Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Of Ridiculous Plane Fares and Dizzying Trip Planning - Indian Planes and Trains

Last night, I was burning the torches, surfing the web in the wee hours. Earlier that night, I was in bed tossing and turning, and no matter how I tried to count sheep, sleep wouldn’t come to me. I have been playing some scenarios in my mind, exploring the possibilities. Filling up “what if’s…”
Have you ever experienced how exhausting it can get trying to summon sleep?

When I finally gave up trying, I sat up infront of my LCD and started searching through India’s airpline companies – planes that fly within India. There is
Air India, Jet Airways, Jetlite, and the Kingfisher. However, as I weed through local flights, my spirit sagged as though I was digging myself a hole. Every trip, near or far, was exorbitant. This is a developing poverty-stricken country – and I doubt if 70% of its population can afford even a single short-distance ride!

I have traveled India from East to West, from North to South, through the different modes of transportation – a ferry to carry my bus through the Bay of Bengal then again to take me from Delhi to Agra, rickshaws and tuktuks, color coded taxis in the cities of Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai; then planes to escape the terror that has groped Mumbai from Chennai to KL. There’s a jeep that took me to Jaisalmer. A truck in an unexpected safari in Hyderabad. Oh yes, I should include the camel that took me on a 2-hour safari through the Thar Desert in North India’s Rajasthan.

Having mentioned all that, the
most extensive mode of travel I have used is the train for the simple reason that trains are relatively easier to book and cover a dizzying mileage of places. Train travel is an experience in itself. I will never forget my train rides – and these rides provide a whole new adventure. Each train ride has a story waiting to be told.

I literally have nightmares the night before a train ride. Haha. But for a whole month, I would be on the train every 3 days, so in time it got a bit easier. I have traveled thousands and thousands of kilometers with Indian trains. From 3rd class, to 2nd class, to 1st class sleepers!

I needed to psyche myself for every single ride. The adventure really starts as you purchase your ticket. Most major cities will have a booth exclusive for foreigners, but going to stations beg for a separate adventure too. Then there’s the search for your platforms, the car number, the cabin number, the seat number – if you have side seats or regular seats, if you have the base or the middle or the top tier.

I always hated finding my seat occupied by someone who wasn’t willing to vacate unless you shoo them away. Most of the time, they won’t budge – so you’d have to find the ticket inspector or conductor to secure your own seat.
Unfortunately, some inspectors will turn up hours into a ride. Meanwhile, you are all hunched and curled up – or in a fetal position- above a 3rd (top) tier seat since your Indian seatmates won’t budge. And it’s really not advisable to argue with strangers especially when you’re in their company for the next 12-hours or so. My Kolkata to Delhi trip took more than 2 days!
Taking the Indian trains was like a punishment; like taking drugs; like winning a medal; like performing on stage.
They are punishments because if you find yourself in a cramped space with major snorers, you are stuck with them for the next agonizing day or so. They are like taking drugs because at the end of each ride, you would feel nothing less than triumphant for having survived them! And this feeling is soooo enjoyable,
I always feel euphoric - like a winner after every train ride! Such ironic feeling of triumph translates into why I feel that in all my travels the world over (including my long train rides throughout Europe), the Indian trips have been a huge trophy of survival! That’s why India will always be a favorite!

Which brings me back to my wee hour adventures with the net last night! I decided to consider some plane rides for trips within India to lessen land travel time via trains. This is for an upcoming trip that’s abrewing.
Air India is a no-go since it’s a flag carrier, thus would fetch ridiculous rates. As it is, I already have 6 plane rides booked!
Jet Airways seems like a good deal. Good safety history, too. Bingo! As I searched for a Goa to Madurai trip, I chanced upon a deal breaker! Goa is India’s Boracay (Philippines) and Bali (Indonesia), It is located southwest of the huge Indian land mass. I needed to travel southeast - all the way to Madurai at the heart of the Tamil Nadu region. West to east! And cross-country travel can’t be easy!
Why not take the bus? Are you kidding?

You have to consider that the whole Indian landmass has an area of about 3 million square kilometer, compared to the Philippines’ measly 300,000 square kilometer. When I look at the map of India, I realize that I have actually navigated far and wide! This immense land mass also explains the reason why India’s population is 1.2 BILLION, compared to the Philippines’ 93 million! (Of course you don’t compare it with Bangladesh’s 150 square kilometer area and a population of 150 MILLION people). Bangladesh in those terms is “extravagant” and running out of control.

As I weave through
Jet Airways’ available schedule, I was in luck! A Goa-to-Madurai turned up a no-refund Best-Fare-of-the-Day promo! Zero Peso Fare! If I get the ticket right then, I’d be flying with a PhP0 (zero peso) fare. This will involve 3-stop overs – Goa to Bangalore (1 hour), then Bangalore to Chennai (1 hour), then Chennai to Madurai (1 hour). All in all, this trip will, “just” take me 6 hours of air travel, including the waiting time in between. In my mind, this has the advantage of me seeing how each airport looks like (which is a predisposition – check out the side photos in this blog).

If I were to get the
regular fare, this same flight would have a hefty price tag of PhP20,350 or $421 just for this single destination of Goa to Madurai – both locations located at the south of India. I haven’t included the fine-print service charges and sucharges yet! Add this to the 6-plane trips that I already mentioned I booked ahead – would sum up to quite a fortune! An arm and a leg already!

Lucky me for getting a best-fare-promo, aren’t I?
Now here is the rub!
As I wade my way through billing (payment), I almost fell off my seat! How naïve could I get not expecting surcharges and fees:
Fuel surcharge is PhP7,090 ($147) already, passenger service fee of PhP831 ($17.20), air traffic congestion fee of PhP900 ($18.61 – I am paying coz my honorable presence congests the Indian air space), and finally PhP260 ($5.38) as fees charged by private operators. This totals to the surcharge of PhP9,081 or $188 – on top of the zero basic plane fare! You are right, I almost felt like someone electrocauterized my brains! A zero plane fare and a surcharge of $188! You can just imagine adding this $188 to the Goa-Madurai regular fare of $421. That’s probably enough money to feed a Malawi tribe or Burkina Faso commune for half a year! Jesus!

I am sharing this to highlight the fact that planning for long haul trips isn’t always fun – or cheap - or easy! In summary,
I am ready to just psych myself out for more and more and more Indian train rides. After all, they are like taking drugs!
And I’m an addict!
This is the
Eye in the Dizzy Sky!

Madurai's Menakshee Temple. This photo only courtesy of wikitravel's peraltita.

Goa's Palolem sunset. This photo only courtesy of wikitravel's catchuec.

Bangalore's Lord Shiva. This photo only courtesy of wikitravel's rakeshmittal.

Bangalore's Lalbagh. This photo only courtesy of wikitravel's Pieter.

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