Another travel scam?

HolidayIQ got this email recently…

Hello,

How are you doing! I hope you are fine? I’m sorry i didn’t inform you
about my trip to Scotland for a program, I’m presently in Scotland and
got mugged at a gun point by some armed robbers on my way to the hotel
where my money and other valuable things were kept including my
passport. I would like you to assist me with a loan of 1620Pounds to
sort-out my hotel bills and get myself back home.

I have spoken to the embassy here but they are not responding to the
matter effectively,I will appreciate whatever you can afford to assist
me with,I’ll Refund the money back to you as soon as i return, let me
know if you can be of any help. I don’t have a phone where i can be
reached.

Please let me know immediately.
Regards

DR.THAMMAN

Travelocity India

Travelocity is coming through (and not just by buying up Indian companies) – looks like they have some of the better flight deals in the region. I recently found a Bangalore – Singapore return (economy of course) on Singapore Airlines for Rs 11,200. And a Bangkok return for 13,600. Both of which are better than the normal fares offered by m0st travel Agents.

So, if you have the time (or the necessity!) to do research f0r good flight deals, I suggest Travelocity India.

Houseboats

One of the unintended consequences of my change in status from a relatively well-off management consultant to a ‘scrounging-around-with-a-wild-gleam-in-the-eye’ entrepreneur, has been the big change my relationship with Cars.  Over the last 5 years it has swung from ‘quite interested’ to ‘fairly uninterested’. And a corollary to that has been my growing fascination with another form of transport – Boats.

I love the quiet non-motorised types.  This obsession with boats seems to be genetic – like some of those namelessly horrid diseases, this one too seems to skip a generation and latch on to every alternate one. My grandfather was so besotted with the whole boat thing (although I can pardon him for it, for he lived in a part of Kerala where boats were a natural form of transport), that he published a longish ditty on his boat wanderings and presented it as one of his gifts to my mom when she got married to his son. And, if you are interested,  it was titled Mankombu yatra – although  you would be hard-pressed to find it in the sinister book collection that Google is putting together, you can always write to me to get a copy. Of course, a pre-requisite is that you be able to read and write Malayalam.

Anyway…so boating is in my genes, so to speak. Latent for the most part, but there nonetheless.

A number of years ago, I was on a training course (in Kathmandu, I recollect) and the course instructor turned out to be pretty interesting. He was an Englishman who had forsaken his country to go to Spain and live on a boat. Yup, that is right. He had no home anywhere in the world other than on a boat. And his job required him to hare off to various countries of the world to help with training courses and then come back always to his boat/home. I couldn’t think of a better life then and I cannot think of one now.

Bad airport models 101 : Kochi airport

Anyone who has used Indian airports know that most of them are truly terrible. And if you have ever read the various international surveys of airports across the world, you will know that India’s airports always make up the tail end of these lists. Quite clearly, the Indian airport scene is bad.

The new Kochi airport was heralded as the beginning of the brave new world. Unfortuantely, Kochi airport to my mind is the absolute worst structure of airport management that has been devised yet. Let me tell you why.

There are 2 ways of running an airport. The first is the traditional way where the government runs it and where everyone using it is miserable. The second is where the government finds out that it knows very little of running modern airports and gets a specialist, private sector operator to run it on a day-to-day basis.

Kochi airport unfortunately has got the wrong end of the stick. In a peculiar parody, the money for the new Kochi airport has been put up by private sector investors and its operational management is in the hands of government bureaucrats and the public sector. In fact, most of the operations at the airport is managed by Air India, one of the world’s worst airlines (ranked in the bottom ten by Zagat). Pretty crazy, huh?

I was reminded of all this when I read a HolidayIQ review by a frustrated user of the airport. Here is a link to that review.

Low-cost Asia

Asia is awash with low-cost international airlines and many of them are already flying into or are about to fly into India. And so, if you are looking for an international holiday ex-India, the place you must start your search with is a low c0st airline.

Tiger Airways flies from bangalore – I flew with my family on Tiger last winter and we got a delightfully cheap fare to Singapore (Rs 9000/- return per person). I checked again recently for summer and it is as good. This April, you can take Tiger from Bangalore to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) via Singapore for about 15k return.

Another low-cost to watch for is Air Asia, the Malaysian low-cost. Their inaugural sector from India is ex Trichy (and, no that is not in Cambodia, my metrosexual friend – it is in Tamil Nadu). You can fly Trichy to KL for a little over 11k return.

Going westwards, there is Air Arabia. Well discounted fares can take you to Sharjah from a number of airports India – Ahmedabad to Sharjah should cost you about 10 to 11k.

The good thing about these low-costs is the fact that most of them have new aircraft, which beats flying the aging fleet that is generally used by the full service guys ex India. The drawback is their lack of ‘service’,  the worst of  which is the draconian inflexibility on your bookings.

And so, if you want to set new standards for personal decadence in these times of recession, here is a thought. Fly a low-cost to a big international Asian city. Then check-in to the nearest Four Seasons for some serious pampering.  Just remember, these days even the Four Seasons are probably open to negotiating rates.

Janata Khana vs Economy Meal

Ever wondered about the story behind the food they serve to you on trains? I have, often. And, I had my aha moment a few days ago, while idly surfing the net early one Sunday morning. (Yes, that is a dead give away, isn’t it. That I read commercial circulars of the Indian Railways before breakfast on Sundays clearly shows I have no life whatsoever).

Anyway…

I stumbled upon an old IR circular (2003) from the Railway Board to all General managers, that set out detailed instructions for serving food to Passengers.

The most obvious strand running through the circular was the fine balance between wholesomeness and parsimony expected from purveyors of food on trains. Or as Commercial Circular No 33 of 2003 says,  “vegetables supplied along with the meals should be seasonal to make it affordable and also to ensure good quality and freshness.” 

I have always believed that the Indian Railways is the only commercial government entity in India that thinks it has anything resembling responsibility to its customer. (Air India marks the other end of the spectrum). And I was glad to find out that the attitude comes from the top. As the Circular says in point (vi) of its Other Recommendations, “menu should definitely have variety and the same menu on lunch and dinner for the day should never be the same’ (bad grammar, good intent. which is the kind of priority I like.)

However, the mysterious workings of bureaucracy are never far in Indian life. And so it is here too. “The existing Janata Khana and Economy Meal have been merged into one category and is called Janata Meal with increased quantity”

If like me, you too have no life, read the full circular here.

Air Deccan is now Kingfisher Red

Now that almost everybody has stopped flying and gone back to trains & buses, I can probably say this without trampling on loyalties.

‘Kingfisher Red’ sounds like a new brand of condom positioned for the BPO market. Which is unfortunate, since I believe the airline is really good on service now.

Someone went overboard on this one. And also, maybe – just maybe, there is a natural limit to brand extensions.

Segway across New Zealand, Turkey and soon all over the world

Ok, this is an interesting one. Kevin Hey and a bunch of other guys now offer tours that allow you to explore New Zealand’s cities on a Segway. You remember the Segway Personal Transporter? Those contraptions that allow you to stand on them and move about on wheels.

Looks like Segways are catching on in Tourism. I came across a video that show Beach Resorts in Turkey using them (see the video on top). A friend of mine in the travel business in Goa tells me that a couple of resorts there are thinking of getting a few here too.

On my recent visit to Dubai, I happened to glimpse a chap tearing across a boulevard near my hotel on a segway, a sight which rang all the right bells in me. I would certainly like to have one, although driving one around in any Indian city is asking for serious trouble. In Bangalore, I will most likely disappear down a man-hole never to be heard of again. I can think of at least 3 people who would like that.  :)

My view of world aviation

Among ‘low-level ecstasies’ that I have spotted recently, finding yourself unexpectedly in a bulkhead seat with lots of legroom in the economy class of a very long international flight with no one occupying the 3 seats next to you and absolutely no babies in sight, is a pretty difficult one to beat. But then, world aviation today is so character-forming that occasional mercies merit joyous indulgence.

As I forsake business travel for leisure trips and consequently do more coach than upper class, my approach to flying is getting highly refined. John Playfair the British philosopher wrote (in another context of course – he did not have the advantage of modern long distance flying to sharpen his philosophical approach),

“It were unwise to be sanguine

and unphilosophical to despair”

While one can write reams of ‘how to’ tips on Flying, the good John’s snappy two-liner seems to pretty much cover it.

And, as I stood in queue with about 8 gazillion people for 2 hours in the Dubai International airport recently, trying to hand over my bag to someone in Emirates, I thanked ol’ John. ‘Twas good advice.

Incidentally, ‘low level ecstasy’ is a term coined by Bill Bryson, for which he gets my vote as the Philosopher of the Year. And while I am on the subject of giving credit where it is due, let me add that the John Playfair quote above is from Stephen Jay Gould’s book, Rocks of Ages. And just in case Mr Gould stumbles upon my blog : yes, I do think Rocks of Ages is an intriguing book – in spite of having phrases like Non Overlapping Magisteria.

New Delhi International Airport, Taj Palace Hotel, Indian Airlines now called Air India and Fujiya

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(Delhi airport. Photo from : http://www.newdelhiairport.in)

I am just back from a quick business trip to Delhi which coincided with the coldest week in Delhi in 28 years. Not good news – but as luck would have it, the first day there turned out to be very cold but very sunny, which is a lovely combination. So, escaped unhurt.

For old times sake (and because they have a bloody early morning flight from Bangalore), I flew Indian Airlines, which has now been determinedly renamed Air India. Unfortunate. Because in the process, Indian Airlines, which I have always had a soft corner for, is really starting to resemble Air India, which according to me is unquestionably among the the 10 worst airlines in the world. So, here is an emotional requiem to Indian Airlines; RIP.

Among the obscene prices for hotels rooms in Delhi, I was able to wangle a slightly less indecent price (fairly crazy nevertheless) from the The Taj Palace hotel by booking a no-cancellation room, way ahead of time on the Taj Hotels website. It is always nice to stay at the Taj, because somewhere they have perfected the art of clean & efficient luxury service without the ‘looking-you-over’ approach of some Indian luxury chains, not the least of which is the Oberoi. Continue reading

Train Travel

Train travel is funny. I spent almost 15 years trying to earn well enough so that I never have to travel by train. Only to find myself yearning to travel more by train, now that I can afford not to. Or is it that I am funny? Maybe neither is funny; it is just the nature of things. We want less of what we have and more of what we don’t. Maybe it is this new world we are creating; a world of professional malcontents.

On a passenger train from Mangalore to Madgaon on the Konkan Railway

26 stations separate Madgaon from Mangalore on the KR2 passenger. It took me 7 hours and I didnt mind it one bit. And, yes, the KR2 passenger has one reserved compartment and seats allotted are zealously guarded by the TTE. So, go ahead and climb on it the next time you are in the west coast. It is a great journey.

This is a particularly blessed land. As you go north to Goa, you get the sea on your left and masses of open, rolling country on your right. And to make it all very agreeable, the train runs over innumerable rivers and goes through long tunnels that have the exotic smell of damp red laterite soil; the same smell that greeted me in my grandfather’s house deep in the Keralan country, every morning when the dew was fresh on the ground.

And, now for my 10-second primer on the Konkan railway. The four Konkan coastal states (Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka & Kerala) hold 49% and the Indian Railways hold 51% of the Konkan Railway corporation. About 20 odd scheduled passenger trains run on Konkan railway in addition to a number of cargo trains. It has about 1900 bridges and 91 tunnels. The celebrated Mr Sreedharan, who then went to do a number of Metros in urban India, was the first head of the company. His team got the job done in about 7 years time and if other Indian government projects are anything to go by, this verges on the truly miraculous.

Like all big developments, the locals love it and hate it by turn. Continue reading

Konkan coast on rails

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(Map of Konkan Railway)

So, I am off again. The idea is to get to Mangalore and work my way up to Goa and then from there to explore the beaches of Sindhudurg in South Maharashtra. It is a non-plan, plan. I have a train ticket from Bangalore to Mangalore. I have a ‘second sitting’ booked from Mangalore to Madgaon. (I think www.IRCTC.co.in is a blazing wonder – I just booked, very effortlessly, a 71 buck ticket for the MAQ – MAO journey and even have a window seat allotted to me; need to see whether seat allotments hold on passenger trains on the Konkan railway). I also have a return ticket to fly back from Goa to Bangalore. Hopefully, serendipity will help me fill the rest.

Click here for all my posts on the Konkan.

And, click here for all my posts on Trains, planes, spacecraft etc.

Online booking of train tickets on Konkan Railway

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(Mario Miranda’s cartoon for Konkan Railway)

The first line of the online booking page of Konkan Railway reads as follows:

Internet booking is available ONLY to Indians, Foreign nationals and NRIs holding a valid passport.”

Clearly Martians and other riff-raff Aliens cannot hope to hoodwink the Konkan Railway bureaucracy. Equally, NRIs (who are obviously neither Indians nor Foreign Nationals) have to watch their step. I sleep well in the knowledge that our country and our national treasures are well protected, if not by everyone, atleast by the good folks at Konkan Railway.

If you are an Indian, Foreigner or NRI, click here to book your tickets with Konkan Railway.

http://www.konkanrailway.com/website/ehtm/online_reservation.htm

All others can click here for my Konkan posts or here for all posts on Beach vacations.

Black bean sauce over Indian skies

It was after some time that I was flying Kingfisher. On the way to Mumbai, they served chinese which included chicken in black bean sauce. Now, I have never really found black bean sauce in India with the pungent aroma that it has in the far east. This came close, what with the fermented black beans, the rice wine and the sesame oil strutting its stuff. Except for the excess of corn flour, it was quite well done and very good for an airline meal. I like Kingfisher food.

Click here for all my posts on Chinese Food.

Crew uniforms – Jet Airways

Earlier this week I flew domestic after quite some time and the first thing I noticed was the new uniforms worn by the Jet crew. The men have it almost unchanged, but the women have a completely new wardrobe. Long yellow jackets with dark blue trousers. So I did a straw poll on how the crew were taking to the new uniforms. All the crew I asked on on my flight liked the new uniforms. The women were quite happy with the fact that they now have trousers. “Easier to work in; better than skirts” was the general refrain. So, clearly that part works. But looks like the canary yellow jackets have not been a great success. I was told that those are probably being changed to a maroon colour. (In true news media style, this is BREAKING NEWS – & I must remind you that you heard it here first!).

For whatever it is worth, here is my two-cents to Jet Airways. Guys, yellow & blue is nice. Continue reading

Railway Protection

It was a summer in the mid-eighties. A 17 year old climbed into a train to undertake one of the longer rail journeys of the world – the 2 nights & 2.5 days needed to get from Thiruvanthapuram Central station to the New Delhi station. Sitting in the 2nd class, sleeper compartment was the usual motley crew of Indian travellers. But before the long journey was over, the 17 year old could see many of them as distinct human beings, who in one amazing moment, came together to save his life. It was a crazy journey on the 2625 UP, and the 17 year old was me. (sorry for the drama, but this is the 60th year of our independence and all that. Also, it is almost true.) Continue reading

New cabins in the A380

The A380 can seat over 550 people. But, as usual, the really lucky ones will be in the first class & business class cabins. Here are some photos of possible seating configurations in the premium classes of the A380 + a few common areas. All photos are from Airbus. I am definitely going to get on to an early flight.

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