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Travel on Rs 1,000 a day

Travelling on a shoestring budget need not mean cutting too many corners. We show you how to bag the lowest rates, yet holiday comfortably.The key to flying smart Luxury that is value for money A guide to 5-star treatment

There might be no increments this year (if you still have a job, that is), the economy is unlikely to recover any time soon and it looks like the finance minister will demand your loose change for future spending packages. You definitely need a holiday from this unrelenting bombardment of bad news, don’t you? The good news is that the travel industry is going all out to ensure that you don’t postpone the summer holiday you have been craving for but are afraid to splurge on. Mindful of the marauding economy and tighter travel budgets, it is promising value vacations.

Says Vella Ramasawmy, general manager of the Leela Kempinski Gurgaon: “This year will be all about good gestures, pampering guests and nurturing them for the future. We are living in a world where people are having a tough time financially. You have to be as accommodating as possible to make sure that your guests are getting value for their money.”

Stretch your Rupee
Book early for the cheapest rates, except in Summer 2009.
Leading portals often miss out on great budget hotels. Visit sites like Inasra and TravelPaisa for more options.
A package deal is often cheaper and more convenient.
Apart from price, weigh the value additions on offer.
Time your travel smartly by tracking hotels’ ‘rate of the day’ for a week, if not a month.
Save on meals; lunch buffets can be cheaper than a la carte.
Meal discount coupons from, say, Pizza Hut, should be taken along to save on the trip.
For cheap sightseeing, rent a bike/car from the locals.
Avoid hotel-arranged cars and local taxis like the plague.
Co-branded credit cards like the Yatra Barclaycard will yield regular discounts.

In fact, the drying up of the foreign tourist trail has made several places in the country surprisingly affordable. According to Karan Anand, head, relationships and supplier management, Cox & Kings, the financial meltdown has taken a toll on travel and many hotels have cut tariffs. Consider this: hotels in destinations strongly dependent on foreign tourists, like Rajasthan and Goa, have lowered rates by almost 30%, while tariffs in the metros and tier II tourist spots are down 10-15%. “In 2009, hotels will concentrate mostly on making the stay attractive with various value additions,” adds Anil Madhok, managing director, Sarovar Hotels & Resorts. What does this mean? Complimentary room upgrades, airport transfers, spa discounts and more. All of which implies that you can manage a perfectly good holiday —food, accommodation and sightseeing— for just Rs 1,000 a day.

The deal is further sweetened by falling air fares—airlines have pruned their base fares by 40-45% in recent times. Do your homework well, do it in advance, and you can bag not only the cheapest fares but also the most comfortable seats. Don’t be shy to ask for more; all they can do is say no. When it comes to hotels, they are more than likely to say yes, meaning that you get a lot more than what you’re paying for.

If your brain balked at the thought of a holiday on Rs 1,000 a day, allow us to show you how. All you have to do is ensure that your hotel doesn’t cost more than Rs 650 a night on a twin-sharing basis, and divide the remaining money between meals and sightseeing.

Budget accommodation

Think budget stay and chances are you're expecting seedy rooms that are more likely to be rented by the hour than by the day. But look at the various Ginger hotels across the country and you'll realise that budget need not mean bad. Ginger offers air-conditioned, Wi-Fienabled double rooms, complete with flat screen TV, coffee maker and a work station, for under Rs 1,300, or Rs 650 a head. If you opt for smaller standalone properties, homestays or hostels, and time your travel for the lean season, you can find excellent, no-frills options for less than Rs 600 per person.

The safest way to find such accommodation is to take the online travel facilitator route. Established sites like Travelguru and Yatra yield plenty of budget options, with rooms starting at as little as Rs 500 a night. An added facility now offered by yatra.com, which is likely to become an industry norm soon, is to let the guests check out the budget properties before paying the entire amount. Though Yatra officials say that most customers are happy with their first choice, the confidence provided by such a gesture is sure to give many travellers the courage to think budget.

The usually expensive stay options are now available forless. The Kerala houseboats, for example, are offering all-inclusive packages for Rs 1,000 a night, per head.

Unfortunately, the top online portals offer options that are far from comprehensive. It's the lesser known portals like arzoo.com, inasra.com and travelpaisa.com that offer a greater choice in the budget category. For instance, consider the Haveli Hotel Suraj, where spacious double rooms start at Rs 1,215 a night. The 500-year-old guesthouse in Jaisalmer has been delighting guests for over 25 years, but is only listed by Inasra and Travel Paisa, both of which allow online reservations. Similarly, Websites like www.thebackpacker.net and www.bedandbreakfast.com/ india.html throw up several interesting budget options.

As with most things, the longer you spend researching, the more likely you are to land a great deal. The rule of thumb is to book early as this is a sure-shot way of getting a lower room rate. However, Summer 2009 is an exception. Experts say that it won't pay to be an early bird since most players are going to wait and see if demand picks up till March before they start rolling out the bigticket discounts.

Booking through indirect channels like the Web can also fetch you better deals. The hotel Websites allow you to monitor room tariffs over a week or month to see when you can bag the lowest rate, and you can compare the rate of the day across properties. Often, hotels also offer a special discounted Web rate, like Ginger hotels are doing at the moment.

For as little as Rs 150 a day you can get cheap scooty or bike rental options at almost all tourist spots. As a bigger group it is more economical to hire a car from the locals.

However, sadly, the real gems are often not available online. In Amritsar, for instance, the NRI Guesthouse offers air-conditioned rooms for Rs 500 a night. It's a stone's throw from the Golden Temple and the rooms are excellent, if basic. Then there is the Alidia Beach Cottages in Goa, where a couple can get an air-conditioned double room for Rs 2,000 a night. How do you find out about such hidden wonders? Often, by just landing up at your holiday spot and asking the locals. But this isn't a good idea if you are travelling with children or the aged.

One suggestion: try to negotiate a lower rate, be it with travel consolidators or the hotel reception desk. Travel intermediaries and small- to mid-scale hotels are likely to match the tariff quoted by the competition.

If the hotel does not budge, try to bargain for a room upgrade or meal discounts.

Advantage package

One of the perennial debates is whether it’s cheaper to book a package tour or put together your own. Travel experts are unequivocal about the savings potential of bundled offers. According to Noel Swain, vice-president, marketing and supplier relations, Cleartrip, by opting for a combo package, you end up spending more on the overall booking, but “it is 5-20% cheaper than individual bookings”. Adds Amit Kapoor, AVP, business development (leisure), Travelguru: “A complete package solution will always prove more cost-effective when you are making a holiday booking. As the ticket and booking values are high, portals combine and offer opaque air fares and hotel rates, which benefits the customers.”

In opaque pricing, the travel provider offers a choice of two or three airlines and similar category hotels, and you are not informed about where you will be placed till you pay up.

A package may also work out to be more convenient in terms of the time spent on researching travel facilitators and then making individual hotel and flight bookings. However, as mentioned earlier, travel portals do not have an exhaustive list. The one thing you should never include in your comprehensive package is sight-seeing. It’s much cheaper to do it yourself.

Save on sightseeing

The ideal way to discover a new place is to hop in and out of the local buses. In Mumbai, for instance, you can take the BEST buses to virtually every place worth seeing in the city for under Rs 20, and that’s if you are travelling from depot to depot. But if you don’t have the stomach for it, the next best alternative is to hire a scooter. In Goa, for example, a bike can be rented for just Rs 150 a day, unless you visit between Christmas and New Year. With roadside shops selling petrol in mineral water bottles for Rs 50, you don’t need to worry about running out of fuel.

To find the most value-for-money eateries, follow the locals or foreign backpackers, who seem to have a knack for discovering the best joints.

If you are travelling in a group of five or six, it would be more economical to hire a jeep or a car. Almost all tourist hotspots in the country offer such cheap rental options. Your hotel can help, but it’s cheaper to walk down to the local bus stand and ask where you can get the cheapest options. As a rule, we suggest that you avoid local taxis as fervently as you would from nonfiltered water.

A lot of travellers make the mistake of spacing out their sightseeing, which means that they have to hire a bike/car on multiple days. It would be much wiser to squeeze all the sightseeing in a day or two and leave the rest of your vacation for relaxation and walking tours. This not only reduces your sightseeing expenditure but frees up cash for meals and souvenirs.

Cheap food

The surest way to saving on meals while travelling is to stay in a selfcatering accommodation. But we’ve not included this category since a holiday is no fun if you have to remain a slave to the stove. So the key to value-for-money dining, as any travel guide will tell you, is to follow the locals. A joint that is more packed than the adjoining eateries—those frequented by Volvo and other tourist buses do not count—is sure to be a good bet. This is how intrepid travellers stumble upon holes in the wall selling the most succulent kebabs, like Khan Chacha in Delhi, or a tavern selling the cheapest liquor, like Gokul bar at Colaba, Mumbai. The added advantage of following the crowd is that it protects your stomach since a high turnover means that you are unlikely to be served stale food.

In India, it’s a good idea to be right behind the scruffy, whiteskinned backpacker. From Manali to Madurai, Goa to Guwahati, these gritty travellers manage to find the best, yet the cheapest, restaurants. Take the Llamo café in McLeodganj. Tucked away on the first floor of a nondescript dwelling on the road to Bhagsu falls, this place can’t accommodate more than 20 people at a time, and most of them are foreigners. Here, you can pig out till you puke and still not run up a bill higher than Rs 300 a head. Then there is the Zanzibar shack on Goa’s hip Baga beach, where a meal for two, including two pints a head, costs under Rs 400 in the lean season, while the neighbouring shacks cost more.

Another way to save on your food bill is to seek out the local out-let of a budget restaurant chain— think Kamats, Saravana Bhavan or Nirulas—where a meal for two costs Rs 300. Prudent travellers also make the most of meal coupons and discount vouchers that come their way. Says Rishi Pal, a 28-year-old backpacking addict who works for a call centre: “I bag a lot of Dominoes and Pizza Hut coupons for free pizzas as I regularly order in from office. I carry these coupons when I travel to reduce my daily expense.”

A buffet lunch at a mid-range or even an upscale restaurant can make for a nice change if you scrimp on most days of your holiday. Besides, it can work out significantly cheaper than an a la carte. For instance, at Geoffrey’s in Mumbai, the lunch buffet costs Rs 350 a head, while a regular meal for two works out to Rs 1,000. Also check if the restaurant in question offers buffet options like only starters and desserts, or even just soups and starters, to enjoy a fine spread for a fraction of the cost.

Once again, the way to big savings is to do as much research as possible before taking off on your holiday. A great place to start is www.feastguru.com, a portal that showcases promotions offered by eateries in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru. The portal is planning to add more cities in a phased manner.

The bottom line

You don’t have to join the backpacking hordes to holiday on a shoestring. For, if the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India (FHRAI) has its way, budget travellers have a great deal to look forward to. In the next Union Budget, the FHRAI has suggested that hotels with room tariffs of under Rs 2,500 should get an exemption on luxury tax. Says Saeed M. Shervani, managing director of Shervani Hospitalities Ltd and honorary secretary of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Northern India: “Presently, taxes constitute almost 50% of room tariffs in India. The rates for all categories of hotels are likely to fall by 15- 20%, depending on the tax breaks that are given.” He explains that 61% of the entire room inventory of hotels in India falls in the unorganised sector of the unrated, one- and two-star hotels. But this sector has a major shortfall of quality hotels and ancillary facilities, and the demandsupply mismatch has led to escalating prices. This proposal aims to address this problem. “With 10 million foreign tourists expected by 2010 and 500 million domestic travellers, India needs to create 1.5 lakh rooms. The availability of branded budget hotels can bridge this shortfall,” he adds.

Till that happens, you have to keep your eyes peeled for cheap options. Consider a weekend driving holiday instead of spending Rs 6,000 on air fare. Or think of travelling by train. Lastly, never underestimate the power of bargaining. A simple question like “do you have a better rate?” can take you further than you can imagine.

Rail holidays

The Railways is the ultimate mode of budget transport. At www.railtourismindia.com, within 15 minutes, you can not only book train tickets, but also a hotel room (including a few options that most leading online travel portals have missed), and rent a cab if you can’t do without one. Feeling lazy? Just book a holiday package, be it a train tour, a driving holiday—like the twoday all-inclusive Delhi-Corbett-Delhi trip costing Rs 5,613 per person—or an air package (a five-night trip from Delhi to Leh costs Rs 19,500 per head).

But the Railway’s forte is pilgrimage tours. You’ll be hard pressed to find a cheaper quote for a Mumbai-Tirupati, all-inclusive round trip, than Rs 2,999. Or, imagine a four-day Delhi-Vaishnodevi journey for Rs 3,950, including stay, meals and sightseeing.

If you don’t mind travelling sleeper class, the Bharat Darshan special trains, covering all the important tourist places, are possibly India’s most affordable all-inclusive tour packages. The Howrah-Ajmer-Pushkar-Udaipur-Chittaurgarh-Mount Abu-Jodhpur-Jaisalmer-Bikaner-Jaipur-Howrah journey costs Rs 6,186, which works out to just Rs 500 a day, including guided sightseeing.

Then there are the value-formoney packages showcasing entire states. Consider the eight-day Best of Kerala package from Mumbai costing Rs 12,999 that includes accommodation, sightseeing and taxes. For those on a more lenient budget, most packages come in standard and deluxe versions as well.

As Arun Srivastava, deputy general manager, tourism marketing, IRCTC, puts it, “No matter what kind of a holiday you crave, the Railways has a package for you.”