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Saturday
Mar032012

Goa again - a three week holiday........

This shouldn’t really be in this section, but never mind, I will leave it here for a while, and then move it into the travel bit. In the meantime, I haven’t added anything to this site for ages. A lot of this is because, like many people, my life is repetitive. I go to Bulgaria twice a year because I like it there. I have written about Pomorie elsewhere on this site, and there is little point in repeating my comments.

An elephant padding down the Calangute Road. Elephants are comparatively rare in Goa

I also like India, and I have just returned from a three week holiday in Goa. I have also covered Goa elsewhere on this site, but this post may be of interest because I travelled independently, and the core content of the holiday – flights and hotels – was all directly pre-booked on the internet prior to departure from the UK. This involved e-ticketing and e-vouchers, and also a great deal of faith that internet bookings made from the comfort of my own home would be honoured 5,000 miles away on the Indian sub-continent. As a point of principle, I also attempted to achieve what I regarded as good value for money. Whenever you travel, you always meet people that claim to have paid far less than you have. Sometimes this may be true, but there may be some interest in the processes that I adopted.

The first step is to obtain an Indian visa. It is possible to obtain this entirely under your own steam for around £40. However, the application form has a lot of rather ambiguous questions (for example, a reference address in India) that must be completed correctly otherwise your application may be rejected. I chose to use CIBT (www.cibt.com), a specialist visa company. This will more than double your visa cost, but my passport was returned, complete with correct visa, in exactly seven days. The visa is valid for six months, so if you are fortunate to have some flexibility you can now start to plan a cost effective trip.

A Calangute Beach Shack - viewed from the shady side. There are sun loungers in the white hot heat area!

The next step is your flight(s). You need to decide how long you want to stay in India and start looking for ‘deals’. There are direct charter flights from the UK that fly non-stop to Dabolim airport in Goa. You can also choose to ‘bounce’ your way there. The simplest ‘bounce’ is a direct flight from, for example BA, to Mumbai, followed by an internal flight to Goa. The more complicated ‘bounces’ will involve staging in the Middle East before getting to Mumbai. www.skyscanner.net is a good place to start to look for flights as far as Mumbai, while www.cleartrip.com is incomparable for any travel – air or rail – within India. Bear in mind that even a direct flight will take up to eleven hours and some of the more complicated ‘bounces’ may take up to thirty six, and some stamina.

I am too old to do much ‘bouncing’ so I chose to try and find a cheap, direct, charter flight. This is a bit of a high risk strategy. Charter flights are designed to cater for package holidays, and often, when seats are available, the holiday companies will reduce the price of the package holiday in order to fill them. If you don’t mind buying a package, at short notice, this is a cost effective way of doing so. Many charters are sold out on this basis. However, as a last resort, they will start to reduce the flight only cost. Some nerve is required at this point. The price starts reducing significantly around a week before the outward flight, and tends to further reduce on a daily basis until sold. Others will also be watching these price reductions, and indeed I lost my preferred Manchester flight by leaving my booking too late. Eventually, I got a Saturday flight from Gatwick, booked on the Wednesday before, with Thomson. I am not going to be ‘clever clever’ by publishing the price, but it was very good value for money. An ‘e-ticket’ duly appeared in my email inbox. As a final note, do check that your ‘direct’ flight is in fact direct. Some Monarch flights have a refuelling stop in the Middle East.

So now having my flight dates (4th-26th February), I now turned my rather urgent attention to arranging accommodation. I was breaking new ground here, on my previous trips, I had either been on a package, or I had arranged accommodation directly with the hotel involved. All the major hotel booking sites will offer Goa accommodation – travelrepublic, booking, trivago, hotels.com, and many others. This is a relatively new situation and has been enabled by the eventual uptake of business internet communication within India. Anyone that has been to India will know that the country functions on acres of paperwork for every transaction, from checking into a hotel, to buying a SIM card. However, the prospect of direct booking by affluent westerners has made a lot of hotels take up accounts with the booking sites pretty damn quick. No longer will they be prisoners of the package holiday companies.

And on first impressions of the rates quoted, they appear to be making a complete killing. One hotel where I had, reluctantly, paid £20 a night two years ago, was quoting £45 per night. Another hotel that I had looked around, £15 a night on the last trip, was quoting £50.  Now there are genuine 5 star hotels in Goa, but they do also charge more than 5 star prices – two, three, or four hundred pounds per night. But most of the mass market hotels are, by European standards, pretty basic, That doesn’t mean that they are bad, in general I like them, but they would certainly be described as functional rather than comfortable.

I have just realised that I am half way through a long bit, with no pictures. Here is a picture of the Osborne hotel dog, absolutely gorgeous, but won't pose long enough for me to get a decent photograph. (Unfairly) blamed by many for the insect bites they received

So, my initial decision was to book a hotel for the first week, and then to spend part of that week looking around locally for further accommodation. So I eventually booked the Seagull Hotel in Calangute. Part of the reason for this decision was because I knew the location, and another part was that the hotel offered free wi-fi for the guests, As always, the reviews on tripadvisor were highly mixed and ranged from rave reviews right through to describing the hotel to be a horror story. I don’t know why I bother to read them any more, as far as I am concerned the only valid information provided will be the average review score.

I booked the hotel through www.booking.com who I have always found to be very good in the past. On the website, the price was quoted as something like £175 for the week, (£25 per night), PLUS TAX. When the charge came through on my credit card it was £217 which didn’t please me greatly. Now this may have been partly the exchange rate charged by my credit card company, but I would strongly suggest to the otherwise excellent booking.com that they insist that Indian hotels quote a full total price on their website.

For some reason, I continued to flit through the accommodation websites. In hindsight, I wish I had stuck to my original plan to look around locally for accommodation for the second two weeks of my holiday. There is plenty available, and taxi drivers will be a mine of information. However, I suddenly discovered what appeared to be a dramatic price reduction for Osborne Holiday Resorts, also in Calangute. I have stayed at the Osborne before, and I quite like it, but it certainly is not worth the £600 (£43 a night) for two weeks that was originally being quoted. For some reason, the price quoted dropped to £300 (£21.50 per night). Prices for any other period remained at the same high original rate. Faced with this bargain, I made the booking through www.travelrepublic.co.uk I gave the matter of this apparent cheap price some thought, and I came to the conclusion that I had benefitted from a cancellation resale.  I suspect that an insurance company, having had to pay out for a cancellation, had sold on the room at a bargain rate to recover some of their loss. The lesson to be learned from this is to keep checking the websites, and checking again, because bargains do appear.

Thus I was all ready to depart. All I had in the way of paperwork was an e-ticket for my flight, a confirmation voucher from booking.com for my week at the Seagull, and an accommodation voucher from travelrepublic for the Osborne. Three bits of self printed paper that were supposed to look after my travel and hotel arrangements for the next three weeks. And they all worked perfectly.

Some detail from the trip that might be useful. The Thomson flight from Gatwick left at 18.40 in the evening from Gatwick. Indian time is five and a half hours ahead of UK time so this departure translated to ten past midnight Indian time. Thus our arrival in Goa at 9.40 in the morning Indian time indicated a nine and a half hour flight. The aircraft was a Boeing 767 configured 2-3-2 seating, and leg room was adequate, or even good, for a charter flight. There was an individual seat back TV with a fairly basic entertainment programme. Two free meals were served (well one and a half really, the breakfast was pretty basic). I got some sleep on the flight – this is a good thing because otherwise you will lose a full night’s sleep.

The queue at Dabolim immigration was about 45 minutes which is not too bad by Indian standards. Before leaving the safety of the airside of the airport, I bought an Indian Airtel SIM card for my phone (about £10 including free call time). Additionally, I managed to obtain a couple of copies of the form that you have to fill in when you LEAVE India. It is much easier to complete this in the comfort of your hotel room than it is while shuffling down the departures queue. I also went to the prepay taxi booth to get a government approved taxi voucher from the airport to Calangute. This journey takes about an hour, and the taxi cost 900 rupees (£11.50). There is a total scrum when you get into the public area but the voucher, and a 100 rupee tip for a porter sorts the whole job out. The porter wheels your case to the appointed taxi, and away you go.

I got to the Seagull Hotel around 11.45 on the Sunday morning and, after spending half an hour completing the necessary paperwork, I was checked into room 4.

Approaching the Seagull Hotel

I was pleasantly surprised. The room had a proper double bed, which was rather wasted on me as I was travelling alone. It was clean and there were fresh towels available. There was a standard ‘wet-room’ bathroom, with plenty of hot water.

My room at the Seagull

I later discovered that the hotel had a top five recommendation on one of the ‘camping guides’ – Lonely Planet, I think. Thus my fellow guests were multi-national and included Russians, Danes, and Americans. As is usual in Goa, the staff were friendly and helpful. The beach was about 300 metres away. The wi-fi worked most of the time, except when the manager was irritated by a customer spending all morning using it on the basis of a single cup of tea. In these circumstances he used to turn it off and change the password. However, the important issue is that the booking was honoured, I was expected at the hotel, and no further payment was sought.

Another view of the furniture in my Seagull room. The bathroom is directly in front.

This post is not intended as a guide to Goa, more the mechanics of how I booked the trip and the practicalities of operating a non-package trip there. However, I would make a couple of points regarding getting around. Many people hire a scooter or motor bike. This allows for a good way of getting around and for finding some of the quieter beaches and more remote locations. Indeed, motor bike enthusiasts will light up at the availability of Royal Enfield bikes, still manufactured in India. On the down side, insurance arrangements will probably be dubious, and the Indian Highway Code appears to be a single paragraph stating ‘you can do whatever you like as long as you sound your horn’. Traffic is completely manic. Alternatively, taxis are relatively cheap, you just have to be very clear about where you want to go and to negotiate a total price before your journey begins.

It is well known that cows are sacred in India - this must have been painful. Note the touristic nature of the background establishment, and the show will have been put on to derive revenue from the clientelle

At the end of my week at the Seagull I caught a taxi down the Calangute road to the Osborne. This wasn’t a very long journey and cost around £1.50. Earlier in this post, I expressed some regret that I hadn’t stuck to my original plan and searched for further accommodation during my first week at the Seagull. This is not to put the Osborne down, it is perfectly comfortable and well run, but I have stayed there twice before and I would really rather have tried somewhere new. The staff recognised me readily and were very welcoming.  Again, there was no problem with the booking and the voucher from travelrepublic was accepted as payment in full.

 My first (spacious) room at the Osborne, but unfortunately, at the back with no balcony, and the windows were frosted

The clients at the Osborne are largely package tourists and your experience there will rather depend how noisy, or otherwise, they are. I didn’t like the first room I was allocated, well the room was fine, but it had no balcony and only frosted windows. I managed to get it changed.

 

The Osborne is ideally situated far enough from the Calangute road for there to be no traffic noise and, fellow guests permitting, it is possible to get a good nights sleep. Towels and bed linen are changed daily and the hot water is adequate, provided that you have remembered to turn on the water heater.

Another elephant having it's lunch

Publicly available wi-fi is comparatively new to Goa. I managed to find a pleasant restaurant called Waves that offered this, and having eaten there a couple of times, I became a welcome guest even if I only wanted a coffee or a beer. Indian internet speeds are not lightning fast and there are occasional periods when it doesn’t work at all. However, with some patience, the service is perfectly adequate and I would expect the number of places offering wi-fi to increase rapidly.

Some notes on the trip home. My flight was scheduled to leave at 11.35 in the morning. Bear in mind that, if you are an independent traveller, there will be no-one to tell you if the flight is delayed and you have to hope that you will not be spending all day at the airport. You will also have to organise your own transport to the airport. I booked a taxi for 7.00am on the basis that I would get to the airport by 8.00am, importantly before the package transfer coaches. Queuing is inevitable at any Indian airport, and you can only grit your teeth and hope to be there before the queues become too long. It might be useful to know the order of the queues, and what paperwork will be required. On arrival at the airport there will be a queue to be allowed in. At Dabolim, this queue will be operated by the army and they will need to see your passport and ticket before they will allow you into the airport. The next queue, and the one most first time travellers ignore to their peril, is to get your HOLD baggage x-rayed and sealed. You won’t be allowed to check in until this has been done. You then queue to check-in. At check-in it is VITAL that you collect two important items. One is the form I mentioned earlier that will have to be completed before you can go through the immigration (emigration) control. The second is a tag for your hand baggage which you must attach to it. The next queue will be for immigration and you will need to have completed the form that you picked up at check-in – hence my obtaining one on arrival, I am not good at filling out forms while shuffling down a queue. The final queue will be for security and x-raying of your hand baggage. Once this has been done, they will stamp the tag that you have attached to your hand baggage. Make sure that they do, because without that stamp, they will not let you on the plane. From there, you should be through to airside. You will, most likely, be a bit frazzled by then. However, Indian international airports do (currently) provide a small smoking area airside, so if you are a smoker you can calm your nerves before your flight.

My flight was (loosely) on time. However, we encountered very strong headwinds and the flight back to Gatwick took 11 hours.