New Delhi to Kanyakumari and back, India
“Listen, it’s not how much money you make, but how you manage your money that truly counts. In this country you can make one million in a day and manage to spend two million the next.” -Mama Bear
Financially, my family didn’t have much growing up, which as a child, you don’t realize is a good thing. All of us have dreams and usually in this world it involves money. The rich have the option to reach into their parents bank account and pay for their goal. The middle class are taught to save and be disciplined and over time will eventually get there. However, the financially poor have a different upbringing. We’ve always had to look at the price tag society displays and figure out how the hell to pay less (avoiding the five finger discount of course) because society tells us we’ll never afford it. Society will however, gladly provide whatever we wish at the cost of modern day slavery but just because we’re financial poor doesn’t mean mama raised a fool. Figuring out how to afford what you technically can’t, is a forced lifestyle that comes very handy when traveling the globe. It usually begins with the calculation of travel costs followed by a damn it! because we always come up short. Do we look down, sad and dismayed that the numbers don’t add up? Of course not. We say fuck it and go anyway because we’ve discovered the secret of traveling and it definitely doesn’t revolve around money or maybe we’re just broke as hell to begin with so we literally have nothing to lose.
Enough talk, let’s get down to business. I just came back from a trip to India and literally wrote down every rupee I spent so you can get an idea of how cheap it can be to travel to the other side of the world. I’m no longer a high school student, college student or even homeless for that matter. I can afford to spend a little more on things than I used to back in the good ol’ days of adolescence but as they say, old habits die hard. Anyways, our goal is not just to save money but to not spend it on what we don’t need. The best way to do this while traveling is to limit and control our 3 largest expenses: 1. Transportation, 2. Lodging and 3. Food
Now, let’s talk logistics. I spent 13 days in India and spent $1,237.32 on my whole trip, including airfare from the US. That number does not include the wedding gift for my friends who got married. It does include my little 2 and a half hour Istanbul expedition during my layover as well as 2 nights and 4 days of where I pretty much spent nothing. That’s because I was at the wedding (lasted 2 days) where the hotel and food were taken care of and spent another two days at my awesome friends’ home town in which their mom didn’t allow me to spend a single rupee. Actually, I was able to slip 50 rupees to one rickshaw driver upon arrival but going forward her iron fist held its ground.
Below is a graph of the rupees I was able to spend, in USD equivalent of course:
93% of my expenses were in the 3 categories mentioned previously, so let’s discuss.
My sis and I had a lot of ground to cover for this trip. We had a wedding to attend in Hyderabad (southern central India), hit up our other friends’ place in Kannur (southern India) and a world wonder to see in Agra (northern India). With those three destinations in mind, I checked prices and planned the following route in India the Friday before our trip:
New Delhi —plane—> Hyderabad —plane—> Trivandrum —train—> Kanyakumari —train—> Trivandrum —train—> Kannur —train—> Madgaon —train—> Vasco de Gama —plane—> Jaipur —train—> Agra —train—> New Delhi
I know, I know, very aggressive route for 13 days of travel with several journeys at night. I can’t count the amount of people I know on one hand that would actually agree to such a trip and not complain during it. There is however, the one travel buddy I can always count on for any journey, my twin sister. With that being said, let’s look at my transportation expenses:
It’s easy to see where all my transportation money went to: airfare. However, we need not to look at the what we spend our hard earned greenbacks on but on the when/how. We can break that out into four categories: To & from the country visiting, to & from the airport/train station, around the city/town and around the country. It’s our decisions in those four moments that will determine the size of our largest travel expense.
I. To & from the country visiting
Most likely, the round trip airplane ticket will be the single, largest expense for the whole journey. Many of our friends traveling for the wedding bought their ticket months in advance spending between $1,050-$1,300. However, everyone flew out of and arrived to different places so the comparison becomes a bit tricky. Personally, I needed to fly out of New York City but was returning to Atlanta. I did my initial search and found that for me it was cheapest to arrive and depart from New Delhi, costing a little over $1,200. I decided to hold off for as long as I could in order to continue to rack up travel points on my credit card. Every now and then I checked for tickets and they began to hover around $1,300 at the beginning of June. Then suddenly towards the end of June, post June 28th to be exact, the tickets dropped a little below $1,100 for just one airline. Can you guess which one? Yup, Turkish Airlines. Of course, I cannot technically prove that there was a direct correlation with the bombing at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul and the decrease in ticket prices driven by a lower demand for tickets through Istanbul since I did no research whatsoever. However, I will say that post the bombing and false coup on July 14th in Turkey, my mother told my sister to change her 5 day travel plans to Turkey to anywhere else in the world due to mama bear’s growing concern. Regardless, given that I hadn’t seen a cheaper price until that point, I decided to purchase my ticket on June 29th for $558 (full price: $1,098 minus points redeemed & worth: 43,153 @ $540). Including the visa @ $62 (which in this case I deem to be an extension of your airfare cost) the total round trip ticket to India came out to $620 ($558 + $62). By the way, Turkish Airlines is one of the best airlines I’ve ever taken.
II. To & from the airport/train station
The usual rule is: take public transportation not a cab! There will almost always be some sort of public transportation to the airport, whether its metro, tram or bus. This rule may be broken for one of four reasons. Either a) there is no public transportation to the airport (i.e. Quebec City Airport only has cabs unless I failed to uncover the hidden public transportation from the airport to the city center), b) it will come out to be cheaper by cab because you are many travelers, c) You are about to miss your flight or train, or d) it’s after hours and public transit has called it a night.
What’s the actual cost difference between public transit and a cab? I’m glad you asked. When I arrived to New Delhi, I took the Delhi Airport Express Metro line from the airport to the New Delhi train station (NDLS) and paid 60 rupees (the equivalent of $0.91 @ 66 rupees a dollar). You can’t beat a 25 minute metro ride from the airport at that price!
Now, a cab ride should cost you around 400 rupees ($6.06), maybe even more if you arrive and don’t know the price. On top of the roughly $5 price hike, or as I like to see it: 565% price hike, you would probably have to deal with traffic and it’ll take longer. I hear people all the time say ‘Cabs are just easier’ and if that’s you then that’s you. For some, they see paying the extra $5 dollars as worth the hassle in figuring out how to get to the hostel in a city, let alone country, you’ve never been to before. However, I see it as an opportunity to put myself in the shoes of how a local might travel, learn how to use the public transit, force myself to become more familiar with directions of the city, exercise my brain to figure out how to get from point A to point B, and not waste 5 meals (as discussed in the previous blog, you can eat hella well for $1)!
III. Around the city/town
This really depends on the city or town you are in. If the public transit is solid and goes to where you need to go then you’re all set. You’re all well aware by now, my norm is to avoid cabs. Take NYC as an example. I can go from Harlem to downtown (Chamber St.) on the subway for $2.75 in about 30 minutes. If I took a cab it’ll take around the same time and maybe longer depending upon traffic and end up paying $25+. Not to say there are no train delays sometimes but a cheap fixed price is much more economical. That example is just one trip. Multiply that to several times a months and the difference is no longer in the $20s but in the $100s.
However, as I mentioned earlier, not all cities/town are created equally and many times public transit that we all know and love, sometimes hate, is either inconvenient (doesn’t go to where you need it to go) or even non-existent. When it comes to India, sometimes the cheapest form of transit is the auto (AKA rickshaw, tuktuk or moto-taxi)
We took a bunch of autos when needed and usually spent less than a dollar for a ride to sometimes a little over a dollar if going for a longer distance. Is it always cheaper? I want to say yes but of course life is never that simple.
As a foreigner, you start out with two disadvantage. The first is not knowing the local price to travel locally which can be easily overcome by asking any local, probably best to exclude the driver of course. The second is not really the haggling to get to the local price but the fact that sometimes you won’t be able to even reach it since some drivers know damn well that they can get an extra buck out of you.
This leads us to one of the best things to happen to India, Uber! (There’s also Ola, the Indian version of Uber) Uber was a hassle free way of knowing what a fair price was when going from point A to B without the haggle. This is where you factor in haggle time and the cost of inner city transportation. From the New Delhi train station to the Red Fort (about 2-3 miles depending on route) taxi drivers wanted 250 rupees and rickshaw drivers wanted 150 rupees. What was Uber’s price? 91 rupees ($1.38)! Can you beat that with a working AC? Kind of difficult my friend. Now of course the metro is always an option and we decided to come back via metro which at 2 stops away was only 8 rupees ($0.12) per person!
The metro was about a 15 minute walk from the Red Fort plus another 15 minutes from the hostel so definitely a tad bit longer in the summer heat. But exercise is good and according to my girlfriend I have more than just a few extra calories to burn.
IV. Around the country
There are usually 3 main methods of traveling within a country from city to city: planes, trains and buses. Given the long distances we had to travel and the convenience of train routes stretching across the country, not to mention how cheap trains are, we chose to stick to planes and trains.
When the time it takes to travel from one city to another is greater than 6 hours then you can take advantage by traveling at night to not only save money but save time. If you travel during the day then you just lost a whole day of exploring. This works great if you can actually sleep on your method of transportation. The two ~9 hour train rides we took were comfortable enough to sleep, given that we could lie down. On the other hand, our two night flights were a struggle given that they both had a couple hour layovers in the middle of the night.
Night layovers are usually not too bad if you can find a spot to rest. Unfortunately, even though we found comfortable patted benches to catch some Zzzs, sleep wasn’t an option for our 5 hour layover in Mumbai. To say the AC was on blast would poorly describe the Siberian winter that managed to make its way offseason all the way to western India and into the depths of our souls. I was about to give up on this gift known as life and fall into a deep sleep of guaranteed hypothermia in hope that future generations would be able to resuscitate my body from the cryonic chamber known as the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. However, I instead decided to just buy some coffee and stay awake. Saving money on lodging and time by traveling at night may cost you some sleep. Keep that in mind or just bring a blanket.
The next thing to consider when traveling around the country is the cost of convenience. Will you spend more taking a slightly faster train or pay higher for a better class? Yes and no. Depends on the situation of course. When it came to India, we took the lowest and the highest class with the highest class (2nd class in some trains) costing about 4 times as much as the lowest (sleeper class). What’s the actual difference in experience? Not much to be honest, I was passed out both times. ZzZzZzZz
Kannur to Madgaon ~9 hours [Prices as of 9/24 for 10/28 – Netravathi Express #16346]
2nd class – 4 bed compartment with AC, blanket and pillow provided, curtain for beds in the aisle [1250 Rupees ($18.94)]
3rd class – We didn’t take but as far as I know it’s the same as 2nd except 6 beds to a compartment. Perhaps blanket and pillow provided as well? [870 Rupees ($13.18)
Sleeper class – 6 bed compartment with no AC, no blanket or pillow and no curtain for the beds in the aisle [320 Rupees ($4.85)]
Beds are the same length as far as I could tell. Temperature wise, sleeper class was better with a nice breeze from the window as opposed to an AC working diligently to replicate tundra conditions. Sleeper train quality was fine except for the fact I couldn’t get my window closed all the way so when it rained water was coming in. Fortunately I was prepared with a towel to cover the slight gap. I found both to be safe, however (a big however), that is from my male perspective. My sister wouldn’t have felt comfortable or safe sleeping in any train alone regardless of class if I wasn’t around. We’ll save that discussion for a future blog.
This one is easy, one word: hostel. Did you say hotel? Nah brahman, there’s an s in there, 6 letters, sound it out: hostel [hos-tel].
I’m still surprised when I meet someone who is scared of hostels because they watched the movie Hostel or by the one person who says You mean to tell me that I would be staying in a room with random people? That’s so dangerous I would never do that are you crazy?! *person is legitimately concerned*
Those statements/questions come from people who have never stayed in a hostel before. I always tell them to imagine a big room with a bunch of bunk beds, say 12 beds total. Now imagine people from all over the world in that room who came with the same purpose as you: to explore the world on a budget. You came to see one country but you make friends with many others and all hang out and have fun with the extra bonus that you are probably paying from $6-$20 a night as opposed to $60+ when the s is excluded. That my friends is how you not only make traveling cheap and affordable but also enjoyable, meeting awesome people from every walk of life you can imagine. On top of that, there’s usually a nice bar or lounge where you can also meet people too at the hostel. That’s the norm.
However, India was the first country where I scratched my head a little bit. Usually it takes two seconds to find a solid hostel but searching for India was a struggle. I found less than the normal amount of hostels than I would expect for a major city like Delhi, just a handful in Agra and nothing in Hyderabad or Kanyakumari. Doing a bit more research I found that there were male-only and female-only hostels. These so called male-only and female-only hostels failed my hostel definition of above and were basically local student dorms. Not what I was looking for. After checking the prices for hotels, the whole lacking hostel situation made a little more sense. We stayed at a hotel for $20 bucks in Kanyakumari. That’s $10 a night after splitting it with my sis = hostel range prices.
There’s another option that you can rock called couch surfing. You basically crash at some locals couch for free. It’s like Facebook for travelers where everyone has reviews so you can read about who you will be staying with and who might be staying with you.
I’ve done it before and it’s sweet. You not only get to stay at a locals place for free but you now know someone who knows the ins and outs of the town and if you both get along, maybe the local will take you out and show you around. I didn’t do it in India but it’s always a solid option when traveling so I have to throw it in here.
Let me make myself clear. You’re health has no price tag. Don’t ever save money by paying less for poor quality food. I’m not talking about choosing between the New York steak strip or the filet mignon, both of which are excellent choices.
I’m talking about choosing the possibly spoiled meal vs a regular meal to save a few bucks. If the place is dirty with flies everywhere and no one cleans shit then don’t eat there. Simple. So, like I mentioned in my last blog, you can eat a decent sized meal for $1 and of course can eat for $10 or more but the same quality! For example, in Kanyakumari we went to a restaurant at the top of a hotel and paid $10 each for a typical Indian dish and the next day we spent $1 for the same thing at a dingy street restaurant around the corner. You can easily keep your daily food budget (including buying water bottles) less than $10 a day and eat really well.
The bottom line
Don’t ever allow money to stop you from traveling or anything else for that matter. If you’re disciplined and organized you can stretch your dollar from the concrete jungle of New York to the tropical oasis of Kerala. You will definitely be taking a step out of your comfort zone but you’ll find that you’re much stronger and capable than you think. Make a plan, cut costs, see that it doesn’t add up then say fuck it, let’s do this. Safe journeys my friend.
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