Simon Calder: The bargain price of a ticket to ride in Egypt

The man who pays his way
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The Independent Travel

Henry and Rachel are from Nairobi. They arrived in Cairo at 7am last Wednesday, and were half asleep when we met that afternoon. Our rendezvous took place in the underpass at Africa's biggest railway station, named in honour of Ramses II – the pharaoh from the 13th century BC who created more of Egypt's wonders than any other leader (and who might not be impressed by the workmanship of this scruffy transportational shambles).

The couple were not expecting to meet me, but I was hoping to encounter them – or indeed any backpackers who looked as though they planned to take the night train from Cairo on the penultimate day of the year.

Our meeting was one of the many unexpected consequences of "the strike that never was". Today was supposed to mark the end of 12 days of industrial action by British Airways cabin crew. The airline won an injunction against the strike from a High Court judge only four days before the strike was due to begin. This meant much uncertainty for the million people booked to travel on BA from 22 December until 2 January – followed by a mad rush to buy up all the bits and pieces that go with a holiday. I was part of the pre-Christmas frenzy, having bought tickets from London to Cairo and back.

Although I never envisaged a Christmas and New Year strike, the union announced a ballot at the beginning of November, around the time I was planning to start booking accommodation and travel within Egypt. It would have been reckless to spend on train tickets and beds with no certainty that BA flight 155 would depart as planned. But by the time the strike was ruled illegal, berths on the privately run overnight sleeper from Cairo to Luxor were sold out.

The morning I arrived in Egypt, I went along to the station to explore other rail possibilities. Options are few, because foreigners are allowed to travel on only a few non-sleeper departures: at 7.30am, 10pm and half-past midnight. None of these appealed as a good time to start a 10-hour train journey, but with no certainty of flights being available, the £20 tickets for the 10pm departure on Wednesday constituted an expensive but wise insurance policy. Later, I went to Egyptair which, remarkably, was willing to sell a one-way, one-hour flight for travel that very night, on a comfortable Embraer commuter jet, for just £40.

Back to the swirl of humanity amid a whirl of traffic that is Cairo Ramses station. My first plan was to seek a partial refund on the rail tickets. But rules are rules, and those applicable to trains up the Nile insist that refunds are not available on the day of travel.

Which is why I decided to cut out the middle man. I apprehended Henry and Rachel in the tunnel leading to the ticket office. It must have seemed like the most elaborate kind of scam: someone approaches you with a couple of small pieces of cardboard that look as though they were issued by British Railways circa 1950, covered in impenetrable Arabic script, and insists they are tickets for the night train to Luxor, and you fine people can have them at half price. Trust me, I'm a travel journalist.

Wisely, they moved the marketplace to the ticket office, where an official confirmed that the tickets were genuine and were not identity-specific. He also supervised the handing over of the cash.

I hope Henry and Rachel's encounter with a stranger bearing tickets encourages them to explore both Upper Egypt and the enduring possibilities of the informal backpacker market. We may just have begun the second decade of the 21st century, but travel can still be relatively free and easy.

My inflexible friends lose out

One reason travel in the developing world is so rewarding is the flexibility it involves. Yet a couple of hotels in the Egyptian capital demonstrated a fondness for the rule-book that cost them cash.

With only a few days' notice, I had booked into the only room I could find: in the Grand Hotel. A hotel it certainly is, but it lost any grandeur decades ago. Once in Cairo, however, I learnt that the fabulous Nile Hotel was closing on New Year's Day. Surely they would offer a deal? Sadly, no: however I phrased the question, the answer was £200. So I stayed on at the Grand, and asked if I could pay to keep the room on before my evening flight. "You stay one minute after noon, you pay for an extra night," came the reply. That price, I calculated, could buy 70 bottles of Stella lager at Cairo's Café Riche. I settled for a couple, and wondered who, in this fabulously bewildering country, would come up with a plan for the rest of the cash.