We recently got back from a 2 week long summer vacation to Kurseong, Darjeeling and Sikkim. Three families, with kids, across 5 locations, with 4 legs of train journeys, 4 taxi trips in the hills and lots of walking! Obviously this needed a fair bit of planning and execution.
While the internet has been a good friend for a while for planning such trips, this time around technology had a much more major role to play in our vacation. Here’s a quick recap of how it played its part.
Of course appropriate train tickets were found and booked on IRCTC, including the one for the mountain railway from Kurseong to Darjeeling. IRCTCs recent changes to open windows for agents, tatkal, etc meant this was a relatively smooth process. Of course, lower berths are still elusive commodities, and since not all tickets were done well in advance, there were some waitlisted ones keeping us guessing. mypnrstatus.com was a pretty useful tool in this context, and kept us in the know as the waitlist moved!
Oh yes, must report that the tickets-on-SMS thing has really caught on – that single move must have saved tons of paper!
Since the trip involved multiple long train journeys, trainenquiry.com was something I used a lot to figure out how late we were running, how far our station was, and even to guess where we could find the next decent cup of chai (sorry, you can have only so much of the IRCTC stuff!) The site actually is very frequently updated – almost to the nearest 5 minutes – for all important trains. And its pretty fast even on a regular 2G connection.
We found ALL our hotels on TripAdvisor! Yes, there was a lot of advice on Facebook, and sites such as IndiaMike.com did play a part in picking the right locations, but reviews of the accommodation options finally sealed it. Of course, this was all subject to availability, and a lot many phone calls were needed before the rooms were finalized. And having the conversation also opened up other ideas, transport arrangements and many minor suggestions from the folks we spoke with; this was something TripAdvisor could not have done and all travel sites have been unable to crack.
This was planned as a walking vacation. The wiki pages for these places threw up a lot many ideas about stitching up a good walk or two in each place. Online fora and help on Facebook also helped pick and drop places based on our specific needs – for instance, we dropped Gangtok from our plans altogether, and picked only a few places in Darjeeling we could walk to! We also found recos for restaurants, places to shop at, and offbeat spots online. Google Places was handy for this more than once.
While on the trip, the weather turned. And given that we were prepared for summer in the hills, with no umbrellas, and determined to walk as much as we could, keeping an eye on local weather conditions became important. Thankfully, weather forecasting has become accurate enough to plan around – and Google gives you the details for many cities on the result page itself – that’s super useful.
One of the guys was an avid photographer – and in his kit was a very interesting storage solution – the Eye-Fi card – that synced with the iPad immediately and the whole pain of having to upload/delete from the SD card was just gone!
Apart from all the utility of the internet before and during the trip, the availability of decent 2G networks – I mostly got a fast EDGE connection even in less known places – and a good capable Android phone (I use the Xolo Q800 – super VFM, very decent battery life and very very fast) meant access to historical and other information, a decent camera and Facebook to share the trip with my friends with. We also recorded GPS co-ordinates to see later on a map the places that we went to.
Of course, connectivity has its downsides – check out one of my fellow travellers admiring the pretty landscape in front of him – on his iPad! ( Just kidding – Sharath was taking some awesome pics even as he enjoyed the walks. But our devices did keep all of us adequately ‘engaged’ – to put it nicely :) )
Its almost unimaginable to plan a trip into the unknown without the internet. I personally love adventure, exploration – but it still helps to have a sense of place to do that around – and when traveling with kids, predictability needs to go hand in hand with adventure. Somehow, on this trip, we managed the delicate balance of the two.
But there’s surely a gap. Most sites sell deals, and travel is sold pretty much like electronics are or grocery is. The experiential quotient is low – there’s precious few out there with a real love of travel or an understanding of what a traveler is looking for in various situations. The tools exist, but unless you come with a fairly certain bent of mine, you have rather common-denominator choices to pick from.
Being the travel entrepreneur I’ve been for a few years, that’s given me an idea! Of course its early days, but the domain has been registered and a couple of coffees had with potential co-conspirators :)
Some of the startups and tools we’ve covered before