Travel hacks in India — the ones we have used

We travel quite frequently — I mean me, my daughter and my wife. And to top it, we often plan our trips pretty quickly (like we did in Oct 2016, when we planned a Rajasthan+Agra trip just 2 days in advance, or the Kashmir trip in Apr 2016, which we planned 1.5 weeks in advance, or an Ooty/Kodaikanal trip in 2008 which we planned after boarding the plane). Often friends ask us — what are the hacks or secrets do we apply for making quick plans. Have listed few here. Am sure you also have few more in your mind — would be great if you share them as well for other fellow travellers.

1. Start your vacation on WednesdayIts not Tuesday. Its not Thursday. Your vacation should start on Wednesday. As this is the day, when you get maximum number of available tickets as well as cheaper tickets. No one (I mean not many) wants to start their vacation right at the middle of a week. So if you can manage your leave from work, check availability and price of tickets for the next Wednesday.
Input from another frequent traveller Soumillo Das: Flight tickets tend to be cheaper on Sundays also (people are trying to return back home)!

2. Flight ticket prices don’t always come cheaper, booked months in advanceWe have checked it multiple times. If you think that you would get a cheaper rate for tickets booked months ahead, that may not be correct. Since we always plan just ahead of the travel date, we don’t have an option. Even if you are planning well ahead, and if the travel date doesn’t fall on any special occasion there, you can be rest assured that the flight ticket prices would come down, closer to travel date.

3. Book hotels online (through app)I have heard this many times — that its better to book directly from hotels compared to online portals. It’s not correct (in most of the cases). The online portals buy hotel rooms in bulk. Thus they would like to sell off pending inventory at the lowest possible price — that flexibility is not available if booked directly through hotels as they would offer you rack rate.
Again if you plan your travel closer to the date, you may get damn good rates on online portals (with last 2 rooms remaining ticker). Even better rates come on the apps. Once you zero-in on 2–3 hotels, check their rate in the apps of the travel portals.
PS: Book the minimum configuration online and check the top-ups (like Lake side view/extra bed etc) once you reach the hotel reception. You would get a discounted rate (as much as half the price) when you are bargaining right at the hotel.
4. Check multiple portals (including Airbnb) for hotel bookingAirbnb is getting popular in India. Use the chat feature in Airbnb to talk to the the hotel / space owner. Most of the hotel / space owners on Airbnb offers discount if you ask in chat. But my experience has been that Airbnb is not always the cheapest option — same hotel/room can come at a cheaper rate on other portals (I prefer MMT, Oyo & Agoda). So — check out, before you pay.
PS: Some friends also referred — have not used it personally though.

5. “Pay at checkout” for hotels booked onlineThere are options for booking hotels where you pay only when you check-in/check-out from the hotel. That saves you in case there is a change in plan.

6. Keep the scanned/soft copies of your tickets and bookings on your GmailKeep all your tickets and hotel booking docs available on your gmail (or your preferred mail account). You may lose your baggage/purse, but this can still save you with just an Internet enabled device (provided you remember the password of your gmail — tricky I know)

7. Avail Uber/Ola, instead of local tour operatorsIf you are travelling within a city (metro/tier 2), in all likelihood, the online cab operators would be around. Try your luck as soon as you land in the airport/railway station. They tend to be cheapest option compared to local cabs / hotel arranged cabs.
Avoid hotel arranged cabs as much as possible, as they tend to be the costliest option (unless its complimentary, like airport drop/pick-up).
8. Online food booking during train journeyYou can now book your dinner/lunch on your train journey, online. Through IRCTC, you can use your PNR number to select caterer and select your option from the online menu (available on few routes). They would deliver you right at your seat. We did that after boarding a train in afternoon and got the dinner served at 8PM (with loads of notification SMS and calls).

9. Walk around the hotel once you reachOnce you check-in, take a walk around the hotel (unless you are going for a forest reserve) on day 1. This would help you get a feeling about the space. It would also help you get a hang about the available local convenience modes and local food options.

9.1 Find a new hotel on Day 2Earlier we used to book hotels for one night only, even if we planned to stay at a place for couple of days. We used to roam around on Day 1 to find a better hotel and would shift on Day 2. But we have stopped doing this now as we need to move with a kid.

10. Keep a battery backup/power bank availableSmartphones discharge the battery faster while in roaming mode with location and data on. Google maps/Google Trips are some of the basic apps that would keep you ticking while Wiki also helped us couple of times (yeah, we opened Wiki at Itimad-ud-Daulah, often considered as the draft Tajmahal).
PS: You can save Google map in offline mode. So do it around the area you are planning to roam around before boarding the flight/train.
11. Click SelfiesIt may sound obvious now, but it also helps you claim your phone back in case you lose it (and somebody wants to return it too — rare I know).

12. Carry an Aux cableIf you plan to have a long road trip on cabs, the aux cable would come handy to listen to your favorite songs saved in your mobile.

13. Carry dry food for surviving atleast half a dayYou should have enough supplies to survive on dry foods for a day (ok, atleast half a day), which becomes very critical in case your flight / train gets delayed or you get stuck in rain/snow/storm or whatever you can think of.

14. Create a must-carry item listIf you travel often, this would already be in your head. But if you build this must-carry item list, it would help you, as often you tend to miss out on small things which are critical. We, for example, always carry a torch, tissue paper, matchbox and scissors (not in hand luggage).

15. Find a friend before you reachThis is the best advice I can give you. Somehow try to find out a localite by virtue of your network. Every place has its story and nuances which can only be discovered if you know someone staying there for a while. There is a catch to this also — often we have seen that the local guys underestimate the tourism-quotient of places in their city. To cover that, use Google anyway. We had got immensely benefited by virtue of our Kashmiri friend and my colleague from Jaipur during respective trips (yes, you can check up if anyone in your office belongs to that area).
I also make it a point to discuss with someone who has recently visited that place as mostly the travellers like to share their story.

16. Travel lightThis seems obvious but is ignored mostly. People love to carry their home with themselves. Backpack is the best option for travelling light. In case you are carrying other forms of baggages/suitcases, please check the weight of the empty suitcase/bag. Many fancy bags weigh a lot even without anything inside it. Backpacks score much higher on that quotient (and also on the flexibility part).

17. Check if the monuments / places of attractions are open on that dayMany monuments are closed on a particular day of the week (Taj Mahal on Friday, Akshardham temple on Monday and so on). Please check before reaching the place as this may otherwise jeopardise your travel plan completely.
PS: Suswan Mondal suggested to read up about the place from Tripadvisor, which we also try to do. Tripadvisor often suggests locations which are unknown otherwise. For example, we got to know from TA that there is a place at Agra called Mehtab Bag, on the other side of Yamuna, from where you can get a superb view of Tajmahal. We visited the place.

18. Printout of phone numbersNow-a-days you don’t tend to remember the phone numbers even of your near and dear ones as the numbers are saved in your smartphones. Please enlist the phone numbers of all the passengers in a sheet and keep a printout with each of the fellow travellers. Sounds very primitive, but would help in the worst possible situations. You can also note down the phone numbers of the hotels you are going to stay along with dates in the same paper.
PS: In case you have not noted the hotel phone numbers, collect the visiting card of the hotel from reception during checking in. This comes very handy when you get lost in a new city/place and you need to communicate in a different language to your cabbie/autowallah/tangawallah about your destination.

19. NewspapersWhile the morning newspapers help you getting synched with the world otherwise (in case you don’t get your news from apps), it also helps in various other ways (mattress, table cleaner, garbage collection and so on). So don’t throw away your morning newspaper even after chewing it.

20. MedicinesLast but not the least — carry enough medicines for twice the duration of your vacation. Then split the medicines into two pouches, so that even if you misplace one bag, you are not running in short supply of medicines. Please meet your GP well in advance (in case you don’t have a ready list) to create a list of medicines. This is very very critical if you are having a kid or a senior citizen in your team.
That’s about it. I didn’t mention about checking weather, checking 500px for photo spots or the holiday calendar to gauge the rush as these are the basic stuff you must do for planning any vacation.

You got few more points to add? Pl add here — would be happy to know and share more with our friends.
Happy journey
Subhamoy & Suparna

Do we need Human being to provide loan to a customer in a Bank/FI?

There is a lot of buzz around Artificial Intelligence, Machine learning, Big Data, Algorithm these days in mainstream media, thanks to popular tech companies like Google, Facebook etc. Speculations are doing the rounds on which professions would cease to exist in future due to this technology shift. The discussion ranges from impact on Education (teacher-less school) to Journalism (robot-generated reports) to English literature (robot generates poem!). How about the banking/lending industry and its associated workforce? Would we get into a situation in future where we just need a basic minimum workforce to operate a bank/financial institution instead of the current large manpower? Or are we already into it?

Most of the financial institution's (FI) biggest challenge any day is to have betterprofitability and an efficient system. The major negative contributor against both of them is its large workforce and the inherent inefficiencies that grow over the years. The operating expenditure of salary cost starts eating into the profitability. The work queue reduces the efficiency. We try to solve these problems by adding more people into it or by doing a new role definition for existing people or trying to tweak around the process to have lower manpower in doing the repetitive jobs. Is this going to continue or is there a new way of doing things getting built around the corner?
If we look at the modus operandi of an FI in an over simplistic way, the basic purpose of an FI is to 1) Generate funds at X% rate from market or bank or some source, 2) Lend the money to customers at Y% rate and 3) Collect back the money from the customers. If we focus only on #2, the proposition is - can we reduce human intervention as much as possible or are we at optimum already?
1) Marketing - getting hold of a probable customer: In mature markets, we are already seeing efforts in moving from traditional marketing to digital marketing. We are in a situation where the first interaction of a customer with an FI is happening over digital mode, be it in Social media or at Loan aggregator pages. It's not through the earlier traditional models. If an FI focuses only on urban customers, in all probability they have already gone down with the traditional Marketing budget and man power. 
2) Sales - making the deal and collecting data about the customer: The primary job of a Sales rep is to convince a customer with the rates and offering and making him agree to a particular scheme from the FI.
Sales Executive used to fill up long hard-copy forms for collecting the relevant details of the customer. These used to be eye-balled by Operations officers at back-office who would generate a digital footprint of the data in the Core system via data entry. This model is changing. Sales team is generating the data himself via Mobile based CAS solutions. In many occasions, even the customer himself is finding the FI, sharing his information himself.
The Loan aggregator sites are playing the intermediary role in showing the offering from various FI online. Customer is generating his own data footprint in the system there. In some scenarios, the customer may still call up a Sales guy who can come to the home / workplace of the customer and fill up all the relevant details on his behalf in the Sales rep's Mobile solution. In either way, the data entry profession (Operations) at back-office is fast coming at risk.
3) Credit Analyst - finding credit worthiness of the customer: Whenever a new customer comes for a loan to an FI, the standard operating procedure has been to search for him/her in the FI Internal database for possible frauds / delinquency earlier and also to search in external credit bureaus. Based on the search result, the Credit Analyst would take a call whether the customer is worth a loan or not.
These search triggers to Credit Bureaus are already automated as most of them provide API/Web services to call their services real time. The results are available in XML (machine readable format). If we want to automate the decisioning also, its just a matter of putting the CA brain into a rule engine.This may sound simplistic. But possibly this is the biggest block so far in going for a human-interaction-less banking. 
The decision quality would depend on two factors - availability of data and a robust rule definition. This is set to improve in coming days with more availability of data. Many 3rd party sites provide a huge data source about potential customers already and based on customer consent, FI core system can fetch results about a particular customer from there. The rule engine may need to learn itself while it gets trained with more and more data every day.
Instead of depending on a static algorithm/pattern, machine learning approach can be used to learn and improve on the data everyday for a better search and also predicting whether this customer would default in future or not. India still lags on this front due to unavailability of good data. There are instances of similar operation in mature markets already. 
Parting thoughts:
Are we already in a position where we can go for a human-interaction-less FI? The algorithms are getting built and computer scientists are raring to go to solve this. But the implementation would depend on the data availability mostly. Will it happen in near future? This has already started happening in some markets. Traditional Financial Institutions may not like to jump into this mode immediately, but alternate banking models are already taking foray into this models. It's possibly a matter of time when you would see the customer acquisition process in banks/Financial institutions being run completely by Algorithms and a few Data Scientists! 

This article was first published in Linkedin:

Periscope, Meerkat or Google Hangout - who wins the Live Streaming race?

A new battleline has been drawn on the Mobile Social arena - that of Mobile streaming. New players have jumped into it. Google already had an app in this area. Where does this Live streaming lead to? A quick take on Mobile Live Streaming and the players.

What is this Mobile Live streaming all about?
This is a natural continuation of the current Social Apps. The existing SM biggies were mostly text driven to start with (FB, Twitter, G+). Then the platforms moved towards photos (Instagram, Snapchat). Typing an event (live-tweet) used to be quite a cool concept till some time back. But as you can imagine and might have experienced, it takes a lot of effort (to type, take snaps etc) to do a live-tweet event. Also it doesn't give an experience quite close to the live event. Those who have followed any event via live-tweet may appreciate this. So what is the next alternative? Stream it live!

Meerkat vs. Periscope
Meerkat is considered to be first off the mark in this Mobile Live streaming stuff. They started with Twitter integration, but had to take a different strategy, after apparently Twitter decided to acquire and launch Periscope (Meerkat's version of the story is here on Techcrunch). If you want a deep lowdown on how to use either of them, you can have a look at this post [15th April, 2015] which shows steps screen by screen on both the platforms. And if you are looking for a comparison of the two platforms, you can check this page from Overall, the differences are quite less with the basic concepts remaining same - the differences are at UX like allowing to save a broadcast for future or showing a leaderboard etc. 

Was there any app available for Live Stream earlier?
Yes. Google Hangout was the leader in that segment. Over time, it has added whole lot of features in its App. But the catch is - Google has put more effort on its web version, compared to the mobile version. A possible reason (just my guess) can be - Google kept Skype in mind as its primary competition and built Hangout around that. While Hangout has grown beyond that possible initial brief, it remains primarily focused as a chatting / discussion forum app, instead of a live streaming app. Technically there is not much challenge in using hangout as a live stream app, but somehow the branding has not been done that way. The mental association of Hangout is still with a group chat due to its branding strategy. For example, you might not have seen much of Google Hangout being used to livecast a cricket match (or baseball match for that matter), though there doesn't seem to be any reason on why it can't be used that way either. Also Google has stabilized the product to a large extent over the years. Having said that, we wonder whether Google failed to market its product, again. Or did Google miss the bus to associate its product with this new segment of market? 

Mobile platform affinity
Periscope has chosen to stick to iPhone platform as its choice so far, while Meerkat has moved fast to come out with its Android version in early May. That puts some obvious pressure on Periscope to come out with the Android version. On the other hand, Google has released its Hangout on iPhone platform also (apart from its obvious choice of Android).

Business Model
So far, Live streaming has been free, like all other SM platforms. While Twitter might have spent millions to buy Periscope, the revenue generation model may become contextual ad in future. Recently in the Mayweather vs. Pacquiao bout, apparently Periscope had more viewers than HBO as tv viewers were holding their mobile device infront of the TV and streaming them live on Periscope. Is that illegal and infringing copyright? Well, that's another debate. Most of the new technologies have run-in with the existing laws and rules, but the point here is - would the Live streaming app get into a model where it replaces television by providing live footage from important events? Not sure. Frankly the revenue generation model is still not clear to me.

Who would win this race of Live Streaming?
That's the obvious question that may come to anyone's mind. Lets check the variables.
1) App features: Periscope seems to be having better of it right now. But the feature difference is quite thin. Any one of this three can beat the other two on feature richness in a matter of 3 months if their product managers buckle up tight.

2) Platform connectivity: While both Periscope and Meerkat started with Twitter and Hangout obviously with Google+, it would require to naturally connect to multiple platforms, sply Facebook to make them more popular. Can Google do that?

3) Backend support: Video streaming would require a lot of bandwidth and server readiness. Google, having spent some time on Hangout, is far better placed on this. The experience on Meerkat Android in India is quite bad so far, which may be due to non-availability of nearby servers (my guess). Google would win this part of the competition all the way if they really want to compete in this market with its millions of servers spread over the world.

Some of the tech journos have already decided that there can be only one winner in this space. But so far, the experience doesn't say so. You have so many platforms in SM space (FB, G+, Twitter and so on). In Messenger space also, you have quite a few (Whatsapp, Viber, Hike etc). Why can't there be many platforms in this space in that case? 

The Live streaming space is hotting up and is going to be of immense interest soon. Don't get surprised if you suddenly see Google waking up and making Hangout a little more jazzy to compete with Meerkat and Periscopes. Or for that matter, who knows if Facebook wants to get into this space either. Watch this space for more fun. Till then, good bye and happy streaming.

Kolkata Bloggers