Create an Indian Railway and Cleartrip account so you can purchase rail tickets online
Everything in India moves at it’s own pace - just like creating an online account with the Indian Railway system. In my case it took about three weeks for them to approve and activate my account. It will definitely be faster if you’re an Indian national, but in my case and probably most people reading this, you’ll need to allocate at least 3-4 weeks for this.
When you go to their user signup page - fill everything out as usual. You’ll notice though in the mobile section they ask for an Indian mobile number. I saw on some forums that just entering a bunch of 0’s worked for this part, but it kept on erroring out when I tried this. I ended up having to look up phone numbers in Delhi and just putting one in there. For example you can find phone numbers to use on Zomato - which btw is India’s version of Yelp.
After you successfully register, you will get an email from IRCTC with your user id. You’ll then need to email firstname.lastname@example.org with your email, user id, and a copy of your passport asking them to activate your account. You should get an automated response that they received an email. Here is where the waiting part starts. From what I’ve seen the average time is between 2-3 weeks for account activation. Mine came about 3 weeks later.
In the meantime, go ahead and make an account on Cleartrip. They've made booking a reservation on Indian Rail super simple and easy. I’d highly recommend it over using the actual Indian Rail site, which is convoluted and hard to use. Once you have an activated Indian Rail account you can buy tickets on Cleartrip with your Indian Rail account login.
If riding Indian Rail, understand the classes
After hearing many horror stories about overcrowded trains and bug infested seats on the Indian Rail, I was quite traumatized when booking tickets. Basically, my recommendation to you is that if you can grab a seat that is labeled Chair - do it. From my experience booking tickets there were two kinds of Chair Classes - Executive Chair and Chair Car.
If you can’t find a chair class seat, the minimum I’d probably go with is AC First Class. They consist of benches and they usually cram too many people onto each bench. There is a lack of personal space in India, so you will get jostled, nudged, and stared at the whole ride. If that’s something you’re prepared for, then you’ll be ok in this class. Also, AC 2nd class and so forth down the line, conditions just deteriorate.
But If You Can Fly, Do It
Transportation between cities is definitely a pain point in India. My advice is if you can fly nonstop from one city to another, do it. It sure beats dealing with the complicated rail system or having to pay a private driver, which often costs more than a plane ticket.
Hiring a driver between cities
If there are no planes or decent rail options, try to have your hotel arrange a private driver for you. I’d bring along some dramamine or ginger candy for motion sickness because you’ll be in for some major swerving and stop n go driving for the next 5-6 hours.
Get and Indian SIM card and Data Plan after you land
Having an Indian Data Plan is extremely useful while visiting India. You can use it to book Uber, use free wifi at hotspots (all free wifi hotspots require an Indian mobile), find places to eat on Zomato, navigate your way around cities with google maps, etc. We bought a SIM card with Airtel, which had great coverage for us.
Important: You’ll need to provide them with a Passport Photo and a copy of your travel visa. So before you fly to India print those out and have them with you.
The way Airtel works is that you’ll need to add money to your account and then through the Airtel app or physical store you pick a data plan. I picked the 3g/4g plan with 2.5 GB of data for 28 days. It cost me roughly 350 rupees (~$5 USD). Recharging my data plan was painless with the Airtel mobile app.
Zomato to discover food!
Zomato (https://www.zomato.com/) is India’s version of Yelp. They’re not in all cities, but they were in most cities that I visited. Be sure to create an account, do some research, and bookmark places you like. When you get to India, you can then open the app and easily find all the places you liked!
Stick to safe places for food
Related to Zomato - if you’re not a local, please please stick to restaurants and more modern looking places. If a place looks questionable, don’t even risk it. Indian standards for cleanliness are just different from Western standards. Why spend 2-3 days marooned in your hotel room running back and forth to the toilet over the risk of eating that questionable looking curry? Definitely never ever eat any street food, no matter how delicious it smells or looks.
We definitely followed our own advice until about week two when we got a little courageous and had lunch at a questionable looking restaurant. It had tons of good reviews on TripAdvisor but looked kind of unclean and not the place any non locals would eat at. We threw caution to the wind and went against our gut (literally and figuratively) to eat here. What followed was 3 days of the most intense food poisoning I’ve ever had while traveling. We also pretty much lost the chance to explore the city we were in and had semi upset stomachs the rest of our time in India as a result.
It’s hard not to get a slight case of Delhi Belly even when eating at modern restaurants, so bring Pepto to help soothe your stomach the first week you’re here in India. I wasn’t able to find any Pepto in the pharmacies, so make sure you bring enough.
If you do get Delhi Belly
Bring Cipro with you or get it at the pharmacy when you land. It’s like a magic bullet for food poisoning.
All the staring
Indian people don’t have the social stigma against staring that we have in the West. You will get stared and gawked at for uncomfortably long periods of time. If you’re a white female, also be prepared for tons of photo requests from locals while you’re at any tourist location. Just embrace it like you’re some kind of celebrity or something! 😃
Air mask for the Pollution
I knew that there was pollution in the cities, but nothing prepared me for the thick layer of smog covering Delhi everyday. The city had a smell of burnt rubber which permeated everything, including my taste buds. I’d highly recommend getting a pack of pollution masks to wear, especially when riding a tuk tuk in heavy traffic. I’ve used the 3M N95 Masks before in Thailand and they worked very well.
Use Uber to properly price a Tuk Tuk
If you have Uber installed and have a data plan, you can quickly price out what it *should* cost to get from one place to another. Then, if you’re in a situation where a tuk tuk is more convenient than an Uber - you know what price point to negotiate the tuk tuk down to.
Bring cash with you, no matter what
After 10 years of traveling all over the world, you can get too comfortable with certain things. I definitely did on my last trip to India by only bringing $50 in cash. I figured that I would just withdraw money from the ATM’s there like everywhere I’d been. In most cases that would have worked but I happened to arrive in India during the Great Demonetization of 2016 where Prime Minister Modi effectively removed 87% of the currency from the market, making cash extremely hard to come by. As a result, it was a harrowing first couple of days for us because we couldn’t find any rupees.