Saturday, 23 June 2018

The Europe Trip: Part 1 - Preparation


Swami Gulagulaananda quoted Abraham Lincoln:
"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe"


Europe is a dream destination for many travel enthusiasts. Having read about the intricate work of Michaelangelo, the grandeur of the Vatican, the glorious Roman empire as well as of relatively modern periods of the Nazi era, I thought that a visit to Europe may be a great idea.

I am not a travel expert, but I will try to walk through some of the things that I did in order to make my entire trip hassle-free. Spend time to prepare well and the trip will go through smoothly. There are a couple of ways to plan your trip. One, is through package tours with a travel agency like Kesari Travels, Thomas Cook, etc. and the other is to plan your entire trip yourself.

Booking through travel agencies has several advantages. You don't have many headaches. The agency takes care of everything, including stay, food and point to point travel. Personally, I tried travelling through an agency once and I liked the way in which they had taken care of everything. What I didn't like was the schedules. We had to stick to their schedule and we didn't have the choice of spending more time in some areas and less in another. Also, you don't have many customisation options in these package tours.

I prefer planning the entire trip myself. This way, I have complete control over every element of the trip. It is a lot of work but the result is totally worth it. This post is about preparing for your trip if you plan it yourself and while most of the advice is relevant to other places, some points are very specific to Europe.

At this point, I would like to thank Google for the fantastic work that they have been doing. They are truly on their way towards organising the entire world.

Apps

Google Trips

This app has proved to be an invaluable tool and is an absolute must while planning your trip. Google Trips is a trip planning tool that allows you to:
  • maintain all reservations (hotels, travel, etc.) in a single place
  • maintain places that you have planned to visit in a city
  • get recommendations of places to visit in a city
  • get valuable tips about transportation (metro, bus, taxi, etc.) within a city



There are alternatives available, but I stuck with Google Trips.

Google Maps



Google Maps might seem to be a no-brainer. However, apart from showing the route to a particular place, Google Maps also has the public transport option. That shows you exactly which Metro or Bus to take, the boarding stop, the direction, the intermediate stops and where to get off.





Uber

Public transport in Europe is fantastic and very cheap. Sometimes, though, you may choose to travel by Uber. Having Uber installed and ready may prove to be useful.


Bags

Tourist locations in Europe have a reputation of having several pickpockets, especially Rome. Several people have had their passports stolen and apparently even hotel rooms aren't safe. While most hotels and even B&Bs have safes installed in rooms, I decided to keep very important things close to me.


I decided to purchase a bag which proved to be an invaluable companion throughout the trip. The bag is called "God's Ghost Backpack" and you can buy it from Amazon if you would like. 

I would highly recommend buying this backpack. It has several compartments and the bag is theft-proof. It's made of a robust material and the zips are positioned such that one cannot open them without getting it off their backs. I kept everything including passports, laptop, camera and other important paraphernalia inside this bag. It's water resistant and has a rain protection cover add-on if you would like to purchase (I got that as well).

Also, remember that bags sometimes get lost. So, make sure that your essentials are distributed across bags (don't put all your eggs in the same basket)

Food and Water


Tap water is potable and directly consumable in all places that we visited. A simple Google search will help you get this information in case you are unsure. However, bottled water is extremely pricy, with a one litre bottle costing € 5 - That's about ₹ 400 and is totally not worth it. Make sure that you read labels on water bottles in hotel rooms to see if they are complementary or charged.

Surprisingly, most restaurants also charge for water. So, it would be better for you to carry a pre-filled bottle of water to avoid paying a high price for something as basic as water.


There are plenty of restaurants in Europe and there are plenty of Indian restaurants in Europe as well. So food is not much of a problem. If you are a vegetarian, there are plenty of vegan/vegetarian restaurants as well. However, there are very limited Indian vegetarian restaurants (sometimes non-existent). Some cities like Paris offer multiple Indian pure vegetarian restaurants like Saravanaa Bhavan and Sangeetha which are absolutely fantastic (better than most restaurants in Bangalore), in Rome, passable and in Brussels, non-existent.

You can consider carrying ready-to-eat food where you just add hot water and have it available, if you are a stickler. Most hotels and B&Bs have microwave ovens and hot water kettles available. 


Expenses

There are several apps for keeping track of expenses. Personally, I maintained everything on a Google Sheets document.

Not all places accept cards, and sometimes, a little extra is charged if you use a card. So, carry money in a combination of card and cash. You can use International Credit Cards, International Debit Cards of Forex Cards, depending on your preference. A simple Google search will help you choose. Personally, I opted for the prepaid Forex card.

In Europe, there is an additional charge called as Tourism Tax that gets charged while checking into the hotel. The charge is around € 3-4 per person per day.

Stay

You have two major options - Staying in hotels or staying in B&Bs. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

For the uninitiated, B&Bs or Bed and Breakfast places are an alternative to staying in hotels. They are generally entire apartments or apartment rooms rented to you for the few days that you plan to stay in a city. While they are considered to be a cheaper alternative, I didn't find their pricing to be different when compared to hotel rooms.

One advantage of staying in a B&B is that you may get a kitchen and occasionally a washing machine. Kitchens are fully featured with refrigerators, microwave ovens, electric kettles, dishwashers, coffee and tea, sugar, etc. Some B&Bs offer breakfast, some offer croissants, cakes and biscuits while others don't offer anything beyond the plain kitchen. This is something that you will have to read about the one that you are looking at.

These B&Bs are run quite professionally - They provide receipts, sometimes provide maps and other useful information, etc. They even have cleaning people who clean your rooms, just like a hotel. So, you don't have to worry much about that. If the location is really good (close to the places that wish to visit), it is something that you should seriously consider if other parameters are met.

Hotels, on the other hand, are pretty standard. My suggestion is to go for well known chain hotels like Best Western, Crowne, Holiday Express, Ibis etc. Apart from offering budget rooms, they sometimes offer additional services like shuttle services that can save you some money. Most hotels have electric kettles and coffee makers, some like Best Western also have microwave ovens.

Almost every hotel and B&B in Italy has toilets equipped with bidets along with toilet paper. But the rest of Europe only have toilet paper. The bathrooms are equipped with shower gels and the shampoos aren't great. So, you may want to carry your own personal shampoo.

I used Expedia for all my bookings. They even have options of reserving rooms without paying in advance and refundable bookings. This can be particularly useful if your visa is not ready.

NOTE:

Make sure that you avoid using MakeMyTrip. Their customer service is absolutely horrible. Read more about it here.


Transport

Public transport in Europe is absolutely fantastic. Cities like Rome, Venice, Paris and Berlin have the concept of a single pass that can be used any number of times in a single day. The same pass can be used on metro trains, trams and buses and can be a significantly cheaper option compared to taxis. The public transport network is great in Europe. Some other cities like Brussels and Amsterdam have their public transport tickets like in Bangalore, where each trip costs money.

Google Maps has the public transport option that shows the metro train or bus number, direction, intermediate stops etc. It even tells you when to expect the next train/bus. This option is a must-use.

Occasionally, you may want to hail taxis. Hailing taxis on the road is not very easy. Taxis in taxi stands are easier to board. Taxis are well regulated in Europe and the prices are pretty standard across normal taxis and Uber. 

Travelling from one city to another, within the same country or across countries, is possible via train and airplane. The trains are super smooth and are a great way to look at the countryside along the journey. You'll love it if you are a fan of rail journeys. However, some train journeys could take longer and you may want to consider airplanes for those journeys. I opted for trains when the time was under 2 hours and airplanes when train journeys were longer (like around 7-8 hours).

For booking trains, you can consider websites like Rail Europe and Trainline.


Visa

You have to apply for a visa depending on the port of entry or the country where you plan to spend the longest period of time. If you live in a city that doesn't have a consulate (most of us do), then you can opt for working with a company called VFS Global. They have a website that is very straightforward. Book an appointment and make sure that you carry all the required documents in the exact order in which they have requested. You will have very little time inside. Get a photocopy of each document for each person in your group because they process visas independently. Visas take about 15 days to arrive after the submission of documents. It's better to complete the visa process at least a month prior to your trip.


NOTE:
Make sure that you avoid using MakeMyTrip. Their customer service is absolutely horrible. Read more about it here.





The problems of scale

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
"There are always problems associated with scale... especially when my weight doesn't seem to reduce"

Scalability has been a popular buzz word for some time and with the increasing use of the internet, social media and machine learning, data collections and performing operations at scale has become very important. But scale isn't something that is necessarily confined to the realm of technology. In this post, let's have a look at how solutions that work for some problems don't work at scale.

A long time ago, I came across a fascinating website called Project Euler. Project Euler presented us with a series of mathematical problems of increasing difficulty and the objective is solve them under a minute using a computer program. The first few could be as simple as sum of the first 100 numbers or sum of first 50 even numbers which were quite easy to solve for even novice programmers. Most engineering students might remember these as practice problems as part of their curriculum. Then you may also remember a problem that asks you if a number, x, is prime or not. How do you check if a number is prime or not? You divide the number by 2 (or take the integer nearest to the square root) and ensure that the number x is not divisible by 2 or any odd number till half (or square root). If even one number can divide x, then x is not a prime number.

There was another problem that asked us to find the, say 100th, prime number. Now, the problem became somewhat interesting. We had to start with an odd number, and keep incrementing by 2 to go to the next odd number. Then, for every odd number, we have to determine if the number is prime or not. If the number is prime, then we increment a counter and proceed. This seems to be a relatively easy solution, and for smaller numbers, the answers pop out quite quickly. However as we proceed to larger numbers, the same operation of dividing larger numbers by halves (or square roots) is repeated several times resulting in a significant delay in the overall solution and you end up taking a really long time. (The solution, in case you are interested, is to use the Sieve of Sundaram or sieve of Eratosthenes)

Thus, the solution of determining if a number is prime or not cannot be used to effectively solve a related problem due to scale. Even our power computers take considerably longer than a minute as you increase it from 100th prime to say 200th prime.

The same is true for restaurants and businesses. If you have visited any restaurant where you place order and collect your food from the counters, like the self service Darshini restaurants, you will notice one of three types:

  • You order along with the rest of the customers. The guy keeps placing plates on the counter. Whoever is closest picks them up and you often feel cheated if someone who came after you got his food first
  • You order along with the rest of the customers. However, there is one guy who keeps collecting the tokens from you and maintaining a mental note of who came first and who came later. He ensures that food gets delivered on a first come first serve basis
  • There is a numbered token system. Food is given based on the token. You show your token and collect your food
The first ones are obviously the worst. However, they are the easiest to implement because there is no additional overhead involved. This system relies on the goodness of people that people are self regulating and will pick up orders in the same order in which they gave the tokens. Let us assume that there are only 3 customers at the counter. Then, this system will work without any issues because it is easier to manage and since people are being watched by other people, they will be at their best behaviour. However, as the number of people increase, like during a rush hour, this system will simply collapse. Customers will be watching like hawks so that they don't get cheated. Some customers might even be motivated to get someone else's food first because they know how long they have to wait.

The second system is relatively better. But it has an additional overhead of a man watching. We have to rely on his memory. Also, since looking at the order isn't his full time job, he is bound to slip up occasionally and thus, it ceases to remain a scalable solution.

The third solution is the most scalable of the lot and you can see the smoothest operators using this solution. Even McDonald's that has improved their processes over the years uses this. Thus, solutions that work at lower scale don't work at higher scales.

I have made similar observations while boarding buses or metro trains. During peak hours, people wait for the doors to open. The moment the door opens, people clamour to get in to try and get a seat (or at least get into the vehicle so that they don't have to wait). However, during non-office hours, people follow the rules and breathe easy, wait till the door opens, get in and stroll to their seats. The resources are more and the competition is low.

And these observations are not limited to Bangalore or India even. I made similar observations in western nations within Europe as well as in the US. It is a myth that cars in the US or Europe don't honk as much as they do in India. It is not really a behavioural problem. They don't honk because they are not presented with the situation. When I was in New York City and in Berlin, cab drivers demonstrated behaviours very similar to those in Bangalore during peak hours where they threaded their cabs across lanes, honked and swore. 


And thus, we have to look at Bangalore and India quite differently when comparing with other countries. A lot of things that work at lower scales don't work at higher scales.