Train travel in India can either be very easy or extremely frustrating. While there are various guides many miss key explanations on what to do when things go wrong. Seat61.com/India is a great site for general information on train travel in India, but this guide will specifically address traveling on waitlisted tickets.

The Indian Rail system is actually very well set up and more innovative than any other train system I’ve seen before – even in the US. When trains are full, people are given an option to purchase tickets on the “waitlist” meaning they are not assigned a seat and must wait until enough people have canceled their tickets for a spot to open up. This makes sure trains resources are used efficiently and most trains run at capacity.

Fortunately, outside of peak holidays and weekends, people always cancel their tickets and with a few day’s notice, it can be quite easy to get on a train. It’s easy to check your waitlist status by logging in online by checking your “PNR” status for your trip. Usually you will remain on the waitlist until the very last moment. Trains can be canceled for no penalty up to four hours before departure so all the movement happens in these final hours.

Unfortunately, you won’t always make it off the waitlist and this can be frustrating when you must travel on that date. Generally if boarding a train from the origin or near the origin, you will be placed on the waitlist, but if boarding halfway through the journey, India Rail puts you on a separate waitlist called “RLWL”.

What does RLWL mean?

RLWL tickets are much more difficult to get confirmed because you are choosing to board halfway through a journey when the train may already be full. They do not give these people priority as they are not traveling the full distance. One huge tip to avoid getting on this list in the first place is to buy your ticket from the origin, then change your place of boarding online after purchasing the ticket. You will pay extra, but you will have a good shot at getting on that train in your preferred berth.

What to do if you can’t get on?

Recently I was traveling from Varanasi to New Jalpaiguri on the AC3 waitlist. I started at RLWL 13 and only made it to RLWL 3 before the “chart was prepared”. At this point, still being on the waitlist, my ticket was automatically refunded and I was no longer supposed to travel on that train. Once the chart is prepared everything is locked in.

But can you still travel on the waitlist and just explain you need to go to the conductor? No you cannot and should not. You no longer have a ticket because you’ve been refunded. You would be getting on a train without any ticket. The conductor may be nice and show sympathy, but if they aren’t you could be fined and kicked off the train for traveling without a ticket.

My first experience traveling in India on a short trip in Sleeper Class, I didn’t understand the waitlist and just showed the conductor my waitlist receipt thinking it was the ticket not knowing that I needed to get my PNR status and seat location before traveling. He actually didn’t care because there were tons of open seats, but I think I got lucky. I found out later that I was actually confirmed, but without the proper ticket, he could have given me problems.

Traveling without a ticket

The way to travel if you can’t get a ticket is to buy an unreserved ticket at the train station an hour before train departure. Every train has a few unreserved carts which are basically wooden benches without assigned seats. This is the poor man’s way of traveling and you will only get a seat if not crowded. If you have an unreserved ticket; however, you can ask the conductor to upgrade and pay the difference if space is available.

When I was traveling to New Jalpaiguri, I bought an unreserved ticket and found the conductor on the train platform before boarding. I asked him if anything was available in AC3, but he told me it was full. He said there was a spot available in Sleeper Class and gave me the seat number. While not my top choice for an overnight journey, it was much better than being stuck in Varanasi another night. Sleeper Class is obviously not as nice as AC, but in a pinch it is not terrible. I was able to sleep decently and the conductor didn’t even bother to charge me to upgrade.

Click here to read about my ramshackle story getting from Varanasi to New Jalpaiguri.

VIKALP Option

One thing missing from many guides are details on the new VILAKP option. Imagine this: you need to get from New Delhi to Kolkata on a certain day. There are many trains running, but all have waitlists. The savvy traveler would buy a ticket on two or more trains hoping that on at least one train, they will make it off the waitlist. Once they have a confirmed spot, they can cancel the others minus nominal booking and credit card fees. This is what people in India used to do before VIKALP came about.

Now when booking tickets along major routes, you are given an option to select up to five VIKALP trains which are alternative trains you would be willing to take if you don’t make it off your initial waitlist. If you do not make it on the first train, you will be automatically placed into a spot on the second train for free. Sometimes this may even mean a free upgrade to a faster and more expensive train. All you have to do is keep checking your PNR status before to find out which train. VILAKP has different cancelation policies than regular train travel in case you no longer want your VIKALP train (you cannot edit these once selected). A quick Google search will find many articles explaining the VIKALP cancelation policies.

Let me know if you have any questions on India train travel and I will continue to update this guide!