Sunday, January 30, 2011

Rained-in in Rio and Lessons for Brazil 2014

After 3 reasonably relaxed days in Johannesburg watching Sachin score his 50th test ton and a whistlestop tour of Sun City, we flew to Sao Paolo on the 21st of December. The flight was "non red-eye" with the flight taking off from Johannesburg at 1030am and landing in Sao Paolo at 430pm giving me the full opportunity to enjoy my first flight in business class. At 24500 miles per person one way it was an awesome bargain for a 10 hour flight that was filled with champagne, foie gras & caviar. In spite of the flight timings I think I was able to utilize the flat beds for a quick nap in between the movies & episodes of Lie to Me. The bit about entertainment is important as South African Airways only has personalized screens in business, a fact that we got rudely acquainted with on the flight back in economy.

Flying into Brazil, Sao Paolo is used as a gateway by most international airlines. Sao Paolo is not very high on attractions for tourists so if possible book your flights into Brazil with the local connection the same day and on the same itinerary. This would protect you if you miss your connection due to the international flight being late. We did not have this luxury as we were using miles and had the option of taking a flight or bus to Rio de Janeiro (50 min by flight or a 6 hour bus ride).

Unlike the rest of South America, travelling by bus is fairly expensive although extremely comfortable in Brazil. Rule of thumb, a bus ride will cost about Brazilian Real 25-35 (US$15-$20)/hour of travel in seats that are the equivalent of airline business class seats. Travel by bus from Sao Paolo to Rio costs about US$90-110 depending upon the bus company. Given the high volume of air traffic and flight options on this route, it is fairly easy to get a flight for a similar price. We booked air tickets for about US$120 but given that we needed to factor in for any international flight delay we booked the last flight on TAM at 10pm.

For a change South African Airways was reasonably efficient and the immigration, customs & baggage handlers at Sao Paolo were super efficient so we were out and checked in for our flight by 6ish. The next 4 hours were spent plays Angry Birds. In fact during the first few days of the trip Angry Birds was our & favourite pastime. So much so that we had unlocked all levels (yes all roughly 500+ levels of the full game including the golden eggs) by the time we started the trek in Torres Del Paine National park.

Anyway given Murphy's law, since we were nice and early for a flight, the flight had to be delayed and we took off after 1130pm and reached our hotel late night well after 1am. By this time I had realised that I was going to be way off my budget for the time we were going to spend in Brazil. Given that the trip was booked and finalized in the last week of Nov/first week of Dec, I had not been as meticulous in my budgeting as I usually am for vacations and had assumed a similar cost of living in Brazil as for other South American countries basis the previous trip. The fact that our hostel was costing 50% more than anywhere else on the entire trip did not tip me off to that fact but a few hours after landing in Brazil I knew my budgeting was screwed.

After landing in Sao Paolo and seeing that we had 4 hours available I thought about going to the city for a quick look see or coffee. I consulted my guide book and found out that taxi would cost a flat fare of BRL75 i.e approx US$45 (1.7BRL~1US$). A bus ride on the airport bus to the city center costs BRL32 i.e. US$20 per person. So there wasn’t too much of an advantage in taking public transport into the city either. In between games of Angry Birds, while looking for snacks we chanced upon the 250ml tetra packs of chocolate milk (one of Pooja’s favourite in between meal snacks) for BRL 10. If I was thinking that things were expensive because we were at an airport I was wrong. The same chocolate milk in the discounted super markets cost BRL 4 which is still US$2.5. A ride in the bus/metro for BRL 2.40 in Rio, BRL 40 for a meal for 2 at a standard small streetside restaurant frequented by locals and not tourists, BRL 4 for a glass of acai juice from a streetside shop. Oh and if you, like me, budget for a trip using the latest edition of Lonely Planet.. well think again!! The latest edition available is Jan 2008 which means the price are valid as of approx 2007. Inflation in South America like India is fairly high so for 2010 those prices were off by anywhere between 20%-50%. Plus the fact that we budgeted for Brazil along the lines of Chile/Peru/Arg meant that the budget took quite a hit till we left for Chile.

For all those planning a trip to Brazil in 2014 for the FIFA World Cup (like me!!!) budget US like prices and start saving right now.
Anyway coming back to Rio we got a taxi (for BRL 70 *shudder* vs the guidebook estimate of BRL50!!!!) If you land at a reasonable time in Rio and are staying in the tourist hub of Copacabana, Ipanema or Botafogo then take the Real Airport bus. It costs something like BRL 7-8 per person and is a real cost saving.
We stayed at Beach Backpackers (which was incidently nowhere near a beach) for US$65 a night for a double in the neighbourhood called Botafogo, which is about 3-4 metro stops from Copacabana/Ipanema as well as Santa Theresa/Centro/Lapa. Rio is an expensive place to visit as even backpackers in Copacaban and Ipanema cost in between US$75-100 for a double. For reasonable 2-3 star hotels factor in about US$125-175 and most chain 5 start hotels would be in excess of US$250/night. For those reading this from a point of view of planning for 2014, stay in either Ipanema or Botafogo but budget at least US$100 for even a double in a backpackers. Hotels would anyway hike their rates significantly so hotel prices should be along the lines of South Africa this year with most 5 star chain hotels going in excess of US$350 and the 2-3 stars charging about US$200/night. The hotels around Copacabana seemed slightly run down and the Maracana stadium is fairly far from all these neighbourhoods so none really give a locational advantage.

I was fairly happy to have had the foresight to book a room with A/C (first backpacker I have stayed in with A/C anywhere in the world) as the weather was quite hot & humid. The backpacker was in a residential neighbourhood and had a lot of places to eat & drink within walking distance (including 24h eateries for those landing at 1:30am). Walking around the main streets in Botafogo i never felt threatened at any time of the night and Rio overall seemed to be reasonably safe if you followed the standard precautions that you would follow in any city. Maybe it felt more relaxed considering I was comparing it to Johannesburg but neither did I hear any stories to unduly concern me from other travellers I came across in the city.

After a fairly hectic 21st of Dec that went in transit to get to Rio, the 22nd was spent leisurely strolling around Copacabana & Ipanema beaches. At this point I would like to make a confession: I had heard these stories about the beautiful, bronzed people that frequent Copacabana & Ipanema beaches and was positively psyched about sharing the same real estate with these people. Prior to the trip I had had not so pleasant dreams about taking off my tee shirt at the beach to howls of laughter and stares from the people around me.. well I was able to put those fears at rest within minutes of landing on Copacabana. Rio is a city with beautiful white sandy beaches but I think the entire hoopla around beautiful people is way overrated. While Brazil does possess its share of Gisele Bundsens’, the average woman on the street and the beaches are no different from anywhere else in the world. If anything the overall fitness of the population reminded me more of India than Europe.

So pack in your Speedo’s without the need to invest in a gym membership for 2 years to flaunt those 6 packs on Copacabana in 2014, there will be enough paunches to blend into when you get there :)

Ipanema on the whole has a more “happening” vibe as compared to Copacabana which to me felt a little run down. However the entire stretch from Copacabana to Ipanema is fun to walk around. Copacabana is hemmed in between the mountains on one side and the sea on the other and at some places the distance between the sea and mountains is just 6-7 blocks. The main shopping street in Ipanema is a fun place to shop with interesting designer boutiques guaranteed to keep the missus busy for hours.

Given the proximity of the sea and the mountains, there are a number of fabulous view points to look over the city. 2 of the most famous view points are the top of Sugar Loaf mountain and Corcovado mountain (where Christ the Redeemer statue is situated). We took the cable car to the top of Sugar loaf mountain (for a price of “you got to be kidding me” BRL 44 vs the guide book price of BRL 32) on 22nd afternoon hoping to photograph the city in the late afternoon sun and at sunset. Unfortunately it started getting cloudy when we were on the way up to the mountain, while that lent an interesting air to the photographs we took of Christ the Redeemer statue surrounded by clouds, it completely dampened the experience of photographing the city with the deep blue sea in the background. The sunset was hardly visible with the clouds around and right after sunset the heavens opened up. We were still on top of the mountain and given the high winds the authorities decided to close to station at the top and all the 20 odd people remaining at the top level of the mountain, including us,  were herded down. We got completely drenched in the 10 odd meters that it took for us to run from the snack bar, where we had taken shelter, to the cable car station.

The weather hardly relented over the rest of our trip which is probably one of the reasons that I left Rio slightly underwhelmed. The next morning we went to the top of Corcovado mountain where Christ the Redeemer status is situated. There are 2 ways to get to the top of the mountain, either by coach (bus) or by train. Both cost the same (BRL 36) but the coach only waits for you for a certain amount of time whereas if you go up by train you can roam around at your own leisure. Typically there are touts who meet you outside the station asking you to take the bus as the next available train is only after 2 hours etc etc. Ignore them, go to the station ticket window and check the next available train. We got one leaving within 20 min of us arriving at the station when there were at least 3 different people who had told us that the next available train was only in the afternoon.

We got to the top of the mountain and were greeted by… zilch. The statue was lost in the cloud and we could barely make out the base of the statue. We whiled away a bit of time at the cafeteria until the clouds parted just enough for us to take the mandatory photo ops. The view from the top of the Corcovado is apparently breathtaking with the entire city spread below you before merging into the crescent of white sand beaches and the deep blue sea interspersed by green mountains. However we did not get to see an iota of that view but at least have something to look forward to in 2014 :)
Once we got down from the mountain, armed with the swimsuit we headed towards the beach but were thwarted yet again by the bad weather and had to make do with drowning our weather driven bad luck in glasses of Caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail made of sugarcane fermented alcohol, sugar & lime.

We spent our last day in Rio in the center of town around the neighbourhoods of Centro, Lapa and Santa Theresa. Lapa is a slightly edgy neighbourhood where there is a discernable presence of a greater number of beggars/homeless people and a much higher police presence. However the area felt distinctly Latin American rather than the Miami style neighbourhoods of Ipanema & Copacabana.

The highlight of the day was Escadaria de Saleron (Saleron’s stairs). This used to be a public staircase rising 4 floors from the street level in a slightly iffy neighbourhood which has been transformed into a work of art containing tiles from 180+ countries by Saleron. Saleron is this slightly old eccentric guy who sits there in red shorts and personally autographs souvenir tiles that you can buy from his workshop. He also paints images on his own tiles and loves to paint himself as a pregnant woman in various poses. We bought one of the souvenir tiles (the ones with a pregnant Saleron obviously!!) and after the mandatory photo-op and autograph, we spent a bit of time looking around the different tiles that included 13 tiles from India. There were images of Sai baba, Hanuman, Lakshmi, Shiva and Saleron was more than happy to point us to all 13 tiles from India once he knew we were from India.

We also spent some time in the day riding the Bonde, the tram that used to run in the hilly streets of Rio but became obsolete. There is only a single line that runs in the district of Santa Theresa and is used more by tourists than locals. Santa Theresa is the bohemian neighbourhood in Rio that is seeing a revival with a lot of investment coming into refurbishing the mansions in the area. A lot of new backpackers have opened in the area (typically higher quality and much lower price than other neighbourhoods) but given the proximity of the favelas it is generally recommended to stay close to the tram route and not walk around into the interiors.

Another day or two with better weather would have been nice in Rio to get a better feel of the city. For those planning a visit in 2014, budget at least 5 days to extract the maximum from your visit. Hopefully this visit for me would act as a recee for 2014, and I will get another chance to experience Rio’s salsa clubs, beaches and mountains under bright sunshine!!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Deconstructing airport taxes & the games airlines play

I will use this as the last post to highlight tips to maximize the cost savings before describing our actual itinerary on this trip starting with Rio de Janeiro in the next post. This post is more relevant if you like to redeem your miles for international trips, the entire logic does not hold for domestic redemptions as both Kingfisher & Jet just charge the vanilla airport tax for redemption.

In my last post I calculated the cost saving/mile from frequent flyer miles as:

(Cost of flight – taxes)/miles required to redeem

Once the destination has been finalized, the variables that can be played around with are the miles required (if you have multiple FF programs with adequate miles) and one would obviously choose by the program with lesser number of miles required to redeem the award ticket. The other variable which can lead to substantial cost savings is Airport tax.

The magic password to this savings is something called YQ. I will not get into details or technical explanations of the components of airport tax but at a very high level the airlines follow 2 policies of defining airport taxes:

1) Considering fuel surcharge (YQ) as a part of airport tax: Technically while buying the ticket you would see 2 components, the fare + airport taxes & other surcharges. Remember all those campaigns about fare specials to London on British Airways for Rs 19,990 + tax which never ended up being available for an all inclusive fare of less than Rs 30k. Well approx Rs 11k was the airport tax+fuel surcharge. They then increased the fuel surcharge and reduced fare such that the airport taxes were coming to in excess of Rs 19k and the base fare dropped to about Rs 10k. So while the overall cost of the cheapest ticket remained approx Rs 30k British Airways went to town claiming never before heard fare of Rs 9990 return from Delhi to London.

2) Fuel surcharge is considered to be a part of the fare and the airport taxes are the vanilla airport taxes: These would still vary by destination but as a ballpark Europe/US/Australia airport taxes would not be in excess of Rs 7k (except for good old Heathrow in London in which case it will be closer to Rs 10k) and the rest of the world (SE Asia, Africa, South America) should not exceed Rs 5k.

Both Kingfisher & Jet Airways fall in bracket 1 and club fuel surcharge as part of tax for their international operations. This makes redeeming Kingclub/Jetprivilege miles on international sectors like Bangkok/London not great value. However the positive thing about Jetprivilege & Kingclub is that they have multiple partners that have extensive routes of their own which typically gives one a chance to find a partner that falls in bucket 2 and does not consider YQ to be a part of taxes.

No airline would redeem a partner flight on a sector that they themselves fly on. So forget about redeeming a ticket to London or Bangkok using a partner that flies that route. The trick is to find an alternate destination that would anyway fall on your itinerary but is not serviced Jet/Kingfisher. So if you are planning a vacation in London/Scotland explore starting your trip from Edinburgh/Manchester and fly either Emirates or Etihad (both these airlines fall in bracket 2) using your Jet miles.

To add to the complication airlines can fall into both categories. For example South African airways charges fuel surcharge as airport tax if you redeem miles on their own frequent flyer program but the nature of their partner agreement with Jet Airways is such that they don’t charge the fuel surcharge as part of taxes. I flew on South African airways a few times during my previous project in Johannesburg and had I collected my miles in South African airways and used those to redeem a ticket from Johannesburg to Sao Paolo I would have had to pay 58200 miles + approx Rs 15k in taxes but the nature of their agreement with Jet Airways is such that for 24500 miles + Rs 1850 I got the same return ticket.

Another example of such an airline is Qatar Airways which charges fuel surcharge for reward booking on its own frequent flyer program but don’t charge YQ if the ticket is booked using Kingmiles.

Most customer facing agents at the Kingclub/Jetprivilege call centers are also ignorant about these rules so ask them to check from the international partner redemption desk about these rules. When I start planning a trip I first figure out the entire list of cities on my itinerary that are serviced by the airlines whose frequent flyer miles I plan to use and all their partners. Usually there are multiple airlines that can be used especially if you are flying to Europe/USA. I place a partner request and specifically ask the agent to find out from the international partner redemption desk about the partner airlines that are on my shortlist but DON’T charge YQ as part of tax. Once I know the airlines I want to use, I work backwards to see the destinations I can fly to on my itinerary using those airlines and start checking for dates with award availability.

While using Kingclub & Jetprivilege miles the following airlines don’t charge YQ: Emirates, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, South African Airways, Delta (for international flights from US, not sure about US domestic), Gulf Air, Kenya Airways. This is not the full list and these agreements keep on changing so check with the customer care with the most updated situation when you start planning your trip.

Nett nett you need to invest time behind figuring out the YQ equation for your trip but if you invest that time and are flexible with where you start and end your trip on a multi destination itinerary, for most destinations you would be able to figure out a airline that doesn’t charge YQ and save you a reasonable amount on airport taxes.. that are not taxes in the first place :)

PS: There are a lot more tips regarding usage of frequent flyer miles that i can write about, specifically the tools that will help you find award seats to redeem, selecting the right frequent flyer program and other award rdemption bargains. If you would like me to blog about those topics let me know, otherwsie i will start with the detailed travel itinerary covering Rio, Torres del Paine National Park, Easter Island, Buenos Aires, & Iguazu Falls.

PPS: Any comments regarding feedback on the blog and the usefulness of the tips will be much appreciated :) 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Maximize value from your frequent flyer miles

In my last post I gave a small frequent flyer tip on reducing the cost to fly to South America using Jetprivilege miles. A lot of people might ignore that tip as being of little relevance to them thinking that they don’t fly too much on Jet Airways domestically or internationally. But hang on for a minute, over the course of this post and couple of subsequent ones I will try and bust the myth that you need to be a frequent flyer to earn miles for free domestic & international trip.

A assumption that I have made for this and subsequent posts looking at frequent flyer programs is that for most people the number of miles that they collect is finite as compared to the travel they want to do using them. In simple language the places that you want to fly to in a year would require more miles than you can collect through flying and other means which makes selecting the right trip to use frequent flyer miles an important objective.

Before I get into the details let me first try and define the value and cost of frequent flyer miles. So if you have 25000 miles in your account, how much is it really worth in monetary terms? The answer to that is that “It depends!!” (Hey I am a consultant after all). It depends on what you want to do with those miles, so we will pick up a few representative flight that you can redeem and the cost saving/mile for these flights to establish a base figure. These figures are all approx and assume that typically the flights are booked well in advance (1.5-2 months) for the cheapest fares on any airlines (if paying personally we would typically go for the cheapest flight right?) and the redemption figure is for Jet Airways:

Sector, Miles required, Market price, Tax Amount, Cost Savings, Cost Savings / Mile
Mumbai-Goa, 10000, 7500, 1000, 6500, 0.65
Delhi-Mumbai, 21000, 7000, 1000, 6000, 0.29
Del/Mum - London, 54000, 34000, 18000, 16000, 0.30
Del/Mum – Bangkok, 40000, 18000, 11000, 7000, 0.18
Del/Mum – New York, 94000, 50000, 20000, 30000, 0.32

There is a fairly big variance of Rs 0.18/mile to Rs 0.65/mile in terms of value (see I said it depends!!) but on an average Rs 0.3/mile is a fair representation of the value that you can get for your miles. What this table also tells you is that if you redeemed 80000 of your miles to fly to Bangkok on Jet for the last vacation with your better half, the miles could have been utilized better and resulted in a saving of approx Rs 8,800 {(0.29-0.18)*80000} by visiting the family in Mumbai/Delhi/Kolkata over 2 years and paying for the Bangkok tickets in cash rather than the other way round (well most of us only have a finite number of miles except those lucky few who regularly fly trans indian, pacific, atlantic etc etc on business & first class..)

Tip #1 for using FF miles is to do a rough calculation of the Cost Saving/mile and comparing it against the benchmark of Rs 0.3/mile to figure out the attractiveness of redeeming or saving the miles for a later trip.

What is also visible from this example is that short haul flights (<700 km) offer the best value for redeeming miles with the highest cost saving/mile. The high cost saving/mile gets further amplified if you take these flights on Kingfisher Red which has some fantastic mileage bargains.

Tip #2 is to redeem miles for domestic mileage bargains such Mumbai-Goa, Mumbai-Aurangabad, Delhi-Shimla, Delhi-Manali, Delhi-Amritsar, Delhi-Leh, Delhi-Srinagar (8000 miles return or 4000 miles OW) which in most cases work out to a cost saving/mile in excess of Rs 0.6. If you have been collecting Kingclub miles this value can go up to higher than Rs 1.25/mile for redemption on Kingfisher red (Mumbai-Goa, Del-Shimla etc for 5600 miles return). Yes that’s over 4 times the value of using your miles for a Delhi-Mumbai trip.

Will dedicate the next blog post on ways to maximize the cost saving/mile before solving the mystery to earning enough frequent flyer miles for the deam vacation without taking a flight in the subsequent post. Cheers till then.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

New Year Resolutions, South America and the World Cup

Three seemingly unrelated topics that come together to form my first post this year. Having initiated this blog with much enthusiasm during the last South America trip, i had hoped to share our experiences to help others plan their trips to a region where information on the internet or in guide books is rather sketchy and more often than not outdated for travellers. Unfortunately i realised in the middle of the trip that blogging during the holiday typically means choosing between blogging and sleep. While blogging won over sleep initially, over the longer period of the holiday it was a no contest.

Given that learning, this time as part of my new year resolutions i plan to blog about the trip to South America along with my experience of attending the cricket world cup watching India in different venues across the country this year. Hopefully this is not a resolution that will fizzle out like new year resolutions typically do.

Coming back to South America, i fell in love with the continent during the previous 3 week trip that included Santiago, Atacama Desert, Bolivia, Lake Titicaca & of course Machu Picchu. While talking to other travellers I realised that Easter Island & Patagonia were 2 destinations that I HAD TO visit in Chile again, and i wasnt disappointed. Some of the amazing experiences of the trip were:

1) Watching Sachin score his 50th Test ton (yes that happened in South Africa and had nothing to do with South America but you will get the connection by the end of the post)
2) Getting to hold a crocodile in Sun City (South Africa again!!) that according to its handler was old enough to bite our hands off

3) Escadaria de Selaron (Selaron's stairs) in Rio de Janeiro, a continuously updated work of art that contains tiles from over 180 countries
4) Christ the reddemer statue and view of Rio from Sugarloaf mountain

5) Everything about the 23 km hike over 3 days in Torres de Paine National Park

6) The sound of ice cracking at Perito Moreno glacier in Argentinian patagonia, one of only 3 advacing glaciers in the world.

7) Photographing the Easter Island Moai's at sunrise & sunset

8) Watching 80 year olds Tango gracefully at a Tango bar in Buenos Aires
9) The sight of the "Devil's throat" at Iguazu Falls

While the quintessential South America travel experience should include as much of bus travel, given the shortish time we flew across the continent(as per the map on the left). One of the major road blocks for visiting South America is the high cost of flights to South America (cheapest prices i could find were Rs 85k on Emirates) and the decision to take local flights in South America added significantly to our costs. Unfortunately the level of competition among airlines in South America is rather low and given the absence of viable low cost carriers on most routes, flying internally within South America is quite an expense.

The trick to bring down those costs substantially is to use your Jet Privilege miles and fly via South Africa to either Sao Paolo or Buenos Aires. Here is how this routing helps you kill 2 birds with a single stone known as South African airways:

1) Use Jet Privilege miles to book a return award ticket on partner airlines South African airways from Johannesburg to Sao Paolo or Buenos Aires. This will cost you 24500 miles per person and Rs 1800 as tax. You can even do an open jaw ticket and fly into Sao Paolo and depart via Buenos Aires or vice a versa. Yes thats right, you can use 15% more miles than those required to redeem a Delhi-Mumbai return award (21000 miles) to book a return 10 hour flight from Joburg. So if you have 24500 miles in your Jetprivilege account you can bring down the cost of flying to South America from Rs 85000 to approx Rs 35-40k (return ticket from Del/Mumbai to Joburg plus the tax amount for the award flight). Thats a straight saving of approx Rs 50k per person.

2) Flying into South America on South African Airways make you eligible for the Lan South America Pass which enables you to purchase tickets on Lan for a fixed sector price which varies by route but is still 20%-50% cheaper than normal market prices for most routes. Just as an example the Lan Pass would enable you to buy a Santiago-Easter Island return fare for approx USD 600 for a market price ranging between USD 900 - USD 1500. Similar savings on other routes mean that flying within South America is not as prohibitive.

Given the savings, visiting South Africa for Sachin's 50th century was just the icing on the cake!!! :)

More South America travel tips to follow in subsequent posts!!