6 non-touristy activities that help you connect

I left Seattle at the beginning of February with a rather aggressive travel plan. Five months, five countries. From India through Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China and finally to Mongolia. I was going to conquer each of these countries!

Except that after seven weeks in India I discovered my itinerary was starting to feel more like work — and work was preciously what I decided to take a break from when I sold my IT consulting company last year.

So, I abandoned my original itinerary and down shifted. I started spending more time in fewer places and seeking out different experiences — fewer of the top ten tourist hits and more of a connection to the people and culture of the places I was visiting — this was what I realized I most wanted from my time away from home.

Here are the strategies I used as I spent time in a few different cities during the past four months, including London, Berlin, Zurich, and Dubrovnik. All of these helped me connect with people and get involved in ways that were deeper and more meaningful than what I’m usually able to experience as a tourist.


1. Meet a local

I met Vidya and Ravi in the Andaman Islands while I was traveling in India in February 2011. We shared a meal and now I have friends in Chennai.

I love meeting people when I travel. In fact, my best memories almost always have to do with the people — both locals and fellow travelers — I met along the way.

The folks I meet not only provide an insight into and a connection with the place I’m visiting, but they also remind me that the majority of the people on our planet are good and really not that different than you and me (and certainly not our enemies, as some would have us believe). In this way, connecting with the locals is both interesting and fun, but also important.

There are a ton of ways to meet people — sitting at a bar and talking with the bartender, saying hi to locals that are hanging out in a cafe or park, or getting involved in an activity. While the venue can help set the stage, being friendly and putting yourself out there is really the key.

There are also sites like Badoo and CouchSurfing that can help too. And don’t forget to ask your friends and colleagues who they know in your destinations — a quick post to Facebook will often yield great connections.


2. Exercise

The Stadtbad (city bath) in Berlin's Neukölln district provides a dramatic backdrop for lap swimming.

Exercise is not only an important element of staying healthy while you’re traveling, it’s great way to connect with people and take in a physical environment or landscape that you might not otherwise get to experience as a visitor.

Depending on whether you’re interested in exercising with a group (which is a great way to meet locals) or prefer to set out on your own, there are a few ways to get started.

For group workouts, search for clubs that practice your activity of choice. For example, in many cities you’ll find a running group that comes together on a regular basis or a swim team that has regularly scheduled workouts. Most welcome visitors — just be sure to contact the group leader ahead of time as some groups require advance notice of your arrival.

If you’re setting out on your own, use the internet to search for suitable routes (e.g. running, biking, open water swimming) or facilities (e.g. indoor swimming pools). For example, MapMyRun publishes running maps and routes their members have recorded using the company’s mobile app.


3. Make a meal

Quinoa Salad with shredded carrots, green onions, tomatoes, and walnuts. Made from ingredients I purchased at the Morning Market in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

If you have access to kitchen, actively participating in the local food economy is a great way to connect with the people and culture of a particular place. (Not to mention the health benefits and savings that come along with cooking for yourself.)

Start by hitting the nearest farmer’s market. There you’ll be able to pick up fresh and local fruits and vegetables and maybe even things like honey, nuts, jams, fish/meats, eggs, and bread. Then pass by a supermarket for anything else you might need like olive oil, sea salt/pepper, spices, pasta, grains, beans, or wine. And be sure to invite one of the locals you’ve just befriend to share your meal.


4. Volunteer

Photo courtesy of Gabriel Kamener, Sown Together

There’s probably no quicker way to connect with the place you’re in than by getting involved with a local issue. Volunteering is a great way to meet the people and it provides exposure to the challenges the community is facing.

Check your guidebook for suggested organizations and causes for the city you’re visiting. Also, organizations like International Volunteer Headquarters and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) can help connect you with volunteer opportunities.


5. Take a class

Photo courtesy of kristi-san.

Learning a new language, cuisine, craft, dance, song, or instrument — these are all great ways to deepen your experience and connection with the place you’re visiting. Plus traveling is a perfect time to pick up a new skill.

Check your guidebook for recommendations on classes, talk with the folks that manage the place where you’re staying, and also look for flyers posted in local restaurants and cafés.


6. Go to the movies

The Pioneer Cinema of 1909, Poland. Photo courtesy of onnola.

This is certainly an activity that you can do at home, but seeing a movie in a foreign city is an entertaining new experience.

From the architecture of the theater, to the commercials aired at the beginning of — and in some cases during — the movie, how seats are assigned (movie houses in some countries operate more like theaters with assigned seating and flash-light equipped-docents that help you find your seat), they way the audience behaves (audiences that rely solely on subtitles can sometimes be a bit chatty), and the different refreshments available for consumption — all of these elements provide a glimpse of the people and culture you’re visiting — plus, there’s also the movie to watch!


What are some of the ways you’ve connected with the people and places you’ve visited?

Get your voicemail online while traveling

Listening to voice messages left on your mobile phone can be expensive when you’re traveling internationally. This is because carriers require you to dial their messaging system (resulting international roaming charges) — or — if you’re an iPhone user — to download the message using your phone’s data connection (also expensive unless you’re using WiFi).

Instead of using the carrier’s voice messaging system on your mobile phone, switch to Google Voice, which allows you to store and retrieve your messages online, in one central place so you never have to worry about messages being deleted. Plus, the service will convert voicemails into text and send them to you by email or text message (SMS).

Google Voice is completely free and works with all of the major US mobile carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. You can also use this with a landline, as long as your provider allows you to forward unanswered calls to a different number.

Here’s how to set it up:

  1. First, create a Google Voice account. As part of this, select the I want to use my mobile number option.
  2. After completing the verification process, click Settings in the upper right corner, locate your mobile phone, and click Activate Google voicemail on this phone.
  3. Follow the instructions provided to enable voicemail forwarding on your mobile phone. For example, AT&T users will dial *004*xxx-xxx-xxxx# (where xxx-xxx-xxxx is your Google Voice phone number) and press Call.
  4. Lastly, click the Voicemail tab to record your outgoing greeting by using the buttons provided in the Voicemail Greeting section.

To have your messages transcribed to text sent to you by email and/or SMS:

  1. Click Settings in the upper right corner, then click the Voicemail tab.
  2. Under Voicemail Notifications, check Email the message to and select an email address where you’d like to receive your voicemail transcriptions.
  3. To send receive voicemail transcripts via SMS (text message), check Send a text (SMS) message to and selecting your mobile phone from the list provided.
  4. Finally, under Voicemail Transcripts, check Transcribe Voicemails and click Save Changes at the bottom of the page.

Now that you’ve replaced your carrier’s voice messaging system with Google Voice, here’s how to retrieve your messages:

  1. Online through the Google Voice Website or the mobile optimized version of the site at m.google.com/voice.
  2. Through the Google Voice phone system by calling the Google Voicemail number provided with your account.
  3. By email, if you’ve enabled this option.
  4. Using the Google Voice iPhone app.

Don’t worry — you can disable voicemail forwarding to Google Voice at any time by logging into Google Voice, clicking Settings in the upper right corner, clicking Deactivate voicemail, and following the instructions provided.

Now that you have Google Voice fully setup and configured, you’ll no longer have to call in to retrieve your voice messages (saving you international roaming charges), and you’ll the flexiblity of listening to your messages using any computer or phone with internet access.

Thank you to HTT reader, Amy S., for inspiring this topic!

Use SMS affordably while traveling

If you’ve traveled with your mobile phone internationally — or have done any research on this topic — then you already know that international roaming can be crazy expensive. Making and receiving phone calls and accessing the internet both carry hefty charges that add up quickly. Sending and receiving text (SMS) messages can also be expensive, but this cost is a more manageable.

Travel Tip: Use SMS to stay in touch with your friends, family, and colleagues at home while you’re traveling.

For receiving messages, check with your carrier to see if your domestic texting package allows the text messages you receive while traveling international to be deducted from your monthly allotment of messages. This is the case with AT&T in the US. For example, I have a text messaging plan that allows me to send and receive up to 1,000 messages per month while at home. This means I can receive up to 1,000 messages per month while traveling internationally at no extra cost.

For sending messages, first check to see what your carrier will charge you on a per message basis while you’re traveling. For example, AT&T charges $0.50 per SMS that is sent from outside the US. Then, see if your carrier offers an international texting plan. AT&T’s Global Messaging 50 package, which costs $10 per month, allows you to send 50 SMS messages while outside the US, which reduces the per message cost from $0.50 to just $0.20.

Also, if you’ve you gotten used to have an unlimited texting plan at home, then you’ve probably picked up the habit of sending short, one-phrase messages. While this works with an unlimited plan, this will cost you dearly while traveling. So, be sure to use all 160 characters allowed in each message!

Iceland’s Mighty Dettifoss Waterfalls

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A waterfall in Vatnajökull National Park in Northeast Iceland, Dettifoss is situated on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river. The falls are 100m wide, have a drop of 45m, and are the largest in Europe, based on volume.

12 iPhone travel apps you need to use

If you’re like most iPhone owners, your phone has become an indispensable tool — you use it to map your runs, book restaurant reservations, and hurl birds at green pigs. So don’t leave it behind when you travel, instead check out these 12 iPhone travel apps — most of them are free!


1. TripIt

TripIt organizes your travel plans by turning all of those messy flight, hotel, and car rental confirmation emails into editable itineraries that are easy to manage. All you have to do is forward your confirmation emails to TripIt and the information automagically appears in your account which you can access online or on your iPhone.

Tip: If you’re traveling internationally, sync TripIt on your iPhone when you have access to low/no-cost data connection (3G at home or WiFi) to avoid roaming charges.


2. Free Wi-Fi Finder

Free Wi-Fi Finder, is exactly what it sounds like. It helps you find free (and also paid) WiFi connections while you’re traveling. Using the GPS function on your iPhone, the app tells you where the closest hotspot is and how to get to it.

Tip: Download the offline database, so you don’t get yourself into a catch-22 like I did!


3. Skype

Skype lets you make and receive voice and video calls over your iPhone’s 3G and WiFi data connections. You probably already know this, but you may not know is that you can place calls to actual phones — both land and mobile — worldwide using Skype credits.

Tip: Purchase an online number so your friends and family don’t have to use Skype to reach you while you’re traveling. Take it one step further by bringing along an unlocked GSM mobile phone and purchasing a local SIM card when you land, then forward your Skype calls to your local mobile phone.


4. HeyTell

HeyTell is a voice messaging app (currently available for the iPhone and Android) that lets you to talk with friends and family. It’s sort of like a walkie-talkie — you just choose a contact, push the button to record, and start talking. Use this as an alternative to expensive voice calls or SMS messages while you’re traveling — or when you want to talk asynchronously.

Tip: Purchase the optional Voice Changer ($1.99) to freak people out.


5. WhatsApp ($0.99)

WhatsApp is another cross platform messaging app (available for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, and Nokia phones) but it’s more like a souped-up alternative to SMS. Use it to send and receive messages, pictures, audio notes, and video messages at no cost.

Tip: Have the your peeps at home install the app before your trip then add then have the app find and add them to your favorites (Settings > Refresh Favorites).


6. Badoo

Badoo lets you search, find, and chat with people nearby making it a perfect way to meet locals and other traveler while you’re on the road. Yes, yes, you can use it for “other” purposes, if you so desire, but think of it as a way to connect you with folks with whom you can practice your language skills or swap travel stories.

Tip: Set up your profile before you leave home to avoid those awful hotel-mirror headshots. Also, read Badoo’s online safety tips!


7. TripAdvisor

TripAdvisor’s iPhone app gives you access to traveler reviews and opinions on hotels, restaurants, and activities that you can use to augment your guidebook. It’s also handy if you feel like eating at a good restaurant that not likely to be overrun by the same set of guidebook travelers.

Tip: Write quick reviews of the places you stay and eat in — easier and quicker to do with the app than than online.


8. OMaps ($1.99)

oMaps lets you save maps and then access them without an data connection. This is important because of the astronomical international data roaming rates the carriers charge.

Tip: You can also cache Google Maps locally on your iPhone using the trick I published in March.


9. Share-a-Bill ($3.99)

Share-a-Bill lets you to split bills and checks among your travel companions. As you travel, you enter expenses and record who paid for them. At the end of your trip the app figures out exactly who owes what to whom. It also supports multiple currencies and emails a final report to everybody involved.

Tip: Use this app along the way to make sure you have everything accounted for and so there’s no confusion at the end of your trip.


10. Google Translate

Google Translate lets you to translate words and phrases between more than 50 languages. For most languages, you can speak your phrases and hear the corresponding translation.

Tip: Translate the phrases you’ll mostly likely need ahead of time using your 3G connection at home or an available WiFi connection on the road — again, so you can avoid data roaming charges.


11. Dropbox

Dropbox lets you store and bring along up to 2GB of your photos, docs, and videos for free. After you install Dropbox on your computer, any file you save to your Dropbox will automatically be synchronized to all your computers, iPhone/iPad, and even the Dropbox website. Use Dropbox to scan and upload important travel documents, such as your passport, drivers license, and copies of your credit cards.

Tip: Mark important files as ‘favorites’ so you can access these offline when you don’t have a data connection.

Bonus: Use this link to create your Dropbox account and you’ll get an extra 250MB of storage!


12. Google Authenticator

Google Authenticator provides an additional layer of security for your Gmail account by generating a unique verification code you enter while logging in. This may not be sexy, but it’ll keep your account from getting hacked when you’re in a sketchy internet cafe. To use Google Authenticator, you’ll need to enable 2-step verification on your Google Account.

Tip: Set this up and test it out before you leave home to make sure you’re comfortable with how it works. You’ll also need to create an “application specific” password for your iPhone and any other devices you may use to access your Gmail account.


Also, be sure to search for apps that are specific to your destinations. For example, Lonely PlanetFrommer’s, and Phaidon all publish city guides. There are also number of transit apps that allow you to search train and bus timetables and, in some cases, purchase tickets, for places like Berlin and Switzerland.

What iPhone travel apps do you use?

Avoid hefty foreign transaction fees

I stopped using travelers checks almost 15 years ago and instead rely on my ATM card for getting cash and my credit card for large purchases, but the foreign transaction fees that banks and credit card companies charge can quickly add up — especially on a long trip.

Travel Tip: Before you leave, check with your bank and credit card companies to find out what they’ll charge you for using your cards abroad. Banks once hid this fee to the dismay of travelers reviewing their statements once they returned home. Starting in 2009, they’re now required to disclose this fee separate and apart from the other fees they charge.

Credit card companies most often charge a percent of the transaction amount (usually 3%) while banks charge either a percent or a flat fee (often whichever is higher) for foreign ATM withdrawals. Knowing which type of fee (percent vs. flat) can help you manage the cost of accessing cash. For example, if your bank charges a flat foreign ATM withdrawal fee of $5, larger, less frequent withdrawals will make more sense.

If you travel frequently or for long periods of time, consider getting a credit card that doesn’t charge a transaction fee on foreign purchases. For example, Capital One has a policy of not charging a foreign transaction fee on any of it’s credit cards and in November the British Airways Visa Signature became the first airline rewards card to waive fees on international purchases.

You may also want to consider opening a second checking account with a bank or credit union that charges a more favorable foreign ATM withdrawal fee. For example, I used to bank with Washington Mutual (which was “bought” by Chase during the bank solvency crisis a few years ago), which charges 3% on ATM withdrawals. The credit union I switched to only charges 1% and when I asked them if they were able to adjust or waive this, the explained that this was a fee charged to them by MasterCard.

Santa Catalina Monastery in Arequipa, Peru

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The Monasterio de Santa Catalina is a cloistered convent located in Arequipa, Peru. Built in 1580, it is characterized by the vividly painted walls. There are approximately 20 nuns currently living in the the complex.

India by train – a comprehensive how-to guide

India has an extensive train network that can get you nearly everywhere – some 63,000km of routes and nearly 7,000 stations making it the third largest in the world. Not only is it an incredibly economical way of getting around the country, traveling by train also provides an experience of India and its people that you simply can’t get at in a plane 30,000ft above the earth. No trip to India would be complete without at least one journey by train, preferably one that is overnight.


A few details

There are a few things you’ll want to understand before you dive in and start searching for trains: seating classes, quotas, and waitlists.

Seating classes

India Railways offers no less than eight seating classes throughout its network (though usually only two to four on any given train). Here is a quick overview of the seating classes with their official accommodation class codes. Guidebooks and websites all seems to use their own version of these codes so 1A could be A1, 1AC, or AC1. Focus on the number (seating class) and whether it comes with air conditioning (AC).

  • First Class Air Conditioned (1A) – Coaches are divided into lockable and carpeted compartments with either two or four berths. A berth is simply a bed attached to the wall of the compartment. Lower and middle berths can be secured vertically during the day (so they’re out of the way) and then brought down (usually at night) for sleeping. This level of service (1A) is only found on the most important long distance trains and it’s not possible to request a specific type of compartment (two or four berths). Pillows, sheets, and blankets are distributed at night.
  • 2-tier Air Conditioned Sleeper (2A) – Coaches are divided into open bays with two upper and two lower berths on the left side of the aisle and one upper and one lower berth on the right side. Lower berths are used for sitting during the day and converted to beds at night. Each bay is curtained for privacy and pillows, sheets, and blankets are distributed at night. Found on nearly all long-distance trains.
  • 3-tier Air Conditioned Sleeper (3A) – Similar in every way to 2A, except three levels of berths (lower, middle, upper) are found on the left side of the aisle, meaning there are two additional passengers in each bay.
  • First Class (FC) – non air-conditioned coaches with locking four and two-berth compartments. No bedding is included in the fare, but is often available for a small fee. This seating class is being phased out in favor of 2A coaches.
  • AC Executive Chair Class (1A) – Air conditioned coaches with upright seats, much like you’d find in trains throughout the west. Only found on the the Shatabhi Express trains (e.g. Delhi to Agra). Note: this seating class uses the same code as First Class Air Conditioned.
  • AC Chair Class (CC) – Air conditioned coaches with upright seats often found on intercity trains traveling during the day. This is a good choice for for daytime travel.
  • Sleeper Class (SL) – Open air coaches (meaning no windows and no AC) similar in configuration to 2A. This is the standard choice for Indians traveling long distances, so it can be quite crowded. Bedding is not provided, so be sure to bring a sleeping bag or sack.
  • Second Sitting (2S) – Open air coaches with either wooden or padded bench seating. An okay choice for short distance daytime travel.

Tip: 3-tier AC (3A) or higher is the best option for most travelers for overnight journeys as are any of the AC chair cars for daytime journeys.

Tip: Upper berths provide the most privacy (but you do have to hoist yourself up, which can take a little practice). If you get a lower berth you’ll be sharing it with the other passengers during the day and have to negotiate with them if you decide to sleep before they’re ready to do so.

Quotas

Indian Railways has set up a complicated system of reserved seats for different groups of people (tourists, women, senior citizens, high officials, etc.). Here are the three you most need to know about:

  • General – Open to everybody!
  • Tatkal – Meaning “immediate” in Hindi, these are for latecomers, allowing you to book tickets just 2 days before the actual date of journey for a small surcharge, between Rs. 75 and Rs. 300.
  • Tourist – Seats set aside specifically for foreign tourists, but they must be purchased at a train station (be sure to bring your passport) which can be impractical if you’ve already reached your destination and aren’t near a station. For example, the nearest train station to Orchha is in Jhansi which is 20km away. Even so, sometimes this may be the only way of getting a seat for your desired departure date.

Waitlisting

It’s quite likely that you’ll find the perfect train only to discover that either your preferred seating class or the entire train is fully booked. This can be a common and frustrating experience, especially if you’re purchasing tickets as you go. Be sure to check availability for a higher or lower seating classes as well as other trains departing on the same day.

Indian Railways has developed a complicated (yet elegant) two-tiered system of waitlisting to ensure that trains are filled to capacity: Reserved Against Cancellation and Waitlisted.

  • Reserved Against Cancellation (RAC) – A certain number of RAC seats are allocated for each seating class and are sold once the seating class is fully booked. Passengers on the RAC list at the time of departure may still board and travel on the train and are provided a seat (but not necessarily a berth) in the relevant seating class. This means if you end up with an RAC seat in 3-tier AC (3A) on an overnight journey, you may be sitting upright all night with another RAC passenger (or taking turns sleeping). Chances are generally good that an RAC passenger will end up with the seat or berth he or she intended to book from the beginning.
  • Waitlisted (WL) – Once RAC seats are exhausted, passengers can still purchase tickets. Passengers that are WL at the time of departure cannot board the train and are entitled to a refund.
Availability of AC 3 Tier (3A) seats from Kolkata to Varanasi, one month out. Green: the number of seats still available. Yellow: number of RAC still available. Pink: number of waitlisted passengers.

Now that you understand the two-tiers of the Indian Railways waitlisting system, here’s how seats are confirmed:

  • As passengers with confirmed reservations cancel — or — when unused seats that were previously set aside as part of the quota system are released on the day of departure, these seats are given to RAC passengers who are then confirmed and assigned a seat/berth.
  • As RAC seats open up, WL passengers are automatically promoted to RAC.
  • This process repeats each time a seat becomes available up until the day of departure when the final seating chart is produced.

For example, if there are 6 RAC and 20 WL passengers and 8 seats become available, all 6 RAC and the first 2 WL passengers are confirmed and assigned seats. Of the remaining 18 WL passengers, the first 6 are promoted to RAC and the last 12 remain WL unless more seats become available, at which time the process repeats.

It doesn’t matter whether you purchased an RAC or WL ticket, it only matters where you end up on the day of departure when the seating chart is finalized. As noted above, if you end up with an RAC seat, then you can board, otherwise, you’ll need to get a refund and book a new ticket.

You can check your current standing (whether you’ve moved up on the list) or whether you’ve been confirmed and assigned a seat/berth at any time using the PNR (passenger number) printed on your ticket. Both Cleartrip and the official Indian Railways website allow you to look up your PNR status.


Researching your journey

Now that you understand the different types of seats and berths available, the three main quotas, and how the waitlisting process works, you can start searching for trains to your destination. Here are the tools and resources you can use to research connections, departure times, and seat availability:

  • Guidebooks – These provide a great starting place for understanding how to get from one city to another. Use them as well to determine which stations best serve your travel plans since the big cities all have multiple stations, some of which aren’t located in the city center.
  • Websites – The first thing that you should know is that the official Indian Railways website is awful. It’s hard to use, it crashes often, and it doesn’t accept non-Indian credit cards, so you can’t actually purchase a ticket. Instead use a commercial site like Cleartrip (who gladly accepts foreign credit cards) to search for and purchase tickets. Cleartrip also provides a great availability calendar that allows you to quickly see the number of seats available or waitlist status of trains between two cities for a 15-day period.
  • Local travel agents – These folks can help you figure out which trains you should take if the routing isn’t clear. For example, if there isn’t a direct train and you need to book two separate legs. They’re also helpful when there are waitlists and when you’re not able to search or book online. They can also advise you on other transport options that may make more sense (e.g. bus or plane). Travel agents are found nearly everywhere you’re likely to venture as a traveller.
  • Printed timetable – If you’re in India, pick up a copy of ‘Trains at a Glance’ for about Rs. 45 at bookstalls and train stations. It’s helpful for trip planning when internet connectivity isn’t available, which is more often than you might expect. With the aid of a map, a guidebook, and this timetable you should able to plot your course and chose a train. Of course, you’ll need to check actual seat availability online or with a travel agent.

Keep in mind, that city names can vary from what you might be used to (e.g. Bombay vs. Mumbai) and that there will be times when getting there by bus or plane may be the better option. For example, if better to take a bus or plane between Mumbai and Udaipur.


Booking your ticket


Once you’ve figured out which train and class of service you’d like to book, you’ll need to purchase your ticket. Yes, reservations are required on all long-distance trains – you can’t just show up and hop on. In fact, popular routes fill up quickly and often a week or more in advance. So, it can often be difficult to purchase the tickets you’d like with little notice, especially during holidays or festivals.

When you’re ready to purchase a ticket, here are your options:

  • Online – This is by far the easiest solution. You’ll need to use a site like Cleartrip which accepts non-Indian credit cards (and charges a small fee). You won’t be able to purchasing tickets using the Tourist Quota, but you can access the General and Tatkal quotas. Make sure you have access to a printer — you’ll need to present your ticket once on board.
  • Local travel agents – Again, these folks can be helpful when you’re having difficulty booking online or if you need advice on waitlists. They also charge a small fee on top of the price of the ticket.
  • Train station ticketing office – Another option if you’re close to a station. Pick up a reservation slip and fill in the names of the departure and destination stations, the train number, and your desired class of service. You’ll need to join the line to the ticket window. In larger cities there are dedicated windows for foreigners and sometimes separate queues for women.

Boarding your train

You’ve purchased your ticket and have arrived at the train station ready for your next adventure.

Your train, coach, and seat number will be printed on your ticket. You will need each of these numbers to get seated in the right place going to the right city.

Finding your train

When you arrive at the train station, you’ll need to find which track your train will depart from, which you can often do using the display monitors in the lobby of most stations. Stay put in the lobby area until about 10-15 minutes before your train’s departure in case of delays or track changes. The loudspeakers used to announce these changes, if they exist, can be difficult to hear from the platform because of their poor quality or placement and the general commotion on the platforms.

Note: In December 2010, Indian Railway converted from a four to five-digit train numbering scheme, however as of March 2011, it was still common to see the old four-digit train numbers in use. You can figure out the new number for most trains by simply adding a 1 or 2 to the beginning of the old four-digit number. For example the old train number for the Manahagari Express, which departs from Mumbai CST for Varanasi, was 1093; the new number is 11093. This is not a hard and fast rule, but can be helpful if you encounter the old numbering scheme.

Finding your coach

While you’re figuring out which track the train will depart from, you’ll also need to figure out where along the platform your coach will be. Don’t underestimate the importance of figuring this out ahead of time:

  • Yes, coaches are numbered, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be connected in numerical order. This is India!
  • Indian trains can be long – 18 to 24 coaches — and each coach is approximately 70ft / 22m in length. Do the math and you’ll realize this means the train can be nearly 1/3 mile or .5 km long – not a distance you’ll want to run with luggage.
  • Unless your train originates from your departure city, you’ll only have a few minutes to board once the train comes to a stop. You’ll need these precious minutes to find your way through the mass of humanity that is people disembarking and boarding at the same time.

Here’s how to find your coach:

  • Along with the track and current departure time, some train stations display a picture of the train with each of its coaches in order so you can determine where your coach will be in the line-up. Use this picture to position yourself on the platform.
  • Some stations have small LED displays along the platform with the coach number that you can use to position yourself before the train arrives.
  • If your train originates from your departure city, then it should be sitting on the track and you’ll be able to walk up and down the train to find your coach, with relative calm.
  • If your train originates in a different city, first, determine which direction your train is coming from then position yourself at the mid-point of the platform. As the train rolls into the station, keep an eye on each passing coach number. If your coach passes you, then turn around and start walking quickly toward the front of the train. If you haven’t seen your coach the moment the train begins to slow, then start walking toward the back of the train until you find your coach.

Finding your seat

Once you’re on board, finding your seat should be relatively easy, using the numbered decals throughout the coach. However, if you’re boarding a coach with sleeping berths, these can be obscured by the curtains for each bay.

Hiring porter

If you’d rather not deal with all of this coach finding madness, there is a solution! Hire a porter. For a small fee, the porter will make sure you and your bag end up in the right place.


Enjoying the journey

Food and drink

There are no restaurant cars on Indian trains, and except for a few of the premier routes (Rajdhani Express and Shatabdi Express), food is not included in your fare — but that doesn’t mean you’ll go hungry.

Generally speaking, an attendant will come through to take orders for veg or non-veg meals. About an hour or so later your meal will appear in small foil containers. The food may not be very inspiring, but it’s cheap. In addition there will be a steady stream of vendors selling drinks (water, tea, soft drinks) and snacks (chips, peanuts, and even hot soup). Be sure to listen for the signature call of the Chaiwalla as he walks down the aisle selling chai tea  — it’s a quintessential detail of Indian train travel.

It’s always a good idea to bring extra food and a bottle of water to replace or supplement what’s available on board, especially if you have specific dietary requirements. Be sure to also bring enough small bills/change to make purchases on board.

Entertainment

Don’t expect any entertainment on board, except for the passing Indian landscapes and conversations with fellow passengers. If that’s not enough, then bring a good book and some music and be prepared to catch up on your sleep (if you’re traveling in one of the sleeper coaches).

Electrical outlets are provided in most classes, in case you need to recharge your mobile, MP3 player, or netbook.

Sleeping

Bedding is provided on all air conditioned sleeper coaches (1A/2A/3A) but not in Sleeper Class (SL). In all sleeping compartments the lower berth is converted into a seat during the day, so if you’d rather sleep, be sure to book an upper berth.

When it comes time to sleep, you’ll first want to arrange your sheets and blanket (if provided), deposit your shoes on the floor, and then hoisted yourself up using the small “ladders” on the aisle end of each berth.

Don’t be surprised if you board during the middle of the day and find passengers fast asleep. If you are traveling during the day and would prefer to remain seated upright, book one of these classes: First Class Air Conditioned (1A), First Class (FC), AC Chair Class (CC) or Second Sitting (2S). Otherwise you may be forced into a horizontal position for the length of your journey.

Toilets

Don’t expect western standards of hygiene, but the toilets in air conditioned coaches are generally good by Indian standards (but less so in Sleeper and non-AC 2nd Class). Both western and Indian squat toilets are usually available, but you’ll need to supply your own toilet paper. And don’t use the toilets when you’re stopped at a station. Yes, that’s the ground you see when you look down.

Trash

This is not one of those “when in Rome” moments. Don’t throw your garbarge out the window. Instead either deposit it in one of the receptacles at the end of the coach or collect and place it on the ground under the lower berth next to the aisle for the attendants to collect (and be sure to tip a few rupees for this service).


Be sure to share your India train travel tips and experiences with us!

A view of Húsavík, Iceland from the harbor

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Húsavík (“bay of houses”) is a town on the north coast of Iceland on the shores of Skjálfandi bay. According to the Book of Settlement, it was the first place in Iceland settled by a Norse man.

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