Sunday, October 25, 2009

What other Consulates should learn from U.K's

This post is about my experience of getting visa from various consulates when I was planning to take a stopover on my trip to US. [1]

I started with a plan to travel to Greece, Spain, Portugal and then couple of cities on the East Europe covering them in about 1 month. So I figured out by specified rules that I should apply to Greece or Spain consulate, as I should apply to country of entry or that of main stay.

I started with Greece, read their rules for application what they demanded:
0) Passport with 6+ months of validity from date of application.
1) confirmed return tickets
2) show of enough funds in your account, bank account statement, credit card statement
3) payslips, Income tax return receipts for last three years
4) letter from your employer showing they believe that you will come back to work with them after this vacation
5) Hotel reservations for the whole of the trip.
6) Medical insurance for the cost of the say

So you need to get your return tickets to get the visa, how the hell can u book tickets when you don't know you are going to travel. The cheapest tickets are the non-refundable ones so you can't buy them or you have to buy ones with the least cancellation charges.

I got mine from Emirates and then applied, turned out that Swine flu scare was on the go and I decided to wait/change my travel plans. So guess what I had to get my passport back so that they don't get me a visa with restricted dates.

Once I had my travel plans getting more finalized with reduced number of vacations days, I figured out I would probably get Spanish visa as that was still the main destination though Greece fell out of the plan and the new plan was Hyd-Zurich-Spain-Portugal-Budepest etc-Franfurt-SFO. So I applied to Spanish Embassy.

Their list of documents included all of above plus:
7) A statement from bank with "Stamp and signature on each page"
8) A letter from ban describing your relation with the bank
9) Show of enough means of stay (~ 120 USD) per day (apart from everything else you already showed)
10) Complete itinerary for the whole duration of the trip.

I was able to get the 6 with some effort by visiting Citibank office in Hyderabad but 7) looked like something that would take about 4 days to arrive and as I was running out of time to get the visa I asked them to see if they can process the visa with already enough proof of my "eligibility to spend time in Spain".
The VFS for Spain came back saying they would need about 21 working days to process my application. This just ruined all my changes of traveling, All I could do was to get my passport back from them and just head straight to US without any stopover. All this despite I had about 21 days of vacations to use and about 10 days buffer to get a visa.

All this exercise I had to trouble my company HR a lot get letter to the embassies, book tickets with 5000 INR cancellation fees, book hotels/hostels and additionally for step 9 I got my Eurorail pass with cancellation fees of 15%.

Luckily, some friends of mine who have applied to British Highcommision for visa told me how quick and friendly their process was. I figure out the British Consulate needed just these documents
1) Travel itinerary (no confirmed tickets, just rough plan)
2) Payslips with company stamps and sign
3) Coverring letter from HR and from self.
4) Bank Statement, proof of accomodation etc. was all optional

And the process was more staightforward, just fill a form(quite big and detailed one though), go to the local office in Hyderabad with your application and then in some time you get your Passport back by post.

More interesting they had an estimate of how much time applications take to resolve on their website, it showed all the applications would resolve in 10 working days with 70-80% getting resolved in 5 working days. This definitely is a great thing. And it turns out that my application was processed and returned in 5 working days with a visa valid for 6 months and no strict entry /exit dates. More so when the application is being process you get regular SMS notifications about the status of your application.

I simply loved the whole process and I would definitely recommend ppl trying for transits without pain to try U.K embassy.

[1] To give some details for reader who read this post randomly, I am an Indian Citizen, who had already traveled to Europe (Schengen visa) once, traveled 3-4 times to US already with a long duration business visa (seemingly U.K visa get processed fast if you had USA stamps already).

As another peice of advise I came to know, applying to Spanish embassy is a very bad idea, applying to Dutch, French or Germany consulate is better in that order (My experience with French consulate was also pretty positive)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Edinburgh trip.

Once I figured out I was in UK for 11 days, I was sure to visit Edinburgh, for no reasons but the movie "Breavheart" and another documentary about Scotland's castles on Discovery channel. I did realize though that I have heard of this city for some big political/games event, but that was unimportant :)

People whom I have talked to about visiting Edinburgh suggested spending about 1 or 1.5 days as the "city doesn't have much to see". Based on my previous experience of visiting Italy's city without plan and spending all the time there, I decided to keep this one unplanned too. I was happy with the decision. Thought tickets cost may rise because of the last minute booking, you wouldn't want to rush your journey through such a city.

After spending the weekend in London and figuring out that most activities would be on weekend, I decided to head to Edinburgh sooner and return back to London before the next weekend. For the lack of planning/researching about how to travel my host Ankur's presence really helped. I was in the wrong impression that the trains are the cheapest way to travel but it soon turned out that the National Express buses (and others like MegaBus) have very competitive pricing compared to the train and the difference specially goes high for last minute/last day tickets.

My train ticket to Edinburgh would be costing be about 100-120 Pounds for same day/next day travel while the bus ticket for National Express came for 20-30 pounds for next day/same day travel.

So I took a bus for Scotland from Victoria Coach station. The coach worked out fine, it has WC and it doesn't keep running continuously for 8 hrs, it had stop overs may be 3-4 of them.
As experienced travelers suggest, you can use the lockers at the bus stations for day trips and avoid hotels cost if you don't realy need to stay overnight. The public toilets are the bus stations are pretty well maintained and could be used to freshen-up etc.

Since I had already booked the Caledonian hostel for the day I went ahead and checked in and made it to the free city tour in the morning. Like all of new Sandman's free tour this one was totally worth the time and very informative, I came to know abt things like: Church, hanging, Lake of poo, Edinburgh's castles, various nice stories about ppl including that about locksmith guy. The story about the quite a few murders for selling dead bodies for examination. (I am yet to read about these stories in details from somewhere). Then there were interesting stories about the Stone of Destiny as well as that about the spitting spot of Edinburgh and the statue of the King Henry 2.

In the evening I took the New Sandman's Ghost tour of Edinburgh (not free but worth it).
We visited cementaries and went up the carlton hill, heard stories about ferries, half man and red hat about suicides on the North Bridge and vampires, hannibals and witches.
Along the tour some of us traveling alone grouped together and then we had fun at the bar which the tour ends at with a complementary drink. The bar called the Bank Hotel had a lively scottish band playing some nice music. The pub was to be closed at 12 but the group was having so much fun that we decided to head to a club down the road. This place had awesome music and drinks they served vodka, whishkey, Rum for 1£ a peg. Now thats why hostelers(budget travelers) love Edinburgh more than London :)

The next day I went to Edinburgh castle. The castle is pretty big and its better to take their guided tours which are included in the entry ticket. The castle provides amazing views of the city and surrounding and the galleries are very interesting too. I specially like the one dedicated to the war heroes(National War Meuseum and Royal Scotts Regimental Meuseum). The Prisoners of War Exhibition is also a must see. On the other hand after hearing all the talk about the 3 symbols of Scottish Nationhood The sword, the crown and the Stone their gallery didn't really look that great.

It was already pretty late by the time I came out of the meuseum leaving little time to do anything else. I decided to take a walk on the Royal Mile and discovering whatever came on the way. At one of the food shops I tried the "deep friend Mars" which was yummy.
On the very end of the Royal Mile I reached the Scottish Parliament, which is open to public. The Parliaments intererior design looks like a complicated mess but that just me, somewhere I read "its a mix of modern and old architecture", what do I know about that ?

By this time I had decided to stay over for one more day. The next day I went to Leith which is an ancient port city next to Edinburgh (or part of it). I went all the way to Ocean terminal thinking it was a place with a beach or something, turned out it was a mall. Nevertheless the mall had amazing view of the sea. I enjoyed sipping tea and enjoying that scenic view from the Ocien View restaurant.

Later I walked around in Leith using the "Discover Leith Map" which pointed out points of interest. The Pilrig church is a very interesting one amongst others as in this Church you won't notice any statue of Jesus or Mary or angels, but just prayer seats much like Bahai temple in Delhi. The other points of interest include the Victoria bridge and Rennei's Isle. As the photos suggest this is one of most beautiful places I have been to.

With the remaining time I decided to visit the Cramond beach. (Yeah, I am obsessed with beaches). It was very cold and there fore almost no-one was on the beach. Also the beach isn't that famous and active. The tides are pretty low but interestingly there is an island connected to the beach by a walk through which I was not lucky enought to cross. The island path is open for few hours a day and you can walk to it rather than going though water. A strange thing I noticed was that the moon looked extra huge (only prettier) from here.

Just before leaving I decided to give my shot to meet the local CSers at their mid week meeting at Victoria's pub. I realized quickly that it was the first time I was talking to the locals in Scotland.

I have great memories of this place and still quite a bit left to discover in Edinburgh itself leave aside the whole of Scotland. It turns out that going further north in to the highlands gives you some of the most amazing views of nature. A definite must do next time.