Friday, October 24, 2014

India Taxi booking: checkpoints and precautions to take

Of late I noticed a few complaints on facebook about non-arrival of taxis causing spoilsport with people’s holiday plans. Two complaints were about Taxi for sure (one by Vishal Srivatsava and another by Srikant Eswaran) and few others on rest of the brands.

Particularly during festive seasons, taxis have high demand, drivers are asked to do multiple back to back trips without rest and often a high profitability demand (say for a long trip) makes operators either re-arrange or at times completely ignore smaller booking (say railway station drop).

If you’re booking tourist taxis in India, here are a list of things that can go wrong and possible preventive/alternate measures.

If you've booked cab for local transport (to reach airport/station) you might be able to manage an alternate transport.But if your entire outstation trip depends on this cab, you should be even more cautious.

Assigning Pickup time
20-30 min delay is deemed standard by Indian practice. When you plan your trip, suggest keeping at least 30 min buffer for possible delays and traffic jams. More if you need to cross popular traffic bottlenecks (like Tin Factory, Bangalore) or peak hours. Better reach 30 min early and wait, than miss train/flight by a few mins.

If everything goes as per plan, then you might arrive very early, but that is more manageable situation than scrambling for options last minute. Carry a book to read.
Booking Confirmation by SMS/App
Most taxi operators now have a system in place that sends a proper booking confirmation, either by SMS or by app.

If the operator can’t send a confirmation and only orally confirms, then you might have bigger risk. Unless the agency office is closer home or you know the operator in person, avoid such operators.
Communication of driver & vehicle details at least 30 min before proposed departure time
Non communication of driver details should be your first sign that something is wrong. If not received in time, check with operator. If no satisfactory answer is given and if you can’t get through to the driver, initiate Plan B (alternate mode of transport)
Get the truth out from driver
When you first talk to driver, ask for his current location and assess for yourself if he/she can reach your pickup point within reasonable time from there. Some apps show cab location in real time, which is good.

It is common for drivers to claim they are just 2 kms from pickup point, when in reality they could be 10-15kms away. If you feel the driver is bluffing, tell him that he can wait there only (2km point from your home)- at this time he is likely to communicate real distance.
Dealing with customer care
Folks manning customer care are used to angry customers and over time become insensitive to the urgency/frustration of the customer. (We call them only when there’s trouble and after listening to complaints and abuses all day for no personal fault of theirs, they get immune to such situations.

Most of the time they are likely to try get rid of you by giving some standard answers (it will be coming shortly etc). You should be smart enough to decide if you want to trust them or stop relying on them and opt for your own Plan B

Bottom line: Do NOT waste your time and energy on customer care. If you get a feeling that they are not being honest, realistic and helpful, start working on Plan B
Having Plan B
What can you do if the cab doesn’t turn up at all?  Below are some options, there could be more. Shortlist whatever is convenient to you and keep your options handy

Option 1: Drive to destination in your own car
Option 2: Hire a call driver to drive your car to destination
Option 3: Hire a self-drive car if available (if you don’t own a car)
Option 4: Check with other cab operators (could be difficult during high demand season)
Option 5: Public transport (helps to pack such that if there’s no cab you can drop one bag and travel light)
Option 6: Friends who might be willing to lend their car
Option 7: Change of destination/travel plans, if cancellation charges (for hotel etc) aren’t too much
Option 8: Re-align your plans to suit cab availability (you may lose a day etc)
Option 9: Can a neighbor/friend drop you off till the station?
Option 10: Is it possible to fly to the destination at reasonable cost instead of taking road?
When cab arrives late
Assess if you still have time to make it to station/airport etc. Most of the train, flight status, location etc can be checked real time. If they are running late, you will know.

See if you can change boarding point (refer next point)

Is there an alternate option if you miss your train/flight?

Select alternate boarding point
Main railway stations/bus stands in the city are often crowded and involves lots of time to locate your bus/train, walk long distance, sometime climb up and down stairs etc.

Where possible, see if you can go to a boarding point in city outskirts. Such stations will have less platforms,  hence easy to move around and less crowd.

Only disadvantage is that train/bus may not wait for long in these stations and you’ll have to be quick.

It might help sending one person from group to origin station in advance (say using public transport) while others board at next station.
Checking if driver had enough sleep
 At times, drivers are forced to do back to back trips without enough rest. If you're about to start a long trip, check if driver is fresh. If not it might be worth delaying your trip by 2 hours and ask driver to sleep properly. This is in safety interest. Or plan such a way that you visit a nearby attraction on the way, while you visit the attraction, driver gets to sleep.
 Factoring interstate permit fee time
At state borders, tourist vehicles need to stop, pay entry permit fee etc. This process can take few hours if there's huge rush. Provide for this in your tour planning.

​Wayanad Family Trip Travelogue

I had done a Wayand roadtrip in 2008, with friends and in a Hertz Scorpio. (Read travelogue Part 1, Part 2, and an Ergo article). That was a brand new scorpio Vls with its ribbon on the bonnet
This October, after about 6 years, went there again. This time also in a Scorpio, again from Hertz (Carzonrent) and a relatively new one with ribbon on its bonnet. But this time went with family.
 Above: 2014 Scorpio Vlx, Below: 2008 Scorpio Vls, both from Carzonrent

We left from Mysore very early in the morning, stopped at Nanjanagud for sometime, for I thought hotels in Gundlupete may not open before 7AM. While proceeding towards Gundlupete we came across a roadblock, caused by a Kallada Volvo which killed a villager during an overtaking attempt. Locals had gathered and the mother of the victim was seen crying. The driver of the bus had escaped fearing for his life while angry mob was seen throwing petrol on the bus. Not sure if they torched it. A villager advised us on an alternate route, which us and others in the convoy took. Though we learnt that police came and cleared way soon.

We drove through Bandipur and had to spend about 1 hour at Kerala border for permit. During Shabarimala season I am told it might take as much as half a day to get permit, due to very large lineup of tourist vehicles. Few states permit online payment of entry tax, but Kerala Government hasn’t gone tech savvy yet. So waiting in line for hours at a stretch is the only option if you’re arriving in tourist vehicle, including black board self-drive. Kerala Tourism: FYI and A.

To my surprise, for both 5 seater logan with repeat entry and 7 seater scorpio with first time entry, same amount was charged- Rs 200.

We first went to Edakal caves, which was a big mistake and disappointment. Huge traffic jam meant lots and lots of walking and on the top, ticket issue was halted because of crowd. So we had to abandon and come back- loosing few precious hours in the process. If only Kerala tourism can set up some display boards with real time status like “Ticket issue halted” or “Walking distance from closest available car park: 3 kms” or “todays visitors: 10 times the average” then tourists can plan their visit from a distance and probably come back later. It is probably too much to expect, but Kerala being tourism focused state, they should take initiatives like this to make visitor experience more pleasant.

It was afternoon, so we had lunch and went to our homestay to rest for a while. Evening we saw a board called Chethalayam falls and drove about 12 kms only to find it closed for tourists. Why display the boards to places that are closed and waste tourist’s time. But anyway, the road from Sultan Bathery to Chethalayam falls was brilliant- picture perfect trees, nice and empty roads and lots of curves. I enjoyed the drive and stopped a few times to click some photos. So no regrets on the closed waterfalls.
Then we drove to Phantom rock- the first successful visit of the day. Read more about Phantom rock here.

Next I thought of visiting Heart shaped lake or Hridaya Saras, which is on top of Chembra peak. Google maps took us to that place through some narrow and bad set of roads instead of highway and our Verito driver was very upset with this. Again I enjoyed steering the scoprio and as we approached our destination, it was getting dark. Some of us hit upon the idea of returning back. But with nothing else to explore for the day, I went further till the peak. We reached there after sunset and drove all the way back. Once again I managed to put 10 passengers to discomfort while I enjoyed negotiating sharp turns, deep pot holes and narrow roads. We should have planned better- everyone told me.
Drove back to Sultan Bathery via Kalpetta this time and ordered dinner at Udupi hotel. The verito driver offered to Xerox my foot if I had any plans of driving up on another hill next day.

Back to Herbal nest homestay and rest. End of Day 1.

Day 2: We cooked food ourselves in the homestay for breakfast. It was cheaper and convenient option. Not many homestays let you do that. We left at about 8.30, stopped for sometime at the Jain temple in Sultan Bathery. Then we headed to Kanthanpara waterfalls. This lesser known falls was totally worth the visit and compensated for other falls we didn’t/couldn’t visit- such as Meenmutty, Soochipara and Chethalayam.

Next we drove to Lakkidi view point, followed by Pookut lake. I had already seen this lake, hence opted to relax inside the car for a while.  Found a veg restaurant by the roadside and pulled over for lunch. Post lunch we took the same road to Banasura that I’d taken 6 years ago. We did take a diversion to check out Karlad lake.

After visiting Banasura dam, we drove little further to explore a waterfall.

That was the last attraction for the day. No time to visit Kuruva dweep, so we drove towards Karnataka via Mananthawadi. We managed to cross the border before the gates of Nagarahole reserve forest close for the day and reach Mysore by night. The road was much better this time. In 2008, we had some major offroading here because of extremely poor road.

It was good to revisit Wayanad. We could have planned better to manage our timing and visit places at right time to avoid some disappointments. I sort of underestimated the tourist inflow on a long weekend. Besides, we were typical tourists who wanted the car to go till the last step- no time to trek. Rainy weather meant no sunrise/sunset shot and less work for DSLR.

In summary,Kanthanpara falls, Phantom rock, Karnad lake, drive upto Chembra peak and Banasura falls were the new things I could explore this time. Banasura dam, Edakal and; Sultan Batthery were repeat visits

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Zoomcar XUV500 video-Blr to Hogenakkal and back

Below is a short video I made out of Zoomcar's XUV500. For some strange reasons, this video has been extremely challenging, both to shoot and to process.

If you're interested to know more about the story behind the video, read further, else you may skip below content.

When I booked XUV500 from Zoom I had some clear ideas in my head as to how the video should appear. I made a huge list of various shots to be taken. But all through the day, ended up making lots of compromises, because of which I lost some possibly good video bytes. The GoPro suction mount from Amazon never came and partially spoiled my plans.

First I wanted to shoot XUV500 in motion from an external vehicle. Got my cousins to come in their two wheeler and made them shoot the video. But it was dark. If we waited for 30 more minutes we would have got more light, but then, we also had planned to visit Hogenakkal, so couldn't wait in city for long.

Professionals who make car videos spend days on it, working as a team and using multiple cameras and accessories. I was trying to multi task- we had to visit Hogenakkal, we had to come back to Blr by night and in between shoot some photos and videos too. I had passengers who had interests other than photo and video. They needed to get back to city asap and didn't fancy my too many stops for photos and videos. (Of course they were kind enough to co-operate).
I came back with loads of videos and had to find time to process them. Before leaving for Mysore-Wayanad early October, I almost finished editing but the project didn't compile as it kept showing one or the other file was corrupt. After several desperate attempts, I discarded the project. Had to start allover again.

GoPro studio at times have an annoying behavior- while I try to edit out a specific bit from a video, it extracts few seconds before/after my selection, probably because of not adequate hardware in my system, spoiling the video. Moviemaker is more precise. But it has its own problems. Half way through the compilation of video, I get a msg that there's not enough space. It won't tell how much space is needed or won't let me point a location which has space. Some other time it is issue with some source file- it won't tell which one... At times it fails after reaching 90% and output is nothing, doesn't even give me the 90% video that is done processing. A very frustrating situation with a limited capacity computer that can't handle heavy duty video editing.

Finally spent another few hours on Deepavali holiday to edit the videos again and here's the 4 min video on XUV500. GoPro alone was not adequate, have used both Nikon and GoPro for this. Srivatsa, Dhanajay and others have helped in making this video. Hope you like it. Will try processing a higher res version this weekend.

 Similar: Landrover Experience XUV500 W6 review * XUv500 w6 vs Fortuner 4x2  * Zoomcar review * My video channel on youtube Booking Experience Update

Ever since I made my first booking with Stayzilla some 6 months ago [review here], I’ve been regularly using this website for my accommodation needs.

I made one booking at Girivihar Lonavala, another at Belgaum which I couldn’t use and one at Herbal Nest Wayanad. In this post I am sharing my recent experience with Stayzilla

Overall their service is satisfactory. No disappointments as such. But they do have scope for improvement.At times inventory on the website is not real time. I'd first booked at Wayanad Gate Hotel, I was later told it is sold out and then I had to rebook.
Feedback Spam:
After my Wayanad booking, I got back to back emails soliciting feedback. It was asking me to write  a review at tripadvisor.  I replied with my blog post as the feedback and also I’d reviewed the homestay on tripadvisor. Still I kept getting email. I had to reply angrily to stayzilla team to stop spamming me. Thankfully it stopped after that. I am hoping this is some bug in their application and they won't spam all their customers for feedback.

Similarly too many offer emails also have begun to annoy me. I can’t travel just because there’s an offer. I need leave, need to plan travel, need to team up friends etc, so I will book a room with or without offer when I want it. I won’t book rooms just because there’s an offer. Probably I should unsubscribe.

Rs 99 hotel rooms: Stayzilla advertised a Rs 99 a night hotel offer- found out that it is some sort of flash sale for some remote location and one specific hotel, for a very short duration. Not really practical. Even if I had got a room for Rs 99, I would have to spend a fortune reaching that place. Not sure how many managed to book rooms at Rs 99.I think they should avoid this kind of sales gimmicks and just focus on giving good service.

Still there’s no provision on the website for user reviews. If they can let their customers write a few lines about the hotel after their stay, it will help future customers a lot.

By and large their customer service has been very efficient. But a few practices sometime irritate me. For example, on the day of check-in, they keep calling to ask what time I will arrive, what time I will check in etc. Their intention is to call the hotel and keep the room ready when we arrive. Their intention is noble but most of the time I will be driving, visiting some places on the way and reach the hotel by evening and I can’t tell exact time of check-in. If I’ve selected check in at 12 noon, hotel should keep the room ready by 12 noon. I may check in at 12 noon or 4 PM that is my choice. Why should I be called again and again to ascertain my check-in time? Each time I get the call, I have to pullover, take the call, provide some estimated time, loose several minutes and few rupees of roaming charges in the process. I would appreciate some more liberty in this- less calls and rooms should be ready any time after pre-specified check-in time.

Getting some useful info from chat executives still continues to be a pain. They only seem to have information available in website, nothing more. During Dasara, all hotels in Wayanad were sold out. I tried to check with their chat representatives if there’re any rooms in Wayanad. Chat rep kept asking me for my name, email, phone number, check in date, number of rooms etc etc. Even after giving my entire bio data, I still didn’t get an answer from the chat rep if there’re any availability. So I’ve adjusted to reduce my expectation from chat representatives (this issue is same for all websites- chat guys are hired with primary objective of collecting some customer information, than answering their queries quickly)

Another thing I noticed that hotel owners/managers do have good respect for stayzilla.

I will continue to use stayzilla, but would appreciate if they can reduce spam, provide for customer feedback and make their chat guys little more well informed and responsive.

Offroad Obstacle3-Negotiating Narrow Bund

This is part 3 of the offroad for beginners series. Read Part 1 here and part 2 here.

The 3rd obstacle was to negotiate a narrow tank bund. This challenge seemed very easy from the distance but was very tricky. So tricky that many drivers needed multiple attempts to clear it and in some instances, they had to be pulled out using external force.

Most of us can do one thing at a time- we can either speed up or we can make a turn. Some offroad obstacles demand a skill in which both of these need to be done together, in perfect coordination.

As usual Nischal gave the first demo. See in this picture how the front and rear wheels are in two extreme positions. Front wheel was touching its housing while rear had dropped low as much the suspension would allow.

First step was to climb up the bund and then turning to right. Though it sounds simple, if done wrongly, vehicle will enter a situation known as Cross-Axle. (In cross axle, who diagonally opposite wheels loose traction and spin in air- say front left and rear right wheel. The remaining two wheels, though powered, won't be able to move the vehicle forward)

In this particular instance, I feel it will be better to let the drivers try multiple times and get it right, than instructing to turn left, right, back etc. It is difficult for driver to visualize that the spotter has in mind when he gave that instruction. Instead, drivers can try a few times, fail and learn for themselves the right way of getting across. A driver should have the liberty to test his/her calculations/judgment at times..

Getting on the bund was first part, getting down on the other side was another. Several Thars got stuck and had to be pulled out using other jeeps. Spotters had to be extra cautious as there were risks of jeeps tripping over. Showroom Thars don't rave roller cages- participants were advised to add them.

After 3 obstacles, we hit lunch time. Standby for few more