Indonesia is a big country, the world’s largest archipelago with some 18,000 islands. The natural barrier - the sea makes it challenging to get around the country. Unluckily for travellers, there’s more.
Buying a train ticket is a real hassle. Travellers have to jump through hoops to get hold of their tickets. Those like us, who don't speak the language and own an Indonesian credit card, have got it even harder. Even though the rail routes offer some amazing views, on some occasions, I felt like jumping into the sea and swim instead of trying to get a seat on the next train.
First attempt: Jakarta Gambir Train Station
Buying ticket for the day is the most straight forward. You go to a manned Tiket counter, talk to a real person, who is likely to speak good English, and you’re sorted.
Troubles come only if you are unlucky and have missed the last tickets available. That was us on our second day in Indonesia.
As we landed in Jakarta late the previous night, we weren't bothered going to the train station to get our tickets. Over the late-night takeaway in our hotel room, we did our research online, and it seemed possible to get tickets on the day. We thought it would be fine.
It was not. The staff behind the first counter told us that there’s no tickets left, that we could got the next day's train, and that we couldn’t buy the tickets from the same counter. We were confused!
At Jakarta Gambir, you must take a walk outside, in the thirty something degree Celsius, go to the other side of the station. You will see more manned counters and a few machines. Don’t go to the counter because they don’t sell next-day ticket there, either. Not knowing Indonesian, I am still in the dark about the purpose of those counters.
We did queue up there, only to be told we had to use the machines. So we went to the machine. It has an option for English, which was very good, but it asked for many things: names, passport numbers, and phone numbers. There were many confusing options for ticket types (more on this later). When it came to the payment step, we had to count the notes and coins to the closest amount as the machine didn’t give change. It was a challenging task as we were so new to the country.
After all that, we got a number. Not tickets, just a number. Asking around a bit more, we were told that we needed to print our tickets using another machine, on the other side of the hall.
We proceeded to the second group of machines, got in a queue, then to the first of the queue, punched in the number and waited. Those machines have one ancient printer, transferring ink into the paper at the speed of a snail. In all fairness, it was entertaining to watch.
Later on, we found out that printing the ticket, check-in as it’s called, is only possible one day in advance. So many rules there are!
Buying the train tickets from Jakarta to Bandung was our first taste of traveling around Indonesia. We have been warned that it would be slow and unpredictable, but we only started to understand when we stood around at Jakarta Gambir, all but confused.
Booking online or at a supermarket
If you don’t want to make an extra journey to the train station to secure a ticket before your traveling date, you can book online or at a vending machine in some supermarket (Indomarkt or Afromarkt).
We found the last option the best because it's relatively easy to find one of those supermarkets nearby. It means no taxi journey to the train station in traffic. In our experience, traffic jam is the norm in Java. Besides, those machines don’t take change. You pay the exact amount at the supermarket’s counter. No counting coins and losing out money.
Booking tickets online from your hotel room is the most comfortable and convenient. The website - tiket.com - is in English and takes non-Indonesian credit cards. However, it doesn’t take every cards. I don’t quite remember if we couldn’t use a Visa or a Master card once on the site, but the moral of the story is that it’s best to have two types of credit cards among yourself while travelling. Note that the site takes a small convenience fee.
One thing we did not quite sure is the last day for online booking. If you are nothing like us: booking most things well in advance, you can skip this part.
Here’s our research: Booking opens 90 days ahead and tickets can be bought online until 2 days before the date of travel (source: seat61). If you have only one day left before having to travel, you need to head to a machine, whether at the train station or in one of the supermarkets. However, we did manage to book our ticket online only one day in advance when we were at the foot of Mount Bromo, not near any train station or supermarket.
Choosing your class
Indonesia trains have three classes: Executive (Eksecutif), Business (Bisnis) and Economy (Economy). On the machine, it listed the train name (like Argo Wilis), the class (like Eksecutif), and the number of available seats. We found out that the amount of available seats might not be quite accurate when booking from a supermarket’s machine. Meaning it said there were but there actually were not, and you would have to start the whole process again and again. So consider you have been warned!
The price of each class varies according to the level of comfort. Some trains only have economy class. While it’s much cheaper, Economy coaches still have air conditioners. If you are to travel on a busy day, at the weekend or near a holiday, avoid Economy class if possible. Around May Day, which is also a holiday in Indonesia, we got a last-minute ticket on an economy train and it was definitely not the best.
The train arrived 30 minute late and it was packed. The luggage rack was too small, even for my 28litre bag. The distance between two benches was barely enough to avoid touching the knee of the person sitting opposite. Because you were most likely have to keep the bag on the floor by your knee, the leg room was next to nothing. The bench was cushioned and covered with plastic that sticks to your sweaty bare legs. The width was also quite limited for three, so you might have to hold your body in to avoid touching the people on either sides.
It was not the most uncomfortable train I have taken but I would definitely have paid more for the business class if there had been any seats available.
The business coach is quite decent, powerful air-cons and spacious leg room (at least for a small Asian girl like me). You won’t be able to move the seat back like with the Executive class but that is alright for a short journey.
The Executive class is awesome. You should take it even just for the experience. The leg room was plenty.- the most room I’ve ever had, counting all the European trains I’ve been on. The chairs move way back for you to have a good sleep. Those chairs might not be as comfortable as the ones on the Amsterdam-Paris high speed train, but the scenery could be a amazing. We took the day train Argo Wilis from Jakarta to Bandung and were in awe by all the mountain gorges and lush valleys dotted with green paddy fields. At one point, the train moved pass a wobbly wooden bridge. It was a bit hairy, but as long as you travel Indonesia, a rail journey is the most mind-comforting one you can get.
That is train travelling in Indonesia for you. If you are to go beyond one island (and honestly, why wouldn't you, there are so many choices), you might find this post about sea crossing on the public ferry useful.