Solo Day Trip from Delhi to Agra by Train
The whole reason that I added Uttar Pradesh in the first place, after my trip to Nepal, was the Taj Mahal. I could not leave the region without seeing it, when it was so close. For logistical limitations, I decided to base myself in Delhi, and then make a day trip from Delhi to Agra by train to see the Taj Mahal.
- Key tips if Touring Agra as a Day Trip from Delhi
- Getting Train Tickets as a Foreigner in India
- Train travel from Delhi to Agra
- Hiring a tuktuk from Agra train station
- Touring Agra's attractions
- Return to Delhi by the last train from Agra
- Yes or No: Doing Agra as a Day Trip from Delhi
- Yes or No: Delhi to Agra by Train
Key tips if Touring Agra as a Day Trip from Delhi
A few handy tips if you're thinking of doing the same thing:
1. Bring enough money to Agra
Agra was the most expensive stop in my entire Uttar Pradesh train odyssey. If you're intending to tour Agra as a day trip, you won't want to faff about with looking for money changers while in Agra. I might have managed to squeeze in the Red Fort of Agra, if I hadn't had to do that. Change enough money beforehand from Delhi.
2. Have breakfast before boarding the Agra train, or bring it with you
If you're travelling from Delhi to Agra as a day trip, you would likely take a fairly early morning train.
There are no food outlets within the Taj Mahal complex and you cannot bring food into it. Hence, you would either have to have breakfast before going to the Taj Mahal (wasting time on your day trip), or you should just eat it on the train.
I did observe snack vendors on the train platforms of Nizamuddin train station, if you're last minute about this.
It also seems possible to order food online, and get it delivered to your berth. I saw ads for this in the train stations. But since I haven't tried it, I'm not sure exactly how it works.
Getting Train Tickets as a Foreigner in India
According to the updated information in the primary article that I reviewed prior to my trip, it is now possible to register for an IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation) account with a foreign mobile phone number. This should make future ticket bookings way more convenient for a non-Indian traveller.
However, if for whatever reason you still need to look for tickets to Agra from Delhi the pre-internet way, then you need to get to the International Tourist Bureau office at the New Delhi train station. See this article for more overview on train travel bookings in India.
The train is a very popular mode of intercity transportation in India - in fact, it is iconic. When I planned my trip, I thought I could just saunter over to the ticket booths and get a ticket. Not a good idea; the seats get booked up really fast.
Beware the train station scams in New Delhi train station
When I arrived in Delhi by train, I literally got scammed right after stepping outside. (I fell for the 'taxi stand is closed' one). Bear in mind that by this time I had travelled for a week across Uttar Pradesh, and encountered two major Indian cities' train stations already. Later, I would also visit the Agra train station (obviously). But it is only in New Delhi, where you really run the gauntlet of multiple scams.
There is literally a very detailed sign by the Delhi police warning tourists about these scams inside the train station. The article I referenced earlier gives a bit more description of the scams.
The reason why I mention this specifically, is that the scams are at another level. The taxi scam leads you to a brick kiosk that looks like what you expect a train station taxi kiosk to look like. The guys in the stations who try to helpfully lead you to ticket booking offices dress like officials.
So the best thing to do is to adopt your best RBF, and ignore everyone who approaches you to ask you what you're looking for. The name of the ticketing office you're looking for is International Tourist Bureau, and it is written exactly like that. There are other tourist offices etc., but it's not the same.
The International Tourist Bureau
The International Tourist Bureau office is located near Platform 1 of the New Delhi train station. Unfortunately, it is only when you get reasonably near Platform 1 that you would actually see signs literally saying 'International Tourist Bureau'. So to minimise confusion as a first-time visitor, it kind of does matter which side of the station you enter from.
The easiest way is to get dropped off at the train station from the Pahar Ganj side. This way you would be at the Platform 1 side of the train complex.
If you get dropped off on the opposite side, you have to cross a different station building and multiple train platforms to get all the way across to Platform 1. This means you have to run a longer gauntlet of potential scammers.
Getting train tickets at the International Tourist Bureau
When you do manage to get there, there are no signs to explain the process. But basically, what you do is take a form and fill in your personal and desired trip details. Then ask to be directed to a counter.
No guarantees that the information counter you’re supposed to go to first is staffed, by the way, and don't expect any sense of urgency.
That said, even with all of that, I did manage to get my tickets in about a couple hours from arriving at the station, on a day with about half a dozen other travellers in the office waiting with me.
Ticket price with Taj Express: 135 Rs each way (total 270 Rs).
Train travel from Delhi to Agra
Unsurprisingly, there are many trains running from Delhi to Agra. Whichever one you get is going to depend on when you want to leave and which ones still have tickets. Also, it is also possible that tickets are out for one station, but if you opt for a different station, there are still tickets.
So when I did my day trip to Agra, I did not take the train from New Delhi train station as I imagined. I took the Taj Express from Hazrat Nizamuddin station.
The Hazrat Nizamuddin station in a different part of New Delhi, near Humayun's Tomb. It is not as big as the New Delhi station, and the approaches to it are more congested. It felt like the demand for the service had long outgrown the station capacity.
Arriving to catch the morning train felt very intimidating. There were big crowds, and consequently it took a while to work out the entrance. The odd thing I remember about Nizamuddin station, was that one end of the station building was really nice. But the other end? Kinda cramped and dingy. However, the platforms were roomy enough to wait on, and felt less crowded.
Departing from Nizamuddin train station
Generally speaking, the Indian train service is pretty decent, considering they're so cheap. I mean, it's not swank, but it does the job and is clean. The higher sleeper classes are even reasonably comfortable. I kept to the Second Class AC, as my friends strongly advised. These coaches are not too dense, and (safety-wise) you'd be more likely to be travelling with women, families, and business commuters.
Pretty soon you settle in as the train starts moving, and soon enough, as the train hurtles onward through its stops, you hear again the very particular call of the chai walla, selling sweet tea by the cup to train passengers.
Tip: If your ticket (in any train journey) has 'W' for its berth instead of a number, FYI there is no such berth marked 'W'. It means you're on a waiting list. To see if you have been assigned a berth number by the time you depart, you either have to have an app to check, or look for your name on the reservation charts on the platform. This happened to me departing from Lucknow for Delhi. A kind Indian business commuter looked on my behalf (like, he went out of the train to read the chart for me).
Hiring a tuktuk from Agra train station
The Taj Express journey from Nizamuddin train station in Delhi, to Agra Cantonment, took about 2 1/2 hours. Exiting the platforms to the station building, I saw instantly that the station was different from any of the other train stations I passed through.
It seemed somehow brighter, and flowed better, even though I don't think it is as big as Delhi. It is also prettier. The walls look well cared for, often tiled with mosaics or fittings that mimicked the heritage craftwork that the buildings of Agra are famous for.
Outside, you would be approached by tuktuk drivers offering to be hired for the day. These are legit (or at least, I didn't get scammed). You should be taken to a kiosk for the Prepaid Association hire, which displays the prices for the different tour combinations you want included in your tour day. Basically, since people come to Agra to see the monuments, the tuktuk hire comes in packages - all the monuments, some of the monuments, full day hire free itinerary, etc.
Hiring a tuktuk from this railway-based system for a whole day was 600 Rs.
Tip: My driver suggested that I take a photo of his tuktuk's registration number, and even of himself, so that when I was done and need to pick him out from the rest of the waiting drivers, I would be less likely to make a mistake (or fall into a scam?). Anyway, it was a good suggestion!
Touring Agra's attractions
Aside from the Taj Mahal itself, which everyone will have on their itinerary, the rest of the Agra day trip is up to you. There are tours that cover the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort of Agra, and nearby attractions like Fatehpur Sikri. And of course, as I mentioned, the tuktuk hires package their rates based on number of attractions, or their combinations.
Agra is clearly a tourist city.
However, I wasn't sure I wanted the package deal. I was willing to forego the standard set, in favour of 'Taj Mahal + let's see what I'm in the mood for'.
So what I ended up doing, was hire a tuktuk for the day, for a max number of stops (I think 4 stops). I spent that day at the Taj Mahal, then the Tomb of I'timad-ud Daula (aka the 'Baby Taj'), and a stop to see the present-day marble artisans of Agra.
Read the story for my experience of the two tombs, and the unexpected reflections that ensued, here.
Return to Delhi by the last train from Agra
I returned to Delhi by the Taj Express again, on its last train. Like previous train travel, I waited on the platform, and looked for the right coach class. But this time was very different from all other times.
There was a huge crowd, and it was quite difficult to board. I remember shielding a child who was trying to board, worried he might fall in the crush and be trampled.
Once in, I discovered my coach was full. Much more full than it ought to be, considering that only people with seats should be in it. In fact, there was already a man in my seat. I was at a loss over what to do, wondering if I had somehow gotten the wrong coach. Had I wandered into a lower class coach by mistake? It was not feasible to rush out to re-read the coach number on the side.
Fortunately for me, there was another foreign traveller in the same situation. He had the seat next to mine, in fact. He seemed to be a bit more used to it, and was a lot more confident that he was in the right place. So he ejected both guys who were in our seats.
That was not all. At each stop, people got off - but people also kept coming in. At some point there were so many people that it was like in a subway train. People were even napping on the overhead luggage racks.
I realised then, that no conductor came on board to check tickets. Perhaps everyone knows that there are no ticket checks for the last train. So effectively, it is a 'free train'.
Considerations for solo female travellers
This can feel very intimidating, since you would have to make someone get out of your seat in a crowded situation. There isn't much you can do, if the person refuses.
However, on the other hand, the people seemed decent. They know they're copping a freebie, and they don't have tickets. So I think even if I had been the one to ask, they would still have obliged just the same. In fact, whenever the freeloading guys see a likewise ticketless woman board - especially with a child - they would give up their seat for her. (The international media doesn't tell you that, do they?)
Later, arriving back at Nizamuddin station, it was again a crowded rush out. By this time it was dark and late. Frankly, it did feel intimidating to hire a tuktuk to get back to my accommodation alone. There were no other transport options that I could see.
In my case, my temporary travel companion was chivalrous enough to offer to adjust his own commute back, so that we would share a tuktuk. I appreciated that.
Yes or No: Doing Agra as a Day Trip from Delhi
A lot of online resources say that Agra can be done quite easily as a day trip. I think it is both yes and no.
Agra can be toured quite easily as a day trip. If you just want to pick up the sights, this is very feasible. The transportation norms facilitate this, and you can easily pre-arrange tours or just individual guides.
However, these are monuments of outstanding beauty and significance. They are at a whole different level from most other monuments I have visited in Asia, North Africa and Europe. They need to be experienced in person, with at least some of that time to yourself.
If I were to do this over, I would have stayed a night - maybe even two. I would have wanted to see the Taj Mahal across the light changes of the day. I would definitely still do the Tomb of I'timad ud-Daula for reasons that I explain in this story. With the extra time I could visit Agra Fort and compare it with Delhi's. I could spend more time browsing the craft markets of Agra. And I would be able to allocate the time that Fatehpur Sikri deserves.
This would make it a much more expensive trip than a day trip. But, it would be worth doing.
Yes or No: Delhi to Agra by Train
I think that the sheer affordability of the train option, and the fact that it is actually rather comfortable, makes this a no-brainer answer for me. Assuming you take an express train, it is less than 3 hours' journey. This is shorter than the car option. Considering Indian traffic, it is probably also the safer option.
The only caveat that I can think of, is to avoid returning with the last train, particularly if travelling alone while female. (Not a major problem if you agree with me on the day trip question above).