Imagine seeing a world wonder, riding a camel in the desert, visiting seven colourful cities, going on a tiger safari, and exploring some of India’s most magnificent forts and palaces all in just one week. That’s exactly what travellers who book a journey on the Palace on Wheels train can expect, as they ride the rails through the northern state of Rajasthan, including a stop in Agra to complete the famous Golden Triangle route.
The Palace on Wheels is one of the top luxury trains in India and rated as one of the world’s best train journeys, shuttling passengers to some of the country’s most popular sites from the comfort of coaches which were once used by royals. In the ‘80s the cars were refurbished and turned into a special heritage tourist train, creating a unique, unforgettable way to explore India. Similar to a cruise ship, passengers simply show up and everything else is taken care of, including all meals, guided excursions and on-board accommodation for seven nights. The hassle-free set up is ideal for those visiting India for the first time who might be overwhelmed by the logistics, people who’d like to pack plenty of sightseeing into a short time period, and solo travellers.
For those thinking about booking a journey on the Palace of Wheels train, here’s a rundown of what to expect from this only-in-India experience.
As novel as it is to travel by train, the real reason to book a trip on the Palace on Wheels is the epic itinerary. There’s virtually no other way to see so much in such a short timeframe, taking into consideration how much time it takes to get between cities by car or plane, check in and out of hotels, and constantly pack up.
The train covers more than three-thousand kilometres over the eight-day trip, usually overnight to maximize sightseeing during the day. The Palace on Wheels itinerary is as follows:
- Delhi: The journey begins in India’s capital city, with a lively welcoming ceremony and time for guests to settle into their rooms before the train departs that evening.
- Jaipur: Known as the pink city, standout spots in Jaipur include the Hawa Mahal which is famous for its intricate facade, the picturesque Albert Hall Museum and City Palace, and an (optional) elephant ride up to the impressive Amber Fort.
- Chittorgarh: The day starts at dawn so guests can make it to Ranthambore National Park in time to watch the jungle wake up—and hopefully see a Bengal tiger in its natural habitat.
The train sets off for Chittorgarh around lunch, arriving by late afternoon so passengers have time to wander around the UNESCO World Heritage Site Chittorgarh Fort, which happens to be home to a cheeky bunch of monkeys. At sunset, guests can enjoy a sound and light show against the fort walls (though it is a little “light” on the lights, to be honest).
- Udaipur: One of the prettiest spots visited during the week, Udaipur is known as the white city and the city of lakes. Highlights include a boat ride to the famed Lake Palace Hotel, and exploring the impressive City Palace complex which has fabulous panoramic views.
- Jaisalmer: A crowd-favourite, Jaisalmer seems to be a world away from the other stops on the Palace on Wheels itinerary. The desert city is home to a bustling living fort full of narrow, winding laneways, chaotic plazas and shops selling leather goods and bright scarves. Getting lost in the streets is a fun way to spend the afternoon, before heading out to the Thar Desert for a camel ride across the sand dunes.
- Jodhpur: Photographers love the blue city of Jodhpur, and there are great views of it from the 16th century Mehrangarh Fort. Take in a turban-tying lesson, then head to Jaswant Thada which is a cluster of brilliant white-marble cenotaphs. The day ends with a quick stop at Umaid Bhawan Palace which is one of the world’s top hotels as well as the home of Jodhpur’s royal family.
- Agra: A trip to the Taj Mahal is the perfect way to cap off a trip to India, so the Palace on Wheels itinerary saves the best for last. The final day starts off with a visit to the ruby-red Agra Fort, then there’s a quick lunch break before heading to the Taj Mahal to spend the entire afternoon exploring the world wonder.
Globe Guide rating: 5/5
This itinerary is fantastic, giving guests a great overview of some of India’s top tourist destinations as well as a couple that are off the beaten path.
While the Palace on Wheels bills itself as luxurious, it’s important to note the term “luxury” can mean different things depending on where you are in the world. The train’s decor is somewhat dated, but some might argue that adds to the charm of it—you are in India after all, not a chain hotel in America. There are a total of 40 cabins with twin or double beds, and each room has an ensuite, desk, armoire and nightstand. They may look somewhat small, but if you take advantage of all the storage when unpacking and stick your empty suitcases under the bed, there’s more than enough space.
Globe Guide rating: 3/5
The train’s interior needs updating to be able to classify itself as luxury by North American standards, but the rooms are well appointed and very clean. Some passengers noted the pillows are quite hard.
The actual sightseeing is why most passengers book a journey on the Palace on Wheels, and fortunately the tours are just as fantastic as one would hope. Guests are organized into groups of about 20 people to travel with throughout the week, and each day starts by hopping into a large, air-conditioned bus at the train station then heading into the city. There’s a dedicated guide for each bus, and nearly all of them are not only knowledgable and accommodating, but also quite funny!
While one day isn’t enough time to really get a feel for a place, excursions are organized well in that they still manage to get to most of the major sites in each city. Tours usually include a visit to some sort of handicraft shop to watch artisans at work.
Globe Guide rating: 4/5
The organized tours mean never waiting in line at major sites, and days are well-planned with great guides. However, the itineraries skip over some of the ‘real’ spots such as public markets and neighbourhoods, so guests wanting to experience those will have to make arrangements on their own (which is highly recommended—you can’t come to India without riding in a tuk-tuk at least once!)
India is famous for its hospitality, and the service shines onboard the Palace on Wheels. Each cabin has a pair of dedicated stateroom attendants (called khidmatgars), who are responsible for tidying up the room, turndown service, wake-up calls and ensuring guests get off the train in time for their tours. When sightseeing wraps up at the end of the day, you’ll find them waiting at the station with a big smile on their face, ready to carry your bag back to the room and bring you a steaming mug of chai masala or plate of cookies should you so desire.
There’s a whole team of servers during mealtime who work the room, dishing out multiple courses on silver platters. These guys are full of personality, and chances are by day two you’ll feel like old friends—especially when they keep trying to sneak an extra serving on to your plate despite your protests.
Globe Guide rating: 4/5
The service from our khidmatgars was perfection. Regarding dining service, it would be better if meals were plated or at a buffet, versus the silver platter style where servers came around literally every couple of minutes with a new dish. This format makes it hard to hold conversations since there were constant interruptions, and somewhat uncomfortable as servers have to lean over you to dish food onto people’s plates.
There are two dining cars on the Palace on Wheels, with set meal times. Breakfast consists of made-to-order eggs, toast, pastries and fresh fruit, while most of the buffet lunches are enjoyed in unique properties during excursions. For example, a hotel with views of the Taj Mahal is the lunch stop in Agra, in Jaipur passengers eat in an opulent dining room right in the Amber Fort which is used by the royal family, and in Jodphur guests dine at a hotel with a gorgeous pool that they can take a refreshing dip in afterwards.
Dinner is a set menu each night consisting of continental, Chinese and Indian options, and the never-ending plates of food emerging from the kitchen mean everyone always leaves stuffed. When it comes to beverages, bottled water, juice, coffee and tea are included, while there is an extra charge for soft drinks and alcohol (which is rather pricey, with bottles of house wine starting at $50 USD)
Globe Guide rating: 3.5/5
Lunch served at hotels during excursions is exceptional, and the homemade ice cream on the Palace on Wheels is a crowd favourite. However, there aren’t many continental options available for guests who don’t like spicy food, while other guests complained that the Indian food wasn’t spicy enough. It would be nice if alcohol was included with meals, or more reasonably priced.
Need to know:
Palace on Wheels price: The weeklong Palace on Wheels package starts at $3500 USD per person during low season in a shared room, and goes up to $12,600 for a spot in a super deluxe cabin. Alcohol and tips are not included.
Schedule: The train operates from September to April and tends to run at full occupancy, so reservations months in advance are recommended.
Globe Guide spent a week on the Palace on Wheels as a guest of Incredible India. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.
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