Booking bus seats, Delhi to Katra, Jammu and Kashmir, India.

Booking agents normally don’t think of the million things that can go wrong on a trip and their advice can be woefully inadequate. Which is why, you need to help yourself out.

On my first visit to Katra, I figured it would be a swell idea to try out an independent agent instead of heading down to the state tourism office and booking a Volvo. State tourism service even at their worst beats private agents by a wide margin, and having traveled with Himachal Tourism for a long while, I deduce their counterparts at the Delhi Transport Corporation will be equally good.

This day, however, I was taking a different route. I was out to explore the unseen and the untried, like travelers coming to the ancient land of the Indus for the first time with wide eyed curiosity and an eagerness to explore the fabled Indian hospitality. I was headed for the street opposite the New Delhi Railway station at Paharganj.

The street opposite the New Delhi Railway station is a place that teems with tourist information centers. During the day this street is in a perpetual state of agony.

The scorching summer sun mercilessly bakes its surface. People spit on it, scratch it, vomit on it and with unabated glee trample on it, stopping short of actually defecating on it, in the presence of other people – their kids have free reign to do what modern manners prevent them from doing.

Touts with seemingly easy operate on this street. The harsh sun doesn’t seem to faze them in the bit. They mingle with the crowds looking for wayfarers with bags in tow or eavesdrop on conversations for slight clues that remotely hint at travel arrangements. Then like hungry predators pounce on their unsuspecting prey and coax them back to their lair.

No tout reels me in like a prized catch. Small fish like me easily slip under their radar and have to jump into the net on self powered steam. That’s exactly what I do. Spotting the first office I walk into it to meet an all in one tour organizer, booking agent, and an encyclopedia of travel in a pant and shirt. Here’s what you can learn from my experience.

Travel tickets can be like any other product you buy.

I ask for a Volvo, the huge bay windows with its 180 degree view, cushy reclining seats and air condition makes the Volvo an excellent travel companion. The booking agent makes a quick call on his mobile – apparently there were none available even after twenty days. That really sounds odd to me. Twenty days is a pretty long time and booking seats for a Volvo is nothing like railway reservation. I contemplate walking out and trying my luck with the booking agent next door. Decide against it and wait for this one to suggest an alternative, and sure enough.

Would a sleeper do? Why not! I have never tried a sleeper before, this should be an eye opener (see the Farbound.Net review on the sleeper bus: Sleepers for Katra). Specially one managed by private operators on the Delhi to Katra route. Prior to this, my experience on the Delhi to Himachal route hasn’t been a bad one. Some of the private operators I traveled with are so efficient they can give the state managed transports a run for their money. The booking agent even gives me a rebate of Rs.100 on a ticket worth Rs. 1200. I am not exactly thrilled over it. Who would be after spending Rs. 1100 and saving only Rs 100?

What you should know: Travel tickets are like buying products. Some shops have them, some don’t. Before settling for an entirely different alternative check some of the other providers to see if they have what you want. Ticket prices also vary, and if you are lucky you might just find a more economical one or a better discount.

Insist for the name of the bus operator.

My booking agent, does not think it prudent to mention the name of the operator on the ticket he hands over, or inform me in advance as to the kind of service I am in for. I like a first time traveler don’t question him. On my way back from Katra, I am going to regret that decision.

What you should know: Mentioning the bus number might not be feasible especially if you are booking twenty days prior to your actual date of departure. There is no telling which bus might be standing in the parking lot. Still the name of the bus operator counts. It makes things easier for a traveler to find the bus the reserved seats are on. So even if your agent doesn’t think it relevant, insist he writes it down on the ticket. There is no rule saying it can’t be done.

Contrary to what your agent thinks, book your hotel in advance.

Where do I find accommodations, I inquire next. The booking agent responds casually, “There are plenty of hotels in Katra. Once you get there, you can walk into any hotel you like, including the Dharamshala”. He is not wrong here. Katra is the closest town to the second most popular pilgrim destination in India: The Mata Vaishno Devi Temple. Developments incorporated by the Sri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board have tripled pilgrims and turned the town into a blooming hotel town ( see the Farbound.Net story on Vaishno Devi: The Pilgrim Road).

Even during peak season, there is a chance you’ll find accommodations there, maybe not as per your liking, but you will still find it. The Dharamshala is also not a bad option, if you like to live in a dormitory with a dozen other people. Except I am in no mood to entertain his suggestions. Back home, I promptly use the internet to browse-up hotels in Katra. Stumble upon the Jai Maa Inn Hotel. Call them up and book in advance. My experience there as it turned out later, was a wonderful one, far better than the travel arrangements. Except for a little incident, where the confused front desk was charging me an extra Rs.1000 for the room I had already paid full amount for in advance.

What you should know: The road trip from Delhi to Katra roughly takes about ten to eleven hours. Even if you make the journey in a sleeping bunk, you will still be spending energy uselessly hunting around for available accommodations on arrival. With assured rooms, you can simply drop in your luggage, shower, breakfast and embark on the 12 km trek up to the Vaishno Devi temple or do as you please. Plus you will also get to select accommodations as per your liking. Instead of arriving and finding the best rooms already taken.

Sleeper service and Volvo service have different timings.

Be in by six thirty, bus leaves by seven, commands the voice of this travel god. Used to Himachal tourism service, I take his words rather too seriously. Two weeks after, bag and baggage in hand, I arrive at his office on time but don’t get to reach the departure point till past seven. He makes me wait for nearly one hour. The free auto rickshaw ride to the bus stop is as promised though, and on arriving at the departure point I get on my first sleeper bus for Katra.

The bus, however, is a stubborn one and refuses to budge till close to ten. By this time all its other wheeled companions that stood shoulder to shoulder have long hit the highway. Am I the only one feeling irritated?

Apparently yes. There is a very sick man occupying a sleeper cabinet across the narrow aisle. He has a tube stuck to his throat and an urine disposable filled with discharge. He is attended by two friends. None of them think it mannered to fuss about waiting two and a half hour in the parking lot. Behind me is an enamoured couple, who clamber into a sleeping cabinet and slide shut the door.

Passengers arrive at intervals. The last is a couple of young turks on a four day trip to Katra who clamber on board in upbeat spirit. They are in no hurry either. But I am in no state of mind to indulge in their joy of friendship and travel. I have been waiting for nearly three and a half hours for the bus to start. Then it dawns on me, the booking agent got the timing all wrong.

The bus finally starts its roll a little after 10 p.m. Makes a brief stop at a local roadside eatery – a dhaba that charges me Rs. 450 for a meal for two (nothing unusual, roadside eateries make a lot of money feeding passengers from buses that stop there. It is good business for them and many travelers don’t mind the prices) before rolling on for Katra. The bus will make two more official stops, one for morning tea and the other for disembarking passengers at the Jammu bus stop.

What you should know: Other than the fact sleepers start their run at a very late hour, private operators on this route are notorious for lingering round collecting passengers who land up directly at the bus stop without prior booking. A bit of delay is to be expected, but this usually depends on the bus operator.Your booking agent might not give you the details.

Jammu and Katra are two separate places.

Early morning I am at the Jammu bus stop. This is where the roads diverge. If the bus is headed for Katra, passengers bound for Srinagar disembark here and look for other transport. 70% of the passengers including the sick man with faltering steps manage to drag himself out using his two friends as crutches. The bus continues on for Katra. The road starts to wend after the Jammu bus stop as mountain country begins. It courses much like other hill roads offering some scenic sights on one side and a hillside on the other. Two hours later we are at the Katra police barrier.

The bus finally reaches the main town close to ten thirty in the morning. Does a u turn and drops me off at a spot that the booking agent informed me prior is a bus stop. In reality it is a two way street with shops lining both sides. The entire journey has taken close to fourteen hours. Eleven hours actual travel time plus three and a half hours waiting time. By the time I check into the hotel, shower, breakfast and reach the first checkpoint for the steep 12 km trek to the Vaishno Devi temple, it’s two in the afternoon and I am already sweating under a blazing mid day sun. Here I expected to be walking this path possibly as early as 9 a.m.

What you should know: Katra while being located in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is a small town 48 kms away from the Jammu bus stop. Buses headed for Jammu stop at Jammu. The ones for Katra roll forward. If your ticket mentions Jammu, and you are headed for Katra, there could be some confusion. Once again insist your agent writes it down on the ticket. Its harmless and again there is no rule that says it can’t be so. Moreover your agent isn’t traveling with you to fix problems enroute.

A pre-paid Vodafone connection does not work in Katra.

On the way back from Katra things get even more interesting. I am exhausted from my climb up to the Vaishno Devi temple and with whatever is left of my strength I want to clamber on board my bus, sink into my seat, shut my eyes and wake up in Delhi. There is one problem. No one knows where the bus is and it departs at 6 p.m. To make matters worse, my pre-paid Vodafone connection is not working. And I will not be able to make or receive calls till I have crossed back into Haryana.

What you should know: Vodafone apparently does not entertain outstation prepaid connections at Katra or Jammu. Your booking agent will not know this if he does not have one and it could be same for other pre-paid cellular services as well. Post paid services, however, works fine.

Don’t hesitate to ask the locals for help.

When I check out of the hotel, to reach the bus stop. The hotel cab driver inquires for the bus number. If it is provided he can check with the concerned authorities and drop me off at the right place. As I already mentioned before, the bus number might be impossible to provide in advance but the consultant has not even mentioned the name of the bus operator. On top of that the departure point is Jammu. My cellphone isn’t working so the cab driver lends me his. People I talk to are equally confused over the details provided in the ticket. One asks me to come down to the Jammu bus stop on my own.

Things are still looking bleak when the cab driver drops me at the main market. Chances are the bus just might come along here. What am I to do I wonder? Run from one bus to the other asking if my seat is reserved on it? I call up the booking agent from a STD booth. His answer: The bus stop. Where is that bus stop? What street is it on? What is the name of that street? I call up again. The booking agent now wants me to hop around a strange town, hassled and anxious, to seek out a travel agent.

Panicked, I am just about to do that, when the hotel cab driver realizing I am lost comes back, picks me up and drops me at a place called the new railway lines. Plus hands me the cell number of the bus driver. I get into a bus, which I still think isn’t the one for me. The bus being a private managed one makes a long stop in Jammu to pick-up last minute passengers including some rowdy ones, and to make up for the lost time cuts short the allotted dinner quota. I reach Delhi well before 8 a.m, without anyone asking me to change seats.

Strangely, both times, the conductors on board both vehicles instead of checking my bus ticket and letting me keep it, pockets them. Same for the other passengers. The normal procedure that I know of is tickets stay with passengers.

What you should know: Locals, particularly the hotel you are staying in can be immensely helpful when you are stuck in a new place – specially a small town. They would know or be in touch with local agents who know where each private bus arrive and depart. Asking the locals for help will be more fruitful than asking your booking agent sitting in a city miles away. Not returning passenger tickets seem to be a practice on board sleepers on the Delhi-Jammu-Katra route. Reshuffling of sleeper bunks is also prevalent. Pre-booked tickets with the full amount paid ensures your place.

Try other options to visiting a booking agent.

Travel portals like GOIBIBO and MAKE MY TRIP offers a list of bus operators and hotels that make it easier for travelers to get tickets and make reservations online. In the case of the private bus service, you get to choose your operator and book directly. Many of them operate both sleepers and Volvos and chances are they will tell you the exact time the bus leaves, aside the usual delay, and you won’t be hassled looking for departure points – you’ll know which bus operator you are travelling with and the point the vehicle departs from.


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