Friday, November 22, 2013

The "Slav" stretch - look east

Ok....this can also feature in the series of Offbeat destinations since desis are most likely to give it a miss. But for those who would want to take the road less travelled, they should look out for the eastern bloc which comprises of Czech Republic, Slovakia, Macednonia and members of erstwhile Yugoslavia (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia)

Prague is perhaps the most famous name of this region however there are many other less explored gems as well. For budget travellers, this region is a boon as it is dirt cheap compared to other parts of Europe. To begin with, Prague is famous for its home-made beers and has some beautiful architecture. There are some restaurants that serve very exotic delicacies and at really attractive prices. One restaurant that i would recommend has a virtual railway network that connects each table to the kitchen and each order is served on a wagon that plies on this rail network. You can also check out the country side of Czech Republic which is spell-binding. For adventure-lovers, you can do paragliding, bungee jumping, sky-diving, etc at unbelievable costs.

Moving to south, there is this small country called Slovenia which borders the north-east of Italy. It has some lovely mountains and country-side. While its capital Ljubljana is just like any other European city, though a bit on sleepy side, hill-side towns like Bled are worth a visit. There are many adventure companies that can organize various activities like rafting in Soca river, canyoning, skiing (in winter and spring), etc. There is this ski resort which is partly in Slovenia and partly in Italy.

Another gem is Croatia which till recently was out of Schengen Area and its visa had to be applied separately. However, now it is covered under Schengen Agreement which has made travelling in this region very convenient. Mind you, unlike its neighbours, Slovenia has Euro as its currency and is therefore pricier than them. You can hear lot of war-time anecdotes from the tour-guides in this region which was under Communist rule for a very long time. Croatia, too, is a great place for adventurous activities with a diverse topography. This region is inhabited by predominantly "Slav" people and each country has a separate language. But if you are regular traveller then this should not be an impediment as India itself has a wide linguistic spectrum.

You can 'look east' for a change.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tips to save money and avoid inconvenience when in Europe

For the desis who will be travelling for the first time to Europe, here are some quick tips that may make things easier for you:

1. Since the climate remains relatively cold, you may not feel very thirsty, however you may have to use the washroom frequently. So always keep some change on you as there are paid urinals at public places including malls and restaurants. In some cities though, food joints like McDonald's, Burger King, etc may have free washrooms but don't take this for granted.

2. If you are a vegetarian, do carry ready-made stuff from India for munching and quick meals.

3. Keep liquid cosmetics to the minimum if you are carrying it in cabin baggage since the Security Check people are really strict on liquids. Make sure content in each bottle doesn't exceed 150 grams. If travelling by Ryan Air, keep a small transparent plastic bag with you while going through security check else you may be forced to buy it for 50 cents.

4. There is no common Sim card for entire Europe, so when you move from one country to another, it is considered to be 'roaming'. Therefore, you need not buy international sim cards from India as they will be country specific and will turn out to be expensive in the end. Better, buy a new sim card every time you land in a new country. Prefer to communicate via msg apps like Whatsapp, WeChat, etc as Wifi is available at most public places. Alternatively, with VoIP apps available make free calls via internet rather than spend money on sim cards. However, not all airports have free WiFi, so don't take it for granted.

5. In Greece, there is a very convenient thing called public telephone booths which are available in every nook and corner. So no need to buy a sim card. Just buy a calling card for about 5 euros which you can use at these telephone booths to make international calls with a talk-time of about 5 hours.

6. If travelling via cheap airlines like Ryanair/Wizzair, make sure you adhere to the dimensions of the cabin baggage as stipulated by the airline. If your bag doesn't fit into the rack kept near boarding counter, then you may be asked to check-in the same which will cost you considerable money. Check the website for all terms & conditions.

7. If you are travelling via economy, make sure you read the terms for baggage. Most airlines allow only one 'piece' free for check-in. This means that if you have two light-weight baggages to check-in then you may have to pay for one baggage. Airlines are very strict on this and therefore make sure you prepare your luggage accordingly else you will end up paying extra baggage fees which is quite sizeable.

8. Most places accept electronic payments so it is better to carry bulk of your money in the form of Travel Card which essentially a debit card in a particular currency. There are many banks that issue such currency specific cards. However, do carry some cash as well for taxis/buses and even some restaurants which may not have electronic payment facility.

9. If you are planning well in advance, check for great online deals on inter-city buses. You may get a ticket for as low as 8 euros which normally may cost about 30 euros. If you are buying the ticket on board, you will have to pay by cash except for Scandinavia. In all Scandinavian countries, no cash payment is accepted on board, only debit/credit cards are accepted. You may also buy tickets from some designated convenience stores or at the bus terminal.

10. Do carry International Driving permit if  you plan to rent a car. It can be availed from your local RTO. Vehicle fuel is not subsidised in Europe and the parking charges are also quite high so it may not be a great idea to rent a car if you are on a budget.

11. Even though these are cold countries, they do get a little hot in summer i.e. in months of June-Aug. The temperature may go as high as over 35 degrees. Therefore, you need not carry an Eskimo jacket if you go during this time. I was sweating at 6 in the morning in Germany. A normal windcheater is good enough for evenings

12. Most hostels/hotels do not have fans. So if you are going in summer, then prefer private rooms in hostels instead of dorms. The dorms can get very stuffy during this season.

13. Do not assume that everyone speaks English. In most countries except Scandinavia, most people speak the native language and may not speak English. So if you are asking for directions or some information to some random person on the street, make sure the person is young since it is high probability that old people may not understand English.

14. European cities are well-planned and have great information systems, so you can navigate easily by map-reading. Maps are available for free in most public places like Hotels/hostels, airports, bus terminals, convenience stores, etc. Just grab one and find your way through. Even bus schedules, metro train schedules are easily availble. Alternatively, you may download some city-specific apps on your phone which may help you with such information.

15. Beware of ATM scams in countries like Italy, Spain, etc. Avoid using ATMs in these countries if your credit/debit card is not a chip-based one. Most people use cards with magnetic tape which are susceptible to cloning. Gangs operate in some countries that clone your card once you have used it at ATM and then withdraw money from your account. So use an ATM only in case of emergency or use chip-based card only.

I hope these tips help make your trip convenient.