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Friday, February 26, 2016

Australia trip planning on budget- FAQs answered!

I have been asked by many on the recent Australia trip- mainly as to how I managed it cheap. While I attribute most of it to cheap AirAsia ticket, this post shares some details as to how you can plan an Australia trip on budget.

1. How is Australia like? Which city did you like?
Australia is nice. It is a lot similar to Singapore in terms of city management, cost of various goods (both currencies are also almost similar). You can manage with English everywhere and public transportation is pretty good. But yes, Australia is much bigger, diverse. I visited Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. Melbourne managed to create great impression about the country in first look. It is more spacious, a bit cheaper and has a relaxed approach. Sydney on the other hand is more crowded and feels like rush lane. The capital territory Canberra seem to have a laid back approach- slow and steady. (I only spent few hours there on a Sunday morning, I could be wrong)

My visit was too short to pass a judgment, so I will refrain from saying which is best.
Tram tracks in Melbourne
2. How to get cheaper Air Fare to Australia?- Try Tiger Air and Air Asia
Flight tickets constitute major part of your expense and hence getting it cheap can save lots of bucks. As of now, if you search for flight tickets to Australia on websites like MMT and cleartrip, the cheapest economy seat option on a full service airline will cost about 50k INR, even if you select a date 1 year from now. For some reason, these sites are not likely to show Air Asia and Tiger Air options. So go to these two airline websites and try your luck. If you are very flexible with the dates and if you can search thoroughly, you might be able to find a deal 30-40% cheaper than full service airlines. My Chennai-Melbourne AirAsia ticket cost me 32k, including 20 Kg baggage, insurance and credit card fees. Many a times I could find cheap fare one way but return was expensive. Getting cheap fares both way is a tricky business. But it was booked 9 months ago and I took a big risk- if something were to come-up and I can’t travel, I risked losing big money. Yes, budget airlines charge everything extra- water, food, baggage and so on, but end of the day, they can take you to your destination far cheaper (25-35%) than full service airlines.  Also Tiger/AirAsia won’t operate from every city in India- see what best works out for you-flying another airline to Kuala Lumpur /Singapore to connect to Air Asia/Tiger or taking a train/flight to nearby city in India from there these airlines operate. Though I expected some deviation in plans, I was happy to experience Air Asia and tiger air operate their flights exactly on time as per the schedule committed 9 months earlier.

Bottom-line- Keep an eye for big sale/flash sale, search a lot till you find best deal. Anything around 30-35k is a great deal (after factoring some baggage and credit card fees). Related- Air Asia benchmark prices

3. Where did you stay in Australia? How much would decent accommodation cost?

I was lucky in this aspect- my friends invited me to stay with them, so I didn’t have to spend on accommodation. But otherwise factor about 60 AUD (INR 3000) per day for a decent stay. You can use booking.com – look for options that offer free cancellation till a certain date, check reviews on Tripadvisor.

4. How much did your Australia trip cost you?
Mine was one week trip covering Chennai-Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney-Melbourne and back to Chennai. Below is a breakup of cost I incurred
  • AirAsia flight ticket-MAA-MEL return, including 20kg baggage and insurance- INR 32000 (booked 9 month ago)
  • Melbourne-Sydney by bus-Greyhound Austraia- about INR 6000
  • Sydney-Melbourne by flight-tiger air Australia- about INR 5000
  • Visa expense- INR 8300
  • Stay expense- Nil (stayed with friends)
  • Other expense (food, attraction entry fee, local commute etc): Approx INR 19000+
Total: 70000+ approx (9 months interest on early ticket not factored, similarly visa is valid for one year, so if I make another trip, then it can be apportioned. To give you a comparison, 9 night/10 days Australia trip costs about 1.5 lakhs on Makemytrip (Note that it includes hotel stay but no site seeing and other expenses. Factor another 20-25% for expenditures not covered in the package)

5. How long should our Australia trip be?
Main cities in Australia like Melbourne, Sydney etc need a week at least to explore fully, but I could only spend about 2-3 days each. Gold Coast, Brisbane, Coff’s Harbor are other main cities. You might get cheap tickets to Perth but there isn't much to explore around Perth. If time and money is not a factor, you can plan a 3 to 4 week vacation in Australia, arriving in Say Melbourne, then Canberra then Sydney, then up north to Gold Coast and Brisbane from where you can return home.  Also you can’t fly direct to Australia from India- usually a stopover in Malaysia or Singapore will be involved. So you can plan such that you get some extra time in these countries and explore them too on the way. 
Balloons in Canberra
6. Local Travel- should we book package? Taxi?
Use public transportation- download related apps like PTV- you can easily manage with public transport in most cases Only for out of city trips, book with an operator/agency.

7. Did you see Kangaroos?
Of course Yes- how can one return from Australia without meeting the national animal? Saw them in the Taronga Zoo. But not in the way you would have seen in television- merrily jumping around in a vast open field. Zoos in Australia are much better than ones in India but are not as good as the Zoos I had seen in Europe (Berlin and Copenhagen). Kangaroos I saw in Australia were sleeping/lazing around in a small confined area, just like you see any caged animal to be.  The Kangaroos I saw in Copenhagen Zoo were more lively. Same goes for Koalas- most of the time they are lazy and sleepy most of them time. Almost all Zoos sell additional ticket (for about 20-25 AUD) if you would like to get yourself photographed with Koalas- but again, there will be restriction like no touching, no holding etc. You will be allowed to walk in their enclosure and a photo will be clicked such that you and Koala will be in same frame. (This was the case in two zoos I checked- situation could be different elsewhere)- So keep your expectations right. What you see in commercials is to make you visit Australia, ground reality may not be as enticing. There was a private farm in the the outskirts of Melbourne which I wanted to visit but couldn’t.

8.What about Australia VISA?
Please check this detailed post for Australia tourist visa for Indians. It costs about 8000 Rs+ and about 2 weeks. Usually will be issued for 1 year. At Kuala Lumpur airport before boarding staff inspected my passport with special lens…You may also wish to take Malaysia/Singapore visa if you wish to go out into town to make use of your transit time (Another Rs 3000-3500 approx)

9. Will you visit Australia again?
Yes, I will.

10. Can we rent a car in Australia and drive?
You can drive in Australia with your Indian driving license. I first thought I will try it out, but later decided not to. You can rent from agencies like AVIS. But please note that most Avis offices have specific opening hours (only airport is sort of open 24x7). Also parking is pretty expensive, traffic is often bad, any violation will result in expensive penalty, so public transport will be better and cheaper option most of the cases, you can try rentals for your out of city drives- will work out cheaper if you have a group.

11. What about food? Easy to find Indian food? Did you try local food?
As explained in this post, I am not much of a foodie and am comfortable if I can find some Indian, vegetarian food. As I stayed with friends who were kind enough to feed me as well, food wasn’t a problem. There are enough Indian restaurants (in Sydney Harris Park area is full of Indian eateries). Lots of 7-11 shops sell donuts, fruits, chips and water. Subway, MacD and other outlets serve their standard offerings. So finding basic food will not be a problem at all. Even tender coconut is available- either in processed form or even in its original form- but not very easy to find one.
Sydney skyline
12. Anything else we should keep in mind while visiting Australia?
  • Many museums, attractions, shops etc close by 4PM or 5PM. So check timing of the attractions you are planning to visit.
  • For various cost saving tips, check this post
  • Be careful what food stuff you pack- Most home-made food items, if inspected, might get confiscated
  • While we know Australia by main cities, local people identify it by states- One won't identify himself/herself as "I am from Sydney" instead he/she would say "I am from New South Wales". Similarly Melbourne is in Victoria state, Brisbane is Queensland- each state manages its own public transportation system (Opal Card of Sydney won't work in Melbourne and vice versa), promotes tourism on its own and so on.
  • Travel card (like Opal, Myki) etc are city specific. Won't work in next city you are heading.
13. What is the time difference between India and Australia?
5.5 hours (10 PM in Australia will be 4.30 PM in India)

14. How much cash did you take?
I took with me some 800 AUD (1 AUD is about 50 Rs). I spent some 350+ AUD overall during my one week stay. (wherever possible I had pre-booked travel etc. Additional spend was on entry fee, food, local commute etc. I didn't take any forex card- cash payment was simpler.

15. There was some news on attack on Indians- is it true?
True but those are really isolated incidents. Nothing generic and shouldn't discourage you from visiting Australia.

Hope this helps. Any other questions, ask in comments, will try to answer.

Read more posts on Australia here

St Mary's Cathedral opp Hyde Park, Sydney

St Mary's cathedral was at a walking distance from Art Gallery of NSW. St Mary's is Australia's longest church and is very grand both on the outside and inside.

 
 

The grand interiors of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney




Similar: The new church, Amsterdam * Rock Church, Helsinki * St Peter's Church, Malmo, Sweden * St Thomas Mount Shrine, Chennai *  Shettihalli Church, near Hasana * Christ's resurrection church, Kaunas* 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Art Gallery of NSW (New South Wales), Sydney

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney is located across the street to botanical garden. Entry is free except some specific zones, selfie sticks and bags need to be deposited, but photography is allowed inside. I spent a few minutes admiring the building and art work inside.
The building is about 140 years old and the art gallery is fourth largest in Australia

 Full view of the building from across the street, clicking using GoPro


  View from the gallery is also nice
At Singapore National Gallery, sections showcasing paintings with nudity/religiously sensitive stuff are clearly marked so that visitors are pre-warned. No such segregation exists in Art Gallery of NSW

Refer Official website of the gallery for more details.

35 Years of Art Of Living- World Culture Festival- World coming to Delhi!

Bengaluru head-quartered Art Of Living (AOL) foundation is organizing an international cultural festival in New Delhi next month- 11th, 12th and 13th March 2016- One of the biggest of its kind involving massive arrangements and an expected audience of millions of people. Art Of Living (AOL)  has successfully held such massive events in the past but this one looks to be its biggest and grandest till date, to mark completion of 35 years of services.
The entry to the event is free and if you are in New Delhi/NCR during this time, do make a plan to be part of this mega celebration. Some key highlights of Art Of Living (AOL)  World Culture Festival is listed below
  • To be declared open by PM Modi and valedictory by honorable president of India
  • Venue: 1000 acres campus with 7 acre large stage near Mayur Vihar Metro. An army of 1000 workers are currently busy readying the venue. 
  • About 36k artists are to perform during the 3 day event ,including 8000 musicians in a musical symphony playing 40 instruments
  •  650 drummers from South Africa and talents from all over India will be performing live
  •  20,000 international guests expected from over 155 countries. Total Audience is expected in millions. Key countries represented would include Turkey, Thailand, Lithuania, Sri Lanka, Germany, Nepal, Africa, Argentina, Russia, Indonesia, Philippines, Middle East, Japan, China, Switzerland, Belarus, Hungary, Pakistan and so on. (If you were to visit these countries on your own to experience local culture and traditions, it might cost you several years and lakhs of rupees)
  • An invite only Global Leadership Forum event by Art Of Living (AOL) foundation that brings together world leaders in one platform
Watch some videos below that help you understand the scale and grandeur of this upcoming event.


World Culture festival is inspired by Sri Sri Ravishankar Guruji’s vision for a world that celebrates  diversity and united hearts and minds at a time when world is filled with distrust and hatred among communities, nations and ideologies.

In essence, March 11th will see the world descending down on India’s capital. You will be able to witness an extraordinary assembly of people, culture and traditions within these three days. Art Of Living team is putting up an extra ordinary scale of volunteers and workers on the ground to make this event a grand success- managing such a complex event involving several million audience, lakhs of VIPs/guests, back to back events, related logistics, food and other arrangements for the delegates, coordinating with external agencies is one mammoth task. Art Of Living (AOL) task forces have mastered this art in previous events but will be testing their limits again this time. Best wishes to them.

Summary:
The Art of Living completes 35 years of service to humanity in 2016.  To commemorate this momentous occasion, World Culture Festival is being organized in New Delhi on March 11, 12, and 13. The event is open to all and the entry is free.

Write to wcf@artofliving.org or call on +9211135555 between 9:30 am to 6:30 pm IST for any assistance.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

#FlipkartOutdoors Indibloggers meet @ MangoMist, Bengaluru!

Indiblogger events are always fun- you can meet lots of fellow bloggers, take part in various activities and most of the time take home some goodies too. My previous event was BNLF and Sarath Babu informed me about an Indiblogger meet scheduled to happen in Bengaluru and I immediately signed up. This time mail sponsor was flipkart and theme was outdoor activities.

Reached Bengaluru by overnight bus, freshed up and headed to designated pickup point from where Indiblogger had arranged transportation. Met Rajesh first- he had just got engaged. We walked to Shoppers Stop where I met Shailaja V and many other bloggers. We reached resort on time, got our wrist band that recognizes us as resort guests. Met Rajiv Verma, Payaniga, Indrani, Dhiru (Team G Cube), Sarath and Mahesh from Chennai


We had our breakfast and then assembled for a briefing. Anoop gave overview of day's plan- which involved us forming teams, going to each brand's stall and understanding their products, collecting a sample product, indulging in some outdoor activities while using these products and fulfilling some challenges, have lunch and assemble back by 2 PM for paintball. I spoke for a few mins about my Skydiving experience. (Check this post for 11 adventure activities you can try in Karnataka)

Vinit Rajan showed us some warm up exercises and flipkart executives spoke about the emerging action camera/adventure/outdoor accessories market.
Then we were formed into groups. My team had a group of wonderful ladies- Vidya Sury, Shailaja, Indrani, Ami Bhat, Deepa, Soumya Prasad, Mayuri, Sreesha and of course Sid Balachandran. We even managed to hijack Swati into our team later. Either because I had a GoPro or because I spoke about Skydiving, team unanimously voted for me to be the captain.

We first went to Altec Lansing counter.

Altec Lansing rugged, waterproof speakers and audio accessories
Traditional speakers that needed power supply and had to be connected to computer via 35mm jack are getting out of fashion- no one wants those messy speakers now. Portable speakers are new craze-they come with built in battery, connect to mobiles/laptops via WiFi/Blutooth and are thus highly portable, making them ideal companions during outdoor activities/road trips. Folks at Altec Lansing have taken portable speakers to next level by making them water proof and shock proof. So you can literally throw them around, float in water and keep it around wherever you go, whatever you do. It can even be mounted on tripod/camera mounts. We got to try these speakers and have fun with them- throwing water and playing music results in water droplets sprinkling out of speakers like a fountain- what a cool way to have your own musical fountain! They also have locking earphones and high quality headphones.
Watch this video shot in Sony Action camera, Team 1 having fun with Altec speakers



Similar post- Protronics Pure Sound Pro 2 soundbar. Next stop was at Polaroid counter- they had on display the Cube- an ice cube sized action camera. As I have written about them in an earlier post, I will skip further details in this post.

Our next stop was at the Red Chief Shoes.

Red Chief Shoes- These guys had on exhibit their all purpose shoes, priced around Rs 2800. The most interesting concept from Red Chief was the self destructing (bio-degradable) shoes. If these shoes are not used for 3 months, they will start degrading themselves and will soon be gone!


That sounded cool, but after I came back from resort, following questions struck me:
Imagine a shoe shop owner who has bought 1000 pairs of these shoes- assume only 300 could be sold in first 3 months... Remaining 700 will start killing themselves from fourth month and customers who buy subsequently will be getting shoes which are like half dead? I am just thinking aloud- I am sure the makers would have thought of these scenarios and have a way around the same. Most of my team members were a bit disappointed that Red Chief Shoes do not have collection for women yet.

Samsung S2 Smartwatches- Unfortunately these folks were not well prepared. They had very few watches to be given out on trial and those were not charged enough, so the time to sign up and collect our trial watch was postponed from 11 to 11.30 AM to 12 to 12.30...We couldn't register and come back to collect later, nor they would ensure each team gets at least one. So we had to decide to skip trying these and move on.


Garmin Garmin had a range of smart watches equipped with GPS, fitness tracker and a range of health monitoring features. I got to try one of them but because I was focusing more on action cameras and because the interface was not that self intuitive, couldn't make the most of Garmin wristwatch. Ideally I would like smart watches NOT to expect that user should keep inputting what he/she is doing and what is expected from the device- it should just have start and stop function and everything in-between, it should ideally figure out itself.

Sony Action camera- reviewed separately in this post, hence skipping details here. Besides action cam, they also showcased how Alpha range of cameras are better than DSLRs.

Coleman Camping gears
Coleman have a range of outdoor accessories such as tents, portable toilets, compass, lunch boxes etc. One of our activities were to setup the Coleman tent, but the staff asked us to wait, which was difficult to do as there were more exciting activities waiting for us.

All these products are available for sale on Flipkart.com

Once done with all stalls we were given activity coupons using which we could take part in various games- rope walk, zipline, zorbing, archery, shooting and so on. However, the coupons were limited and not enough to try all activities once- we had to chose where to spend our coupons. I tried ladder climbing, zipline, walking on wooden log (Below pic courtesy Sid) and archery. Rest of the team took part in activities that appealed to them.
One of the coupon was worth Rs 200 but was supposed to be used for mock-tail only- I literally begged ground staff to let me have 4 coupons of Rs 50 each that can be used for some other activities instead of the stupid overpriced drink coupon, but no luck.

Met Manasa, Bijoy, Ekta, Srinidhi TG and many others in between the activities.

We had great fun but at some point we lost focus on the challenges- we didn't do rock climbing, tent and Samsung activity. If I had kept a tab on it, our team could have possibly won a few prizes. Some of us did win for our tweets, but we didn't win any team prize. I take ownership for that. We did rope ladder, which was one of the activities, but no prizes were given.

Post lunch we had paintball game- that was my first paintball game ever. This time we were led by Mahesh and teams were slightly re-shuffled- we made our strategies and took position. We had 10 minutes and 30 bullets- before I got a hang of the game it was over. But I can play this better next time.
A word about the Mango Mist Resort
This was my first time at this resort, but it seems very popular among corporate for their team outings- many friends said they were here recently. Resort has almost every possible indoor and outdoor activity and overall decent facilities. I didn't like them forcing a Rs 200 mock-tail coupon- could have given four 50 Rs coupons which we could have spent on other activities. Food was good, approach road was bit narrow and our bus had difficulty whenever another big vehicle came in opposite direction. Staff were friendly. No major problems/concerns sighted during our day visit.

After our game, I got to meet Sam (Sam and Swati are couple travel bloggers who runs TalesofTraveler.com) Had fruitful interaction with other bloggers at the event. Day well spent and all thanks to Flipkart and Indiblogger for providing the opportunity. By 5 PM we were done and boarded Indibus back to city, taking home wonderful memories and two memory card full of action videos! Unfortunately while getting down the bus I left the flag inside :(

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Buddy, BMW X3 and Best road in the world!

My friend in Australia, Ketan had recently bought a new shiny BMW X3. It was his long term dream to own a BMW and am happy for him as he finally made the decision, though an expensive one.

When I proposed him if we can hit the great ocean drive in his BMW, he readily agreed. So on Saturday, 6th of Feb, I went to his place on the outskirts of Melbourne and soon we were cruising down the great ocean road in his new BMW X3. I used this opportunity to click some pictures of the car.




The other BMW I had experienced earlier was the BMW 320d from Zoomcar. While that was a sedan driven on Indian roads, X3 is of SUV category, driven on even smoother Australian country side. It was a pleasure indulging in great ocean drive with a college friend and his BMW for company. But then, we had speed limits to adhere to, max 100 kmph (like our Carzonrent!) so full potential of the car can never be experienced unless one hits race track.



Those with Indian driving license are allowed to drive cars in Australia for short duration. Australia is also right hand drive like in India. So I drove this beast for a few kms on the interior roads. (Driving on freeway was risky as any incident will be attributed to Kethan's credentials and he may lose points/face penalty, as his insurance wouldn't cover other drivers). During our drive I got to learn a lot about road manners and rules in Australia- like who should get priority in a roundabout, how to read road signs, parking rules, driving license norms and process and so on. Violations are always captured and fine receipt is delivered home. Thanks to Ketan for explaining them to me.

The interior is very familiar and pretty standard one among other BMWs. Traditional twin circle speedometer and tachometer feel little outdated as most modern cars have digital displays today (BMW offers heads up display as optional extra, lots of information will be displayed on the windscreen). The 320d I had driven was missing on basics like Navigation, but this one had all standard stuff. Paddle shift is nice, so is auto close for the boot.

X3 is a decent off-roader, but in Australia highways are fenced and you can't randomly climb a hill or enter a field. So off-road abilities are not used much.

This post focuses mainly on BMW- will write one more on the Great Ocean Drive experience.

Also read: Mercedes GLS 200 * BMW Fans of Kaunas, Lithuania * BMW 320d- what you don't get for 38 lakhs * BMW Financial lease- how does it work? * Drive a Mercedes without having to rob a bank *