From the moment that you arrive at the station in Delhi you are treated like a VIP. This superb customer service is what sets the Palace on Wheels (POW) apart.
Each Saloon, consisting of 4 en-suite cabins with two single beds (and a third bunk bed if required) and a shower room, has a captain and an attendant. We stayed in the Bharatpur saloon and the captain, Wasim and attendant Prakash, could not have been more courteous or caring.
Breakfast was taken with the other Bharatpur guests in the lounge area of the saloon and cooked expertly by Wasim. It is simple fare of cereal, toast and preserves and eggs cooked to order in every imaginable form! After this, Prakash would inform us what we needed for the day ("light woollens") and then Wasim would lead us through the welcome ceremony and to the coach for the day's activities.
For the activities, the Saloon passengers are grouped together, each tour group consisting of the passengers of around three saloons. The group is lead by a tour leader, in our case the unflappable Umesh, and each day a local guide joins the party. Again, you are treated like a VIP with special access to avoid the queues. Lunch is usually at an excellent five star hotel or back at the train. One lady in our group had limited mobility and Umesh arranged tuk-tuks etc. for her, so she was still able to participate.
The food was excellent, Indian, Chinese and continental food was usually available, though the continental options sometimes looked interesting. The food is bought fresh everyday from the local markets. Again, the service was excellent. The train has two restaurants and the four tour groups are divided between the two restaurants in two sittings. The well stocked bar is available before and after dinner, although if you have a favourite cocktail, you need to know the recipe for it! The bar states it is open 24hours, however, as the captain sleeps in the saloon lounge and the attendant at the other end, you would have to step over many sleeping people to get to it! However, I have no doubt that if you desired a drink in the middle of the night, the saloon staff would procure it for you.
The POW is an amazing experience and in my opinion, the most convenient, comfortable and cost effective way to see this much of India, however, you need to remember you're on a train with one hundred guests, plus staff and this takes a huge amount of co-ordinating, so you really need to relax and just 'go with it'. The train ride can be quite bumpy especially when travelling to Jaiselmer, but you are on a train in India. The shower works on an immersion system, so you need to wait for hot water and the supply is limited, but again, you are on a train. There are some long periods of travel between places and they prefer it if you stayed in your cabin, but again, your are on a train and 100 people trying to crowd into the bar would be chaos, so as long as you make allowances for the fact that you are on a train, you will be fine.
Internet access is available in the lounge area of each saloon (though we had it in our cabin, as we were next to the lounge), however, it is sporadic and not very fast. Some of the hotels we had lunch in had good internet connections, so if you are a web addict, all is not lost!
Top tips - take some "light woollens" for the early morning safari and bird watching - it is cold! Take long trousers and a long sleeved top for the camel ride. The air conditioning is controlled centrally for all four cabins, so you may find it a bit cold, so take a blanket. We were also advised to take masking tape to cover the AC vents, but we didn't need this. Shopping time means being taken to a POW store for quality goods. If you want souvenirs, then learn to barter on the move, as there isn't any free time for souvenir shopping (you have a train timetable to stick to!) Everyone expects a tip - we were advised 500R for local guides, 100R for coach drivers, 10R for anyone you have your photo taken with (!!) 100R for camel and elephant drivers and 10R for porters. Our group had a long discussion about what to give to Wasim and Prakash and we decided on about 500R a day, plus a bit. We spent