Sunday, January 31, 2016

Alhind Scania: Thrissur to Bangalore

As my travel to Kerala came closer, there was more pressure to book a ticket. Airfares were quite high, and bus fares seemed to compete with airlines. Given the change in my working hours, I had to be in Bangalore very early in the morning. Buses leaving later in the night was not an option at all. I had to take a bus leaving in the afternoon, or early evening. Alhind fit my requirements to the T, and without much thoughts I went ahead and booked a ticket on Alhind. I got a sweet deal on the Alhind website. The bus was mostly sold, I got a seat in the last-but-one row - a window seat on the right (#J1).

January 17, 2016:
I started preparing for the journey once the tracking message arrived - a link to track the bus, along with details of the bus was present in the message. I used the link to find where my bus was. This was really useful since it kept me updated where the bus exactly was. I left home sometime around 1630hrs. Unusually, I did not wait for a KSRTC bus from my place - I had a bad experience the last time, and I just took a private bus from there to Thrissur. The honk-happy driver kept honking for no reason and the ride was very unsettled. The bus bounced all the time and the ride was very uncomfortable. While in the bus, I received a call from Alhind, who confirmed my location, and also asked me to be a particular travel agency. I reached Thrissur sometime past 1745hrs. The reporting time at the pick-up point was 1800hrs. I just roamed around the bus station for a couple of minutes and walked to the pick-up point, which was located right outside the bus station. I reached there exactly at 1800hrs - one more passenger had to come, and I was asked to wait for some time.

Sometime around 1815hrs, the other passenger came down. After confirming that there were no more passengers to come, the guy at the travel agency hired an autorickshaw, paid him the fare and gave him the dropping point. While we were travelling by the auto, the crew from the bus called up and informed that they were already waiting for us. We reached Mannuthy pick-up point at 1824hrs - the bus was already waiting on the road side. We started off from Mannuthy at 1830hrs. The bus was mostly full - my co-passenger seat was empty though. A classic Bollywood movie was being played on the entertainment system. A blanket was already kept on my seat, while the attendant came with a bottle of water as soon as we started.
The bus that I traveled in: KA-01-AE-8800. Taken right before boarding.
We made a brief halt outside a hotel just past Vadakkencherry (near Mangalam palam) - I thought we were having a very early dinner break - but the bus got moving almost immediately (1916hrs). Driving was really good. After entering the four-lane route, the bus maintained constant pace throughout the time. The driver did not honk at all - it was the dipper all the time. We reached Palakkad at 1940hrs. A few passengers got in from here. We had Parveen Travels' Scania (heading to Chennai) for company. We left at 1941hrs and rushed towards Coimbatore. I was wondering where the dinner break would be. We pulled off the main road at Kanjikode and stopped at Hotel Saravana bhavan for dinner (1955hrs). I had brought my dinner from home, and planned to remain in the bus itself. But the airconditioner was turned off, and the attendant asked all passengers to get off the bus so that he could lock the bus. A nice move to ensure safety.

I didn't have anything to do - so just waited outside the bus all the time. The Parveen Scania joined us at the dinner break a little later. We started off after dinner at 2037hrs. I had my dinner soon after we started. The movie was still on. The ride was very comfortable till we passed Walayar (an Irony! Earlier, the roads on the other side used to be great. Its now the opposite). We had a brief halt at Chavadi Checkpost (incoming) for verification of papers (2105hrs). We reached the Coimbatore pick-up point (Neelambur toll gate, on the bypass) at 2140hrs. A few passengers got off, and an equal number of passengers got it. Except a couple of seats (including the one next to me), all the other seats were full now. We started off again at 2146hrs.
Interiors - Photo from archives.
I tried to sleep for some time - but I was having a very bad cough, which kept waking me up time and again. Sipping some water did not help - drinking a lot of water could have its own implications. The AC was set in a very comfortable temperature - it wasn't very cold, not warm either. Toll gates on the highway were badly crowded - queues were long, and there surely were those unruly lane breakers. Vijayamangalam toll gate was particularly a mess - the queue was almost a kilometre long, and crawled at a very slow pace. We painfully waited and cleared the toll gate at 2234hrs, only to be pulled up by an checking squad of the Motor Vehicles Department. I am not sure what fault did they find with the bus, but they did raise a challan and we started off again only at 2238hrs. While there, I saw an unruly inspector pulling out some additional LED strips that was fixed on the bus. While he was doing his duty, the way he did it did not appear correct to me.

I tried sleeping for some more time. I woke up just as I felt the bus went off the highway - we were going for a pick-up somewhere. The bus stopped under a flyover at around 2301hrs. I couldn't identify the place - so resorted to the trust GMaps. The map blurted out that we were in Bhavani. The wait was quite long - I understood later that we were waiting for a passenger. We left from there at 2230hrs - a 29 minutes wait!! I slept for a little more while and woke up just as we were nearing Salem. A quick pick-up was done at Salem (2359hrs) filling the last empty seat in the bus - the seat next to me. I slept off again. Every single toll gate was crowded, and we kept losing time at every single toll gate. My GPS was recording very stable speeds - always a couple of numbers short of three digits.

Driving was very stable, without hard cutting or hard braking. I slept on and off - I did wake up everytime the bus came to a halt. Krishnagiri toll gate had a very bad queue - it looked like everyone south was heading towards Bangalore going by the crowd. I pulled up my back rest as we passed Attibele. We reached Electronic City at 0237hrs. A couple of passengers got off, and the same number got in as well. The bus took the elevated tollway from there. In the meantime, I booked a cab to ferry me from the end of the flyover, to my home - some 6kms away. I headed towards the cabin as the bus neared the end of the elevated road. The bus reached Silkboard at 0245hrs. Quite interestingly, the attendant did not switch on the lights and shout out for passengers - he took the reservation chart and went seat by seat to alert passengers getting off in Bangalore! Quite professional, and impressive - I must say!

End notes: The bus, KA-01-AE-8800, had clocked about 78000 kms since it was introduced in November 2015. Alhind is a very old travel operator - they are more into flight ticketing and related services, than operating buses. They quit operations a couple of year back, and this service marks their re-entry to the scene. The bus was in great shape, given the distance it runs daily. The crew were really well behaved - they did not force passengers to rush at any point of time. The breaks were fairly - but that did not affect the running time. The dinner break was 42 minutes long. We then had a 29 minute wait for a passenger. Despite all the breaks the bus took 8h15m to travel from Thrissur bypass to Silkboard. Considering all the breaks, the timing is just awesome. The bus never hit three digit speeds. The driver did not play an F1 race on the road. No honking at night. No hard brakes, no sharp cuts! Amazing show by the crew. I really liked their service. And, we were actually much before time in Bangalore!! The live tracking was just the icing!

Blanket: Yes
Water: Yes
Snacks: No
Charging Point: Available, ON throughout
Entertainment: Available, One movie played.

Maintenance: 5/5
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 5/5
Crew behaviour: 5/5
Punctuality: 5/5 (Perfectly on time)

Overall: 5/5

Will I take this service again? Absolutely!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

To Kochi, on a rare B737-700 of SpiceJet!

It was a couple of months ago. A update on a WhatsApp group read that SpiceJet received two Boeing 737-700s. SpiceJet predominantly operates B737-800s, and a few B737-900s. SpiceJet is one airline that had almost gone down towards the end of 2014. I remember those nail-biting moments back in December 2014, when a Christmas trip seemed to get cancelled (read here). SpiceJet rose out of the ashes like a phoenix. They've been doing great for the past few months, topping the load factor charts for months in a row. Sometime in November, I realised that SG432 (BLR-COK) was moved to a B737-700, from the usual B738. I wanted to fly in a B737-700 quite badly, and looked out for that opportunity. I found SpiceJet to be cheapest for a flight in mid-January, and without second thoughts made a reservation. Based on my previous experiences, I don't book add-ons in the beginning. I added a meal to my book a couple of days back, and did a web check-in the previous day. I checked in using their mobile app - everything went fair till I selected the seat, and pressed check-in. Nothing happened after that. I did not get the boarding pass. I tried again through the desktop website - and found that I had already checked in.

January 14, 2016:
I reached the airport sometime around 1350hrs. I had exactly an hour and 10 minutes to go for my flight. I hadn't had my lunch yet - and I wasn't feeling like having anything. I was in for a shock when I entered the terminal. It was deserted - yes, deserted. Hardly anyone around. The SpiceJet counter had only their staff around - not a single passenger anywhere to be seen. I got my boarding pass in no time, and headed towards Security Check. I was surprised to see a jetway gate for my flight - especially since the aircraft had 90 minute ground time - I surely had expected a bus gate. Security was a bit slow, and appeared a bit crowded, thanks to only a couple of counters being open. Scanning seemed to progress very slow - some passengers were asked to put their shoes through the scanner. I passed security by 1402hrs. I felt a bit hungry and headed straight to MTC Express. Had a very light lunch - I had prebooked a meal on the flight, and surely wanted to leave some space for that.
The deserted check-in counter..
FIDS.. Three flights to COK in an hour's time!
My gate.. before boarding commenced
My aircraft - VT-SLA at the gate
MTC Express is located right opposite my gate (#2). While I was having food, boarding for my flight commenced (1413hrs). We had over 45 minutes to go for departure, and looking at the crowd at the gate, I understood I have a lot of time left - just enjoyed my meal. I finished my meal and joined the boarding queue. I casually enquired about the loads with the agent - she passed a nice long smile, looked at the system, and replied back - "146, Sir". Wow! So that 146 pax in a 149 seater plane! Great loads, for sure. There was one round of security check by SpiceJet Security staff as well. The guy asked me if I was carrying any "sharp objects". I got a bit irritated by that, and asked back if he thinks I could clear security if I had any! He smiled back. He checked my bag, stamped my boarding pass and let me through. I was inside the aircraft by 1420hrs.
My boarding pass - it had a plethora of seals!
Date of Journey: January 14, 2016
Flight No: SG432 || Seat: 24A
Aircraft type: Boeing 737-700 (WL) || Regn: VT-SLA
Sector: BLR-COK
STD: 1500hrs, ATD: 1447hrs
STA: 1600hrs, ATA: 1549hrs

I was onboard one of the only two Boeing 737-700s with SpiceJet. Registered VT-SLA, the aircraft made its first flight in January 2007, and was delivered fresh to SkyEurope Airlines. It then went to AnadoluJet - a Turkish Carrier. SpiceJet picked it up from AnadoluJet in November 2015 - the aircraft still bore the AnadoluJet livery. Along with this one, SpiceJet received another B737 from AnadoluJet itself.
Seen from my seat. VT-JGU is far away. Thats the AnadoluJet logo on the winglet.
The interiors looked very fresh - unlike most other Boeing 737 family aircrafts that I've been on, this aircraft seemed to have a single tone of lighting throughout. Usually one gets to see a mix of whites and yellows - but this one had white throughout. The seats had a dark-blue colour, with red covers around head rests. The seats had rexin upholstery - the seats surely had better days, and might need a reworking soon. But, I must say there were no torn seats or hanging seat pockets. My seat was very clean - even clean windows. Boarding was happening very slow - very slow. Boarding was finally completed by 1439hrs. As soon as the boarding complete announcement was made, the welcome to SpiceJet announcements followed. In the deck were Capt Puneet Solanki and First Officer Tejas. Kashika, Ashish, Neha and Kuldeep were in charge of the cabin. Safety demo followed the welcome announcements.

Doors were armed at 1442hrs, and we were pushed back at 1447hrs. While we were waiting to commence taxi - which was delayed as we had to wait for the Follow Me escort vehicle - the Capt came on the PA and gave out details of the flight. A block time of 45 minutes was given out, and were told that we should expect a peaceful flight - no turbulence was expected. We finally commenced taxi at 1453hrs. We changed lanes and proceeded towards the runway. Ahead of us was VT-JGU, heading to Mangalore. As we were moving towards the runway, we passed VT-IET (headed to Mumbai, IIRC) which was getting ready to commence taxi. We reached the holding point for Rwy09 by 1458hrs. We turned on to the runway and waited for a few seconds before commencing takeoff roll. We finally lifted off at 1459hrs.
As we begin taxi.. The escort vehicle, and two aircrafts ahead can be seen.
Lifting off from Bangalore..
It was clear skies as we lifted off. We headed straight to the east, then turned south and finally south-west. The aircraft actually went around Bangalore before heading to Kochi. The seatbelt sign went off at 1504hrs. Soon after the seatbelt sign went off, announcements about the buy-on-board service were made. Their on-board menu, SpiceJet Bistro, seemed very rich and attractive - the menu mentioned that hot beverages are sold only on flights with a block time of over an hour, and the turboprop flights serve on sandwiches and cold beverages. I had prebooked my meal, but just went through the menu to find what was on offer in the meals section. By now, the meal cart came to my seat, and I was called by my name. The FA confirmed my order. A tray came out - a pre-filled "box" was the base, and they put in another container into it. The "box-in-a-box" along with a bottle of water was handed over to me.
The box-in-a-box meal, with the bottle of water
The "box-in-a-box" thing was made famous by Vistara in their attempt to differentiate between their premium economy and normal economy. But this serving from an LCC was surprising and a welcome change. The appearance of the box itself was appealing. One of the boxes was hot - it contained Paneer Kathi Roll. I opened the other portion of the box - it contained a small bun, a dessert, a butter chiplet along with neatly packed plastic cutlery. I went berserk taking pics of the food - my co-passenger was confused what I was upto. After the photos, I dug into the Kathi Roll. The parantha (the base - made of wheat and spinach) was soft. The filling was generous with amount of Paneer (Cottage cheese) - which was soft and well cooked. The gravy had the right amout of spices and masala - not too pronounced, and not too bland. The food was finger licking delicious. I used the bun to balance the taste. I then took the dessert - that was a Badushah (a deep-fried sweet made of maida, later dipped in sugar syrup). The sweet was soft - soft enough to be eaten with the plastic cutlery. I really loved every bit of the food.
Unboxed meal..
This was the rich and soft Paneer Kathi Roll
The dessert - Badushah!
By the time I finished relishing my meal, we had already commenced descent. Landing announcements were made at 1529hrs, and the seatbelt sign came on. The FAs had to hurry with preparing the cabin for landing - thrash was collected and they ensured tray-tables were closed. We were approaching from the east - over the beautiful Idukki district. We did not overfly the airport this time. We finally touched down on Rwy27 at 1546hrs. We parked at a remote stand at 1549hrs. The stands right outside the terminal was busy - two Indigo A320s and one Jet ATR72 were occupying them. I was out of the aircraft by around 1555hrs and got into the already packed tarmac coach - they actually opened the front door to let me in. I was at the terminal by 1601hrs - I was out of the terminal soon after, since I did not have any checked in baggage. Arrival in COK early in the evening had some advantages - One can use public transportation to get to their destination instead of depending on the overpriced airport taxi.
Overflying Idukki.. this is a real photograph, its not been edited except for resizing
After landing at COK: Thats the terminal building seen across
VT-SLA.. I love winglets!
The Aircraft - taken from the tarmac coach.
Check-in: 4.5/5 (App check-in wasn't great. Experience at the terminal was no-nonsense)
Cleanliness: 5/5 (the aircraft was in great shape - clean and well kept interiors)
Punctuality: 5/5 (Before time at both ends)
Crew: 5/5 (Great service)
Catering: 5/5 (Awesome food. Very filling as well)
Overall: 4.95/5
The FR24 track..
SpiceJet is one of my favorite airlines. My experience with them has been generally great - this was my fourth flight with them on the same sector, but only the second time being on time. Even at the peak of their turmoil, SpiceJet gave great service, and their flight staff continued the good job this time as well. Calls were attended to very quickly and very politely - not the mechanical service one finds on some airlines. I've always been a fan of SpiceJet's catering - and the experience this time bowled me over completely. Another great flight with SpiceJet this time, with awesome food on board. SpiceJet's food options should, perhaps, be a model for another LCC. Food goes a long way in enhancing the flying experience - and its quite important for me. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Mangalore to Bangalore on the Smiling Plane: Air Pegasus 116

I had booked a ticket to travel from Mangalore to Bangalore on Air Pegasus during one of the many sales they had towards end of 2015. I pocketed a ticket for a small figure more than a Volvo bus ticket for the same route. I was eager to try Air Pegasus once again, and this seemed like a good opportunity for that. The flight was on a Sunday, just past noon, reaching Bangalore around 1300hrs. I tried adding a meal to my booking, but the website wouldn't let me make any additions to the itinerary. The website doesn't offer web check-in either.

January 10, 2016:
My day started quite early - I hadn't slept much the previous night since I was running a very high fever. After a light breakfast (just enough to take my meds), I left my accomodation along with a good old bus fan friend, Mr Kadri, for a tour of Mangalore. He drove me around the city, and showed a lot of points of interest. Sadly, with fever still on, I couldn't really enjoy the trip. We spent some time spotting buses on the highway, and then he dropped me at the airport. On the way to the airport, I kept checking the status of the flight - I understood that my flight was rescheduled and would leave an hour late. I reached the airport sometime around 1150hrs. After thanking and bidding adieu to Kadri, I walked towards the terminal gate. The security at the gate informed that my flight was rescheduled and I had the option of waiting outside. An Air Pegasus employee standing there informed that my flight would depart only at 1420hrs, and the check-in wasn't open yet. I opted to wait inside the terminal, since I wanted some rest.
Air Pegasus counters: After check-in commenced
I took a seat right after entering the terminal. The Air Pegasus check-in counter was open, but wasn't accepting check-ins. Jet Airways also seemed to have rescheduled their flight since a lot of passengers were waiting for their counter to open. The other counters were closed. In the meantime, Air India announced departure of their flight to Mumbai. The check in counter opened just past 1215hrs. I got my check-in baggage screened, and headed to one of the two counters for Air Pegasus. The first thing that came to my notice was that they did manual check-ins, not computerised. They had pre-written boarding passes, with sequence numbers arranged in alphabetical order. They had a passenger manifest arranged in the same order, and an empty seat layout chart.
Hand-written boarding card
I was asked the option for my seat - I picked a window seat. I was given #2A. The loads seemed really light. A hand-written boarding pass was handed over to me. My check-in bags received a small tag, with a counterfoil of the tag stapled to my boarding pass. I passed security check and reached the security hold by around 1220hrs. As I reached the security hold, I saw the Air India A319 (VT-SCP) being pushed back. The airport went silent for almost an hour then. Jet Airways announced a delay for their Bangalore flight. The food court at the waiting area seemed quite busy. I was feeling quite sick and did not feel like having any food. I had a nice coffee from Coffee Day along with two Honey Oat cookies. The free wi-fi at the airport seemed to get disconnected every now and then - it did not show any timer or details about how long is the free access.
FIDS showing my flight to be rescheduled.The 9W flight just before mine also got rescheduled later.
I was hooked to FR24 on my phone to find out the next possible option. I understood that an Air India Express flight from Muscat would be next arrival. Some time around 1345, VT-AXN arrived from Muscat - the apron got busy all over again, only until they finished unloading all cargo from this aircraft. The Jetway was disconnected, and the aircraft remained stabled at the stand. I understood from FR24 that VT-APB would be carrying me to Bangalore. She landed in Mangalore sometime around 1405hrs. As the aircraft landed, ground staff came in, and started preparing for boarding formalities. The first boarding announcement was made at 1412hrs, and I was among the first to get through. A non-ac minibus owned by Air India's ground handling agency (not sure if it was AI-SATS or AIATSL) was all set to take us to the aircraft.
Screenshot of the tracking from FR24
Date of Journey: January 10, 2016
Flight No: OP116 || Seat: 2A
Aircraft type: ATR 72-500 (212A) || Regn: VT-APB
Sector: IXE-BLR
STD: 1220hrs, ATD: 1435hrs
STA: 1320hrs, ATA: 1537hrs

In the meantime, SpiceJet's VT-SZA arrived from Mumbai. We reached the aircraft sometime around 1415hrs, and boarding commenced a minute later. I was inside the aircraft by around 1422hrs. While boarding, I casually enquired the loads - it was just 37 out of 66! Boarding was completed by 1427hrs. Just as the boarding complete calls were made, the Captain came on the PA system and apologized for the delay. He attributed the delay to poor visibility in Bangalore delaying the earlier flights and thus affecting this departure. He sounded were jovial. In the deck were Capt. Dimitry and Capt Rajkumar. Neeraja and Alisha were taking care of the cabin. Doors were armed by 1435hrs. Safety demo began soon later. The bays used by turboprops at Mangalore are power-out bays, and hence there was no push back. We powered out of the bay at 1439hrs and commenced our long taxi. We entered the runway soon later - but the aircraft didn't stop. I thought we were having a rolling take off, but that wasn't the case. We taxi'd till the other end of the runway, and the turned around and lined up for take off. We finally took off from Rwy24 at 1445hrs.
The smiling plane parked at IXE Apron..
Just before boarding commenced
Soon after takeoff..
The initial flight was very turbulent. We flew straight to the sea, then turned around and flew towards Bangalore. The seat belt sign remained on for about 10 minutes or so. I was quite hungry by now, and wanted something to eat. The BoB cart started sales from the first row, and I was in the second. I asked for a veg sandwich - it was given in a small box with Taj-SATS printing on it. On unboxing, I was in for a shock (not a surprise) - the box had a nice sandwich, a muffin and a 250ml tetrapack serving of juice! The cost of one serving was just Rs. 170! This puts a lot of main-line carriers to shame - especially one LCC. The sandwich was very tasty - not the routine tomato and cheese sandwich, but a good coleslaw sandwich. The muffin was soft as well. I had asked for a serving of water, which accidentally spilled (the tray hadn't seated properly) - the FA quickly responded with sufficient paper napkin and she topped up the water glass once again before leaving. Really liked the service.
The filling meal!
I finished my meal very quickly. The FA came around and cleared the thrash soon after I finished. The capt came on the PA once again in-flight, and apologized again for the delay, along with quite a few information about the flight. Landing was announced at 1522hrs - the FAs came around to ensure that the cabin was ready for landing. We finally touched down on Rwy09 at 1533hrs. We parked at a very remote stand around 1537hrs. While were were about to park, another company ship, VT-APA was being pushed back for its departure to Hubli. I was out of the aircraft by 1543hrs. A Tarmac coach was already waiting for us. We were dropped at the terminal by 1551hrs - and very interestingly, our baggage was already on the carousel. I got my bag soon and I was out of the terminal by 1555hrs!
The customary "wing shot".. 
Check-in: 4.5/5 (Manual check-in. Does not leave a great impression. The staff were really efficient, though)
Cleanliness: 5/5 (the aircraft was in great shape - clean and well kept interiors)
Punctuality: 3/5 (Left late, reached late. Lack of advance intimation about delay)
Crew: 5/5 (Great service)
Catering: 5/5 (Awesome food. Very filling as well)
Overall: 4/5

This was my second flight with Air Pegasus, and the second one on VT-APB as well. I was quite impressed with their service last time, and the same happened this time. I wasn't happy about the delay - which affected both my flights with them. I had left them a feedback about adding a juice to their combo meal box - and I was really happy to see the feedback being taken. They certainly need to work around with delays and keep their passengers informed about delays. I am quite impressed with their "Truly South Indian" branding - but they need to get their act together. I did discount the first flight to start-up issues. I find they've improved compared to last time, but still need to do a lot more. I really hope they grow into a great "South Indian" airline, providing connectivity across the region. Looking forward to have another flight with them soon.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

First time in a Non-AC Sleeper: Anand Travels, Bangalore to Manipal

Booking a ticket to Manipal was quite a confusing decision. The purpose of going to Manipal was to attend a two day conference there. My colleagues and some of my students were traveling along, and I had to take into account their convenience as well. While I was personally inclined to try a Volvo, they seemed to prefer a non-AC sleeper instead. This was my first opportunity to try one, as well. I got in touch with a old timer busfan friend, who suggested Anand Travels to me. I got tickets reserved through him as well. The bus, conveniently, had a pick-up point near my home as well.

January 07, 2016:
I reached home quite late from office, and I realised that my pick-up was at 2015hrs quite late. I had to rush with dressing and packing for the two day program. I received a call from the crew of the bus sometime around 2000hrs, informing that the bus wouldn't come to its normal pick-up point due to some road work, and I had to stand a little away from the pick-up place. I responded that I am coming from the opposite side and requested him to remain wherever he was parked. I rushed out of home - couldn't find an autorickshaw anywhere near, and had to trudge all the way to the auto stand with my baggage. Auto guys in Bangalore routinely refuse if the ride is short - but me being a regular at the stand, a guy immediately agreed to come. I was at the bus about 5 minutes past the scheduled departure time. The bus finally started off their parking in Vijaya Bank Layout off Bannerghatta Road in South Bangalore at 2023hrs - 7 minutes late [delay was due to me being late].
The bus: KA-15-A-0229
We headed straight to Bannerghatta main road. The bus, KA-15-A-0229 was a 2014 model Ashok Leyland Viking bus. The body appeared to be from one of the many Rajasthan body builders - Surendra, maybe. The ride quality was very good, and the berth space seemed very good. I was in berth #1, the first single lower berth. There was no space to keep bags or footwear below the berth - a fairly big shelf was provided near the berth to leave small bags or footwear on it. The bus travelled through Bannerghatta road, then turned towards East end circle at Jayadeva grade seperator. Then we traveled straight towards RV Road, then turned towards Basavangudi at Southend circle. We had a couple of pick-ups at Nagasandra Circle, and then turned towards Gandhinagar. We reached Gandhinagar sometime around 2127hrs.

The bus parked on the road side near Gandhinagar fuel station. Luggage loading commenced soon after we stopped. They also exchanged passengers between buses. It took a long time to finish luggage loading. We started from there only around 2217hrs - a good 50 minutes halt. There were very few passengers on board - hardly some 4-5 passengers. My colleagues and students would join only at the last point of Bangalore - they were 7 in number. I was told by the crew that pick-ups were over and we were heading straight to Tumkur road, and I could alert them to come to the pick-up point. We stopped by at Majestic (2224hrs) and got in a lot of last moment travellers. We picked up my co-passengers were 8th mile at 2256hrs. The driver meant business from the moment he entered the National Highway past Madanayakanahalli. I was half asleep by now,

The berth was fairly comfortable - a pillow was provided as well. The berth had a backrest at the head-end of the berth. This meant one could sit comfortably on the berth without hurting the back. I had brought a shawl from home, and it was quite cold outside. I left a small opening in the window for ventilation. The driver maintained stable pace and drove quite well. I slept in no time, and did not realise anything that happened outside. I vaguely remember seeing the bus stopping somewhere for a break. The attendant kept calling out places on the way - and quite a lot of people got off as well. I remember the attendant calling out "Mangalore Last Stop" at one point - the time was around 0515hrs then. He meant that say that it was the last stop in Mangalore. I slept for some more time, and woke up just when the bus pulled out of the highway, and entered a small road. The bus parked inside a small garage at around 0550hrs. That was Anand Travels' garage - they unloaded most of the luggage here. I checked GMaps and found that we were somewhere near Mulki then.

The bus started from the garage sometime around 0601hrs. Our next stop was at Padubidri, to drop a passenger (0611hrs). I slept for sometime after Padubidri. The bus stopped somewhere on the way, once again, to unload some more luggage. We reached Udupi sometime around 0650hrs. I got up finally as we left Udupi. The attendant also came around to wake up all the passengers in the bus - Manipal was his destination. We were finally dropped at Tiger Circle, Manipal at 0655hrs - well before his scheduled arrival time of 0740hrs!

The overall ride was great. The driver appeared a bit hurried on the ghat section - the turns were taken at good speed, and I did have a roller-coaster experience there. The bus was in great shape - inside out. A casual peek at the odometer showed a reading of around a lakh kms. The engine appeared very relaxed - meaning the overall driving habits were sane. There was absolutely no use of horn anywhere through the journey. The ride quality was also good. Except the ghat section, the experience was great. I may not prefer a non-ac sleeper again - for the sole reason that I prefer a controlled temperature. It got very stuffy when the windows were closed, and it was terrible when the windows were opened. The journey would've been more comfortable had it been an AC sleeper, for sure.

Blanket: No
Water: No
Snacks: No
Charging Point: Available, Not working
Entertainment: Available, Songs were played till pick-ups were over.

Maintenance: 5/5
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 4.5/5
Crew behaviour: 5/5
Punctuality: 5/5 (Awesome timings)

Overall: 4.95/5

Will I take this service again? I am not a regular on this route. The service was great. I personally don't prefer non-ac coaches though. Surely a recommended service.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

GoAir Christmas Special: Kochi to Bangalore

This very trip was planned by chance. I initially had no intentions of heading home for Christmas. The entire trip took shape when I found that Go Air was operating special flights. I initially thought it was an afternoon flight - but realised it was a late night flight a little later. I changed the date a bit and got a flight for Monday at a price that was cheaper that bus fares for that day!

December 27, 2015:
I reached the airport quite early for a 0215hrs flight - it was just 2245hrs as I got off the car and walked towards the terminal. Quite puzzled and sleepy, I wandered outside the terminal for sometime, before finally entering the terminal. The sleepy CISF cop at the entrance barely looked at the ticket and my ID card before letting me in. I was in for a surprise inside - the terminal was fairly crowded for the time. I found an empty seat in the waiting area and settled down - I had over three hours to go for my flight, and check-in would open only another hour and a half later. There were two red-eye flights scheduled for that night - one to Mumbai and another to Bangalore (my flight). The regular flights for that night had already departed and the terminal was open only for the two red-eye flights that night. Half the passengers were asleep, while some like me were trying to. The seats were too uncomfortable to sleep - and I had finally resort to browsing on my phone to spend time. Sometime around 2345, the baggage screening machines came alive, and the terminal sprung up to activity. People started shoving in their baggage for screening.

December 28, 2015:
I remained seated for more time - infact, I was busy watching a movie on my laptop that I did not realise the time. Sometime around 0055hrs, I headed towards the check-in counter - very long queues had formed at all the four counters that Go was using. They had earmarked counters according to the destination. I joined the long line for the Bangalore flight. Some time after I joined the queue, I realised that the CUTE Terminals weren't working and they were using manual check-ins! They had taken print outs of boarding passes for all passengers earlier, and had the passenger manifest with them. They had to go through the manifest everytime, find out the sequence number and then issue the boarding pass. All this took a lot of time, and to add to all their miseries, passengers came with lots of baggage, since majority of the crowd was returning after a vacation (or heading out for a vacation). They had to manually enter details of the baggage, put on tags and then stick the counterfoil on the boarding passes.
The queue at the check-in counters..
As I reached the counter, my phone just switched off itself! And, I did not have a print out of the ticket - but I remember my PNR. I told him the PNR and my sequence number - he cross checked my name on that with that on my Identity card and issued my boarding pass. It was 0106hrs by now. My next destination was Security check. Surprisingly, the queue there was not very long. It did take some time for me to clear security - I got into the security hold by around 0111hrs. Security hold was very crowded - with most seats taken. I found an empty seat in one corner of the terminal - a plug point nearby seemed to be an icing on the cake. The apron appeared empty - save for a Silk Air B738 preparing to head back to Singapore. Sometime around 0120hrs, a Go Air Aircraft (VT-GOJ) arrived from Mumbai. The bird returned back to Mumbai as the red-eye additional rotation from Kochi to Mumbai. In the meantime, I got hooked to FR24 to find out which bird would take me to Bangalore, and where she was. She hadn't left Bangalore it - and the bird for me would be VT-GOM. She took off from Bangalore sometime around 0135hrs.
The boarding pass..
The terminal after the Mumbai flight departed..
Just the two specials listed...
Date of Journey: December 28, 2015
Flight No: G8-1299|| Seat: 26A
Aircraft type: Airbus 320-200 || Regn: VT-GOM
Sector: COK-BLR
STD: 0215hrs, ATD: 0256hrs
STA: 0315hrs, ATA: 0353hrs

Boarding for the Mumbai flight meant the terminal got half empty now. GOJ was pushed back for her voyage to Mumbai at 0159hrs - and the apron got deserted all over again! Sometime around 0218 my aircraft appeared to be on its finals. A Qatar B777 arrived at the apron first. My bird finally came in to the apron at 0223hrs. I was quite shocked looking at the number of people who de-boarded. I am sure they had no less than 100 passengers. Boarding wasn't called until 0234hrs. No zone-wise or row-wise boarding was enforced. I remained seated until most of the crowd cleared the terminal. I joined the queue only as the tail end of the long queue reached the boarding gate. I got into the aircraft through the rear door by around 0251hrs.
My Bird: VT-GOM.. Boarding in progress..
Boarding from the rear entrance..
For some reason, I liked this image a lot.. 
I was among the last passengers to get inside. By the time, I reached my seat, the boarding complete call was made on the PA system (0252hrs). As soon as passengers settled down, the welcome messages started playing. Doors were armed at 0256hrs. In the deck were Capt Guraya and Capt Rajiv Sharma, while Anjali, Prashant, Nash and Anchal took care of the cabin. We were pushed back at 0258hrs. Safety demo was in progress at this time. A block time of 1 hour was announced as the deck crew went detailing about the flight. Taxi commenced at 0302hrs. We headed straight towards the holding point for Rwy27. This meant a very long taxi. We were finally airborne from Rwy27 at 0309hrs - a delay of almost an hour.

We climbed quite soon in the Westerly direction, before turning to the North East. We leveled off, and the seatbelt signs were turned off 0314hrs, only to hit a bit of turbulence, and the seat belt signs came back on again at 0316hrs. The seatbelt sign remained on for a couple of minutes before being turned off again. The seatbelt sign came on a few times inflight - and everytime, a very annoying prerecorded announcement was played. Buy-on-board service commenced soon after the seatbelt signs went off the second time. I had prebooked a Veg Sub. The sub was served on priority, not during routine course.
The GoAir Sub!
This is what I got... no cheese or fresh lettuce to be seen
Go Air had recently revamped their entire BoB range, and offers a lot of items for pre-reservation. The sub I had ordered was among the new offerings. Although the packing talked of fresh vegetables, cheese and lettuce, in reality it was a dry baguette with a very masala laden filling largely made of cauliflower. The filling was wholesome - but it had too much of masala for my liking. I prefer neutral stuff generally. I was quite hungry and hence finished it in no time. By the time I finished, the call for landing was made. The seatbelt signs came on at 0334hrs. The cabin was secured for landing in no time. The approached seemed very familiar - we were heading towards Rwy09. We finally touched down on Rwy09 at 0348hrs. The airport seemed dead at that hour - barring for a couple of international departures (to the Middle east). The entire domestic side appeared like a parking ground - all the jetways were occupied by aircrafts sleeping for the night. Except one Jet Airways B738, there was no activity around any aircraft.
Flight tracking from FR24..
It was a long taxi to our parking stand, and we finally parked at 0353hrs. Probably because it was a special flight, the ground support took its time to get to us. Deboarding took quite some time to start. I was out of the aircraft by around 0400hrs. While on my way to the terminal on board the tarmac coach, I saw another Go Air aircraft land - that was a special from Goa. Go Air seemed to have utilised the christmas-new year rush to the fullest and cashed in on the opportunity by flying extra flights to Kochi and Goa.

Note: Part of this travelogue was composed live at the terminal while waiting for the aircraft.

Check-in: 4.5/5 (Had web checked in - used the counter to get my boarding pass. Manual boarding did take considerable time)
Cleanliness: 5/5 (the aircraft was in great shape - clean and well kept interiors)
Punctuality: 4/5 (Left late, reached late)
Crew: 5/5 (Great service)
Catering: 4/5 (The baguette was too dry, and the filling wasn't really good)
Overall: 4.5/5

Really appreciate GoAir for cashing in on the opportunity - they operated red-eye specials on atleast three sectors during the Christmas-New Year season. The rates weren't very high, and came in as a blessing for a lot of passengers. Although the flight was late, the crew made it up with great service. I had great hopes about the all new inflight catering menu - but the product I selected did not meet my expectations. I'd certainly not hesistate to fly GoAir again, and only hope they introduce a regular flight in the BLR-COK sector.  

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Christmas journey home: A mix of KPN and KSRTC

I had no plans to go home for Christmas until the beginning of December. As Christmas neared, I developed a desire to head home. By now, getting a ticket was already a herculean task. While casually browsing for airfares for return after Christmas, I found a special flight from GoAir on an OTA Portal. I booked that flight for my return, and then began my hunt for tickets to go home. The same special flight was listed the other way - but was already selling at high fares. The bus fares from Bangalore to Kerala were way higher than corresponding airfares (pun intended). I checked for bus fares to Coimbatore instead, and found that KPN had lots of empty seats, all at regular fares. I used their app to book a ticket on the first night service out of Bangalore to Coimbatore. This service was recently upgraded to Scania Metrolink. I got a seat towards the rear half of the bus.

December 23, 2015:
My bus was scheduled to reach the pickup point at Bommanahalli, at 2230hrs. The bus leaves Kalasipalya only at 2200hrs - reaching the pickup point in 30 minutes sounded impossible. My brother dropped me at the pick-up point sometime around 2230hrs. KPN Travels has a huge waiting area along with their office in Bommanahalli - infact, they occupied most part of the first floor of the building. I checked with their office, only to get the standard "Bus will come now" reply. Sometime past 2235hrs, I got a message from KPN with the details of the bus. The message said I'd be traveling on KA-51-C-9919 - confirming the fact that it would be one of their brand new Scania Metrolink coaches.

Looking at the buses that came for pick-up, I was sure there there would be a very heavy delay in my departure. There was a steady stream of departures from there. The waiting area never got empty - the number of passengers going out seemed to be equal to the number of passengers coming in new. I was standing all through the time. It was not just KPN, even the Parveen travels office downstairs seemed busy. My friend was waiting at Madiwala for a later bus of KPN, and he kept updating me about my departure. My bus had arrived at Madiwala sometime around 2345hrs - over an hour late already. My bus reached Madiwala sometime around 0005hrs - a good 1h35m late.
The bus: KA-51-C-9919, after dropping me at Coimbatore
They did not let in passengers till the dispatcher from office came to the bus. The bus was already 90% filled - a couple of passengers joined the bus at Bommanahalli. My co-passenger was already present. My seat was #R18 - a window seat on the right seat in the 9th row. The leg room seemed better than the other Scania's that I've been on - probably because KPN keep only 12 rows of seats, and reserves the last row for a driver berth. So the overall leg space is better. The bus got moving from Bommanahalli at 0011hrs - 1h41m late. The driver kept constant pace through the journey. Roads had freed up by now. The next pick-up point was Bommasandra - 0022hrs. I slept soon after we started from Bommasandra - a nice long sleep. I vaguely wokeup as we were leaving some toll gate near Perundurai - but continued sleeping afterwards.

I got up again as the bus turned off the highway towards Coimbatore town. The driver switched on the night lamps first, followed by FM Radio. This woke up passengers - smart thought! The cabin lamps were switched off as near Hope College. A lot of passengers got off at Hope college (0608hrs). The cleaner went around calling passengers as we neared Gandhipuram. The bus stopped outside Gandhipuram bus station at 0619hrs - 49 minutes late. It was a no-nonsense journey. The AC was kept at comfortable temperatures. The bus, KA-51-C-9919, had about 32000kms on the odo. The interiors were clean and well kept. The driving was great - soft and stable. No hard brakes or honking through the night. I really liked the service.

Blanket: Yes
Water: No
Snacks: No
Charging Point: Available, Did not use
Entertainment: Available, FM played at morning.

Maintenance: 5/5
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 5/5
Crew behaviour: 5/5
Punctuality: 4.5/5 (Delayed at both ends)

Overall: 4.75/5

Will I take this service again? I like KPN. I'd take them again.

:: Coimbatore to Thrissur ::
I had initially planned to take a private bus from Coimbatore to Thrissur - their regular bus seemed full, and had opened a special bus at a fairly high rate. I was unsure of the quality of bus, and kept the decision on hold. I first decided to check direct buses from Gandhipuram - there was humongous crowd at the bus station, I felt it was not a good idea to wait for a direct bus. Hence, I took a TNSTC bus from Gandhipuram to Ukkadam. At Ukkadam, I got into a bus to Palakkad from there. The bus left immediately from there, and dropped me at Palakkad by 0759hrs. I took a tea break here, and then got into another bus from there at 0830, finally reaching Thrissur by 1000hrs. I got home by 1130hrs. In all, a journey that I enjoyed a lot. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Kalaburagi to Bangalore: NEKRTC Corona AC Sleeper

I did not think a lot before booking this ticket. I had a cursory glance at a couple of online bus ticketing portals and then headed to the KSRTC website to look for options. I found only one AC bus listed there - that was an AC Sleeper. A Corona Majestik Sleeper bus!! Its been a few years since I travelled in one, and did not think further - just went ahead and selected a single lower berth. I had to be content with Berth #10 - in the 4th cabin, somewhat around the rear axle. The booking process was simple, as usual, and the mTicket popped up in no time.

December 11, 2015:
I checked out of my hotel room well in advance for my bus, which would depart from Kalaburagi Central Bus Station at 1930hrs. I reached the bus station over an hour before the scheduled departure of my bus - the bus station was fairly big, and had lots of waiting area. The PA system was continuously announcing departures to various areas in and around Karnataka. I had some snacks and stocked up some water for the journey ahead. A Corona Sleeper bus came into the bus station around 1915hrs, and parked at the Bangalore Platform. The board on the bus read "Bangalore" as well. I confirmed with the crew that this would indeed be my ride to Bangalore.

I received an SMS with the bus and crew details a while after the bus arrived, and the message confirmed that my bus would be KA-32-F-2006. It was a red coloured Corona Majestik bus, delivered to NEKRTC in October 2014. Boarding started soon after the SMS arrived. I got into the bus and occupied by berth (#10, a single lower berth in the 4th row). The bus was stuffy inside since the AC was off. The lower berth was slightly above the floor level - there was enough space under the berth to leave a laptop bag and footwear. The berth was sufficiently wide enough, as well. A pillow, a small bedsheet and a blanket was kept on the berth. The engine was switched on about 5 minutes before departure - the engine was noisy, and there was a lot of clatter.
The bus - KA-32-F-2006, when we stopped for tea after Tumkur
The bus started off at 1938hrs - after getting some more passengers on board. There was a delay of 8 minutes at start. Soon after starting, the conductor came around and checked if anybody was yet to get bedsheets or blankets, and also distributed water bottles. I was too tired to remain awake - so just set my berth and got set to sleep until we stopped for dinner. We stopped at Jewargi (2023hrs) to pick-up a couple of passengers. I slept fairly well, and woke up just as the bus pulled into a dhaba (a motel) for dinner. The time was 2110hrs, and we were at a place called Hill Town Dhaba, just past Shahapur.

The dhaba looked like the typical cut-throat road-side place. They served some really finger-lickin' delicious cashew masala - with cruchy, but adequately cooked full cashews in a thick onion gravy, along with soft Chapatis. I was expecting a 5-star bill - but that didn't happen. My eyes popped out when I heard the bill amount - it was far cheaper than the place I take my lunch daily! It took me some time to get over that shock. I was just standing outside the bus, when the driver came around and asked me politely to get into the bus. He did that with all the passengers standing outside. We finally started off from there at 2139hrs.

I had a very nice sleep after dinner. I vaguely remember waking up in between - the bus stopped quite often for tea breaks. They did not switch off the engine or the airconditioner during these breaks. The AC was quite effective, and kept the interiors quite cool. I slept until around 6AM. The bus stopped for another tea break at the toll gate right after Tumkur (0639hrs). I took a walk outside, and took some pics during the break. We were quite late already. The tea break was quick. The driver was quite fast - he maintained pace after the break. The bus appeared quite underpowered and gearing was poor. Even with all that, the bus was able to hit good speeds, and maintain speeds consistently.

The bus took the elevated highway after Parle factory, and we made it to Yeswantpur by 0741hrs. Traffic was low, thanks to it being early morning on a Saturday. We reached Navarang by 0745hrs. Passengers were getting off at every stop on the way. I was finally dropped outside Bangalore City Railway Station (Majestic Bus Station) at 0758hrs - 28 minutes late!

The overall ride was very comfortable. The end-to-end run time turned out to 12h20m, for a distance of about 620kms. I understand its not a full 4-lane carriageway, and the road was uneven at places. Uneven would be an understatement - it was pothole ridden at places. The rear suspension was quite soft. Full air-suspension surely was helpful. The engine was loud and clear at my berth - the clatter was quite evident. Thankfully, heat wasn't penetrating into the coach around my berth - but I guess it was getting hot at the rear berths. The front berths were dead silent - I'd surely try a berth towards the front next time. Except the noise, it was a great ride. The berth was sufficiently wide for my extra-large frame. The interiors were kept really clean as well.

Blanket: Yes
Water: Yes
Snacks: No
Charging Point: No
Entertainment: No

Maintenance: 4.5/5
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 5/5
Crew behaviour: 5/5
Punctuality: 4.5/5 (Delayed at both ends)

Overall: 4.75/5

Will I take this service again? I am not a regular to that side of Karnataka. But I'd surely like to try a Corona Sleeper again.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Bangalore to Gulbarga: An overnight train journey after long!

Its been a very long time since I travelled by train
This was the first thought I had in mind when I received the order to be present in Gulbarga (now called Kalaburagi) as external examiner for a practical examination. It was a 600-odd kilometre journey to reach Gulbarga from Bangalore. I had the option of taking a train or a bus. I decided to take a train one way and bus the other way. The Indian Railway website showed up a lot of options for my journey, with the average running time being above 12hours. I decided to take the last train out of Bangalore, so that I'd have sufficient buffer time to get to the railway station after office. I booked the ticket through the IRCTC website for 22134 Yeswantpur - Solapur Super Fast Express, which departs from Yeswantpur at 2050hrs, and is scheduled to arrive Gulbarga at 0625 - this train is also the fastest between the two places.

December 10, 2015:
I had to sit late in office, and thanked my stars for having booked on the last train for that journey. It was past 1900hrs when I left office - the office shuttle left me a little away from the nearest metro station - thankfully, a BMTC bus came right behind the shuttle, and I could get to Dasarahalli Metro station soon. I reached Yeshwantpur station sometime around 2000hrs - 50 minutes to spare for my train. My first priority was to have dinner, and hence headed straight to the food court - the place was a disappointment, and hence I took a parcel and headed to the platform.

The station was a big shock - the entrance towards Tumkur road side was badly underlit, and absolutely no public information displays were working. There was no indication of which platform my train would arrive at all! I decided to try my luck and got on to the FOB. The LED boards near Platform 1 kept displaying my train's number - so I headed straight to Platform 1. Interstingly, my coach (#A1) was right next to the FOB. I was disappointed to see a very old coach for me - #94052 would take me to Gulbarga that night. This 1994 built coach has sure seen better days - the interiors wore the drab blue curtains. My seat (#41) was a side lower berth - I hate side berths in 2A. The berth never aligns comfortably and it is narrower than the other berths.

I headed to the front to see which locomotive would be the power that night. The train had a very unique formation - it had the AC coaches at the middle. The train had a full 1A, two 2As and only 1 3A! There were three sleeper coaches and the same number of unreserved seater coaches between my coach and the locomotive. The unreserved coaches were all packed to capacity, and the RPF guards had a tough time managing crowd. As I neared the loco, I heard the typical EMD Sneeze and the hums - I was sure its an EMD at the helm. It turned out to be WDG4 #12884 of Pune in charge.
WDG4 #12884 of Pune, which worked my train..
Back in my coach, most berths were occupied by now. Bedroll were placed on the upper berth - a clean blanket, with two bedsheets and a pillow were present. Hand towels were absent, and the coach attendant was nowhere to be seen in the coach. The train started from Yeswantpur at 2055hrs - delayed by 5 minutes. By now, I wasn't able to control my urge to sleep and had already laid down by then. Although the coach was old, the AC was working perfectly fine, and was overall kept in good shape. Our next stop was at Yelahanka - by the time we pulled into this station (2123hrs) I was half asleep. I vaguely remember someone coming an occupying the berth above mine. I had already slept by the time the train started from Yelahanka.

I had a nice long sleep afterwards - not continuous, but fairly continuous. I woke up only when the train had reached Wadi! The time was around 0600hrs then. We were running late for sure. I was too sleepy to get up, and tried sleeping for some more time. We left Wadi at 0603hrs. Wadi station brought a lot of nostalgic memories - during my Mumbai days, our train always stopped at Wadi for breakfast, and we used to be before time regularly. I couldn't relive the nostalgia this time though. I got off the berth as the train pulled into the next stop - Shahabad. We started from Shahabad at 0620 (about 16 minutes late).

By now, my coach got active. People were busy collecting their baggage and preparing to get off. We pulled into Gulbarga at 0642hrs. More than 90% of the train emptied out at Gulbarga - and it took a long time to get out from the station.

I was really excited about this train journey - especially since I was traveling after a really really long time by train. Central Railway deserves appreciation for keeping the coaches in good shape. The journey as such was comfortable -  I slept really well, and woke up only when my alarm rang. There is not much change in cleanliness in coaches. Neither the attendants nor the TTE ever made their appearance in the coach - not a great idea IMO. All said, a journey I was excited about, and something that I liked.