Sunday Jan 27, 2008

Frankfurt to San Jose - $54.54 for one minute call

I used my credit card to call home (San Jose, CA) from Frankfurt Airport during a trip last year. And the calling company charged $54.54 for an approximately one minute call. Here is what I see in my credit card statement detail:

Transaction Date 12/10/2007
Transaction Description  INTL CL\* 800-5762118 CA
Called From GERMANY GE Number: 0114901113
Called To LOS GATOS CA Number: xxx-xxx-xxxx
Time of Call: 00:22 Duration: 00:05
Charge: $54.54
SUITE 1770

Gosh, this turned out to be an EXPENSIVE call!

The duration is listed as 00:05, i.e. 5 seconds. I remember talking for approx a minute. IMHO having no information is better than having incorrect one.

Fortunately, the customer service number was correct and I got some points clarified:
  • This call is placed through satellite and that's why they charged this rate. He could not explain why satellite is used when credit card is used to call.
  • The pulse rate is 5 minutes. So the telephone company always charge in multiple of 5 minutes.
  • Talk to a live operator, inquire about the rates and then place the call. In the United States, making an operator-assisted call charges you more money. So this was completely non-intuitive to me.
  • Because of some stated law, the international calling rate, pulse rate and similar information cannot be placed on the phone equipment. Again, no reference to what/where the law is.
  • Use a pre-paid card to make the international call. This is a lesson learned for me, hard way!
The customer service contact also refunded part of the charges, but even then it's still a lot!

Technorati: frankfurt airport traveltips phone

Thursday Jan 24, 2008

Little Rock National Airport Rocks - Free WiFi

Little Rock National Airport literally rocks - Free WiFi all through out the terminal :)

Technorati: littlerock airport wifi traveltips

Thursday Dec 06, 2007

Domestic Air Travel in India

I traveled to multiple cities (Bangalore, Chennai, Pune, Mumbai, Delhi) in the span of last 4 days. The air travel has significantly improved but there are some rough edges as well. Overall I enjoyed the pampering by the booming airline industry. Below are some specific observations:

  1. When I left India (many years ago) then there used to be only two major airlines for domestic travel - Indian Airlines and Jet Airways. This time around, I saw so many - IndiGo, SpiceJet, JetLite (nee Air Sahara), KingFisher, Indian (fka Indian Airlines) and many others. And the frequency between any two destinations is much higher with lower fares.
  2. I traveled only on Jet Airways and Kingfisher and I must say I was very impressed by the courtesy and an always smiling face of the flight assistants. This was quite a contrast with an Indian Airlines flight I took many years ago.
  3. The impressive part was that complementary meals/snacks were served even for a short flight of 30 minutes. And a typical snack will consist of sandwich, cereal bar, guava juice, brownie and some sort of munchies. And if you are taking a slightly longer flight, then of course you are treated with a full meal. In contrast, even a coast-to-coast flight in the US serve only complementary drinks ;)

    Here is a typical snacks served for 30 minutes flight in Kingfisher:

    And here is a typical meal served for 2 hour flight in Jet Airways:

  4. Most of the planes of Kingfisher are new and really trendy. Comfortable seats, good leg space, leather headrest, personal TV screens for each passenger with fancy remote controls and really nice headsets. Each passenger was also given a pen. Little goodies, but over all makes you feel treated well. No wonder they incurred a loss of Rs 577 crores for FY 07 ;-) I would definitely recommend Kingfisher till they are here.
  5. Make sure to get the baggage tag of the airline for all hand-carry luggage. This is checked at the boarding gate otherwise your bag is scrutinized heavily. Generally airline officials do a good job (they missed one one of mine) about ensuring this but it's good to make sure yourself to avoid any inconvenience later.
  6. Very few (read rarely) planes have tube access connecting directly into the airport. In my case, all the airlines stopped on a designated area in the airport and buses were used to transfer passengers from or to the airport. These are conducted very professionally but just a different way of doing things than the US where planes are mostly connected directly to the airport. I feel this is airports' way to keep up with the burgeoning airline industry.

Now some rough edges ... I don't think much can be done to change any of this but this is just to prepare you better.

  1. The flights typically are delayed, at least the domestic ones! At least all my flights were delayed. And the fun part is it that it's very reliable. Some passengers plan their arrival at the airport accordingly.
  2. At the reservation desk, passengers tend to clutter around the counter. In most cases, standing right behind you and literally peeping into your paperwork. At Mumbai airport (impressive facility), a fellow passenger conveniently jumped ahead of me and cursing me for being slow. I guess this is one way people express their frustration when they get stuck in traffic and delayed for their flights.
  3. At the boarding gate, everybody tend to clutter around the counter (yeah, once again). Nobody seems to care about this "clutter", certainly not the people who are cluttering. The surprising part was that even the airline officials also did not do anything to fix that (even after being reminded by other folks). And these people seem to get into the plane before everybody in the queue.
  4. Now the scary one - Once the plane taxis, all the passengers seem to be in a super hurry to get out of the plane. And it could be violent sometimes. For example, after the plain taxied at the Pune airport, I waited for the aisle to clear up, stood up and then tried to put my laptop in the bag. It took me probably 3-5 seconds to pull the bag from the overhead cabin, open the zipper and place the laptop in there. But that got some passengers behind me completely impatient. One of the passengers pushed me aside to the extent where I was about to fall on the floor, and he just moved ahead. And interestingly the passengers behind him just followed.

Enjoy the complete album so far:

Technorati: traveltips india airlines kingfisher jetairways airport

Sunday Dec 02, 2007

A Trip to Vaishno Devi

During my vacation last week, I made a trip to Vaishno Devi Mandir - one of the biggest and the heavily visited shrine of the Hindus. This shrine is located in the Udhampur District in the Northern most state of India, Jammu and Kashmir, and is dedicated to the Mother Goddess.

The shrine is managed by Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (SMVDSB) who are doing a stupendous effort. I was particularly very impressed with the communication, facilities and cleanliness through out.

The shrine is at an altitude of 5200 feet and visited by millions (almost 7 million in 2006) of devotees every year. Read the Hindu legend behind this holy place.

How to get there ?

After taking an overnight train journey from Delhi to Jammu, there is a 3 hour bus journey to The Katra. This is the base camp where all the pilgrims assemble to start the 12 km (7.5 miles) hike up the hill to The Bhavan. This is the main place of worship and has the holy cave which has the manifestation of Mother Goddess - Mata Maha Kali, Mata Maha Lakshmi and Mata Maha Saraswati.

More details are available here.

In Katra

There are numerous hotels in Katra that can be rented overnight and provide facilities ranging from full room service to cloak rooms. And the rates are pretty reasonable too.

The Shrine Board issue receipts (one per group/family) at the Katra in order to control the number of pilgrims in the Bhavan. It is of utmost importance to collect this receipt because this is your ticket to entry to the Bhavan later.

If you are not interested in hiking from Katra to Bhavan, then alternatively you can ride a pony, palki (palanquin) or even a helicopter ride. A mix-and-match where you ride the pony oneway and walk the other way is also available. Or you can also hire a pithoo (porters) who will carry your luggage from Katra to Bhavan and vice versa. The biggest majority of devotees walk all the way up & down and backpack their change of clothes or goodies (that may include prasad - offering to the Godess) to be offered at the Bhavan.

The hike can be done on the paved path (very well maintained) or up the stairs (shorter distance but steep and tiring). The paved path and stairs meet at certain points. However one particular stairs have 529 steps, before an exit, so make sure to watch out for that (marked before the stairs) before you venture. There are numerous food and utility shops through out the hike. And then of course there are Dhabas (street-side restaurants) which serve complete meal.

Mid Way Stop - AdhKawari

After approx 7 km of hike you'll reach AdhKawari. This is where Mother Goddess meditated for 9 months in a cave attaining spiritual wisdom and powers. The pilgrims wait in queue to enter the holy cave.

A token is issued (one per family/group) to control the flow of pilgrims. The typical wait time after the token number is current is 3 hours. In order to save time, some of the devotees skip this optional stop over.

At the Bhavan

The visit at the Bhavan typically start with a freezing cold water shower and a change of clothes. Even though both are optional, but highly recommended after a steep hike.

The ticket issued at the Katra is exchanged for a batch number at a counter in the Bhavan. The running batch number is clearly displayed at several places. The devotees which carry the current batch number, or lesser, can enter the queue.

After entering the queue, you pass through a maze (which is useful to handle the crowd during rush time) and finally find yourself in front of a marble stone cave. The actual manifestation of Shri Vaishno Devi resides at one end of this cave. After worshipping the Deity (typically for 2-5 seconds because of a continuous churn of devotees) and making your wish, you head over to the exit at other end of the tunnel.

The pilgrims keep reciting "Jai Mata Di" (Hail Mother Goddess) all through out the journey from Katra to Bhavan and back.

Bhairon Mandir

After worshipping at the Bhavan, you head over to Bhairon Mandir (Bhairon Temple). A visit to this temple is skipped by a few devotees because of a further higher altitude and steepness of the hike. This is the highest elevation (approx 6600 feet) in the entire trip. Make sure to carry your camera to capture some picturesque view of the Himalayas, especially in the winter season.

After worshipping at this temple, the downhill hike starts. However be cautious of the monkeys on the way coming back. Specifically if are using one of the commonly used bags (bought at the prasad shop) then they might pounce upon you ;-)

Back Home

At the end, we took a bus from Katra to Jammu and then finally a train ride back to Delhi.

This was my third trip and I must say I'm really thankful for Mata's Call.

The complete album is here:

The complete detailed planning can be done after reading the tips here.

Technorati: vaishnodevi shrine hindus temple traveltips

Sunday Nov 04, 2007

Wangfujing Street - Authentic China in Beijing

If you want to see authentic China in Beijing without going to country side or hotungs, Wangfujing Street has it. This street is located at Wangfujing station using Line 1 of Subway.

This street has big name stores (with big bill boards), shopping malls and lots of people. Especially the side streets which sell street food are just amazing. Scorpion and Sea Horse are some of the common dishes but I just could not muster the courage to try them.

The Beijing 2008 Olympics store was crowded and had some nice goodies. No bargaining there though ;)

You can also buy all sort of mementoes like magnet, playing cards, decoration pieces etc from in the side streets. And here you DO need to exercise your bargaining skills.

A complete album is available here:

Technorati: conf traveltips beijing china

Friday Nov 02, 2007

Beijing Silk Market - Shopping & Bargain Paradise

Beijing Silk Market (a.k.a. Xiushui Silk Market) is a multi-floor shopping complex in the Beijing Downtown. It is famous for fake branded goods such as Coach and Prada purse, RayBan glasses, iPod, Silk scarves, Jeans and you name it. It's also famous for extreme bargaining. And you may be surprised how extreme is extreme by reading the tips below along with a table of comparative prices paid.

It is directly connected from the Yong'anli Subway station on Line of Subway.

Here are the basic shopping tips that I learned by talking to others and practiced during my shopping stint:

  1. Each item has three prices - Printed, American and Chinese. Typically Printed and American price are the same, may be American price slightly lower. The Chinese price is typically 50-70% of the American price. The first quote from the shopkeeper will be based upon your skin color. However the most important rule is to NEVER buy at any of the first quote price. Always quote a price that is 10% of the Chinese price and then haggle your way up. Going up is only an additional buffer and is not a necessary step. In any case, don't pay more than 15-20% of the Chinese price. You may find it ridiculous but it worked in most of the cases as you can see from the table of comparative prices below.
  2. Some of the commonly used phrases to indicate the stage of bargain are - Joking price (when the shopkeeper find the price is ridiculous), Final price (quoted multiple times from the shopkeeper, sometimes final final price) and Yes or No price (mostly used to quote the final price from the shopkeeper). You can pretty much ignore the first two prices and consider third one slightly seriously (see next point) if you are interested in the item.
  3. Be ready to NOT to buy irrespective of the item and you might end up buying it for a ridiculously low price.
  4. This is an important one. If the price is not meeting your expectation, WALK away from the shop. It may be hard to do it sometimes because you may like the item very much but force yourself out of the shop. There is a high likelihood that you'll be physically pulled in the shop so don't feel offended but stick to your price. If need be, pretend walking out of the shop and you'll see the shopkeeper shouting from the behind with your price. It's important to confirm and double confirm the price and especially the currency ;-)
  5. The magic word is "moment". If you hear this word from the shopkeeper, which most likely will be the case, that means you are likely in a position to strike a deal at your price.
  6. Some of the shopkeepers get really angry and start throwing items (mostly with clothes) around. Don't budge, this is just a tactic to show they are upset and instead keep smiling and stick to your price.
  7. Buying more than one item will get you a better price. As the prices are ridiculously cheap, it's worth buying more than one and gift it back home.
  8. A key rule is to bargain with smile and that will improve your chances of meeting your price :)

Here is a comparative table of quoted and paid prices for some of the items:

Item Quoted Paid
Silk Scarves 650 55
Denim Jacket (heavy embroidery) 1200 180
Kimono 450 40
Denim Jeans (with embroidery) 450 35
Silk Two-piece Dress for Kids 600 50

Happy shopping & bargaining!

Technorati: traveltips shopping silkmarket beijing bargain

Thursday Oct 18, 2007

Crowne Plaza Chicago O'Hare - Thumbs Up

I arrived Chicago yesterday for Sun Mid West Java Tech Days.

The stay at The Crowne Plaza Hotel Chicago O'Hare, although just one night, but was just the way I like it. Everything from checking into the hotel to checking out this morning was great. There were minor things which made the stay a pleasant one:

  • The hotel is approx 10 minutes ride from the airport and they have a courtesy shuttle running from 6am to midnight.
  • The checking-in experience was seamless. I was called 30 minutes after the check-in to make sure everything in the room is correct. I've stayed at multiple hotels around the world but in this case the hotel desk went an extra step to ensure I was comfortable in the room.
  • They offered the Priority Club member ship which provided me free wi-fi access in the hotel and free water. Even though offering a water bottle is a minor detail but staying in a hotel is all about convenience and adds to the overall experience.
  • The temperature in the hotel room was pre-set and there was no need to alter it.
  • The restaurant in the hotel had a good variety of cuisines. A flat-screen TV was mounted all over the restaurant and I enjoyed TV and my meal together. And the subtitles were turned on to provide a choice.
  • The wi-fi connection speed was very good and allowed me to catch up on email (with my travel schedule) at a high speed.
  • The machines in the Fitness Center were of high quality with good pre-defined fitness programs. The defaults are just exactly what I use most of the time.

Definitely would recommend to stay there on your next visit to Chicago.

Technorati: conf crowneplaza chicago traveltips

Saturday Sep 29, 2007

ATA Quark Hotels, Milan - Thumbs Down

We stayed at the ATA Quark Hotel (Via Lamepdusa 11/A) for Sun Tech Days, Milan. This hotel completely defied "the first impression lasts for ever" philosophy. We were promptly checked-in at the service desk and were given a really nice room (with a separate office room and a walk-in closet) and that impressed us. But there after it was all down hill. Here are my experiences in the hotel and with it's staff. Other colleagues had similar experience as well:

  • Basic Office Room - The office room was nice and spacious with a separate TV but there was no phone. In fact the only phone in the "suite" was near the bed. And even though the hotel claimed that wireless network is expected to work in the room but they just could not debug why it was not working for me. It worked very well in all the conference rooms though.

  • Non-smiling Staff - We decided to have dinner in the hotel restaurant on the first night of stay. None (really none) of the waiters had any smile on their face. They barely knew any English so we had to show them the number in the menu to place our order. I always feel that a big smile on your face is the first language all humans should know. That certainly was not visible in most of the staff at the hotel, although some knew the English language to be able to communicate. Although I was quite surprised to see a smiling staff member at the reception desk.

  • Mysterious Fitness Center - The first morning I inquired about the fitness center and told it's on the 5th floor. The 5th floor is like a regular floor with directions to other rooms, no mention of Fitness Center at all. On further asking for explicit directions and I was told it's between room # 513 & 514. I thought may be this hotel uses fraction for room numbers but on the 5th there were directions to room 500-515 and 513 was the last room in that segment. There were two rooms right after #513. Initially I was skeptical to swipe my card on those rooms but because of the information received from the front desk I tried to swipe my card to no effect. These rooms were of course locked as well so even the door was not open. I got slightly irritated spending my first 15 minutes in the morning running up & down and dealing with the front desk instead of running on the tread mill but decided to call them again. I was told somebody is coming over right away which happened good 6 minutes later and this person was quite surprised when I approached him. So it seems like he was just wandering through the halls and I happen to approach him. Anyway, upon explaining (forget about apologies) he said let me find out where is the Fitness Center. It seems the hotel staff is not aware of the facilities within. Finally he opened one of the hotel rooms converted in the Fitness Center.

    And it's a true conversion because the room barely had workout machines (of course all the instructions in Italian only) with no workout towels. Anyway, I was glad that the treadmill worked :)

  • Disappearing Shower Towels - Room Service every morning did the expected job but then always took all the shower towels with them. This has never happened with me during all my travels. But anyway we asked for the shower towels for on the first morning and the Room Service came back with just one thin cotton towel. We mentioned that we need towels for all of us and this guy comes back with 2 more cotton towels. These towels become with the first touch of water and in no way can be used effectively after a shower. On further explaining, this guy finally comes back with the real shower towels and a weird frown on his face.

  • Expired Room Key - The hotel room key expired the night before itself and it had to renewed at the Front Desk late in the night. Although this is not very uncommon (never happened with me) but lot of other colleagues were complaining the same issue in this hotel.

  • Shower Tub Wall - This is probably a more Italy thing but both the hotels we stayed at (in Rome and Milan) barely cover the shower stream. In this particular hotel just turning the shower (that had a big shower head) was spilling the water out of the the tub. The bathroom used to be flooded after anybody takes a shower. Strangely there was a glass wall on the other end of the tub where there is no water or nobody could possibly take a shower because of the fixed shower head.

  • City Knowledge - The amount of knowledge the reception desk (there was no Concierge) had about the City was pretty "amazing". They only knew about the nearest Metro station and City Center. Everything else was left for the hotel guests to explore themselves. And they did not have any resources on how to gather further information. I sometimes really wondered the hotel staff was probably from some other city.

  • Taxi Fare - The taxi fare from Malpensa airport to anywhere in the city is fixed at 70 Euros. I asked the front desk about this and was told that it would be approximately 95 Euros (which is typically what the meter would show). Fortunately the taxi driver who dropped us at the airport was a great guy and charged us 70 Euros even though the meter showed 95 Euros. I really wonder how much the hotel staff really know about moving around the city.

The ATA Hotels website has disabled right-click, gosh such a cheap trick. So even though you can click on Business, Hotels & Resorts and see the list of hotels available but right-clicking (in order to Copy The Link Location) shows following:

If you are planning a travel to Milan, I'd certainly recommend to look for an alternate hotel. At least I'll stay in a different hotel if I happen to visit the city again.

Milan by itself is a great city though. Read my travel tips to Milan here. All my travel tips to Europe are aggregated here.

Technorati: traveltips ataquarkhotel milan

Travel Tips to Milan

  1. Milan : Milano :: Rome : Roma :: English :: Italiano. In simple terms, Milan and Rome are English names for Milano and Roma in Italian (called as Italiano in Italian). Everybody will understand if you say Milan or Rome but When in Rome, live like Romans and so pretend-like-a-local.
  2. Airports: Milan has two airports - Linate and Malpensa. Linate mostly caters to the domestic traffic and Malpensa to both domestic and international. Malpensa airport is out of Milan and Linate is in the city. Make sure to check which airport is closer to the hotel (especially if you are planning a domestic and international trip out of Milan) and book your flights accordingly.

    The airport in Rome is Leonardo DaVinci and is located in Fiumicino city. But all the locals call it as Fiumicino airport and even all the directions mention Fiumicino.
  3. The taxi fare from Malpensa airport to anywhere in the city is fixed at 70 Euros irrespective of what comes in the taxi meter. The driver who dropped us from airport to the hotel of course did not convey that to us because the meter in his taxi showed 95 Euros and he happily took the money we gave him. The taxi driver who dropped us at airport told us about this so make sure to not pay more than 70 Euros if you going to/from Malpensa.
  4. In all my experience so far, Taxi drivers take only cash. So make sure you know the approximate distance/time/cost from the airport to your hotel and have sufficient cash. All the airports have an ATM machine which is very convenient.
  5. Keep a jacket handy depending upon the city and time of the year. Make sure to check the weather before packing your clothes. In winter times, it's good to carry an Umbrella. We checked the weather online before starting our trip but it turned out to be complete reverse of what we expected.
  6. "Grazie" is "Thanks" and "Ciao" is "Hello" or "Bye" in Italiano.
  7. If you are traveling with kids, it helps to mentally prepare them by sharing the itinerary, giving them an estimate of the flight time, amount of walking/waiting required (especially in Rome which needs lot of walking) for any tourist spots and of course carrying some handy snacks for them if the wait is too long or if the meal is delayed. In Rome, Gelato was easily accessible through out the city and worked as a great incentive for my son :)
  8. Having breakfast included in the hotel package turned out to be a big boon as it gives a good head start for the day. You can always have breakfast in the hotel anyway but it might be more cost effective to be included in the package.
  9. Avoid flights during peak office hours. We spent an extra 45 minutes because our flight arrived at Malpensa airport at 5:30pm and then got stuck in traffic going to the hotel.
  10. Both the hotels in Italy (Melia Roma Aurelia Antica and ATA Quark Hotels) did not have Iron boards for some inexplicable safety reasons. This might be a trend in Italy hotels so make sure to carry clothes that need no ironing, or wear them without iron or use the laundry service to get them iron. The later option requires you to give the clothes a day in advance and pay an exorbitant amount for getting a simple tee-shirt ironed.
  11. Most of the tourist spots in Milan are accessible using public transport. We bought a day pass (for 3 Euros and available from most of the kiosks near Metro stations or Light rails) that is valid in Metro, Tram/Light Rails and other public transport. This keeps you mobile and provides option to move around.
  12. McDonalds are available at most of the places in case you care.
  13. In terms of places to visit, Duomo of course is the main destination in Milan. There is a Fashion Galleria right next to Duomo and a significant part of the day can be spent there. The Last Supper painting has a 2 month wait but you can always talk to one of the local travel agency who typically buy the tickets in advance and can take you inside.

Here is my travel album:

All my travel tips to Europe are aggregated here.

Technorati: traveltips milan europe

Sunday Sep 23, 2007

Rome to Pisa - A Day Trip

Here is a complete itinerary of our day trip from Rome to Pisa:

8:00 am Courtesy Shuttle from Melia Roma Hotel to Ottaviano Metro Station
8:30 am Arrive at Ottaviano Station (identified by red M in a white square)
8:45 am Metro Train from Ottaviano to Terminal Station (Stazione Termini)
8:55am Arrive at Terminal Station (Metro drops underground, go above the ground, purchase tickets from the counter, check the train number at Departure screens and Wait at the terminal)
9:45am Train departs to Pisa (Inter City Plus)
12:57pm Arrive at Pisa
1:05pm Out of the Station and Start walking towards the Tower of Pisa (Plan for 25 minutes walk, Take Via Francesco Crispi and Via Roma and there is no need to buy a city map :)
1:30pm Arrive at Leaning Tower of Pisa (La Torre). The entrance and climb up the tower is controlled and you can purchase tickets by the time slot.
2:20pm Start walking back to the Station
2:45pm Arrive at the Station (There is McDonalds at the station for a quick lunch or a better variety at Terminal Station)
3:00pm Buy the return tickets (A better option is to buy return tickets from the original destination or from the Station at Pisa before starting out to visit the monuments. This will ensure a confirmed seat because the station stops selling tickets few minutes before the scheduled departure.)
3:45pm Train departs to Rome
7:30pm Arrive at San Pietro Station
7:55pm Walk to Ottaviano Metro Station
8:30pm Bus from Metro Station to Hotel
9:00pm Arrive at the Hotel

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is the main attraction of this city. The streets were pretty deserted (may be because of Sunday) and it almost felt that the majority of people moving around were tourists. You can always spend extra time in the city or at the festive environment around the monuments. This allows you to take the 5:00pm Inter City Plus to reach back Rome around 8:15pm. As always, it's recommended to check the train schedule at

And here is the photo album:

All my travel tips to Europe are aggregated here.

Technorati: traveltips rome pisa


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Arun Gupta is a technology enthusiast, a passionate runner, author, and a community guy who works for Oracle Corp.

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