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Travel in style

Surekha Kadapa Bose

A growing number of Indians are using the Net to plan exotic holidays abroad. Online ticket and hotel bookings often come at special bargain prices.


Vipul Shah and his wife at Washington DC.

Technology writer and Chartered Accountant Vipul Shah (35) is amongst a handful but growing number of travellers using the Net to plan their holidays abroad and make big savings in the bargain. As word spreads in the upwardly mobile and tech-savvy community that so-and-so visited New York and stayed at a Hilton but paid less than what a five-star hotel would charge in India, people are eagerly reaching for the mouse for that click-and-travel experience.

As airlines slash fares, more and more Indians are travelling abroad. Ask the tour operators and they will tell you New York, Paris and London are the favoured destinations. Travel companies such as Cox & Kings, Thomas Cook and SOTC have come out with new packages and schemes that promise best value for money. However, if you want to travel like a king and still pay nothing more than what a budget traveller would, the Net is waiting to share its bounty.

How does one do it?

"First choose an airline which is most technology-driven... that provides you online schedule and flight status, gives you control over your booking, meal preference and seating, and helps communicate with the airline staff," says Shashank Desai (28), a financial consultant who just returned from a honeymoon to London and had his pictures taken with Aishwariya Rai's look-alike in Madame Tussauds. "This way you don't have to tell your travel agent that you're diabetic."

To hit the jackpot and save precious dollars on your hotel booking, read hotel reviews on sites such as www.epinions.com. To know more you can post your query on the message board of www.fodors.com.

Even questions such as how to avoid taking a taxi from the airport or how safe is it to walk around the hotel after sunset, would be answered by someone who has stayed there earlier. Go to Web sites of the hotels in the city/area you plan to visit, and also hotels a little distance away from tourist hotspots. Hotels a little away from tourist centres are cheaper, as also airport hotels and those in the suburbs.

Once you have a general idea of cost, if you have the time and are adventurous enough, try bidding for your hotel rooms at sites like www.priceline.com.

The excitement is similar to watching one-day cricket! You may have to modify your billing address to suit the US-only system. So change your pin code to five digit by removing a zero; for instance, "400001" becomes "40001" and select State as INDIANA which is IN in their two-alphabet system.

You bid and then wait, often for five to 15 minutes, to see if any hotel takes your bait. If not, lower the star ratings or expand location choices and bid higher.

It may take anything between 10 minutes to 2 hours but you are likely to have an experience of a lifetime. "We started bidding from 25 per cent of rates on the Web sites of hotels such as Courtyard (Marriott), Double Tree (Hilton) and Hyatt for our New York visit and got a bargain at $267, including taxes, for three nights at Double Tree, which would otherwise have cost $200 a day," says Shah. "Similarly, for our London visit, we selected a Heathrow-based hotel, Sheraton Skyline, and made a bidding which was accepted at £40 per night, including taxes. On arrival, it would have cost us £130."

Before arriving at the hotel, the Shahs upgraded their suite and demanded one with the "runway view" and not the "parking lot view". "We had fun identifying the airplanes landing at Heathrow," says Shah.

If you are flying within a week or less, then start from 50 per cent of the published rates. You can take the help of sites such as www.biddingfortravel.com to get a better idea of hotel rates.

Online ticket bargains

At google.com find out about the tourism promotion authority of the city you plan to visit and e-mail them for brochures/guides. Feel free to ask questions: "Are there any public showers or toilets in the city?" If you are making only day-trips, they may send you city maps giving the locations of such facilities.

Media consultant Himanshu Upadhayay, who has a bandwidth Net connection both at home and office, spends hours visiting travel-related Web sites. He recently returned from a London trip and explains how he saved money using e-tickets. "A week before I left, I visited the local bus company Web sites to find sweet deals offered only on e-tickets. Did you know that www.nationalexpress.com offers fun fares to most destinations in the UK from/to London for £1 each way, while regular fare varies between £10 and £30 each way?" says Upadhayay.

Planning an open-bus tour during your London visit? Head for www.theoriginaltour.com and save £1 on open-bus city tour rates. Similarly, if you are visiting a North American destination, prepaid booklets like www.CityPass.com can save substantial money in sightseeing. It usually contains prepaid entrance to most museums, ferry cruises and a local bus pass. At many of the attractions you are spared the trouble of waiting 30-45 minutes in the ticket queue. Every city has open-bus tours or trolley tours or, in the case of North America, Grayline City Tours.

Tickets, usually valid for six months, are priced $1 or £1 cheaper when bought online as it saves the company manpower cost. Once you have taken care of the basics, use sites such as www.fodors.com, www.ricksteves.com and www.frommers.com to know more about saving both money and time. Queries on their message boards get several responses, usually within 12 hours. Use www.mapquest.com to pinpoint locations of hotel, airport and tourist attractions, and the distances between them.

If your planned trip is more than a month away, then order a DVD of that city to get an idea of the local geography and decide on the places of interest. You can request the Web sites to deliver the DVD at the hotel you have booked, as the Shahs did. You can visit sites such as www.electronictours.net for DVDs on New York and Washington DC and www.dukevideo.com for `London from the Air' and other series of DVDs; www.questar1.com offers assorted travel DVDs from around the world.

Lastly, these Net-savvy individuals advise you to pick up your requirement of dollars, euros and pounds from home. "At Dulles Washington airport, Indian rupee was available against dollar and the rate was 35/50 which means if you buy it would cost Rs 50 per dollar and if you sell, they would pay Rs 35 for your dollar. The actual rate during my May visit was Rs 44 per dollar," says Upadhayay.

Travel tips

  • Estimate your currency requirement for each country, add 25-50 per cent more, and buy it at home. Every time you buy or sell foreign currency, you can lose 3-5 per cent of the value.

    Buying dollar against rupee and then changing it for euro/pound evaporates 6-10 per cent of the value.

  • If you need to buy forex abroad, avoid airport forex shops and tourist centres; they are the most expensive. Avoid using credit card abroad as you will pay 3 per cent more in addition to surcharge fees.

  • A little travel nugget: Trolleys in American airports are not free; they cost $3 per use. But if you return the trolley to its queue, you get a quarter back!

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