats. If not, you might get a lower class or the next train. (We were never without a seat when we waited on a list.)
  • If you have an assigned seat, you can check the passenger manifest posted on the exterior of the assigned car before you get on. It’s not necessary, but kind of comforting to see one’s name on the list and that the list matches one’s ticket.
  • If a ticket says “Check Schedule” then CHECK THE SCHEDULE! The train schedules change slightly each month and sometimes, the new schedule is not finalized when you buy a ticket. Go to the station well in advance and ask at the windows until someone can tell you for certain what time your train leaves. Sometimes, the info is posted on a board near the booking windows. Lesson: we once booked a train for departure at 11:30pm on Dec.6 only to find out that the schedule changed very slightly so that the train left at 12:03am. Of course, that was 12:03am on Dec.6, so we were 12 hours late for our train and had to purchase a new ticket.)
  • We never tried to book a ticket on the internet but apparently this can be done. Again, because it is so easy and convenient, I would go to a travel agent before trying to figure out the online system.


Indian Railways Reservation Enquiry Check train schedules and routes and reserve online; but take the information with a grain of salt. Again, a great reference for information about train travel in India and how to go about it.


Because we booked our Trans-Siberian voyage as a tour through a travel agent, we have no knowledge of the train system outside our limited experience. I can, at least, describe what it is like to travel across the continent by train.


Unknown, but I can describe the likes of our travel.

The cabins line one side of the train and one aisle connects them end to end. Each cabin has four wide berths, a table and a door. Each car has two toilets, one at each end of the car, one meant each for men and women (though usually the train atttendants lock one and keep it for themselves). There was no shower on our train (though I believe some trains have separate showers) and the toilets accommodate no more than is necessary, though are locked at every stop; this can be inconvenient when the stops at borders are 6 to 11 hours at a stretch.

The berths are wide and long enough to accomodate someone who is 6ft. tall. Because there are only four per cabin, they are spaced far enough apart to be able to sit up on the lower berth without folding up the upper berth. There is a bar to keep one from rolling out of bed at night; it is, overall, quite comfortable.

On one leg of our journey, the window had a small section at the top that could be opened. On the longer leg, the window could not be opened and it tended to be pretty hot (it was August). There was space available for luggage above the door at the ends of the top berths and under the lower berths. Clean bedding was provided as was hot water at the end of each car for making soup, tea, etc. There was a dining car but we preferred to bring our own stuff as it was cheaper. Bring lots of vodka.

Overall, I would describe our journey as quite comfortable, though it is an exceptionally long period of time to spend on a train. The stops are brief – generally 20 minutes or less – and the pace is leisurely.


The stations are functional, nothing special. We took advantage of the kiosks set up on the platforms that sold nasty bread, food, sometimes home-made meals, chips, vodka, and bad-tasting water, among other things. We didn’t have the opportunity to explore any further than the platforms along the length of the train.


The cost of the train itself is buried in the price we paid for our tour. The tour was $4825 CAD.


Again, we booked the train through a travel agent/tour company so had an easy time of it.

All the other foreigners we met, save 3, were travelling with one of two tour companies: Monkey Business or Russia Experience. (See our Tours section for more details on this.) We didn’t get the chance to chat with the lone 3 very much – 1 Canadian guy and 2 Dutch women – but they didn’t say anything about having a very difficult time of travelling by train.

However, Marc’s brother tells a story about when he was in Russia on business and their guide/host devised a contest within the business group to see who could find out when the next train left St.Petersburg for Moscow. The winner would receive a bottle of champagne. So, a group of not-inexperienced travellers teamed up to win. They did everything they could think of: visited the station, asked several people at the station in broken Russian when the next train left, checked the posted schedule, tried to ask the ticket sellers, everything. In the end, they were unsuccessful and, in fact, no-one won the bottle of champagne.

Ergo, we booked a tour.


Monkey Business The tour company we used to book our Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian journey.

Russia Experience The other tour company through which foreigners booked Trans-Siberian and Mongolian passage.