I think I have had a decent exposure to all forms of travel within India, so its about time I write about the craziness that is India’s transportation system. Lets start with aviation.
I think India’s aviation is pretty good. The airports aren’t as clean as other countries, but they have airports at all the major cities, and they run in a timely fashion. Flying international is the same as anywhere else, in fact the Mumbai International Airport, newly renovated, is the nicest airport I have been to in years. The domestic travel at major cities like Mumbai and New Delhi are similar to any other city in the US- you just have to arrive early enough to get touched all over by Indian TSA which happen to be carrying big AK-47s. Overall, I felt pretty safe at the airport. The smaller airports, like Madurai, are great because you can show up 45 minutes before the flight is scheduled to depart and still make it. The flights are a lot smaller (50-75 passenger planes) and more susceptible to strong winds. Air travel is relatively more expensive than the other options, but much cheaper than other parts of the world.
India’s train system still perplexes me, particularly booking trains. Trains can be booked online but the software they use is extremely complex to understand unless you have used the system before. If you try to book less than 3 days in advance, good luck to you mate because you might have to arrive at the train station beforehand and book it there. Wait-lists are also extremely common. The train itself is pretty nice, especially the A/C sections of the train. I recommend the 3rd class sleeper A/C for long trips. The main problem with trains is how long it takes. They stop frequently and there are numerous destinations that are not accessible. However, some of the train lines are extremely scenic, such was the case going from Madurai to Kanyakumari or to Kerala. Again pretty cheap option.
Oh buses. I have had a pretty rough time with buses personally. Local buses are fine if you have to get from one place to another in a short duration of time. They are crowed, blast classic songs from the 80s, and hot, but extremely cheap and convenient- running frequently. When you start taking the long private A/C buses, such as night buses, some of the problems get resolved. No more blasting music, or congestion, but the roads are too bumpy to fall asleep. Plus there is usually 5-10 people snoring with sleep apnea. I usually have to take the next day off when I take a night bus due to the lack of sleep. They are also a very inexpensive option and are available for travel between all cities.
Private taxis are the most convenient, available in all major cities and can be hailed or called (or ubered in some cities). They are a more expensive option, but you don’t have to deal with noise, crowds, or heat. If you are traveling in-between cities with multiple people, car pooling isn’t a bad option and extremely comfortable. Taxi services like Ola cabs and Fast-track are competitively priced with autos/rickshas, especially in Tamil Nadu. Rickshas, if they have working meters, are a good deal for a short duration, but in the south it is hard to find an honest ricksha owner. Bargaining is required.
We have all heard the stories about India’s roads, but large highways between cities are being built and make travel a lot more convenient. Still, safety remains a major concern. Safe Travels!