Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Madagascar Lemurs at Tropikariet, Helsingborg

While I wait for my connecting flight at Amsterdam Schipol airport, let me tell you about a unique private zoo I visited some 7 weeks earlier- in Helsingborg, Sweden.

Tropikariet as it is known, is a small indoor zoo. It is privately owned and maintained and houses some rare animals from different parts of the world. What is unique about this Tropikariet Zoo is the way visitors get to experience animals. Unlike other zoos the animals in Tropikariet are not caged. They roam around freely (but within the floor/building. Tropikariet is NOT an open air zoo) and visitors pass through the floor in a pre-defined path, with animals moving around freely.

World's smallest monkey from South America, Lemurs from Madagascar, Meerkats of Africa are few of the popular animals at Tropikariet.

In this post, I am sharing some pictures of the Lemurs. About other animals and attractions at the zoo will write a separate post.

Unfortunately visitors are not allowed to touch the animals or feed them. This kind of limits the experience, but I guess the rule is critical to ensure that both animals and visitors are not harmed. Feeding wrong stuff or mishandling them could cause injuries.
Selfie with Lemur- they are fearless and go about their business of jumping around without bothering the visitors.

Madagascar section in ground level is the best part of Tropikariet. Standby for more.

Also read: Queen's garden at Sofiero, Helsingborg * Europeade 2015 at Helsingborg * Radhuset- City townhall *

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Hostel booking in Europe: Useful 7 point checklist & tips

Hostels are cheapest way of spending a night in Europe, particularly when you are on a budget and all you need is a place to sleep for the night. Compared to hotels that offer exclusive rooms, hostels consist dormitories with multiple beds, with each bed rented to a guest on per night basis, at fraction of what it costs to rent a full hotel room. While this shared accommodation is cheap, it also has some drawbacks/challenges as you don't own the entire room and need to live with other guests respecting common rules.

During my weekend trips ex-Copenhagen, I stayed in 6 different hostels across Europe- in Brussels, Amsterdam, Bergen (Norway), Interlaken, Helsinki and Kaunas (Lithuania). Each hostel stay was different experience. Their layout, rules, rate structure etc had variations. I have already written detailed review of Monk’s Bunk Kaunas, Louise Hostel Brussels here and few more detailed reviews coming up.

In this post, I am sharing a list of my observations and things to look for, while booking hostels in Europe. These aspects if considered carefully can help you save some time, money and make your stay more convenient. Hope this helps

Checkpoint 1: Distance from city centre: Closer to city centre the better. Farther the hostel is from city centre, more will be your traveling time and cost. If not closer to city centre then ensure that hostel has a metro station or good public transportation (Use maps-if hostel is close to central station or if you see icons representing tram/bus/train adjacent to hostel then go for it). If not, a few euros you save on rent will be consumed in transport to and from the hostel.

Checkpoint 2: Locker options- Since you will be sharing the bed in a dorm, a safe place to keep your valuables while you’re away becomes important. Different hostels have different type of lockers with different fee structure.
  • Piano hostel in Bergen has a money operated locker, which costs 10 NOK (About INR 80 or 1 Euro) per opening. Each time you want to lock it, you need to put a new coin. Also this locker was very small and not big enough to take a backpack.
  • Monk’s bunk in Kaunas had a large size locker inside the room, free of cost (10 Euro deposit required)
  • A&O Zuidoost in Amsterdam had a free to use luggage room near reception and a small sized locker for extremely valuable stuff (like passport, wallet etc)- no locker in room
  • Stadion Hostel in Helsinki had two types of lockers- one big one, for which you need to have your own lock (or buy a lock at reception) and a smaller locker free for use (deposit required)
There is no clear way of knowing what kind of lockers are there in a hostel- you can either try reading the reviews of that hostel or if you are very particular about this (like you have some big bag or valuable you plan to leave in the room when you go out) then check with hostel via email or phone before booking.
Checkpoint 3: No of beds and open space: If you plan to spend lot of time in the room, Number of beds could be a factor. Some hostels stuff 10-15 beds in a room (like Piano hostel, Bergen) which can get congested and noisy when fully occupied. Check pictures of the hostel online, gives you an idea of how congested/spacious it is. Some hostels have private rooms for slightly extra money, which might be worth considering if you are in a group or if you are keen on privacy.

Checkpoint 4: Check-in Check-out timings: Some hostels have very inconvenient/restrictive check-in/check-out hours. For example, A&O Amsterdam Zuidoost hostel in Amsterdam- 3PM check in and 10 AM check out. Some hostels have a cut off time in the night beyond which there won’t be any staff. If your schedule doesn’t suit these timings then you may have to book an extra night or spend some time outside etc facing extra inconvenience. If you are arriving/leaving at odd hours, look for hostels with 24 hour reception, or ensure that they can accommodate you at odd hours.

Checkpoint 5: What is included/not included- Some hostels do not offer towel. You need to carry your own. Almost all hostels will have a small kitchen that you can use to cook some basic stuff-but be sure to carry ingredients.

Checkpoint 6: Shared rooms/shared bathrooms-
while some hostels will have separate dorms for men and women, few have mixed dorms. If you are not comfortable having someone from the other gender around you then be sure to select a dorm that is exclusive to your gender. Similarly few hostels will have a bathroom inside the dorm, but most will have common bathrooms outside. This means you need to leave your stuff around the bed and go out for a both- some times you may have to wait in queue if you try to use it in peak hour. While most hostels I stayed had exclusive bathroom, the Stadion hostel in Helsinki had a shower room which had 3 showers in one room (separate showers for men and women, but in one shower room expect 2-3 other guests (of same gender) to be bathing alongside. Again this information is not declared outright, but you can find out by reading reviews or mailing hostel staff, if you are very particular about privacy.

Checkpoint 7: Refund rules- Most hostels allow free cancellation/modifications up to a day or two prior to check in date. But few hostels will have cheaper rates but no cancellation allowed. Some charge yuour card in advance. These aspects matter if you are not 100% sure of your travel

Almost all hostels offer free WiFi, but in Stadion hostel, it was in reception area only. In general, if the hostel is closer to city centre you can easily find some cheap place to eat food, else you will have to spend more on food.

Similar: Stayzilla review *

Monday, September 28, 2015

Comparison of European Airlines-7 in 1

Over past 2 months, I have flown around a lot in Europe, mostly on short weekend trips from Copenhagen. In this process I had the opportunity to try several airlines. I flew 7 different Airlines , through 9 airports (within Europe only) totaling 15 take offs and landings. Below is a quick comparison of those airlines, for quick reference of those who might be planning short trips within Europe.
Small plane but 4 Engines- Brussels airlines RJ100

Check in Opens
What’s included in cheapest ticket
How good is hub airport?
How cheap is the ticket?
How easy is the website to use?
In-flight magazine
KLM Royal Dutch
24 hours
snacks, juice, water if asked, free seat selection,
Very good (Amsterdam)
On the higher side
Brussels Airways
Previous day
water in cup if asked,. Free seat selection
Good. (Brussels) Gates are announced very late, just 20 min before boarding begins
Acceptable level
Very Good
24 hours before
Free in-flight WiFi, Free seat selection (Airport only)
Easy, boarding pass can be downloaded PDF only, cant be emailed
Very Good
2-3 days before
Seat selection random, unless paid extra
NA- they use several small airports as hubs. Didn’t fly through their main airport
No options to email boarding pass, can print or download
Almost after booking, weeks in advance
in-flight magazine is free to take home
Couldn’t print boarding pass at airport kiosk
Very good
Air France
light snacks, water
Good (CDG)
LOT Polish Airlines
One free chocolate and water
Very good (Warsaw, Poland)

All information as experienced during my flights. Rules and service levels may vary over time. My experience is to be used as reference only and not to reach a conclusion that an airline is good or bad. Individual needs, expectations and experiences may vary. Below is an express review:

Ryanair: Ryanair had the cheapest ticket, but they also use cheapest terminals- had to sit on floor and wait in Copenhagen gate F1. Detailed review of Ryanair in this post.

KLM: KLM is world’s oldest airline still in operation- a separate detailed post is available here

Norwegian : Norwegian is the only airline that offered free wifi onboard, turned on after take off and turned off before landing. Unfortunately nothing else is free onboard. Norwegian have youngest fleet of aircrafts in Europe and the aircrafts are generally very new and modern. Their aircraft was the best in Europe I flew so far. They also have a practice of putting pictures of local heroes on the tail of their aircrafts- so each plane has different person's face on its tail. Seat selection during check-in is random but using kiosks at airport you can select a different seat free of cost, if available.
If you take 24 flights with Norwegian within 6 months, you will get one long distance ticket free (US/Thailand etc). Not sure to what extent it is free.

EasyJet: Easyjet also uses cheap terminals like Ryanair- so expect lots of walking. They don't give even water free on board (need to buy for 2.5 Euro) but surprisingly their in-flight magazine is free to take home. The voice of captain giving details of the flight and that of crew was very difficult to understand as their English was heavily influenced by other European languages. Noticed that even KLM inflight magazine is free to take home.

LOT Polish: Only with this airline I got turbo prob bombardier and Embraer aircrafts- no middle seats and very small overhead cabin space.  A small chocolate and water are free onboard, rest for sale. Other flights I flew were either Airbus 319/320 or Boeing 737.

Brussels Airlines: While returning it was all women crew in the cockpit. Also in Brussels they announced gate only 10-15 minutes before boarding. So it was difficult to figure out where to go after clearing security.

SAS: Wanted to try this airline but either their fare was undercut by competition when I was checking for cheap options or their timing was a bit inconvenient. So couldn't try them yet, though they have almost same no of flights as Norwegian. Similarly Norwegian was cheaper than Finnair to Helsinki and Easyjet was cheaper than Swiss Air to Geneva, so I couldn't try Finnair, Air Baltic, Swiss, SAS and other major airlines in the region. And how can I forget Lufthansa? Next time may be.

Air France: I have written about their Delhi-Paris premium economy experience here. But the Paris-Copenhagen leg was bare minimum- almost at par with other low cost carriers. Nothing specific to mention about it.

Almost all airlines had mobile apps. But I was lazy to download and test all of them. Since I had just about one trip or so, downloading so many apps for one time use wasn’t convenient. Just used the web versions. Now a days everyone has an app and want us to download it. For once in a blue moon usage it is very annoying to download and maintain so many apps.

Unlike India European airports are a different experience. No document check at the airport gate- you can walk all the way till security. Check in and baggage drop is automated in most cases, so manned counters are very few. Most people use mobile apps/online boarding pass throughout without needing a piece of paper. Security in Amsterdam and Bergen were a bit more stricter than rest of the cities. (like most airports you don't have to take camera out of the bag- in these airports cameras were scanned once more). Amsterdam metal detector beeped because of metal frame in my spectacle. Had to remove it and pass through detector again. Nowhere else I was asked to remove spectacle. Security wait time is usually 5-10 minutes, not more. Because of schengen, no one asks for visa, sometimes even identity is not checked. Only a few times airline staff asked for my photo ID. (Ryanair is an exception-both ID and visa is checked- may be because most of their flights fly onward to Non-Schengen areas like London)

Almost all airlines claim they will close the gate 15-30 minutes before departure. (that would mean boarding should began much earlier) But all of them only began boarding 15-30 minutes before departure time.

In terms of Airports, Amsterdam and Paris were large and well equipped. Copenhagen and Warsaw were next best. Kaunas was the simplest airport. Other airports were normal. Almost all airports have city connection via train/bus or both. Usually free wifi is available in all airports- time bound in few airports. Helsinki airport had USB chargers also. Geneva (Switzerland in general) follows a slightly different power socket, so your Europe or India adapters won't work in Switzerland)
  • ‘-‘ in above table indicates I couldn’t check on this particular aspect for the airline.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Devils' Museum, Kaunas, Lithuania

We know many heroes- real life, virtual and mythological. These heroes are popular because they fought the evil forces. While we remember and worship heroes, shouldn’t a part of credit go to those who made these heroes popular- i.e. the villains or evil forces who caused all the trouble for these heroes. If everything was smooth, clean, honest and painless, the heroes will have no work to do. (If there was no Ravana, then what purpose did Rama have? The story wouldn’t be half as juicy as the Ramayana as we know it). So to remember such evil character, somewhere in the world there is one museum dedicated to devils.

In Kaunas, Lithuania, Europe, there is a Devils' Museum. This museum has collection of various evil characters popular in various parts of the world. I happened to visit them during my visit to Kaunas.

Devils' Museum is one of the key attractions in Kaunas, Lithuania. I went there on a Sunday evening at about 4.45 PM. Lady at the ticket counter said they are about to close. I asked how much time it would take to check out the museum.  "About 1 hour" was the reply. I asked if I can take a look within next fifteen minutes- whatever I can see- since I can't come back tomorrow. (Devils' museum is closed on Monday like most other museums) She said fine and even the 2 Euro entry fee she refused to collect.

So during next 15 minutes I had a quick run around the three floors of the Devils' museum. Below are some of the pictures and brief details.

I didn’t pay specific attention to the devils below. As I was about to leave, the caretaker lady called me and asked me to take a close look at them. This is Hitler and Stalin- two people responsible for deaths of millions of people during their administration. They are depicted as Devils.

The museum has Indian devils also- Ravana from the Ramayana folklore is depicted as devil along with few others.This is on level 3, where all foreign/international devils are housed :)
The count of devils inside the museum is said to be close to 3000. Apart from devils, the museum has few paintings, an area for children to play with colours and masks. As I said early I had to rush through my visit so couldn’t play close attention to everything inside.

Similar: 10 reasons why you should visit Lithuania * Monk's Bunk hostel, Kaunas * Some Baltic news * Kaunas Castle * 9th Fort world war memorial *

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ninth Fort: Worldwar memorial, Kaunas, Lithuania

Ninth fort on the outskirts of Kaunas city is a memorial built for remembering tens of thousands of civilians mass murdered by Nazis during the world wars.

On 20th of November, 1941, 1000 Jewish men and women were brought here from Munich, Germany and executed five days later. More than 5000 Russians, Jews, Lithuanians were mass murdered here by the Nazis during world war. The significance of Ninth fort was that it was the first place where Hitler's commanders began mass killings of people. Before this the practice was to relocate Jews to concentration camps (where they would die slow deaths eventually). But later Nazis found it a big headache to relocate people and found it more convenient to get rid of them. Kaunas is believed to be one of the spots where several trains carrying Jews was diverted to and then killed. Wikipedia has detailed article here.

Lots of soviet soldiers have perished here, count not known.

 Hands and faces

Today the memorial stands in memory of those who perished for no fault of theirs. The monument is made of a series of concrete slaps. A close look at the monument shows faces and hands. Two main structures and a small one seem to represent a family- father, mother and child, when seen from far.

Today we complain about petrol prices, slow speed internet and stuff like that. Decades ago there were people who were lucky just to be alive for one more day.

Adjacent to the memorial is a fort and a museum about which I will write a separate post.

9th fort memorial is some 7 to 8 kms away from Kaunas city. I took a taxi to there which cost me 9 euros. But after spending some time at the memorial, I had no transportation back. There is no public transportation to 9th fort. It is not projected as a tourist attraction. Only local people come here in their cars when free, spend a few moments in memory of their grand parents/forefathers who might have lost their life during the world wars. There is a highway nearby, but I couldn't spot any taxi. I tried asking lift from few cars, but it didn't work. No one stopped for me. Eventually I started walking towards the city (I didn't have a data plan in mobile, but my airtel prepaid and google maps helped me identify where I was in the map and I could figure out if I am moving towards the city or away from it). After walking for 2 kms I found a bus that goes to city centre.

There is no entry fee for the 9th fort monument. (Museum has a 2.5 Euro fee)

Similar: War Cemetry, Kanchanaburi, Thailand * Ta Pai World war memorial bridge, Thailand * Holocaust memorial, Berlin * Hellfire pass, Thailand13 Days * Jalianwala bagh memorial *

Top 5 innovative digital companies in India

If there is one thing that has drastically changed the way business to consumer relation has been so far, it is the power of new media. With a smart phone in hand and a bunch of popular social media platforms, the consumers today can make or break a brand. Consumers of today are well informed, doesn't hesitate to appreciate/criticise what they feel right or wrong and in the process, everyone's thought process is influenced. For brands this means the spending pattern and decisions of their prospective customers is getting dynamic and unpredictable by the hour. What product to to make, what to promote, how to approach a consumer is getting trickier. Wrong move can be counter productive. Today there are a dozen platforms where consumers generate tons of digitial stuff every second. Interpreting this huge data and trying to make a business decision out of it for future profits is no easy task. This is where new media experts come into play. Over years many digital agencies are using their expertise of new media and their digital innovations to help brands take right decisions and adopt right strategies. Who are these companies? Why are they best? Let us take a look at top 5 innovative digital companies.

1 TO THE NEW Digital: To The New Digital is 600+ strong team of new media experts spread across the world in 7 countries/9 offices catering to clients in 30+ countries. TO THE NEW Digital combines the power of technology, analytics, marketing plus of course the content for digital transformation of their customers “Yes we’re present on facebook and twitter” to “Yes, we’re now able to optimize our profits and customer delight through effective use of new media and its insights”. Do check TO THE NEW Digital’s case study section for some very useful insights on how the social power combined with analytics can make a lot of difference. TO THE NEW Digital helps with both consulting as well as execution. Thus there is an ownership of results promised. (Many other agencies limit themselves to providing strategies and when they fail to convert, blame game begins as to whose fault it is). No doubt some of the best brands in the world are among TO THE NEW Digital's client list.

2 Echovme Chennai
Echovme is a Chennai based firm focused largely on Social Media trainings and consulting. Having trained more than 2000+ professionals in 100+ workshops, Echovme and its Thinker in Chief Sorav Jain are much sought after in terms of Social Media trainings and related activities. I’ve seen them in business for over 6-7 years now- their young and dynamic team is very capable of handling tricky campaigns and events. More on their website

3. Pinstorm
Pinstorm has some of the leading banks, news channels and coffee chains as its clients. Based in Mumbai, Pinstorm offers digital services around strategy, viral videos, advertising, social research, user experience, mobile-friendliness, search optimization, Facebook and twitter campaigns, real-time listening and responses as a seamless set of tactics to achieve a brand’s social influence targets

4. MSL Group
With 100+ offices across 26 countries, MSL Group has a strong digital footprint besides its regular PR arm. MSL is not deep into analytics but is focused on events and experiences, corporate and brand citizenship, reputation management and other forms of digital services. Serving 12 + verticals, MSL group is number 4 on my list.

5. Web Chutney
Selecting the fifth one has been a tough task, as there’re hundreds of social media agencies, digital new media companies in India. However after some assessment I would put Webchutney at number 5.
With a 200+ team of professionals and presence in major cities in India, Webchutney caters to a wide array of clients. Their main focus is on online advertising, mobile marketing, application development, SEO&Analytics, web design and social media campaigns.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Some news from Baltic region, Europe

When I was in Vilnius, I borrowed a local newspaper- The Baltic Times from hotel reception and read through it. I also watched an Ukranian news channel- Ukraine Today that telecasts regional news in English language. We in India are not much concerned about what is happening in this part of the world. But it doesn’t harm to keep ourselves informed. I have compiled some key news on the events unfolding in the Baltic region. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania are the three countries that are known as Baltic States. These are located in north eastern corner of Europe, bordering Russia.

Read through these news snippets for your own GK purpose.

1 Hungary takes lead in NATO Air Patrol- The Baltic states are part of NATO. But these countries are financially very poor and do not have enough military and air power to defend their skies. So other powerful NATO member states take turn to protect Baltic air space- mainly from Russian military aircrafts. At present Hungary is in-charge of this air patrol. Every few months the rotation happens- another NATO country takes  charge of protecting the air space. Interestingly detection of Russian military aircraft inside Baltic region has increased 50% compared to previous year while NATO has scaled down its patrolling fleet from 16 to 8 planes.

2 Burqa ban? There are some statements going on about middle-east crisis and if burqa should be banned. Many Baltic state leaders believe Burqa should be banned, in their personal opinion. But official response has been “there should be a debate on this”. They believe since they are a free society there is no need for someone to cover their faces and covering face all the time could also be a security concern as CCTV cameras cannot identify a person in case of incidents. France and Netherlands have effective laws against covering full face in public, Baltic states have very minimal muslim population for this issue to get enough political attention. But with increasing migrants from middle east the topic has come to life again.

3 Some remnants of cold war is still on. Reportedly Russia captured an Estonian national recently(named Eston Kohver), who is believed to be a double agent. He is charged with illegal border crossing, carrying arms and such cases and sentenced to death in Russian court.

4 Estonian map makers forget 800 islands: Estonian mapmakers have missed over 800 tiny islands all these days it seems- recently included in updated maps. But these islands are too small for any practical significance-less than 100 meters by 100 meters in dimension.

Note: Source of the news is Baltic times and Ukrain Today news channel. Simplified and represented for Indian audience by Shrinidhi Hande.

Related: Why Lithuania makes an ideal weekend destination in Europe * Kaunas Castle *

Friday, September 18, 2015

Dirtcheap fare airline:Ryan Air Europe-Experience & Review

Ryanair is one of the cheapest airlines in the world. You can fly around in Europe for an amount that is cheaper than what it costs to reach airport by taxi. To give an example, you can book Copenhagen-London for INR 1500-3000 round trip, approx. Copenhagen-Kaunas some 2500 round trip. I had an opportunity to experience their flight recently. Below are some of my observations/notes.

Like AirAsia, Ryanair also flies out of cheapest airports and cheapest terminals, saving every penny possible. In Copenhagen their gate had no seating- guests had to sit on the floor and wait. Then we walked to the plane. No bus, no aerobridge. Money saved.

Safety instructions are pasted on back of the headrest. Absolutely nothing in seat pocket. No extra stuff.

Checkin needs to be done online. Don't expect any counters or human assistance at airports. Everything is automated and self service.

They have been in business for close to 30 years, so I guess they are doing well overall.

If you are not willing to pay extra, seat allocation is random.  But I got aisle seats anyway.  Interior was bright yellow- little harsh on the eye compared to mild colours in other aircrafts.

My Ryanair flight was lot empty. At least 3 full rows around me were totally empty. Because no refund is allowed in low cost tickets and tickets were very cheap anyway, I guess many people book tickets but if their plans change, simply forgo the amount. So Ryanair must be making lots of money not flying people. If they can facilitate cancellation and give some refund to guests, they will be able to sell those seats at little higher fare to other last minute guests. All airlines should try this.

I was expecting them to use some cheap aircrafts (like ATRs), but their fleet is pretty decent with aircrafts like 737.

On their in flight menu, I found one item which had some rice in it and sounded vegetarian. The steward told me "Sorry we don't have that. In fact I have never seen that item" :(

My flight was on time.

At Copenhagen airport, I tried printing a boarding pass, but the kiosk didn't permit me. When I tried to scan from mobile, the gate didn't allow me. When I checked with security staff, they enlarged the bar code image and scanned in their mission. Then I was asked to take a priority gate for security check- so it was kind of bonus.

Gate staff seem to be not from Ryanair, but some airport staff. May be in airports where they have very few flights, they give some incentive to airport staff to facilitate boarding of their passengers- why spend on full time staff.

Ryanair got some free publicity by making announcements like they are planning to charge extra for use of toilets in the plane etc. While such things are not implemented, it did get them some free publicity.

So overall, it is very cheap and Ryanair will take you to your destination for the money. Don't expect much. If you need special assistance (like flying with small children/pregnant woman/wheel chair/oversize luggage etc)-be very careful- there could be extra charges or outright restrictions.