Follow the Locals: Traveling on a Dime in India and China

By Hannah Farrar

My name is Hannah Farrar and I am a program manager at Education Abroad. I came into the office as a student peer advisor for my senior year, before graduating with a bachelor’s in International Affairs in 2014. I have had the privilege to travel quite a bit throughout my life, but the two month trip I spent post-graduation travelling China and India with my father was one of the most formative.

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Photo by Hannah Farrar

It was an experience that pushed us both far outside our comfort zones and one that taught us immeasurable lessons. But there are books and websites full of stories about the value of travel. Truth be told, if you are reading this, you likely already have the itch to go, so I probably don’t need to sell you on that. If you are at all like me, you probably grapple with where to go, the question of if never crossing your mind.

One of the main obstacles many of us face – and the one that may very quickly make your dreams seem impossible – is the number in our bank accounts.

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Photo by Hannah Farrar

I want to give a few thoughts on getting past the cost barrier. While my travels in Asia were with my father, meaning we weren’t staying in hostels (one of his stipulations when planning the trip was that he wouldn’t share a bathroom with a stranger), I paid my own way and was not long out of college, so tried to economize in other ways. Here are my thoughts from these travels and beyond.

First and foremost, that initial cold water-splash of reality can frequently be your search for airplane tickets. Yes, there are many articles covering what day of the week you can find the cheapest tickets, or when to fly for the cheapest fares. Everyone has their favorite airline search engine (mine are SkyScanner, Student Universe, or STA Travel). However, the fact of the matter is, airplane tickets are expensive. No matter how you look at it, or what deal you find, you are still going to be spending hundreds of dollars (if not over a thousand) just to get you to where you want to go. The distance between the North American and Asian continents is no small hop. My advice is this: don’t forget that your airplane ticket there and back may well be your largest expense (by far). screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-2-51-43-pm Once you get to Beijing, or Delhi, or Singapore, or Ho Chi Minh, you can economize and penny pinch to your heart’s content. In fact, the exchange rate may be vastly in your favor in many countries in Asia. So don’t lose sight of the fact that the airplane ticket is generally the largest slice of the pie.

Okay, say you take the plunge; you gritted your teeth at that initial hit to your credit card and survived that long-haul flight. Now you’re actually on the ground, if you are really looking to make your dollar go as far as possible, don’t be afraid of the public transportation systems. They can be chaotic and unruly. Signs in another language are understandably daunting (although you may be surprised how many are translated into English as well). But there is an incredible satisfaction and independence in the first time you successfully navigate the bus system. You may get off the train one stop too early, necessitating approaching a stranger to ask the best way to get where you intended to end up. You may find that the convenient bilingual machines where you would normally buy your metro ticket are broken. This may require you to go to the ticket window (perhaps staffed by Mandarin-only speaking staff) and simply point at the two characters naming your desired stop on a map, because goodness knows you don’t know the phonetic name for it. But you will navigate the situation and be all the more confident the next time around. Plus you get the added benefit of being down in the crowds and your pocketbook will thank you.

screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-2-51-58-pmOf course, listen to the advice if you are told not to take public busses at night (or alone at the very least). Make sure you stay very aware of your belongings on a crowded train platform. If train travel is unfamiliar and daunting to you, I highly recommend checking out this website, which has country-specific advice on train travel literally all over the world.
In India, I recommend splurging on first class if you have the option; it may only be $10 more and it’ll give you some (occasionally much needed) breathing space. On overnight trains, weigh your options. The advantage is that trains are so cheap (in India especially), and you can skip paying for a hotel one night, with the idea of arriving in the morning at your next destination, ready to sight-see. Of course, this depends on how well you can sleep on a bumpy, noisy, train (and who you are sharing it with), so I would recommend planning a light day following if you choose to go by overnight train.

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Photo by Hannah Farrar

(It is always an experience!) You may also find yourself waiting on an Agra train platform for a sleeper train that is inexplicably 6 hours late. But hey, it’s all part of the adventure, and you’ll get there eventually.

Finally, there are a lot of tricks to economize when it comes to food, but mine is generally this: the further off the tourist trail you get, the more affordable (and authentic) your food options get. Of course, this may mean you lose English speaking staff and/or menus. We found one such place in Xi’an, a true hole in the wall, when we were wandering the unremarkable, rather industrial neighborhood around our hotel, trying to avoid the underwhelming hotel restaurant.

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Photo by Hannah Farrar

We eventually decided to pick the next busy food place we saw, following the locals. We ended up at a place that felt like it was housed in a small storage unit more than anything else; with linoleum floors, florescent lights, and spindly chairs. screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-2-52-11-pm
The girl at the counter was only able to communicate which dishes were spiciest and which were the least, and that was how we made our decision. The brothy dish we were served ended up being one of the tastiest meals I had in China, although I still couldn’t tell you what was in it.

Despite common wisdom, you do not necessarily gain time or money to spare as life goes on, and tomorrow is never guaranteed.

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Photo by Hannah Farrar

So my closing piece of advice is this – do not save away too many dreams for a time when you hope you have greater means. You could run the risk of never seeing them become reality. If you are on a tight budget, Asia is a good place to make it work. And the breathtaking wonder you will find in the art, music, food, environment, and people of this incredibly diverse section of the world will keep you looking forward to a return.

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