Category: Travel

Eva Air – a game changer


I flew Eva Air from Singapore to Chicago via Taipei earlier this week.

Last month, I flew Emirates via Dubai to the U.S. and have written about my experience on Emirates. See The Emirates Experience

This time around, I wanted to fly through one of the Asian hubs to the U.S. There were only a few options available – Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong, ANA via Tokyo Narita, JAL via Tokyo Narita, Korea Air via Seoul or Eva Air via Taipei. You may wonder why I did not consider Singapore Airlines. The answer is simple – I cannot afford it, whether for a business trip or a personal vacation. SIA is overpriced in all sectors going to Europe or the U.S., for almost similar quality of experience with other airlines listed above.

After some serious evaluation which included the dates on which I have to fly, I settled on Eva Air, and this was the very first time I was going to fly with Eva Air. I purchased the Premium Economy ticket, considering the long journey and the need to arrive fresh for some urgent personal work that I had in Chicago. It was around 35% more expensive than the normal Economy Class ticket. Before I decided on Eva Air, I studied the Premium Economy Class comparison of the airlines I had shortlisted, and Eva Air scored at the top of the table due to the comfort offered on this class.

I was not disappointed. Premium Economy seats offered on Eva Air were comfortable with wider seats and much longer leg space. It was almost 75% of the usual business class seat in terms of width of the seat, and the leg space was not cramped – there was good space, and if one is on the first row of this class, it was great – I managed to get one such seat in the long haul from Taipei to Chicago. But even on other rows, the space was very good – I was on one such seat from Singapore to Taipei. Further the Boeing 777 planes were very new, and the flights were smooth sailing for the most part.

However, there were some issues which need to be fixed for the overall flight experience on Eva Air. One was the quality of food, especially for vegetarian selections. Since the point of origin for this flight was Singapore, Eva Air could easily source great vegetarian food, but they did not. It was of average quality (as per my family member). My special meal was better, though it was not as good as that offered on Emirates flights. The other problem was the choice of wines – being in Premium Economy, they should at least offer two white wines and two red wines, but they were offering just one of each type. Not adequate for the ticket price that passengers were paying. The third issue was the quality of service – most of the flight attendants struggled to understand English requests, since they were largely unable to get out of their mother tongue influence. Every one of the flight attendants was a Taiwanese lady, and non-Chinese passengers had to repeat their requests carefully and slowly before they could be understood. The good thing was that the attendants also repeated the passenger’s request so that they could unambiguously understand the same for fulfillment.

Considering the price and quality of Premium Economy offering from Eva Air, I am inclined to state and conclude that it is one of the best around. I was also happy that the 14 hours 20 minutes flight from Taipei to Chicago actually made it to Chicago in 12 hours 40 minutes, though the flight from Singapore to Taipei was delayed by 40 minutes due to rains.

If Eva Air could fix some of the issues, I am sure that it will give a run for the money to the other global Asian airlines on long haul routes. I have to say that I have not experienced the Economy Class on Eva Air, which remains as the Achilles’ heel for most reputed airlines. With its good reputation and mostly on-time performance, and latest range of aircraft, Eva Air has an excellent chance to become one of the top airlines from Asia for long-haul routes. However, the airline needs to look at feedback from global travelers, adopt some of the best practices from other successful airlines such as the Emirates and SQ, and induct a more globalized air crew.

Well, all the best to Eva Air. Keep it up folks!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

18th June 2017

 

 

My favourite Wine Duo


Recently I was wandering around the Dubai Airport Duty Free Shops, which remain as one of the more exclusive types of airport shopping around the world. Premium shopping, I should say, with an ambience which is yet to be beaten by other global airports. And, the number of people milling around these shops – well that is simply amazing. I cannot resist the comparison in my mind with Singapore Changi Airport, which has similar DFS shops, but more widespread around the airport terminals. I have seen a lot of people at the Changi Airport shopping areas, but have seen few people actually buying anything, except in Chocolates and Liquor sections. Most of the branded shops in Changi are at the very high end, with hardly any shoppers inside.

At Dubai DFS Shopping, almost everyone who walked in bought something, at least during the time I watched. Of course, prices do matter and Dubai is strictly tax free and it helps. Changi Airport DFS prices are not much different from what one would get in the city shops, especially for liquor; chocolate prices, are in fact, higher than what one could get at the Mustafas. Further, there were no overbearing sales people unleashed on shoppers at Dubai – they were around but kept a discrete distance unless there was a request. Even the chocolate varieties were better and different from Changi, so obviously I bought some chocolates.

Now, let me come to the Liquor section. Dubai DFS has an excellent collection of wines (though not large), and has a great selection of whiskies (reflecting the tastes of passengers passing through!). I saw some very good wines on offer at prices which you can never get in Singapore – whether at DFS or not. After some browsing around, I chanced upon one of my favourite wines of all time – the Montes Alpha from Chile. I had written about this winery in the past, and would recognize it instantaneously anywhere!

Well, let us look at what I bought: the Montes Alpha Chardonnay 2014 D.O. Aconcagua Coast, which is a great white with golden colour in an inviting bottle for USD 18.89 (SGD 26.06 at current exchange rate) which costs between SGD 44 and SGD 58 in Singapore via online ordering! At the high end of these prices, it is expensive by more than 100% compared to Dubai.

I also bought a red wine from Montes Alpha: the Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 D.O. Colchagua Valley, which is one of the best cabernets that I have ever tried, with deep red ruby colour and a fruity nose. Again, the pricing was exactly the same as above!

I love both these wines, they are creamy with a smooth finish and linger for quite some time. The effect is pleasing and wonderful. The Chardonnay is crisp and fruity, and the Cabernet is aromatic and complex. Amazing wines indeed.

Well, I can only envy the folks in Dubai. I will never get these kind of prices in Singapore. I will be very happy to get these wines at SGD 35, but I know it would not happen. So, let me grab such wines whenever I travel to airports like Dubai. That is the least I can do!

Enjoy your wines or drinks responsibly. Do not drink and drive. Do not drink beyond two glasses of wine or two small pegs of whiskey or any other hard liquor.

Cheers, and Have a wonderful weekend,

Vijay Srinivasan

03 June 2017

The Emirates Experience


Recently I flew to Dallas on Emirates Airlines (SIN – DUBAI – DALLAS).

The Singapore – Dubai flight was on Airbus 380, which provided a comfortable inflight experience. Emirates generally provides ontime performance, and it was no different this time – landed on time in Dubai and the transit wait was just 2 hours for the next flight. The only disconnect was the non-availability of Indian Vegetarian food for my colleague who is strictly vegetarian and prefers Indian food.

However, the flight to Dallas took longer than the planned time of 14 hours and 45 minutes. It took nearly 16 hours, making it one of the longest flights that I have flown. There could be any number of reasons, one being a 30 minutes delay while taking off from the busy and congested Dubai Airport. It was tiring, though onboard service was good (unlike the U.S. carriers who generally provide shoddy service).

Apart from this long overall duration of over 25 hours from Singapore to Dallas (which could have been around 22 hours had I taken the Singapore – Tokyo – Dallas route including the transit wait), the surprising issue was the experience in Dubai Airport itself while transiting. It was well past midnight when we landed, and the next flight was just 2 hours away taking off from another terminal. Unlike Singapore Changi Airport which has clear guidance to transit passengers, Dubai Airport does not provide guidance and leaves the transit passengers in the lurch. We had to figure out by ourselves how to get to the other distant terminal, and discovered that there is a crowded bus service which brought arriving passengers with no segregation from departing passengers. We had to wait some 20 minutes or so before a bus to pick up departing passengers arrived, which was a large van with a cart to load baggages trucking behind it! This was a curious experience, but we finally made it to the other terminal. I seriously think that Dubai Airport should give this aspect of its experience a rigorous examination.

Well, I have not mentioned the laptop ban issue till now. Emirates Singapore Office gave contradictory information over two phone calls regarding the laptop ban. In the first call, they said that I could carry the laptop as usual till Dubai Airport gate, and then they would take it over till Dallas, and eventually hand it to me upon arrival. During the second call, the lady who handled my call was very confused, and after checking with her supervisor couple of times, asked me to check in my laptop at Singapore itself. After few deliberations, that is what I did, but then found out at the gate in Dubai Airport that Emirates had a neat arrangement for collecting the laptops, packing the same securely, and take them into the cargo hold. And upon arrival at Dallas, Emirates made several announcements at the baggage belt area reminding passengers to collect their respective laptops.

On the way back from Dallas to Singapore, there was no laptop issue (it is a problem only when you arrive in any U.S. airport from any one of the Middle Eastern airports). However, there was a 9-hour transit wait for the flight to Singapore from Dubai, and so I decided to go into town for some shopping with my colleague and a relative of mine who was kind enough to shepherd us. We enjoyed the amazing experience of visiting the Ibn Battuta Mall (see IBN BATTUTA MALL).

Dubai Airport immigration service is fast and efficient. The security check was thorough. One had to walk a long distance of almost 800 metres from the car drop-off point at the airport terminal all the way to security check (it is a very large terminal), and then to the immigration counters.

Well, next time I am flying to the U.S., it is going to be back to the old routine of travelling via Tokyo Narita or Hong Kong. The challenge is that the code share flights are usually operated by American Airlines or United Airlines.

Just got over the jet lag, and now ready for my usual week beginning tomorrow.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

28th May 2017

Dispatch from Dubai


I wanted to send this one out before I returned from Dubai, however here it is – a dispatch on the cost dynamics of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

There is no income or sales tax in Dubai – there is just no taxation of any kind. So that would be a big incentive for most people as a draw to go and work in Dubai. Sure, it is a nice, and I would say a great feeling when you pay no taxes at all to the government. There are very few places in the world which provide such a strong incentive.

However, the picture is not so simple. Almost all items that one needs to consume are expensive, and even more expensive when compared to Singapore. I think this is true even when a comparison is made with Hong Kong prices of consumption items. May be only Tokyo is more expensive than Dubai.

A Cafe Latte in Starbucks costs 19 AED (Dirhams, the U.A.E. currency), which translates to SGD 7.5 (as against SGD 5.5 in Starbucks Singapore). A decent lunch at a foodcourt in one of the fancy malls of Dubai costs the equivalent of SGD 20 to 25 as against a typical comparable lunch at SGD 11 to 15 in a Singapore mall. All tourist attractions are heavily expensive when it comes to the entrance fees. A typical entrance fee to a theme park or water park costs around AED 270 or SGD 106 – whereas a good price that can be obtained in Singapore for a similar attraction ranges from SGD 40 to 60. Taxi prices are more or less comparable, though the base fare from the Dubai International Airport is AED 25 (or SGD 10) as compared to SGD 6.20 (SGD 3 surcharge from Changi and base fare of SGD 3.20) as base fare from Singapore Changi Airport. There is no apparent reason for such a high base fare.

So, apparently, what the government does not collect is being collected by product and service providers in Dubai via increased prices. The argument that they have to operate with imported labour (mostly Filipinos in service industries) does not fly as the situation is not very different in Singapore for lower-end jobs. The real estate prices are comparable, so that argument also does not work. So, it has to be only the motive of higher profit from the flow of tourists and resident foreigners that is driving higher prices in Dubai.

I have not had the time to do a detailed research on retail prices at Dubai malls (though I bought a couple of items), but had the opportunity to kill some good time at the fabulous shopping areas of Dubai International Airport before departing to Singapore. The liquor prices at the Duty Free Shops were lower than in DFS Changi Shops, and the chocolate prices were marginally lower though the variety of chocolates available was vastly superior in Dubai. I ended up buying good amount of chocolates which are not available in Singapore. The electronic product prices were more or less similar – again, the variety of offerings in Dubai was superior. For example, I saw six different brands of drones in a single shop with almost all accessories as compared to just two brands in a typical Singapore electronics shop. Drones are hot selling items and I am developing an interest as my son is keen to try out the same, and will eventually buy one raptor kind of drone with electronic eyes quite soon.

Overall, living in Dubai is an expensive proposition but then residents save on income and other taxes though paying higher prices for consumer items. Interesting, isn’t it? More news on Dubai soon, it is a place worth visiting for all. Abu Dhabi should not be forgotten either, it seems to be more organized and apparently has more wealth than Dubai itself.

Welcome to more expenses as you travel the world!!!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

3rd December 2016

Dubai Impressions After 11 years


I landed in Dubai early morning of Friday, past midnight of Thursday. Apparently, it is the busiest time of the airport with a number of flights landing around that time. I was puzzled why Emirates Airlines landing terminal did not have immigration facility – we had to take a lift (elevator) down several levels and then queue up for a train to take us to the main terminal. The crowd was quite heavy, but we somehow cleared the immigration rather quickly and were on our way to the hotel in less than 45 minutes from the time we got out of the aircraft. The A380 flight was very nice with excellent on-board service and very quality of entertainment and food. My guess is that Emirates is overtaking Singapore Airlines firmly as the leading long-haul international airline.

I am visiting Dubai after a long time of 11 years. While the Sheikh Zayed main road was more or less the same, I noticed that they have added another, may be 3 lanes, making it one of the widest highway with 7 lanes in several places. Radar guns and cameras were located frequently, and I heard that the traffic penalties were quite severe. Nevertheless, car drivers were driving well in excess of the permitted speeds, the excellent quality of the roads giving them the motivation to press the accelerator!

Dubai has undergone a massive renovation after the 2009 economic downturn, and appears to be throbbing with life, activities, tourists, and shoppers, everywhere. We are staying at the Dubai Marina, which is a fabulous place to stay, with a great view of the marina and a walkway which is 7 KMs long (ideal for my early morning walks!). The weather is cool, with temperature dropping to 20 deg C and I am enjoying the same coming from hot Singapore where the needle rarely drops below 29 deg C during the day. I saw huge numbers of Western expats everywhere, and a lot of Chinese tourists (probably from Mainland China or Taiwan). Large sized cars are to be found everywhere as car prices are really cheap – for example, I found out that BMW 740iL costs around USD 100K in Dubai as against USD 450K (SGD 590K) in Singapore. Not surprisingly, there are many Ferraris and Lamborghinis cruising the expressways.

Over the past couple of days, I have visited the newly opened IMG Worlds of Adventure, which is slated to be the world’s largest indoor theme park with many scary adventure rides. I also visited the very massive Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa, which is an engineering feat. When I went to the 124th Floor, I did not feel over-awed: the views were fantastic but I did not feel scared for a moment. However, when I came down and stood under the Burj Khalifa tower near the Dubai Fountain, the enormous height and beauty of the Burj Khalifa overwhelmed me. There is no other structure in the world that high at 828 Metres. Just the spire atop the tower is some 200 Metres long!

There are several other places to be seen before I leave from this short holiday of just 5 days, such as the Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, the Atlantis Palm Water Park, the Evening Desert Safari, etc., and more about these places in a later post. I just wanted to share some early impressions of the ever-changing Dubai which is the most dynamic city in all of Middle East.

Great place to visit, but with an appreciating USD (the UAE Dirham is pegged to the USD), it is also an expensive place to visit. A Cafe Latte costs SGD 7 at a coffee shop located in a food court of Dubai Mall – it is more expensive in the individually located coffee shops. Taxis are reasonably priced but given the distances between places, you can easily run up a bill of SGD 100 per day, and if you are going to Abu Dhabi and back it could cost SGD 300 for the day easily. Food is also expensive, but good quality food anywhere in a global city is going to be expensive. Not much point in shopping, as I think Singapore is slightly cheaper for the same items, but then the shops in Dubai are massive and it was a pleasure just walking around the mall.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

27th November 2016

Torture the Tourists and Travellers


That’s exactly what happened at Chennai International Airport last evening.

Unbelievable, right?

What I am referring to here is the closure of the three entrance doors of the international airport side, keeping only one door open for ALL travellers, which resulted in long, serpentine queues outside the main doors all the way down along the main corridor wherein travellers disembark from their taxis and cars.

First of all, I saw many irritated folks (that includes me, of course), who could not find a trolley to load their baggages. There is no trolley point at the point(s) at which travellers disembark from their vehicles. All the trolleys are dragged to the points just outside one of the main doors, which forces people to wade through huge crowds in search of trolleys. What a dysfunctional idea is it to park all the trolleys away from points where they are sorely needed? I had to wade through the crowds, first to my right where I could not locate any trolleys and then to my left where I saw trolleys parked some 200 feet away but I could not reach those trolleys as there was a long line of folks trying to get into the only door which was open! However, I did wade through and reached the trolley line, and managed to get two trolleys and then had the unenviable task of climbing over people and cutting across lines to get to my baggages (I luckily had another traveller taking care of my belongings). This was ridiculous, no international airport has such a mess going on at the peak time for international travellers. I was already profusely sweating by the time I managed to bring the trolleys for loading of baggages. Chennai is not for anti-humidity and anti-heat folks.

The most annoying thing however, was the long queue (usually there will be at least 3 doors operating for different airlines) and the quick adaptation of the Indian Q-Theory which I have written about in the past. This theory predicates that if there is one feet of space between two people on a Q, then you can rest assured the gap will quickly covered by a suddenly appearing person who grabs that space, or that space will be used as a “bridge” for people crossing from one side to the other. This theory also advises folks to take care of their nostrils because of the pungent smells which hit one from folks all over in a sweaty weather. This theory then goes on to predicate that people like to rub each other with complete lack of sensitivity in India while existing on a Q, and when it suits them they ignore the presence of people in the front by smashing their trolleys into the inviting legs in front of them as they decide it would be a good resting point for their trolley. And so on, and so forth.

It took me more than 40 minutes to just get through the outside Q, before I reached the only open main door to the airport terminal. Now I was sweating badly, and saw an intruder trying to cut me just at the entry point from nowhere. I threw him away by strong and loud questioning as that is the only way to put some sense into such idiots – they get scared and move away (they must be thinking “what a moron – what is there – I am just one single guy trying to jump into the Q”).

Once inside the terminal, there was a small Q at the airline counter, which I tackled in about 10 minutes. Armed with the boarding pass, I then turned my attention to the immigration Q, and was appalled to see a very, very long Q spilling out of the immigration area by a mile. This was just hugely ridiculous. How do other airports even within India handle crowds? Mumbai and New Delhi stand as prime example on how queues are managed effectively, even with an operating Indian Q Theory. But Chennai International Airport has failed its passengers completely, it is a dysfunctional airport with new buildings which do not make sense. One previous time I saw the new terminal building leaking in pouring rains and puddles of water all over inside the terminal.

Chennai is as close to my home town as any city can be, and it is shameful that the authorities could not manage such an important international airport effectively. Almost everyone I talked to complained or put the blame on one government agency or the other. Unless there is shame which is deeply felt, unless the government ministers and officials are forced to go through the mess like an ordinary passenger, the situation on the ground is not going to change.

What a pity? Why would tourists choose Chennai over the other cities? When is this situation going to change for the better?

No answers yet. Hope is still there.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

12th September 2016

The Kolkata Experience


I was in Kolkata last week just for 2.5 days.

A city of some 18M (some folks say that the population of Kolkata is over 20M, putting it just next to Mexico City) people, Kolkata had been in the forefront of British India for a long time. It has what I call “cultured” people, who are still steeped in a colonial mindset. The funny thing though is that Kolkata has been a Communist bastion for over 4 decades, till Mamata Banerjee (the current Chief Minister of the West Bengal State, of which Kolkata is the State Capital) came along and usurped the Communist Party from their long-held power and sway over the Bengalis (as the people of West Bengal are called).

So, here you have a gargantuan city of enormous proportions (it is actually a twin city, with the Howrah Bridge connecting Kolkata to Howrah, its twin city), which has the distinction of hosting Mother Theresa till she died. It has many accolades from the past, not the least being the Capital of British India which was later taken over by Delhi.

The Bengalis are a passionate people with rather strong opinions on everything which matters. They are what I call as “the intelligentsia” of modern India. They are also the source of some of the most talented actors and actresses of Bollywood. And, who can forget Shri Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first Nobel Laureate of India, and who hails from West Bengal ? And so on and so forth………

Surprisingly, the part of Kolkata that I visited (Southern Avenue adjoining the lake), Tollygunge Road, and areas around these locations were not crowded. The traffic was light for the size of Kolkata and when I checked with one of my hosts, he happened to remark that there are no big crowds due to lack of industrial activity. Which may be true, given that the Communists were always against the industrialization of the State, and drove away Capitalists who wanted to invest in the State, leveraging the strong intellectual capital of the Bengalis. But that was not to be, and today West Bengal is one of the least industrialized states of India. This led to Bengalis migrating en masse to other progressive states of India and overseas, and you see them almost everywhere you go.

Still, Kolkata has its charm, and I loved the New Alipore area which I visited to meet up with some old relatives. A rather charming area, with neat roads and large apartments which was strange amidst the chaos in the rest of the city. I also bought some sweets in a famous old sweet shop in that area – Bengalis are very famous for their sweet tooth. Fantastic sweets which you cannot get elsewhere in India are available from the 100 year old Kolkata brands of sweet shops – I bought from one such brand – Balaram Mullick Radharaman Mullick. Excellent choice, but there are several other brands equally famous.

The strangest part of Kolkata was the Airport. It is a gleaming new international airport. But, there was not much activity in the international side on a late evening/ night time, unlike Chennai or Mumbai or Delhi wherein there are always thousands of passengers and a long list of flights right through the night. When I arrived at 9 PM at the Kolkata International Airport, I could count only 5 or 6 flights, and there were few passengers at the airport. In fact, everything was a breeze – check-in at the Silk Air counter, immigration clearance, security check-up, etc., were surprisingly fast. Of course, this shows the influence of the Communist ideology on the residents of West Bengal and also the lack of tourists.

I took a drive along Howrah Bridge during a rainy day, and it was fabulous. The Victoria Memorial visit was great, with its beautifully maintained gardens and statues, but also reminding one of the British dominance in the 18th and 19th centuries over India. I have always detested their acquisition of India and their politicking with the Kings and Princes of India on a divide-and-rule philosophy. They did leave some good things behind in India when they left in 1947, but overall I think that India would have been better off in a faster manner had it not been for the Briitsh rule. That topic is for another blog post, I guess.

In any case, there are a number of places to be seen in Kolkata (ensure you have a good English-speaking driver), and do not miss these places. And, the traffic is not worse than other metro (large) cities of India.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

9th July 2016