When I started blogging in 2005 I never imagined it will lead to anything. But it did, I literally went places with travel blogging. Along the way personal trips went down as I was constantly on one FAM or another and I am deeply thankful for that, because in the end travel costs money. On my blogging trips I am a pampered princess where visas arrive on their own and I just have to show up! However, I felt brave this year and booked a personal trip to Prague. I helped a friend book a trip and I am in the process of booking another personal trip. So here is what I have to say about when I book holidays on my own.
While in the past I have done everything on my own, I sometimes book the hotel and the flight with an online travel portal, like for Prague. In my friend’s case she was booking a package for Europe. We were using different service providers. Much seems to be common across service providers.
Don’t Get Pressured into Paying the Initial Money
The online service providers seem to be in a hurry to make you pay the initial amount. Once you have paid the amount you are locked. I also feel that once you pay the initial amount they relax their service standards too.
My friend paid the initial amount for her Europe trip much in advance after the pressure tactics of the online service provider. She plans to travel with her elderly father and an attendant. It was so early in the day, like 7 months in advance, that nothing was booked. Looking at everything she wanted to change her trip to a shorter duration later. The amount of fuss they created to change her plans was enormous! They were telling her they would forfeit her entire 75K pre-deposit which they pressured her into paying.
So if you are trying to book a holiday, never get pressured into paying the initial money, take your time. If that holiday is sold out there are others. You can take the same holiday with other service providers or you can go on a different holiday.
Do Your Homework
A lot of people who travel might be on their first few trips. The service providers do this daily. Hence there is an information asymmetry and the service provider may take advantage of it. I strongly recommend that you do your homework. Almost all embassies have website detailing visa procedures. Check it out, get familiar with it. read about the country in general and do read the fine print before you book anything.
In my instance the service provider offered me visa facilitation as part of the package for Prague. I thought I would use it but it turned out to be a nightmare. The requirements were not listed in one place. I was in a hurry to apply for my visa as I had the Singapore/Myanmar trip before the Prague one. After completing the paperwork, the agent told me flat that I could not apply on the next day nor on Monday as a long weekend was coming! At that point I told them to return all my documents as I would do the visa myself. And I did! It left me seething too. I mean were they charging me for creating headaches?
Put Your Foot Down
Most of the times people dealing with you are fairly junior. Thy have no real decision making authority. If you feel you are being pushed around, put your foot down and insist on talking to someone with authority. That is what my friend did, with a little prompting from my side. Her issue was resolved after she took a firm position. She was allowed to change her tour plan to a shorter one without any financial loss. And that is when I wonder, she and I are the kind of people who like to travel a lot. If you provide service and assistance we are repeat customers. But what do they care beyond closing that one deal!
Escalate if it is Necessary
For my own visa assistance for Prague, I escalated the issue on Twitter. The response was immediate. And from then on to the point the issue was closed, they remained in constant touch. I think a lot of issues go away if the service provider is willing to listen, which they did successfully in my case.
As I escalated the matter a ticket was open, and they needed my consent to close it. I was not after anything. I told them in the end that I was livid at the moment I complained but as they listened to me all the while, I was no longer unhappy. After all I was able to submit my visa application was successfully. Though my Schengen Visa is quite a tale in itself with an easy VFS experience but confusing embassy dealings.
Where is Service?
I thought when I was booking with an online service provider I was paying for service too. But they predominantly seem to be interested in closing the deal. Service comes in after that in varying amount and quality. In my own visa experience it helped that I have traveled to about 20 countries before I faced the visa for Czech Republic. I had the confidence to deal with the situation. I am not sure that is the profile of an average customer who comes to book a holiday. And that is where service is required!
I prefer to book my own holidays. But in the case I do not find cheap accommodation and flights on my own, I book it through a service provider as they have cheaper rates because of bulk booking. I am happy with that value proposition but when they offer me extra, I expect service. But whether one will get it or not is the big issue.
On the ground things went well for me for my Prague trip and I hope things will go well for my friend too in Europe.
Indian railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC)- if you have traveled with Indian Railways you would know what I am talking about. Did you ever wonder why should the online ticketing system of Indian Railways be known as Indian railway Catering and Tourism Corporation? I have no clue.
But I have traveled in trains before the reservations could be done online! And if you have booked a ticket by standing on a railway station you know what I am talking about. When I was doing my Ph. D. I used to travel from Kanpur to Delhi very frequently and booking tickets used to be such a tiring process. I remember there used to be a travel agent within the premises who would do the tickets and would charge us Rupees 20 extra per ticket.
Ticket Counter, Indian Railways
So when IRCTC system came into being it felt like such a blessing. No longer was there any need to use agents or go and stand in a line. At least, this was true for people who have internet connection and a card to use at the site.
And after the initial euphoria died the love/hate relationship with the IRCTC started. The site seem to have a will of its own! When you were in dire need it would be at its priciest! There were days when I could spend 45 minutes trying to conclude one transaction but without any success. And there would be days when everything would work like a charm.
I remember tweeting to folks that if they too were facing issues with IRCTC and those tweets always got a response! So from Twitter I got to know that you could use other sites to book your tickets and it was as if you were using IRCTC itself! I wonder how these sites are able to copy irctc.co.in but then I was also told that all of them use the same back end! And yet sometimes the other websites that mirror IRCTC seemed to work, whereas the IRCTC itself would not, even if they were agonizingly slow.
I am not a big fan of booking tickets when I get wait listed but then there are times when I have been there and done that too. And then I would frantically checking the PNR status as the date of travel comes closer! I have cancelled tickets more than I have taken a chance but being able to do all this at a click of mouse have been of immense value.
Then came the IRCTC initiative that allowed us to go paperless and that is something I liked a lot. Show your PNR number or just show a screen shot on your mobile to the TTE and you are done. Indian Railways has to be congratulated on taking such an environmentally friendly step!
And yet there are days when I feel that I can not take the vagaries of IRCTC any more. On those days I remind my self of my ticket booking experience with British Rail (this was in 2008 and things might have changed now). After going through all the details I realized that the tickets could be delivered only to an address within UK and not anywhere else in the world. There were no e-tickets as well because the automatic barrier at the railway station opened by reading the magnetic strip on the ticket. One of my colleagues let me use her address but then how cool Indian Railways is to allow me to show my PNR number on my mobile and be done with it!
I started my India travel blog, Travel Tales from India in 2005. In 2016 I realized Travel Tales from India and Abroad better reflected my writings. I love to walk and ride in metros around the world. I have not been everywhere, I am not even close, but it is on my list. I also quit my job as a professor in 2015, it was a happening year! I did a Ph.D. from IIT Kanpur ages ago!
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