Friday, May 1, 2015

Overseas Vacation Planning - is it a Nightmare? Do make it Memorable instead!

Overseas Vacation Planning - is it a Nightmare? Do make it Memorable instead!

You can't be blamed for your sneering at the unassuming title for this piece but if you have patience and energy to read through its entire length I can promise you that I won't fall out of your good books (if I am privileged enough to occupy a placeholder there), especially if a trip to Turkey and/or Greece is something you have been mulling over but haven't been able to execute for want of enough information.

Reading the first sentence alone would have alarmed you that you might be in for a deluge of verbal hysteria. As usual, I do apologize in advance for not being able to help on it as it has been my perennial handicap. I don't take any pride in admitting that brevity has never been my virtue but thanks to few good Samaritans whose generous words keep motivating me to push myself in doing what I love doing the most i.e., to write n write, of course without any material interests to ensure that I continue doing my job as a neutral critique! I secretly wish to be a paid blogger though :)

So here we start our journey of the Turkish land and Greek islands. Though scope of this text is intentionally kept generic regardless of where you might be planning your vacation the fact that inspiration for it came while I was struggling with planning the ongoing trip should make it a ready reckoner for these two beautiful landscapes. I do hope that you would find the interwoven tips more than merely handy.

As it started

It was on 26th Feb when I chanced upon an advertorial by Etihad Airways on its offering deeply discounted promotional fares world over! Turkey was doing the rounds in our thoughts for quite some time anyway & instinctively I did a quick check to find that not only the 'breaking' deal was for good (though I was already 24 hours late to know of it than many others) for Istanbul as well but also it provided us with an embedded blessing in disguise in the form of a needed stopover in Delhi while suggesting the lowest fare for this 'required' itinerary!! Also, its "multi city" feature (I reckon I was probably one of the select ignorant few who would find that a 'discovery' these days) allowed me to slice and dice various combinations to make our customized itinerary rather than suggesting for the usual round trip ones! I didn't put too much brain over it and immediately booked the fare before it's too late in the day! To cut the chase, fare from Mumbai to Istanbul via Delhi and return from Istanbul to Delhi was almost the same as was for a usual round trip ticket from Delhi (or Mumbai) to Istanbul and back!

Tip 1 for the travellers:

Plan your trip as early as is possible and just don't rule out any of your 'coveted' trip ideas facilitating maximum optimization / convenience on account of any self-doubts and/or lack of conviction. Depending upon your chosen airline the required patience and level of intelligence to curate the best deal could vary. A basic check across other airlines confirmed that Etihad does a marvelous job for even a rookie! It's another matter that its staff just doesn't care to listen to any of its Indian customers and dealing with its customer care is a really horrible experience!

The Evolution

I had a decent idea that we ideally wanted a vacation of 2 weeks and as such I booked us to and from Istanbul but few days into booking and I realized that these many days just for Turkey would be an overkill. I didn't have to do lot of homework to figure it out that splitting this vacation with Greece would add icing on the cake. And after lot of follow ups with Etihad I could get the boarding airport in the return leg of our tickets changed from Istanbul to Athens as we would be ending our trip in Greece in the revised plans. Not that the originally booked tickets wouldn't have allowed this flexibility but the fact that it could most likely end up creating Visa challenges (for Turkey) besides anyway necessitating us to get us separately booked from Athens to Istanbul just for the transit purpose made the choice clear. Though (because of the unbelievably primitive and enervating trip modification processes of Etihad) I could get the revised itinerary confirmed only on 8th April, the day I finally submitted our Schengen Visa papers to VFS for onward processing by the Greek embassy in Delhi, the cancellation n rebooking (for converting point of boarding from Istanbul to Athens) charges were surprisingly not much, given the fact that I did purchase a promotional price or as they technically term it as "restricted fare"!

Tip 2 for the travellers:

Be open to improvise your 'original' thoughts and/or actions (which are generally guided by impulses than rationality) to get the best value for your buck and more importantly your precious time.

Selecting a trusted service provider

Of late we had been hearing lot of good words about how AirBnB has really made travel planning an involved experience in itself even as it so successfully challenges the traditional way of travelling that allows one to stay in hotels only. There is no harm relying on that tried n tested method, especially if the very thought of encountering unexpected surprises in a foreign land makes you jittery. I figured that the accommodations listed on AirBnB not only normally provide you the flexibility to choose your preferred location suiting your budget but also it more often than not offers the luxury of more than just a single room, in the form of a full apartment. Voilà! This is what you have been dreaming of forever, a real home away from home! Perfect if you don't depend on any advance reservations organized by some tour operators for sightseeing. But not so much should you definitely need them for making any of your land arrangements. Reason is very simple, if you have already booked your flights as well as accommodation there remains very limited scope for them to earn money from you and as such their motivation to work for you just evaporates.

Tip 3 for the travellers:

Should you get tempted to 'explore' exotic locations on AirBnB while not breaking your bank account do make sure that you don't have any iffy conviction about it. Go ahead and just do it but well ahead of your travel dates to give you enough room while you bargain with your tour operators for your 'sightseeing' package. Also, to be able to give you an exact cost they would need all of your stays' coordinates. Since you can't be sure that you would eventually eventually get even a provisional reservation at an AirBnB listing until you make a (negotiated) payment to it and have a booking confirmation in your hands you don't really have a choice but to play blind in this game of "Teen Patti"! That's the most inefficient way of travel planning, especially if you have a budgetary guidance for not going overboard with your splurging!

After doing lot of jugglery (which also included few projective cost scenarios) we decided to stick with the traditional way of seeking services of a tour operator.

If you decide to put your faith in the well 'marketed' names in the industry like Yatra, Ezeego1, MakeMyTrip, etc. be ready to hear that, "Our tours start on...." besides having to bear with their reluctance in offering any customization to their "Set itineraries"!

Of unearthing a true gem and getting preyed by the other

I pinged my ever reliable go-to man Mr. Prakash Raj of MetHolidays / MountainEdge but realized that he doesn't deal with my destinations. A detailed Google search yielded in many names and it appeared to be a very cluttered exercise for several days until my wife stumbled upon a seemingly 'different' name from Istanbul viz. PomegranateTour. I did slightly more intensive research and found that its proprietor Mr. Mevlut Uysal not only had plethora of encomiums showered upon him but also he had more than just a tad better tolerance threshold for Indians! He had attended the recent trade fair in Delhi and had himself clicked with an "Indian actor" Anil Kapoor!

I wasn't convinced with the uneasy observation (or the lack of it) of not having a single negative (or even neutral) reviews about him! How could this gentleman be for true? But I relied upon my instincts and my wife kept the dialogue on with him to eventually curate a 'desired' trip for us while being in Turkey for 8 days. He was upfront on few things he wasn't convinced or comfortable with and emphasized on the same even after understanding that we dearly wanted that! What set him apart from others who also would bluntly deny something that won't easily fit into their scheme of things was his demeanour and patience in describing the challenges which is the hallmark for anybody in this profession.

Today, 5th May is the sixth day in Turkey and I am indeed glad that we chose Mr. Mevlut Uysal for the first part of our trip. It's a real pity that we couldn't jointly engineer our Greece leg for which I had to compromise on somebody who made it look like some doling out for us even at his own price! Also, the fact that there was a serious disconnect in what he promised over the phone and what after lot of pestering came on paper caused one hell of a disturbing feeling. In all fairness it won't be unreasonable to conclude his behaviour as the most sophisticated unethical business practice and I am still not able to come to terms with the fact that I literally ate out of his hands (or should I say calls)! Bad job done Ritesh Garg. Now just pray that nothing untoward happens in the Greek land. I am not publishing this agency's name as I am still optimistic that he has realized his folly and would make amends in time.

Tip 4 for the travellers:

Never let your comfort control your rationality while dealing with those who sound pompous about their services but just throw in the towel on you at your eleventh hour! Avoid dealing with such duds.

For Turkey I can now certainly underwrite the credentials and services of PomegranateTour and Mr. Mevlut Uysal. Just don't waste your time n energy on anyone else. Nobody is perfect and he is also not immune but the realization that apart from the factors genuinely beyond his control he would go more than an extra mile to ensure a lifetime experience for you. I am so very impressed with him that I am tempted to offer a money back guarantee on his behalf for the unfulfilled commitments and experiences! Jokes apart, you won't regret your decision to opt for him over others. That's my word to you. Do lemme know should you get to feel otherwise.

Visa Conundrums

Would you believe that if you don't have a Turkish Visa you could actually afford to fly to any of its (air)ports of landing without having done absolutely anything? I am sure that you are already making faces on this adventurous and/or bogus question. My dear friends you can do it and you would just need a high-speed Internet connection for few minutes after getting out of the aircraft in Turkey to get its e-Visa processed then n there itself, all by yourself! Of course there is a precondition to it for Indian passport holders i.e, they need to have a valid Schengen Visa or any other Visa issued by an OECD member country. If you have that stamped on your passport the Turkish government has indeed done a neat job in literally outsourcing their Visa requirements on others! Absolutely impressive policy for all. I had a truly 'Wow' feeling when I had this Eureka moment!

For Greece Schengen Visa I must confess that I could have avoided the jitters by having enough window between the date of papers submission and the date of travelling. First up, all your papers go to the Greek embassy in Delhi for processing. Then, VFS Global is nothing beyond a glorified courier and you would be making a fool of yourself if you expect them to be in control of the situation at anytime until your 'processed' passport is handed over back to them! They don't even know what exactly is the status of your application!

Tip 5 for the travellers:

Should you plan your vacation in a Schengen (or even other) country whose Visa processing authority is not in your city of residence than get all your ground work done well in advance and do submit your Visa documents at least 3-4 weeks before you intend to travel (I got my Visa in hand barely four days before I was to travel and until then I wouldn't even know whether it got 'rejected')! It's a black box and you ain't sure of your 'status' until you gonna see the verdict yourself!

As for Turkish e-Visa just don't get panicky as long as you have ensured the other 'underlying'. What more could you ask when it costs just $43.7 or around INR 2,800 when in absence of this knowledge your tour operator would charge you an amount nothing less than double of it!

The Currency Matters

Whenever you plan a foreign trip one of the most vital aspects of this planning is to zero down on how much currency is going to suffice for the length of your holiday. Regardless of the limits available on your various credit cards I won't recommend depending upon them in a far off land for two reasons. One, the currency conversion rate applied on your transactions might just actually add up to as high mark ups as 10% over the prevalent IBR (Interbank Rate) at the time of your swiping the card. You would realize that 3.5% plus service tax as published by the banks in their T&C is not what exactly you should factor in your overheads! The bank wouldn't take the reference rate at the very instant you think it should but the one when it actually bills you for the expense which is when the merchant claims it and since it has generally 21 days to do so you are the inadvertently running the exchange rate risk for these many days! Such an opaque process but that's the way it works in real life! Then also the most likely scenario of your card not working overseas even as you might take it for granted after making a call to their helpline to activate the foreign currency transactions! Citi Bank once literally forced me to call its India call centre four times from Thailand for as many swipes I did and every time it would assure me that I won't have to make the next call!

Tip 6 for the travellers:

Don't think of your credit card when travelling out of your home country. Also, don't take any hard cash as that comes at a hefty premium. Instead take a Multi Currency Travel Card and load it with your expected spend. I took YES Bank's MCTC and it's as good or even better than taking hard currency along. Just swipe it at any of the MasterCard ATM's worldwide to get the desired cash in local currency out and that too at a nominal transaction fee! Pretty neat!

Closing Remarks

If by now you are already fried up reading the above article which I won't be surprised if many dismiss as a stretched FAQ section and are wondering as to where is the 'Real' coverage I request you to be patient with me as I am indeed striving hard to share my experiences with you. I promise you that a lot is in store ahead and you could expect me to be as verbose as ever I am in my covering the beautifully vivid offerings of the two neighbours, Turkey and Greece. Stay tuned.

Yours Everlastingly

(C) Rits Original @

P.S.: Excuse any typos and/or contextual errors as like always I have composed this entire write up over my rather plain handset's 5" screen devoid of any spell checker.