Mumbai Express

The morning of February 28, 2018, started fairly uneventfully, with a wander through a filthy slum to a train station.  Conny and I were just outside Mumbai and needed to catch a short train in and find somewhere to store my bicycle before heading north to Udaipur in time for Holi Festival the following day. After the usual attempts to scam me out of more money than was due I eventually secured tickets for the three of us onto a local Mumbai train in the luggage coach.


Once on the train, I realised neither us nor the bike actually required a ticket since it would be impossible to check tickets in this coach – it was jam-packed full of fish, vegetables, delivery boxes, small animals and various throngs of people carrying all sorts of items for sale to the 20-million inhabitants of Mumbai. How we managed to get the bicycle on was a small miracle in itself, not to mention that we had to change trains once along the way. This involved finding the exact right place to stand on the platform and then trying to crush into the luggage car against the exiting throng of people while other luggage passengers tried to crush in behind us with all their boxes and fruit carts etc.


Not Quite a Motorbike, But Okay

Around mid-day, we arrived at Dadar station in central Mumbai and immediately started the search for a decent bicycle storage location.  I was averse to just leaving it chained on the roadside for three weeks, even though I knew bike theft in India was very rare.  We wondered the streets for about an hour, ending up at a dusty car park between two run-down apartment blocks behind a police building.  There were some filthy cars and motorbikes around, looking very much like they had been there for years, and I briefly considered trying to hide the bike behind one of these.  However, after getting some advice from the local police, we were directed to a long-term motorcycle parking lot between two of the platforms which as usual in India turned out to be a lot harder to find than expected.


We walked up and down a few staircases and back-and-forth along rail over-passes before resigning to fate and asking for directions. The usual barrage of contradictory directions by confused locals ensued, and yet by some miracle, we actually managed to find it in the end!  We spoke to the guard on duty who initially seemed confused with the concept of storing a bicycle but eventually agreed to look after it for a small fee of 600 rupees. While we were there discussing things, two friendly crew members of an ambulance parked nearby offered to share their lunch with us – a common occurrence in India when almost anybody is eating.


Not Just the Wrong Platform – the Wrong Station

Having lightened my load considerably and had a filling lunch, we headed off to buy tickets for the 17-hour overnight train to Udaipur.  The first little window hole we asked instructed us we needed to go to window 26.  We wandered around for half an hour finding windows for every number except 26 until eventually inquiring at another window hole.  This one informed us we were not even at the right station and our train was actually leaving from the nearby Bandra station, so we had to take a local metro train and go three stops north.  Once there we were told we need to go a further few hundred metres to Bandra Terminus station where the mainline trains run from.  Luckily on the way, we were saved by a friendly local guy going the same way who let us share his tuk-tuk and showed us where to buy general class tickets (it was too late for seat reservations). 


By now it was ten minutes until our train so we ran off to the platform together.  Thinking that I was being clever, I abandoned the local guy who was heading to general class and jumped into a sleeper class carriage with Conny, hoping that we could find a free bed or seats for the journey.  Initially this worked well and we sat for the first few stops, but when the conductor came around, instead of telling us we were in the wrong seats he told us the part of the train we were in was not going to Udaipur and we needed to get off at the next station and move to the back carriage. I think this was just his roundabout way of telling us we need to go to general class, but at least he didn’t try to give us a fine.


Nope, Not That Station Either

With our backpacks back on our backs, we went over to the doorway to wait for the next stop.  After a short while, the train started to slow down at a station and had almost come to a complete stop when we hopped off.  As soon as we landed on the platform the train started to speed up again and someone on the platform shouted to us that it wasn’t stopping here!  I ran after the train and jumped back into one of the open doors, but by now it was moving too fast and Conny couldn’t catch it.  I looked back and saw her stuck on the platform and realised I would have to jump off again or lose her.  I hit the ground running but my feet folded under me and I body-slammed into the platform, skidding along the concrete for a few feet before coming to a stop.  I was pretty badly grazed and cut but didn’t appear to have any serious injuries, so got up and walked back to where Conny was now talking to a train official.


That was the last direct train to Udaipur, and as far as we knew our last chance to make it in time for Holi Festival. We tended to some of my wounds and then went with the train official to the station masters office to see if there is any other way.  After some discussions amongst themselves, they wrote down two trains for us that were going to a town called Ratlam, where they said we could get another train or bus to Udaipur.  First, however, we would need to go all the way back to Boraveli station since the platform we had jumped off on was at a tiny station and hardly any trains stopped here.  We got a metro train back to Boraveli and found a ticket counter to ask about trains to Ratlam.  I asked if we could get a refund on our previous tickets but were told we don’t need to buy new tickets, we can still use our current tickets on the Jaipur express to Ratlam.


Don’t Celebrate Just Yet

We found our platform, got some food and coffee and sat down to wait for the train to come.  Once it arrived we didn’t know where to get on and ended up in an expensive AC car so had to walk through a whole bunch of carriages to the back of the train.  General class was completely ram-packed as expected, and we couldn’t even get close to the door because of all the other people sitting in the corridor.  It looked like this train was very busy and I began to realize there is no chance we were going to get seats.  Oh well, only ten hours to Ratlam!


We wandered back aimlessly through the carriages hoping to find an empty square of floor to sit on, but without any luck. Fortunately, a nice guy in sleeper class said we can sit with him and a group of other people for a few hours until such a time as they needed to sleep.  He suggested it would be best if we got off at Vadodara station just after midnight and from there we could possibly get a bus to Udaipur in the morning.  Predictably, a ticket officer came around before Vadodara and once seeing our tickets, told us we would have to pay a fine. I argued that we had tried to get into general class but it was impossible, “There were too many people, what could we do?” I implored. Eventually, he let us off but told us we must get off at the next station, Surat, and either go to general class or find another train. This didn’t bode well for our Vadodara plans.


By the time the train reached Surat, it was almost midnight.  Most of the people in the berth were trying to sleep and we felt a bit like we were imposing, so we decided we better move anyway.  We tried again in vain to get into general class but it was even more packed now than before!  We ended up squashing into the corridor just outside with a group of other exiles who were no doubt initially upset with our invasion, but politely made space for us anyway.  Unfortunately, it was in the corridor where the toilets were located and for some reason, the entire train decided now was the time to go.  We spent the next half an hour being stepped on, cursed at and squashed past by a never-ending stream of full (and then empty) bladdered passengers.


Arrival to Ahmedabad

Typically, just half an hour before Vadodara, the ticket inspector returned. This time he was a bit more vehement in his protests that we must pay a 900 rupee fine. Unfortunately for him, the entire contents of my wallet came to just over 50 rupees, if you include the half-century-old 20 paise coin I was carrying around in the hope of one day selling for a fortune – he certainly wasn’t getting that treasure!  Upon seeing the sad state of my wallet he suddenly developed a smidgen of pity and walked off mumbling something under his breath in Hindi, no doubt about poor foreigners with no respect for the sanctity of Indian trains. He also attempted to fine the other passengers sitting around with us, but had about the same amount of luck.


Finally, just after midnight, we began to slow down and Vadodara station crept up slowly outside the windows.  We alighted amongst a throng of exiting and entering passengers and stumbled out into the dimly lit station. During the train journey I had done a quick google search and found that while there we no sleeper buses to Udaipur from Vadodara, we might be able to get a 5:30 am sleeper bus from Ahmedabad – another town only a few hours away.  While we were going to check about any trains to Ahmedabad, the nice guy from the train who had helped us earlier came up to see if we were okay.  After explaining to him our plan he shook his head and informed us there were no more trains now, but he will drive us to the local bus station where buses to Ahmedabad leave regularly all night.


We thanked him profusely as he dropped us off and he instructed us to catch the bus from platform one.  This was confirmed by the information office and after a quick toilet stop a bus soon arrived and we were on our way.  The bus was extraordinarily busy for 1 am but a nice man made space for Conny to sit and I made myself comfortable on the floor in the aisle, reading my very appropriate literature – a book called “India Calling” – while Conny dozed off.


A Much Needed Sleeper Bus

The bus ride was quicker than I expected and we were in Ahmedabad by 3 am, which gave us two and half hours to kill until our sleeper bus.  We flopped down on the floor against a pillar and ate our remaining few snacks.  We were both in surprisingly good spirits considering we had been travelling non-stop for almost 20 hours by now over nine separate journeys – instead of one!  The time passed quickly as we looked back at the day and joked about our situation, and before we knew it 5 am had struck and it was time to catch a tuk-tuk a short distance to the other bus stand where the big sleeper buses departed from.


The usual price negotiations began and we went back and forth between tuk-tuk drivers until the original driver eventually offered to take us for roughly the price we had quoted him to start with. This is a bizarre ritual that needs to be enacted every time you get a tuk-tuk, even though both of you know that in the end, he will take you for the fair price you originally asked for.


The distance ended up being a bit further than I had gauged from Google Maps and for a brief second I worried we might be late, but of course, the sleeper bus was delayed by an hour and would only leave at 6:30 am.  The office clerk who checked our tickets explained: “Bus is always late”.  Conny promptly fell asleep in the waiting room as I tried to explain to him that if they know the buses are always late then why not just advertise it as leaving an hour later?  This logic was clearly lost on him so I wandered off to find more of the sweet milky tea that is the lifeblood of India.  A few cups later and a couple of chapters of my book and lo-and-behold the 11th and (hopefully) final vehicle of our epic journey arrived. With the sun just beginning to peak over the horizon we fumbled aboard, found our tiny bus bed and both instantly passed out – sleeping without interruption for the entire five-hour journey.


As I disembarked at the Udaipur bus stand, still half asleep but feeling very victorious, I asked another English guy where he had come from.

“Mumbai” he replied.

“Oh us too,” I laughed “Took us about 28 hours and 10 different trains and buses!”

The response I got was a look of utter confusion.  It was at that moment I noticed the huge letters plastered across the side of the bus:

“MUMBAI TO UDAIPUR EXPRESS”

Budget Travel Tips

money

I have two facets to travelling cheap – “Saving while Working” and “Saving while Travelling”, but both revolve around similar core-concepts.  Depending on your income level and/or the way in which you like to travel, each may apply to you in a different way.


SAVING WHILE WORKING

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Everyone is always asking how I travel so much. Sadly I have no big secret – I didn’t win the lottery, I’m not a trust-fund kid, I don’t have anybody paying for me. I simply follow one rule – earn high, spend low. Seems like an obvious statement, but very few people follow the second step. I spend as little as possible on rent by sharing rooms, staying in super cheap student housing or crashing on friends sofas. Of course, this would not suit everybody but hey – if you wanna travel the world and you’re not a millionaire you’re going to have to make some sacrifices!


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I also eat a lot of rice, frozen veg, spaghetti, tin tomatoes etc, always buy reduced price food, almost never drink out at bars or pubs and never eat at restaurants. I cycle EVERYWHERE. This is probably my biggest saving – I save over £2000 a year simply by refusing to ever pay for public transport or taxis, even if it’s 3 am and it’s raining. Like I said – sacrifices. There are various other ways, like taking a packed lunch to work and drinking the free work coffee instead of the exorbitantly over-priced coffee shops (I mean seriously, £3 for a coffee? Are you crazy?).  I also almost never buy clothes unless it’s an absolute necessity, and even then we’re talking £3 t-shirts or £10 jeans, usually at second-hand stores.  In fact, almost everything I buy is second-hand – shpock and facebook marketplace are my saviours. I never sign up to anything – I’ve never had a phone contract, I don’t have Spotify, Netflix, Sky, a gym membership – I’ve never even had a single direct-debit on my bank account. In short, when working and saving I live like someone on minimum wage or less, but that’s fine because the other 6 months of the year I can travel the world which makes it all worthwhile.  Which takes us to step two…


SAVING WHILE TRAVELLING

Accommodation

Budget Hotel in Hollywood

Hostels and Hotels

Do you like fancy hotels, private rooms, hot water, air-con? This might not be the blog for you. Once again, travelling cheap means sacrifices – you know that little option at the top of hotel search apps that says “Sort by Price – Low to High”? Yeah, I use that a lot. Hostels are your best friend if you’re travelling alone, but in many places, it’s also possible to find private rooms for almost the same price. For example, I recently found a really nice private room in Sri Lanka for £5 a night! Okay sure, the bathroom was shared but this is hardly a big problem. If you’re travelling as a couple you can often get a private room for the same price as two hostel beds. My favourite apps are Hostel World and Trivago. (Booking.com is very popular but they sometimes have hidden costs not included in the quoted price and their customer service is terrible so I would avoid them.)

Waters Edge, Goa

Staying with Locals

Sites like Couchsurfing and WarmShowers are also great for meeting and staying with local residents, and getting the chance to experience a country like locals do. The Couchsurfing app tries to convince you to pay and verify your account but you can use it fine without being verified.

Rough Sleeping

Depending on how brave you are and what country you are in, you can often find places to sleep for free if you really want to save money! These can be anything from hammocks or sunbeds on the beach, to abandoned buildings or construction sites. But again, this depends massively on the safety of where you are – I had no problems doing this in most of South East Asia (especially Cambodia), but it’s probably less recommended in most African and South American countries (although according to my favourite blog “hitchtheworld.com” it would seem South America is fine too).

In most of Europe or the US you’ll likely be asked to move by law enforcement, although a friend and I managed to sleep quite comfortably on the beach in Cannes, and behind a few shops and truck stops in parts of Italy. The smaller the town the better luck you will have. I generally try to avoid cities in all circumstances because they are noisy, polluted and over-priced – and visit them only for work or the airports.

Sleeping in a train station

FOOD AND DRINK

Everyone has heard of tourist traps, but what most people don’t realise is that practically anywhere you go is a tourist trap – if it wasn’t you wouldn’t have heard of it! Restaurants and bars around the town centre of your new destination might seem cheap at first, but if you venture off the main strip into the local areas you’ll be surprised to find amazing authentic places for half the price, and get the rare opportunity to meet some local people in their own environment – not just trying to sell you sunglasses on the beach!  Street food is generally the cheapest way to eat anywhere – in Sri Lanka, you can get great little snacks like roti’s and samosa’s for between 10 – 25p.  In Vietnam, Bahn Mi (baguette sandwich) is available everywhere from between 70-90p, and even sit down restaurants serve huge bowls of Pho for only £1. Thailand is synonymous with street food – for less than £1 you can get a huge array of food including spring rolls, fried chicken, fish, fruit – you name it! maxresdefault

European and American towns have less street food options, so when in expensive places like Paris, I buy bread, cheese and fruit at shops or markets to save money. Many hostels will have communal kitchens so if you are with friends you could save even more by buying ingredients and cooking together. Always buy products local to the country you are in, so don’t try to make pasta in Thailand – rice and a curry with seasonal vegetables will be much cheaper!


Alcohol is usually a big expense for most people, especially when travelling – present company not excluded!  I won’t lie – I really like my beer, and if I’m honest sometimes alcohol makes up 50% of my travel costs! That seems crazy when I see it in writing, but there is no point travelling so cheap that you don’t even enjoy yourself, and of course when money is really tight then it’s the first thing I cut out. Fortunately, in a lot of countries, I have found they will let you bring some store bought alcohol into cheap restaurants, or even bars, as they assume once you are done with that you will buy more.Just don’t be a dick and bring a few bottles of whiskey in!

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The average price of a can of supermarket beer is approximately £1 in almost every country I’ve ever been, with a few exceptions like Vietnam where it can be as low as 30p, and of course, Islamic countries where it is usually illegal or if not, exceptionally expensive.

Drinking before going out and avoiding rip-off touristy bars are the most obvious ways to keep this expense low.


TRANSPORT

Transport is a big one when travelling, and usually, it all starts with flights. Most people are quick to use flight aggregation sites like Skyscanner, Cheapflights and Google Flights, which are great – but just for the info! In most cases, it’s best to use these sites to find the cheapest routes, but then often cheaper to book through the airline independently. Also, these sites will quote you the cheapest fare covering your route in the fastest time with the shortest layover, but often you can save money by purchasing two separate flights on the same path and also spend some time in a new country. For example, I recently searched for a flight from London to Dubai, and the cheapest route was on Pegasus airlines via Istanbul. So I searched on the Pegasus website for individual flights from London to Istanbul and then Istanbul to Dubai a few days later and managed to get a cheaper overall price – plus I got myself an unexpected short holiday in Turkey! Of course, this only works if you’re not on a tight schedule, but I highly recommend always not being on a tight schedule.

Sleeper bus in Malaysia

Once in your country of choice, you’ll likely want to be moving around frequently. Almost every country in the world has a vast spectrum of transport choices, and my favourite is always trains! Train travel is usually the most affordable, fastest and comfortable way to travel (except in the UK). However, western ideals of comfort have created in most countries ridiculous price differences in travel classes, with many railway services offering “1st class” tickets at ten times the price of normal tickets, but offering very little value for money. Seriously, air-con is not that important – even 3rd class carriages have fans, which are more than enough. I’ve travelled 12-hour journeys in 3rd class in humid 40-degree Celsius countries and I’ve survived! Honestly, you’ll be fine. (And if not, most 3rd world countries sell Xanax without prescription for next to nothing.)

Tuk-tuk

Buses are the next best thing for cheap public transport, and usually cover all the routes that trains don’t.  In some countries, I’ve found long-distance overnight bus travel to be very cheap, especially around South East Asia. There is a safety aspect and it’s recommended not to leave any valuables in the luggage hold, not to mention the occasional road accident, so take due care in certain countries when choosing to travel by bus. Personally, I’ve never had a problem, but I’ve heard enough stories of people who have.


Most Asian countries have tuk-tuks which are like small motor-bike taxis with seating for up to 3 people. These are great ways to go small distances but usually cost more than buses and are notorious for ripping off unsuspecting foreigners, so find out first what it should cost for where you are going and ensure to agree on a price before getting in! They also make walking on the streets a highly annoying task as they continuously stop to offer you a lift!

Hitch hiking in Laos

Which brings us to hitch-hiking. Now hitch-hiking is a very sensitive topic with a lot of people, and no doubt for good reason. The biggest issue being gender-related – obviously, for women, there is a massively inherent danger when getting into a car with a stranger. That said, I have met and spoken to a large number of female solo hitch-hikers who have never had any issues in certain areas, mostly south-east Asia. Hitchwiki is a great website run by a worldwide community of hitch-hikers, giving a huge amount of detailed information on where to avoid, where to stand, places to crash, busy routes, quiet routes etc. I haven’t hitch-hiked a huge amount but I’ve had great success in Thailand and Laos – poorer countries are generally better and I’ve found those less well-off are often the quickest to stop and offer a lift.


ALSO – walking and cycling are free and I highly suggest you do them as often as possible. Even 5km is not really that far (if you aren’t on a tight schedule) and you may see and experience things you would have missed out on if you were in a bus.

CASH

No matter how much money you save, if you don’t have access to your money it’s of no use! I encounter an endless stream of people who lose their wallet or bag with their only debit card in it in a foreign country and have no idea how to get a replacement card while abroad – something that is generally very difficult! Before going on a long trip always ask your bank for a second card that you can keep safely back in your hotel or hostel when you go out. If you have a credit card keep it for emergencies only and don’t carry it out with you. In fact, it’s best to only ever take out the cash you need for that day or night and leave everything else back at your accommodation.

In a lot of countries drawing cash from ATM’s incur a big charge (like in Thailand it’s £5, plus whatever percentage your bank charges) so you’ll want to draw a lot of cash at once and keep this in a safe place at your accommodation. Always check that you can draw cash in the country you are visiting and if not bring enough foreign currency for your entire trip. If possible it’s good to have a mix of cards, ie Visa and Mastercard, as some ATM’s only take one or the other.


There is always an inherent danger of money getting stolen from your account if your debit card is lost or stolen, so I always keep the majority of my cash in my separate savings account and then move money using my Barclays app on my phone when I need to draw cash. This way if somebody does get my card they will only have access to about £30. A potential problem with this is losing or breaking your phone and not having access to the app, so it’s also good to carry the pin-sentry console with you if your bank has one.


BAGGAGE

Travel light! I cannot stress this enough. No matter how long your trip, you never need more than a week’s worth of clothes. I only ever travel with one backpack that fits into carry-on luggage and weighs between 10-12kg, and this is advantageous for many reasons – no excess baggage charges, the airline can’t lose it, you don’t have to wait at the baggage carousel and it’s small and light enough to walk long distances with when hitch-hiking or even just trying to find a hotel or hostel. With a small bag, there is also much more chance a bar will be happy to stash it for you overnight while you crash on a hammock or sunbed. Furthermore, you will be able to take it onto buses with you so no worries of theft from the luggage compartment or forgetting something in your bag that you may need on-board. Basically, you’ll be lighter, happier and always have whatever you need at hand. The only exception to this is when travelling in very cold countries where excessive warm clothing is required and so a big bag is unavoidable.

My essential luggage items are:
Basic clothing (4 shirts, 3 shorts, some socks, trainers, flip flops and maybe a warm hoodie or jersey)
Phone charger and power bank
Basic toiletries (toothpaste, brush, deodorant) and basic medical (some plasters and antiseptic cream)
Glasses and sunglasses
TRAVEL ADAPTOR!
Passport
Padlock

(I realise girls with hair might need luxury items like shampoo and stuff so I can accept they may not be able to travel as light as me, but most hostels and hotels have soap and sometimes even shampoo. Or just make friends with somebody who does!)

Beyond the essentials, I also carry a tiny laptop (to write this), a hammock, a unicorn mask, a GoPro, an electric razor, nail-clippers, a portable speaker and some other non-essential items because just like everybody I also tend to pack way more than I actually need.