Mastering Solo Female Travel India: By Train.
One of my favourite things about India is the train travel.
Planning a trip to India as a (solo) female traveller there are plenty of articles and blog posts out there about safety tips for women. What I couldn’t find much information on, however, was train travel for solo females. What was solo female train travel in India like? Was it safe? What should I do to minimise hassle?
I’d travelled to India and used the trains before, but as part of a group on a tour.
For general train travel advice – including how to book a seat online via the foreign tourist quota – read my post about Booking Train Travel in India here.
I was trying to get a sense of what class I should travel, and what should I do to make sure I was travelling in a safe way. But I couldn’t find much advice available that was specific to solo female train travel in India.
Hence this post in the hope that it may help other women looking to travel solo and take trains in India.
What’s different about Solo Female Train Travel in India?
Why all the fuss about solo female travel in India?
There are many discussions that take place about the safety of travel in India for solo females (or indeed females in small groups e.g. pairs), because the truth is it’s not always the easiest of places to navigate as a female traveller. Travelling alone as a woman is not the norm, particularly outside of cosmopolitan areas, and as a result you will draw attention in what is still a male-dominated society. How much attention and what sort of attention is partly within your control and I’ll cover in the tips below.
During my recent trip to India I spent 7 weeks travelling around Rajasthan, Mumbai, Delhi and Uttarakhand. I took over 10 train journeys, all of them solo. I learned a few things about solo female train travel in India.
To summarise, train travel is safe, even for solo female travellers, and we should not be put off it. But we do need to think a bit more than we would at home before acting. The advice is directed at Solo Female Travellers but can just as much apply to women travelling as part of a small group of female travellers.
Solo Female Train Travel in India Tips
Be Prepared to Attract Attention.
You will draw attention as a woman travelling alone, and especially if you don’t look Indian. And in general, the lighter your skin and hair, the more attention you will draw. There are things you can do to minimise the attention and type of attention, but you will still be stared at. Staring is not considered rude, so it’s something that you’ll have to accept. Do not directly return male stares as this is considered an invitation. Sunglasses can be really helpful for this! A smile and a polite sideways head nod at ladies generally goes down well and helps make new friends.
Dressing conservatively / covering up will help minimise attention to some extent. That means wearing loose fitting clothing that covers your legs and arms down to your elbows. Generally I subscribe to the ‘when in Rome’ theory and found that wearing an Indian Kurta (tunic) or Salwar Kameez (loose fitting tunic and trouser suit) was viewed favourably. On occasions though I did feel that I was attracting more attention for being dressed in an Indian way as a foreigner, so this is for you to decide. Even if deciding to stick with western style clothing, a scarf (dupatta) draped backwards across your chest can be very helpful – this is taken to be a sign of modesty.
Get a Local Sim card for your Phone.
This was probably the number one piece of advice I was given for travel in India by myself. Getting a sim card in India is a bit of a mission, but is definitely worth the effort. You can check out Global Gallivanting’s post about how to get a sim card in India here.
The main point about having a local sim is you can use google maps (and thereby thwart any efforts to take you on un-necessary detours), call hotels, liaise with drivers picking you up, etc. It’s just a good safety net to have. It also helped me a lot in terms of staying connected and sharing blog posts as the wifi is still not great in India. In many places you’ll be better off using the 3G.
Plan your Train Travel in advance.
As a solo female traveller, you want to avoid looking lost/confused in public. You’ll find you get much less hassle if you look confident (even if you’re not feeling it) and look as if you know where you’re going.
Train travel in India is not a turn-up-and-go affair so book tickets well in advance. If you’re not sure where to go at the station, paying a porter to help you with your bag (the going rate is usually 100Rs per bag) can be a good tactic as the porters know which platforms all the trains leave from and where your coach will stop if you show them your ticket.
Anyone coming up to you on the platform and asking to see your ticket may be a scammer (there are particularly reports of this in Delhi) who will tell you your ticket is not valid / your train has been cancelled and you need to buy another one from their travel agency (surprise surprise). This did not happen to me, but I’ve read stories about it – so be aware and don’t show your ticket to anyone apart from the ticket inspector on the train.
Times of Travel & How to Arrange Train Station Pickups.
Some other advice I was given was to avoid arriving in a new place after dark (or before day break). Which makes perfect sense and sounds all very well until you look at the Indian Railways train schedule, where most trains seem to arrive and depart in the middle of the night. I had one train that arrived at 4am for example, and another at 5am. I had yet another train that was due to leave at 1am.
In those cases I would recommend: pre-organising a pickup from your hotel or guest house (always have at least one night booked in advance for any new place you go). Some hotels will pick you up for free, some for a small charge. Always make a note of the hotel & drivers number and arrange a meeting spot in advance – you can then call them from your local Indian sim to check you’re being picked up by the right person. Ask them to approach you by name or carry a sign so you know it’s them.
If you don’t want to be travelling by taxi / auto rickshaw in the dark an alternative would be to wait at (inside) the railway station until it gets light. Railway Stations always have plenty of staff around, police, and at least one person (the station master) speaks English.
If your train is scheduled to depart in the middle of the night check it is running on time before leaving your hotel. I learned the hard way with this one! I turned up at midnight for my 1am train only to find out it was delayed by 10 hours. My rickshaw had already left, and after trying a couple of hotels no-one was answering the phone at that time. I stayed the night in the train station where there were plenty of locals doing the same thing, but I would not wish this experience on anyone. A ‘train running status check‘ could have saved me the sleepless night.
Which Class should I Travel?
There are mixed views on this one. I took most of my train journeys in 3AC (Three-Tier AC) class. For me, that was a compromise between cost and comfort. Generally the advice is that higher class of travel = less hassle = better for female travellers. Personally, I’m not sure that wealth is necessarily the best indication of character.
I was warned by many people not to take ordinary non-AC sleeper class, so I didn’t take it this time. But travellers I have spoken to who have travelled in non-AC ‘Sleeper’ as part of a couple or with friends have said that they found it fine (if basic and grimy) and did not experience any hassle.
If it’s your first time travelling in India solo then I’d recommend to start with 2AC or 3AC and then decide if you want to go for more adventurous classes from there rather than throw yourself in at the deep end. You can find more about the classes of travel in my general India Train Travel post here. Bedding is provided in the AC classes so the sheets are also handy for covering yourself up more.
My Golden Rule for Female Travellers
If you only take one thing from this post let it be this: try and get the upper-most bunk.
On the upper most bunk you are out of reach of prying eyes and hands. On all my train journeys I only had one dodgy encounter, and that was when I had been allocated the lower bunk. In case you request the Upper Berth but are assigned to a different one, you can always request one of your (male) fellow passengers to switch with you. Usually people are willing to do so.
Families and Ladies Travelling are your (new) Friends.
Train Travel is how most Indian families get around. Many will be curious about you, many speak (at least a bit of) English, and it’s a great way to make new friends and find some allies to look out for you. If you find yourself surrounded by would-be male admirers at a station, my favourite tactic is to spot some women or families and go and sit right next to them with a smile. They will understand!
On long train journeys I met some wonderful families, and groups of kids who wanted to entertain my with their card tricks – not only did it make the experience of train travel more fun, and did I make some new friends, but it also made the time pass quicker!
Food on Trains – Should I Eat It?
I often get asked about whether or not to eat the food on Indian Trains. The answer to this really depends on how sensitive your stomach is and how hungry you are! I’ve eaten railway food a few times and had no issues, but I know that other people avoid it. If you are not yet used to Indian food or have a sensitive tum, you’ll be better off bringing your own food.
If buying bottled water or drinks on trains always check that the seal is in tact, as anywhere else. Train food will definitely not win any michelin – stars whether you decide to sample it or not! Personally, I always stick with vegetarian options throughout India, and home-made food in India is always the best.
Remember to bring your Confidence Along for the Ride.
Much of solo female travel in India is about acting confident and being assertive. If someone is trying to cheat you, touch you, or generally do something that you don’t want them to do, the best thing to do about it is shout loudly, make a fuss and shame them in public.
In queues (lines) for trains / buses / ATMs do not be afraid to use your elbows and tell people no if they try to jump in front of you. It is also allowed for ladies to ‘push in’ – at ATMs there are separate lines for women, or just confidently head straight to the front. Act confident and like you know where you are going (even if you have no idea!) and far fewer people will hassle you.
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Sit Back and Enjoy the Journey.
Letting go and realising that I couldn’t control everything going according to plan was one of my biggest learnings travelling in India.
As solo female travellers in India, we can do whatever we can to keep ourselves safe, but it would also be a mistake to let our travels be completely taken over with safety concerns. Like most places in the world, 95% of people are good, friendly, honourable and trustworthy and will want to help you on your travels.
So once you’ve done your due diligence, sit back, relax, and enjoy what Incredible India has in store!
Have you travelled by train as a (solo) female traveller in India? Do you have additional tips to add to this list? Let me know in the comments below!