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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Arashiyama Bamboo forest, Kyoto, Japan

The Bamboo Forest or Bamboo Grove is one of the top attractions in Kyoto, Japan. It is located away from the city, in Arashiyama area. But well connected by JR. After reaching Kyoto from Osaka, I headed directly to Bamboo Forest, using the 7.24 AM JR train from Kyoto.

Bamboo forest is 10 min walk from Saga Arashiyama station. On the day of my visit, it was pretty early in the day so the area was relatively empty of tourists, but still had few people. A team of filmmakers was at the spot preparing to shoot.

It was a nice feel to see so many green, clean bamboos up close. We do have lots of bamboo trees in India but they are never presented as a tourist attraction. Plus lots of bushes, shrubs and extra fauna all around. 
Besides the Bamboo forest, the area has many more attractions to offer. Togetsukyo bridge, Okochi Sanso Villa and many more. Japan-Guide website has more details. But I didn't have the luxury of time to spend days.I headed to nearby Shrine- Daikaku-Ji temple area by walk.

Curious case of Radisson Blu Club Carlson membership error

This is a curious case of my Club Carlson Membership’s data entry error and the subsequent ordeal. What I thought would be a simple data entry correction proved to be a super complicated process. Whoever designed Radisson Blu’s loyalty program didn’t foresee this situation and failed to provide a remedy.

Background:
February 2017- Myself and a colleague check-in at Radisson Blu Scandinavia, Copenhagen, Denmark. We sign up for Radisson Blu’s loyalty program, Club Carlson. We are given a physical card, with numbers embossed on it and told we can start getting loyalty points from current stay onwards. We fill an enrollment form and give to the check-in staff.
One week later, we are back in India. I start getting emails from Club Carlson. But to my surprise, the emails address me as Mr . X where X is the name of my colleague. Clearly, the check-in clerk at the Radisson Blu Scandinavia made a data entry error, swapped name/email ID of me and my colleague.
Club Carlson’s emails do not mention any support email ID. I can’t login to the website either, because the membership ID given to me and my email do not seem to be matching. It is not letting me activate the account or reset the password.

On one of the evenings, I had some work at Radisson Blu Hotel in Egmore, Chennai. This hotel is not even a franchise- reportedly operated directly by Radisson Blu.

I went to Club Carlson desk at the hotel and ask them if they can help sort out the mess. Reply is negative- they can’t do anything.  They can only sign up new members or assign points if you stay at their hotel. For any other issues, you’re on your own.

Few weeks later, I got an opportunity to spend 2 nights at Radisson Blu, Temple Bay Mahabalipuram as part of GRT Bloggers meet. This hotel is managed by GRT Hotels, under franchise from Radisson Blu. During this time, I got an opportunity to interact with senior management of the hotel. I explained them the situation, but they also appeared helpless, as they have no contact or influence over Club Carlson membership support.

During check-out, I have whatever membership number I had and asked the staff to credit points for my 2 night stay at Radisson Blu. He didn’t see any issue with the number I had or name, said points have been credited.

I got fresh emails, reflecting updated points, but still addressing me with my colleague’s name. Now I had enough points that entitles me for one night free stay- worth about INR 6000 or so, not to be lost because of someone’s data entry error.

Then I turned to Club Carlson’s twitter support. They were prompt in responding and were very helpful. But some of their ask was simply not making sense.

I was told membership details once created can’t be corrected. I was asked to get email ID, membership number and other details of my colleague with whom my data was swapped.  I refused. It was not my fault and I can’t keep running around. Why should I trouble my colleague to share his details? In this case I know the person, but what if it was a stranger?. I gave them the date of enrollment and name of my colleague using which they can identify rest of the details, but the support staff insisted that I should get my colleague’s email ID and membership number. I refused again.

I launched a parallel conversation with their email support, after getting email ID from twitter support. While twitter support was very considerate, Email support was worse- they refuse to acknowledge the error and stuck to their point that nothing can be changed. Their solution was that they can create a new account for me and then work with hotels for the points- it was not worth my time and effort.
Eventually twitter support said they have created a new account and credited me equivalent points. But I can’t see my previous stay details in my account.

So lesson for you: If you’re signing up for Radisson Blu’s Club Carlson membership, ensure that no one else is signing up for the same within 5 km radius and insist to peep into the monitor to ensure that all details are entered correctly. Else if there’s a data entry mistake, you might be offering free points to someone else with your stay.

PS: It is the same story with Indian service providers too- like Banks and mobile companies- They take your address proof and create an account, but do some typo errors. If I highlight the error and ask it to be corrected, response will be “Sir, you’ve to raise an address change request”. If I say “This is not address change- correct it as per proof already submitted or provide me proof for whatever address you have entered”- they don’t have any remedy. I was thinking Radisson Blu support will be more efficient but I was wrong. Whoever designing their IT solution/support should re-think about these scenarios and include a way to deal with such situations- like may be update from backend etc.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Alpfly.com 10 domestic flight tickets for 22k- my review

Facebook friend Anirudhra Boganadham introduced me to this website called Alpfly.com and wondered how genuine and reliable it is. I had no idea about the site but since their claim seemed possibly legitimate and beneficial, I spent some time going through the site. This post shares my finding and personal opinion about the services offered by AlpFly.com. I have not purchased their services- this analysis is purely based on information available in public domain. Please use your discretion.
What is offered by AlpFly and why you should give it a consideration?
Alpfly is promising 10 domestic flight tickets for an upfront payment of Rs 21999, subject to a set of rules.  This averages to Rs 2200 per flight, which is usually cheaper than regular airfare for flights of 1.5 hour or longer duration.  If you are a regular flyer guaranteed to take several flights over a period of 1 year, you might be able to save some money (Approx 25000 per year assuming an average flight cost of 4700-5000 between popular cities (when booked say 10-15 days in advance). At a high level, this feels like timeshare of flight tickets..

Star plan for Rs 21999 is one of the many packages Alpfly has on offer- there’re separate packages for couples, couple with kids, business, hotel nights, cars and so on. I am focusing on the solo and cheapest package- Star Plan. Terms and conditions are largely same for other packages, but be sure to do your research before a purchase decision.

So what is the catch? How can Alpfly.com offer tickets so cheap?
  • AlpFly is not a regular booking site. You can’t just enter your origin, destination and date and book a flight for cheap. It works differently.
  • You make an upfront payment of Rs 22000- this entitles you for max 10 domestic one way tickets over a period of 1 year, max 2 per month
  • Each month you can book max 2 tickets (1 round trip is 2 tickets, one way ticket with 2 stops or more than 4 hours connection time is 2 tickets)
  • You need to indicate your travel date at least 9 days in advance (7 days excluding date of request and date of travel)
  • AlpFly will take your request, work with partner airlines and only 48 hours prior to travel time your ticket will be sent to you.
  • You have no choice of airline or flight time. You should be ready to accept whatever they offer or be ready to pay a change fee.
  • Not applicable for 8 black out destination (Port Blair, Leh, Lakshadweep, Bhopal, Jodhpur, Kullu, Aurangabad) and on any gazetted holiday +/- 2 days. For August 15 long weekend you need to fly before 12th or after 18th... Not convenient for office goers.
  • Also factor about 10% lost interest on your upfront payment and the risk of you not being able to utilize all the tickets within 12 months.
  • All 10 tickets will be issued for person who has registered- you can't use it for family or friends.
How do AlpFly make money?
Though I don’t know the exact behind the scene process, below is my guess:
  1. Alpfly customers make a request for a particular date, origin and destination city, at least 9 calendar days or in advance- Assume Chennai-Delhi on June 10th
  2. Alpfly waits till travel date comes closer-like say 3 days to departure date- 7th June
  3. Alpfly accumulates list of all customers who have requested flight on same day to same destination. Let us assume 30 different individuals have sought to fly to Delhi from Chennai on June 10th.
  4. Armed with this volume, Alpfly starts bargaining with airlines, to see who can give 30 seats at lowest price.
  5. For airlines, though regular fare is say Rs 5000, they know that not all seats will be sold at that rate before flight departure. With only few days to spare, even if they can get just Rs 1500 per seat, it is a good deal, as they can fill up 30 seats and get Rs 45000 (If there's another airline with more empty seats ready to offer them at Rs 1000 per seat, even more savings for Alpfly) 
  6. If an airline says "I don't have much seats left on Chennai- Delhi, but I can give you Chennai-Trivandrum + Trivandrum-Delhi" Alpfly will happily grab it and put you on that multi-stop flight, even it means spending one full day in travel or costing you two tickets. As long as flight leaves Chennai before 2359 hours on 10th June, they have fulfilled their obligation, doesn't matter arrival in Delhi could be on 11th or even 12th June!
  7. Airline confirms to offer 30 seats on a specific Chennai-Delhi flight on June 10th to Alpfly.
  8. Alpfly then processes all its 30 customers on their flight and sends them ticket, pocketing the difference (Rs 2199 per flight- 1500 paid to airline) (1500 is an indicative number- may be more, may be less, depending on how the bargaining goes. Some select destinations like Andamans, Lakshdweep, Jodhpur etc are excluded from this program as they are either very unlikely to have enough volume on a given day to be able to bargain hard or these destinations are served by very few flights, which will always be full and bargaining is difficult.
  9. More the number of customers requesting for specific day and destination, higher the bargaining power and thus higher the savings for Alpfly. In some cases they may lose if only few people ask for specific day. I am sure Alpfly will have some agreement with airline to prevent huge loss (like some ceiling price etc)
  10. It is also possible that Alpfly would operate for a loss for first few years, powered by VC funding and focusing on customer acquisition. Once they have huge customer base, they can slowly increase the package price and also bargain harder with airlines.
Did I sign up on alpfly? NO!
Though the proposition is tempting, I didn’t sign up because of following reasons

1 Not being able to specify time: This is the biggest barrier why I didn’t sign up. Alpfly only lets you select a date, not time or airline. This severely hampers my planning. For a Friday morning flight, I need to take a day off from work but can plan to explore some places at the destination. For Friday evening flight, I don’t need leave, but I get no time at the destination. If it is mid day, I lose the most precious and productive day time hours in airport and flying, reducing the effectiveness of my trip. At least Alpfly should try to offer a time range- like departure up to 8 AM, 8AM -12 noon, 12 noon to 6 PM, after 6 PM etc. This may not be viable for smaller cities with just a few flights a day, but can certainly be offered between metros that have several flights per day.

2. Confirmation only 48 hours before flight: Even if I notify my need say 7-10 days in advance,  we will get confirmation only 48 hours prior. This means I can’t plan my self-drive car booking, hotel booking and local itinerary till last moment, which is an unnecessary headache for me. Too much uncertainties spoil the effectiveness of a trip. If you have 10-12 days trip you can possibly keep first and last day at leisure and be flexible to accept whatever flight time alpfly offers. But for short 3-4 days trip that I usually have, I need to optimize first and last day also. Also note that they only promise departure on the day specified. It could be a 2355 hours departure and arriving in destination only next day afternoon with some connection somewhere. You have no control on how you're routed. Imagine a situation- I might have had Saturday early morning onward and Sunday late night return flight in mind for a weekend trip. If I get Saturday late night onward and Sunday early morning return flight, what is the benefit of the trip? I asked their chat support if they will show the shortlisted flight and take our confirmation before booking. Response was that they will check with us once before booking, but if we don’t opt for their selection there could be a change fee of Rs 499, even when booking is not made yet.

3. Not all flights cost 2200 Rs or more.
While Rs 2200 per flight is an attractive amount, many short distance flights can actually be booked for much lesser. Remember Govt of India’s UDAN plan that caps fares at Rs 2500 for flights shorter than 1 hour? If you can plan 3-4 weeks in advance, most short haul flights can be booked for 2 to 3k one way or less, there is not much cost advantage with Alpfly. Also if there’s a sales going on, even long distance flights you might be able to grab at some cool discounts. I fly whenever, wherever it is cheap so the concept of AlpFly isn’t really appealing to me. Because of these, Alpfly makes sense only for slightly longer duration flights only or if you can’t plan well in advance to book cheap.

Also Alpfly's terms and condition says more than 4 hours transit time or more than 2 connections will be treated as 2 tickets. It is not clear what happens in scenarios where a direct flight is available (say as per makemytrip) but is full or expensive and Alpfly decides to offer a multi stop or long transit time option- why should we lose another 2200 Rs in such cases? As per some of the online reviews, this seems to be the major way in which Alpfly tricks its customers to cough up twice the amount, claiming they don't have any inventory of direct flights.

4. Not applicable on holidays (T&C states tickets will NOT be issued on gazetted holidays & festive days +/- 2 days. This simply rules out all long weekends. This could possibly be the biggest reason this plan won't be viable for working class. 8 destinations are also not allowed.
Dealing directly with airline has some advantages- Jet airways allows 24 hours no questions asked cancellation, many airlines provide a hold pin (24 hour lock on ticket price while you make up your mind], cancellation is easier and cheaper if booked directly with airline. I think we will loose these benefits when booked via 3rd party.

Should you buy the flight package at Alpfly?
Though their terms and conditions do not work out for me at present, Alpfly might help save some money to those who are relatively more flexible. In my personal opinion, assuming everything they claim on their website is true, you can try Alpfly if following conditions hold good for you:
  • You are fine with a bit of uncertainty as to which flight (airline and timing) will be assigned to you on your requested date and willing to spare an additional day if necessary
  • You can plan a trip 9 calendar days or more in advance
  • You are guaranteed to take 10 or more flights per year (spread across the near, not all together)- mostly long haul (2 hours or greater) which usually cost about 4k to 5k under normal circumstances.
  • Once booked you have very low probability of having the need to cancel/modify your flight
Alpfly being a new company, not much is known about their credibility and reliability. As such airline service industry is complicated. With one more player in between if anything goes wrong or you need some changes, you will have more running around to do. It is also recommended to wait for a month or two for some feedback to emerge from current users. But the risk of waiting is that once they get enough subscribers, amount payable may go up a bit for new members.

Note that all information as available at the time of drafting this post. Rates, terms are subject to change over time. Please check with the website for latest.

Similar: Budget airline add-ons: which ones are really worth? * How to travel the world on budget? *  Air Asia Big sale hack

Thangkharang Park, Cheerapunjee, Meghalaya

This Thangkharang Park was not on my itinerary- It didn't show up as a major must see place so I hadn't factored it. But after stopping near Seven Sister Falls, we saw a board that said "Thangkharang Park, 7kms". We had some time to spare so debated if we can go to this park. 7 kms didn't seem much and online photos were not bad, so decided to proceed. This post gives you a quick brief about the Thangkharang Park in Meghalaya, so that you can decide if you would like to visit the same.

The Bad Roads: 7 kms is 15-20 minutes by car under normal conditions. But the roads leading to Thangkharang park were in bad condition. Took us about 40 minutes one way

Bangladesh Viewpoint:
Enroute to Thangharang Park, a board suggested a small diversion offering view of Bangladesh. We did divert and got a view of Bangladesh. This spot was totally worth it.




The Thangkharang Park
The Park is well maintained and looks nice with red and green forest department combination. Entry fee is Rs 20 per person, Rs 20 for camera and another 20 for car parking

What to see/do inside?
Nothing much. A view of the valley from the edge of the park and another view of the waterfalls, a green house and some resting areas/regular garden stuff.





Above: View from the edge of the park.
Free drinking water is available.
I wouldn't say this park is a must visit. If you have couple of hours to spare and don't mind driving on bad roads then stopby, else you may skip this park.

More posts from Cheerapunjee coming up. Read about Dawki here

Empowering Women via Project Thiramai - Smile foundation and Pepsico initiative

This post is brought to you in association with Pepsico Foundation (CSR unit of Pepsico India) and briefs you about a recent event in which 235+ rural women were felicitated for their hard work and achievements. If this topic isn't of your interest you may check my travel posts here.

Post December 2015 floods, many villagers in TN were severely affected, with their homes/shops/livestock considerably damaged or destroyed. In order to help them bounce back, Smile Foundation, an NGO, aided by Pepsico Foundation launched a series of initiatives. Main one being Project Thiramai (Thiramai is Tamil word for Skills).

Four vocation training centres were setup in the villages of Mamandur, Nelvoy, Salavakkam and Chatiram- around 100kms south of Chennai, near Chengalpettu. Many local women were signed up for a 3 month stitching course during which they learnt sewing dresses. The course was supplemented by training on repairing the sewing machines, helping them save precious time and money otherwise had to be spent on the repairs, and additional sessions on Yoga and meditation. Women from 12+ villages benefited from this initiative.

On May 10th an event was organized to celebrate the success of this initiative and facilitate the trainees who successfully completed the vocational training. They were also rewarded with a free sewing machine so that they can start a tailoring business. They can alternatively seek job in nearby garment factories as well.

I was invited to attend this, but couldn't go being a working day. My fellow bloggers from Chennai including Ghunjain and Sarath managed to attend the same.
PC Sampath, Minister for Industries, Govt of TN, P Thangamani, minister for electricity, excise and prohibition, COO of Smile Foundation Mr Sanjeev Dham, Mrs Poonam Kaul, VP-CSR, Pepsico India and other dignitaries presided over the function.
Pepsico employs close to 15000 people in Tamil Nadu in its 5 different manufacturing facilities across the state, in addition to engaging with 400+ farmers.

Mr. Sanjeev Dham, Chief Operating officer, Smile Foundation said that the women were chosen from many diversities, many of them were physically challenged as well and demonstrated great dedication to complete the course. He also thanked Pepsico for their support.

Ms. Poonam Kaul, VP-CSR, PepsiCo India elaborated on the focus of PepsiCo Foundation’s community development and rehabilitation initiative with Smile Foundation and various livelihood enhancement initiatives taken for underprivileged families in villages around Pepsico's manufacturing plant in Mamandur. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Best Luxury Stay in Mahabalipuram: Radisson Blu Temple Bay Resort

The small town of Mahabalipuram, some 60 kms from Chennai has at least a dozen luxury resorts, all targeting business from foreign tourists and from corporate events. Though I have never stayed in any of them, I have been to many of them as part of team outings and other company events. Of all the luxury options in Mahabs, one that stands out is the Temple Bay. Formerly known as GRT Temple Bay, now it is Radisson Blu Temple Bay. Still operated by GRT Group but under the branding and franchise of Radisson Blu

I have been to the Temple Bay resort at least a dozen times for various company events and outings, but never had an opportunity to stay here. That part was fulfilled few weeks ago, as part of #GRTHotels bloggers meet. We got to spend 2 nights in this luxury resort and I was now eligible to explore all areas of the resort. (Visiting guests can't enter certain residents only areas).

This post shares my photos of Radisson Blu Temple Bay, Mahabalipuram and related details we could explore during our stay.

Radisson Blu Temple Bay is set in an 18 hectare campus (44 acres). Great landscaping, plenty of trees, many of them fruit bearing and two big pools attract lots of birds in the campus as well. Upon our arrival, we were served tender coconut welcome drink. The lobby area is very photogenic with attractive ceiling mounted lights.
Lights in the lobby- view from bottom!

After quick fresh-up we headed for the beach- the area adjacent to sea deck to be precise. Here there was generous serving of more tender coconut, butter milk and other beverages. I enjoyed drinking several tender coconuts that evening.



Above: The bar counter- notice the localized theme with boat, lanterns, tender coconut, coconut leaf walls and more...Next was time for a quick brief by resort management, followed by entertainment.

Various local artists exhibited their skills.  First was peacock dance. I made a 6 min video of this dance- do watch below: [Watch on Youtube here]
Next performance was horse dance- artists had wooden stick tied to their legs, so they were balancing precariously on those and not using their real feet. This adds to the complexity as they have to maintain their vertical balance as well manage to shake the horse frame back n forth and perform other acts using hand and face.


Balancing on the bottles- because the ground was not even (rock with grass), artist had to try multiple positions till he was convinced that the positioning is stable. Eventually he did it- standing up on the two wooden planks supported by empty glass bottles in between.
Note that artist performance may not be standard activity on all days.

He also performed various stunts such as balancing multiple items on the head, drinking juice while dancing and balancing, playing with fire and much more. He was supported by two female dancers. In one of the dangerous acts, he lifted a sharp pin with his eyebrows.

Temple Bay's activity manager was such an energetic person. All guests danced with him to their heart's content.

Next of course was dinner.




 Very colourful and energetic ambiance
Room Types at Temple Bay:
Standard Chalet: The most affordable category of rooms, around 45 sq meters (as per Radisson website, 28 sq meters on booking.com) in space and equipped with about 25 different facilities including a Patio. Rentals cost around INR 7000 per day, after including various taxes.

Chalet with Pool View: My stay was in this category of rooms. Fairly similar to Standard Chalet with with the view of Temple Bay's signature swimming pool from the balcony. Room was luxurious with essence of stone artifacts and silk embedded in.  Pool view Chalets cost upwards of INR 8000 per night after tax. (Rates are indicative, can vary with check-in date, booking channel and other means). I noticed that most of the pool view chalets are designed such that hot sun-rays do not directly enter the room. A slightly tiled design ensures better heat protection. Of course campus has lots of trees to keep the temperature down.

Above: Real stone sculptures inside the room
Below: A touch of silk right above the bed


Above: Balcony with pool view
Below: View of the pool from my balcony


Above: A bit of personal touch by the house keeping staff
Below: Eco friendly initiatives


Each room gets a  dedicated baggage storage area with locker and almera 
Unfortunately day time I had to attend to work, so I missed the property tour and other activities.

Sea View Chalets: Next luxurious category of rooms give you the view of Bay of Bengal from your window/balcony. Price per night is about 10k INR

Villa with sea view: Villas offer additional privacy and more space. Sea view villa costs about 20k a night.

Sea view villas with private pool: The most luxurious option at Temple bay offers private dining space, Jacuzzi, separate lounge area, a private pool and a host of additional facilities. Costs about 30000 INR per night

Activities to try at Radisson Blu Temple Bay Mahabalipuram:

1. Catamaran ride: When the sea is friendly, guests can go on a catamaran ride. On the day of our stay, the ride was cancelled due to rough sea

2. Play Chess with life size pawns
3. ATV Ride- only in the evening, operated by 3rd party agency.
4. Infinity Pool

5. The Meandering Pool- largest in South Asia, in terms of length it almost covers half the length of the resort campus, extending from The Water's Edge restaurant till Bodhi Spa. Around 27000+ Sq feet, complete with several bridges, mini pools for kids.




6. Zorbing can be tried in the above pool

7. Bodhi Spa: Temple Bay Resort has 2 Spa units, offering rejuvenating ayurvedic massages. There's a couple room as well (named Laila Majnu!). Do not miss a session here during your stay.

7. Volleyball by the beach

8. Cycles and E-bikes available for rent.
9. Dancing, golf, indoor games are some of the other activities you can try inside the resort.

Restaurants at Radisson Blu Temple Bay, Mahabalipuram
1. The Water's Edge

Water's Edge is the main and all day restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, located close to lobby.

2. The Wharf: The Wharf serves specialty food. Seated by the ocean under a relatively darker ambiance, Wharf is a great place for long conversations with regular supply of unique dishes.

The Temple bay resort being very huge, our coordinator had to whatsapp exact location where we were supposed to assemble. Take a close look at the map for better understanding of resort resort layout.

Temple bay has won multiple awards for their eco friendly initiatives. Tata Ace mini fire truck in the parking area is a good initiative.

Places to visit nearby: Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram, 5 Rathas, light house, shopping for local handicrafts, Tiger Cave. Krishna's butter ball, Sea Shell Museum are some of the attractions nearby. Polaris Offroad track is also nearby.

Even more places to visit nearby Mahabalipuram: Alamparai Fort * Dakshin Chitra * Muthukadu Boat House * MGM * Kovalam Beach * Crocodile Bank


Also check: Grand by GRT * Radisson Blu Scandinavia