I had a thing for train journeys ever since I was a kid. I had to take a train to get to high school and thus even loved my way to school, and one of my favorite family holidays was taking an overnight train (which my family basically filled up) to Vienna.
I think trains are romantic and epic and the perfect way to see a country. To travel India by train is a must (or so it seems) as the country has the largest railroad networks in the world and it is an inexpensive way to cover large distances in this huge country.
But to be honest, it is not the most comfortable way to travel and for solo female travelers not necessarily the safest. I know many people who travel by train in India regularly and swear by it but I also know many who gave it a go and didn’t care for it. Trains are often late and usually quite crowded, the German definition of full and the Indian one are quite different.
I realized that train travel is just not for me anymore after a night on a sleeper train in Kerala which I survived but had no desire to repeat in a hurry. Yes, traveling by train will give you a great sense of local living but it is also hot and grimy, not always safe, and definitely not as glamorous as Instagram wants us to believe. I say, do it once but don’t beat yourself up or think you are not a ‘real’ traveler if you don’t want to do it ever again.
Maharajas Express – the luxury train in India
Mind you, the Maharajas Express is not any other train and one that I highly recommend. I was incredibly excited when I found out that I was not only chosen to be part of the Great India Blog Train but that the Maharajas Express was going to be my home for the journey.
On the plane to Delhi I watched Murder on the Orient Express which got me worried though: was I a) going to survive and b) did I bring enough fancy clothes? The answers were no on both accounts but luckily the latter didn’t matter. Because while the Maharajas Express is the best luxury train in India, there is no dress code.
Read more about trains in South East Asia here.
So what should you pack?
While the cabins are roomy, pack smartly and don’t overstuff. You will not need a tux or a ballgown for the evenings but rather clothing to match the weather and the excursions.
I took my usual array of ‘dressing modestly yet comfy’ clothes and added a few extra layers as it was still chilly in the mornings and evening.
And no, there is really no need to dress up for mealtimes unless of course, you want to. While nobody gave me another look wearing jeans it is quite nice to put on a dress and a red lip when having champagne breakfast with a view of the Taj Mahal.
You will not need to overpack your first aid kit either as they have a medic on board who will hook you up if need be.
What I do recommend is to pack a good book, a deck of cards and a shawl/pashmina for a very air-conned happy hour at the Safari Bar and sights where you need to cover your head and shoulders.
There is wifi on board but it is patchy. If you need to get work done, I recommend getting an Airtel sim card at the airport (much easier than getting it later) and using that as a hotspot. I had a package for 1GB data per day and unlimited calling in India for a grand total of Rupees 1000 which was a great addition to the train wifi.
The fine print aka price
I know what you will ask – how much does cost to take a trip with the Maharajas Express? Unfortunately, it ain’t the cheapest luxury train in India so a week like mine will set you back about $9,000 depending on the season. However, that includes:
Twin sharing occupancy in a Junior Suite
All meals and drinks onboard and during excursions
All drinks including unlimited local alcoholic beverages (very decent wine, G&Ts, sparkling wine, and beer)
A private butler
All excursions, entrance and camera fees as well as a comfortable couch to take you around and private guide in each city
While no small amount, you will definitely have the trip of a lifetime and I dare say, a luxury train journey is a great way to catch a first glimpse of India if you are a little apprehensive about doing on your own.
Meals on wheels
I know so many people who are nervous when it comes to food in India even though they may love Indian food in theory. I am quite the opposite. Indian cuisine is usually not my favorite and this time I felt like I was really tempting fade by bringing not a single Immodium. Nada.
What I did bring was some activated charcoal and rehydrations salts – not that I needed any. Because a) there is a medic on board the Maharajas Express who will hook you up with some good stuff if needed and b) the food is incredible and I only felt a little queasy once when I had too much wine the night before. Ups.
The chef, John Stone (needless to say he was quickly called John Snow by everyone), was an absolute delight who takes great pride in his kitchen onboard. Rightfully so.
For each meal, we had different choices to make up a 3-course menu with continental dishes as well as Indian, vegetarian or with meat. My favorite quickly became trying all the thalis which represented the cuisine of whichever state we were traveling in. And I was happy to realize that nobody minded when I ate with my hands as I think one must do with Indian food even on a luxury train in India.
For breakfast, we also had the choice between an Indian dish or eggs, fruit and yogurt or pastries. And of course, a second cup of masala chai!
Some excursions include meals and as one can expect when taking the best luxury train in India, those meals are usually set in a palace or at a Taj hotel. For these occasions, the food was usually buffet style with different options of cuisine as well. If you can’t eat spicy food or are not a fan of Indian, fear not – you shall not starve though I’d say the Indian thalis from chef John were definitely a highlight.
To be honest even the term suite has to be taken with a pinch of salt when it comes to traveling by train in India. But with that said, for being on a train our cabins were quite spacious and homey. Two comfy single beds, a small table with chairs, a TV, a wardrobe with a safe and some drawers as well as a proper little bathroom with enough space to unpack.
In addition, there were enough powerpoints to charge cameras and phones – always a plus.
The shower in the bathroom needs to be heated up beforehand and you can’t take back to back showers. However, as I had only taken wet-wipe washes on trains before, this was amazing. An added plus is the little fold-out chair in the shower because let’s just say that a moving train and shaving legs don’t go well together.
The beds are small and cozy but do keep in mind that the train does move at night and it can get quite rocky. It ain’t a Japanese bullet train which is all part of the appeal of traveling by train in India but something it took me a night to get used to. In addition, you often pull into a station in the early morning and those stations are quite loud – there are always announcements being made so for light sleepers I definitely recommend earplugs and an eyemask.
The room has AC/heating however it can only be changed from the outside. So it is just as well that every cabin has its very own butler. Yes, luxury train journeys always need a butler – I knew that much from the movies though I wasn’t quite sure if it was true.
The butler does everything from turn-down service (including folding towel animals of course!) to wake-up calls and chai in the morning. While having tea or coffee brought to my room was really nice it felt a bit overwhelming at times to have someone escort me to the restaurant for each meal. I guess I need to practice being treated like a princess a little more…
The Indian Panorama Excursions
The Maharajas Express offers different luxury train journeys with different itineraries. We took the Indian Panorama that covers Jaipur, Ranthambore and Fatehpur Sikri, Agra and Gwalior, Khajuraho, Varanasi, and Lucknow with Delhi as the trains departure and final arrival destination.
Each day offers an excursion to a new destination. Usually, a red carpet and some music await before you board a bus and meet your guide. While our journey included a tiger safari in Ranthambore and a champagne breakfast with a view of the Taj Mahal, the whole trip is definitely put together for those who are interested in history and culture, covering some Indian sightseeing highlights. You will get to see a lot of temples and forts which I didn’t mind until we arrived in Lucknow, by then I was definitely templed out.
We got lucky and had a whole bus to ourselves. That allowed for a bit of spontaneity to join a parade in Jaipur and ample time to take all of our annoying blogger pictures of staring pensively into the distance.
It also meant that we could collectively veto the elephant activities the itinerary included. While I wish that companies would just stop offering such altogether, I really appreciated that they listened to our concerns and offered an alternative programme for us. Baby steps I guess.
For most, highlights included seeing the Taj Mahal and the Varanasi river cruise. Personally, I really enjoyed the Khajuraho temples where we saw some erotic sculptures just in time to blush for Valentine’s Day as well as our fortune telling session during the champagne breakfast (especially fun if you go with more than one friend and can compare notes afterward).
However, my all-time favorite ‘activity’ was doing nothing at all and just watch the world go by from my bed. I think this is what train journeys in India are all about and I was happy to do it from the comfort of my bed. And luckily there was plenty of time to do just that because the itinerary wasn’t overly stuffed.
Another favorite was the final night onboard as it was India Night and that not only meant dubious Bollywood moves on the dancefloor but also – saris! Let’s just say we rocked our outfits (even the cow on the platform seemed impressed) and we quite literally rocked the train.
I was guest of Incredible India & the Maharajas Express – thank you for an unforgettable journey!
All photos by me and my self-timer, except for the one of me looking regal at the Amber Fort and getting a necklace at the station by Ashwin Koushan and me hanging out of the train feeling fab in my sari by the wonderful Jayne from Girl Tweets World who I may hire to become my personal photographer.
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