This is the first chapter in the story of my trip to India in October of 2014, and it’s a story just too crazy to not share. I have never been to India before, but mi amor Mónica has been living there since July and teaching Spanish at the American International School of Chennai in Tamil Nadu. I’ve been missing her very much and so plan to visit her during her Fall Break, which is the week of October 20th. This is also the week of Diwali in India, the Hindu holiday known as the Festival of Lights.
The Plan: Leave for India on Thursday, 2014-10-16, arriving around 5:00 in the morning local time in Chennai on Saturday the 18th, and return to the US on Monday, 2014-10-27. This will give me 9 full days of vacation with Mónica (her Fall Break including both weekends) plus a couple of days of travel there and back.
Booking your domestic and international flights separately can save a lot of money.
I’ve noticed this three times now when booking flights for international travel. My home airport in the US is in Portland, Maine. Round trip flights from Portland to Chennai cost about $1600 and generally go through New York as the first connecting city. But round trip flights from New York to Chennai only cost about $900. This is a case of the package being more expensive than the sum of the parts, since a round trip flight from Portland to New York can be found for about $120. It turns out to be almost $600 cheaper to book two separate flights, which is what I decide to do for this trip.
I should note that there are a couple of downsides to taking advantage of this arbitrage. One is that I must go through security again when I get to New York. The other is that if a flight delay or cancellation in getting to New York causes me to miss my separately booked flight from New York, then I’m on the hook for rescheduling instead of the airline handling it as they would if it was a continuous ticket. So if you plan to do something similar, give yourself enough margin for error in your layover time. For me, both of these potential inconveniences are worth the cost difference.
70 Days until Planned Departure
I book the flights for my trip to India.
17 Days until Planned Departure
I’ve been extremely busy with work and putting this off for too long, but now I start working on getting the visa I will need for my trip. India does not currently have visa-on-arrival for American citizens like most countries do, so a visa must be approved in advance before entering the country. I check around online and learn that the visa applications are handled not directly by the Indian government, but by some 3rd party firm. I start the application process online. Everything is very confusing and not user friendly at all, so I spend a lot of time through the week searching around for answers to things that don’t seem clear.
10 Days until Planned Departure
While searching for information on how to properly answer some of the weird questions on the Indian visa application, I randomly discover that the company I’ve been filling out forms for is not responsible for handling India visa applications anymore. As of May 21st, it is now being handled by a different company, Cox & Kings Global Services (CKGS). It’s now less than two weeks before I’m supposed to leave, so I call them to ask some questions, including how long the approval process should take. They say 3 to 5 days. OK, good. Just to be safe, I overnight my application to their office in New York and include a prepaid FedEx overnight envelope to get it back as soon as possible.
Yes, the application is not all handled online. I have to mail in all kinds of documents, including my passport. Among other things, it’s not clear how I’m supposed to pay the application fee, so I have to call CKGS again to figure that out. Turns out I have to pay on their website and include the receipt as one of the documents I send. Good thing I check on that before mailing my package. India has a reputation for excessive bureaucracy, and I’m just starting to get to know this first-hand.
7 Days until Planned Departure
I know from my FedEx tracking that CKGS has received my application, but when I try to check the status of my visa application on their website, it says that my application number is not valid. I’m getting nervous at this point, since it’s one week until my flight leaves, so I call CKGS to see what’s going on.
Now, I can’t understate how frustrating an experience it is to call CKGS. Most of the time, I just get a busy signal, like it’s the ‘80s and phone lines aren’t yet capable of things like call waiting and voicemail. So I have to keep trying. Each time when I eventually get through, I deal with a long automated phone tree narrated by a happy lady with a strong Indian accent and then get put on hold for about an hour listening to a continuously repeating loop of 30 seconds of some David Sanborn-like smooth jazz/pop saxophone. The maddeningly repetitive music pauses at random intervals to make it sound like an actual human is finally ready to speak to me, but it’s always a false alarm. Each time when a person finally answers, it’s always the same guy. I think his name is Mandeep, but it’s really hard to understand him, and he seems to have an even harder time understanding me.
This time, Mandeep tells me that yes, my application has been received and has been sent over to the Indian consulate. It should take 3 to 5 days to process. OK, that’s cutting it really close, so I ask about the FedEx return envelope I included. I’m nervous because the CKGS overnight return service they recommend on their website ends in broken links and doesn’t work. Mandeep tells me that if I included a FedEx envelope with my application, then it will be fine. Don’t worry. Mandeep says “Don’t worry.” at the end of almost every sentence.
6 Days until Planned Departure
The tracking feature on the CKGS website now seems to show my application in the appropriate status. That’s encouraging.
3 Days until Planned Departure
I’m extremely nervous about my passport and visa arriving on time. I call CKGS to check in and Mandeep tells me the same thing as last week. My application has been submitted to the Indian consulate and will take 3 to 5 days to process. Don’t worry. I say that I am supposed to leave in 3 days. Mandeep says, “Oooh, you already have a ticket. Then it will definitely be ready in time. Everything will be fine. Don’t worry.” My expected travel date is one of the pieces of information required on the application, so in theory whoever is working on mine knows how time sensitive it is, and I’ve had two different friends tell me stories of how their Indian visas were finally approved at the last minute, so I’m really hoping Mandeep is right.
Just in case there might be any potential issues with my prepaid FedEx overnight return envelope, I ask to be notified when the visa and my passport are approved, and when they are mailed back to me. Mandeep says I will definitely receive a notification by email when it is approved and when they mail it to me. Don’t worry.
I’m trying hard not to worry, but it’s a challenge. Did I mention that I haven’t seen Mónica in three months? If the visa doesn’t arrive in time, I’m not really sure what Plan B would be. I really don’t want to miss her vacation. At this point, I still haven’t told her that there is any potential issue. I don’t want her to stress out unnecessarily and I really do believe it will come in time. We talk every day about my visit, and she’s counting down the days. When it’s obvious that I’m really stressed out about something, she thinks it’s about all the work I need to get done before I leave (which is a lot, and certainly a source of a more-than-normal amount of stress). She tells me not to worry. That in a few days I will be in her arms and everything will be alright. That’s all that matters.
1 Day until Planned Departure
I’m supposed to fly out tomorrow afternoon, and there hasn’t been a peep from CKGS about my visa. If it’s mailed out to me today, then everything is fine, since I don’t leave until tomorrow afternoon, but I really need to know. I call them first thing in the morning, but it’s almost lunch time by the time a call goes through and I’ve endured the saxophone hold torture long enough to speak to Mandeep. There is never any recognition in Mandeep’s voice; I am always treated like an anonymous number. It makes me think of trying to deal with a bad voice recognition robot. It never understands anything I say the first time, and so keeps repeating itself constantly. Our conversation goes something like this. (I’ve removed most of the repetition for readability.)
Me: I’m calling to check the status of my visa application.
-I give him the tracking number.-
Mandeep Robot: Yes, sir. Your application has been received and was sent over to the consulate today. It will be processed in 3 to 5 days. You will have it next week. Don’t worry.
Me: Wait, that can’t be right. I was told on Monday that it was submitted to the consulate last week.
Mandeep Robot: No, sir. Your application has been received and was sent over to the consulate today. It will be processed in 3 to 5 days. You will definitely have it next week. Don’t worry.
Me: But I talked to you on Monday and you said it was already submitted to the consulate last week.
Mandeep Robot: Oh. Yes. It was submitted last week.
I don’t even know how to respond at this point. I’m just being given useless information over and over. I’m now convinced that he doesn’t actually understand most of what I’m saying. He just picks up on key words, reads me scripted responses, and repeats things a lot, including things I say to him. I ask to be notified when it’s ready to be sent out, and I am assured again that I will definitely be notified.
I go home for my lunch break from work and call Mónica on Skype. I’m practically in tears and I tell her what’s going on. If Mandeep is right about the application only being submitted today, then that would probably mean me missing her entire vacation week. She’s clearly devastated at the sudden realization that the reunion we’ve both been counting down to for months might not happen, but she immediately recovers enough to start consoling me. There’s still a chance that this could work out. If the visa is approved and sent out today, I’ll get it in the morning in time to leave on schedule. If it’s approved tomorrow, I can pick it up in New York during my long 6 hour layover and still leave on schedule. If it’s not approved tomorrow . . . well, I don’t know. It depends on when it is approved. Mónica says that even if the worst happens and I can’t come at all, we will still see each other in December in Bolivia. Missing the trip to India entirely and going another 2 months without seeing her is just unacceptable to me, and I tell her I’m going to make it to India as soon as I can, whatever it takes. I’m constantly thinking through all the ways I can make it there as soon as possible.
Plan B: If the visa isn’t sent out today but is ready tomorrow, I should be able to run over to the CKGS office while in New York and pick it up and still catch my flight to Chennai.
The rest of the day I feel sick to my stomach. I try to check in with CKGS at the end of the business day but I never get through. I go home and finish packing my bags, but I don’t even know when I’ll be leaving. I keep refreshing the CKGS tracking page and after dinner it confirms the worst. It has been updated to show that my application was submitted to the consulate today. Looks like I won’t be going to India as planned. I call and cancel my flights, paying about $550 in cancellation fees. Rescheduling them would be cheaper, but I don’t know when I would be rescheduling them for so that doesn’t help.
I am not feeling good tonight, and I’m really missing Mónica.
Original Planned Departure Date
I was supposed to only work a half day today before my trip, but I end up working a full day since I’m not traveling. I want to leave as soon as I get my visa, so I shop for flights and it turns out that if I book them for Friday or Saturday, they’re not any more expensive than my original flights. That’s nice.
Plan C: If my visa is approved and sent out today, I can fly out on Friday and still get to Mónica only a day or two later than originally planned.
I refresh the CKGS tracking page throughout the day, but there’s no new information. My bags are all packed and I’m basically out of food in the apartment since I wasn’t planning to be around. I’ll have to get groceries tomorrow, but I don’t know how many days to shop for. I feel like I’m living in limbo.
Before going to bed, I refresh the tracking page one more time and suddenly it says that my visa was approved this morning and is ready for pickup! OK, this is infuriating since that means I could have kept my original flights and successfully implemented Plan B. Jerks. It doesn’t say anything about the visa having been shipped, so I’m not sure if I’ll be getting it tomorrow or not. Still, this is relatively good news, and I tell Mónica. Even if they didn’t send it today, I can call tomorrow and make sure it is sent out Friday, which lets me leave on Saturday.
Plan D: Call CKGS on Friday and make sure that my visa is being overnighted as expected. Then book flights for Saturday, arriving in Chennai on Monday, still near the beginning of Mónica’s vacation week.
I go to work again and everybody asks me why I’m still there. I call CKGS during lunch. Mandeep tells me that my application has been approved and is ready to be picked up in the office in New York. I ask him why it hasn’t been mailed to me. He says if I included a FedEx return envelope, then my application will be sent to me within 48 hours.
Me: Will it be sent out today?
Mandeep Robot: Maybe today. Maybe next week.
Me: If it’s not sent out today, will it be sent out tomorrow?
Mandeep Robot: Sir, office closed on Saturday.
Me: You can’t tell me if it’s going to be sent out today?
Mandeep Robot: Sir, your application has been approved and will be sent to you within 48 hours. Maybe today. Maybe next week.
Me: Will I be notified as soon as it is mailed out?
Mandeep Robot: Yes sir. You will definitely receive notification when your application is sent out.
I’m not sure what good it does to pay for overnight delivery both ways if CKGS doesn’t do anything with my application for the first week they have it, and then doesn’t return it when it’s done.
At the end of the day, I’ve gotten no shipment notification. I call FedEx just in case and their tracking shows no packages have been dispatched to my address. There goes Plan D. This sucks. Now I can’t fly out on Saturday. I suspect that there’s a problem with my FedEx return envelope because it’s not their standard procedure and they’re just not telling me. I hatch a new plan.
Plan E: Pick up the visa in New York on Monday and fly out from there. This will get me to Chennai Wednesday morning, in the middle of Mónica’s vacation.
I’ve already cleared it with work to extend my vacation to make up for vacation time with her that I’ll miss, but I’m not yet sure what my return date will be. I joke with Mónica that I’m going to buy a one-way ticket to India. She likes the sound of that, and it doesn’t sound too bad to me either. Still, first things first. I need the visa and my passport back before I can realize any of this.