Such a Long Journey

Our flight from Chennai to Abu Dhabi was over an hour late; and we had only an hour and a half to catch our connecting flight to Paris. Despite that concern, I had a very comfortable flight. Etihaad Airways was fabulous: the crew, the food, the in flight entertainment and the service were all top notch – among the best on any international flight I have been on!

I ate a pretty tasty and hot breakfast, saw a strange Egyptian movie about three sisters who inherit a cabaret (I mean, it was really REALLY strange), saw a couple of episodes of Parks and Recreation, and then dozed off quite comfortably  and woke up only on landing in Abu Dhabi.

In Abu Dhabi we were informed that we had missed our connection to Paris, and the airlines was trying to find the next best connection for us. Eventually we were told that we’d have to fly to Doha from Abu Dhabi, and then catch another flight to Paris from there. It was going to be a long, long flight.

My biggest worry was about how we would get the keys to the apartment in Paris – the apartment owner was leaving for Canada that evening, and we’d now reach Paris only at night. The airline guy arranged a calling card for us and I spent our time at the airport frantically calling the apartment owner in Paris. She finally answered on my fourth try (even as we were being asked to board our flight to Doha) and assured me that she would leave the keys at the all night store opposite the apartment. That was one problem resolved!

We had a short 30 minute flight to Doha, where they served us sandwiches and juice and then took them away even before we were finished because we were already landing! We then had a wait of another few hours in Doha. I liked the Abu Dhabi airport more than the Doha airport, which was more like a giant shopping mall (Dubai International Airport, now see what you’ve gone and done!). But it’s probably a good thing I liked the Abu Dhabi airport because we are going to be spending seven hours in transit there on our return flight (and you can ask me my opinion on the airport after THAT).

The last leg was Doha – Paris. I usually love international flights – I love airline food, I love watching movies some 30000 feet up in the air, I love all the free beverages, and I even love the static caused by the airline blankets – I’m eccentric like that, but all this plane hopping and lounging around in transit was getting even to me, and I just wanted to reach Paris now.

But it was a good flight. The plane was rather empty so we had the entire row of four seats to ourselves, and could even pop over to the set of two seats on either side. We were served drinks and snacks first, and a pretty good meal afterwards. I watched Brave, and then a Parks and Recreation marathon, and finally I stretched out across all four seats and slept all the way to Paris.

We cleared immigration and customs, got all our luggage (did not forget the tripod this time!) and headed out of the airport. And then came the most painful part of this journey: getting ourselves and all our luggage to the apartment. We first took an airport shuttle from the arrivals terminal to the RER station, then the RER to Denfert Rocherau station, and then we had to walk for over 20 minutes with all that luggage before we finally came to the apartment and the grocery store. And then came the unkindest cut of all: the apartment was on the fourth floor, there was no lift, the stairs were the narrow, curving kind, and there were no lights on the staircase. And we had to do this with a mountain load of luggage. By the time we made it to the apartment, we felt like we had conquered Mt Everest.

We would later feel that the apartment was worth it: it was a lovely studio, beautifully decorated and with lots of character. It was in a very lively area, full of parks, local markets and restaurants, and very close to public transport. The lady who stayed in the apartment was renting it out because she was traveling during this time – I found it through airbnb, and strongly recommend trying it out if you want to stay in a place which gives you a taste of how it is to live in a particular city or town.

But all this gloating about our apartment choice would come much later. For that night, we were just happy to have made it to the apartment without dropping dead somewhere on the way, and to have a sleeping surface that was completely flat. And that we were finally in Paris! What more could we ask for?

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No Pain, No Gain

We decided that we wouldn’t plan our travel till we had our visas in hand. Our travel agent called us on 5th October to confirm that we’d got our Schengen visas, and we immediately started looking up flight tickets. I basically looked at flying out of every possible Indian city and into every possible European city – and by the end of the day, I was tearing my hair out! But all that hard work paid off when I chanced upon an excellent deal: outgoing from Chennai to Paris, and return from Rome to Kuala Lumpur on Etihad Airways for INR 34000! It was saving us atleast INR 20000 per head compared to the next best option (which would involve Chennai – Paris – Chennai tickets + Rome – Paris tickets + one night stay in Chennai + Chennai – KL tickets. Phew! But now you know why I should be your go to person for travel planning). So I did the happy dance, and booked the tickets for 15th October, and we had barely nine days to go before take off!

The next week was a blur of daytime activity and sleepless nights. The very next day I ran around getting our tickets and other documents together to apply for our Malaysia visa. And then booking accommodation for our first week in Paris, figuring out a rough itinerary, writing to/calling the embassies of the non EU countries to confirm that we could enter the country with a Schengen visa (I REALLY didn’t want to end up spending time in a communist era jail for entering or passing the country illegally).

In the middle of all this, I traveled from Vizag to Hyderabad, met up with family and friends, went clubbing, spent two days celebrating Gautam and Sarikas (Nikes brother and his wife) first wedding anniversary, fell ill, bought new contact lens, and got a haircut!

Sunday finally arrived – and Nike fell sick! What a start! He slept the whole day while I packed and took about a billion printouts. Gautam and Sarika dropped us off at the Hyderabad airport. In line with my idea of budget travel, I wanted to take the train from Hyderabad to Chennai, but the timings were very inconvenient, and Nike insisted we fly – a decision I was later grateful for, considering the long journey we had ahead of us!

Dinner at the airport and a short flight later, we were in Chennai by 10.30pm. Our flight was at 5am but they wouldn’t let us into the international departure terminal just yet. Thankfully, there was a Zara Tapas Bar right outside and we whiled away a few hours there before finally entering the terminal.

I always end up spending hours and hours at old, crappy airports, while I never have enough time in the swanky new airports. For example, I spent many, many hours waiting at the Kolkata airport (which is in appalling condition) while I’ve never had time to try the buffet breakfast or the bookstore sale at the Delhi airport – even though I fly through Delhi airport all the time. Just my luck! And in keeping with that trend, here I was, stuck in Chennai airport, with no wifi, and no decent restaurants, bookstores or shops.

Anyway, we finally checked in, and then Nike realised that he’d left his tripod at the domestic terminal – in fact, he’d never bothered to pick it up from the baggage carousel (and this will be a recurring theme in our travels). After scrambling around, we finally retrieved it, and completed check in and security check formalities. I’m always hoping when checking in to an international flight that they’d miraculously upgrade me to business class, but no such miracle happened this time (or any other time, for that matter). Instead, our flight was delayed by over an hour so we waited in the boarding area for about two hours (cue for another rant on appalling airport conditions) before we could board and we finally finally finally took off.

Erm. This was supposed to be just a paragraph but has become a post in itself (I really MUST learn to write crisply) so I’m going to end here for today.

Meanwhile, what’s the worst airport you guys have ever been to or had to wait in?

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The Trip of a Lifetime

So Nike and I have just set out on what we think is going to be the trip of a life time – 10 weeks traveling across Europe and Asia. We started from home on 14th October 2012 and we will be back again on 3rd January 2013.

Nike quit his job in May and has been working virtually as an independent consultant since then. I quit my job in September to study further. However, my further study plans didn’t quite work out due to certain unexpected circumstances that came up in the last minute.  That was a massive disappointment, but suddenly we found ourselves with the time and the money to do a crazy trip like this before plunging back into the corporate world.

There were some initial reservations about doing a trip like this – the time, the effort, and the money involved in a ten week trip are rather intimidating. I think what really helped us was that we were both mentally prepared to be broke, maybe even in debt, by the time I finished my course by the end of next year. Now we weren’t going to be broke or in debt because of exorbitant tuition fees – so we thought “Okay, let’s spend this tuition fee fund on travel instead. We learn more by travelling than than by sitting in a classroom”. That’s cheesy, I know, but hey, we just needed an excuse!

We don’t really have a fixed itinerary. For now, we have spent a week in Paris. We are then flying into Romania, where we will spend about five days. Its an open itinerary after that – we are thinking of doing a loop around the Balkans – Bulgaria, Turkey, Croatia –  and then one of the Eastern European capitals, before making our way to Italy, where we will spend another week or ten days.

I’ve been to most of Western Europe as well as to the major cities of Eastern Europe so I wanted to do something very different this time, and yet I wanted to go to Europe again. This tentative itinerary seems perfect for us. We want to keep it open: we will stay back longer if we like a place, and we will leave quicker if we don’t. We may even completely change our itinerary midway if we come across something more interesting.

Travelling independently around the Balkan region is also quite challenging for us. We don’t personally know anyone else who’s travelled around this region before, so we find this part of the trip intimidating. But I think that’s actually great because it will make us step out of our comfort zone, and rediscover the challenges of travel.

After seven weeks in Europe, we will fly from Rome to Kuala Lumpur. My cousin, who lives in Malaysia, is getting married in December so we are going there for the wedding. My family will also be joining us there. We will be spending a week in Klang, Malaysia for the wedding festivities. Everyone, including Amma, is leaving after that; but Dad, Samee, Nike and I are staying back and visiting the Borneo Islands for a week.

Once we are back in KL from Borneo, my father and sister will leave for India; Nike and I fly to Koh Samui, Thailand. We will be there for a week – we intend to snorkel, get massages and chill on the beach at the end of a long trip. We will be spending New Years Eve there, and will be joined by Nike’s brother and his wife. We will then spend about 2 days in Bangkok, and finally back home.

Phew! I know! It’s a long, long trip. For me, the biggest challenge has been packing – winter wear for Europe, wedding wear for Malaysia, beach wear for Thailand. I’m lugging around a 20kg suitcase that looks like it will explode any minute. I’m not proud. I’ve however convinced Nike to put all his stuff into a 7kg backpack. Of that, I’m proud.

I hope to blog about this trip as regularly as possible. I’d like to post here at least twice a week; but I’m not making any promises. Like with everything else, let’s see how it goes 😉

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Europe on a Budget: Everything You Need to Know

Planning a trip to Europe, and worried about it not fitting within your budget? You’ll be surprised to know how much you can pack into your trip even on a shoestring budget just by following these great travel tips.

Travel off season: Traveling to Europe in the off-season can be rewarding in more ways than one. You will not only save money but also escape the throngs of tourists, and get an authentic taste of how the locals live. Summer (July and August), and the Christmas – New Year vacations are peak seasons. Plan your Europe trip between September and November or between March and June, and you will save significantly on accommodation and transport.

Buy a good guidebook: An up-to-date, comprehensive guidebook is a great investment. A good guidebook provides invaluable information on accommodation, transport, food, tourist attractions and other little details that could save you a quite a few Euros. Lonely Planet’s ‘Europe on a Shoestring Budget’ is the perfect answer to a guidebook which provides destination-specific information especially for those on a budget.

The student advantage: If you are a student, make sure you get the International Student Identity Card (ISIC). This card, valid across Europe, is your ticket to massive discounts on transport, accommodation, and entrance fees. If you aren’t a student but are under 26, you are eligible for the International Youth Travel Card (IYTC). If you are a full-time teacher or professor, you can avail discounts with the International Teacher Identity Card (ITIC).

Get on the train: Europe has a fantastic railway network, so make the most of it when you are traveling. While buses are cheaper, trains are faster, better connected, and much more comfortable. Invest in a good rail pass, since individual tickets often cost more. www.eurail.com offers a flexible choice of rail passes – your pass can be for only a single country or multiple countries, and is valid anywhere from 3 days to 3 months. Plan overnight train journeys to save on accommodation.

Research your accommodation options: Travelers to Europe have a number of budget accommodation options, so research them to figure which suits your needs best. Try http://www.couchsurfing.org/ to sleep for free in someone’s home, but be prepared to reciprocate! Bed and Breakfasts offer a cozy, intimate environment at reasonable prices. Camping can be an exciting option. However, designated camp sites in Europe are often in the city outskirts and inaccessible by public transport, so consider camping only if you have a car.

Use public transport: Most European cities and towns have an excellent public transport system and you won’t need a car unless you are going to small villages off the beaten track. 1-5 day passes are available in many cities for unlimited use of public transport. These passes work out to be significantly cheaper than individual tickets, and are sometimes combined with discounts on tourist attractions. Individual tickets are often valid for 60-120 minutes after their purchase, rather than for a single journey, so make the most of that.

Eat like the locals: Avoid eating at restaurants and cafes in and around the tourist centers. If your hotel/hostel does not include breakfast in the room rate, you can order a coffee and croissant from any of the countless charming little cafes that dot European streets. Parks are a great spot for picnic lunches that you can pick up from any grocery store or deli. Many small restaurants also offer a set lunch for quite less. Stock up on fruits, snacks and juice and have dinner in your room.

Be destination savvy: Make sure you know the little tricks in each city (this is where your guidebook comes in most handy). For example, in Milan, bars and cafes throw in a buffet spread when you order drinks during the aperitif hour. In Copenhagen, you can pick up a bicycle for free from any of the 110 city bike-racks to explore the city.

Stay in one of Europe’s 20,000+ hostels: Staying in hostels is a great way of saving on accommodation – a dorm bed in Western Europe is available for as low as €10, and for even less in Eastern Europe. Most hostels are clean, safe and comfortable and also provide an opportunity to meet other backpackers. If you aren’t comfortable with sleeping in a dorm with others, many hostels also offer single, double and triple sleepers at low prices. Keep in mind that hostels in the city centre will be more expensive.

Some things in life are free: Cities often have art exhibitions, performances or festivals with free entrance – check for these in the local listings. It’s not just free; it is also a different experience from the standard museums and art galleries you will get to see. Most of Europe’s public parks and gardens are free. Museums and other tourist attractions sometimes have free entry on a specific day of the week/ month. For example, entrance to the Acropolis is free on Sundays. Plan your visit to such places to coincide with free days.

Europe is a backpacker friendly destination and offers many opportunities for those traveling on a budget. But remember that saving money is all about planning and research. Do your research well before you set out for your destination, and plan your itinerary to make the most of it. At the same time, be flexible, and grab any great chances that may come your way.

Be open to new experiences and be willing to try on things you haven’t done before, and your vacation may just become the adventure of a lifetime.

While it is awesome to save money while traveling, it’s easy to get carried away with the penny pinching, and overlook the very things that make travel so rewarding. One often becomes penny wise and pound foolish. A friend once decided not to visit the Colosseum in Rome, in order to save on the entrance fees, and lost out on an unforgettable experience. Europe is an exciting, breathtaking destination – soak in the sights, smells and sounds – and come back with memories for life! Happy travels!

This article has been published in chillibreeze.com

 

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Hello world!

This is the mandatory welcome post that every blog has, in which one explains to the whole wide world the reasons behind starting this blog, like anyone actually cares! And while I can make fun of such things, I don’t actually not do them (which makes me somewhat a hypocrite, I know).

And so. This is going to be my travel blog, a place where I can write about the places I’ve visited, the people I met, the things I saw and the food I ate. Where I can pretend that I’m honing my skills as a future travel writer. Though it will be about my experiences during my travels, rather than travel tips and recommendations, though I hope to write those too (keeping the travel writer goal in mind, you see).

So I am a 26 year old, and I live in Bangalore with my boyfriend husband (I’m still to get used to saying that) and my potted plants (which unfortunately look like they are terminally ill, because of my neglect). I worked as a management consultant in the infrastructure/social sector for well over three years, and I quit my job recently to pursue an alternate career path (but since that perusal is not going so well right now, we shall not talk more about it).

I am currently working on an academic project, and preparing for an exam, but since that still leaves me enough time to do things I am better off not doing (I meant watching television and logging on to facebook…..what did you think?), I’ve decided that I will put that time to better use in writing about my travels, so that I can capture those experiences and memories before they fade into the distant past.

Travel is my passion. And like my dad never fails to remind me whenever I make that grandiloquent statement, it’s also the reason I never have anything in my bank account. That said and done, I’ve also been very lucky in getting to travel quite a bit, as a student and on work.

About five years ago, I spent four months in Belgium on a student exchange programme. I was 21 years old, and I bought a three month eurail pass and travelled across Europe. In the last 3 -4 years, I’ve been lucky to get to travel to the Asia – Pacific region quite a bit, both on work and for fun. Last year, my sister and I did an Eastern Europe trip, and later in the year, Nike (that’s the husband) and I explored a bit of the Mediterranean region on a cruise.

So yeah, I have been really lucky in getting to travel abroad so much. And I am also lucky to be in Bangalore, for it’s got so many great weekend getaways. We try to get out of Bangalore and explore a new place atleast once a month, and these shorts trips really rejuvenate me.

While I have travelled quite a bit in the south, I’m ashamed to say I’ve seen very little of the north. Apart from the metros, I’ve only been to Agra, Gwalior, Indore and Lucknow (and the last two on work!). And to Darjeeling and Sikkim. This Friday, Nike and I are off to spend a week in Himachal Pradesh. Rajasthan and Uttarakhand are next on my list.

So, thank you for dropping by, keep visiting, and I’m looking forward to sharing my travel experiences with you!

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